Inuyasha and Kagome walked hand in hand towards the center of camp. She rested her head on his shoulder, content, safe, and loved.
Polgara sat by the fire, stirring some stew in her cooking pot. A knowing smile crossed her lips and one of her eyebrows arched. “I left some stew for you two. Go ahead.”
Everyone else had already been served---and some had already returned their dishes. Kagome caught a few sly smiles and arched eyebrows. A blush dusted her cheeks. Had their tent not been shielded as she had believed? Had everyone heard? She hid her face into Inuyasha's shoulder---embarrassed but not ashamed.
“Oh no---,” she whispered.
Inuyasha chuckled softly. He leaned in and whispered, “Oi. Don't worry, Kagome. No one heard. Trust me. I could feel a barrier---and I couldn't hear anything from outside.”
She sighed in relief, accepting some stew. “Good. I never want to share you.”
Nearby, Shippo sat, isolated. Kagome frowned, worried about the fox kit. He looked so forlorn and alone. His shoulders sagged, his head hung low, and his tail drooped. He clutched his stew bowl close as if guarding it. Shippo kept his eyes trained on it, huddling close to the ground.
“I'm going to talk to Shippo.”
“Don't.” Inuyasha gripped her hand. “I'm just as worried, but he's not ready to talk. He's got to work this out on his own. Trust me on this.”
Shippo idly stirred his stew in circles. His green eyes met hers before he turned his back. His shoulders slumped in defeat. There was such anguish in his eyes and Kagome ached to hold him close.
Reluctantly, Kagome looked away. “Okay, but if he's not better tomorrow---,”
“We'll talk to him together. I promise.” He kissed her temple.
“Inuyasha-sama, Kagome-sama, come join us!” Rin called, waving cheerfully. “Belrin has something to give you, Kagome-sama.”
“What's that, Rin-chan?”
The little girl sat next to Sesshomaru. She held up a pair of winter boots made of leather and fleece. They stood tall, designed to cover the calf. Laces crisscrossed the sides, making them airtight and waterproof.
“We'll match now, Kagome-sama,” the little girl said. “Polgara-sama said that we needed them for our trip into the mountains.”
“Thank you, Rin-chan. They sure look warm.” She set them down and sat next to the little girl, preparing to eat her supper.
Inuyasha sat down next to her, spooning some stew into his mouth. He said, “What, no gift for me, pup?”
“But you don't like shoes, Inuyasha-sama,” Rin said, giggling.
“She has you there, dog-boy,” Kagome quipped.
Sesshomaru snorted, an amused smile ghosting across his lips as he quietly ate his supper.
“Now that everyone is here, anything from your scouting, Beldin?” Belgarath asked. He set his empty bowl aside, nursing an ale tankard.
Beldin scooped some of his stew up from the ground, shoving it into his mouth. He spat out some rocks. “The little girl thought she saw some movement on the outskirts---some Temple Guardsmen judging by the armor. Kheldar and Garion saw a few Grolims, but they seemed to be heading south. It seemed unguarded, but something tells me there's an ambush just waiting to be sprung, don't y' know?”
Next to Kagome, Inuyasha tensed. A faraway look softened his gold eyes. A scowl crossed his face, his brow furrowed. He opened his mouth a couple times as if he was about to say something---something angry and offensive judging by his irritated expression. Just what was happening to her mate? She elbowed him, trying to get him to pay attention to the discussion.
Kagome looked up, her eyes meeting Sesshomaru's. Concern flickered in their gold depths. The Demon Lord frowned, training his gaze on his brother. Worry lines creased his crescent moon. Sesshomaru, too, had noticed Inuyasha's sudden mood change.
“I can't imagine that Zedar will leave it unguarded. He wouldn't let me visit Ashaba without a fight,” Belgarath said.
“Of course not, blockhead,” Beldin retorted. “Which is why you should have chased him down after what he did to our little sister.”
“Don't start that fight again, Beldin.” Belgarath rubbed his jaw, shifting it. “I'm still recovering from our last discussion. Besides, it's like he disappeared altogether. I almost had him, and then he vanished. He's never been able to do that before---not like that.”
Kagome worried her bottom lip with her teeth. The other sorcerer must have escaped into one of Naraku's barriers. It was the only explanation that made sense.
Inuyasha muttered, “Classic Naraku.”
Belgarath paced, pinching his nose. “I'm fairly certain that Zedar used what happened with Belrin to delay me so he could tamper with the Ashabine Oracles. He's the one who wrote them down at Torak's behest---he knows the only clean copy is there.”
“You're sure they're there?” Beldin asked, scratching an armpit. “I know the Master said to go there, but we tore that place apart once before and came up empty.”
“We did.” Belgarath clasped his hands behind his back. “But you and I know that if we weren't meant to find them then---we weren't meant to find them then. This is now.”
“What if we don't end up reading them in time?” Polgara asked.
“That's not an option.” Belgarath sipped some ale. “We just must prepare for any traps---and hope the text is intact.”
“It is,” Inuyasha muttered softly. He said, “If you'd just let me say something---,”
Kagome glanced at her mate, seeing the scowl deepen on his face. Anger flashed in his eyes. “Inuyasha?”
“Your rules are stupid---,” Inuyasha said. He fell silent, stirring his stew.
Kagome and Sesshomaru exchanged another glance. His eyes narrowed, but he curtly shook his head no. Clearly, he wanted to observe some more---see if they could glean more about the identity of whomever Inuyasha argued with was. She nodded back, a worried ache settling into her chest.
“Did you notice anything else, Garion?” Belgarath tapped his temple. “Perhaps you've had a chat with a helpful visitor?”
“No, Grandfather. He's been quiet.”
“Says you---,” Inuyasha muttered.
Alarm bells rang in Kagome's head. Someone or something was doing something to her mate. What if they used Inuyasha's mind the way they had last time? What if it shattered him so completely that she lost him forever? She slowly ate her stew, watching all the emotions---mostly anger and irritation---play across his face. Kagome hoped that this wasn't another Grolim trick.
“If you'd just let me say it---,” Inuyasha grumbled under his breath. “You're an ass, you know.”
Belgarath scuffed a foot into the dirt. “Zedar will have a trap set. I can imagine he'll throw everything he's got at us. It just seems different---he seems different.”
“You're starting to go in circles, Father. I hear it's a sign of senility,” Polgara said, sipping her tea. “Let's just relax and get ready for tomorrow. Baths need to be taken. Dishes need to be washed.”
“Have it your way, Pol,” Belgarath said, standing with a grunt. “I'm going for a run.”
“I always do.”
Inuyasha dropped his spoon into his bowl with a clang. He stood abruptly, picking up the other empty bowls. “I'm going to go check on the monk. I want to make sure he's alright.”
“Inuyasha---,” Kagome struggled to stand. Sesshomaru gently gripped her wrist. She frowned, glaring at him incredulously. Kagome hissed, “Let go. I need to---,”
“This Sesshomaru is just as concerned, miko.” The Demon Lord let go. “When he comes back, we shall confront him together.”
“Belrin,” Sesshomaru said softly. He cupped Rin's face in his hand. “Bathe and retire for the night.”
The little girl's new name sounded musical in the Demon Lord's soft baritone. Kagome found it fitting. There was an elegance to it---as if the new moniker had a power and grace all its own.
“Yes, Sesshomaru-sama.” Rin kissed his cheek before heading towards the tubs set up on the edge of camp.
“Kagome,” Sesshomaru said softly.
“What is happening to my mate?” Kagome whirled to face the Demon Lord. Tears welled in her eyes. “What if it's another Grolim attack?”
“That's what this Sesshomaru intends to find out.” Sesshomaru pursed his lips in thought. “Have you witnessed Inuyasha arguing with himself---as if half of the conversation is missing?”
Kagome nodded, biting her thumbnail. She said, “He did! I was waiting for him in our tent. As he approached, he argued with someone the whole way. I thought it was Myoga at first, but Inuyasha was so angry. They must have said some truly insulting things. Myoga wouldn't dare do that.”
“Interesting.” The Demon Lord frowned. “We must get the half-breed to tell us who this person is. This Sesshomaru has noticed his dodging the old sorcerer about it in the past. I must warn you. I may say some harsh things to do it---and I'll need your support.”
“Anything to make sure my mate is safe.”
“Then we are agreed.” Worry lines crinkled Sesshomaru's forehead as he glanced in the direction Inuyasha had gone. He said firmly, “It stops here. Whoever this is will not infect my brother's mind or control him. This Sesshomaru will not allow it.”
Kagome hugged Sesshomaru tight, burying her face into his shoulder. She said softly, “You're a great big brother, Sesshomaru. Thank you.”
The Demon Lord gently hugged her back, his claws threading through her hair. “Somehow this Sesshomaru doubts that the half-breed would agree.”
“Oi. Doubts I'd agree with what?” Inuyasha crossed his arms, his ears twitching. “Should I be nervous about you putting the moves on my mate, jackass?”
Kagome pulled away to face her mate. A concerned frown settled over her features. “Inuyasha, we're both really worried about you.”
“Whatever for?” His ears rose higher on his head. Inuyasha said emphatically, “I'm fine.”
“Then perhaps you can tell this Sesshomaru who you were arguing with back in the grove where the Grolims tried to sacrifice you.”
Inuyasha's face paled, and he sputtered. “I don't know what you're talking about.”
“You forget that this Sesshomaru can smell deceit.” The Demon Lord's eyes hardened and his nose wrinkled in disgust. “Cease lying to me and your mate.”
“Please, Inuyasha. You're scaring me,” Kagome said. She gently gripped his arm. “Just tell us who it is.”
Inuyasha wrenched his arm free stomping away from them. He said, his tone harsh, “There's nothing to tell. I don't know what the fuck you're talking about.”
“Lying does not suit you, little brother,” Sesshomaru said. “You are dishonoring yourself. You are dishonoring Father.”
The two of them followed Inuyasha to the edge of camp. Kagome wrung her hands together, anxious for her mate. He paced in front of them, staring into the trees. His frame tensed as he kicked a clod of dirt free. Clearly, he did not want to look either one of them in the eye.
“Dishonoring Father?” Inuyasha whispered. “I never knew the Old Man. Why don't you try a new insult, asshole.”
“Please, Inuyasha. Just talk to us,” Kagome whispered.
“This Sesshomaru shall, half-breed. Lying is disgusting. Liars are weak. Only cowards lie.” The Demon Lord glared at Inuyasha, his eyes following the hanyou's movements. He bared his fangs. “You dishonor your mate when you lie to her face.”
“I'm not lying,” Inuyasha said through clenched teeth. “There's nothing to tell, so back the fuck off already.”
“Lie one more time, half-breed, and this Sesshomaru will rip out your tongue,” Sesshomaru said, his tone icy. “You will not need it if you choose to use it in this disgraceful manner.”
“Fuck you.” Inuyasha crossed his arms, staring up into the trees. “Just leave me alone.”
“Inuyasha?” Kagome asked, a tear streaking down one cheek. “Please. I'm so worried about you. Let us help.”
Inuyasha glanced over his shoulder, his gold eyes meeting hers. Guilt filled them. His ears sagged, and he withered. Bowing his head, Inuyasha whispered, “I can't.”
“Can't or won't,” Sesshomaru said, baring his fangs. “Need I remind you what happened last time something invaded your mind, half-breed.”
Kagome searched his eyes, finding turmoil boiling deep in their depths. “Please. Don't shut me out, Inuyasha. Tell us what's going on.”
“I can't,” Inuyasha said through clenched teeth. “It's against the rules.”
“What rules?” Kagome blinked away tears. “You're scaring me.”
Sesshomaru frowned. “Do not protect whoever is controlling you, little brother. We need to know who is doing this to you.”
“I can't tell you so just fucking drop it already!” Inuyasha shouted. He turned his back on them. “Just leave me alone.”
“Then you leave this Sesshomaru with no choice,” the Demon Lord said, his voice deathly quiet. “I refuse to let Kagome return to your shared tent with you. She will stay with this Sesshomaru for her safety.”
Kagome gasped, her eyes wide. She sputtered, unable to find words. This was a heavy blow for Inuyasha. To prevent him from enduring what he had in the inn, however, Kagome would acquiesce to Sesshomaru's demand.
“You refuse what?” Inuyasha spun around, rage etched on his face. “Kagome is my mate.”
The half-demon lunged, throwing a punch at his brother. Sesshomaru blurred, dodging it. He gripped Inuyasha around his throat, pinning him with brute strength against his chest. Inuyasha tried to pry his brother's fingers from his throat, anger swirling in his eyes.
“And Kagome is my sister,” Sesshomaru replied calmly into Inuyasha's ear.
“Sesshomaru---,” Kagome whispered, stunned by the Demon Lord's candid admission.
“I would never hurt Kagome,” Inuyasha said, his voice strained. “How dare you! You can't come between us, you overbearing asshole.”
“For her safety, this Sesshomaru insists. You may never hurt your mate, but this other entity that you refuse to name might. I will never go through what I did with you at that inn ever again, Inuyasha. Never.”
“Kagome---,” Inuyasha pleaded. “Tell him. I'd never hurt you.”
“You'd never hurt me, Inuyasha.” Kagome looked down, unable to see the pain in his eyes anymore.
“See, fucker? She doesn't agree with you.” Inuyasha tried to elbow his brother and break free only to be driven to his knees.
Sesshomaru squeezed Inuyasha's neck harder. “Silence, half-breed.”
Kagome whispered, “He's right, Inuyasha. I almost lost you last time. Tell us who it is. What do they want with you? Or I'll leave with your brother. I will never go through with what we did at that inn ever again.”
Inuyasha's shoulders slumped in defeat. “You wouldn't believe me.”
“Let us be the judge of that, little brother,” Sesshomaru let Inuyasha go.
“The Purpose of the Universe.”
Inuyasha had said it so softly that Kagome nearly missed it. What did that mean? She remembered Belgarath mentioning a voice---a Purpose---but that it had spoken mostly through prophecy or to Garion. Could this be the same being?
“The Purpose of the Universe,” Sesshomaru said firmly.
“Not so loud, damn it. The old man isn't supposed to know yet. It's part of some rules.”
“How do you know it's not lying to you, little brother?” Sesshomaru asked, his tone concerned.
“Garion confirmed it.” Inuyasha sighed. “Remember when I used the Sapphire Wind Scar to break through that unnatural fog? It told me how to do it. It's been a pain in my ass, but it's been right about everything it's told me so far.”
“What does it want with you?” Kagome asked.
“It varies. There's tasks it wants me to complete---or others to do. It's all part of the prophecy.” Inuyasha kicked the dirt. “Doesn't mean I don't want to shove Tetsusaiga up its ass, though.”
“This Sesshomaru gathered that by the litany of epithets you hurled at it, half-breed.”
“Hey, you'd swear too if you had this bossing you around, jackass,” Inuyasha said, jutting his chin out in defiance.
“But you're okay?” Kagome asked, her voice shaky.
Inuyasha hugged her. “Yeah. I'm fine. It just likes to push all of my buttons. Don't worry about me.”
“I'll stop worrying about you when you stop worrying about me,” Kagome quipped, hugging him.
Inuyasha rested his chin atop her head. “So never then. Good.”
“Little brother, what has it told you lately?” Sesshomaru asked, his gold eyes curious.
“Only that there's a trap waiting for us at Ashaba, that only I can stop it, and that those Oracles can't be tampered with.”
“All helpful information.” Sesshomaru pursed his lips. “This trap. Any ideas on what it may be?”
“Not a fucking clue. Something Naraku created, I'd imagine.”
“I see.” Sesshomaru inclined his head. “This Sesshomaru shall go and instruct the boy. Tell me if it gives you any more hints, little brother.”
“If you want, jackass.”
Kagome slipped from Inuyasha's grip. She rose on her tiptoes and kissed Sesshomaru's cheek. “Thank you, big brother.”
“You're welcome, little sister.”