Chapter 18: Visits of Change


I won't do what you told me. I won't do what you said, no. I'm not gonna stop feeling. I'm not gonna forget it.


Male Wolf Demon Lessons by Kagome Higurashi.

Growl.

Cross your arms.

Laugh at the silly human.

Kagome set her eyes to the ceiling, her glare demanding the stones to drop some wisdom on her head. That, or to knock sense into the testosterone-charged brains in the room. The wolf men sneered at Kagome with all their sharp incisors gleaming. They stood with rigid backs and folded arms locked, the posture of warriors fending off an invader.

And Kagome was that irksome intruder.

Kagome turned her eyes down to face the men again, realizing the ceiling wasn't dropping any rocks or wisdom anytime soon.

"Give me one good reason," she said, fingers tapping against her knee. "why you won't keep this hall from becoming a stink pit."

Complaints flew out all at once, the biting speech flooding the hall.

"It ain't our nature."

"We're men, not dainty females."

"Not sure what you humans do, but…"

"I ain't cleaning no cave!"

So they gave their reasons, and Kagome showed how she felt about these reasons in one draw of her breath, released on a winded note. She topped it off with an eye roll.

The men growled, crossed their arms, barked out laughs. All three steps listed in the male demon wolf lessons she was now drafting in her head. It would make a useful guide for other humans in her situation. Now to find a publishing house in feudal Japan.

Shiyla, hunkered beside Kagome on the rock bench, slanted her gaze from the males and back to her human friend.

"Give up," Shiyla said.

"No."

A chuckle whistled between Shiyla's teeth.

"Well, your methods are quite circular, aren't they?"

Kagome almost sighed, ready to deny it, but caught the act that was proving Shiyla right.

Frustrated Human Lessons by Kagome Higurashi.

Sigh.

Roll eyes.

Ask stones for wisdom or to knock sense in demon wolf men.

Kagome slumped in her seat. Shiyla spoke the truth, Kagome was slamming rock against rock. Each move she made to get through to the men only tightened their defenses, slamming her out even more. But she couldn't give up now. She might be groping in the dark, yes, but…

Throngs of women encircled Kagome, perched on floors and various rock seating. Once Kagome had made her "intrusion" and the men had flung up their walls, the females who were among them had sassed away with tails swinging, chins up as they headed over to the female side.

Now, their fists sunk into their cheeks as they stared blank-eyed at their men, then glanced at Kagome with something alit in their gazes.

Kagome had begun to lower her weapons, and considered slipping away from the argument, but she quickly rearmed herself. She'd seen that look on their faces and couldn't turn away now.

Kagome knew that look well, for she'd spotted it in the river's mirror many times, staring at her own reflection. It showed a mind deep in bleak expectations, with hope only a shallow surface.

True, the mens' glares said it all; they thought the human silly for even trying. She nodded lightly to herself, for she had to agree. But it was silliness that had kept her alive over the years, silliness that saved her hide on too many occasions.

Silly or no, Kagome wasn't a quitter.

She hadn't quit on her search for the jewel shards. Those bits of mauve crystal bursting and shooting in all directions of Japan and not once had she tossed up her hands and said, "It's impossible." A will and a way; that was the motto Kagome clutched to her chest. You push enough and you're sure to get a nudge… but, of course you can't revive something that isn't breathing. Unless you're Sesshomaru, that is, wielding a life-revitalizing sword. But not even Tenseiga can bring something to life that was never alive.

A dead horse is a dead horse. You can drag the thing around for a while, sure, but soon the stink will remind you that, in fact, it isn't alive.

That'd been her love for Inuyasha. What she had held for him was river-fresh, sparkling and charged with a passion. But for all the time she'd known him, Inuyasha had been a pit of stagnant water, his love for the incarnation contained to muddy walls, murky, and unable to flow. Sure, she tried to merge their water. She'd overflowed with patience, care, hoping she could make Inuyasha's love for her healthy and blue.

One day he'd come through. She knew it, she knew it, she knew it.

But she was wrong.

Kagome learned too late that Inuyasha wasn't a mud pit. He was a stream and the water ran backwards. The more it flowed, the more it joined another's river.

Back to the past, and back to Kikyo.

And where'd that leave Kagome? Left holding hands alone. Inuyasha's love for her simply a moaning horse in a mud pile.

So Kagome knew well that one couldn't shake a dead horse awake. But the demon wolves before her were anything but dead. Heck, they weren't even dozing. Their dark, incensed eyes flickered with life, resistance. But even that resistance was good, because it meant they felt something.

"They're alive," Kagome whispered to herself.

Inuyasha had felt something too, just not enough.

I guess dogs don't feel like wolves can feel.

Passionate. No matter how bitterly these wolves acted now, she knew their love for the pack was great, and that they especially cared for their women. Over the last couple days, she'd seen it in action. How a voice lost its rough edge when the male turned to speak to a female. How they gentled in their presence, but also rose up too, shoulders high to impress and bodies bordering as to protect their women at all times. She saw how the females responded to their attentions too. Sometimes with a flick of the hair but always playfully, with little smiles or big ones.

The women were strong, but seemed to appreciate the men that were so fiercely ready to protect them. Kagome blushed, for she now knew what that felt like.

Kouga was the same way with her. He always had been. Where Inuyasha failed, Kouga was there, shielding, guarding, and carrying her away to safety.

She thought of one of their battles against the Band of Seven; Ginkotsu had come charging at her and long before Inuyasha could bring his legs over, Kouga darted through the air, scooped Kagome in his arms, and skipped out of the way before the dust could settle at their feet.

Kagome had stared at him, fist over her lips and blinking at his speed, but also the heat in his gaze.

"Are you all right?" he'd asked. She still recalled his breathless tone, his gaze flickering across her body in search of any wounds. A shiver had cut through her, and she'd said "I'm okay," in an even tone. Nerves, she blamed her shiver on, for she'd just grazed hands with death and all.

It was always something else.

When Kouga comes up from behind you in a whirlwind, stopping inches at your back and saying "Hey," in that deep, sliding rumble, and warmth tickles every spot of you exposed to his closeness…it's much simpler to think it's just the sun instead of considering the options.

Such as, maybe I like him.

It'd always been easy to plant an excuse for the thrills Kouga shot through her, the high temperature that sheathed her body at his intensity.

Much easier than to face the fact that she did, actually like him.

What a fool, Kagome realized.

All this time spent with Kouga at the cave uncovered old feelings, not new ones. Kouga had always made her breath tremor, made her skin spot with heat.

She'd been too busy dragging along her dead horse dreams to turn toward the spring that'd been welling underground, is all.

But now the horse was at rest and she was unearthed and awake.

Now to wake up these sleepy wolf men.

The argument all started with the smell.

Kagome had padded into the den's main hall from Kouga's quarters, her stomach rumbling from hunger. Had she even eaten a thing last night? The last taste on her mouth was Kouga's full, thorough kisses, and though sparks filled in her belly thinking about that, it fulfilled a whole different hunger. Now human needs barged in, demanding Kagome stop neglecting food and eat properly for once.

So when Ginta and Hakkaku freed her from the room, she'd been ready to answer her grumpy stomach's call. The boys informed her that Kouga had gone only minutes before and she thought good. He was always her main distraction at meals.

Her body still humming from last night's touches and kisses, one coy look from Kouga's blue eyes and she'd want to drag him into a dark hall and forget those nagging human needs.

But then that stench smacked her in the face, writhing over the main hall like a living thing: gutty, greasy, gross.

Talk about the rooster's wakeup call.

Grizzly bones abandoned in piles, clay bowls with mushy food spilling over on the floors. There were woman and young girls, two Kagome recognized as the blonde and brunette Len and Myri who delivered her wardrobe the other day, were picking at the bones and discarded remains, and it was a never-ending task. Like clockwork another male would fling a bone, or spit flesh from his teeth that stuck to a wall. Several women ground their jaws, more than a couple grumbling at the offending men. The men just laughed at them and carried on flicking away more remains.

The ladies shrugged and carried on, sharing tired looks as they tossed the trash they had collected onto a furred blanket dedicated to trash. Kagome wasn't very hungry anymore.

Regardless, she stepped into the hall. Morning colored the cave in innocent morning light, though the smell in the hall was nothing pure. She shielded her nose with a hand, forcing out a smile to the wolf females that nodded her way in hello. Spotting Shiyla, she'd plopped down beside her. Kagome released a breath then grimaced on the inhale, slapping hands over her nose again.

Shiyla laughed before tossing Kagome a large green apple.

"What? Not used to the smell of putrid meat in the morning?"

"Not at all," Kagome said from her finger mask. She lifted her thumb to bite into her apple.

Shiyla shrugged a shoulder toward where the cave entrance gaped.

"After the wolves take their nightly run, this whole main room is sealed. The rock is tight enough that the air becomes tepid in these quarters. And with the way the men toss down their food, the stink cooks. We try clearing it all up but…" Shiyla rolled her eyes toward a group of men, chomping on thick meat legs then flicking the grizzle at each other's faces.

"But that," Kagome said.

A light haired woman, sitting nearby, had looked over then. Kagome bit into the apple's sharp sour flesh, uncomfortable with the stare. Did the woman dislike Kagome, commenting on their lives? She knew a lot of the ladies liked her now but…

Kagome had begun to retreat into herself when the women gave a sharp nod, her lips twitching into a smile.

"Shiyla is right. It's hard to catch everything in here when we clean. Especially when meat gets caught between the stones."

"And the grease," another woman sighed with a toss of her head. She pulled back her sleeve, revealing toned arms on golden skin. "I think the only reason I have biceps is from scrubbing the stones so hard."

Other women chimed in, and the chatter had rose from the women's side with playful jabs and exchanges about the men. Kagome had felt warm when a woman told her a story, smiling when she sympathized. They weren't shutting her out or flipping their backs. If these ladies thought she was good enough, even as a human, maybe staying here would be… Kagome nipped the thought before allowing it to flourish.

Stop.

Four days. Three more nights at Kouga's den and she'd take off by the fourth morning. There was no way around it, no matter how well she'd get along with the women. No matter how close she was getting to Kouga.

It stung her chest to think about those blue eyes darkening on hers, touching her face one last time with goodbye in his last kiss.

Goodbye.

She needed to tell him the truth soon. Not only that she wouldn't stay, but when she left there'd be no return. Through the rabbit hole and never back, in a world where even his swift legs couldn't reach her fast enough; the future.

She knew the closer they grew, the more painful the rip would be when time tore them apart. But still, who deprives herself of a dream just because it isn't real? Fated to fade, but worth the time one has to enjoy it.

Kouga was that dream right now. And he was worth it.

Sometime within the lady's storytelling, the men's ears had twitched, their heads turning to attention. Though some jested and shrugged off the women's' tale, many faces went stony.

"Hey, hey, ladies," one man said. A sneer contorted his features as he glared at a small, blonde woman who'd just told her tale. "You give us boys a rotten look. What's Kouga's woman to think?"

The small blonde's gaze flickered to her lap, as well as many other gazes of the women. A frown deepened on Kagome's lips. So he was making it into a Kouga thing, trying to chastise the ladies for speaking up.

Not okay.

So she'd cleared her throat, staring right at the male.

"Kagome," she said, placing punch in her name, "Doesn't need to hear these stories in order to form a rotten look for 'you boys'. She has eyes and a nose."

The women chuckled and Ginta and Hakkaku were the only men to join in, instantly shut up by the hisses from the other men. They'd shrunk up after that.

Those had been the words to spark this battle. Wolf male against wolf female and one human. Or, in Kagome's logic, the lazy dopes against common sense.

With one last sigh for good measure, Kagome rose from the bench. A group of gray and brown wolves, lounging in a corner, lifted their chins as Kagome got up, their eyes gleaming. Kagome made a show to lay her apple core neatly onto the bench behind her calves, catching the eye of a couple wolf females. Lips twitched, curiosity in their eyes, the shallow water of hope shifting, stirring.

She couldn't let that hope drain away.

"I'm going to try again," Kagome said, mouthing to Shiyla. They'd gotten used to communicating with silent lips, useful in a pack full of bionic hearing.

The wolf female extended her legs out in front of her, crossing arms behind her head.

"Wake me when you get tired of trying," she uttered soundlessly, fanning the yawn at her mouth. "For I'm already there."

Kagome's lips quirked, but she let the smirk disappear as she faced the men. Clasping hands behind her back, she approached in wide steps. The men's ears twitched at her approach, skepticism etching their jaws.

Kagome imagined how she must look to them. Black hair finger-styled, twisting across her fur-lined shoulders. The sand-colored fur skirt falling diagonally across her knees.

Doubt wavered in her stomach, and her eyes skidded back to the group of women behind her. How could she represent these women? She was a human in wolf's clothing. Did that make her a pretender?

She tried to read their faces, the hope-mixed looks, but couldn't tell if it meant nay or aye. Through her searching, her eyes caught Rosella's green ones.

The little wolf girl who'd drawn Kagome with a tail, shrugging at the difference between human and demon. The girl who called her sister.

Rosella lifted a thumb at Kagome, popping an eye shut in a wink. Cora, bundled beside her daughter among the group of others, smiled as if to say "go for it."

Kagome gave a half-hearted wave, briefly shutting her eyes and pulling in breath.

I may be human, but I'm still a woman.

And maybe, maybe, that was enough.

Kagome cut a path towards the men, feeling their eyes sliding up and down on her every movement.

"I'm going to repeat your points," she said, raising a finger. "Then you tell me if you agree, or not."

The men murmured, discussing her words in hushed breaths.

"Of course we'll agree," one wolf male had spoken up, a jagged scar across his cheek. "We said it, didn't we?"

Men laughed, agreeing with nods, grunts, and tails flipping in the air.

Kagome ignored the sting of their chuckles to recall what the men had said when she asked why they wouldn't stop tossing their bone and grizzle around.

It ain't our nature.

We're men, not dainty females.

Not sure what you humans do.

I ain't cleaning no cave!

Mulling those points, she nodded to herself, mentally tearing and riffling through the thin flesh of their arguments. Once she figured it out, she slapped her hands together.

"It's not your nature, you've said. From what you've left me with, then it must be your nature to litter your own territory."

All the laughter fell away, tails flat to the stony floor. Kagome continued.

"I could be wrong but… Is that the male wolf's way too?"

A chorus of rough "No's!" and protests filled the air but she spoke over them, her brow hard-set on her face.

"You're men, not dainty females. Well, I don't see any dainty females in the room." Kagome tipped her head toward the crowd of women. Many chuckled into their hands. "They do their work, just like you do. Plus they can defend themselves, just as you do. But if not littering your own territory makes you dainty, I suppose tossing trash on it all the time makes you a real man."

From the male side there was a multitude of crossed arms and red cheeks. Heads were turning away, wolves coughing into their fists. Optimism twitched inside of her but she pushed it down. She still had some points to make.

"As for what humans do, I can tell you what this human does. In my home, if my grandpa flung down his miso just because he was bored with it, my mother would think he was sick. Gosh, imagine getting that smell out of the tablecloth." Kagome cleared her throat at the confused looks, forgetting that tablecloths weren't topping the stones in this wolf cave yet. "Anyhow, it'd stink. And you all have strong noses—"

"The smells don't bother me none!" The wolf male with the scar on his cheek said, his fist rolling in the air. He looked around at his fellow men, and a few agreed but most just had their eyes to their feet, their hands dropped between their legs. The man grunted, his gaze casting away.

Kagome's tickle was becoming a full itch. One last point. One last point and maybe she could really do this. But… this was the one she was stuck on. That last shout was the simplest, a mere refusal to clean after themselves, and it stumped her. For all her facts, Kagome didn't know all the wolf dynamics yet.

Was cleaning in some way diminishing their masculine image?

Would she overstep her place by disagreeing with that?

Kagome's throat thickened with panic. A row of male faces watched her, waiting for her to give the final point. She'd pulled them this far, but was this the end of the river? Her pulse beat in a shallow drum.

Then movement shifted from behind her. She glanced back, watching Shiyla lift from the bench.

"And cleaning," Shiyla said, stopping beside Kagome. "Who said anything about cleaning?"

"It's about not making a huge mess in the first place," another female said, pulling from her friends to step forward.

"We are your women," a middle-aged woman said, fingers clasped. Her teal eyes were wide and searching, seeming to pick out a specific male from the crowd. "We nurture your children—"

"Fill your beds," another woman said, blushing.

"Rub down your wounds," Cora added, moving forward to step to Kagome's other side. Kagome's lips twitched, recalling how she'd healed Rosella of the poison, rubbing it out of her. Also important, bringing back the leaves and other herbs to heal some of the ailments going around in the cave.

"The extra work you give us merely shows how 'dainty' is the last word you can call us," Shiyla said, shaking the knee of the nearest male demon. His buds laughed at him, but they all hushed up as Kagome cleared her throat.

Kagome rolled her shoulders, enveloped in warmth and confidence. She was back on track again, one with these women.

"Could a dainty woman stomach cleaning that?"

She pointed toward a grizzle covered rock, grease-smeared and with bugs inching across it.

The men were for once, silent, and the woman exchanged glances. Had they done it? Had they taught old wolves new tricks?

"Okay, okay, Lady Alpha," said the male with scarred cheek. Uh-oh. Of course this guy wouldn't be convinced. Kagome was caught off guard by the title he used, and forced herself not to shrink at his mocking smile. "So maybe we're not like you women. Maybe we don't set down our fruits and berries in a neat little pile when we're done. So what do you suggest we do?"

Kagome smiled. This was a human question, one she could answer.

"Trash cans, of course."

In minutes, large stone bins lined the side of the room. Kagome had explained what they did and immediately some ladies rose, saying they had just what she meant in their private quarters.

"Now this one is for the bones," Kagome was saying. Using a sharp-ended stick, she engraved a pile of bones into the stone bin. A crowd of males trailed after her, murmuring and rubbing their chins. "You use the bones for armor and weapons, right? Well you no longer have to pick through the floors when you put it all in one place."

"And whatever we can't keep, throw in this one," Shiyla said. She bent down to the other bin and sketched in a drawing, a series of swirls with a tendril of smoke on top. Kagome grimaced, then laughed. She had definitely drawn a pile of poop. The young boys surrounding Shiyla pointed at the drawing, shoving each other.

"Hey Rodu," said a spiky haired one to his friend. He grinned wide as he skipped a few feet away, ripping the fatty remains from one of the forsaken meals. "I get three points if I make this into the dung bin."

The boy named Rodu lowered his eyebrows, dashing ahead to lift a large animal skull above his shoulders.

"I'll beat your three points with five when I get this mountain beast head into the bone pit."

"Well, I get your five points if you break it."

"You've gotta bet!"

Everyone watched the young wolf kids making their tries for the bin, other boys joining in to call out point values. The ladies laughed, and the men looked on with excitement heightening in their gazes, their postures reading to break free from the group they'd formed behind Kagome.

"Excuse me Lady Alpha," a wolf male called from the back of the group. "If you don't mind, we're gonna try the new bone pits and dung bin you'll set up."

"Uh, yes," Kagome said, moving over. "Of course."

There were shouts as the men broke away at her words. Kagome ducked as a skull soared over her head and landed in a bin.

"My apologies, Lady Alpha," called a male.

"Oh. No. I'll just…"

Kagome ducked off to the side of the cave. The men were already doing what they did best. jostling, and challenging each other. Except this time the process cleared the floors of their grime and bones. The women looked on too, some joining in and setting their own challenges, but mostly they stood about and talked, sending grins in Kagome's direction, or approaching her with quiet thanks. Their shallow hopes were gone, for they no longer needed hope. They'd got what they wanted. Kagome gave each woman a nod, warmth enveloping her.

Shiyla approached Kagome last, hands at her hips as she stood next to the human.

"You still tired?" Kagome asked, giving the wolf female a teasing look.

"Not at all, Lady Alpha," she said.

Kagome's cheeks pinkened.

"I don't know how they came up with that." The first time it'd been sarcastic, but it'd seemed to catch on, not with mockery, but respect?

"Of course you know," Shiyla said, nudging her friend. "You proved your point, won the unspoken challenge. And now," Shiyla waved a hand toward the room, man and woman, boy and girl. "You've got them."

Kagome's gaze dropped to her bare toes, squeezing at the rock beneath her feet. Though it was more than flattering, warming even, she didn't know how much she could savor this new respect. It was her goal when coming to the cave; never to be a burden. Shiyla had helped her with that, telling her she needed to give in order to have her place. So she'd provided remedies that'd last them long after she left, plus even healed one of their own. But now, she'd done even more. Solved one of the long-standing issues in the cave.

It was definitely an alpha thing to do. She couldn't help but think of Kouga and melt at the thought of his eyes looking at hers with pride. It wasn't hard to picture, for she had so many references to his sweetness. How he might draw her near his body, mouthing in her ear how much she deserved to be his woman, how she'd make a good consort to the wolf prince.

And in that moment, she couldn't see beyond those four days and three nights. She couldn't see herself hopping down the well and saying goodbye to him. All she saw was herself letting the days pass away among these wolves who accepted her, melting under the fire blue stare of the wolf prince. Her Prince.

The one who saved her when Inuyasha couldn't. Again and again.

Still was.

Kagome hardly registered as Shiyla sniffed the air heavily, assuming she was taking in the fresher smell of the cave as the men unintentionally cleared it. Kagome appraised the room.

"It'll smell even better if we gathered flowers. We'd have to pick them before the winter comes, though," she said.

"Likely won't be time for flower-picking," Shiyla said. She chinned toward the cave entrance. "Kouga brought guests."

Other wolves had stopped what they were doing to look too, sniffing the air and murmuring. A heavy flow of cool air swept into the cave, and Kagome shivered, her legs chilled though the rest of her warm from her furred clothing. She overheard wolves talking about the howling call from their northern brothers that morning, calling to meet with Kouga, and wondering what it meant.

Kagome thought of what she knew about northern wolves. Ah, yes. She'd met with them before. Had helped them sometime within her adventures. Naraku had attacked their mountains. What else did she know about them? She'd met an elder wolf there, plus someone else.

Kagome's eyes widened. Oh. The Northern Wolves. Ayame's pack.

There was a heavy clod of feet and figures blocked the cave entrance, the sunshine piercing between bodies. Kagome's heart skipped to see Kouga ahead of them all, his shoulders strong and high and something lifted against his chest. Her lips twitched, the starts of a smile, but the smile fell flat when she finally noticed what he was carrying. There was a glimpse of dark red. A small, pale face. Ayame, the ex-fiancée, was being held in Kouga's arms.


The Northern Tribe was more traditional than Kouga feared. Or at least, this woman was.

He could've been a bad leader. Taken their thanks with a nod then slipped back into the mountains, sending them on their day's journey home. But Kouga was not a bad leader, and the idea of having his name spoken bitterly among the wolf tribes settled uneasily in his stomach.

Oy, we travelled all that way to properly thank Kouga for avenging our comrades, yet he snuffs us with a nod and a wave!

If Kouga had a stronger standing to turn them away, he wouldn't have hesitated. Those wolves could grumble all they like; as long as his means were justified to him, there'd be no tossing in his sleep over it. But justice lay stacked against him, and his internal reasons for turning the northerners away too feeble to pursue.

For one, that winter wind was a devious thing. Any wolf could smell its strength, the bitter edge it already had over the land. He couldn't tell how long it'd go, but certainly it'd tumble down its chill and snow by the evening. It was already rising upon the East. Even if Kouga had dismissed the Northerners right when he'd played with thoughts of sending them off, that wind would catch their feet. Of course they had fur, their sharp eyes, but any wise leader would find shelter over facing strong weather.

So, being generous and not at all a bad leader, Kouga invited the Northern tribe to stay until the strong winds and snow had their chance to rage. It could be all day, it could be all night.

"It'd be an extended celebration," he'd said through a listless smile. His gaze averted on the fruit trees he'd spent the morning before with Kagome. It was when they'd fed each other, and finally, kissed. A kiss that lead to many more kisses, and some very loose hands.

As Kouga concentrated on thoughts of her, he allowed the distance to settle on his face. If anyone noticed, they didn't comment. The crimson haired leader, Iki, had smiled wide, taking a quick bow into the dirt. The rest of the wolves followed with their own thanks and grins, shoulders bumping appreciatively against Kouga's as they passed him to merge with their eastern brothers.

Kouga grunted in acknowledgement, faintly nudging them back, but his attentions were too far and too close. When Ayame moved forward to thank him as well, lowered to her knees and bowing the head, Kouga narrowed his eyes. She was the one reason that he didn't want to bring this pack home with him.

Even after Ayame pulled out of her lowering, Kouga recalled her closeness like the pricks of rose thorns against his skin. They hadn't spoken much, not then and not when he'd brought Shinji to be her new mate. Throughout the ceremony and after, she had turned her nose whenever Kouga came by, as if a rotting smell suddenly filled the air.

Ayame no longer seemed intent on ignoring him. Pulling back to Shinji's side, she'd continue to stare, gaze gliding over Kouga in the slow and languid manner of snakes flicking out their tongues. She spoke no words, but her lips were laughter. Silent, grating laughter.

Kouga had tensed, feeling a mixture of uncertainty.

He hadn't wanted to bring his former betrothed to the cave, not when he had his sights on the one woman he'd actually chosen with a clear head. His proposal to Ayame had been made loosely, a gem to give a trembling girl hope. A bit of arrogance too; of course any female's spirits would be raised with the idea of marrying him.

Plus her slinking gazes didn't make him feel too comfortable with the idea of her being there either. But it wasn't enough to send away these Northerners. Not with the winter bite on its way.

So he'd turned to give her his back, without words showing his distain. As he passed the demons and started off across the fields, others caught on and settled into step behind him.

Burku, his bulky blond friend, caught up. He settled to his side, cutting back his gaze.

"Are you sure this…?" he'd started.

"A personal problem," Kouga finished. And there'd be no personal problems over a fellow pack.

Now, Kouga inwardly cursed for being noble back in the field. A leader had a right to some self-focused decisions. He could have made an exception to let this personal concern of his override public image. Now that he was stepping through the cave, a woman he didn't want in arms, and the one he did want, watching.

His grip was certainly loose as could be without dropping Ayame, but hers just wasn't. Ayame had her head pressed to his armored chest, her toes stirring the cave air with a nonchalant air that was nothing but measured, as if meant to draw Kouga's gaze to the milky ankle.

"Oh, I saw a lunar rainbow…" she started to sing. "as he held me with his arms…"

Kouga's jaw filled with granite.

He couldn't let this child get to him. For certainly, in wolf years, it's what she was. Still, one could argue that Kagome was too young for him too. But human years were different, right? Speaking of his claimed, he could sense her in the back center of the cave; he sensed her even before the light shifted and brought her form into light.

Seeking her spiced flora scent through the other smells was easy, and the tension loosened in his jaw. He'd only been away for most of the morning but with all the business to attend to, he'd missed her. Still missed her, for she was still far away. There was too much air between her body and his, plus the female barrier he held between them...

Kouga's men stood at attention as he arrived, peeling forward from the back of the cave. They glanced at him to Ayame, still singing low, and the boys either looked off or sent him questioning glances. Many had bones in their hands, flinging them into some sort of bins. Kouga's brow tweaked, but it was a question he'd address later.

Like the snow had already fallen and was now sheeting her emotions in its soft, cold storm, Kagome was still. Her lips didn't twitch, her eyes didn't gleam. She just stared at Kouga with a blank reserve that shot a shiver through his spine.

What is she thinking?

"Oh, the lunar rainbow, when he held me, promised me-"

"Where are you getting this song?" Kouga ground, speaking from the side of his lips.

Ayame flicked her hair back so her locks rained across his forearms.

"I made it up. That same night," her whisper curled up to him, her implications strong.

Kouga grimaced, and Ayame smiled.

There were only a few more steps and he'd cross the threshold, the plateau of stone that indicated the start of the den.

Still, Ayame sopped up the time in his arms. With cheer, she continued her little song.

Kouga was beginning to resent the traditional ways. It'd kept the Northerners weak for many years, stowed up in their mountain ways. He'd stopped following the outdated advice of elders a while ago.

If only he'd ignored Ayame when they'd set off for the cave. Instead he'd slowed when she sped up beside him. It gave her enough time to remind him of the wolf custom, apparently one the Northerners still practiced. That was, to carry the princess of the visiting tribe into the cave on her arrival, and exit.

A sour taste filled Kouga's mouth, the granite back in place. He could have shouldered forward, claimed to not hear her over the screeching winds around them. Still, who would believe that his hearing had suddenly faltered?

Duty obliged him to carry it out. Duty, respect, adherence to wolf law. He didn't mind laws, even had a few customs of his own installed in his men, but now was the time to refresh. Perhaps it was his younger generation talking, but he still believed in change.

Kouga saw how his men continued to look at him, Ayame, then over at Kagome. The men's eyes were dark and alive. They were energized with an unfolding of some sort of fight.

Stop your hoping, Kouga thought, communicating irritation with a glare.

His female wolves didn't look too happy, many giving him their shoulders. And, some bolder ones, glares.

Ouch. But I cannot blame them.

Tradition or not, you were stepping in dank territory, carrying a female that wasn't yours while the others watched on. He tried to think on human terms, though. Humans could touch other humans, male and female, and it didn't always need to rise a territorial battle.

Still, Ayame made no secret to hide her smiles and glee. And that was pure battle incentive. Technically, Kagome could fight. She could stomp on over, slap the offending female, and take Kouga by the forearm as she led him to his side.

No one could interfere, especially the man, Kouga, in question, nor would the others look down on it. A female could claim her man just as a man could claim his woman.

Ayame's mates eyes were hard and dark as he watched from the sidelines. As a man who once lived in Kouga's pack, Shinji probably didn't understand why they had to go through with the tradition, or why his new mate had insisted on it.

Shinji could fight too. He could snap at Kouga in challenge at the sight of his new mate having too much fun with another male. But he knew Shinji, both respecting the other, and Kouga doubted he'd act even if all base instincts screamed at him to. Hopefully logic led him, for if he attacked, Kouga would be forced to react. And Shinji would lose.

Kouga was not amused. Not by any of it. Not by Ayame's little game, and not by Kagome's iced form, waiting for him up ahead. Was she in pain by this sight? Did she even care...? Aye, she had to care. After all they'd explored over the last few days, Kagome had to care now. This ice must be a mask, coating the true pain inside.

The demon whined and scratched at Kouga's chest.

Comfort our woman, it said.

He shushed the demon to silence. He agreed, but it could not be done just yet.

They'd reached the threshold now, and he slipped his hands from under Ayame without a second to waste, shaking out his wrists. Expecting her to walk off, he didn't move, but she didn't step away either. Instead, she stretched her arms over her head, lifting to her toe tips.

Hair swung across her back like dancing fire, and her raise lifted her furred skirt to reveal much more skin. He saw men's eyes hook onto her legs, tongues practically wagging from their mouths. Shinji fists were burrowed deep into his hips, his body leaned forward as if to snatch every interested male by the throat. Kouga watched him breathing deep, his throat bobbing with each swallow.

I got it wrong, Kouga thought, marching away from the red-haired woman, she isn't traditional at all.

"Come, Ayame," Shinji said. His voice was gentle, but commanding. Ayame turned, distracted by the call of her mate. Kouga saw her shoulders soften, body lowering.

"Yes," she said, dragging over to him.

Hmm. At least she knew when to listen to her calling mate.

Headed to room's center, Kouga pivoted on his heel to meet all the eyes in the room. He lingered over Kagome's gaze the longest. His gaze meant to communicate comfort, to tell her she was still and always his. He didn't know if she read it, for her face didn't loosen its stiff chill. His mouth filled with sourness.

"Men and women," he said, rolling a hand over the Northerners, "Welcome our brethren, the Northern Demon Wolf Tribe. They've come all this way to thank us for our part in avenging their people."

Greetings filled the room, lasting for a good while until Kouga cut off the conversations.

"As I'm sure most of you can feel and smell, a strong winter wind is coming this direction. Our brethren will be caught in it if they set off back home tonight. Therefore, we are welcoming them into our den for the night." Kouga paused, then met the eyes of a nearby group of warriors. "Content?"

The warrior's heads turned to one another. They looked confused, likely at Kouga's out of place acknowledgement. He didn't usually consult with anyone else with a seemingly simple decision such as the staying of guests in need.

But just in case… Kouga thought, still feeling the thorny presence of Ayame, and the chilled presence of his woman.

"Sure thing, boss. No problem," one said, giving him a salute.

Kouga hid his sigh with a cough.

"Then let us enjoy ourselves, yes?" Forcing a grin out, he felt content when his men turned their attentions away to greet the guests. It was Kouga's opportunity to slip away and attend to the only business that truly mattered at the moment. Heading forward, Kouga hooked his gaze onto Kagome's. Her gaze was still dull, staring back at his with the sort of lost look of one who'd just woken up. Shiyla was beside her, murmuring something to her friend before slipping off. Fine with him, for he wanted to speak with her alone, to take her by the hand and go off to his chambers, explain what he was doing holding Ayame.

The sooner he could wipe that frost from her face, the sooner he could loosen the tightness from his jaw, his muscles. But as he got nearer and nearer, he realized he didn't have to say anything. She was already unthawing. Even her eyes unfroze, becoming big again.

That's right, Kouga thought. You know it was nothing and that you are everything.

Only two arms away, he'd begun to smile, but paused his smile and his tracks. Kagome wasn't looking at him, was never looking at him.

And the thorns were pricking hard, stabbing his back muscles.

"Kagome!"

Kouga inhaled, slowly turning just as Ayame skipped past him. She came so close that if he hadn't stepped back her passing hand would've brushed his pelt. He folded his arms, every muscle grinding. Ayame engulfed Kagome in a hug, thoroughly in between Kagome and Kouga.

"It's been too long," Ayame said.

"Nice to see you too, Ayame," Kagome replied, tight-voiced as she gave her back a quick pat.

Kouga felt a little better when Ayame let Kagome go, though he didn't like Ayame near her at all. He disliked it more than he disliked when she toyed with him.

Her jests weren't innocent, but not dangerous. Plus, he could cut off her games with a barking warning.

But Kagome, Kagome was on her own, no matter what Ayame tried.

Another wolf law, one even he had to respect for it was as true to the demon wolves as their furred forms and humanlike appearances.

You don't interrupt two females in a challenge.

"I'm mated now," Ayame said, glancing over her shoulder where her mate spoke with old pack members. Her eyes lingered over Kouga as she asked, "Are you?"


Author's Note:

Please don't kill me.

I know it's been a while and I'm sorry, so I hope this chapter made up for the wait? School has honestly arrested me limb to limb and I'm glad that I'm almost done with University and will be able to devote myself more thoroughly to this story! So I hope no one worried about me stopping for I plan to finish to the end.

You don't know how much your reviews encouraged me to sneak in that extra time and write. Well, know you do know! Thanks for all your feedback! It is so inspiring for me as I writer and helps me know I'm going in the right direction with the story.

The Poll

And! I wished to make the wait up to you so now there is a She is Mine Poll in my profile. Check it out and definitely vote. I am always considering what you guys like best. If you want to elaborate on any of your choices just PM me on here or Tumblr (linked in my profile)

I have to thank my lovely beta-readers kittykritik and AnnaliseIsmeneRomano for making this chapter beautiful and as clean as possible. Thanks guys!

See you all next time,

~Yellowspotlight89