Disclaimer: I don't. You know what I don't. We all know. Why am I putting this up again?
A/N: Woo, been online all day… amazing, how much that saps your energy. Yes, I need a life. In fact, I could probably be doing five zillion things to improve it right now, the least of which is my homework. Am I not sad? Reviews, please. I am tired.
Hitting The Fan
Kagome was making forcedly idle chat with Sango, but neither girl's mind was on it. Their thoughts were back with the boys, with a brooding Inuyasha and Miroku, with a Shippou-pestered Keitaro.
It wasn't supposed to be so serious. It wasn't anything bad at all, the girl thought miserably, pulling her jacket closer around her as the breeze tugged at her hair, trying to chill her. She brushed the black strands clear of her face, suddenly irritated. Why does he have to be such an idiot? He doesn't even look at me unless he thinks I'm going somewhere he doesn't want me to... like when I have to go home, or when Kouga comes around... She kicked at a tree root, her anger rising to a fine seethe. Sango was going on ahead, scouting, leaving Kagome to stew in her thoughts.
And then he sneaks off places to be with Kikyo, and I'm supposed to just smile and ignore it? Jerk! Baka! she fumed. Why do I even put up with him? I could be at home right now, not having to worry about my grades going down the toilet, with somebody who really cares about me, like Hojo…
She heaved a sigh as the life she pictured for herself surfaced. She already knew why she was here, and why she wouldn't be happy with a normal life, no matter how much she complained. It wouldn't be the same. I can't abandon the Shikon no Tama to Naraku, any more than I can leave Sango or Shippou, or even Miroku. Inuyasha... even if he is a violent, foul-mouthed jerk with nothing but rock between his ears... I can't leave him behind.
She quickly squashed the image of fuzzy dog ears that always popped up at the least convenient times. Casting hastily about for something else to mull over, her mind landed on Keitaro.
What's he going to do once his name is cleared? she wondered. Once we find the hermit the villagers said was out here, nobody'll be able to doubt his word anymore. He could travel with us; if he's as set against Naraku as the rest of us are, he'd fit right in. And he can take care of himself; he's shown that.
Except that Miroku and Inuyasha don't like him... what if it breaks up the group?
She shook her head determinedly. They'll change their minds. Once they see they've been wrong, they'll change their minds. They're not that pigheaded.
Yes, they are, a little corner of her mind contradicted her. She growled in frustration at it; why was it always right?
A spark of light caught the corner of her eye, dragged her out of her thoughts. As she realized what she was seeing, her jaw dropped slowly open.
The trees were glowing.
Not all of them, she realized dimly. Just the ones they could see, the ones that were lining their path. It was very beautiful to see the shadowed green foliage lit with that soft shine, but it was also eerie beyond belief. Like something out of a bad sword-and-sorcery movie, except that people didn't really get hurt or killed in movies. This wasn't a film set, and Kagome knew better than to assume that none of them could be hurt. There was too much evidence to the contrary.
"Miko-sama," a voice murmured in her ear. The startled yelp she gave was almost a shriek, and left painful imprints on everyone's ears. Especially Keitaro's, who'd been trying to get her attention.
"Quiet!" five voices hissed at her. Red-faced, she nodded, trying to slow her heart rate down to something below the beat of a hummingbird's wings.
"Gomen nasai, Keitaro-sama. What were you going to tell me?"
"The trees. Do you see them?"
She looked at him for a moment, trying to figure out whether he was being funny. How could anyone not see them? "They're glowing. Why are they doing it? Is something living in them?"
"I don't know. As far as I know, there's nothing unusual hidden in them. How bright are they?"
"Keitaro, what are you talking about? Don't you see them? They're as bright as torches!"
"Not to me, they aren't. All I'm getting are little flashes of light once in a while," he replied quietly.
She blinked in surprise. What's going on? Can't— Then she realized that the others hadn't said anything about lit-up trees. She remembered the Shikon shards, and the other lights and creatures that only she had been able to see. It came with being a miko; there were some things that weren't visible to others' eyes. She felt like slapping her forehead. Of all the times to forget that!
"It only lights up our path," the girl murmured, realizing. "As if somebody's trying to show us where to go."
Keitaro didn't look overly pleased with that news. "Meaning that someone knows we're coming, even though we're out in the middle of nowhere and traveling faster than most groups our size would." He fingered his strung bow, running a thumb along the smooth, carved wood. Kagome remembered how fast he had moved the first day they'd met him, how easily he'd dumped Inuyasha on his head. Hanyou though he was, Inuyasha wasn't anybody to be tossed aside lightly. Her eyes wandered to Keitaro's distant amber gaze, turned harder than steel now, and she shivered a little. The only comparison she could think of was to the mercifully infrequent times when Inuyasha's youkai blood had overwhelmed his self-control.
"They might not be hostile," she cautioned.
"But they might be," Keitaro countered. "And they have an advantage now."
Kagome was silent. There wasn't anything to say to that.
She relayed their findings to the others. Silently, they took up their usual places: Inuyasha leading, with Kagome and Miroku close behind; Sango and youkai-Kirara guarding the rear, leaving Keitaro in the middle, with Shippou perched on his shoulder. The trees, Kagome noticed, were bordering on painfully bright now. They had to be close.
Inuyasha slowed, one hand tight on Tetsusaiga's hilt. "Somebody's there," he muttered tersely. Kagome edged forward, looking into the clearing they were standing on the edge of. In the center of it, partially hidden by tall and exotic shrubs, was a small, shrine-like house. An old man in faded robes sat on a stump in front of the house with his back to them, head bowed in mild concentration. He didn't appear to notice them.
Kagome frowned. "I don't understand it," she whispered. "There's Power everywhere, but... I can't see any around him..."
"We'll have to deal with him sometime," Miroku pointed out. "The villagers told us he's the only one around for miles who can do what we want." Kagome sighed resignedly, and Inuyasha growled.
"Perhaps you should go first, houshi-sama?" Sango suggested, just a little tartly. "One man of the cloth to another?" Miroku looked as if he wanted to argue—or at least split hairs—but he just closed his mouth thinly and stepped into the clearing.
"Hello, houshi-sama?" he called. "My companions and I have traveled a long way to greet you. May we speak for a moment?"
The old man didn't move, speak, or acknowledge the monk in any way.
Miroku tried again, more loudly. "We would ask a favor of you. Will you hear us?"
Still no response. Kagome studied the man dubiously; he appeared to be breathing. Was there something wrong with him?
Inuyasha was less diplomatic. Marching up to the old man, he nudged him with his foot. "Oy. Jiji." Before Kagome could hiss at the hanyou to get back right now, the old man slipped sideways and fell off the stump with a thud. Everyone winced, but the man just let out the most enormous snore Kagome had ever heard and still didn't move.
"Feh." Inuyasha wrinkled his nose. "I thought I smelled something." He glanced back at Miroku, golden eyes amused. "Your mystic Buddhist is drunk, Miroku."
"What are you doing?"
Inuyasha practically leaped out of his skin at the voice behind him. So did everyone else; Kagome hadn't seen anybody come up. She didn't have to 'sit' Inuyasha for overreacting, though; he wasn't attacking, instead looking bemusedly at the knee-high child who was staring fixedly up at him.
"What are you doing?" the child repeated. Kagome frowned, realizing she couldn't tell whether it was a boy or girl. The hair length and clothing were no indicator, the body was too young to have developed either way, and the features were delicate, but not overtly feminine. And there was no… sense… of any sort of gender. Even with babies, she could usually tell boys from girls, but not this child.
"Uhh…" Inuyasha was having as much trouble with this scenario as she was. "We're… looking for a priest?"
"You have one." The child indicated Miroku.
"Not much of one," the hanyou muttered. Miroku pretended not to have heard and picked up the conversation.
"We've heard of the honored houshi's accomplishments, and wished to beg a favor."
The child cocked his—her?—head. "He won't be much help right now. He's asleep. He's usually asleep. Mostly this one is who is sought." She—he?—looked up at Kagome consideringly. The girl realized that those impossibly old eyes were of two different colors; one a light grey just short of true white, the other a brown so deep as to be almost black. "Can this one help you? The others who come look for houshi-dono, but this one is who they find."
Sango started to reply. "Little one, I think—" but Kagome shook her head, glancing back at her friend. No matter what the body looked like, this was no child. The old monk was not the one with the power; the little one was.
"We need someone who can tell truth from lies, little one," she told the ancient-eyed child.
He—she? This was getting frustrating—nodded. "For the Royal-born. He doesn't tell you everything about himself."
Kagome shot a startled glance at Keitaro. Royal-born! The blond man shrugged helplessly. "Yes, for him," the girl said slowly. "We need to know what his intentions are." The child walked fearlessly toward Keitaro, who knelt down to her—his!—eye level. They said nothing, but Kagome had the eerie sensation that they were speaking to each other. Finally, the child spoke.
"You ran from your birth-place to save your self, but now you have no self." That light, indeterminate voice was soft, but terrifyingly certain. "You have only half. Did you not learn that everything must balance?"
"I have searched," Keitaro replied evenly. "It's a fool's errand. I've balanced as much of myself as possible. Now I can balance other things."
The child shook his/her head. "This one says it isn't useless. It's harder to balance oneself than it is to balance other things, but not impossible." She/he looked toward Inuyasha. "That one is more trained than you, Royal-born. You haven't lived with duality your entire life, even though you'd like to think it."
Keitaro's eyes narrowed unhappily, and he seemed about to protest, but the child was no longer paying attention to him. That black-and-white gaze was staring into the forest, exactly the opposite of where they'd come from.
"An ambush," he/she said conversationally. "You won't recognize the Hunter, Royal-born, but you'll know her." She/he looked at Kagome. "He speaks the truth. You need not fear him as long as he's complete."
"A seer," a low, unfamiliar female voice said from the direction the child had been staring a moment before. She sounded amused. "You project a convincing aura, little one."
"Little brother," a silky, all-too-familiar male voice murmured from the same direction. "What a complete lack of surprise."
"Sesshoumaru," Inuyasha snarled, his claws lengthening. "Show yourself, you bastard."
But the figure that slipped sinuously from within the forest shadows was quite clearly not Sesshoumaru. Unless the youkai lord had transformed himself into five feet and four inches of slender, lithely muscled, red-haired, cool-eyed female, and squeezed himself into a black silk-and-armor costume that left absolutely nothing to the imagination. Kagome's eyes instinctively darted to Inuyasha, and narrowed immediately; the hanyou looked completely gobsmacked. So did Miroku. Keitaro was also stunned, but there was confusion mixed into his look. The puzzlement increased when the woman's impassive blue-green gaze slid to him, and lingered.
The kid talked about… a hunter? Kagome thought, bewildered. She must be it… but what the heck was that other stuff about?
At least we know we can trust him now. Her gaze flicked toward Sesshoumaru, who had emerged from the forest to stand beside the red-haired woman—who, like Keitaro, was not youkai, but still not normal. I think we're gonna need him, too.
Inuyasha's paralysis had broken at the sight of his brother. "Do you even need to make demands, or should we just get straight to the part where I kill you?" he snarled, cracking his knuckles.
"Your hubris, although somewhat amusing, is endlessly insufferable," Sesshoumaru replied calmly. "By all means, make your usual barbaric flourishes before we begin."
"My flourishes! Who can't take a piss without having somebody kiss his ass and say how wonderful he is?"
"I see what you mean," the redhead murmured to Sesshoumaru. "He's interesting." The youkai lord frowned slightly at her, and Inuyasha glared. Kagome's eyes narrowed dangerously; she didn't like the speculative look that girl was aiming at the hanyou. Ignoring Kagome and both brothers, the woman stepped forward.
"I suggest you lay Tetsusaiga down, Inuyasha, before someone gets hurt."
"Heh." Inuyasha smirked. "If you don't like pain, say so and get out of my way. I don't go easy on women. Sesshoumaru, are you letting a girl fight your battles for you?"
He was completely oblivious to the outraged glares he was getting from his own female companions. Kagome counted to ten. Twice. The red-haired girl noticed, and smiled slightly. For a moment, Kagome almost thought she could have liked this girl. If there hadn't been the tiny detail that she was working for Inuyasha's would-be murderer in the way.
"Last warning, Inuyasha."
"Feh!" Inuyasha charged toward her, unsheathing Tetsusaiga as he went. "No way in hell!"
He missed his target as she dodged, and the katana struck the ground with a roar like a thunderclap. The redhead vaulted over his head and landed squarely in the middle of the group. Kagome's eyes widened at the woman's speed, but she had no chance to ready her bow before something seized her by the throat and began to squeeze. She choked and scrabbled at whatever was holding her—but her fingers met only air.
"I warned you," the woman told Inuyasha matter-of-factly. She wasn't touching anyone, was still standing in the center—but around her, everyone except Inuyasha, Sesshoumaru, and the clairvoyant child was gagging and struggling with an invisible strangling force. The hanyou's face was horror-stricken, then furious.
"Cowardly bitch! Let them go!"
"In a heartbeat," she replied serenely. "Your choice. Tetsusaiga or your friends?"
Kagome tried to shake her head, tried to tell Inuyasha that the only way out was to fight, but the invisible grip twisted tighter, and stars were beginning to blind her as she gasped for air. She couldn't put anything stronger than a pleading look into her gaze as Inuyasha's eyes locked desperately with hers.
"All three," Sesshoumaru said suddenly. The red-haired woman's head whipped toward the youkai lord.
"Are you prepared to pay?" she challenged.
"Within my power," he replied calmly.
She sneered. "Within your full power. You're not going to sucker me."
He hesitated, then confirmed, "Within my full power."
She nodded. "Done, inu—" Her voice cut off with a cry of annoyance as Inuyasha charged her, Tetsusaiga raised high. The woman gestured with both arms and a ball of fire exploded almost literally on top of the hanyou, blasting him backward across the clearing to plow into and knock down several trees. In the next instant, Kagome felt the invisible thing holding her dissolve, and she collapsed to the ground, coughing hoarsely. When she could, she looked up to find Keitaro and the redhead locked in combat; the girl had pulled a katana from somewhere Kagome could only guess at and was furiously dueling the blond man with one hand. The other hand was pulling something from a nearly-invisible sheath at the small of her back—a dagger.
"Her other hand! Keitaro!" Kagome shouted, yanking an arrow from her quiver and fumbling with her bow. If she could get a good shot—
"I would not, girl," Sesshoumaru called, but Kagome barely had time to look up in panic before something whistled over her head and forced the youkai lord to dodge sideways, away from her; Sango had thrown Hiraikotsu with accuracy that would have been deadly to almost anything else but the inu-youkai. Kagome looked back toward Keitaro's duel just in time to see his single remaining blade go flying from his hand. With an inarticulate shout, she raised her bow and shot.
The red-haired girl whirled at the last second, and the arrow hit her squarely in the chest—no, it didn't. She blocked it with… something… at the last minute, but the bolt flared with blinding light and knocked her backward several feet. In the time it took for her to recover, Keitaro had punched her in the gut and seized her by the back of the neck. Kagome couldn't see what he'd done, but the other girl went limp as a wet rag in the time it took to blink.
"You want Tetsusaiga, Sesshoumaru!" Inuyasha roared from the edge of the clearing. "Come and get it! Kaze no Kizu!"
Sesshoumaru dodged the Cutting Wind as easily as he'd dodged Hiraikotsu. "Enjoy it while you're able, little brother," he told Inuyasha quite calmly. "It won't be long. That sword belongs to me."
"I'm the one who's holding it, you bastard!" the hanyou yelled back, but his half-brother had already disappeared into the forest. It was rather hard, Kagome reflected dazedly as she got shakily to her feet, to argue with someone who kept disappearing so suddenly all the time. You could never tell whether they'd heard that last insult you threw at them.
"Kagome," Keitaro called, "I need that rope in your pack."
Confused, Kagome looked at the blond youth, then realized that he was kneeling warily over the unconscious redhead, and understood.
"Will it hold her?" Sango asked as the other girl dug through her backpack. "She can use fire magic…"
"I can solve that," Miroku volunteered. The taijiya nodded, but watched the houshi with narrowed eyes as he squatted next to the fallen warrior. Kagome had a pretty good idea what her friend was watching for as she passed the rope to Keitaro. Their suspicions proved unnecessary, however; Miroku merely produced two small spell-scrolls from one of his multiple hidden pockets and secured them over both the unconscious girl's arms. Kagome imagined that she could see his uninjured hand twitch eagerly, but if it had the houshi mastered the impulse.
"Hey, I can help!" Shippou exclaimed. Quickly, he brought out a third spell-scroll and slapped it across one of her feet. "She won't be able to walk now… not without tripping." Satisfied, Keitaro proceeded to bind the girl securely around the hands and waist.
"Feh." Inuyasha watched them derisively. "It'll take her some time to get out of that, but d'you want to waste the rope?"
"We're taking her with us," Miroku responded calmly.
"Nani?" The hanyou clearly couldn't believe his fuzzy ears. "You want to drag around a lying bitch who can't even attack properly? What've you been drinking, bouzu?"
"She can't attack us if we're watching her all the time," Sango told him reasonably.
"And she's tied up and can't do magic," Shippou added.
"That's wonderful," Inuyasha growled with biting sarcasm, "but it still doesn't tell me why we'd want to drag her around in the first place!"
"She might have information about your brother," Kagome suggested. Likely, since she'd apparently been working for him. "What he wanted from the kid, maybe?" Unfortunately, there was no way to tell whether she'd rat on him. They'd have to find out.
"Half-brother," Inuyasha corrected, but he looked like he was at least considering the idea. Finally he shrugged. "Whatever."
If I had a hundred yen for every time he said that… she sighed, regretting that she'd ever taught him that word as they filed slowly back down the forest path, falling into their natural places. A newly accepted… sort of… Keitaro carried their captive; Sango had smacked Miroku when he'd volunteered.
Behind them, from the shelter of the little hut's doorway, a pair of black-and-white eyes watched them go. The child smiled.
"It's begun, Royal-born… the Hunter's found you."