Hanging Tree

Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach, I don't own Inuyasha, and I don't own the wild west theme. I do not own the song Hanging Tree. And I do have a Hanging Tree Playlist under the name ForestCatlsc on you tube

Italics are flashback/past events

Part Five

1882 April 23th California

Kagome couldn't help but twitch at her skirts, almost a month without Aizen and she worried about being out of practice. Her wrist had healed, and she was still furious over that, but Ichigo had been persistent in trying to court her. At least he hadn't proposed a third time.

But after three weeks around a rough gentleman she was pretty sure she would be off her game.

She had to give him credit, Ichigo did it in moments where it was just the two of them, and he never truly pushed his company on her, he just would tell her something about himself, and let her send him back to work, leave, or say nothing more when someone interrupted. But it had been nice he had listened to her when she told him she didn't want to marry a stranger.

She knew his parent's names, knew about his two sisters, how they had gotten married before he left on this mission, their favorite foods, what they often did, and who they married. He had also made it clear, that while he had chosen to do this without money from home he owned a good cattle ranch in Wyoming.

He spoke of the town he had come to consider his. His honorary uncle, a strange man who's dearest companion was the proud saloon/dancing hall owner, an exotic woman he considered something of an aunt. Then he had touched on how after his mother's death his father drunk himself to an early grave, admitting he blamed Sosuke for both of his parents' deaths.

No, she could no longer claim he was a stranger. But she did wonder why he had decided she was the woman to court. His flattery, and rather verbose second proposal aside she doubted he truly knew what he would get if she went with him.

Jolted out of her revery she noticed Sosuke appearing over the top of the hill coming up the drive. Slush and mud splashing out from under his horses' hooves. Straightening she drew on all her practice to push Kurosaki from her mind, right now, here, he was just a game piece on the board.

Smoothing her skirts one more time she exited the front door and stood on the porch as Aizen pulled to a stop no more than half a dozen steps from the porch. He hopped down with a spring to his step, bouncing up the stairs. "Kagome, how are you this fine morning?"

"Well Sosuke." Kagome couldn't help the nervous swallow, he was in a gay mood and that couldn't mean anything good. Taking the offered arm she allowed him to assist her in climbing up, she had almost forgotten how repulsive he was. Shivering she seated herself quickly pulling the lap blanket over her legs, Aizen seated himself and then signaled the horses into motion. The still morning air held the warm scent that always spoke of spring, the mud and melting snow around them whispered warmer weather was coming and Kagome felt a hint of despair, no more snow, and inclement weather to give her breaks, her time of peace was over, war was here.

A war she means to win, so buck up. Turning to Aizen she put on a small enticing smile. "What did you do to pass the time without me Sosuke?"

"So arrogant my sweet." Sosuke sounded deeply amused and even gave her a smirk, that on anyone else might have been fond.

Quirking an eyebrow at him she waited, and tried not to worry about the high spirits he was in.

He nodded and graced her with an elaboration. "I worked on my plans for a hotel, kept everything going smoothly between my siblings, made plans for an event to raise spirits after that last freeze."

Mentally Kagome couldn't help translating what he said into what likely had actually happened: Brooded about killing Ichigo, thought about his money and how he could get more, beat his brother up, possibly Kanna, and come up with a plan to try to kill Ichigo. One she likely would have to be very clever to thwart. "How do you plan on raising spirits? We both know those fools in town don't have any spirits to raise."

Sosuke chuckled, "I have missed that wit." He looked at her and shrugged. "I meant for the interesting people in town. We will have the church picnic on the fourteenth for the rest, but for your men and I mine I thought a gambling night might raise spirits better."

Kagome knew it was a plan about killing Ichigo, but Aizen thought this fool proof so it probably didn't involve one of his men, he just planned on paying a stranger. She would have to be clever about this. So first she should pretend to be stupid about this. "Ah, you plan on getting your men to shoot Kurosaki then."

Sosuke mock gasped and faked a hurt look. "I wouldn't my dear, that would break our rules."

Frowning she looked at him like she was thinking hard, before relaxing her face. "So you mean for me to be there then."

Sosuke's eyes flashed with sick amusement before he stilled his mirth into something more palatable. "I would indeed like to invite my beau out for a lovely night of dinner, dancing and possibly a game or two of cards. You of course would be allowed to have as many escorts as your mother requires to assure herself of your virtue. This will be occurring on the twenty-eighth of this very month."

Kagome had the sinking sensation this was about more than Kurosaki, likely he was going to punish her for shooting Maten. Very well. She would take it, and go to this gambling night. Likely she would shock him with her skills. But then after this she could request they take a long quiet ride deep into the mountains, for their own private picnic.

Feeling her heart start pounding with glee she gave him a sweet and slight suspicious smile. "Where will this be taking place? I didn't know we had place for those kind of parties."

Sosuke's smile was that of a monster, his eyes glowing with sick pleasure because he knew he was about to embarrass her. "Well the Saloon of course. You are well acquainted with it."

Strangely she wasn't shocked, she didn't really mind, not now that everyone knew already she had been there. But this was suppose to upset her because this would be the first time she was there at night. Night was when Kagura's ladies entertained and brought the men back to the house, night was something that had been forbidden to her. A young unmarried lady. He was punishing her. As if she gave one bloody damn what the cowards in town thought about her reputation.

But she had a part to play.

"Sosuke!" she gasped, she let false horror drip into her voice. "That- that is when-"

"Yes, gamblers, whores, and the unsavory come out to play." the suppressed glee made his voice rise just a little. "You have been there before, you've shot two men- you've hated, and you're gambling with a man's life."

He turned towards her, his eyes lustful, he petted her cheek and it was all she could to hold still and not flinch. Cold clenched her innards and she let it creep through her. If she was ice, she couldn't be sick and she wouldn't give herself away.

He let his hand drop but his smile grew wider while his voice grew more hushed. "You will fit in very nicely, my sweet."

Kagome felt her hands trembling but forced a smirk, she knew him far better than he realized and in the end it didn't matter what he said, or what anyone said, she wasn't staying here. "The truth is you just don't want competition do you, Sosuke? You want everyone to be jealous you asked me first, but you don't want anyone to fight you for me do you?"

Sosuke lifted his hand as if to strike her, Kagome felt her grip on her bag tighten, if he hit her- but a few inches from her face he paused, the rage on his face disappearing and his hand trembled before he lowered it. For a moment he just looked at her, and then a slow, crooked, smirk transformed his face. And then he chuckled. "I forgot-"

Kagome felt a shudder work it's way down her spine, moments like this, where Sosuke was amused and looking almost fond of her were the worst. When he coveted her she merely ignored it knowing he would never posses her, when he was pleased he hurt her she reminded herself one day she would pay him back in kind, but when he looked at her like she had impressed him, like he was proud of her- she wanted to run away. "Be careful, Sosuke, you forget with me- and Ichigo might take his chance."

His eyes turned sharp, but his smile merely widened. "No half grown pup is a threat to me."

Kagome felt her lips twitch in agreement, Ichigo wasn't much of a threat, but she hadn't been lying. If Ichigo saw him for one moment raise his hand against her when he was near, he really would shoot Aizen without a second thought. Odd she had known him a month and she already knew his reactions so well.


Kagome eyed Nemu, over the months she liked to think they had become friends, they were the only two women to have to maintained a mostly respectable reputation around the Aizens. But something was off with her today. She had been quiet, and Kagome hadn't missed her sore arm, but there was a sparkle in her eyes, and a near invisible smile on her lips.

Kagome waited, bidding her time, watching for the moment Mayuri and Sosuke were truly lost in conversation. Then she struck. "Nemu what has happened make you look so chipper?"

The older girl blushed, and checking to make sure none of the men were listening told her. "There is a man-"

Kagome kept the smile on her lips, but felt a pit open in the bottom of her stomach. That blush, the stars in her eyes, Nemu was infatuated. It couldn't be anyone in town, everyone knew Old Mayuri would kill any man he caught paying his daughter any attention, and if he thought Nemu's head was turned he might kill her.

"he saved me from Yammy."

Kagome felt a twitch start at that name. On her list, if things came to the worst, and she was forced to open warfare he was in the top five names. He was brutal, evil and soulless, he enjoyed everything Sosuke had ever asked him to, and he did many things he didn't have to because he liked hurting things. Hell Kagura had demanded Aizen keep him away from her girls because he did too much damage. There was a reason she had shot him for laying a hand on her. If she gave anything away Yammy would have taken it all.

"Why did you need saving?" Kagome remembered Aizen's threat regarding Nemu's health and wondered if Yammy had acted on orders or just his opportunistic habits.

"Father was away checking on things with Mr. Sosuke."

Kagome clenched her fists, it was hard to tell, ordered or not if Yammy was getting brave enough to risk Mayuri's wrath- could she give Nemu some poison? Just for him, maybe.

"But he came from no where and laid Yammy out with two good punches, and warned Yammy if he saw him lifting a hand against me or Kanna again he'd kill him."

Kagome looked at her friend helplessly. This was likely the stranger Sosuke meant to use to kill Ichigo. That did not make him a good man, or someone worthy of a face like that- that kind of hero-worship, she was in terrible danger. "Nemu what do you know about him? What about your father?"

Her friend's eyes clouded over and she returned her eyes to her lap, her face returning to it's usual lines of blank resignation. "I know. Father would be furious. He barely noticed me anyway. Why would he? I am not very pretty."

For a moment Kagome felt like she choked. She was so angry. Damn Mayuri. Damn his abusive hide to hell. Because while Nemu was not a flashy beauty, she had a sweet charm to her features and when she smiled she made Kagome think of spring sunshine. She was so kind as well. Kagome knew her own features made her a more eye catching beauty, add in she liked to wear strong colors and she had drawn lots of attention since she was thirteen years old. But she had a terribly personality. Full of rage, and cunning, she wasn't the picture of womanhood, even without mentioning her fondness for guns and wearing pants. But Nemu would be a lovely wife, and a good mother.

"Nemu- that is not true. You have beautiful eyes and you are so very kind. If he doesn't notice you, he isn't worth it."

Her friend turned a smile on her, even as she looked pained. "Thank you for that, Kagome. You are very kind."

Kagome took a slow breath to still the frustrated rage. Some days she swore she couldn't wait to leave town, but in this moment she realized she didn't want to leave her friend and only ally behind. She might have to rework her plan and see if she could find a way to take Nemu with her. "Nemu-" Kagome realized Mayuri was listening, he had a habit of tilting his head a certain way. "What are you planning for the picnic?"

Luckily Nemu didn't even blink at the abrupt change in topic. "I was figuring on doing what I did last year, possibly with a change in dessert. What are your plans?"

"I was thinking I would follow Keade's favorite picnic lunch with cold beef biscuits, stewed Spanish rice, and either a cookie, or some fried dough."

"That's right, it's your first time doing your own picnic pail."

Kagome nodded. The picnics were a twice a year thing and usually baskets or pails were put up to bid when girls were considered available. Her mother had been stubborn and even though she had been a mere two weeks short last year she wasn't allowed to go up early. Nemu had put a pail up for the last three years and every time Mayuri or Sosuke bought it. The money either went to the church, or to someone in need. They were the two days a year when everyone, and she did mean everyone, went into town with guaranteed safety.

They also were practically famous for it, people for two towns came for the social occasions.

Mayuri turned his attention fully back to his conversation with Sosuke, Tosen joining it. Kagome turned to topic back to the first. "Nemu, I have no right to judge but please remember if you need my help, for anything. Come and get me."

Nemu nodded once and with a nervous flicker of her eyes she turned the topic to current events of the last month.

1882 April 25th California

Kagome surveyed the table, she was waiting for everyone to finish eating before she spoke. She had delayed and held off but she could ill afford to wait for too much longer, they had only four more days. She needed all of them to be ready.

Taking a slow breath she watched Jinenji inhale his last few bites. Work for the last two days had been hard, they needed to be ready to plant the moment it turned from mud. The last snow had also knocked another fence down. So much to be done, and now she would be distracting everyone. Steeling her heart to her mother's pain she chose her moment.

"I have an announcement."

All eyes turned to her and Kagome took the moment to look over everyone: Souta had long ago finished and was pouring over a book. Gramps had left the table for a rocker but had turned to look anyway.

Jinenji was the one she had been waiting on, he without a doubt had the largest appetite of all, he had been teased more than once that he grazed like a horse. Jaken looked up from his own project, a gun holster that needed mending. Maybe he had his own idea about how things were going. She didn't remember him having ever worn a gun, carried one of the rifles, yes. Pistol; not on the ranch before.

Ichigo had finished with dinner about the same time as her, but had been speaking with Ashido and Shuhei, the little she had over heard had been them discussing tomorrows fence job. Shuhei was chewing on a freshly rolled cigarette, he knew better than to smoke inside but he liked to have one after dinner. Ashido and Vega seemed to be worried about what she was about to say. She would have thought Ichigo would be the one most concerned, he had the most to lose after all, but his expression was as unconcerned as she had ever seen him. His tendency towards a scowl had thrown her understanding of him off for a few weeks but now she knew it was his habitual expression.

Hachi looked worried, and she couldn't help but notice over the last winter he seemed to have lost some girth for the first time in her memory, Ana was hovering behind him her face tight with tension. Keade appeared from the kitchen her scarred face blank, waiting before passing judgment.

Finally she lifted her eyes and looked at her mother. Enriqueta Higurashi looked older and more tired than Kagome could ever remember seeing her beautiful mother. It was clear the stresses of her seeing Sosuke were wearing on her mother, and no doubt the pressures from their hypocritical little town was not helping. She hated that she was about to add something to double the pressures.

"Two days ago Sosuke informed me he intends to host a gambling tournament this Friday."

The reactions were disinterested and confused for the most part, the only one with a seeming clue was Ichigo: At least she was pretty sure that was what the fierce scowl was for, but she could be wrong and it was because she dared to mention the man to him.

"I am going to be accompanying him. He has invited any and all of you, if you are interested."

Jinenji was scowling, his scars twisting his face into a stern snarl. Keade herself was looking disapproving. Hachi was shaking his head, Ana was wringing her hands. Souta was looking at her with disbelief. Jaken looked angry, Shuhei, Vega and Ashido right there with him. Gramps merely looked resigned. The two people she was avoiding looking at oddly reacted at the exact same time, admittedly their voices were loud and it made their over lapped sentences unclear.

"Enough." Looking to her mother she was unsurprised to see tears sparkling in her mother's eyes as she clasp a hand to her mouth in a show of deep upset. It was an expression she had seen before. Every time she had done something her mother didn't approve of. Heading out at nine to help sell the horses. Helping out and training the horses. Taking to pants because she simply couldn't work in dresses. Making herself boss over the horse ranch. Her mother had never liked that she had taken her father's place where she could. Her mother had wanted to keep her close and let Jinenji and Hachi with gramps do everything. But she had never accepted that that was her place.

Ichigo had jumped to his feet an angry flush on his cheeks. His eyes bright with rage and she knew he could see this was punishment for her as much as it was a trap for him.

"Mother, this was no request from Aizen, and I must go."

"But your reputation-" the words were a low moan, but they brought a wry smirk to her face.

"What reputation? The moment Sosuke began to call on me the town had me on my back under him."

The words made her mother blush, and turn away, her hand rising from her mouth to cover her eyes. Keade offered her mother comfort by moving to hug her, the one good eye was shooting sparks of irritation, no doubt because Keade didn't like her using such crude words before her lady mother. But her words silenced the entirety of the room. No one had told her what everyone had heard in town, but she knew it and it angered the room.

No doubt Jinenji, her mother and Souta had hoped that people had enough decorum not to say it around her, but honestly she hadn't needed to hear it. She had heard these things said before about other girls. She had spent too much time around men, and playing a boy not to know what kind of things gossips liked to speculate about.

"What any of them say doesn't matter, Mother. That you let them needle you, that you let them hurt you, is foolish. I love you, and you know I would never be so promiscuous. So why do you listen? They were never our friends, not when they talk too much and do so little. So why do you listen to their bosh?"

Her mother turned back to her, the trembling lips, the wet eyes and Kagome felt a pang at her mother's upset, but she held firm anyway.

"Kagome- think to the future- what are you going to do? No man here will marry you. Sosuke Aizen is a mudsill. But he'd hunt you down if you ran. How can I think anything but the worst?"

A spark of frustration lit in her breast, this was her own fault. "Mother- do you really think Sosuke Aizen is capable of being a gentleman for more than a year?"

Slowly, looking a bit confused, she shook her head.

"Correct me, but is it not true that a woman can defend her virtue if no man will protect her?"

Again she got a nod.

"So if he makes one wrong move you think I couldn't shoot him and get away with it? Or hell- shoot him and then get Grimmjow to shoot Tosen? You think if he's gone someone would care to press charges?"

The utter shock on her mother's face felt vaguely insulting.

"Mother, I may be young but I can take of myself and if you think for one moment I want to marry and stay in town, you are dead wrong. I would never marry into a family here. The only kind of man who settled in town is a low down coward."

"You intend to murder him."

Kagome felt a tremor of rage shiver up her spine, but she held her poise and merely arched a brow. "That word implies he's a man. He's a filthy rat and everyone knows it. Besides, I will make sure I am only reacting."

The shock on her mother's face was colored with just a hint of horror, but Kagome put that away for later. Turning back to the room at large she saw Ichigo had sat back down and was watching her with that consideration again. She supposed she should just be grateful he hadn't proposed in front of her mother. The other men in the room were less surprised than her mother, Souta looked impressed, but Shuhei, Ashido and Vega all looked like they thought her decision was obvious in hindsight. Jinenji looked worried. Hachi looked relieved and Jaken was nodding with blatant approval. Ana and Keade however, they were somewhere in between and it wasn't much of a surprise. Ana; she had seen the gun under her clothes. Gramps in his chair seemed to be with holding judgement.

"Now, who is willing to accompany me into the fray?"

Shuhei gave his typical half smirk and nodded once. "I'll go, boss."

"And me." came a strange echo that was Vega and Ashido speaking in time, an occasional occurrence that never failed to annoy the two; they were glaring at each other this very moment.

"I'll go too." Ichigo's quiet statement caught the other three men's attention and their eyes shot her questioning looks, silently asking if she would allow him to risk his skin like that. But as Ichigo was the only one to know the whole story she ignored them. Nodding to him she turned to her mother. "Are you satisfied I will be watched appropriately?"

A slow shocked nod later she turned back to her troops. "We will be leaving before sunset on Friday to meet Sosuke for dinner before going to the Saloon. That is all, good night we still have lots of work to do this week."

Leaving the room she almost ran to her room, she wasn't look forward to Friday. Just thinking about it left her feeling twitchy, but now with what she had just told her mother she was down right panicked. She had flirted with the word murder before, but hear it from her mother- to hear her call it murder- even if she was just acting in reaction or even in defense- tears welled as she fumbled into her nightgown. Laying down she buried her face in her pillow as she replayed her mother's reaction, over and over. Murder.

Her own mother thought it murder.

1882 April 27th California

Coming in Kagome hung her hat up and dumped her coat, she was spent, first she woke at dawn, fed the horses, ate. Took Sesshomaru and Steve out for training, did some practice shooting, combed and cleaned the two up, ate lunch. Went back out to work with the horse for Koga, she thought he and the chestnut would get along. Then she had worked on cleaning the front up.

Beside Koga likely needed a horse smarter than him.

But that horse was canny and lazy. She was working him with some word commands, and he was being stubborn. She was suppose to delver him in just a month. That seemed so far off. However tomorrow and planning for it held her attention, it was why she had gotten a number of raw boards and laid them out so she would have a dry and clean walk to the rig tomorrow.

Tomorrow- chores. Breakfast. chores. Eat lunch. Clean up. Do her hair. Get dressed. And then some how she had to keep Ichigo alive and if possible shoot a big hole through Sosuke's chest.

Sitting by the fireplace she stared into the fire. Thinking on it was exhausting. On top of that she was suppose to be cleaning up to help with last bits of dinner. Sighing she rubbed at her eyes and tried to muster the effort to get up and do the last little bit of the day.


Looking up at the inquiry she blinked at her mother's vaguely fuzzy form. Her vision cleared and she found her mother hovering uncertainly by the other chair. "Yes? If it's about Kitchen duty I was just getting ready to clean up."

"No, Keade and Ana have it well in hand."

Staring up at her mother she watched her fidget with nerves, was her mother going to beg her to run again? Steeling herself, she forced a calm expression. "Yes?"

Her mother seemed to have caught her mood because she smoothed her skirts and sat down like a queen. Her back perfectly straight, her hands linked but relaxed, her feet pointed the same direction as her face. Her uncertainty smoothed away, her eyes focused and sad but no longer darting about the room.

Reluctantly Kagome felt her lips twitch. She had learned her poise somewhere after all and a great deal came from watching this graceful woman. Just rather than projecting the picture of womanhood she tended to try to project predatory. Because while men were used to the broken wing acts, or the lusty touches of other women, one that acted aggressively baffled all but one in a hundred. Just to her misfortune she knew two. Admittedly Ichigo and Sosuke were opposites on that spectrum, but both were not as thrown when she snarled in their faces or swore at them, but they reacted differently: Ichigo took her seriously, Sosuke thought she was all talk.

"I didn't mean it the way I said it."

Blinking Kagome jolted back to the here and now. Her mother. Talking to her- about something. "Pardon?"

There was a slight flinch but her mother answered anyway. "When I said murder. I didn't mean it the way it sounded."

The wry smile that pulled at her lips was habit, she couldn't let anyone see. Pain, doubt- no one could be allowed in, not even her mother. "Well, murder is a pretty strong word, what did you mean?"

"Oh! I will love you no matter what- but... to kill a man. To kill him with intent- how can you call that anything but murder?"

Kagome felt vaguely like patting her mother on the head, it felt sad, but she knew in one way or another her mother was one of those women who needed a man. She had decided to never be so dependent, and had forged her own strength in thinking tactically, in being strong and handling her own problems. The gap between her and her mother was never clearer than in this moment. "War. Sosuke Aizen and his dogs are my enemies, he seeks to take through force everything I hold dear, my friends, my self-respect, my family, and when there is nothing left but my life he'll take that too. How can I plan to do anything less than killing him when I know that?"

"So you truly meant to- from the start?"

Looking at her Mother, Kagome let the smile fall, she could not comfort her mother. She had no comfort to give because for the first time her mother was seeing just how ruthless she had become. Her mother hadn't seen her out in the greater world, her mother had never seen her succeeding in pretending to be a male including the swearing and swagger. She had never seen her pull on a gun on a living person. She might have heard or even seen aftermath but never had her mother seen this pit she had dug in her heart. But she knew she had killed something most considered inherently female. She was not so far gone as to purposely kill someone who had done nothing, but as the months went on and the whispers got louder her determination to keep townsfolk out of it was dying.

"Yes. He's a blight on everything his greedy eyes touch. I knew as far back as when he had just returned his eyes had fallen on me, and I got ready. I am not going to be poor dead wife number four. I'll see him dead first even- even mother, if I have to kill every man that works on his damned ranch."

Her mother stared at her, her face creased with sadness.

Kagome waited, surely her mother was going to express her disappointment. But she was surprised with the next words her mother spoke.

"My dear- I have let you down. That you feel so trapped-" a small sob escaped her.

Sliding to her knees she touched her mother's clenched fists, "Mother- I am less trapped, and more committed. I can not- will not think myself a good person if I left you and the ranch and my baby brother to face his evil ways. The law has not done anything about him and as such it falls to the next moral person to put an end to his evil ways- that it falls to me speaks of our town's flawed nature. I understand well enough the risks I run if I just shot him in front of everyone for no reason. But as he is a very evil man, his own nature will reveal itself and I can and will act. That is the sole plan. I have never been out with him without being armed for a reason, Mother."

"But the little two shot is in your bag and if he- if he-"

"-Attacks me it would be too far away and he knows to stop me from going for it, seeing as I shot Yammy. But that is why, Mother, I have always had one of Father's guns on me under my dress reachable through a hole in my pocket. He knows I am not such a fool to trust him with my virtue, but he doesn't realize I have been playing him, Mother. He thinks all women weak and I play to that. I make sure he stays focused on me so when he blows it, I blow a hole in him. Trust me mother no one, not even Kurosaki has a chance to kill him. It's up to me."

"Why does it fall to you!" It was a tiny moan, but she heard it all the same.

"Because I am Father's daughter."

That startled her mother and she knew she had said too much because after a shocked moment her mother's face crumpled and tears ran freely down her face. She covered her face and sobbed quietly. Kagome couldn't contain the sigh but she rose all the same and pulled her mother to her, hugging her tightly and rocking just a little like her mother use to do to comfort her. Keade poked her head in looking for them but disappeared without saying anything.

As her mother calmed she couldn't help but smile down at her. "You can't really be surprised."

"No. But I am heart broken all over again. My daughter saw something, heard something and kept it to herself for years." Fresh tears rolled down her cheeks.

Wiping the new tears away Kagome couldn't hide a pained twist to her smile. "Would it comfort you, Mother, to know that I was only doing as he asked?"

Her mother gave a jerky nod, before crumpling again. Patting her on the shoulder Kagome knew nothing else could be said to sooth her mother. "I'm going to clean up and go finish dinner."

1882 April 28th California

Kagome resisted the urge to tap her bag against her leg, her nerves were getting the better of her. Ichigo, Vega, and Ashido were on horse back, and on high alert. Shuhei was driving with Jinenji. And she was left riding in the back, alone with her nerves. No one had spoke much today, even before they'd left, she had warned them not to allow themselves to be goaded into a fight, if they were going to get into a fight to make sure Aizen's men started it.

She knew however it was quite likely she need to keep a close eye on them, none of them had practiced hearing the worse insults and ignoring them. Besides that they were men, and that meant manly pride. Her best hope was in the fact her men were loyal, Aizen's were kept in line with fear and bribery; admittedly that might be almost as big a weakness as a help.

But it went both ways, the real question was what person did Aizen think he had on his side to tip the balance of power?

Likely or at least the only hint of a new man she had heard was Nemu's beau.

Rubbing her gloved hands together she took a deep breath, she wasn't helping anyone getting all upset like this. She need to calm down. Ichigo knew everything she knew, they have help, and even if Ichigo ends up dead- it wouldn't change her actual plan.

That was an awful thought.

"Relax. Or Aizen's gonna think you're up to no good."

Startled she turned and found Ichigo staring at her, concern creasing his brows. She hadn't noticed when he started to ride so close. "You're not worried at all."

A bloodthirsty grin tugged at his features. "I wouldn't say that, but I am hoping someone tries something."

Realizing he wasn't angry with her for her part in this was a relief, but seriously wasn't that a bit over confident? Sosuke had a dozen plus men on pay roll, with the bounty he put on him even strangers would be tempted, and with the gambling night there was sure to be strangers. "Idiot."

His grin slid away to his regular scowl. He was almost pouting, or so it seemed to her. But she felt better, at least the hint of banter made her feel a little more like herself. Shuhei turned back to look at the two of them. "You two are both twitchy enough that there is more to Sosuke gunning for him."

"There might be a hundred on his head."

Ichigo shot her a startled look. "Really? That seems low."

She couldn't help but mockingly sneer back. "What skills have you demonstrated to prove you need a higher bounty to balance the risk?"

Ichigo snorted, "Fair enough."

"So let me get this straight, we are going to gambling night where everyone and their brother will want a chance to shoot the kid- and we're just learning this now?" Vega sounded extremely annoyed from behind her.

Turning back to look she forced a smile. "Well if you all weren't packing anyway I might have said something, but none of you even thought for a second about leaving your pistols at home so I thought I would save you some of the worrying."

"gee thanks." Ashido sounded annoyed but also amused.

"My comment still stands, how many bodies are you planning on leaving boss?"

Turning back to Vega she couldn't stop the grin. "Only the stupid ones. See I have an agreement with Sosuke, if his men, or even he himself shoots Ichigo in front of me or while I am out with Aizen our- wager; has different consequences than he realizes. That happens? We kill them all, but other wise it's likely to be strangers. So tonight we worry about strangers shooting him in the back. They challenge him it's on you-" she pointed at Ichigo.

He shrugged.

She refocused on the other four: "You four are here as backup and my escort, Kurosaki there is bait. But anything else I will handle. That clear enough?"

Five 'yes boss's later they turned the corner in the road and could see the town lights. The ride into town and up to Unohana's was near silent; there on the porch Sosuke was waiting with Mayuri, Sosuke helped her down. Vega, and Ashido dismounted and turned their horses over to Ichigo while he joined Jinenji and Shuhei on their way over to the stable.

Sosuke lead the way inside and for the first time in a few years Unohana's whole main floor had become a large dinning room. The three different tables in what was normally the main parlor had a mix of people she sort of knew by occupation and face, and a number she actually knew, but mingling with them was a couple of faces she did not know.

She made a mental head count as Sosuke assisted her in removing her outerwear while Unohana's help boy stood guard in the normally private for rent parlor that had been turned into a cloak room.

Eyes were on her as a number of men failed to recognize her, she could tell the red dress she was wearing, and wearing without additional shawls for modesty had them thinking she was the new whore who had Sosuke's eye. Mentally adding names to faces, she took note of who recognized her and was startled/alarmed to see her on Sosuke's arm.

She could see some people had the sense to fear the change in power that would happen if she weren't planning on killing Sosuke. She knew damn well Sosuke had ambitions that were not for the benefit of others and she knew if her family no longer truly stood in the way of him being the only person in town capable of offering loans he would become an unopposed ruthless king of the mountain.

Allowing herself to be lead through the parlor to the main dinning room she counted twelve men. But judging by that she could assume another ten to twenty might already be at the saloon, eating Rangiku's cooking.

Hopeful that meant there were only five or so men she didn't know tonight. But she wasn't thrilled with who she was seeing and did know, two of them could use the money for sure and three or four more were reputed to be good shots, one she knew had done odd jobs for Sosuke before- no good. She losing that calm she had worked so hard to gain.

The main dinning room that normal held four smaller tables had changed and was now a long table with twenty chairs, most were filled, Stark, Tosen, Grimmjow, Garamaru,Yammy, Luppi, Renkotsu, Mukostu, Hakudoshi, Granz, Nnoitra. Mayuri slid into a seat, Sosuke held a chair out for her before sliding her in and sitting down himself. With her men taking seats to her right, filling five chairs meant that there was just one extra. She could see to avoid risking their agreement Sosuke had left the thunder brothers at home.

That was okay, neither was a good conversationalist and honestly she hated Hiten, Maten was a mindless follower but Hiten had a terrible streak of cruelty. No doubt why they had drifted into town and stayed.

Soon Isane appeared and began placing food, starting with Sosuke and her. "I have three more coming Isane."

The girl nodded, her expression tight, as she like all sensible and respectable women loathed Aizens and his men. Kagome mentally sighed to herself as she remembered the days when the girl had been bubbly and friendly to her.

As Isane disappear back to the kitchens to get more, Ichigo and her other two appeared. Ichigo's face had a new expression, stone cold rage. She had seen hatred, she had known: but seeing Ichigo as he looked Sosuke Aizen in the face was a new experience. Here and now she might actually believe him capable of killing Sosuke in cold blood. But he failed to do the uncivilized thing and pull his gun, so it was still up to her.

Engaging Sosuke in conversation Kagome forced her mind blank of her fears and the plans running about in her head for tonight, contingencies pushed to the side for now. Isane bustled in out and out feeding people. Conversation drifted to cards, and the games Sosuke was offering prizes in. She was pleased to note she had played all of them at least once. Vega and Ashido had taught her well, she had even won money one night on the last trip out to sell the horses.

Isane placed more plates and disappeared again. Sosuke touched on expected profit to be made with the two dollar buy in.

But it would be a terrible lie to say she was surprised by Mayuri's next comment. "Don't know why you're telling the chit all that detail Sosuke, it's not like she knows a thing about cards or money."

Ashido and Vega hid, smirking into their plates, Jinenji looked at her with a skeptical twitch of the lips, Shuhei was determinedly eating and ignoring the conversation, Ichigo however broke off his hard stare at Sosuke to give Mayuri a dark glare. She however threw the gauntlet down. "Care to put your money where your mouth is on that, Mayuri?"

He gave her a viciously smug smile, "On what terms? That you'll win a pot?"

She bared her teeth back. "No, I bet you five dollars I win more hands than you."

He laughed.

Not a surprise, but it stung. What would it take to get some respect around here? How many people did she have to shoot for this fool to get it?! But likely, she could pull her gun and press it to his forehead and he still wouldn't believe she could kill him. Besides, she had never killed that they knew before. Just shot to wound and it was likely he thought she was bluffing, Mayuri lived in a place where he was just better than almost everyone.

Opening her bag she pulled out the money and slapped it out the table.

Mayuri stopped laughing, and stared at her disbelievingly.

Stark however barked a laugh, "That 'Chit' as you insist on calling her is willing to put her money where her mouth is, but Mayuri, are you?"

Luppi, Renkotsu, Nnoitra and Granz started laughing and jeering at Mayuri, she watched with more glee then was proper as his temples took to throbbing and he turned red before slapping five ones down. He looked enraged and normally she held her tongue on the backtalk, but Nemu wasn't here. If he went after her tonight, she'd kill him.

"Hold the money for us Grimmjow- Stark you help me and Mayuri keep count."

Sosuke wasn't pleased, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes were him suppressing a frown. Was he worried about her confidence or had the number of men she showed up with distracted him? Too early to say. Dinner seem to blur by and then Sosuke was 'helping' her up, assisting her with her coat and they were walking over to the Saloon. He appeared to have prepared for everyone's comfort a low board walk, not covered but it connected to the stores and the Saloon, the bank was even connected.

"I see you made some improvements since last Sunday."

Sosuke jolted free of his thoughts and turned a sickeningly sweet smile on her. "I realized that the roads would be too muddy and I would hate for you to dirty that dress. But if this town is going to get more traffic is seemed like a sensible improvement."

"I agree completely Sosuke. It was over due really, and our dear shopkeeps think they are so smart."

Sosuke chuckled, enjoying her slight to the two most popular people in town. They after all organized the picnic to help the less fortunate, of course the church helped too, but they did the picnic. And everyone talked to them for every purchase, making their not talking to her all the more cutting.

It seemed like it only took a few more heart beats to reach the Saloon doors, and then through a batwing door she entered a world she had never fully been allowed into before.

The bar was packed in a way she had never seen before. Shiori was even helping Rangiku behind the bar while Gin carried drinks out to the tables. The tables were all packed, every table had a game going. She could see the pot sitting on the stairs being guarded by Ikkaku, and with a quick glance up she saw the three semi private tables upstairs were empty.

"I saved them for us my dear."

Glancing at Sosuke she nodded and allowed him to start guiding her toward the stairs, she took the chance to search every face and start putting names to faces. Already she noticed three faces she knew were new to her, and half a dozen others she knew vaguely but only from picnics or passing through Quincy to the post office. But one of the unknowns; a man with a dark red scruffy beard caught her eye, she thought she should know him, he stood out in the crowd for dangerous look in his eyes and the confidence in which he eyed her up.

No one else dared eye her like a piece of meat, not with her on Sosuke's arm. But this man did... he wasn't from around here and if she thought she should know him it was probably from a wanted poster. Sosuke bringing in a hired gun made plenty of sense and with Tosen in his pocket it would easy to promise a wanted murder a safe haven.

The other two looked more like gamblers, although the black haired man with blue eyes was watching their group move towards the stairs with a lot of concealed interest. He knew about the bounty- probably.

Admittedly there were a lot of eyes on them in the room, all of Kagura's ladies were watching them, mostly looking pretty wary, Kagura herself was draped across Hojo's father. Mentally Kagome wondered if Hojo knew his dad spent so much time with Kagura, but everyone knew Hojo's mother was – off. She didn't ever really leave the house and while she happily hosted a birthday picnic for Hojo every year she never went far from their house. Not even to pick up a new dress from the store. Or the picnic that everyone else went to. She was off. But seemed happy enough to never leave the house.

Ikkaku stood lifting the pot with him and before climbing the stairs she turned to the bar and grinned at Rangiku "One of my usual, Ran!"

She could see that hitting the gossips hard, it was true she drank, no she had never been a good girl, and if Sosuke Aizen thought for a fucking moment he was embarrassing her, he was going to regret it. It was surprisingly easy to glide up the stairs and seat herself such she could see more than half of the room below. Stark took one side of her, Sosuke the other, Mayuri joined them at the table his face dark with a scowl, and Jinenji joined them as well taking the last chair. Tosen stood leaning against the wall seemingly ready to keep the peace from above. Ichigo and Ashido both adding their buy in to the pot downstairs and joined the men milling around the bar waiting for a table to clear for the next game.

She could see Hiten was running the board and keeping track of the names added. Ichigo, and Ashido were added to list and she saw thirty-five names up on the board. There were of course a lot more people besides that. The whores, Rangiku, Gin, and Shiori, Ikkaku. The place was packed, it had never been this full before she was sure.

"You must be quite proud of such a turn out, Sosuke."

She turned back to the table in time to catch his frown disappearing. "Yes, looks like it will be a profitable night."

Grimmjow, Nnotira, Vega, Granz, and Luppi took the middle table of the three upstairs, and the others of Sosuke's men took the last. Shuhei was talking to someone from Quincy at the bar. It was rather noticeable almost all of his men were here and upstairs. Sosuke was going all out to give himself an alibi. Admittedly she noticed Maten was missing. Probably still nursing his shoulder. Or more likely unable to play it cool enough for Sosuke's plans.

Forcing a cheerful smile on her face she chirped "What should we play?" shedding her coat she allowed it to hang on her chair but kept her purse in hand.

"Do you know how to play Faro?" Aizen pulled a deck and thirteen cards.

It was hard to keep her smile kind and lady-like, because she was usually damn lucky in Faro. "I've played a few times. Enough to keep up."

Sosuke eyed her like he thought she was lying, but Mayuri took her at face value. The pitiful fool.

Gin appeared, delivering her drink and took the other orders. Sosuke mean while watched with fascination as she easily drained her first drink. Gin didn't blink, grabbing her glass to refill.

Then the first hand was dealt, Tosen moved in placing his first bet at a nickle.

Stark took the first hand, herself the second, then Jinenji, she took the forth. As Sosuke shuffled the deck. Mayuri scowled and said, "How about something different? Poker seemed like a better pace."

"I don't mind, we do seem to be flying through hands and not everyone's pockets are so deep." She didn't even try to disguise the jab at Mayuri, something the vein in his temple said he noticed.

But he didn't explode into a tirade as she would have expected. Sosuke must have told him to keep his temper unless she missed her guess. Too many strangers, too many with disloyal eyes, and Sosuke knew she would love to see the low down woman beater killed.

Stark, Jinenji, Tosen all agreed and so Sosuke dealt; then she noticed Ichigo was acting odd: he was on his second round, and she could see he was trying not to stare at the black haired gambler she had noticed earlier. She had also managed in between rounds to pick up probably four or five other men who was considering how to attack Ichigo.

George Davis, was acting over eager but drinking too much.

Yumichika was drinking but seemed to be watching too hard and she wasn't sure he wasn't here expecting to see people getting caught in a cross fire. He was considered their town doctor, even if Unohana knew just as much. So it might fit.

Calvin was after the money for sure, but seemed aware of how Shuhei and Ashido was covering Ichigo's back.

The Sanchez brothers, Quinn was a straighter arrow then his younger brother Agusto but if a fight started he'd back his brother.

Brookes worried her. Word was he had killed before but all she knew him for was prospecting, and wood working. Quincy was his base, had been for the last three years, but he was a tough man.

All of them worried her, but the red beard man still seemed a greater threat, and the gambler had Ichigo's attention and she didn't know why. Tonight was a bad night for old friends or enemies to show up. It was as she picked up her hand she noticed the dark haired gambler rising and heading out the back. He might have been just going to the outhouse but for the tiny nod Ichigo gave him as he passed. Small, only truly noticeable as she was almost directly over head and saw the eye contact.

So probably a friend.

She was well into the round when Ichigo finished his, winning the draw, the groans from Hojo's father and Kira were amusing, but the cold look the red bearded man shot him was concerning. Clearly if Ichigo hadn't been in his black book before, he was now.

But then Ichigo moved to leave and she heard him, just barely over Abi's high laugh as her next john won at the table behind him, but he said he was grabbing some air. So she expected him to go toward the back, instead he moved towards the front porch. Focusing on her hand she realized her divided focus had ruined any chance of turning her hand onto anything good. Damn. Mayuri looked smug and Stark- eh, he was hard to read most of the time anyway. But Jinenji- he was stone faced.

He might be able to snitch the hand from Mayuri but she couldn't.

Rather raising her bet she folded, and standing she made her way around the balcony with a murmured "It's too warm."

And she wasn't lying, there was sweat trickling down her spine and her temples felt damp. The flush in her cheeks was as much from the alcohol as the room, you didn't cram sixty people onto the saloon without it warming up, freezing spring temperatures be damned. Winding her way around she joined a couple of the girls at one of the open front windows and ignored them snootily turning their noses up at her and moving away.

She didn't bother hiding her grin at being the only person in town a whore would scorn, it was rather amusing to know she was truly considered the lowest of the low and yet only the whores could freely sneer at her.

Opening the window wider and leaning out she was able to see a dark shadow of a figure leaning against the corner of the building just by the front porch, but out of view of any downstairs windows. It was only as he moved his head to hiss something at Ichigo she knew for sure, the black haired stranger was one of three men wearing spectacles tonight and he was the only one outside.

It took her a few more moments to tune her ears for Ichigo's voice as she didn't know what this stranger sounded like. But soon she could tell more then they knew each other, they were close friends.

"You worry too much."

"... pig headed- stubborn! That man in there has put a hundred and twenty-five dollars on your head! He's brought in Sean O'Kelly-"

Ichigo must have given him the vaguely unimpressed scowl that was him being confused because in an angry hiss Ichigo's friend elaborated; "The man has killed two law men in Nevada, and robbed a coach where he killed the guard, coachmen and a passenger for the silver they were bringing in from Leadville! He's worth two of what the man is offering for you and the plan is he shoots you and then I shoot him. Then me and Aizen-" the name was said with a hateful slur to it. "Split his reward money."

From a purely mercenary approach that was a damn good plan.

"So we pick a fight and you take a shot at me and then I move and you 'accidentally' shoot him before he get's one in me. That is if Shuhei and Ashido don't cover me."

"I don't want to get shot for you, you floozler. Besides your sisters sent me. They need you back-"

"I trust Chad can handle everything for another month or two. And I ain't going back until Sosuke Aizen is dead."

"You are going home in a box the rate you are going! You damn Lunk-head! The man has backup plan after backup plan. Besides what do you know about these people that makes you think you can trust anyone here? The woman you work for is a cold blood rattlesnake to hear about her. She is betting with your life and you still think you can stay?!"

It stung a little to hear that the first person she got to see from his life thought she was so awful, but considering the company he seemed to be keeping where would he hear otherwise?

"Ishida don't talk about her like that. She's doing what she has to."

Well she wasn't prepared to hear that from him. The heat that the cold air had chased from her cheeks seemed to have returned and she was deeply grateful no one could see her face right now.

"I don't believe it." the tone was stunned, and somewhat amused unless she missed her guess.

"What?" Ichigo sounded irritated.

"You like her. This snake of woman who laughed as Sosuke beat a prostitute for speaking to her. Who shot a man in the foot-" he paused and half laughed. "Actually I take that back, why couldn't she have killed him?- but she literally walks around town flaunting the pearls he bought her for enjoying his beating of the woman, and wears that dress he bought her like she loves being his kept woman? Her?"

Ichigo's tone changed. "Ishida, we go way back so I am going to let that go. But you have no idea of the dynamics going on here, and I don't have time to tell you everything. So believe me when I say; Don't insult Kagome Higurashi in front of me. She is one hell of a woman and I intend to take her home after Sosuke Aizen is dead."

"What?" this was flat with disbelief.

"I have asked her to marry me." Ichigo sounded smug and she wasn't sure wether it was amusement at the man's expense or just satisfaction at blindsiding him.

"When she's seeing Sosuke Aizen?" the tone with which the man spoke was utterly bewildered.

"Yes." the way he said the one word- it caught her ear and made her think that maybe, just maybe he had been serious about the complements he had given her. Maybe it wasn't just about saving her from Aizen, maybe he actually wanted her. That his friend seemed so shocked about it, made it likely Ichigo was either not one to be distracted by pretty women, or he had in the past ignored eligible girls.

But she wasn't exactly free and clear now was she?

Ichigo didn't seem to have a bevy of angry husbands after him either so... jury was still out.

Satisfied she was up to date enough to keep watch Kagome drifted back to the table so she could sit down for the next game. It wouldn't do for her to return the exact same time as Ichigo. Sosuke would be watching for that.

But what this 'Ishida' shared explained why Sosuke seemed more nervous then she would have expected, and more of why he had ordered Mayuri to keep his temper. He didn't want open war, he was afraid her guns would prevail.

It was cruel of her, but it brought her deep pleasure Sosuke knew, and planned on her men being more loyal then his. For all the townsfolk and even Sosuke's men demonized her, between the two of them they knew who was the better master.

Sliding in to her seat at the table she found a game of Vingt-et-Un had started without her. Jinenji was brutal at this game and judging by the scowl on Mayuri's face he was just discovering this. She knew he had learned it in the war fighting for the north, and when Ashido and Vega begin tutoring her in games he had slipped in and shocked the two of them. But his luck at Faro was so-so and he didn't love Poker- correction he disliked betting money at poker, when she had been learning and they had been betting in rocks or food he had been a lot of fun to watch. But he scorned playing seriously for money.

That was half of why him agreeing to come tonight meant so much.

Jinenji took the game, and she laughed at Mayuri's sour face. "Who won the other game?"

"I did." Mayuri growled some satisfaction coming back to him.

"Let's play another round, I think I remember how it goes now."

Sosuke again dealt and she paid more then lip service to the game, she had confidence in her read of the room, and knowing Ichigo was suitably warned and with allies she could focus more on winning her bet with Mayuri.

She only half noticed when Ishida slipped in, he had been a gone long time but she saw him crack a crude joke about what he might have been doing out there. Hell he might have met up with one of the girls to give himself an alibi for why he had been out so long. But she didn't hear what was actually said, she just knew Ichigo had come in just as she got her first card, but the gambling friend didn't come back for another ten or fifteen minutes.

Kagome took her third drink from Gin and got some water as well, freshly iced from their ice house so to better cool her off and keep her sober.

But her hand – she was about to piss Mayuri off. It was clear from his talk he thought this was his game, he was 'god' or some shit. But the hand full of Kings and an Ace she had put together said otherwise. He was bluffing. Jinenji bowed out, so it was her, Stark and Mayuri and she was pretty sure Stark was going to fold soon. Tosen was watching with interest but he apparently didn't play poker just Faro, and Sosuke was being uncharacteristically quiet.

She was pretty sure she knew who his players were, and she wondered if he was worried about his ability to control the room and get the outcome he wanted. The drinks had been flowing freely and she had noticed a few people kicked out already, all men from Quincy, all single woodsmen.

The crowd though didn't seem to get smaller for the few lightweights that had been kicked out already, other people from dinner seemed to be drifting in, add in the swirling confusion as one table ended and a new round started all competing for the fifty dollar prize- was she missing something?

"I raise you twenty."

Snapping back to the game she met Mayuri's stare with one of her own, she didn't blink as he flipped a gold eagle into the pile.

That was gutsy.

He might have Four of a kind just like her, but unless he was cheating there was no way his hand was better then her Four of kind. But there was something like eighty dollars on the table already. She would bump it over a hundred. Besides the five she had given Grimmjow this was near the last of her money.

What would he do when he lost?

Flipping her only gold eagle out she watched the shinning greed brighten his eyes.

Stark groaned, and without a word folded, his straight caught her eye as he put them down, but it was just her and Mayuri now.

Sosuke called the game.

With a sweet smile at Mayuri she was mostly unsurprised that he flipped a four of a kind, all the jacks and a queen. Her kings and ace beat him. She laid them out keeping close eye on his face, the way the smug certainty of his victory drained out of his face, and his temples began to pulse as his eye twitched, and the way color slid from his face.

Carefully she slipped a hand into her purse, if he lunged at her, she was shooting him. So what if she had to put a hole in the bag.

He stood from his chair a shout escaping him, "You cheating bitch!" The sound of fists slamming against the table echoed. His face was abruptly bright red, edging toward purple in rage.

All conversation down stairs stopped.

Faces appeared from around the partitions upstairs.

The laugh came so easily, and she put a hand to her mouth to hide her grin. "Mayuri surely you aren't saying I can cheat so well you didn't notice."

"You had to!" spittle was flying from his mouth, and she almost hoped he'd have an apoplexy.

Sosuke was looking very angry and she wanted to help Mayuri keep digging. She hoped she'd get to kill him tonight, hell if she started shooting maybe she could shoot both of them. "I never touched the deck and where would I hide matching cards?"

She let the pause draw out for a moment before going on, aiming for a something that would either push him over the edge or calm him. "Unless you are saying Sosuke stacked the deck for me."

That shut him up, he slowly glanced toward his furious boss still sitting next to him, silently glaring death threats. He, like whipped dog sunk slowly into his chair, a half whisper escaping him. "I must have been mistaken-"

Viciously she pushed the disappointment away. "Well, I think you owe me an Apology, I am a lady!"

The red resurged in his face, and she could see everything he wanted to do to her in his eyes, if he had his way she would have been tortured, and passed around until she groveled at his feet for forgiveness. She glared back hoping he understood she would kill him and let the animals take his body.

He looked at Sosuke and found no reprieve, without another sound escaping him she could see the battle of habitual obedience fighting with his hatred for women. She could hear the sound of her heart pounding in her chest as she warred between hope and disappointment, but while he still might loose his temper and allow her shoot him, his fear and loyalty was choking him tight enough she wasn't sure he was breathing.

Tosen broke the stand off, taking firm hold of his friend's arm he lead him away from the table and down stairs. When they had disappeared out back, she turned her eyes to Sosuke, he wasn't angry any more, just thoughtful. His eyes darted down to her lap where her hand was in her purse, and he almost looked amused for a moment. Then he looked away first, directing the lower floor to continue.

Conversation slowly returned. Pulling her hand out of her purse took a couple of more minutes because her hand was locked with determination around the tiny pistol. And while Stark gathered the cards she took the money and put it in her purse. Jinenji was shooting her looks of 'are you crazy?' and 'you nearly got us both killed!'

She dead panned back a look of; 'let him try', and took stock of the downstairs wondering again if she had missed something. Then she saw Ichigo and Ishida sitting at the same table.

The slowing of her heart beat reversed it's self. Her hands felt twitchy and she was aware of the sweat starting to gather under her breasts and at the small of her back. She was going to get cold on the way home, she was also going to give herself away more, Sosuke had noticed she went for her gun. She needed to delay the shakes until it was safe.

Whisky it was.

Sipping at her glass between longer draws of water, she didn't look away from Sosuke's face as Stark shuffled cards, not that she missed him counting to make sure there had been no cheating. Sosuke was contemplating something, he had some what enjoyed her and Mayuri's fight, but how loud it had gotten was not according to his plan.

Was he rethinking something? Had he realized for all he knew she hated Mayuri she had the actually gumption to kill the man the moment he couldn't sic Tosen on her for it? Steadier she decided she needed to wait until Ichigo and Ishida got loud, then she'd ready her gun, and if their plan worked all the better, but more likely she would need to jump them.

"How about a safe smaller game of 7up?"

Stark looked at her, Sosuke, and Jinenji, both nodded in tacit agreement before he started dealing quickly.

Feeling the buzz of her drink resuming it's hum in her body she put the last two sips aside and hoped the night would finish quickly, she was getting tired and keeping her nerves steady was draining her more quickly than she expected.


Scowling at his cards he looked back to Ishida, and then the other two people at the table. One of them was Quinn he thought, and the other- a drunken idiot, betting too much... oh and he was stupid enough to keep eyeing him like he was spending the money on his head already.

Ishida had seen it too, even as they kept up the dirty looks, and dark scowls at each other. He could see Ishida was thinking they may need to shoot him too. It was almost making him twitchy, the eyes he could feel on his back, the greedy gleam in so many eyes as they weighed up how much he was worth.

Kagome had had a better measure of how tonight would go, admittedly she hadn't known about Ishida being his man on the inside as it were, but she warned him. Fair and square. It had been part of what pissed him off about Ishida so easily buying the story everyone in town was selling about her being a ruthless scaly snake. She warned him. And she had even taken the brunt of Aizen's reaction without one hint to blame him for it. Hell she actively hid the bruise.

It still put his back up Aizen had bruised her for hiring him.

And he was the one who refused to skedaddle. Ishida blaming her for him being in danger was – it was blind of Ishida. He just wondered if Ishida was underestimating Aizen's bent for treachery, leaving everyone else dead and being acquisitive was his favorite play; and here was Ishida coming to wake snakes in front of the very people Sosuke Aizen needed to impress with his power. Who was being a chucklehead?

Well the answer was the drunken idiot, this was the last chance to draw and he palmed two cards like they hadn't all been watching carefully. Ishida met his glance and in a heart beat both of them kicked back from the table to loom over the cheater and start yelling.

"You think we didn't see that!" Ichigo reached out grabbing the meaty fist that held the two cards.

Quinn dropped his cards in disgust and glared at the drunk, but Ishida's shout had blended in with his, and he found because of the other noise he didn't know exactly what he said. But the drunk was looking around some what frantically.

Ishida turned to him a sour look on his face. "Would you butt out Kurosaki, I was going to correct the drunken fool."

Guess this was the plan. Scowling fiercely he shot back. "Who asked you, I caught him cheatin'!"

"Amazing, I barely knew you could count."

"Says the guy who lost his boots."

Ishida's angry face turned vibrant scarlet at the reminder of the drunken game back home where Ishida had miss counted his money, coming up short. Keigo was a vengeful guy. It wasn't a huge surprise when Ishida's hand went for his gun, it was easy to match his speed, but just as their guns cleared their holsters there was a gunshot. He jerked as did Ishida, and the room all seemed to freeze as everyone looked for who had a new breathing hole.

Ichigo found his own eyes going to his chest first. There was no pain, but he had seen men stand after being shot with no grasp of their death until they fell. His heart was pounding away, after the brief moment where it had seemed to leap from his chest in surprise. But no red stained his shirt.

He looked to Ishida, no blood appeared on him either, Ishida had just started to look puzzled when there was a small kerthunk behind him. Turning he found the man Ishida had pointed out as a murderous outlaw, blinking in dazed manner as blood seeped from the perfect circle in his forehead.

The gun tumbling from his hand to the floor was the small noise.

The chair rocked, scraping creating the sole noise as the dead man slid from his chair to the floor.

In the next moment he was trying to figure out who had shot the man, no one else seemed to have their guns out and most seemed just as stunned as he, or even more so, the color seemed to have bled from a lot of faces.

Then Kagome spoke matter of factly into the silence. "Sheriff I would like to report a sighting of the dangerous outlaw Sean O'Kelly, as he was about to shoot one of my men I was forced to shoot him. I believe there are bounties on his head in Colorado and Nevada. I expect them to be delivered to me."

Looking up he see her setting a small twenty-two on the table, the sheriff who had been chatting at the bar with one of the good time girls looked shaken. All the color gone from his swarthy complexion. For that matter most everyone in the room looked almost terrified. The few exceptions being people who knew Kagome. The barkeeps, were startled and alarmed but weren't fearful. The other men from the ranch; all looked grim, but not one of them had doubted Kagome could kill. However it seemed a revelation to the rest of the room.

Even the man who had accused Kagome of cheating, looked taken aback, but what really got to Ichigo was the unmistakable look of lust Sosuke Aizen was shooting Kagome.

Author note /Personal update: So the last three ish years have been rough, I have been struggling with some life long heath problems. Being a financially independent adult, which thanks to those same health problems I literally can't be paying my own way, not at minimum wage. (not that many can actually live on their own at minimum wage) Medicine prices here in the US of A are utter bullshit, which I think understandably has lead to some depression. Which means I haven't been writing a lot. I don't write well when stressed and honestly the last three years have been a blur.

In aug 2018 my great uncle died. I miss him and Aunt Linda who died 2015 a lot.

I had the horrible realization in oct 2018 that I have chronic pain. I thought it was normal to have a week out of every month where you are practically fisting over the counter meds. (It's not all one condition, a migraine here, something else there) To have days when trying to do a normal eight hour shift as a housekeeper or any basic but demanding physical job is agony. But then I watched a buzz feed channel video, one where they had a couple of people talk about living with chronic pain. I cried. And watched it like three times. Because I had never put it to words before. How do you talk about being in pain so much? All the time. I don't think of myself as sick. I am not weak. But my body really is. But I don't want to complain, how is that going to help?

I had a full time housekeeping job this last summer 2019. Now you need to understand I don't have the normal went to a public high school, graduated, got a part time job went to collage back history. I have worked for myself, at a number of odd jobs. Being my own boss allows me control over my time table, gives me the days I need off, off. But I don't make enough money doing that either, so job hunting, on and off, for years. So I was thrilled to get hired, (Good health insurance! A pay check every 2 weeks!) but pretty much right away I knew why they had hired me. The manager sucked, we struggled to have enough supplies all week, and most the time it was her and me, for three full floors. So (This was a rehab health center) one gym, a dinning room, offices, 6 bathrooms, practice house/bed/kitchen, public entrance hall/desk, and the down stairs break room. And that was just the main floor. I was then usually responsible for another floor: 40 single rooms/bathrooms for residents. Plus the two public bathrooms, a break room, the nurse's station and three public spaces, and all the hall walls/carpets.

I was told when I got hired 29 rooms most days, and helping as a team for all the public spaces.

That was a lie.

I had six days- maybe in like 120 where there were three housekeepers plus the manager.

Needless to say I damn near killed myself trying to do a good job, we couldn't keep help because more experienced housekeepers came, did a day maybe three before ghosting. It didn't help matters that two weeks in, just as I was finding a routine, I broke my toe. Painful, annoying, but when you are putting in 25,000-30,000 steps every work day, and you keep getting asked to put in some over time and do a 6th day- I had ten straight weeks where I was stacking painkillers to keep me on my feet.

But I was of course limping.

No one, not one single person I worked with, my manager included, noticed/ or commented.

And that first week- man I was limping, I couldn't believe no one noticed. I took to about week three, to using sports tape to help with the knee pain that came from limping around.

But about week six, some of my favorite patients, ones I had gotten to know over the last three to five weeks noticed. They had never seen me walk differently, but they noticed, and cared to ask. It was funny it was the same day too, day six of a terrible week, I had had in that same week a ten hour day doing a strip down clean on five rooms, plus the other thirty some I was responsible for. So when they asked I laughed and said yeah, but not to worry it was because I broke a toe six weeks back. They were like 'what?! You've been limping this whole time and I never noticed?!'

I was brutally honest. Told them not to feel bad, literally no one else had noticed. But at that point I was exhausted, had trained three other people only for them to quit, (Like I knew we had problems when I trained someone my forth week on the job) but it was about then I realized not only was the work load killing me, I was lonely. I tend to be introverted but if I am out and about I am curious about people, and like talking. But I didn't have a single friend on staff, most people didn't even really know my name, more of the patients knew me by name.

But then my manager pulled some shit (More then just being bad at her job, but manipulative shit. Using HR to scare the fuck out of me for making her look bad, admittedly that is my guess for why she did that then. But I don't actually know and didn't care to ask because seriously who needs that shit?) and said fuck it, I was done, no more overtime, no more 6th day I don't care if the President was coming hell no. admittedly then my boss decided to exert more control over me, saying I had to clock in and out to the minute.

(Which is bullshit I don't care that seems to be a business model and everywhere, it's fucking bullshit and tries my patience)(like if we had been fully staffed I could sorta understand, don't pad your pay check and all, but we were short staffed. me leaving down to the minute meant I was leaving something/several somethings undone every day)

But I stayed long enough to use it for the insurance for my yearly checkup, and get a 90 refill on all my meds, and then for my birthday (Never mind it was a Saturday and no one would be likely to see it until Monday I put my two weeks in) it was (in hindsight) glorious to watch my manager panic later when she realized the other girl (who worked like two weeks, and had three weeks of vacation in there) wasn't coming back and I was only there for the next eight days.

So any way I quit.

And day three of being out, I was laid low by one of the worst migraines I have had in a long time. It lasted 3 days, not normal for me at all. And then I had a lingering tension headache for the next week, then I got sick, and was down for three weeks. Plus my knees are still techy six months later.

so. if anyone is still reading, I don't have a new job because honestly I can't be a housekeeper full time again, my body won't stand for it. I want to work as a bartender, I like mixing drinks and did a class, but I have no food service history on my resume. So que being depressed.

October-December 2019 were loads of fun doing redecorating/new carpet/painting/sewing new curtains/holidays plus one of the kitties took really sick (kidney disease) but it took three days at a vets, plus another ten or so days before we stopped waiting for her to just keel over. So I did exactly like a page of writing in there.

Again if you are still reading this, the new year decided to shit on me. Mid January 2020 my thumb drive (The thumb drive I have allllllllll my stories on.) Died. I don't have much left. In the last two years, two computers had died, and even now the one I am writing on is not mine. (another thing making it hard for me to write. I have to share) so for everyone reading my other stories- I lost most of those half finished chapters. I hope (after getting another job and having a steady pay check) to be able to pay someone to try and do recovery work on it and maybe get some of that stuff back. But. I am not exaggerating when I say I have cried a lot. Like Alice in Wonderland lot.

If you know someone in El Paso county Colorado who does data recovery on thumb drives, let me know. Prices would be even better. But – yeah. Life sucks, and I hope to get half of what was on that thumb drive back, because I have some original stories on there. They still need finishing and to be polished but stuff I might actually be able to sell.

If you are still reading, thank you. You must be terribly curious about me or care a lot. But thank you. I need to be reminded that just because it's not been much fun out in the world the good people out number the bad.