Actions

Work Header

A Trick of Fate

Chapter Text

1. Wish

A change of the wind

May toss a ship upon rocks

Or to safe harbor

-l-

Kagome stood in the clearing by the Bone Eater's Well, the Shikon Jewel in her hands. It was whole. Complete.

Unblemished.

So much had led to this moment, and yet she still didn't feel ready. She didn't know what would happen next. Would the well close? And which side would she be on when it did?

She'd said goodbye to both of her families, just to be sure.

She raised her eyes from the softly glowing orb cupped in her hands, unaware of how she looked in the moment – a priestess of power and purity, the Shikon Miko, with eyes like the sky. Wind blew through the clearing, bending the grass and pulling at Kagome's red hakama.

She looked to Inuyasha. He gave her an encouraging nod, his hand on the hilt of Tetsusaiga.

He was still certain then. The wish should be hers.

She turned from him, scanning the faces of the rest of her friends. Miroku smiled, meeting this newest change just as he faced everything else. Sango looked on with quiet acceptance, her shoulders tensed. Shippou was in her arms, green eyes filled with tears. He was afraid of losing Kagome most of all.

Even Sesshoumaru had seen fit to attend. He stood further back, just in front of the trees, his eyes focused on Kagome.

He probably wanted to be sure the jewel was properly disposed of. Kagome blushed under his scrutiny, but nodded to him politely.

He gave no sign of having noticed.

Searing all of their faces into her mind, just in case it was the last time she would see them, Kagome took a deep breath and looked back to the jewel.

An unselfish wish.

She had spent days thinking about it, and had come up with only one thing.

I wish for everyone who was harmed by the jewel, and the battle to control it, to find peace and happiness, in this life and the next.

It seemed like a pure wish. After all, Kagome would have never met her friends in the Feudal Era without the jewel's intervention.

For her, it was a blessing. An often times painful one…

But a blessing none the less.

She watched as the jewel grew brighter and brighter, until she couldn't bear to look at it. It left her hands, flying into the air.

The was a sound like thunder, and then hundreds, maybe even a thousand pink lights streaked through the sky. For a horrible moment, Kagome thought the jewel had shattered again.

But then she felt it. The spirits of Midoriko and the youkai she had been trapped with within the jewel for all these years. They ghosted by Kagome's skin.

Free.

Thank you, came a whisper inside her head.

Yes, thank you, came another, this one in her heart.

The spirits danced around her, unseen but clearly felt. And then they slipped away, finally to rest.

All except one.

It laughed along her skin, a wicked, mischievous bubbling.

And then it filled Kagome's nose and mouth as she inhaled, forcing her lips into an odd laugh.

Wish granted, was said with a silent chuckle as the spirit settled in her throat.

The consciousness faded, but the power remained.

-l-

Inuyasha saw Kikyo, after the jewel flashed with light. And she was Kikyo again – warm and loving. She smiled her small smile, and granted him forgiveness.

"Live for us both now," she said, as she faded into mist.

When she vanished, Inuyasha knew it wasn't to go to hell.

-l-

Miroku's father clapped him on the back, his spectral hand somehow warm.

"You did it, boy. You broke the curse."

Miroku flexed his hands, both of them bare. There was no longer a Wind Tunnel to bind with beads.

"Is that her? The one you've told me about in your prayers?"

Miroku looked to Sango, and nodded.

"She will give you many fine children!"

Together, they leered.

-l-

Sango spoke with her family again. She assured the spirits before her that she had avenged them, and that the village would be rebuilt, in time. She would not let their ways be forgotten.

With a sidelong look to the monk and a blush, she also promised that their line would not end with her.

-l-

Sesshoumaru heard his father's howl at his back, an undulating dog song that sang of pride in two sons. He told himself he was above needing such childish reassurance, even as he stood straighter, contentment flooding him.

There was a flash and a tingle, a sudden rush of youki that he could not control, and then Sesshoumaru bent over double, blood flying to pepper his sleeve as bone and sinew jutted from his shoulder.

There was much pain in the rapid growth of the limb he had lost. But as Sesshoumaru raised his newly restored fingers, green poison glinting at the ends of his claws, his face reflected only dark pleasure.

-l-

Kagome choked on something beyond the physical, her hands on her throat as her heart pounded.

Was her death the price of her wish? Was the end of her adventure to be so very final?

Deaf and blind, she staggered, falling to her knees. There was pain in her spine. She groaned, ripping at her hakama.

Until the lights of her wish faded, and the spirits stirred by the jewel returned from whence they came, Kagome writhed upon the ground, a keening cry in the back of her throat.

Finally the pain lessened. Tentatively, Kagome climbed to her feet.

All eyes were on her.

"What?" she asked weakly, feeling odd in her own skin.

She looked down at her hands to see them tipped with delicate claws. The wind blew her hair in her face. She pushed at it, only to find that the strands were bright red.

A chill went through her, a tremble of fear. Something swished behind her.

Shippou launched himself into her arms just as she turned and found three tails protruding from the back of her hakama.

Three red tails.

She was a kitsune.

"Damn, Kagome! What the hell kind of wish did you make?" Inuyasha demanded, starting toward her.

Then her world went mad.


2. Danger

Danger! Danger! Kagome's instincts screamed as the hanyou approached.

It's just Inuyasha. He's a friend, came a small voice, from far away.

Kagome shook her head, retreating, her senses overloaded with scents and sound.

The fox kit in her arms was Shippou, she knew. He smelled like her. He was a fox. Fox was good. Fox was safe. Was he hers?

Yes, mine. My kit.

She held him close, tucked under her chin.

The hanyou moved closer. He smelled of power and violence, raising her hackles, something deep within screaming that he would rend and tear, that she must get away.

Kagome snarled, warning him away from her kit. Her three tails thrashed behind her, every hair standing on end. Her eyes – still blue – flashed the same green as foxfire.

"What the hell, Kagome?!" the hanyou demanded in answer to her warning. She warned him again, backing away from his approach.

A den! She needed a den. Where was the den? Her kit would be safe there.

"Kagome?" her kit mewled, tapping his little claws against her cheek. "It's ok. It's just Inuyasha."

She nipped his ear with her teeth, a reprimand to be quiet until they were safe.

Movement attracted her attention. There were humans behind the hanyou. Humans were fun. She could trick them. Distracted, she took a step toward the man, thinking to steal his shiny staff and give it to her kit to play with.

The hanyou moved again, and she stopped, remembering his presence. Every muscle tensed to run, she raised her hands, trusting her kit to hold onto her. He did, his little paws around her neck.

In a flash of foxfire, she made her escape.

-l-

Sesshoumaru had been prepared to leave once the spirit of his father faded, and the blood on his newly restored limb dried. The troublesome Shikon Jewel was gone. He cared no longer for what happened in this clearing.

As was his habit, he pulled his youki in tight, deftly hiding his scent. He preferred not to be found unless he wished it.

That was when he smelled the vixen.

Blinking, he looked up, surprised to find a kitsune powerful enough to have suddenly appeared by the well without Sesshoumaru sensing her approach. Such a kitsune would have at least seven tails.

Inuyasha shouted and Sesshoumaru raised his brow. Kagome? Was that not the name of the Shikon Miko?

He turned to look, and indeed it was. The hair and scent were different, but the rest of her appearance was much the same.

Snarling at his brother, she disappeared in a green haze.

"Kagome!" Inuyasha called, echoed by the monk and the slayer.

Sesshoumaru flexed his new hand.

"She is as a pup. Only instinct to guide her," he said.

Inuyasha whirled to face him, frustration and fear plain in his face and scent. "What's it to you?!"

Sesshoumaru blinked. "She will seek a den. To protect the kit from you."

"From me?!" Inuyasha demanded, his voice climbing and cracking.

Sesshoumaru shrugged one shoulder.

Waving his arms in his bluster, Inuyasha bellowed, "Why the hell would she run from me? She's probably scared of you!"

"This one is adept at stealth."

Sesshoumaru watched as his brother puzzled it out, his ears flattening and a whine only Sesshoumaru could hear coming from his throat when he realized.

"Oh."

"What is it, Inuyasha?" asked the slayer, looking between them.

Inuyasha sighed. "Kagome could smell me. I smell scary, I guess." He jerked his thumb at Sesshoumaru, "She couldn't smell him cause he was hiding it."

"But how did Kagome-sama become a kitsune in the first place?" the monk wanted to know.

Inuyasha growled. "That damn jewel. Come on, we'll figure it all out after we find her!"

The hanyou raised his nose in the air, his nostrils flaring.

Interested, Sesshoumaru waited.

"Damn!" Inuyasha cursed. "I can't tell where the hell she went!"

Sesshoumaru felt smug.

"Come," he said, turning in the direction the vixen had gone.

"You can still find her?"

Despite his question, Inuyasha followed, apparently too concerned about the former priestess to argue.

"No kitsune of a mere three tails may hide from this Sesshoumaru."

Inuyasha snorted.

Sesshoumaru cut his eyes at his brother, halting in his tracks.

"Sheesh, ok ok. I don't know why you're helping, but if you're helping I guess… thanks."

"Hn," was all Sesshoumaru said in answer, a dog song of pride in two sons echoing in his ears.


3. Den

Kagome found a small, shallow cave cut into the side of a hill. A den. Her kit would be safe. She shooed him inside, a sharp yip warning him to stay put. He went quietly, and Kagome smiled her approval.

Leaving the mouth of the den for a moment, she wrapped both hands around the trunk of a small tree and yanked, uprooting it. Carrying it back to her den, she laid the tree against the opening of the cave mouth, arranging the branches to obscure it. Once satisfied, she crawled in herself, pulling her kit into her arms and crooning to him.

He was upset, tears leaking from his precious green eyes. Thinking that he was frightened because of the hanyou, Kagome began running her claws through his hair and tail, trying to calm him.

"This is my fault," he sniffed, burrowing into her chest. "I musta wished too hard and the jewel granted mine instead of yours. My dad appeared and said I'd have a mom again. And then… Kagome, I'm sorry!" the kit wailed.

Alarmed, and not understanding all of his words, Kagome raised her kit in her arms, scenting his neck to check for injury. Finding none, she went back to grooming, her kit's tears sending already powerful instincts into overdrive.

"Kagome," her kit hiccupped.

Shippou, a faraway voice said, inside.

"Shippou," she repeated. When this calmed her kit, she said it again and again, turning his name into a lullaby.

"You're still Kagome," he said in a tiny little voice, as if reassuring himself.

"Kagome," Kagome agreed, pointing to herself. She tapped her claw against Shippou's cheek. "Shippou."

He smiled, and she smiled back.

-l-

Sesshoumaru calmly led Inuyasha through the forest, following the path the vixen had left behind. While she had hidden her scent and tracks through some instinctual grasp of a kitsune's powers of illusion, she had left telltale marks of her youki behind. It was those that Sesshoumaru followed.

He stopped when he caught sight of the den, waiting to see if Inuyasha would see it too.

Inuyasha followed Sesshoumaru's gaze, his eyes lighting on the entrance.

"She's in there?"

"Hn."

The tree covering the cave mouth made the new den obvious. With only instinct to guide her, the kitsune vixen had not thought to shake the dirt from the roots, or mind the claw marks she left upon the bark. Sesshoumaru's first den had been much the same.

Of course, he was a pup at the time.

"How we gonna get her to come out?" Inuyasha pondered, his brow furrowed.

Sesshoumaru was pleased to see that his brother wasn't going to simply charge the entrance of the den. Perhaps there was hope for the whelp after all.

"Bring the monk," Sesshoumaru said, thinking quickly.

"What for?"

"She is a vixen," Sesshoumaru said, his amusement hidden behind his usual placid mask. "He will be bait."

-l-

The monk stood just outside the vixen's den, fishing in the nearby stream. Sesshoumaru watched from the trees, Inuyasha at his side. After ordering his half-brother back, and being refused, Sesshoumaru had relented and now hid the both of them from the vixen. He did not care enough to argue the point, and Inuyasha was, after all, only showing concern and desire to protect a packmate. It was not a sentiment Sesshoumaru could fault.

His alliance with Inuyasha to defeat Naraku had served to bury much of the enmity between them.

But not all.

"Is she ever going to come out?" Inuyasha groused, his ears twitching.

"It begins now," Sesshoumaru shushed him, sensing a change in the youki within the den.

At first, there was no sign of her.

Then a playful laugh could be heard from the treetops to the monk's left. He turned in the direction of the sound, only to spin back around when splashing came from the stream to his right. His fishing line was gone, snatched from his hand.

The bushes behind him rustled, and the fishing line reappeared, tangled in the foliage. With a theatrically confused grumble, the monk laid his staff on the riverbank, and bent to untangle the fishing line.

In a flash, the vixen appeared, snatching up the staff. Her tails snapping, she stood behind the monk and shook the staff, obviously delighted by the sounds the many rings made and the way they caught the light.

The monk stood and faced her, excitement in his eyes.

Sesshoumaru wondered at that excitement. Was the monk a good actor, or was he falling under the vixen's spell?

"Pretty man," the vixen purred, running her hand across the front of the monk's robes.

Inuyasha growled.

The vixen grasped the monk, drawing him in for a kiss.

The monk placed one of his ofuda charged with holy power upon the vixen's head, freezing her in place.

-l-

Danger! Kagome's instincts screamed as soon as she felt the sizzle of holy power. But it was too late. The man with the pretty lavender eyes had tricked her! Treachery, treachery, a trickster was tricked!

Unable to even utter a warning to her kit, her eyes darted to the den. She couldn't move. What if the man wanted her kit?

"Good job, Miroku," a gruff voice sounded behind her.

The pretty man leaned forward and gently took his staff from Kagome's hand.

Miroku. Yes. That was the man's name. A vague feeling of embarrassment filled her.

Her nostrils quivered. She was confused.

The wind shifted.

Kagome panicked.

Danger! DANGER!

She smelled the hanyou!

But worse than that, bigger than that, she smelled another. His scent made her heart hammer in her chest. Predator. Powerful.

She didn't know enough to associate that scent with a full blooded male inu youkai, but she knew enough to be afraid.

Her kit! The Other would devour her Shippou!

"So how do we snap her out of it?" the gruff voice was saying.

"Perhaps we should just get her back to the village? Kaede might be able to do something."

"Keh. You go get the runt. I'll carry her."

The man – Miroku, a voice supplied – headed toward the entrance of Kagome's den. In the same instant, the hanyou wrapped his arms around her, surrounding her with his terrifying scent.

No! Not her kit!

She redoubled her efforts to move, to save him, dread rising in her chest along with her youki. Her eyes glowed the color of foxfire.

"She is fighting the seal," a deep voice that sent chills through her said. She could not see the speaker. Was it the Other? The terror of terrors?

"Oi, monk! Get over here and slap another ofuda on her!"

Kagome wished she could cover her ears. Everything was too loud! With a primal scream, she broke through the magic that held her imprisoned, striking out at her captor. Her claws drew four bloody furrows across the hanyou's chest as she pushed herself away from him.

She raised both hands for another wild assault, this time on the man that threatened her kit, but she never got the chance.

Quicker than she knew how to move, the Other appeared before her. He was terrible, and beautiful, with his long white hair and the crescent moon on his brow. The silk of his sleeves fluttered in the wind. There was something familiar about the image he made.

His aura unfolded around him. Heavy. Impressive. Dreadful. Kagome lowered her arms, her blood pounding in her ears.

Though she did not know what a demon lord was, she knew that she could not fight, run, or hide. Not from this being, with the power he wore like a cloak. Her only hope, for herself and her kit, was submission.

She remembered his name when she bowed at his feet, her face in the dirt by his boots.

"Sesshoumaru-sama," she murmured.


4. Honor

Sesshoumaru looked down at the vixen that had abased herself before him. It was impressive, what she had done, with so little knowledge.

It was impressive that she had broken the monk's seal so quickly, being a kitsune of only three tails. Her maternal instincts must be especially strong.

Sesshoumaru was not easily impressed.

He rested the claws of his new hand against the back of the vixen's neck, squeezing lightly. It was fitting that he do so with the arm he was quite certain she was responsible for restoring. All that had happened could surely be tied to her wish on the Shikon.

He rumbled low in his throat, giving her permission to rise.

She did, her red miko hakama looking out of place with the three tails that protruded from them. Odd, to see a youkai in a priestess' clothing.

"Come," he told the vixen, turning to lead her away.

She whined at him, plainly distressed, her blue eyes pleading. She looked toward the den.

He nodded, allowing her to retrieve the kit.

She did so quickly, clearly not wanting to anger him. The kit visibly trembled in her arms, his eyes so wide that the whites showed. The kit had been frightened when Sesshoumaru unleashed his aura.

As it should be.

"Come," he said again.

This time the vixen began to follow him without complaint.

"Oi, bast- Sesshoumaru," Inuyasha called, clearly stopping himself from insult because of what Sesshoumaru had just done. "Where you taking her?"

Sesshoumaru didn't pause. "To learn."

"Why?"

Sesshoumaru flexed the fingers of both hands. "Honor," he said simply, wondering why he bothered to explain himself at all.

There was blessed silence for all of a few moments. Then Inuyasha ran to catch up. The vixen cowered behind Sesshoumaru, rightly treating him as her alpha and protector since he had accepted her submission.

Sorrow laced Inuyasha's scent. "Look, I'm gonna tag along. Miroku will explain to Sango and Kaede."

Sesshoumaru looked between the vixen at his back, her kit in her arms, and his brother. Familiar things may help the former miko regain herself more quickly. He would be rid of her sooner, and his debt repaid.

"Do as you please," he said to Inuyasha.

-l-

Inuyasha chattered at the vixen constantly, making Sesshoumaru grind his fangs together. He should have forbidden the whelp from accompanying them. Then he wouldn't have to listen to his brother's rambling accounts of times he had shared with the miko, the kit occasionally piping up with additions and corrections to the story.

The kit, he was surprised to find, he did not mind so much.

For her part, the vixen kept Sesshoumaru between herself and Inuyasha, her instincts overwhelming the memories of the human life she had led. Inuyasha's scent made him dangerous, but Sesshoumaru's status as alpha made him her place of safety.

If he hadn't been so thoroughly irritated, Sesshoumaru might have enjoyed the reversal. At last, he had something that Inuyasha desperately wanted back, but the vixen clearly preferred Sesshoumaru.

It was petty, but Sesshoumaru allowed himself to feel such things. It was only folly if one acted upon them.

"Sesshoumaru-sama?" the kit addressed him.

Sesshoumaru tilted his head to indicate he was listening.

"Is Kagome going to be ok?"

Upon hearing the kit say her name, the vixen giggled and pointed to her chest. "Kagome."

She tapped the kit on the cheek with one claw, "Shippou."

Then she pointed. "Sesshoumaru-sama."

"Hey, wench, forgetting anyone?" Inuyasha piped up hopefully.

The vixen hissed at him.

Sesshoumaru's lips twitched.

-l-

They reached the rest of Sesshoumaru's pack at nightfall. Jaken made his usual obsequious fuss. Sesshoumaru paid him no mind.

That was, until he scented for Rin and could not find her.

"Sesshoumaru-sama!" the little girl's voice rang out before Sesshoumaru had had time to punish the imp. She slammed into his legs.

Much, much harder than usual.

Sesshoumaru looked down at the pup clinging to him. She had Rin's voice, and Rin's hair. But she did not smell like Rin.

She turned her face up to him and Sesshoumaru's breath caught at the crescent moon on her brow. Delicate stripes, like his own, adorned her cheeks. Her hair was still black, and her eyes still brown, though the pupil was now a slit. She was still Rin.

But she was an inu youkai pup.

"Rin is like Sesshoumaru-sama now! Watch how high Rin can jump!"

Agog, Sesshoumaru observed as his ward stepped back and launched herself into the air, then landed a bit clumsily.

"Good, Rin," he heard himself say, after a long moment in which he forgot how to breathe and his heart lodged itself in his throat.

He looked to the vixen who stood by his side. It seemed his debt to her had increased.

He might never be able to sufficiently repay her.

The thought was somewhat unsettling.

-l-

"Hey," Inuyasha approached, drawing even to walk next to Sesshoumaru. He gestured ahead, where Rin and the kit played a game of chase under the vixen's watchful eye. "How come Rin ain't all. You know. How Kagome is."

Sesshoumaru had been pondering that question since being presented with his transformed ward.

"Age," he posited, not offering more of an explanation until Inuyasha grumbled at him.

It was so easy to bait the whelp.

"Instincts and youki grow stronger with age. The vixen – "

"Call her Kagome. Might help her remember," Inuyasha interrupted.

"The vixen," Sesshoumaru continued, "is overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught of the instincts and powers of a mature kitsune. Rin is not."

"Keh."

"Hn."

"You just made that shit up, didn't you?"

"Inuyasha-sama said a word Rin is not supposed to hear!" Rin called back to them, her advanced youkai hearing making her privy to their conversation. As Jaken took her to task for eavesdropping, Sesshoumaru leveled his gaze on his brother.

Inuyasha muttered, his ears flattening against his head. "Kagome woulda yelled at me for that."

Sesshoumaru chose not to respond. Repaying his debts to the vixen did not include extended conversation with his brother.


5. Alpha

Kagome followed Sesshoumaru-sama, not caring where he led. She had nowhere she wanted or needed to be, and he brought food and kept enemies away. She still didn't trust the hanyou, not with the way his scent screamed of danger, but she knew that Sesshoumaru-sama would protect her. He had accepted her into his pack. She was his now.

If only she had some humans to play tricks on, she would have been perfectly content.

A squeal made her look up, alarm in her eyes, but it was just the kits. Her Shippou played with Sesshoumaru-sama's girl, Rin. Their laughter made Kagome happy. She grinned and laughed along with them, clapping her hands.

"How come she don't mind Jaken and your dragon, but she still hates me?"

Kagome ignored the voice of the hanyou. He said many words she didn't understand.

"Everyone hates you."

The hanyou laughed. "I'll be damned! Sesshoumaru the Ice Dog made a joke!"

"This one was not joking."

"Come on, be serious."

A sigh.

"She has seen them acknowledge this Sesshoumaru as alpha and knows she is safe with them. They are loyal, and you are not."

Kagome did listen to Sesshoumaru-sama. He was alpha. He said many things she didn't understand as well, but she had learned to listen for certain words. 'Come,' 'Vixen,' and 'Kagome' were things to obey.

"Keh! I ain't submitting, if that's what you're after!"

"It was not."

-l-

Kagome could tell when they passed near a village. She could hear and smell the humans. Oh, what fun! What fun! Her tails swished in anticipation of all the merry tricks she would play.

Sesshoumaru-sama looked at her, saying firmly, "Come, vixen."

She whined, taking a step towards the village and all of the lovely humans.

"Come," Sesshoumaru-sama repeated, punctuating his command with a growl.

Kagome made her eyes big and beautiful, unknowingly employing the seductive spell female kitsune were known for. She wanted to go trick the humans. And maybe steal their pretty things.

She ran her claws delicately over Sesshoumaru-sama's wrist, then stood on her tiptoes to graze her fangs along his jaw, crooning in a sultry voice, "Sesshoumaru-samaaa…"

He growled louder, his aura expanding as he showed his displeasure.

Kagome whimpered, and submitted, prostrating herself on the ground and baring the back of her neck to her alpha.

It seemed a long time passed before she felt his claws rest against her skin. But they did. He forgave her.

The hanyou started to laugh. "She'll have a fit when she realizes she tried to put a love spell on you when she was like this!"

Not understanding his words, but not liking that he laughed at her, Kagome snapped, "Osuwari!"

She didn't know why she said that word, or what it meant. It just came to her.

The hanyou cringed and braced himself, his puppyish ears flattening to his skull. When nothing happened for several minutes, he opened one eye.

"Huh. Guess the rosary doesn't work since she ain't a priestess anymore."

-l-

Sesshoumaru sat with his back to a tree in the dark stillness of night. There was no campfire. Rin was no longer human and no longer needed one. Sesshoumaru found he missed the glow. He had become… accustomed to it.

He would adjust.

Inuyasha perched above him, in the branches of the tree. He had taken to staying infuriatingly close, for it was the only way he could be near the vixen.

Every time Sesshoumaru felt his patience pushed to the limit, he looked to Rin. Somehow, Kagome's wish had granted him both his missing arm, and Rin's continued life.

For that, he would endure Inuyasha.

There was rustling as the vixen and her kit approached, Kagome thrusting something into Shippou's hand and then nudging him forward. The kit knelt before Sesshoumaru, waiting to be acknowledged.

Sesshoumaru raised his brows.

The kit held out his tiny paw-like hand, presenting Sesshoumaru with a river stone, polished smooth by the flow of water. Little crystalline grains picked up the light of the full moon, sparkling.

Sesshoumaru rumbled his thanks, laying his hand on top of the kit's head for a moment. Shippou grinned a kitsune grin, then scampered away.

The vixen was next, kneeling and waiting for acknowledgment. Sesshoumaru gave it to her. She held out a black lacquered comb inlaid with mother of pearl. He took it, and gave his approval, though he wondered when she had had time to steal it. It was a human item, and not one he had seen her with before this moment.

He would not punish her for her thievery. It was kitsune nature. So long as she stole only from humans, he cared not.

"What they give you that junk for?" Inuyasha asked after the vixen had moved away, drawing Rin and the kit to her for sleep.

Sesshoumaru refused to look up at his brother. He also refused to answer, busy studying his gifts.

So the vixen realized she had displeased him in some way, though it was unlikely that she knew that it was because she had tried to ensorcel him. He very much doubted that she even recognized that she had tapped into one of her kitsune abilities.

Kitsune were drawn to things that sparkled. If Sesshoumaru were the reynard of a leash of foxes, the gifts would be most appropriate to regain his favor. As alpha of an inu pack, the objects held little appeal to him.

But he was pleased by the intent.


6. Lessons

"Alright, I'll do it," Inuyasha said, standing in front of Sesshoumaru as dawn lightened the horizon.

"Hn?"

"I'll acknowledge you as alpha. If it means helping Kagome."

Inuyasha's ears flicked back and forth, projecting his unease at the idea for all the world to see.

Sesshoumaru smirked.

The new moon would be rising soon. The nights when the power of their father's blood flowed out of Inuyasha's veins, leaving him as vulnerable as any mortal. Sesshoumaru did not deny that Inuyasha cared enough for the vixen to finally submit to Sesshoumaru's superior might, but the upcoming nights of humanity were certainly an added incentive.

Though it remained unspoken, it was pleasing to Sesshoumaru for Inuyasha to seek his protection. A guarantee that Sesshoumaru himself would not slay the hanyou turned human in his weakened state.

"Proceed," Sesshoumaru replied, letting his enjoyment of his brother's predicament show in his voice.

It was high time Inuyasha accepted his place.

With a long suffering sigh, Inuyasha knelt and let his head fall forward, exposing the back of his neck to Sesshoumaru.

Slowly, so as to savor the moment, Sesshoumaru drew his claws over Inuyasha's skin, and squeezed none too gently.

-l-

Sesshoumaru-sama was teaching the kits how to smell things. Kagome trailed behind them, trying to simultaneously stay out of the way and see what it was Sesshoumaru-sama was doing.

Every so often, he would stop walking and say, "Come, Rin." Then he would have her sniff something and memorize the scent, teaching her what it meant. The second time he did it, Shippou watched and learned too. It was on the fifth time that he noticed Kagome lingering and staring and said, "Come, vixen."

She joined them, amazed to learn that something smelling safe didn't always mean it was, and something smelling dangerous didn't always mean to run.

She looked at the hanyou. He stood with his back to them, guarding the rear of the pack, his triangular ears erect and twitching towards the slightest sound. Sesshoumaru-sama trusted him.

After memorizing the scent of snake youkai to Sesshoumaru-sama's satisfaction, Kagome approached the hanyou. Standing facing the red-clad warrior, the closest she had ever willingly been, she inhaled his scent, nostrils quivering.

He still smelled like danger.

But so did Sesshoumaru-sama.

"Inuyasha," she said, pointing at the hanyou, memorizing his scent.

He grinned, one fang protruding rakishly over his lip. He pointed back at her. "Kagome."

-l-

It seemed that teaching the vixen to make sense of the scents all around her was a key in bringing her back to herself, something that should have occurred to Sesshoumaru earlier. It was the way most youkai pups first interacted with the world around them, after all. If he himself cast his mind back, to his earliest memories, all he could recall was the feeling of warmth and the scents of his mother – milk, home, comfort – and father – safety, strong, alpha.

As Sesshoumaru taught the vixen, she began speaking more, remembering and picking up words at a rapid pace. He was glad of that. They had been near his shiro for quite some time, but he had begun leading them on a circuitous path, preferring to keep the vixen isolated in the countryside until she made more progress.

He watched as Inuyasha dragged her all over the clearing where they had slept, pointing at things and demanding she say the word for them. She seemed frustrated with him, but understood he outranked her in the pack. She had to obey.

"Sesshoumaru-sama!" Rin burst from the nearby trees, distracting Sesshoumaru from his brother's antics. There was blood on her face and her hands, but Sesshoumaru was unfazed. He could tell by scent the blood was not hers, and had been quietly keeping track of her youki from the moment she left his sight.

"Rin caught a rabbit! Rin hunts just like Sesshoumaru-sama and Inuyasha-sama!"

Examining the mess Rin had made of her prey – and her kimono – Sesshoumaru decided it was time for another lesson.

He paused for only a moment before saying, "Come, kit. Come, vixen."

-l-

The more things Sesshoumaru-sama taught her, the more Kagome came back to herself. Placing names to scents gave her back her words. Learning to hunt, how to stay downwind until the strike, gave her back her independence. And being forced to sit and meditate while holding a ball of foxfire burning steadily in her hands returned to her control of herself.

It was like waking slowly from a dream in which she knew she was dreaming. Her mind screamed at her to get up, to move, but her body was slow to respond.

Until one day it seemed that she opened her eyes, and knew who she was.


7. Surrender

"How long?" Kagome asked, studying her face in the side of the kettle Jaken was using to boil water for tea. She sat with her… pack… as the imp prepared for the mid-day meal.

It was weird, seeing herself with red hair. Like looking at someone else's reflection.

She stared at her claws, then reached up, tracing her fingers over the delicate points of her ears.

"Since you made the wish on the Shikon."

Kagome blinked, looking at Inuyasha. "How long ago was that? I didn't care about time at all until this morning. I just wanted to follow Sesshoumaru-sama."

"You have followed this one for five moons," Sesshoumaru answered before Inuyasha could. He seemed smug, unless Kagome was imagining it. "Inuyasha began hiding from you on his human nights," Sesshoumaru added with absolutely no inflection, as if it was an afterthought.

Kagome blanched, assailed by the memory of throwing herself at Inuyasha, telling him he was a 'pretty boy, sweet boy' and trying to reach into his clothes, to see if he had anything worth stealing.

"Sorry," she mumbled, absolutely mortified. She found she had an urge to run her claws along Inuyasha's wrist. Feeling like she wouldn't be able to get rid of the nagging sensation until she did it, she reached out with a mental sigh.

Inuyasha accepted the gesture. Her apology.

"Does what I just did mean 'sorry'?"

"Yeah," Yasha smiled at her. "It can mean 'sorry' or 'thanks' depending on when you do it."

"So… five months."

"Yeah," Yasha said again, his smile fading.

"I'm a kitsune. Rin is inu youkai. Sesshoumaru-sama has his arm back. Anything else?"

"Aside from the spirits that showed up when you first made the wish? Nah."

"What wish did you make, vixen? You will tell this Sesshoumaru."

Kagome didn't like being called 'vixen,' but now that she was youkai, she understood why he did it. She was new to his pack, and had not yet earned the right to be addressed by name.

And he had done so much for her, she didn't want to argue with him.

Closing her eyes, she repeated her wish.

"I wished for everyone who was harmed by the jewel, and the battle to control it, to find peace and happiness, in this life and the next."

"Hn."

There was a contemplative silence as they all mulled over the changes wrought by her wish, and what others they might find.

"Do you think there's any way to turn me back?" Kagome asked, only to find two pairs of gold eyes fixing her with intense stares. Sesshoumaru abruptly stood and pulled Rin behind him, obstructing her from Kagome's view.

It was Inuyasha who said, "Why would you want to be human again?"

Kagome suddenly realized that the Shikon Wish had granted her the very thing Inuyasha had always wanted for himself: she was full youkai. She curled her hands into fists, then winced when she sliced her palms with her own claws.

Unthinkingly, she raised her claws to her lips and licked the blood away.

"What now?" Kagome broke the silence again.

"What do you desire?" came Sesshoumaru's rich baritone, still keeping Rin behind him, as if he feared her being stolen. "This one is in your debt."

Kagome was about to tell him not to worry about his arm, because really it was partly her fault he'd lost it in the first place, when she realized that his eyes were on Rin.

She'd turned his little human ward into a youkai daughter, and somehow she felt guilty about that, like she'd made their relationship less special. But Sesshoumaru… Kagome frowned to herself, realizing the reason he had put himself between Rin and the rest of them as soon as Kagome mentioned being changed back.

He wanted Rin to stay youkai, and he would slaughter them all to keep her that way. Not that there was much danger. Kagome doubted she'd ever be able to find a spell powerful enough to undo what was done by the Shikon. And even if I could, she thought with a sinking feeling, I wouldn't. To undo one part of the wish might be to undo it all. I won't sacrifice the happiness of my friends just because I don't like being forced to be something I'm not.

Looking down at her tattered clothes – the same ones she had been wearing since first becoming a kitsune – she quietly made herself accept that there was no going back. Never mind that she had been fine just the way she was. She wasn't human anymore. And she was here, in the past. She'd need a way to support herself, and Shippou. She couldn't be a miko, obviously.

It was easier than it should have been, to let go of everything she'd ever known. But she had been preparing for this moment for years, always hyper aware that the well could stop working at any time. She had even anticipated stepping aside to allow Inuyasha to be with Kikyo, and steeled her heart against the ache.

This was just a different kind of surrender.

"Do you know any kitsune, Sesshoumaru-sama?" Kagome asked at last. "I need a teacher."

"It will be done," was his definitive answer.


8. West

They went to Sesshoumaru's shiro the next day. Kagome was surprised at how close it was. Sesshoumaru must have been avoiding taking her there when she was still… lost.

The kits and Jaken rode on Ah Un, Sesshoumaru flying ahead of them on his youki cloud. Kagome and Inuyasha ran.

She was surprised when she realized he had to push himself to keep up with her.

They skidded to a stop when the shiro came into sight, Inuyasha panting to catch his breath. Kagome gave him a triumphant grin, her lips stretched inhumanly wide.

"Keh. Course you're faster," he said once he could speak. "You're a vixen. Won't ever be as strong as me though."

"Sure, Inuyasha," she replied, saying his name in singsong.

Sesshoumaru landed between them, forestalling any more banter. "Come," he said simply.

They fell into step behind him, as they had so many times before.

Sesshoumaru's shiro was built into the side of a mountain. Up they climbed on a path too steep for a human to navigate, made all the more treacherous by the massive stones that had been cut flat and laid along the hill. It was a traditional protection against siege, Kagome remembered from the few history classes she had attended in her era.

The palace itself was beautiful, rising majestically from the side of the mountain like a crown upon a dark head. The outer wall was made of blue stone, topped with dark wooden arches. Kagome could see sentries posted at intervals along the top of it.

Once they passed through the Great Outer Gate, there was a moat filled with koi, and still more sentries. The warriors were all inu, as far as Kagome could see. They crossed an arched wooden bridge, built in the same style as the outer wall, and reached the Inner Gate. At this time of day, the gate was open, giving Kagome a clear view of the palace.

It was white, with black roofs that sloped and curved outward, and more balconies and levels and paths than Kagome could see, being so close. It was like standing at the foot of a massive beast. One could only see the nearest toe, but knew there was much, much more where that came from. Kagome had heard Rin describe her home in the West, but had thought the little inu was exaggerating. But this… It was daunting. Imposing.

It was clearly Sesshoumaru's palace.

When they passed through the arch of the Inner Gate, there was a massive procession waiting to greet them, or rather, Sesshoumaru, in the big open courtyard inside the wall. Warriors of the West, servants, and visiting high born youkai all made for a confusing swirl of scents and youki. Panicking for a moment, Kagome pressed herself to Sesshoumaru's back and whined.

He looked down at her, one brow raised.

Realizing what she had done, she blushed, sheepish, and ran her claws over his wrist in apology before stepping away.

But her heart still pounded as she tried to take in all the youkai standing before them. Most dressed like warriors and nobles were inu, though Kagome occasionally spotted a different sort of youkai among them. But it was far more likely that if she saw a water sprite, or a snake, or an imp like Jaken, that they would be wearing a servant's uniform.

In a show of grace that it would be impossible for humans to imitate, the gathered youkai all bowed to Sesshoumaru, the Lord of the West.

Kagome calmed immediately. These youkai were loyal to Sesshoumaru.

And she was his.

It was strange to be so comforted by a thought that would have enraged her before. But it was a different kind of belonging. She was not his to trade or sell, as many women were to men in this era. She was his to protect.

She had never fully understood when she was still human.

Ruefully, she reflected that Inuyasha and Kouga's fights over her where much more flattering than she had ever realized.

-l-

Sesshoumaru showed his new pack members to their rooms himself, in order to shield them with his presence. He would be sure that the servants who had not attended the welcome in the courtyard were aware that the two kitsune, and Inuyasha, were under his protection.

They would also need to learn Rin's new scent.

The interior walls of Sesshoumaru's palace were a mish-mash of rice paper screens, wood paneling, and stone in the kitchens and other places where there was likely to be fire. The floors were wood or stone, with woven reed mats in the bedrooms. While Sesshoumaru himself preferred wandering his territory to soft palace living, his late father had delighted in such comforts, even going so far as to have furnishings imported from China and other far lands across the sea. Because of this, Sesshoumaru's palace was full of chairs with silk cushions, four poster beds, strong oak tables, and colorful carpets that he was largely indifferent to.

But Kagome was making appreciative noises, so he supposed that was something. He'd accepted her into his pack, and that meant seeing to her comfort.

They turned a corner, reaching the wing the Lord of the West always occupied with those who were close to him. Unlike the rest of the palace, all of the walls here were of stone and wood panels, to make things more difficult on a would be assassin.

There were ten spacious rooms in the wing. At the end of the hall, tall blue double doors painted with a mural of a white dog running through a field of snow led to the enormous master bedroom with the balcony that Sesshoumaru occupied. Save for his room and Rin's, all in the hall were empty. Sesshoumaru had never seen fit to form a pack for himself, until now. He had always relied on his own strength.

Until he had his wounds tended by a tiny human girl.

He placed Inuyasha in the rooms he himself had occupied when their father was still alive. Sniffing at the furnishings, his brother grumbled.

Sesshoumaru ignored him, sliding the door shut.

The vixen gave him pause. As the oldest female in his pack, she was an alpha by default. And she had instinctually assumed the role as much as she was able, without truly knowing what she was doing. She groomed and cared for the pups, made sure they ate before herself, and protected them fiercely.

Sesshoumaru looked down at Rin. His pup was standing happily at the vixen's side, leaning into her legs. Her new found inu nature pushed her to act as an inu pup did. Having no mother, she had turned to the alpha female of her pack for comfort and closeness. It was not unusual for inu pups to sleep with their mothers until their hundredth year.

Making a decision, Sesshoumaru led the vixen to the room closest to his, the room that until now had been solely Rin's.

"This is Rin's room!" his pup chirped happily, at once moving to show the kit her toys.

"Now you will share," he informed her. She nodded her acceptance, already busy engaging the kit in play.

The vixen turned to him, opening her mouth before snapping it shut, giving him a glimpse of her dainty fangs. A look of confusion went over her face.

No doubt her lingering human sensibilities told her this was inappropriate. Yet , it would feel natural to her as a kitsune.

"More suitable attire will be brought," he said simply, before leaving her to puzzle things out for herself.


9. Tails

Kagome wore an elegant kimono, the nicest she had ever owned. It had three layers. The bottom layer was a plain pale gold. The middle was a light pink, patterned with a depiction of teal foxfire that shimmered in the light. The top layer was exquisite silk, green with white flowers spiraling along her sleeves and hem. All the layers were held closed with a wide golden obi, extravagantly knotted at her back. Her hair hung free down to her waist behind her, as most youkai wore it, the red strands making a striking contrast against the colors of her new ensemble.

Her new teacher, Inari-sama, a golden kitsune of nine tails, glided across the room, demonstrating how to walk in such an elaborate outfit. Her kimono was as golden as she was, her sleeves decorated with stylized white fox tails. White and gold markings curled around her green eyes, giving the impression of a fox's mask. With her cherubic face and hair like corn silk, she resembled an angel much more than a kitsune.

Inari-sama was a daughter of the royal house of the Eastern Lands. She had come all the way to Sesshoumaru's palace in order to teach Kagome and Shippou.

"I think my uncle hopes we'll make a match of it," she had confided when she first arrived, winking cheerily.

"You and Sesshoumaru-sama?" Kagome replied, concentrating as she turned. She was youkai, but still clumsy. She did not stumble, did not fall – a human would never notice her mistakes. But for other youkai, they were plain to see.

"Yes," Inari said, correcting Kagome's posture.

Everything Inari did had an edge of wicked cheer, as if a laugh was always waiting just behind her lips.

"But I doubt anything will come of my being here," Inari went on. "However powerful and beautiful Sesshoumaru-sama is, dogs and foxes don't mix."

"What makes you say that?" Kagome demanded sharply, offended on Sesshoumaru's behalf. She mixed with him and Inuyasha just fine.

"His scent is terrifying!" Inari said, flinging her hands wide. "It takes all my will not to jump from the window every time he's in the room. Aren't you afraid, when you smell an inu?"

Kagome blinked, remembering her blind terror when she had first scented Inuyasha and Sesshoumaru, the overpowering urge to get away and hide. "Well I was," she began. "I guess I got used to them."

Inari laughed, a sound like coins spilling onto a table. "I don't think I could. Not even if I lived here a thousand years. Come on, try again."

Kagome returned to pacing across the room, trying to manage her kimono. "My tails keep getting in the way."

"Here, wear them like mine."

Kagome blushed as Inari helped her arrange her tails so that they looped through her obi, becoming part of the decorative knot at the back. It was very intimate, having another adult touch her tails. Kagome had to fight to keep from squirming.

"It's not very comfortable," Kagome said dubiously, turning to look at her new obi knot, and comparing it to the mass of golden fur and silk that was Inari's.

"No, but it is fashionable!" Inari declared.

Kagome decided she didn't like being fashionable, but didn't argue about it.

-l-

"I have a question," Kagome told her teacher. She shifted in her chair, trying to find a way to be comfortable with her tails bundled into her obi.

"About the spell?" Inari asked. She leaned over the table, inspecting Kagome's work, her lips pursing when she saw Kagome's crumpled rice paper. Kitsune magic was a totem magic. Their spells had to be anchored to an object. Inari used origami, folding paper into different shapes depending on the spell she was casting. She was teaching Kagome the same method. "You must make your folds neater," Inari scolded. "An uneven spell anchor makes for a weak spell."

Kagome unfolded the paper box she had been trying to make, smoothing her palms over the paper to flatten it. The delicate paper tore, one of her claws catching. She sighed, reaching for a new piece from the stack at the end of the table.

"Not about the spell," she said as she started folding anew. "About Sesshoumaru-sama."

"And what would I know about Sesshoumaru-sama that you do not?" Inari had a meaningful look on her face, her tone suggesting that she thought Kagome had feelings for the Great Dog.

Kagome wrinkled her nose, snorting at the thought. "Not like that. It's just… Pack. I know I'm part of his pack. And that Inuyasha, Rin, and Shippou are also part of the pack. I understand here," she put her hand over her heart. "But not here," she finished, tapping her temple with one claw-tipped finger. "Being pack means being under the alpha's protection, and protecting and serving him in return. But Sesshoumaru-sama is the Lord of the West. Isn't the whole kingdom his pack?"

Inari giggled, her eyes crinkling at the corners. She shook her head, her golden hair rippling. "Pack is different. Though it's funny to hear you say 'pack.' We kitsune use the term 'leash.' But they are the same." Inari paused, raising her fingers to tap against her lips. Kagome recognized it as her thinking pose.

"Humans have family, isn't that right?"

"Yes," Kagome said, even as she suppressed a sigh, her gut clenching.

"Well pack is like that. A human lord has his village, but also his family. You see?"

"Yes," Kagome said again, her face blank.

Sesshoumaru had made her part of his family?

Not knowing what to say or how to feel, Kagome went back to practicing her origami.

She tore three more pieces of paper before the lesson was finished.

-l-

Sesshoumaru sat in his study, reviewing the day's scrolls. As always, he was determined to deal with this irritating part of ruling the West as quickly as possible, so that he might resume traveling his lands. He much preferred the stars overhead to the roof of a shiro.

Picking up the next document, he let a small smile twitch his lips upward.

Against the advice of all of his counselors, he had begun grooming Rin as the heir of the West. When they had protested that she was female and not of his blood, he had simply pointed out that they had been suggesting he take a mate and beget an heir for the past decade. Now they had the heir they wished for.

And Sesshoumaru had not had to make himself ridiculous chasing after a female.

One of the counselors, an old turtle youkai, had then pointed out that Inuyasha might try to dispute Rin's claim. It would be prudent, he said, to betroth them.

Sesshoumaru had not dignified that with an answer.

A loud squawk, followed by kitsune cackling, brought him out of his thoughts. Rising, he went to the window that overlooked the private gardens below. It seemed that Inari of the Nine Tails was holding lessons outside this day. As he watched, three kitsune assumed the guise of Rin, and joined the real pup in tormenting Jaken.

They surrounded the little green imp, tossing flowers and rushing around him in a circle, daring him to guess which was the real Rin.

Sesshoumaru could tell the two lesser kitsune were not Rin, but he could not distinguish her from Inari of the Nine Tails. Not at this distance, at any rate.

Neither could Jaken, it seemed. The imp chose incorrectly, and the three kitsune bopped him on his bald head. Then they all laughed, save the imp, and the game began anew.

Sesshoumaru watched as they played again. The younger kitsune, Shippou, had a greater command of transformative disguises than Kagome. But he did have more practice.

The former priestess excelled at foxfire and illusion, as well as the seductive spells that vixens used to lure men and male youkai alike. He gathered that those skills were similar in execution to the miko powers she no longer possessed, and so all the easier for her to master. But her transformations lasted minutes only, and she had difficulty getting her shadow to change to match.

Sesshoumaru was not worried. Kagome had an adult mind, and more power at her disposal than Shippou. She would surpass the fox kit soon if she kept training. Sesshoumaru wouldn't be surprised if she didn't gain another tail or two before Inari took her leave.

Only vaguely familiar with the habits of foxes from his dealings with the Eastern Lands, Sesshoumaru had questioned Inari as soon as she had arrived. He had to understand the kitsune in his pack, if he was to do his duty by them.

Inari of the Nine Tails had told him that a kitsune's first three tails were for age – in the usual case, it was one for each hundred years of life. At least three tails marked a mature fox.

The other six were for cleverness. A kitsune gained tails by perfecting skills and gaining wisdom. For them, knowledge was quite literally power.

Sesshoumaru was determined that both Kagome and Shippou would achieve a full nine.


10. Conversations

"Sesshoumaru-sama?" Kagome said meekly. She hadn't seen much of him since they had arrived at the shiro.

She wondered if it was because he was busy, or simply that didn't enjoy her company and was glad he no longer had to put up with her.

"Hn."

That meant he was willing to listen.

She couldn't decide if he was easier for her to read now because she had spent so much time traveling with him, or if it was because she was youkai, picking up on things her human senses never would have.

She hoped it was the first one. She refused to think of herself as better or more skilled now that she was a kitsune. She was different, yes, but not better.

She bowed, then took a seat in the chair across from Sesshoumaru's desk. The armrests were carved with images of ning-ya youkai. Mermaids. Kagome ran one claw over the lines of their tails.

"Sesshoumaru-sama," she started again, trying to gather her thoughts and express them in some semblance of order. He always made her so tongue-tied with his stoic beauty and massive aura, sitting as still and expressionless as if he were carved from ice. She almost wished for the days when she had communicated with him solely with whines and growls.

"I wanted to say that. I thank you for everything you've done for me, and Shippou. The clothes, and the lessons and… That is, I don't want you to feel, well. Trapped with us. If you would rather we left, I'd understand. I consider your debt repaid."

Sesshoumaru had never liked her. He hadn't seemed to hate her, either, but still. It was a bit much, to expect him to let her remain part of his pack now that she didn't need him anymore. After all, the only reason he'd ever traveled with her to begin with, back during the quest for the Shikon, was because Rin had asked him to.

She was shocked when Sesshoumaru growled at her, more forcefully than he had since well… that time with the love spell she always tried very hard not to think about. She was even more shocked when he blinked, seemingly taken aback by his own vehemence.

Refusing to be sorry for caring about his feelings on the matter, she firmly locked her hands together to keep herself from reaching for his wrist.

"Do you wish to go?" he asked once he had calmed himself.

"Well, no," she said honestly. She loved Rin, and she needed help to learn to control her magic and function in youkai society. And she'd never seen Inuyasha and Sesshoumaru spend so much time together without trying to rip each other apart. They still fought from time to time, of course, particularly about Inuyasha's determination to sleep in a tree outside the bedroom window of the room Kagome shared with Rin and Shippou… But they weren't being serious. It was play more than anything else.

She wondered if it would seem playful to her, if she were still human, and frowned, hating that those sorts of thoughts – comparisons of herself before and after – kept flitting through her head.

"Then you will stay until you wish to go. You will always have a home here. Honor demands no less," Sesshoumaru told her.

"Because my wish made Rin youkai," she said, trying to keep resentment at bay. Sesshoumaru, Inuyasha, and Shippou all expressed such joy at her and Rin's lost humanity. As if they'd had a disease they were now cured of.

"No," Sesshoumaru intoned, his voice deep and filled with more feeling than she'd ever before heard. "Because your wish made her live."

-l-

"Oi, wench."

Kagome sighed. "What is it Inuyasha? I'm trying to practice."

And indeed she was. She was in the practice courtyard outside the dojo, wearing the blue cotton yukata and black hakama that were issued to trainees for the palace guard. Her sleeves were tied back to her shoulders, to keep them out of the way.

In her hands she held a bow gifted to her by Sesshoumaru, made from one of the spines of a dragon he'd slain. Targets ranged along at various distances, some burning, and others scorched. Sesshoumaru had been all too happy to accommodate her request to improve her meager combat skills, and arranged for her to join one of the classes of female trainees. She'd found she had a knack for imbuing projectiles with foxfire, so that they exploded on contact. It wasn't so different from firing an arrow of purification.

Once she could consistently strike the centers of the targets with bow and arrow, the training masters had promised she could move onto shuriken – throwing stars with four sharp points.

"I'm thinkin' of taking off for a while. Go see how Sango and Miroku are doin', back at the village. Maybe stop by the well…"

Kagome shook her head, putting another arrow to her bowstring. "Thanks for the invitation, Yasha, but I can't."

Inuyasha snorted. "You mean you won't."

She slowly exhaled, then loosed the arrow on the string. It hit one of the midway targets with a bloom of emerald flames. "I just need more time. To be honest, I don't really trust myself around a lot of humans yet."

And she was afraid of being too far from Sesshoumaru. Part of her worried about losing herself to her youkai instincts, as she had before. It had happened once, and so could happen again. What if it did, and Sesshoumaru wasn't there to take care of her?

She would never say so out loud, but she didn't think Inuyasha was powerful enough to cow her in the way Sesshoumaru had. Not without it coming to blows.

"Well alright," Inuyasha said, his ears drooping. He'd been awfully sweet, in his own way, since her world had been turned upside down. "Want me to tell them anything? Or I dunno. Write them a letter or something? Miroku can read."

She smiled. "I will. Thanks. And I mean it. Really, thanks."

"You're welcome, Kagome."

Inuyasha hesitated, but then he took her bow out of her hands and leaned down. He didn't seem as tall as he used to, now that she'd spent so much time with the even taller Sesshoumaru.

Then Inuyasha's face was close to hers, his long white hair tumbling over his shoulders, the ends tickling along her fingertips. Kagome closed her eyes, her breath catching as Inuyasha rubbed one of his fangs along the edge of her jaw. Heat pooled in her belly, excitement making her tails tremble. She whined, more out of confusion and… something else, than fear.

Inuyasha stepped back, a blush turning his cheeks red. His scent had gone spicy. "I'll be back soon."

"Right," Kagome said dazedly, her heart still hammering.

-l-

As soon as Kagome gathered her wits, she went straight for Inari-sama. Clearly, there were some things Sesshoumaru hadn't taught her about youkai etiquette, either because he found telling a vixen about them embarrassing, or didn't think of her as old enough.

Whichever it was, she didn't care. She was finding out now.

Dismissing Shippou with instructions to see if he could sneak into Rin's lessons undetected, Kagome lowered herself into a chair across from Inari, determination shining from her fox-face.

"Inari-sama, I have questions that are somewhat embarrassing."

"You don't smell embarrassed," the golden haired vixen responded.

Kagome blinked at that, realizing that she really wasn't. Rather, her mind told her she was supposed to be embarrassed. But kitsune were very sensuous youkai, well known for seducing humans and taking lovers. Kagome sighed.

Another thing about her that was different now.

Plunging ahead, Kagome asked, "What does it mean when another youkai rubs their fangs on your chin? Like this." She demonstrated on her hand.

"It depends," Inari told her, obviously comfortable discussing such things. "From a child it is a request for affection, or food. From an adult, it can be a request for permission, a plea, or an overture to sex."

"How do you know which is which?"

Inari shrugged, somehow making the motion graceful. "You just do. Sometimes it's even all of them at the same time. Think of it as asking if there is interest. If an overture is spurned, then many will pretend that wasn't what they meant, to save face."

Kagome sighed. It seemed she had a lot of thinking to do. Oh, Inuyasha…

"What else do I need to know? Things that Sesshoumaru-sama wouldn't know, or wouldn't tell me."


11. Pretending

Sesshoumaru was strolling through the privates gardens reserved for his pack to escape the noise of his court when he saw the vixen, Kagome, meditating beneath a tree. She sat with her legs folded beneath her, an ember of foxfire burning in each of her upturned hands. As he watched, she wriggled, then took a deep breath, her flames flickering. Like all kitsune, she was naturally rambunctious, but the progression of her magical abilities depended on her mastering that nature.

Hiding his scent and youki, he approached.

When he was standing directly over her, she started, the embers of foxfire growing into flames that licked along her fingers. He could hear her pulse quicken. But then she recognized him, and smiled one of those toothy kitsune grins, letting her foxfire go out.

He was pleased that she did not fear him. But why shouldn't he be? He would be a poor alpha if his pack cowered at his approach.

Still, he was pleased.

"Sesshoumaru-sama! You startled me."

"One must rely on their ears as well as their nose," he told her.

She nodded, accepting his lesson.

He folded himself down next to her, assuming a meditative pose.

All was quiet for several moments.

"You are wearing your hair black today," he observed.

His mother had often grown upset if his father did not remark on her changes in clothing and hairstyle. He did not think Kagome was the same, but if a simple statement could save him dealing with an angry vixen later, he didn't see the harm.

Blue eyes opened, regarding him. "Oh? Yes." She ran her claws through the glossy black strands. "Inari-sama says that maintaining a small change for a longer period of time is good practice. And, well… It makes me feel more like myself."

Sesshoumaru rumbled his understanding, and returned to meditating.

"Sesshoumaru-sama?"

"Hn."

"We haven't seen a lot of you since we've been at the shiro."

He inclined his head. "There is much to be done, to rule the West."

"The kits miss you."

He turned his head to look down at her. "The pups," he corrected.

The twinkle in her eye told him this was a point she would not concede. But she was kitsune, and bound to rebel. At least it was manifesting in something that mattered little.

"And you, vixen? Do you also miss this Sesshoumaru?" He'd meant it as a simple question, something to fill the silence. But now his ears strained as he waited for her answer.

She blushed, her hair streaking red as she lost hold of her transformative magic. Sesshoumaru silently fingered one of the red strands, bringing it to her attention. She closed her eyes, her brow wrinkling in concentration.

Her hair turned uniformly black once more.

"I guess I do," she admitted, boldly looking up at him.

She was a strange creature, alternating as she did between fumbling shyness and almost foolhardly impudence. Perhaps it was her human and kitsune natures at war with one another?

But no. Sesshoumaru had traveled with Inuyasha and his humans when they were hunting for Naraku. He remembered Kagome as a human miko.

She had been much the same.

"We leave soon," he told her, after doing some mental calculations. "To patrol the West."

If he worked through the nights without sleeping for the next seven days…

Perhaps when Inuyasha returned he would appoint the hanyou as steward. Then Sesshoumaru would be free to spend his days wandering, honing his skills on what opponents he could find.

Hn. It is unlikely even Inuyasha would fall for such a trick.

"Do you promise?" the vixen sighed happily, batting her eyes at him. "You have to promise! And you know what they say about breaking a promise to a kitsune," she teased.

Sesshoumaru snorted.

But he promised.

-l-

Seven days later, Kagome walked behind Sesshoumaru. They'd just left the shiro, where Jaken had been left holding Sesshoumaru's seal. The little imp had almost fainted when presented with it. And the other council members had grumbled and growled, hating that Sesshoumaru entrusted one of the few non-inus with the rule of the West until his return.

"You did that just to irritate the old dogs," Kagome had accused as they went through the Great Outer Gate.

"Untrue," Sesshoumaru replied, his carriage suggesting he was affronted at the mere idea. "Jaken is more loyal than they. That they do not like this is no concern of mine."

"You won't make any friends that way."

"I am a lord. I may be liked, or I may rule well. I may not do both."

That statement sent Kagome into a contemplative silence. No wonder Sesshoumaru seemed to dislike being at the palace. There, he had to be the Lord of the West all of the time. Wandering the land, he could be just Sesshoumaru, an inu male traveling with his pack.

She had to admit that she hoped they didn't return to the shiro for a good long time. A break from formal lessons and the stifling influence of court was more than welcome, and not just for her. The kits gamboled around them, and Kagome could actually feel Sesshoumaru's aura relaxing.

They made a pretty picture, Sesshoumaru silently leading them, Kagome and the kits a few paces behind, the three of them dressed as befitted their places in Sesshoumaru's pack. He had provided Kagome and Shippou with rich outfits of gold and green, and Rin wore a kimono of white, patterned with a magenta the exact shade of the stripes on her cheeks.

Ah Un brought up the rear.

Watching Shippou turn cartwheels while Rin stooped to pick any flower in her path, Kagome wondered if Sesshoumaru would prefer to be a title-less wanderer. His pride would never allow him to give up his birthright, but still, he seemed much happier outside the shiro walls.

It was a revelation, that she wasn't the only one who pretended. Wasn't the only one pulled between two selves. And it made her ashamed of the nights she had spent cursing the kami and Midoriko and the jewel and her wish. To have spent so much time convincing Inuyasha that he was fine as a hanyou, to have put sweat, and blood, and most of all tears upon tears into proving that her humanity did not make her helpless, did not make her weak... Only then, at the end of her quest, to be transformed into a youkai?

It was a slap in the face. An unwanted reward.

The price she paid.

Some days she fumed, a silent scream echoing in her skull, her thoughts filled with every swear word she'd ever heard. She wanted to rant, and cry, and demand someone fix her, because she wasn't supposed to be this way. She was broken now, couldn't they see that? She had been fine before. If no one else valued her as a human, she had at least valued herself.

But they were all so happy, in a way she had never seen before, in a way that Kagome could not allow herself to be...

Every time she found herself delighting in foxfire, in the easy strength of her limbs, in the subtle scents of the gardens, it was all she could do to hold her temper in check. For that was the worst, the very worst.

When she was glad to be a kitsune, it was a betrayal of who she was. Had been. Would never be again.

But she never let on. Never uttered a complaint. Kept it all locked behind the mischievous mask of a fox.

She didn't want to seem ungrateful.

Did Sesshoumaru get angry too? Did he howl out his rage, his anguish, at being fated from birth to be the Lord of the West?

Did he like it?

Was the calm expression of indifference always on his face a mask, just as hers was?

Gazing at his back, letting herself admire the hypnotic way his hair swayed with his steps, Kagome didn't know.


12. Gratitude

There was a quiet serenity to traversing the borders of the Western Lands, before crisscrossing their way through the territory. When they called a halt for the day, Sesshoumaru hunted, alternating taking Rin and Shippou with him. When the erstwhile hunters returned, Kagome cleaned, gutted, and skinned the kills, her sharp claws making short work of the job.

Sesshoumaru and Rin ate their meat in raw strips. Kagome and Shippou often ate theirs raw as well, but more often cooked it with foxfire. The pelts Kagome kept, amassing a stack of them on Ah Un's saddle. Sesshoumaru gave a long suffering sigh, making remarks about kitsune being hoarders. Kagome rolled her eyes at him.

She just didn't want to waste anything they might need later.

-l-

A human trade caravan passed near them after they had been traveling for a fortnight. Drawn by the sounds of their camp, Kagome watched from a perch in a tree as the human men ate dinner around a campfire and told each other bawdy stories. The light of their campfire turned their faces orange, making them seem like the preternatural creatures, not she.

She wondered if most youkai found humans as mysterious as the humans found them.

Her nose twitched when Sesshoumaru alighted on a branch next to her. The paleness of his skin and kimono sleeves stood out in the darkness, the wood creaking under the weight of his tall frame.

"You are distressed," he said, his voice penetrating the fog that had enveloped Kagome as she watched the traders.

She was silent for several long minutes, doing nothing but stare at the human men who went about their business below. The traders had no idea two youkai watched them. It would be so easy, to upset their little camp. Kagome could frighten them with illusion, or kidnap a man when he went into the forest before assuming his guise and taking his place. The possibilities were limited only by her grasp of her kitsune magic.

Their fear would be sublime.

Panicking at the turn her thoughts were taking, Kagome grasped at Sesshoumaru's sleeve. He was a lifeline. An anchor that kept her tethered. The only thing that stopped her from acting out her dark fantasies.

"Sometimes I wonder if I'm still me anymore," she whispered, her lips barely moving.

She returned her gaze to the group of men. "I want to play tricks on them. And steal. And maybe seduce one of the men, only to deny him." She pointed, indicating one of the younger men with a tan face and attractive little beard. "That one." He looked delicious. "That is the one I would take."

"And will you?"

There was no judgment of her desires in Sesshoumaru's tone.

Kagome shook her head, Sesshoumaru's sleeve still clutched in her hands. She shouldn't. She wouldn't. And yet something inside whispered and wanted, demanded.

Steal them, trick them, seduce and laugh, playthings, gold, blood…

Unbidden came an image of the bearded man, a ghastly grin on his face as she murdered him while in the throes of pleasure.

Kagome shuddered.

"No. No, I won't!" she gasped in a hoarse whisper.

She said it like a promise, though she wasn't sure who she was promising: Herself, Sesshoumaru, or the humans below. "Not any mean tricks. Not unless I see someone who deserves it."

Like a spell, the words made the night stop suffocating her. That inner voice fell silent. Kagome loosened her grip on Sesshoumaru's sleeve.

Kitsune always had to keep a promise, once made. To break a promise was to lose a tail.

"You are not so different."

"What?" Kagome asked, startled by Sesshoumaru's sudden pronouncement.

"You were a miko who would not harm youkai unless you had no other choice. Now you are a kitsune who will not play tricks on humans unless they deserve it. It is not so different."

Kagome's heart fluttered and tears pricked her eyes, but she hid both behind a wide kitsune grin. Inside her soul, something that had been crushed began to mend.

From the moment she had awakened to her new life, she had followed Sesshoumaru out of loyalty and gratitude. But now?

Now she would follow him for the sake of friendship and love.

"Thank you, Sesshoumaru-sama."

Words were not enough, so, risking life and limb, she wrapped an arm around his neck to steady herself, then stood on her toes and rubbed her cheek against his.


13. Tricks

The next time they were near humans proved to be too much for Kagome to resist. Once the kits were asleep, she struggled with herself for what seemed an eternity before getting up. She'd promised not to play any mean tricks, but maybe a few of the more harmless variety wouldn't hurt? She had to do something, or she'd go mad. The human village in the distance sang a siren song.

She could feel Sesshoumaru's eyes upon her. Mutely, she waited for him to say 'Come, vixen.' He'd always stopped her, before.

This time, he didn't.

Instead, he left his post at the entrance of that night's den, taking Kagome's place next to the kits. Sensing his warmth in their sleep, Rin and Shippou curled into him, Rin wrapping herself in one of his sleeves. Regally, Sesshoumaru inclined his head.

He trusted her to go amongst the humans.

Glee gave her feet wings as she ran through the trees, her hair blowing back from her face. Her tails thrashed against her obi, making her whole kimono ripple with her excitement.

It was dark in the village, but she could see just fine.

There were rows of small huts, a few farms, and a manor house, no doubt where the headman lived.

She went first to the manor house, thinking that with a house so big and fine, the headman wouldn't notice if she stole a trinket or two. A spark of kitsune magic, and she walked unseen, save for the shadow with three tails that danced along the walls. A servant, up late, spotted the disembodied shadow and squeaked. Kagome laughed a kitsune laugh, watching as he ran back to his room.

Quiet again, she tripped up the stairs, hoping that the headman had children. She wanted toys for Rin and Shippou.

There were two doors in the narrow hall. She opened the first to see a man sleeping between two women. His wives, no doubt. Or maybe his concubines. One of the women stirred. Kagome froze, forgetting that she had made herself invisible. The woman gave a little moan and rolled over. Kagome let out the breath she'd been holding, and shut the door.

The next door led to a room that obviously belonged to a child. Kagome was in luck. The headman had a young daughter. A futon filled the floor of the small room, the little girl lying upon it, her hair splayed over her pillow. In the day, the futon would be rolled and stored in a corner. But for now, Kagome carefully stepped over the girl's sleeping form to get to the chest sitting against the far wall.

The chest held clothes, neatly folded in the bottom drawer. The shallow top drawer contained the child's few toys – a porcelain doll, a few games, a little wooden spinning top…

Looking through the child's things, Kagome finally settled on a hanetsuki set. The balls, with their bright feathers, and the fine wooden paddles painted with images of birds in flight, appealed to her. She stuck the paddles in her obi and tucked the balls into her sleeves.

But looking at the little girl's sleeping face gave her pause.

Remembering her conversation with Sesshoumaru the last time she had been tempted to play tricks on humans and the promise she had made, Kagome went to the window. Opening it, she plucked a leaf from the tree just outside. After closing the window so that the child wouldn't catch cold, she went to work.

The tree was a loquat, a yellow plum tree, and its leaves were broad. Using one razor sharp claw, Kagome cut out a square shaped section, then started folding, letting the rest of the leaf fall to the bedroom floor.

First a diagonal fold, and a sharp crease. Then twice more, make the square smaller, a box.

Then there was the mountain fold, resulting in three layers. Separating the layers on the left side and executing a squash fold formed the face and ears. All that was left to do was for Kagome to crease the tail, and use the point of one claw to poke two holes in the face, for eyes.

When she was done, she held an origami fox of lush leafy green. Bringing it close to her face, she took a deep breath and exhaled from her nose, letting her breath play over the figure, granting it a semblance of life. The origami fox shook its tail, and nodded its head, its pinprick eyes blinking. Satisfied that this was an adequate trade, Kagome left her creation in place of the hanetsuki set.

She quickly explored the rest of the house, pocketing a double handful of coins and eating a dumpling she took from the kitchen. Once bored, she returned to the village.

One of the farmers had left out milk and honey for any spirits that visited in the night. Kagome drank the milk and took the little jar of honey, thinking to share it with Shippou. The two inu they traveled with probably wouldn't like it.

The other farmers hadn't left anything for her, so she tied their plow reins in knots, little giggles escaping her as she thought of their faces in the morning. They deserved it, for not paying their respects to the fox.

That done, she moved on to the huts.

Most she ignored. They either had nothing she wanted, or were so poor otherwise that she felt bad for bothering them. But still she looked, taking her time.

At last she came to a prosperous house. She thought they must be wood carvers, for all of their furniture, really everything made of wood, was exquisitely crafted. Too nice for a family in a house this size to have bought, but perfectly affordable if they made it themselves. Pleased, Kagome inspected the smaller things she would be able to carry away.

A delicate set of wind chimes dangled outside the door, carved from bamboo. The warm tones would be lovely in the private gardens of Sesshoumaru's palace. Taking care not to clank, Kagome took the chimes down, trying to work out how to carry them. Finally she stuffed them in the back of her obi, using the fur of her tails to muffle the noise.

Next she took an ink well from the chest in the center of the room. The little wooden pot was carved with relief images of dragons that reminded her of Ah Un. Pleased with herself, she smiled, barely remembering to hold her tails still so that the wind chimes wouldn't make noise.

Grateful for the gifts she was taking, she left the gold she had stolen from the headman's house in a pile on top of the chest.

-l-

Sesshoumaru hadn't meant to sleep. In the normal course of things, he never would have succumbed. But in his haste to be able to leave the shiro, he had foregone rest for many nights.

And it had been very long since he had slept with pack around him. The feel of the two pups burrowed into his sides had lulled him into a doze.

That was how the vixen managed to return without him seeing. She must have crept back into camp, using her kitsune magic to keep her scent from waking him.

When Sesshoumaru opened his eyes, he found she had laid her spoils out in the grass, her youki pulsing with pride and exhilaration. He looked to her face, and she bared her fangs at him in triumph.

He found himself baring his in return.

The pups woke up not long after, wasting no time in exclaiming over their gifts. Sesshoumaru observed as the vixen showed them how to play the game she had stolen for them, clapping her hands as she watched them bat two feathered balls back and forth.

Sesshoumaru approved of this game. It would hone their agility and reflexes.

Once the pups were occupied, the vixen approached him. "For you," she said, sliding gracefully to her knees and bowing her head. But she kept her eyes up, locked with his. They danced with anticipation, two jewels in her face.

He had expected a gift, if for no other reason than because he had given the vixen permission to play her silly tricks. But he was surprised at the ink well. He'd thought to receive something golden and shiny, or perhaps a mirror, for kitsune were notably vain.

But this was something he could use. Something uniquely suited to him. He ran his fingers over the carved dragon relief, his eyes going to Ah Un.

"You like it?" Her voice was breathy and light.

He rumbled his pleasure, the sound vibrating through his chest.

"Hn."

The vixen cackled and skipped in place, unable to contain her boisterous pleasure at the reception of her gifts.

Seeking to amuse himself, Sesshoumaru looked askance at the set of wind chimes that still lay in the grass. Seeing the direction of his gaze, the vixen hurried over to them and quickly hid them among the pelts on Ah Un's saddle, guarding them jealously. She was keeping those for herself, as he had guessed.

Sesshoumaru smiled.

They spent a lazy day, a day of the sort Sesshoumaru hadn't enjoyed since he was a pup. Rin and Shippou alternated playing their new game with chasing orbs of light the vixen conjured for them, her tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth as she concentrated. Sesshoumaru basked in the sun, and occasionally called the pups to him to impart knowledge of strategy that could be utilized in their games.

When the vixen wasn't entertaining the pups, she lazed beside him, within touching distance, though she didn't touch.

But of course, he was alpha. She knew that he had to be the one to invite contact.

He did not because he did not want to become accustomed to such things.

No other reason.


14. Duty

Kagome luxuriated in a hot spring, a happy sigh escaping her lips as heat sunk into her bones. Bathing in cold water no longer bothered her, as most youkai weren't as sensitive to extremes in temperature as humans were, but she still preferred a good warm spring to an icy river.

So when she'd scented water with the particular underlying smell of minerals that meant the source was bubbling up from some hot place deep underground, Kagome had enlisted Rin's help in getting Sesshoumaru to stop early for the day. It didn't take much: Kagome made the sneaky fox-face that promised mischief and Rin followed up with puppy eyes, and then Sesshoumaru was silently changing direction, though the look he gave Kagome spoke volumes.

Must you teach her such bad habits? seemed to be implied in the curve of his brow.

Kagome wrinkled her nose and winked at him. Yes, I really must.

With that, they all stripped down to their undergarments and slid into the water.

As always, Kagome forced herself to keep her eyes on Sesshoumaru's face. The first time they had all bathed together this way, she'd been momentarily scandalized, having expected Sesshoumaru to bathe apart from her and the kits, then briefly melancholy over yet another relic of her humanity falling away. Because of course it was proper for her alpha to bathe with the pack.

And then she'd made the mistake of letting her gaze fall over sculpted chest muscles and powerful thighs that were decorated with slanting magenta stripes, and her bitter thoughts were replaced by a lust that heated her cheeks.

Sesshoumaru's smug smirk had made it obvious that he'd notice her perusal and the change in her scent.

The jerk.

So now, Kagome took great pains to keep her eyes – and everything else – to herself. Sesshoumaru's ego was big enough without her turning into a hormone addled idiot every time he took his shirt off. And it just wasn't fair that Sesshoumaru didn't seem to have any problem looking at her without a similar reaction.

Either I'm an ugly youkai, or he hasn't got a pulse, she mused. Probably the second one. I mean, he barely ever moves his face. Even his smirk is more of a lip twitch.

Drawn from her thoughts by the kits splashing, she moved to wash Sesshoumaru's hair. Rin and Shippou always fought for the honor if Kagome didn't direct Shippou to help with the washing and Rin to help with the combing.

For his part, Sesshoumaru stared at a point in the distance, apparently unconcerned and untouched by the two kits wrestling and arguing over who served their alpha best. With the way Shippou pulled on the white mass of Sesshoumaru's hair in his enthusiasm and the high pitch of Rin's voice, Kagome was impressed both with the tai youkai's patience and concentration.

Once Kagome had declared Sesshoumaru's hair clean and combed, he quickly left the water and dressed, taking up a guard position on the bank. He never lingered, or joined in their bath time antics.

Kagome and the kits, well used to Sesshoumaru, turned to bathing each other, and then played Tentacle Tails, a game in which Kagome chased the kits around in a circle, wrapping her tails around them and jerking them under the water whenever she caught one of them. They kept at it until all of them were red faced and breathless. In moments like these, Kagome couldn't help but be completely happy.

At a lull in their splashing, Sesshoumaru unceremoniously pulled Shippou from the water by one little arm. Shippou squeaked and curled in on himself. Traveling with Inuyasha had trained him to expect a pull to the tail or a thump on the head.

"Dress," Sesshoumaru ordered. "We hunt."

Shippou's green eyes sparked, his single tail twitching. He cautiously straightened up. "We hunt," he agreed in a childish imitation of Sesshoumaru's tone.

Kagome watched Shippou scramble into his clothes, his little chest puffed out proudly. Her little fox kit was flourishing with a true alpha to look up to. Seeing him now, it was plain just how many things he'd needed before that Kagome and her friends just hadn't known how to give him.

Even Inuyasha had been more of an obnoxious older brother, with only a vague instinctual grasp of youkai interaction. Really, Inuyasha needed an alpha as much as Shippou…

"Thank you, Sesshoumaru-sama," Kagome said quietly, knowing he would hear.

Sesshoumaru paused and looked back at Kagome. "It is this one's duty to provide for his pack." His eyes narrowed. "Watch Rin."

Then Shippou leapt onto Sesshoumaru's back, clinging to his fur and hair, and they were gone.

"I hate it when he does that," Kagome muttered to herself. It was disconcerting that Sesshoumaru could still move faster than she could see.

"One day Rin will be that fast," Rin smiled. "And Rin's brother Shippou can ride on Rin's back."

Kagome giggled.

"Come on, Rin. Let's take off Ah Un's saddle and give him a bath too."

"Yes, Kagome-sama!"

-l-

Sesshoumaru could find no prey large enough to sufficiently feed four youkai and a dragon. He would have to range farther to see that his vixen and pups did not go hungry, but he hesitated to go so far from Rin and Kagome without leaving them extra protections.

He would take Shippou back, and then enclose them all within a barrier while he hunted.

Decision made, he turned on the spot.

"We're going back already?" Shippou questioned from his perch on Sesshoumaru's shoulders.

Failure was a feeling Sesshoumaru liked not at all.

"Hn."

The young kitsune looked in the direction of their camp. "Are Kagome and Rin okay?"

"All will be well," Sesshoumaru reassured, pleased at the care the kitsune showed for his pack. He'd only taken the kit into the pack because of his debt to the vixen, but Shippou would be a credit to the West, given time and proper training.

With that, Sesshoumaru put on a burst of speed, eager to see Shippou into his mother's arms and the pack safe within a barrier.

-l-

He arrived to the scent of fear and soft babbling, gurgling sounds.

Sitting with Sesshoumaru's pack were two human females, both obviously terrified. A third human, a baby from the size and smell, was cradled in Kagome's arms.

"Ooooh, he's so cute, yes he is! Yes he is!" the vixen cooed nonsensically.

Shippou jumped to the ground and trotted over to inspect the human child. The human females started, and upon seeing Sesshoumaru, one of them began to cry.

"It's just Sesshoumaru-sama," Rin told the crying human, proffering a crown woven of flowers. When the woman didn't take it, Rin gently placed the circlet on the human's black hair.

Sesshoumaru suppressed a sigh. Of course the vixen would attempt to befriend stray humans, even those that wanted nothing to do with her. He supposed he should have expected it sooner.

"How came these humans to be here?" he asked once he was standing over the vixen.

"Rin heard crying, and Kagome-sama helped Rin find where it was coming from," his pup chirped helpfully. Sesshoumaru rested his hand on the crown of her head, idly stroking her hair.

"We had to help them, Sesshoumaru-sama," Kagome picked up the narrative. "They were traveling to visit a relative, and their husband was killed, and they were lost! And just look at this face," she held up the pudgy-cheeked baby. "Couldn't you just eat him up?"

At that, the crying woman flung herself forward, her tears coming so thick and fast that she could barely speak. "No! Please don't eat him! Please, please, take me instead, only spare my son! Let my sister-wife take him back to our village!"

Kagome's mouth fell open in shock. "I wouldn't really eat him!" she tried to reassure the crying woman. "Why would you think I'd eat him or you?"

The woman didn't answer, her breath stolen by her cries. Kagome pressed the baby into the woman's arms, and took a step back.

"You're going to eat us because you're demons," said the second woman, the quiet one. "It's what you do."

It wasn't Kagome, but the pups who answered that.

"Hey! Being youkai doesn't mean we're bad!"

"Rin wouldn't eat a person! Rin was human once too!"

The woman returned to staring stonily ahead.

Kagome smiled, trying to reassure, but the women recoiled from the sight of her fangs. Her smile faltered, and Sesshoumaru's vixen raised a hand to her lips.

Sesshoumaru caught her wrist before she could complete the motion. She should never hide her fangs from sight, let alone from these two wretched mortals.

"Cease that noise," he ordered the crying woman, the scent of her fear and the wet, snorting sounds of her sobs filling him with contempt.

"Sesshoumaru-sama," Kagome chided. "You're scaring her."

"She already fears."

Forgetting her place, the vixen turned the hand he still held, interlacing her fingers with his. "Yes, but she'll stop if we don't give her any reason to be afraid of us."

Sesshoumaru doubted that, but he conceded that Kagome knew more of humans than he. He nodded, and Kagome squeezed his hand before letting go.

"Now, we're going to help you. We'll take you back to your village, and we'll find whoever killed your husband," she told the women.

Sesshoumaru frowned. "This one cares not if humans make war on one another."

"Ah!" Kagome's blue eyes twinkled at him. "But it wasn't a human who killed their husband. It sounds like it was an ogre. And besides, they live in the West. That makes them your humans. Our humans. We have to help. It's our duty."

Sesshoumaru did not like other youkai hunting the humans who lived in the West. It invariably caused problems that he had to solve. He'd long been in the habit of exterminating those who were so brazen or low as to disturb the peace in his lands.

He nodded.

But he allowed the vixen to believe she had convinced him of this supposed duty. It made her happy, and caused no harm.


15. Fray

Kagome busied herself with making a fire to keep their human companions warm. After a period of silence in which Sesshoumaru had gazed at her, the humans, and then into the sky, he had seemed to come to some sort of decision. He told her to stay with the kits and the humans, and then to her great surprise (though perhaps it shouldn't have been that surprising), he used his youki to form a large dome-like barrier around their campsite. They'd be safe so long as they stayed inside it.

Then he left, announcing that he was going hunting in a low voice that told Kagome that it wasn't just their dinner he'd be killing. That brought a self-satisfied grin to her face. No doubt Sesshoumaru would easily dispatch the ogres that were terrorizing the humans.

A little coil of pleasure unfolded in her belly as she thought of her alpha – her male – and how strong he was, how he was killing because she had asked him to. The feeling was so natural, that it never occurred to her to be disturbed. To wonder if her human self would be so proud of how deadly Sesshoumaru was.

"Kitsune bi," Kagome whispered under her breath, lighting the careful pile of kindling she'd made. The green flames caught, and turned a cheerful orange.

Looking up, Kagome smiled at the human women who watched her warily, remembering only at the last minute that her smiles made them more nervous.

They stared at her. Kagome could smell their fear. Could hear their hearts pound. Was this what it had always been like for Inuyasha?

"I wish you'd tell me your names," she tried again to put the women at ease. "Surely, you can't like that we keep calling you 'the humans.'"

The woman with the baby just shook her head, rocking back and forth with her son. The quieter, fiercer woman answered, "And give you power over us? Everyone knows that once a youkai knows your name, that you're in their power forever."

Kagome tilted her head. "Really? I've never heard that before."

The woman's eyes narrowed. She didn't respond.

Kagome sighed, her tails drooping.

"Don't mind them!" Shippou called. Kagome turned to see him and Rin each sitting astride one of Ah Un's necks. "Some humans are just like that. Not all of them though!"

Her kit gave a bright smile, and Kagome found herself smiling back. She decided to take his words to heart. For all that Shippou looked younger than her, and treated her as his mother, he'd much more experience with this sort of thing than she did.

"When Sesshoumaru-sama returns, we'll escort you back to your village," Kagome told the women.

It did little to mollify them, so Kagome left them to their side of the fire, going instead to lean against Ah Un's side and watch the kits play hanetsuki.

-l-

It was growing dark when the attack came.

Rin noticed the scent first. She coughed and gagged, turning green and holding her nose. Kagome only had time to ask what was wrong before she started choking herself, her eyes watering.

It smelled like rotting corpses. Moldering flesh. Sickness.

It smelled like death.

The human women were giving them odd looks, unable to smell what had the youkai struggling to breathe. But then lumbering footsteps could be heard, and Kagome realized it must be the ogres. Hadn't Inuyasha always had trouble dealing with the stench when he'd fought them in the past?

"Everyone just stay still and don't panic," Kagome gasped, mainly addressing the humans. She sucked in a lungful of air through her mouth, then gagged worse than before. The closer the ogres got, the more horrible their stench, and now she could actually taste it in the air. "We're safe inside the barrier."

"We're not safe with you!" bemoaned the tearful woman. At that precise moment a hulking man-like creature with pebbly grey skin streaked with gore lurched through the trees. He was carrying a club.

"It's us or them!" Kagome snapped. Going to Ah Un's saddle, she retrieved her bow and a quiver of arrows.

Another ogre joined the first, and then another, and another. Soon there was a line of them, all halted by Sesshoumaru's barrier, staring down at the prey they couldn't reach.

Kagome put an arrow to her bowstring, a corona of foxfire spiraling around the head in an emerald haze. Remembering her lessons, she consciously controlled her breathing, seeking to calm herself and steady her hands. In, two, three, four… Out, two, three, four…

She loosed the arrow on an exhale, shooting through the barrier to the ogre standing closest. She missed the eye by a millimeter, but she was getting better. The arrowhead dug firmly into the flesh of the monster's face.

And with a little conscious twist of her youki, Kagome made the arrow explode in flames, wincing at the high pitched shrieks of pain that resulted.

One down, six to go, she thought, her ears still ringing.

That was when the humans broke and ran.

"Come back!" Rin shouted as the two women fled. At least they had the sense to run out the side furthest from the ogres.

But now the ogres were staring after the humans, and beginning to charge their way around the barrier in pursuit, literally plowing through the trees that stood in their way.

Kagome bit her tongue against a curse, and ordered the kits to stay inside the barrier.

If I die, Sesshoumaru is going to kill me! But she couldn't let those women be slaughtered. Not when she could do anything to stop it.

With that, Kagome put her mind to firing arrow after arrow into the retreating backs of the massive grey man-beasts. Two continued on after the humans, but the rest turned back, drawn by the twin stings of foxfire and steel. One swung its club, and Kagome was forced to leap straight up to avoid it. She tried to angle another shot as she was falling, but the wind whipped her sleeves into the way, fouling her bowstring. Why hadn't she thought to tie them back before engaging in battle!

The next thing she knew she was on the ground, ducking and weaving between legs like tree trunks and clubs and fists that tried to smash her. A hand grabbed at her, and she struggled, instinctively calling, "Inuyasha!"

But Inuyasha wasn't here. And she didn't need him. She was just as strong as him now, wasn't she?

She twisted in the grasp of the ogre that had her. She couldn't get to her arrows, but maybe…

She stabbed at his face with her bow, grimacing when the foul smelling creature opened its mouth, crushing her weapon in its jaws.

The odors emanating from those blackened, stump like teeth made her head swim. She couldn't see for the tears in her eyes. Her stomach heaved, and suddenly she was very grateful that she hadn't eaten yet. Her senses completely overwhelmed, she blacked out.

Only to come to what could have been minutes or seconds later to find herself lying in the grass. Weakly looking up, she saw that Rin was clinging to the arm of the ogre-creature that had held Kagome, and there was a viscous purple poison pouring from Rin's claws and mouth.

Shippou was running among the ogres as Kagome had earlier, leading them on a merry chase, though he squeaked in fear every time a blow got too close. Both kits seemed to have learned from Kagome's mistake: they breathed through their mouths, when they breathed at all.

They'd left the barrier to keep her from being crushed.

Danger! Kits! Need, alpha, kits, pack, kill, blood, kill.

Pulling herself to her feet, Kagome turned to look at Ah Un. "Find Sesshoumaru!"

Then, eyes a scorching green, she rejoined the fray.

-l-

Sesshoumaru had ventured far in his hunting trip, traveling in ever widening circles when he was frustrated in both his search for prey and his search for the youkai responsible for attacking the humans the vixen had befriended. Twice, he came upon caches of rotting corpses – animal, lesser youkai, and human. There were several kinds of youkai who allowed their meat to season thusly, but none were welcome in the West, for their eating habits offended Sesshoumaru's nose.

The last tribe of such youkai, kasha, if Sesshoumaru remembered correctly, had been banished to the East in the time of his father.

He was contemplating bringing up this matter with Myobu, the Red Fox of the East, when he sensed a familiar youki swiftly approaching.

It was Ah Un.

Sesshoumaru instantly knew that something was wrong.

Without waiting for the dragon to reach him, he coalesced into a ball of light, expending great amounts of youki to speed back to the campsite where he'd left his pack.

He found the area burned with foxfire, and the stench of kasha heavy in the air. His barrier stood empty, the detritus of camp lying abandoned inside it.

Gagging, Sesshoumaru held his breath to keep the foul odor of the kasha from knocking him unconscious. His senses reeled. Kasha were filthy creatures, a type of ogre resembling giant portly humans with grey, pebbled skin. Carrion eaters, they often killed and stored the bodies of their prey in their dens, waiting for the meat to spoil before they consumed it.

Unable to search by scent, Sesshoumaru reached out with his youki, probing for his vixen and his pups.

Nothing.

Eyes flashing amber, he clenched his jaw and forced himself to focus. He would track the footprints and other signs the kasha had clumsily left in their wake.

He'd not gone far when he spotted the first dead ogre, an arrow protruding from the beast's charred face.

A few feet away lay the vixen's bow, snapped in half.

Sesshoumaru growled, his stripes growing more vibrant as he pushed down the instinct to revert to his true form and lay waste to this place until his pack was returned to him. Destroy, blood, blood, poison, rend, tear, pack, pack, pups, called the inu beast inside.

No, Sesshoumaru told himself.

Eyes narrowing, he moved on.

The next kasha he saw was still alive, but lay gasping on its back. Sesshoumaru couldn't risk taking a breath to scent if there was poison at work, but he recognized the symptoms, and the purple sheen around the tiny punctures in the kasha's massive arm.

Pride and fury warred within him, for it was clear to him that Rin had poisoned this kasha with a swipe of her little claws.

He tore the unlucky fiend apart.

His legendary control was slipping, and he was quickly losing the presence of mind to care. His pup was missing. His kitsune were gone. His eyes glowed red, his youki rising around him, calling up an unnatural wind. The branches of nearby trees began to shake with the force of it. Any other inu would have lost hold of their humanoid form.

He held himself in a grip of iron, only the need to find his pack and centuries spent brutally bending his body and instincts to his will keeping him from losing himself entirely.

There was movement ahead. Sesshoumaru streaked forward in a silver blur, claws splayed wide.

Only to come face to face with himself.

He stopped short.

The other him tilted his head, lowering claws that had been poised to strike. "Sesshoumaru-sama," his Other said in a low, deep voice. "Thank the kami."

That was when Sesshoumaru noticed his Other's shadow.

It was the shadow of a kitsune. But not with three tails.

Four.

They stood out proudly from her body, rather than coiled through her obi knot as she had been wearing them.

"Kagome," he said when her transformative magic faded. He pulled her into his arms, bending to press his nose into her hair. Finally inhaling, he took in her scent, growling when he smelled blood.

It was her left forearm. He brought it to his mouth, lathing the injury with his tongue.

"It will heal, don't worry," she murmured to him.

"The pups?" he asked.

Kagome pulled an origami box from her obi and used a claw to rip it open.

The pups appeared behind her.

Sesshoumaru went to them, Rin clinging to his legs and Shippou climbing up his sleeve to perch on Sesshoumaru's shoulder, wiggling to hide beneath moko-moko.

They were both unharmed.

At last, the red began to fade from Sesshoumaru's vision.

"You assumed my form," he said to Kagome, looking at her over his shoulder.

She shrugged. "Couldn't think of anything scarier."


16. Simple

Sesshoumaru made Kagome and the kits stay with him while he dissolved the remains of the kasha with his poison, though Kagome worried for the human women and wanted to find them. She had been tempted to push him, to tell him she was going to find the humans and leave before he could stop her, but something in his eyes made her hesitate.

Ever since she'd known Sesshoumaru – first as an enemy, then an ally, and now as an alpha, and she thought, friend – it had never occurred to her that the Killing Perfection ever felt fear. What did he have to fear, after all? No one could defeat him.

She had seen him enraged, jealous, blind with hatred, indifferent, and on one occasion desperately sad. But only now did she realize that all of those things were an armor, a shield covering over a deep seated terror.

As frightened as Kagome had been that she wouldn't be able to hold the ogres off long enough, that she wouldn't be able to protect the kits, Sesshoumaru had been infinitely more afraid that he would not reach them in time.

It was so simple. So blatantly true, that she wondered how she had never realized before.

But she knew now.

So she didn't question Sesshoumaru's need to have them close. She just pulled her hair to the side, baring the back of her neck to him, and stayed always within his sightline. And once the kasha had been dealt with, she silently helped relocate their camp away from the smoldering site of the battle, and agreed to stay within yet another barrier with the kits while Sesshoumaru went after the humans.

It wasn't long before he returned. Kagome was braiding flowers into Rin's hair while Shippou dozed on a pillow made of her tails, both kits sleepy now that the excitement was over. Sesshoumaru descended from above on his youki cloud, Ah Un just behind him.

"The humans?" Kagome asked, brow furrowed. She could neither see nor scent the women.

"Returned to their village," Sesshoumaru answered, a slight curl of his lip revealing that he had not enjoyed the experience.

Kagome pushed the kits gently to the side, and stood so that she could run her claws along Sesshoumaru's wrist. "Thank you, Sesshoumaru-sama."

He stared down at her for a long moment, and Kagome felt frozen to the spot. There was an intensity about his expression that made her stomach flip over, and then drop into her toes.

Sesshoumaru grasped her hand, and then slowly turned it over and ran his claws along her wrist. He did not say the words, but then he didn't need to. Sesshoumaru had a gift for expressing himself silently.

Kagome felt her cheeks heat in a blush, and knew she must be a bright cherry red.

-l-

Something changed, after Kagome got her fourth tail.

Sesshoumaru started referring to her by name, reserving 'vixen' for when he was teasing or giving a stern command.

More telling, Sesshoumaru started sleeping with her and the kits every night, or at least sitting watchfully as they all curled around him.

For the better part of a year, Kagome had laid at night with the kits tucked into her sides, and Sesshoumaru standing watch, or in his own room, when they were at the shiro. And then he had started taking her place on the nights when she went to play tricks, but Kagome had always assumed that was for Rin and Shippou's benefit.

But now, once he called a halt for the evening, they would hunt and eat, and then he would recline against Ah Un's side, a silent invitation. Kagome would lie next to him, and the kits would curl up between the two of them, sighing contentedly once Sesshoumaru draped his moko-moko across them all. His deep rumble would spawn a higher pitched one in Kagome's chest, and they would sit, watching each other as the kits fell asleep.

Some nights, Kagome slept. On others, Sesshoumaru did, trusting her to guard them. Still on other nights, they both stayed awake, speaking quietly and watching the stars.

Kagome did most of the talking, but Sesshoumaru was an avid listener. She told him of her era, of coming through the well, and did her best to describe things like cars and telephones and how they worked. She was amused and frustrated in turns by her own failure to grasp the ins and outs of the technology, and Sesshoumaru's persistence in calling it 'human sorcery.'

She figured he'd believe it when he saw it.

Occasionally Sesshoumaru would offer a story of conquest, or share a legend of inus past. He wasn't a very good story teller, using so few words as he did, but she paid attention, recognizing that Sesshoumaru never spoke without reason. It was soon apparent that all of his stories contained some sort of lesson he thought important, whether it was something as simple as always keeping one's claws sharp and clean, or some more complicated point of battle strategy that Kagome had to draw diagrams in the dirt to grasp.

Tonight, they discussed constellations.

"Inari-sama says that the kitsune are the ones who put the stars in the heavens. Each one is a ball of foxfire. Humans from my era say different. They're actually suns and planets that we see from billions of miles away." Kagome sighed, running her claws through Shippou's hair as he slept. She rolled onto her side, facing Sesshoumaru. "I like Inari-sama's story better."

"Hn."

Kagome giggled. "I take it that the inu have their own explanation?"

"They are the eyes of the dog demons who guard the gates of heaven," he said with a completely straight face.

Kagome yawned, remarking sleepily, "I like that story too."


17. Song

Rin skipped ahead of Sesshoumaru when they drew close to that night's den. Sesshoumaru carried the body of a steer across his shoulders, as the creature's mass was too unwieldy for Rin to manage.

The animal had been domesticated by humans, and thus a very easy kill. But still, it was special, for it was the first big game Rin had brought down unassisted. Seeing how happy she was, Sesshoumaru elected not to steal her victory by scolding her for killing an animal too stupid to know it was hunted. An animal humans thought they owned.

Such a kill invariably roused the humans, but Rin would be in no danger so long as she was with the pack. Sesshoumaru would teach her this lesson another time.

The wind shifted, bringing to them the scents of Shippou and Kagome.

Increasing her pace, Rin tilted her head back and warbled out a howl, a pup's clumsy first hunt song that swelled as she grew more confident.

Rin hunts hunts hunts, Rin jumps jumps jumps

Suiting actions to words, she propelled herself forward in a flying leap, for once not stumbling when she landed. Ahead of them, a series of sharp, barking kitsune yips rose up, threading through Rin's song. Surprised that the fox youkai responded, Sesshoumaru listened.

Pride, pride, pride in my sister, came from Shippou.

Joy, joy, welcome home hunters, was Kagome's refrain.

Sesshoumaru had to stiffen his jaw against the urge to join his voice to theirs. He had not sung a pack song since he was a pup himself, and would not indulge in such frivolities at this late date. That he had not had a pack to sing with since that time was beside the point.

He would tell Rin of his pleasure in her skill quietly, when she came to him for sleep.

In moments, they cleared the trees, and then they were upon the kitsune, and the vixen and kit were dancing and juggling foxfire in some celebration that Sesshoumaru did not understand, but allowed since it was clearly in Rin's honor.

Around and around, they capered in a ring, batting two balls of foxfire between them much like they were playing hanetsuki. All the while, Rin kept up her hunt song, and the kitsune kept yipping their chorus, and Sesshoumaru kept his jaw firmly clenched shut.

At last, when the song reached a crescendo, Kagome and Shippou froze in place and tossed their foxfire high into the air, where the balls exploded in a shower of green sparkles.

It was, Sesshoumaru had to admit, a visually pleasing display. It was good that Rin had such packmates to help celebrate her first kill.

Once the foxes had ceased their cavorting, Kagome took the steer from Sesshoumaru's shoulders and made quick work of skinning and cleaning it. When all was ready, the two kitsune and Sesshoumaru knelt to allow Rin to serve them from her first kill.

Expecting to eat first, as he always did, Sesshoumaru's brows climbed into his hairline when Rin pressed her palms against her thighs and bowed to him, solemnly requesting, "This Rin would like to serve Kagome-sama first, to give thanks."

The vixen's mouth dropped open, the sight of her fangs drawing Sesshoumaru's eyes. She began to protest, but Sesshoumaru shook his head to silence her, turning his gaze back to Rin.

"For what do you give thanks?" he asked her.

Rin straightened, flashing him one of her sweet smiles. "This Rin is thankful for her pack. This Rin is thankful she will never have to leave Sesshoumaru-sama. This Rin is thankful for Kagome-sama's wish."

His throat constricting, Sesshoumaru threw his head back and belted out the howl he had been holding in ever since Rin raised her voice in song.

Honor, honor, my pup brings me great honor.

"It is well," he told Rin, gesturing his permission that Kagome be served first.


18. Purity

Kagome crept through a sleeping village, a crescent moon hanging high above her. She was glad they had stopped so close to humans. In the wake of the celebration of Rin's first big kill, she needed time to herself to sort out her feelings. And ever since the incident with the kasha, the only time she was alone for long was when she went playing tricks.

She shivered, remembering the call to join in Rin's song, the sheer undiluted joy of crying out with her pack. She'd always known youkai felt things just like humans did.

It just never occurred to her that they felt more.

Her excitement at Rin's success had rippled through her, down to her bones, until there was nothing to do but dance and send foxfire arching through the air like green fireworks. Even Sesshoumaru hadn't been able to contain himself totally, and the power in his voice, the reaction his howl evoked…

She shivered again.

And then there was Rin's thanks. Even now, Kagome didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

She had stolen Rin's very nature without meaning to, and Rin was happy about it. But not, Kagome thought, because the girl had ever wanted to shed her humanity. She was happy because the change had brought about their little family. Because now Rin would live just as long, if not longer than Sesshoumaru.

Surely it wasn't a betrayal of their origins to be glad of that?

Frustrated with herself, Kagome shook her head. There was no changing any of it, so she might as well just stop thinking about it. It was good that Rin wasn't unhappy with being inu youkai, because she would be one for the rest of her days.

Just as Kagome was the Shikon Miko no longer. That woman was gone. In her place was Kagome of the Four Tails, the Red Kitsune of the West.

That thought in mind, Kagome let herself into an animal pen, determined to steal milk from one of the cows. But of course, she would leave a gold coin lying at the feet of the cow as payment.

She had just laid her hand against the flank of a likely looking animal when she smelled it. It was like rain in the air, though the skies were clear. She tensed, feeling as she did just before a lightning strike.

Then there was a flare of light that blinded her, and she was burning, burning, and there were human voices in her ears.

She growled, curling in on herself and covering her face with her hands, losing control of the spell that let her walk unseen.

Danger! Danger!

"Is this the one?" said a woman's voice.

"No," answered a man. "The one that killed my plow steer was smaller, and there was a bigger one with it. But it looks like this one was about to get my sister's cow, so you might as well purify it too. Filthy beast."

"I dunno. I think it's pretty. And I bet you could get a lot for that kimono in the market."

Kagome opened her eyes to see a group of village men all staring at her. But that wasn't what made her mouth go dry.

Standing next to the men were three women dressed as miko, all of them with bows in hand.

And Kagome was trapped inside a barrier.

Not thinking clearly, she threw herself into the wall of holy energy, trying to escape.

She screamed.

It burned, burnedburned.

She could smell her own flesh cooking into dust, could feel the energy attacking the very core of her youki, seeking to unmake her one molecule at a time.

Sick with pain and sick at heart, she retched, thinking of all the times she herself had been the miko who cast the barrier. The miko who shot arrows filled with purity that scorched the air. Harsh tears fell from her eyes, leaving tracks of salt on her face.

"It won't try doing that again," one of the men laughed. "What is it, anyway?"

Snarling, Kagome answered before the miko could. "I am not an it! I am not a beast! My name is Kagome. Ka. Go. Me. I'm Kagome of the Four Tails, and you better let me go, you jerks!"

"It can talk!"

Kagome raised her purity-burned hands and licked them, soothing the wounds. "Of course I can talk," she sniped.

The miko that seemed to be in charge stepped forward, settling a cool gaze on Kagome. "I am Kiyoko. Are you the youkai who has been attacking this village?"

Kagome tilted her head, eyeing the priestess, then continued to lick her burns. "No one's been attacking your village. Sesshoumaru-sama wouldn't allow it."

She bit her tongue before she could finish that thought. Sesshoumaru-sama lets no one interfere with what is his.

These humans would not be happy to be told they belonged to Sesshoumaru by virtue of living in the Western Lands. They wouldn't realize the protection it offered. They wouldn't understand it for the great honor it was.

Just as Kagome had once not understood.

"Foul smelling ogres have been seen roaming the land. A man from a nearby village was murdered, and his wives kidnapped by a kitsune. Was it you, sly one?"

"Foul smelling ogres? You mean kasha?" Kagome smiled, forgetting that the sight of her fangs and the inhuman stretch of her lips did little to reassure the mortals. "They won't bother you anymore. Sesshoumaru-sama and I killed all of them. You're safe. And we didn't kidnap those women! We saved them."

"Lying demon!" one of the men spat at her, but subsided when Kiyoko gave him an irritated look.

"Sesshoumaru… the Great Dog, the one youkai worship as the Lord of the West?" Kiyoko asked.

"Well I don't know about worship," Kagome muttered, thanking the kami Sesshoumaru wasn't present to hear that. She hated it when he got smug. "But yeah. I'm really good friends with Sesshoumaru-sama. So you better let me out, or he'll be really angry!"

The second the words were out of her mouth, Kagome paled as she realized the truth of them. Anger and pain draining away, she spread her hands in a gesture of peace, and begged.

Not for her life, but for theirs.

"Please, you have to listen. If you don't let me go, Sesshoumaru-sama will come looking for me. And when he sees me in here, none of you will be safe from him," she told the miko. "He'll kill you to free me."

"You dare threaten Kiyoko-sama!" One of the younger miko raised her bow, knocking an arrow.

"Not threaten. Warn," Kagome corrected, even as her breath started coming quicker, her pupils dilating in fear. She could feel the holy energy emanating from that arrow, and it hurt her worse than even Naraku's miasma ever had when she was human. "And please, don't kill me. If you purify me, Sesshoumaru-sama won't stop at killing you. He'll destroy the whole village in his vengeance."

"Wait," Kiyoko said, holding up a hand. "If she speaks the truth – "

"Everyone knows kitsune are tricksters," the miko that had been silent up until that point spoke up. "She'll say anything to save her life, and the livestock will keep going missing."

Livestock?

With a gasp, Kagome made the connection.

The steer Rin killed.

"I was just going to take some milk," Kagome defended herself. "And I was going to pay for it." She dug a gold coin out of the little pouch sewn to the inside of her obi, letting it shine in the torchlight. "See?"

"A likely story," the third miko scoffed.

"How about this?" Kagome suggested, a nagging sensation making the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She knew that feeling. Sesshoumaru was coming. Relief combined with apprehension made her nauseous. "How about, if you let me go, I'll promise to never bother your village again. You know kitsune can't break their promises without losing a tail…"

The blank look the humans gave her said that they knew no such thing.

Kagome was opening her mouth to explain when her eyes were drawn to movement in the distance.

"Sesshoumaru-sama!"

In a blink, he was there.

"Please don't kill them! They don't understand. They're just protecting themselves!" Kagome called, contemplating throwing herself against the barrier again, though she knew it would do nothing but give her more burns.

He turned to glare at her, but then he jerked his chin down once and drew Tenseiga.

A sword that could not cut living flesh.

Kagome sagged with relief.

Only to be immediately consumed by horror.

In the time Sesshoumaru had taken to reassure her, the priestesses had raised their bows. Three arrows, all blazing with the pink light of purification, whistled through the air toward Sesshoumaru.

And all three found their mark.

One stuck in the fleshy muscle where his neck and shoulder joined, finding a gap in his armor. Another protruded from his bicep. And the third struck him in the leg, staining white silk with his blood.

Why didn't he move? was all Kagome could think. Why didn't he move? I know he's fast enough.

A haze of green-black clouded her vision, starting at the edges and creeping inwards, the opposite path taken by the blood on Sesshoumaru's clothes.

Why didn't he move?

Her eyes blazed, two lanterns of foxfire, an anguished howl coming from her throat as her teeth lengthened.

Why didn't he move?

Her claws grew thicker, sharper. The foxfire in her eyes spread outwards, engulfing her body in a cocoon of emerald heat.

Why didn't he move? was her last coherent thought. And then all she could think was, Alpha. Mine. Was to be mine. Fire. Blood. Burn them all. Kill them all. Vengeance.

Death by my jaws.

-l-

Sesshoumaru allowed the miko to strike him with their arrows, thinking the best way to end this battle without overly damaging the humans, as Kagome wished, would be to show them that their powers of purification were useless against him. Sesshoumaru had long ago developed an immunity to holy energy. He was mildly burned by the force of all three arrows hitting him at once, and his clothes were ruined, but all in all he was unharmed.

The effect on the morale of the priestesses was worth the minor inconvenience.

And then Sesshoumaru had no more thoughts for them, or strategy, for Kagome's youki spiked so violently that he was shocked into looking at her.

Before his eyes, a great ball of foxfire consumed her and then exploded outwards, dissipating the barrier that held her captive.

When the flames faded, it was to reveal a bright red fox with four tails, roughly the size of a horse. Her delicate paws were white, as were the tips of her tails, and her eyes were filled with a flat jade light. Lips pulled back in a snarl revealed a familiar set of sweetly curved fangs, much larger now. Heat emanated from her, the air shifting and wavering and occasionally igniting with cracks of lightning. Foxfire burned where she stepped.

Kagome's true form.

Sesshoumaru supposed it was impressive, for one so young, though it was plain that she was not in control of herself. The usual spark of intelligence in her eyes was missing.

All was silent for a moment that rested on a sword's edge, and then Kagome leapt, jaws wide, heading right for the eldest priestess. An aura of foxfire burned the miko's arrows into nothing before they could make contact with Kagome's hide.

In one smooth motion, Sesshoumaru sheathed Tenseiga and intercepted Kagome, wrapping one arm around her jaws and forcing them closed. Bracing his feet, he pushed his hip into Kagome's side and wrenched her head up, knocking her off balance and wrestling her to the ground. Once he had her down, he kept her there with a knee on her neck, even the strength of her true form unable to budge him.

Despite this, she continued to struggle, her hind legs kicking up great clods of dirt as her tails lashed Sesshoumaru in the back.

"Vixen," Sesshoumaru whispered in her ear. He stroked the fur of her side, absently noting that it was as luxurious as it looked. He could sense the movements of the humans, but he ignored them, dismissing them as no longer important.

"You saved us," came the voice of the elder miko – Kiyoko.

The three miko knelt before Sesshoumaru. The other humans had fled.

"We tried to slay you, and yet you saved us."

Kagome growled even more viciously when she heard the woman speak, renewing her struggles.

"It was not for your sakes," Sesshoumaru told the woman coldly, the look on his face more frightening than the ravening kitsune he restrained. "Be gone. And know you have your lives only because she would wish it."

If Kagome regained her reason only to find she had slaughtered the village, she would be disconsolate. And Sesshoumaru would find that very… irritating.

And he had already indicated to her that he would not kill these humans. Honor would not let him break his word.

The insults this one bears for a troublesome fox.

Once the three miko had removed themselves from Sesshoumaru's presence, he turned his mind to dealing with Kagome.

Rational words would not reach her.

Deciding there was nothing else to be done, he released her just long enough to get a good angle for the blow, and then backhanded her in the snout, sending her flying through a fence and into the side of a nearby building.

Dizzy, she shook her head, tottering on her paws.

Approaching her at a walk, Sesshoumaru calmly struck her again. This time he caught her on the side of the head, succeeding in knocking her unconscious.

She fell, the light leaching from her eyes and her form shifting with the sound of crunching bone and the flow of fur until Sesshoumaru's little vixen lay at his feet, her red hair fanned around her and her kimono in disarray.

Wordlessly, he pulled out the arrows embedded in his flesh, then tossed Kagome's limp form over his shoulder, careful to make sure the spikes of his breastplate didn't dig into her skin.


19. Beast

Kagome woke with a pounding in her head and the feeling that something horrible had happened. She groaned, squeezing her eyes shut, unwilling to face whatever it was that had left a ragged hole in her heart.

"Sesshoumaru-sama, she's awake," a voice stage whispered.

Sesshoumaru.

Sesshoumaru?!

Kagome flung herself into a sitting position, then clutched at her head and tried not to throw up.

A sudden absence of motion made Kagome realize that she was being carried. Prying her eyes open, she found that she was on Ah Un, tucked in among the pelts they had amassed over their travels. Rin and Shippou sat on either side of her.

"I'm so glad you're okay, Kagome," Shippou squeezed one of her hands in both of his little paws. "Sesshoumaru-sama made us travel all night to get away from those miko that hurt you."

"Rin. Shippou. Make tea for Kagome," ordered a baritone voice that Kagome had thought lost forever.

"Yes, Sesshoumaru-sama!" they chorused, and then took themselves into the brush to gather kindling.

Then the Lord of the West himself was standing before her, and she was able to see the top of his head for once, thanks to the added height of sitting on Ah Un.

"Hi," she said dumbly, unable to tear her eyes away from his face.

"You are more powerful than anticipated," he informed her. "This one had to strike you more than once."

"Oh… Wait, hey! You're the one who hit me?" she demanded, feeling she should be outraged, but unable to dredge up any anger in the face of the impossible fact that Sesshoumaru was alive. "You're alive? How are you alive? And why didn't you move?"

He raised a brow. "No arrow may slay this Sesshoumaru."

"They were purity arrows. They burn! And how was I supposed to know they wouldn't hurt you?!"

Ah, there was the anger she'd been looking for.

Face rapidly turning red, she punched Sesshoumaru in the shoulder as hard as she could. "Don't you ever scare me like that again! Or so help me, I will find a way to make subjugation beads that a kitsune can use and I'll put them on you while you're sleeping and – "

And then it all came rushing back. Her transformation. Her thirst for the blood of those who had killed her alpha. What would have happened if Sesshoumaru hadn't stopped her.

Dissolving into sobs that turned into hysterical kitsune laughter and then back to sobs again, Kagome threw herself at Sesshoumaru, tangling her fingers in his hair and burying her face in the thick ruff of his moko-moko.

He was warm and solid beneath her hands, and that more than anything reassured her, though it did nothing to stem the flow of her tears. She was losing her mind, losing herself, her eyes rimmed with green fire as she experienced a churning mix of anger, relief, despair, and something else for which she had no name.

How long she clung there, half hanging out of Ah Un's saddle, shaking with emotion, she didn't know. Sesshoumaru stoically bore her hysterics, his arms held stiffly at his sides. After a time, one of his hands came up – slowly, oh so slowly – and patted her twice on the back.

I am not a beast, she had said to the humans. That thought set off another bout of laughter.

"I'm not a beast," she repeated between hiccups.

She felt Sesshoumaru's fingers on her chin, forcing her to look him in the eye.

"We are youkai. Unless we have discipline enough to master ourselves, we are beasts," he told her, something wild flashing in the depths of his golden gaze. "But… so too are they."

Remembering the stink of her own burning flesh and the leer of the man who had wanted to sell her kimono, Kagome swallowed and nodded to Sesshoumaru. His words weren't really comforting, but somehow she felt better anyway.

Sesshoumaru seemed to sense the change in her mood, the tension draining out of him. Kagome could feel the muscles in his shoulders relaxing. "Now come. Drink your tea."

She climbed out of Ah Un's saddle and settled quietly by his side, letting Shippou pour tea for them all when it became apparent that her hands were still trembling too hard. For the rest of the day, and well into the evening, she stayed close enough to Sesshoumaru to keep her hand on some part of him, to reassure herself that he was really there.

And he said nothing about her outburst.


20. Mother

When Ah Un's saddle began to overflow with the pelts and stolen objects Kagome had hoarded, Sesshoumaru started leading his pack back towards the shiro. He hoped to prevail upon Kagome's giving nature and persuade her to make gifts of most of the pile. Otherwise, he would have to build a new wing onto the palace expressly for her hoard within the next hundred years.

He thought his chances of convincing her to be good. With kitsune, thieving was often an end in itself; they cared little for what they took. Certainly, most of what Kagome brought back on those nights she ventured into human villages were gifts for the pups and Sesshoumaru. Of the cargo Ah Un was currently carrying, the only things she frequently cooed over were the bamboo wind chimes and a small circular mirror that he occasionally had to command she put away, lest she and Shippou stare into it all day.

Sesshoumaru was crafting an innocuous remark about a cold winter approaching and the servants needing ways to keep warm when he felt it.

He stopped in his tracks, looking straight up.

-l-

"What is it, Sesshoumaru-sama?" Kagome tensed, pushing the kits behind her. She cast about with her senses, picking up the youki signature now that she knew to look for it. It was almost directly above them, and descending fast.

She caught a scent that was similar enough to Rin's for her to know it was a female inu. Her tails frizzed.

"Mother," Sesshoumaru said as a ball of white light appeared before them, coalescing into a demoness that was essentially a smaller, feminine version of Sesshoumaru. She had the same crescent moon on her brow, though she had only one magenta stripe on each cheek. Her kimono had three layers and was a pale violet, embroidered with gold thread that brought out her eyes. She wore her moko-moko as a shawl, letting it drape around her arms. A fan hung from her obi. Kagome was willing to bet it was a tessen – a war fan designed to look harmless.

"Sesshoumaru, my son," she crooned to him, much in the same way that Kagome crooned over Shippou and Rin.

Kagome giggled.

Sesshoumaru actually sighed.

"What brings you here, Mother?"

"Why, I want to see my granddaughter, and meet your new mate, of course."

Kagome sputtered.

"This Sesshoumaru has no mate," Sesshoumaru told his mother with absolutely no inflection whatsoever.

Kagome wasn't certain if she should feel insulted.

"Really?" Sesshoumaru's mother continued archly, raising one of her brows in an expression Kagome had seen on Sesshoumaru's face many, many times. "I admit I was surprised when I heard you'd taken up with a vixen. Dogs and foxes don't mix. Especially with you, my son."

Kagome growled.

Sesshoumaru's mother looked over, a smirk twisting her lips. "Are you not going to introduce this one?"

Sesshoumaru drew himself up to his full height, towering over them all. Kagome thought maybe his mother made him feel small. "Mother, the vixen Kagome, and her kit, Shippou. Kagome, my mother, Yukiko-sama."

"And Rin is Rin!" the little inu piped up, peering around Kagome's legs, where she had hidden herself.

"So you are," Yukiko-sama agreed, beckoning to the girl. "We have met before, but you were different then."

"You let Rin wear your necklace." Rin pointed, indicating the heavy strand of precious stones that hung across Yukiko-sama's throat. Rin started forward, but Kagome held Rin back, looking to Sesshoumaru. But after a moment in which she couldn't read him, he inclined his head, giving his permission.

Grudgingly, Kagome let Rin go to Yukiko, then set about making camp when it became clear the female inu intended to visit with them for a while. Rin was delighted when Yukiko told the little inu to call her 'Honored Grandmother,' and began dragging the demoness about by the hand, excitedly showing her the games that she played with Shippou, and how high she could jump, and telling the tale of her first big kill, a story that still made Kagome's heart skip a beat when she thought of what had happened after.

She went to stand next to Sesshoumaru, discretely looking up at him. His expression, usually a smooth mask, was more than guarded, his youki pulled in tight. She could tell nothing of his mood.

"Sesshoumaru-sama?" she asked at last, starting to reach for him before stopping herself. It wasn't for her to offer him comfort. She wasn't his mate. If he wanted her touch, he would indicate it.

She fidgeted, chafing under what she knew was proper, and what she wanted to do.

Sesshoumaru cut his eyes to her and Kagome held her breath.

"Mother showed no care for Rin when she was human," he said at last, his lips barely moving, whispering low so that the kits wouldn't hear.

Kagome's eyes widened. That bothered him?

A ball of warmth came to life in her chest, the tips of her tails curling happily as she regarded him.

"Of course I wasn't interested when she was human," Yukiko said, having heard despite Sesshoumaru's whispering. She gracefully stepped over to them, the kits occupied playing hanetsuki.

Kagome dared to snarl. "Because humans are weak?"

She'd come across the attitude often enough. Especially with the ruling class of youkai. In fact, Kagome suspected the only reason she hadn't been treated with disdain while living at the palace of the West was because being in Sesshoumaru's pack gave her a higher status than all but visiting members of royal houses, and the Lord of the West himself.

And now, Yukiko-sama.

"No," Yukiko looked Kagome directly in the eye, so much old pain and grief reflected there that the vixen was taken aback. "Because they die."

Kagome had nothing to say to that.

Yukiko turned to Sesshoumaru with an elegant toss of her hair, flipping her fan open to hide the lower half of her face. Spotting the wickedly sharp ends of the spines of the fan, Kagome congratulated herself on guessing that it was a tessen.

"Are you not going to punish this vixen for behaving so to her betters?" Yukiko addressed Sesshoumaru.

Sesshoumaru slowly turned his head toward Kagome, as if he were considering. Finally he gave a lazy, "No."

Yukiko snapped her fan shut, narrowing her eyes.


21. Funny

Yukiko traveled with them as they roamed along the long border between the East and the West, walking arm in arm with Sesshoumaru, and glaring whenever Kagome asked them to stop so that she could go into a human village.

Kagome could tell there was something Yukiko did not say about her aversion to humans. A story that even Sesshoumaru didn't know. Maybe she'd loved a man once, and had to watch him grow old, or succumb to disease.

Maybe she blamed Inuyasha's human mother for the death of the Inu no Taisho.

"It is folly to love a human," Yukiko bluntly declared. "They are like sea foam – gone with the next wave."

Out of respect for Sesshoumaru's relationship with his mother, Kagome kept her mouth shut, though it got increasingly difficult the longer Yukiko traveled with them. She came dangerously close to piercing her tongue on her own fangs on more than one occasion. One evening Kagome even took Sesshoumaru's place in hunting their dinner. Sinking her claws into the neck of a wild pig as it squealed and squirmed went very far towards cooling her temper.

That was, until she returned to that day's den and Yukiko wrinkled her nose, exclaiming over the blood Kagome had gotten on the outer layer of her kimono.

"What a messy hunter! I see why you usually leave it to Sesshoumaru," the inu female said with disdain. "But then, what can one expect from a fox? Such uncouth creatures."

Kagome bared her fangs and threw the body of the pig at Yukiko's feet, then spun on her heel and left the den, climbing a tree to sulk. Sesshoumaru had been hunting for well over four hundred years! Of course he was better at it. And besides. I can get the blood out of my kimono with a simple spell.

She did just that, plucking a leaf from the tree she was sitting in and folding it into a fan. A few swipes over the blood stains, and they were gone. Bet she can't do that. Who's uncouth now?

Kagome stayed in the tree enjoying fantasies of Yukiko covered in mud and begging for Kagome to use her clean up spell until the moon rose, and Sesshoumaru came out of the den. He looked up at her, not saying anything, and she sighed, letting air puff out her cheeks. She was behaving like a kit, and she knew it.

"You must think I'm very stupid," she said to him, crawling out on a branch and sitting, letting her feet and tails dangle.

He tilted his head as he regarded her, raising one of his large hands to run one claw alone the bottom of her bare foot. She had tucked her slippers into her obi, the better to climb the tree.

Ticklish, she jerked her foot away.

"She is baiting you," Sesshoumaru said, his eyes on her other foot. "It is her way of being humorous."

Kagome wiggled her toes, silently daring Sesshoumaru to make a grab for them. "Well, she's not funny."

"Hn." Sesshoumaru's hand darted up. Kagome let out a muffled shriek, pulling her foot out of his reach. She was faster. He couldn't catch her.

She lowered her foot, inviting him to try again.

"Why doesn't your mother live at the palace?" Kagome asked absentmindedly while they played their game. She kept her eyes on Sesshoumaru's hands.

For a moment she thought he wouldn't answer, but then, "My mother was my father's wife, not his mate. When he died and I inherited the West, my mother no longer had a place in the pack, or the Western shiro."

Kagome's brows rose. She looked toward the entrance to their den. "I didn't know. How awful."

Sesshoumaru caught her foot, his thumb pressed firmly into her instep. "I do not think she considered it such. Her marriage to my father was arranged, and she has ever preferred living free to the life at court."

"Like you," Kagome said softly.

He hummed at her, tightening his grip on her foot and yanking her off of her branch. She tumbled, landing on her feet in front of him, knees bent.

Something could be said for kitsune reflexes.

"You're about as funny as your mother is," she told Sesshoumaru, looking up into his golden eyes.

Despite her words, she smiled.


22. Pain

Kagome sat with Yukiko, watching as Sesshoumaru played with the kits. Of course, Sesshoumaru insisted that he was training them, but Kagome knew a game of tag when she saw one.

She cut her eyes at Yukiko, trying to gauge what the demoness thought of their little pack.

Yukiko caught her looking.

"What is it, vixen?" Yukiko asked, her gold eyes narrowing.

Kagome's lips twitched, and she blushed, scrambling for something to say. "Your necklace," she blurted. "I can feel there is magic around it."

"And?" was the imperious reply.

Kagome forced herself not to fidget, reminding herself of her oft repeated promise to herself to try to get along with Sesshoumaru's mother. "Rin said you let her wear it once."

Yukiko raised a hand to lightly trace the heavy jewel that hung at the center of the string of gems. "The Meido Stone was a gift from the Inu no Taisho. He said that one day, Sesshoumaru would have need of it." Here Yukiko paused, giving a little sniff. "I tried to teach my son better, to make him stronger, but he is too much like… When he brought me the corpse of a human girl, I knew that the day had arrived. I hung the Meido Stone around Rin's neck to return her soul from the underworld."

Kagome kept perfectly still, feeling that if she moved, if she even breathed too loudly, this strange mood that had grown up between them would be broken, and Yukiko would reveal no more. Just when the silence had gone on long enough that she thought Yukiko had finished her tale, the inu flicked her fan open and used it to obscure the lower half of her face.

"I almost didn't do it. I almost defied my late husband's wishes and left the girl dead. She was human, and would only die again in a few short decades. Why should I prolong the inevitable?" Yukiko's youki spiked, just enough for Kagome to notice.

In the clearing before them, Sesshoumaru stopped dead in his tracks, looking their way.

"But a child's pain is difficult for a mother to ignore, even when it is the right thing," Yukiko finished.

Gracefully, she rose and went to join her son.

Kagome did not follow.

-l-

"I do not hate humans," Yukiko-sama told Kagome the next day, after Sesshoumaru had taken Shippou and Rin hunting.

Startled by the intensity of Yukiko's expression, and that she was addressing the issue at all, Kagome couldn't think of anything to say for several minutes. Finally, she managed a weak, "You don't have to explain yourself to me."

Yukiko waved a hand, her elegant claws glinting in the light. "And so I am not. I am giving advice."

"Advice?" Kagome felt tired. Dealing with the stylish inu made her so weary that she had started privately thinking that that was Yukiko's special youkai power. She was an energy thief.

"Yes, advice." Yukiko opened her fan, holding it in front of the lower half of her face. Her glittering yellow eyes seemed more penetrating with her mouth hidden. "Let go of your human notions. Put away human things. You don't have to hate crickets to know a cricket cannot be your friend."

"So humans are crickets? Sea foam?" Kagome snapped, ire making foxfire spark at her fingertips. She had been biting her tongue – sometimes quite literally – ever since Yukiko had arrived. All those feelings seeped to the surface now, escaping her in a half growl, half roar. "Who did you lose to become so, so… bitter? Was it a man? A human hunter who caught an inu's heart?"

Yukiko snarled, her eyes flashing over her fan as her youki expanded, pressing down on Kagome. Her tails frizzing, Kagome locked her knees to keep herself upright, terror making her hands tremble. She lost hold of the transformative magic she used to make her hair black, the strands rapidly flooding red.

Like blood against her kimono.

Yukiko took a step forward, and Kagome whined without meaning to. Sesshoumaru's mother was more powerful even than her son, but much, much better at hiding it. Kagome'd had no idea. Any minute she would fall to her knees, or take off running into the forest. She couldn't fight the kitsune instincts that screamed in her mind. Even now she panted, unable to catch her breath.

Abruptly, the pressure of Yukiko's aura lessened, the inu reining in her power until it was barely more noticeable than it had been when she first arrived. Kagome gasped in relief, tears streaming down her face.

"Her name was Sasa," Yukiko said, snapping her fan shut. The steel ribs of the tessen made a snikt sound as they slid closed. "She lived in the Southern Islands. By the sea. Her father was a human fisherman. And she was my best friend."

Trembling, Kagome put her hands into her sleeves and bowed from the waist, her red hair forming a curtain across her vision. "Yukiko-sama."

The pale inu youkai returned the gesture.

-l-

Still, whatever Yukiko's reasoning, three days later, after Yukiko had left them, Kagome pulled Rin aside.

"Promise me that you will never forget that you were once human," she said to the kit, her blue eyes intense. "And know you have to keep this promise. It's bad luck to break your word to a kitsune."

Rin stared up at Kagome, a dimple appearing in her cheek as she bared her baby fangs in a smile. "Rin promises. And Rin would keep her word anyway, Kagome-sama." She ran her little fingers over the stylized pattern of flowers on her right sleeve. Ever since being named Sesshoumaru's heir, Rin had worn his crest. "This Rin must uphold the honor of the West."


23. Home

Sesshoumaru arrived at his shiro to hear his brother shouting.

"Inuyasha-sama is home!" Rin cried, in case any of the pack had somehow missed the sound of the hanyou's voice. "He promised to give Rin a ride on his shoulders when he got back."

Sesshoumaru directed Kagome to take the pups to the wing reserved for the pack before going to see just what his brother was screaming about this time.

He was surprised when Inuyasha's scent led him to the council chamber. He was more surprised to find that Jaken was by Inuyasha's side, the Great Seal of the West clamped tightly in his reptilian green hands.

"What is the meaning of this?"

Without pausing for breath, Inuyasha turned and told him the issue, then resumed shouting down the council members. The hanyou actually appeared to be enjoying it, this part of ruling that Sesshoumaru hated. His triangular ears were erect, his eyes sparking, and his heart pounding as he bellowed at the top of his voice.

Sesshoumaru was downright shocked to find that he agreed with Inuyasha.

Perhaps making the hanyou his steward was not so ludicrous after all. It would honor their father.

"It will be as Inuyasha has said."

Everyone stopped speaking, all turning to him with incredulity upon their faces.

Inuyasha recovered first. "Keh. You heard him."

Seeing that his brother had this council session well in hand, Sesshoumaru left.

-l-

That evening at dinner Sesshoumaru let Inuyasha be served first. Kagome's eyebrows climbed into her hairline. She wasn't sure what had happened to bring this on. It seemed Inuyasha had had a triumph, and risen in the pack. A triumph he was taking full advantage of, making a glutton of himself and clapping Sesshoumaru on the shoulder. Kagome shook her head, thinking that Inuyasha wouldn't be content until he finally irritated the Lord of the West into killing him.

After they had eaten, Inuyasha asked her to walk with him in the garden. Kagome smiled and went willingly, happy to see him again, her nostrils flaring as she took in his familiar scent.

It was strange to realize that she relied a lot more on her nose than her eyes now. Once, it would have been the sight of Inuyasha's fire rat haori that she thought of first. But the eyes were so simple to fool, as she well knew – by illusion, transformation, to name only a few ways. The nose was much less easily tricked.

"What's this I hear about you traveling all over with the bas- with Sesshoumaru, but not wanting to go see Sango and Miroku with me?"

Kagome's mood plummeted with a suddenness that left her dizzy. The garden walls seemed to hem her in, the sky pressing down with a force that crushed her lungs. She couldn't breathe around the dread that choked her.

Her gut twisted as she tried to find a way to explain to Inuyasha, when she couldn't even really explain to herself. All she knew was that she did not want to go, and he could not make her. She would get Sesshoumaru to stop him if he tried.

Inuyasha sensed her panic. His ears pressed back against his head, he lightly gripped her shoulders, turning her to face him. "Didn't mean to…" he mumbled. "Look don't cry or anything, ok?"

That startled her into a laugh, the feeling of being trapped gone as quickly as it came.

"Keh."

Kagome looped her arm through his, silently thanking him for not making her explain.

"How long have you been back?"

"Couple of months. No one was sure when you'd be back, so I stayed on to make sure Jaken didn't screw everything up."

Kagome snapped her fingers, a spark of foxfire amplifying the sound. "Aha! That's what letting you choose first at dinner was about! You must have done a good job." She patted his hand.

"Yeah, well…" Inuyasha actually looked bashful. "He made me his steward. I'm his second in the pack now."

"Weren't you before?"

"He made it official, I guess." Looking suspiciously bright eyed, Inuyasha turned away. "Sesshoumaru seemed to think the Old Man would like it."

Kagome let Inuyasha have the moment he needed, feigning interest in a nearby flower.

"Anyway. Sango and Miroku said to tell you to come visit them, when you can. They got married. Sango's already popped a brat out."

"What?" Kagome gaped, reeling. The earth tilted beneath her. She wished it would stop. It seemed like she'd had more ups and downs in this one conversation than there were stones in the palace courtyard. "Has it really been that long? Time just… doesn't seem to matter that much anymore."

Inuyasha met her eyes. "Take it from someone who knows, Kagome. Humans ain't around that long. You should visit them as much as you can."

-l-

That night, Sesshoumaru found he was restless. He paced his rooms, a yukata tied lightly around his waist, a sliver of his chest bared. Irritated with himself, he moved to stand on the balcony. He needed the feeling of air on his skin.

A small sound drew his attention to the hall door. Kagome stood there, the pups on either side of her.

"Father?" Rin asked, whining. It was the first time she had called him such.

"Big brother?" Shippou echoed softly, not quite so daring as Rin.

Leaving the balcony, Sesshoumaru settled himself on the massive four poster bed that dominated the room, and then said, "Do as you please."

The pups rushed in immediately, tumbling onto the bed and tussling until Kagome yipped at them. At her reprimand they quieted, curling up next to Sesshoumaru. Kagome came next, dressed for sleep, her tails splayed behind her in a fan shape, lightly swaying back and forth. Sesshoumaru preferred them that way.

She was avoiding his eyes.

Raising a brow, Sesshoumaru ran one of his claws along her jaw, tilting her face up so he could look into it. A shiver went through her, and her eyes darted to his exposed chest, then his face. Her scent changed, gaining an edge of heat.

Sesshoumaru had to admit to a certain sense of male satisfaction.

"You don't have to look so smug," she scolded, playfully swiping at him.

He caught her hand before she could accost him. "Be not ashamed. I am well aware of the effect I have on females."

She huffed her outrage.

Sesshoumaru chuckled.


24. Tears

Kagome was in the gardens, enjoying the sound of her bamboo wind chimes and practicing making spell anchors when Inuyasha found her.

"Yasha," she greeted, an uneasy guilt filling her as she looked up from the crane she was folding from leaves.

Somewhere between making her wish on the Shikon and returning to the Western shiro for the second time, she had fallen out of love with the hanyou. She still cared deeply for him, and always would, but that special spark that had made her tremble in anticipation of seeing him, had made her pine for him, was gone.

She worried that her fickleness was a result of her transformation. She'd been told again and again, and in fact, seen for herself, that kitsune were lusty and well known for taking many lovers over the course of their lives. Inari-sama was fond of repeating old folksy pieces of kitsune wisdom on that score. Things like: A fox who's had fewer lovers than they have tails has not lived.

Was Kagome's love for Inuyasha yet another thing she'd lost along with her humanity?

Or had she always been hopelessly inconstant? Did all girls have to deal with this, after they'd been so sure they would love one person forever?

It made her feel shallow and cheap.

"I've been looking for you," Inuyasha smirked at her, one of his fangs standing out over his lip.

"You're the one who's hard to find these days, Inuyasha-sama," she teased.

"Keh."

He lowered himself to his haunches next to her, running his claws through her hair.

Kagome froze.

Only the kits had groomed her since their pack had formed. Having Inuyasha do it was vastly different. Not even Sesshoumaru had ever taken such a liberty, when it would be well within his rights as alpha.

"Kagome?"

Inuyasha's confusion showed in his eyes and the movement of his ears. He shifted, leaning forward to run his fangs along Kagome's jaw.

She stopped him, her hand resting lightly over his lips. She couldn't let him complete the action, not with the reaction it evoked in her. She was still a healthy vixen, and Inuyasha was a powerful, handsome warrior of a hanyou – everything a kitsune female could want in a lover. There was lust between them.

Lust and friendship.

But Inuyasha deserved more than that.

"Don't," she said, her throat tight. She could barely force the word out.

She expected a fight. Maybe some insults and accusations as Inuyasha covered his hurt with anger.

But that wasn't what happened.

Inuyasha's ears drooped, and he leaned away from her hand, raising his own to take it. "Damn. I take too long?" His voice was hoarse.

Kagome sighed, tears spilling from her eyes to run down her cheeks. She didn't know when she'd started crying. "I don't know. I don't want it to be this way. It just… is."

He nodded, his breath changing as he fought tears of his own. He wouldn't weep in front of her.

"Inu, I'm so sorry. If you give me some time, maybe I – "

"No, Kagome," he stopped her, getting to his feet.

She nodded. It would be cruel to give him false hope. It was just that she wanted so much to love him again that she could almost convince herself it was possible, if she just had a few months to find a way.

"I'm sorry. I didn't want to hurt you," she whispered.

"Yeah, me either," came his soft reply.

With a sudden bound, he vanished from her sight.

Once, he would have ranted and raved, calling her every foul thing he could think of, snarling and growling, maybe accusing her of being intimate with Sesshoumaru, though his nose surely told him that she was not. But now, he was gentle. Understanding.

His grace in handling her rejection gave her new hope.

Maybe Kagome hadn't lost herself when she became a kitsune. Maybe she still would have grown apart from Inuyasha, without their quest to hold them together.

After all, he had changed too.

"We'll always be pack," she said to the empty air in the garden.

She knew Inuyasha would hear.

-l-

The kits found her later, soaking in the bath house. She'd gone there to cry, it being one of the few places it was possible to do so and keep everyone from knowing in a shiro full of youkai.

"You smell like tears," Shippou said bluntly. He and Rin disrobed and joined Kagome in the water. Pulling Rin close, Kagome started to wash the little inu's hair for her.

Shippou moved behind Kagome, his claws picking through the fur of her tails.

"I've been crying for Inuyasha," Kagome told them plainly.

"What he do now?" Shippou demanded.

"Is Uncle ok?" Rin wanted to know.

"He didn't do anything, and he's going to be just fine," Kagome reassured them. "It's just everything is changing. Nothing will ever be the same again. I was crying for who we used to be. Sometimes you have to, to say goodbye."

"Why would Kagome-sama miss herself? You're still right here." Rin sounded genuinely confused.

Kagome laughed until she cried again.


25. Edo

Kagome strolled in the gardens with Sesshoumaru, the moon hanging full and bright above their heads. He had more leisure time, now that he did not take all the burden of leadership upon himself.

Kagome's conscience twinged at her happiness that Inuyasha had taken over some of the duties of ruling the West, but guilt was by far outweighed by relief. It meant she spent less time trying to avoid the hanyou as they let things between them heal.

And it also gave her more peaceful moments like these, with Sesshoumaru.

The kits were already asleep. They'd left them safely tucked together in Sesshoumaru's bed.

"You are wearing your hair black," Sesshoumaru told her, as he often did.

"I always wear it black. It suits me," Kagome replied.

He nodded, and she let her lips twitch up. Sesshoumaru was an odd little duck, sometimes.

She giggled at the mental image conjured by that thought.

Sesshoumaru's next words stole her laughter away.

"Inuyasha has said that you wish to visit the slayer and the monk. In the future, you will tell this Sesshoumaru of your desires."

Kagome's tails thrashed, making a mess of her obi. "You have important work here. There's no hurry."

Sesshoumaru turned to her, one brow raised.

Kagome bared her fangs at him, not knowing why she was being so so recalcitrant. She just didn't want to go visit Sango and Miroku right now. She could do it later. In another year, maybe.

"We leave in two days. Prepare yourself."

Kagome growled. "No," she told Sesshoumaru, her eyes flashing with foxfire.

He unleashed his aura, letting it fill the garden, his lips pulling back in a snarl that was as beautiful as it was deadly. His white-blue hair whipped around his face, tossed by the cold wind that stirred around him.

Kagome held her ground for as long as she could, remembering well the time she had stood up under the pressure of Yukiko-sama's youki. But Sesshoumaru did not stop, as his mother had. Eventually Kagome's knees buckled, her trembling muscles unable to hold her up, and the fur of her tails standing on end. When Sesshoumaru brought his power to bear this way, it was like her first confused days as a kitsune, when she'd been blind to everything but instinct.

Danger! Danger!

She prostrated herself before Sesshoumaru, baring the back of her neck. He put his claws against her skin immediately, his fingertips digging into her tender flesh.

"We leave in two days," he repeated. "Prepare yourself."

"Yes, Sesshoumaru-sama."

-l-

Sesshoumaru's vixen did not speak to him for the entirety of the trip to the village of Edo where the monk and the slayer lived with the old miko, Kaede.

She was angry with him.

He paid her no mind. He was doing his duty as alpha.

They travelled quickly, having left the pups at the shiro with a promise that they would get to come the next time the pack patrolled the lands. Sesshoumaru knew his vixen needed to face whatever it was she feared in this place alone. He was going to escort her to the outskirts of the village.

No farther.

Without the pups, there was no reason for them to sleep curled together. In fact, his vixen did not sleep at all, but sat, stiff and straight backed, through the night, refusing to look at him.

It was no matter. Sesshoumaru did not need her attention.

Not at all.

-l-

Kagome skidded to a stop, her paws tearing up grass as she dug them into the ground. This was neither a patrol nor a pleasure trip, so she had traveled in her true form and Sesshoumaru had flown. It was faster that way.

And now here they were. Edo.

Her stomach flopped with an unnamed dread. With a pop, she transformed, resuming her humanoid shape. Her tails twisted behind her, a manifestation of her distress. It took time to loop them through her obi knot.

"You are needlessly delaying," Sesshoumaru said in that unforgiving baritone of his.

Kagome didn't move, her hands fisted in her kimono sleeves. If the fabric hadn't been of youkai make, it would have been wrinkled, if not shredded to pieces by her claws.

"Kagome."

She whined.

A claw-tipped finger softly tilted her chin up. Who knew the bloodthirsty Lord of the West could be so gentle?

"What if they don't recognize me?" The words just burst from her, a strangled whisper making its way over her lips before she even knew what she was saying.

"They will," Sesshoumaru said, a low, reassuring rumble underneath his words.

She shook her head. "No. What if they don't recognize me?"

"They will," Sesshoumaru said again.

He let her chin go. "I will be here. Waiting."

Kagome took a deep breath, concentrating hard. Her hair was already black, but now she rounded her ears, getting rid of the points that marked her as something otherworldly. Her claws turned to blunt human nails. Her fangs shrank. One by one, her tails disappeared. Lastly, she changed her clothes, making her kimono more simplistic, the fabric coarser. She didn't want to draw the attention of the entire village.

As always, she couldn't get her shadow to change. It bobbed along the ground, giving her disguise away to anyone observant enough to notice.

Drawing her little round mirror out of her sleeve, she studied her reflection.

There was something tiring about wearing her old face.

"Here I go," she mumbled, heading into Edo.

-l-

"Kagome? Is it really you?"

"Kagome!"

Sango and Miroku were overjoyed to see her. They looked different. They'd both gained some weight, though not much. Married life suited them.

"It's me," she told them quietly, hugging each in turn. Miroku's hand started on a familiar path toward her rear, and Kagome sighed before – very carefully, very gently – smacking him upside the head.

They all laughed, even Miroku, the ice broken between them. "It's good to know some things don't change," she told Sango. Overcome, her eyes welled with tears.

Miroku put a kind, almost fatherly hand on her shoulder, and Sango bowed her head.

When Kagome was ready, they started down the main path through the village, heading toward Kaede's hut. Sango and Miroku had built theirs next to the old miko's.

"Is Sesshoumaru-sama going to be joining us?" Miroku asked brightly. "Inuyasha said something about how he always keeps you with him." The monk's expression turned sly, "I think he was a little jealous."

Kagome's heart skipped a beat. "Sesshoumaru-sama is waiting in the forest. He doesn't… do well with crowds," she finished tactfully.

Sango nodded. "And, while Miroku and I have been teaching them, some of the villagers wouldn't react well to having an adult, full-blooded youkai in their midst. Not one powerful enough to have a human form, anyway."

Kagome's steps faltered, and Sango's expression turned to one of chagrin. "Kagome, I'm sorry. I didn't think –"

"No, Sango," Kagome shook her head, her long black hair undulating with the movement. She gestured down at herself. "It's why I'm disguised. I can't blame you for forgetting, not when I've gone to so much trouble to maintain the illusion."

Miroku saved them from themselves by slinging an arm around Kagome's shoulders. "Yes, what do you really look like these days, my dear fox? If I remember correctly from the one time I glimpsed you, you're all fire red hair and shapely – " Sango glared, and Miroku gulped, obviously changing what he was oringinally going to say. "Shapely… ears."

Kagome laughed. "They are pretty pointy now."

Sango made a show of playfully snubbing Miroku, lacing her arm through Kagome's and forcing Miroku to walk in front of them so that he would be denied 'looking upon their beauty.' Kagome was still smiling at Miroku's protestations that he would die, like a man stranded in the desert without water, when Sango asked, "Is it true that you're the Lady of the West now, Kagome?"

Kagome's brow furrowed. "What?"

"We've heard tales from travelers of the Red Vixen of the West," Sango went on. "And we thought she was probably you, especially with what Inuyasha says when he visits."

"What does Inuyasha say when he visits?"

"That Sesshoumaru-sama is made of ice – "

" 'Has an icicle up his ass' is how Inuyasha put it," Miroku interjected.

"But that he seems to like you," Sango continued. "Which isn't really surprising, when I think about it. You've always had a way with youkai males."

Kagome felt her face heat. "And they say kitsune don't get embarrassed," she muttered.

Fortunately, before the conversation could go any further, they arrived at Kaede's hut, and the old woman was hobbling forward to greet Kagome.

"Yer young one has just woken from her nap," Kaede said to Sango, leading Kagome to conclude that the old miko had been watching the child.

Sango and Miroku showed Kagome their hut, and the work they had begun on building a shrine just outside Edo, by the well. They were going to start a school there, where they would teach new slayers, monks, and priestesses to respect all life, even and especially that of youkai. 'Kill only to protect' was their creed.

Then they introduced Kagome to their child, a daughter with Miroku's lavender eyes. He already despaired of keeping suitors away from her.

Overcome by a geas that she couldn't explain when she saw the baby, Kagome put her fingers in her mouth, yanking out one of her fangs to Sango's surprised exclamation.

Blood trickling over her lips and pain pulsing through her jaw, Kagome rolled the tooth in her hands again and again, compressing it with all her preternatural strength until it grew smooth, and round.

A pearl.

She filled it with foxfire from her heart, her eyes shining green as she breathed along the surface of the tiny gem.

Once it glowed with the touch of her magic, she gave it to Sango. "Pass this on, from mother to daughter. So long as someone of your blood holds it, Kagome of the Four Tails will bring you good fortune, protection, and luck. This I swear."

As Sango's face turned red with emotion and Miroku thanked her with his usual eloquence, Kagome held their child.

She was not to know it yet, but because of the wish she had made and the kitsune vow she'd just taken, the child in her arms would be the great great great grandmother of a girl named Suiko.

An Empress of Japan.

An empress with respect for youkai, and a kitsune to guide her.

-l-

Kagome stayed with Sango and Miroku for seven days and seven nights. The villagers soon began leaving out treats and trinkets for her, so that she wouldn't rummage through their homes in the night, making mischief and taking what she wanted. Those families that honored the fox were rewarded with gold begged from Sesshoumaru's purse.

For all seven days, Kagome wore her human disguise. It was only on the seventh night, when Sango and Miroku begged her to let them see her as she really was, that she let her transformative magic slide.

Her tails were revealed first, and then her red hair and kimono. Sango smiled. Miroku teased that he should have let her carry him off, that day so long ago.

They thought she was beautiful.


26. Well

Sesshoumaru found his vixen in the clearing surrounding the Bone Eater's Well. She was sitting in a meditative pose, her back against the wooden structure.

He moved to stand over her. She opened one eye and smirked at him, her face full of kitsune mischief, and then shut her eye again. Ignoring him.

Knowing his patience to be greater than hers, he folded his tall frame down next to her, turning his palms up to join her in meditation.

He was well rewarded.

"It was good to see Sango and Miroku again. I needed this. I didn't even know it, but I was afraid they wouldn't see anything of the old Kagome in who I am now." She smiled. "But they're still my friends. And I'm still me. Thank you for bringing me, Sesshoumaru-sama."

"Hn."

A few moments of silence passed, wind blowing through the clearing. It picked at their hair and their sleeves, making them mingle together, white strands against black, white silk against green.

"The well doesn't work anymore. Inuyasha told me that it wouldn't let him through, when he was here. But I couldn't leave without checking for myself."

Sesshoumaru tilted his head, indicating she should continue.

"I suppose it's for the best. I don't know what my family would make of me. Or what a kitsune would do, in modern Tokyo." She giggled, the sound somehow containing a flavor of sorrow. "Join the circus, maybe."

"Circus?"

"Groups of performers that do physical stunts and magic tricks."

"Ah. Human sorcery."

Kagome snorted, then shifted, raising a hand to her face. Sesshoumaru could smell the salt of tears.

Unacceptable.

"You will see them again," he told her. "Your human pack. Five hundred years is not so long."

She nodded, a tear flying from her cheek to land on his hand. Unthinking, Sesshoumaru raised it to his lips, licking it from his skin.

It tasted bitter.

"I've always wondered why the jewel made me a kitsune," Kagome choked out through the tears she was valiantly trying to keep at bay. "I thought I'd phrased the wish so that it excluded me. But maybe… maybe it made me youkai so that I wouldn't have to choose between my two worlds. This way, if I can manage to keep myself alive, I can have both."

Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes, considering. Her words made sense, but he thought it to be more than that. "Have you considered that it was not your own desires the jewel was fulfilling? Because of your change, not only will you see your human pack again, but Shippou has a mother and Inuyasha a mate who will not die and leave them after a few decades."

At that she buried her face in her hands and began to weep.

Flustered, though no one looking upon him would know it, Sesshoumaru did the only thing he knew to do.

He was a youkai of few words. He preferred the decisiveness, the unmistakable nature of action. And though he would never admit to such a failing, often he just didn't know what to say.

So he pulled his vixen into his lap, cradling her like a pup as she cried. She started when he began grooming her hair to calm her, his claws running lightly over her scalp, but then she relaxed, melting into him, settling against his chest and cushioning her cheek on the fur of his moko-moko.

Hn. This is becoming habit. But, he mused, it appears to be working.

He was unaware of the softness around his mouth as he thought, Troublesome vixen.

Rumbling to her as he did to lull Rin and Shippou to sleep, he was unsurprised when her eyes closed, her breathing evening out. She had not slept since they left the shiro. That was too long, even for a full grown kitsune.

He was amazed by how small, how slight she was in this moment. He'd watched her sleep before, while standing guard on their travels, but never had he seen her so… vulnerable. She was usually so vibrant, so alive, filled with a fire that was more than her kitsune nature. The force of her personality made her seem taller, stronger, a being that couldn't possibly be the same vixen propped against his shoulder.

Her hands were so dainty, her wrists so delicate. Her fingers were only half the size of his own. Catching himself staring, he tugged at her sleeves, pulling the teal silk down to cover her skin.

The sun had set by the time she woke.

She stretched in his arms, a yawn exposing petite fangs. Sesshoumaru loved the sweet subtle curves of her teeth. He found himself drawn to them.

"I'm not going to be Inuyasha's mate," was the first thing she said when she opened her eyes to find him looking down at her. There was fear in her scent.

Did she think he would be angry that she denied his brother?

If he had any feelings about her pronouncement at all, it was an inordinate pleasure that he did not care to examine.

He nodded his understanding, then helped her to her feet.


Act I Endnotes :

Reynard: Proper name for the leader of a group of foxes.

Leash: Proper name for a group of foxes.

Inari: Inari-sama is named for the shinto kami Inari Okami, the kami of foxes and fertility. I think within the universe of this fic, Inari is one and the same as Inari Okami - she's a youkai, but human history remembered her as a goddess.

Gold kitsune: According to several Japanese folktales, when a kitsune gains their ninth tail, they either turn gold, white, or black/deep red. Gold kitsune can fly; white can heal the sick and grant eternal life; black/deep red kitsune are malevolent/evil and cause death and destruction.

Dogs and foxes don't mix: I got the idea for this concept/phrase from reading various kitsune legends. In a lot of them, a kitsune will go into a house or business disguised as a human and then see a dog. Because kitsune are so afraid of dogs, they lose control of their disguise and run away. This concept gets a lot of play in this fic, because I used it as the basis for how kitsune and inu youkai interact - i.e. a kitsune is always going to be afraid of a dog demon and more likely to submit or run from an inu than a different kind of demon.

Kitsune lore: All of the kitsune lore that's thrown around by Inari and Sesshoumaru is based on several kitsune folktales, most notably The Fox Wife.

Aging: I'm operating on a system here where I've just decided that every 100 years = a youkai ages about 5 years, with the more powerful ones (like Sesshoumaru) slowing down to 100 years = 1 year after they hit their physical peak. A hanyou ages twice as fast, so they're at every 100 years = 10 years.

Fox-face, or kitsune-gao: Is an expression in Japanese that specifically refers to a woman with prominent cheekbones and delicate features who is so beautiful that she is likely a kitsune in disguise.

Kitsune being sensual beings: This is taken from various kitsune folktales. In most folktales, kitsune are either seducing someone, or pretending to be human so they can take a human spouse (or in some cases steal a human baby and replace it with a baby kitsune). Malevolent kitsune are known to lead young men into the woods until they're lost, and then deny them and leave them there to die. The word 'kitsune' is actually derived from the words "kitsu" and "ne," which in early Japanese roughly translated to "came to the bedroom always true."

Kitsune and promises: Based on several folktales, if a promise is made to a kitsune, and the promise is broken, bad luck and misfortune will follow the oath breaker, and the kitsune might pursue the person themselves to cause even more trouble. The flip side is that if a kitsune ever makes a promise, they have to keep it. If they break their word, they don't just get bad luck and misfortune - an oath breaking kitsune suffers a loss of power, which I have interpreted as the loss of a tail for the purposes of this story, since their tails are the seat of their power.

Hanetsuki: Is pretty much ping pong. Just with fancy paddles that are laquered and painted and balls decorated with feather ornaments.

Kagome's shadow/kitsune are vain: In the folktales, two ways to find out if someone is a kitsune is to look at their shadow, because only the most powerful kitsune can change it to match, and to get them to gaze into a mirror. In the mirror, they'll either appear as they really are, or become so enamored with their own reflection that they forget to keep up their disguise and just stand there admiring themselves. Another way not mentioned here is to draw them a bath that is either too hot or too cold, and when they stick a toe in they'll scream and revert.

Kasha: Japanese folklore describes the Kasha as humanoid cat-demons with the head of a cat or tiger and a burning tail. They are similar to other demons such as Nekomata and Bakeneko and get often interchanged with them. Kashas are said to travel the world on burning chariots or barouches, stealing the corpses of recently deceased humans, which were not yet buried and who had been sinful in life. They bring their souls to hell. - As you can see, I've taken some artistic license with what kasha are. My kasha are more ogre-like, and pretty much just store meat and let it rot, kind of like alligators. They're also not very bright.

Myobu: A title sometimes given to a fox, especially those associated with the goddess Inari. In this case, Myobu is the kitsune Lord of the Eastern Lands, and Inari's uncle.

Kiyoko: A Japanese name meaning "pure child."

Kagome and Shippou being entranced by a mirror: In the folktales, kitsune are often incredibly vain, as well as attracted to shiny objects.

Tessen: A war fan, usually carried by samurai, that has sharpened steel ribs so that it can be both fan and covert weapon. Yukiko tells me her fan is made from the Inu No Taisho's fangs, and was a gift presented to her upon Sesshoumaru's birth.

Yukiko: Is the name I have chosen to give Sesshoumaru's mother. The name is taken from the Japanese folktale, The Crane Wife, a story of a crane youkai who falls in love with a fishermen, and keeps giving him her feathers so that he can use them as sails. The story ultimately ends in tragedy.

The Meido Stone: Yukiko's story about the stone is lifted directly from Inuyahsa: The Final Act.

Sasa: The name means "to help." And Sasa's relationship to Yukiko is a twist on the Japanese folktale The Crane Wife.

The pearl Kagome gives Sango made from her fang and foxfire: Is a reference to what's called a 'power jewel' in kitsune legends. Thought to be a precursor to the western story about the frog with the golden ball, kitsune are often cited as saving some of their power in 'power jewels' and then hiding the jewel somewhere. Humans who find/steal the jewel gain control over the kitsune, or may make a deal with the kitsune to get something in exchange for the return of the power jewel. In other stories, the kitsune willingly gives the power jewel to a human, in order to become the human's spirit guardian. You may see me refer to the power jewel in later chapters as a 'ki-pearl.'

Kagome's vow: Kagome is essentially binding herself to Sango and Miroku's descendents, as the guardian of their house. Basically, she's their kitsune fairy godmother. This is taken from various kitsune legends.

Suiko: is the name of the first woman to rule Japan as Empress Regent.

Chapter Text

27. Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hmm," was all she said in reply.

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kagome blinked. "Can't you see?"

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

"This one sees only the two of us."

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

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

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

She fully planned on taking advantage of that.

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

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

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

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

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

He growled at her, but it was halfhearted.

Kagome nipped his ear again.


28. Wolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Since when do you care – "

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

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

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

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

"Kouga, you don't recognize me?"

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

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

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

"Kouga it's me. Kagome!"

"What?"

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

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

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

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

"Didn't know," Kouga croaked.

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

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

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

He ignored her.

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

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

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

"Yes. He's a friend."

"Hn."

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

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

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

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

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

Sesshoumaru stopped, looking back at her.

"I better go."

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

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

-l-

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

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

Sometimes Kagome suspected he was actually daydreaming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dog barked.

Danger! Danger!

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

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

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

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

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

The dog whimpered and ran, tail between its legs.

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

She'd hurt her own ears.

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

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

"There was a dog," she muttered.

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

Kagome bared her fangs at him.


29. War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He could hear her heart pound.

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

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

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

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

-l-

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

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

"Oh. Like a party?"

"Hn."

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

He shrugged one shoulder.

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

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

"Rin does," Kagome shot back.

"Rin is a pup."

Kagome pouted.

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

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

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

And landed in a ruin.

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

Kouga? But he promised…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood?

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No."

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

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

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

Kouga didn't do this.

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

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

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

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

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


30. Secrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh.

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

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

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

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

Especially with the rush of excitement surrounding the feast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kagome blushed again.

"And secondly?"

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

"He's hanyou?"

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

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

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

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


31. Dog

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

Kagome and Inari made eye contact.

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

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

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

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

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

The air was filled with a heavy silence.

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

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

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

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

"Hn."

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shrugged, trying not to laugh.

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

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

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

Silence.

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

He blinked.

This time, Kagome did laugh.

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

Kagome laughed harder.

-l-

Inari was waiting when Kagome returned to finish her lesson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inari's eyes went wide and startled.

Hunted.

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

She was a fox of nine tails.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

She worried about him getting lonely.

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

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

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

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

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

"Hn."

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

Sesshoumaru bared his fangs at her.

-l-

It was two days before Kagome saw her teacher again.

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

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

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

There was a squeak.

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


32. Feast

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

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

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

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

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

He had only six tails.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sesshoumaru-sama isn't like that."

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

Kagome sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


33. Guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He trusted no one present, save Inuyasha and Kagome.

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

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

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

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

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

Sesshoumaru growled bad-naturedly to himself.

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

Until then, she would be his to protect.

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

He glared at Myobu and Kouga.

-l-

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

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

No father could resist a plea like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sesshoumaru waited.

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

"No."

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

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

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

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

And that was all he would hear on the matter.

-l-

"Oi, Sesshoumaru."

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

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

"Warn me, brother?"

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

Sesshoumaru raised a brow.

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

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

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

Inuyasha snickered.


34. Exhibition

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

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

It made her feel better.

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

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

And screening her from view.

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

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

"Is there no other way?"

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

"I have kept my vow."

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

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

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

She recognized the voice of the kitsune.

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

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

She had to tell Sesshoumaru!

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was the hissing.

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

At that, Kagome hit upon an idea.

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

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

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

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To steady her, of course.

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

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

Sesshoumaru's eyes widened.

He understood.

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

Then he took his place in the arena.


35. Blood

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

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

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

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

Sesshoumaru, as always, was more patient than Inuyasha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Inari was plainly frightened out of her wits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had warned the wrong brother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takeshi bowed. "Yes, Kagome-hime."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sesshoumaru.

Sesshoumaru! her brain caught up. The Tenseiga!

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

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

"No," Yukiko said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, the Meido Stone began to glow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


36. Poison

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is well.

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

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

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

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

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

"It was not I."

"What?!"

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

Inuyasha gaped, looking at Kagome.

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

"Well it wasn't Shippou!"

"Hey!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Keh!"

"Hn."

-l-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes."

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

"You are certain you recognized the kitsune?"

Kagome nodded, looking to Inuyasha. "Yes."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You do not sound confident."

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

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

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

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

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

And Sesshoumaru…

Sesshoumaru did not.

"I no longer desire Father's fang."

Inuyasha barked a laugh, and drew the sword.

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

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

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

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

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

"This Sesshoumaru was the target."

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

Sesshoumaru met Inuyasha's eyes. "Precisely."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes," Sesshoumaru confirmed.

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inari told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Who is your master?" Sesshoumaru addressed Inari.

"I cannot say. The spells…"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With that, he carried Kagome from the room.

-l-

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

Unacceptable.

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

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

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

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

Should he…?

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

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

Inuyasha kicked him.

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

And then he slept.


37. Serpent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kagome sat up. "My approval?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh. Um… thank you?"

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

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

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

And with that cryptic remark, Kiyohime took her leave.

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


38. Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love.

Kiyohime.

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

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

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

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

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

"Love."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monsters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Why did you break off the betrothal?"

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

"You mean she wasn't before?"

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

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

At least out loud.

-l-

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

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

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

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

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


39. Riddle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Kitsune-sama? Will you come?"

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

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

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

This was a tail-test.

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

She was either dead, or she had left him.

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

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

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

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

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

Sesshoumaru's breath caught.

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

He hoped he would not need to use it.

-l-

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

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

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

Mother had always had finer senses than he.

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

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

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

Sesshoumaru snorted.

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

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

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

Aobozu. The Blue Monk. The Child Stealer.

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

Kagome growled deep in her throat.

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

It was almost too easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She could tell the bones had come from human children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Agreed."

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

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

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

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

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

She was a bridge.

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

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

It was an expression of triumph.

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

Something niggled at the back of Kagome's mind.

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

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

"Still waters run deep.

I have a bed, but rarely sleep.

I have a mouth, few hear me speak,

Though with a head, I never weep."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She and the human girl winked out of sight.

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

Click click click. Click click click.

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

"Found you," Bozu whispered.

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

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

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

Then he disappeared in a cloud of emerald flames.

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

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

It was decidedly odd.

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


40. Vow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"My name is Jun," the girl said.

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

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

Kagome laughed. "So are you."

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

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

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

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

She held it out to Jun.

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

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

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

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

Sesshoumaru halted, and Inuyasha's head came up.

"Got anything?" he asked.

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Quiet," she told the headman gently.

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

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

The headman's face went from red to white.

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

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

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

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

Kagome turned to them, trusting them to play along.

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

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

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

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

It was all she could do not to laugh.

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

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

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

"Yes, inu-sama."

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

-l-

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

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

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

"Sesshoumaru-sama?"

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

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

Kagome barely noticed him leave.

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

Fear and worry.

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

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

"Okay," she said in response.

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

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

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

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

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

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


41. Illusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. It wasn't.

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sounds like an illusion," Inuyasha said.

"Illusion?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only he could remember.

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

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

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


42. Weasel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait.

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

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

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

Inuyasha laughed. "The Weasel Dragon?"

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

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

Sesshoumaru shrugged one shoulder.

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

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

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

Kagome found herself looking at Inuyasha. He looked back.

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

But unlike Myobu, they allowed themselves to be whole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aobozu was Itachiryu. Itachiryu was Myobu.

Myobu was Aobozu.

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

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

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

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

He was glaring at Kiyohime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-l-

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

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

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

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

Sometimes he thought it had fractured his mind.

But no matter.

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

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

And then, she and her power would be his.

And then, the West would fall.

And then, he would have his revenge on Kiyohime.

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

Starting with Sesshoumaru.


43. Kitsuneno'otan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See! Five!

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

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

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

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

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

"Sesshoumaru?" Kagome echoed weakly.

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

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

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

-l-

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

"Yes, my lord," the golden vixen affirmed. "I had thought it might not happen with her, since it usually occurs just before the third tail… and yet here we are."

Sesshoumaru nodded, remaining silent as he mulled that over. "What must be done for her?" he said at last, not sure if it was the same as with inu youkai.

Inari told him, seeming far too happy about it.

In the usual course of things, when a young kitsune reached the point of kitsuneno'otan – the turning of the tail – an unmated member of their leash was chosen to guide them through the shedding of their virginity. Through sexual awareness, they gained their third tail, and became an adult in the eyes of their peers. An older leash member looked on, to make sure no abuse occurred, and that the younger kitsune was not frightened.

"I will be her witness," Inari went on. "And she chooses you as her guide."

When Sesshoumaru remained silent, Inari spoke again, "It is a great honor to be chosen, my lord. If, however, you do not wish to participate in the ritual, I am sure the Wolf Prince – "

"No," Sesshoumaru said, more forcefully than he had intended to. Standing, he paced, his youki crackling around him, revealing his agitation.

He had no objection to rutting with his vixen, of course. Her form was pleasing and she had proven herself to be a valuable member of his pack. When he'd awoken to discover her gone, he'd been most… unsettled. And so of course it was natural for him to share his pleasure at finding her unharmed. Those kisses... But he did not desire more than shared pleasure. More was not necessary, as he already had an heir in Rin.

This ceremony, this kitsuneno'otan, placed great importance on the role of the guide – a position of honor and trust. It was fitting that Kagome should turn to her alpha to fulfill the role, and yet… Sesshoumaru was wary of what his acceptance might mean to her.

And what if he sired a pup on her? The ceremony Inari spoke of did not allow for the types of magic that would ensure such a thing did not occur.

…Kagome was a fine mother to Rin and Shippou. Powerful, protective, and nurturing. And the thought of her belly rounded with his pup filled him with a sweet, sharp elation that he chose to interpret as pride. No purpose could be served by adding another pup to the pack, and yet the thought was not distasteful.

But to allow one not of the pack to serve as Kagome's guide?

That was unacceptable.

Sesshoumaru's pack was small. Shippou was much too young, and looked upon Kagome as a mother, narrowing the choices to Inuyasha or himself.

He would not let it be Inuyasha, he thought, a vicious snarl that he was unaware of curling his lips.

Certainly that would upset Kagome, as she had decided Inuyasha was not an acceptable mate. And Inuyasha was courting Inari.

Secure in his reasons, Sesshoumaru turned back to Inari, blinking when he saw she had pressed herself to the far wall, pulse thrumming with terror.

"Your eyes," she said weakly, fear spiking her scent.

Had they flashed red? He hadn't realized.

Taking a long, deep breath, Sesshoumaru centered himself.

"What will become of Kagome if this ceremony does not take place?" he asked after coaxing Inari back to the center of the room.

Inari gave an elegant shrug. "If she were normal, she would stay a perennial child with only two tails, until she was driven to find a partner on her own. With Kagome, perhaps the same. Or perhaps not."

Until she was driven to find a partner on her own.

"Tell her that I, Sesshoumaru, will gladly be her guide."

-l-

Nine was a sacred number among kitsune, and so it was nine days later that Sesshoumaru touched down outside a series of caverns his parents had once used as dens when they wished to be away from the palace. He had directed Inari and Kagome to the caves, thinking them sufficiently safe and private for Kagome's kitsuneno'otan.

Here, the two vixens had prepared for his arrival.

Remembering what he had been told, Sesshoumaru stripped himself of silk and swords, folding his clothes neatly and leaving them in a pile just inside the entrance of the den, his swords on top. A barrier placed at the cave mouth ensured that they would not be disturbed.

Naked save for the scant covering provided by his long white hair, he followed his nose to the cavern where Kagome waited. As he should have predicted, she was in the ninth cave from the entrance.

She was sweet and rosy, naked as he was, her tails snapping back and forth. Sesshoumaru had felt that body pressed against his own many times, but never had he allowed himself to imagine what lie beneath her clothes in any great detail.

He was more than pleased by what he saw.

Of Inari's presence there was no sign, but Sesshoumaru was certain she was there, using a kitsune trick to grant them the illusion of privacy.

As soon as Kagome set eyes on him, her scent flooded with fear, her heart pounding in his ears. Sesshoumaru paused.

"I am unacceptable?"

It had been made clear on more than one occasion that she found his body desirable. Her changing scent made the reaction impossible to hide, and she had responded most enthusiastically to his kisses. Did she require more than lust in a lover?

He would not have her frightened and resentful of her alpha. If she didn't want him, he would swallow his pride and retreat. Though it made him growl to think of it, he would send Inuyasha in his place. Or perhaps allow her to choose from amongst the warriors who served the West. Takeshi was near, guarding Inari at a discreet distance.

"No!" Kagome protested, almost shouting. Then, more quietly, "No. No, Sesshoumaru-sama. I'm just nervous. Please. Stay."

He nodded, padding over to her slowly so as not to alarm her further. Gently, he ran three claws down her arm. "On this day you should call me Sesshoumaru."

"Sesshoumaru," she repeated timidly, her eyes fixed on the place between his legs. Her scent was changing.

"Be not afraid," he commanded softly, before taking her lips in a kiss.

-l-

Kagome woke the next morning in Sesshoumaru's arms, sore, but satisfied. Better yet, the aching, nagging sensation that had been plaguing her was gone, as Inari had promised it would be.

And she had another new tail.

Sesshoumaru was watching her.

She let out a nervous giggle. "Um. Thank you?"

What were you supposed to say in this situation? Was this awkward? She wasn't sure if this was awkward.

"You are pleased," he said, a statement rather than a question. How smug he sounded!

But then, he had reason to be.

"Very," she agreed, laying her cheek on his shoulder.

Firmly, she reminded herself of Inari's words of caution. Don't set yourself up for heartbreak by expecting anything to come out of your kitsuneno'otan. It may not be as special to your guide as it is to you.

Despite her thoughts, Kagome knew that Sesshoumaru would always have his own little corner in her heart.


44. Consequences

Myobu crumpled the rice paper in his hands, incinerating Inari's neat brushstrokes in a puff of foxfire.

He had been certain, when he dug his claws into Kagome-hime's flesh and cast a spell that called up lust in the blood, that she would either be forced into kitsuneno'otan or driven mad enough to attack the Ice Dog.

And he'd been equally certain that in the event of kitsuneno'otan that he, Myobu of the Six Tails, would be called to deflower her. He was the most obvious choice – the only full grown kitsune male of noble birth still living. And then she would have been his… he knew many uses for virgin blood, including a love spell that would have ensured the Fox Princess of the West would beg to be the mate of the Eastern Lord. He'd have called her to his palace and she'd have never left, and then he'd have her power and a valuable pawn to play against the West.

He should have pressed harder. He should have used Inari, made her steer the Fox Princess toward him…

It wasn't right that the Great Dog should have such a promising vixen. From Inari's report, it seemed Sesshoumaru-sama might even take Kagome-hime to mate!

He would not allow it.

Myobu was a great believer in keeping bloodlines pure. There should be no crossbreeding between the different types of youkai. He blamed his own frustrating inability to gain more than six tails on the fact that his father had mated a sea serpent.

Inari of the Nine Tails was the product of three generations of kitsune-kitsune matches. Unfortunately, she was too closely related to mate Myobu, being the offspring of his half-sister and a distant cousin.

That was why he had so readily consented to her being courted by a hanyou. Her bloodline must be diluted, or it was likely any kits she bore would depose Myobu's heirs.

And besides all that, Sesshoumaru-sama already had too much power. For him to have Kagome-hime as well, when there were no other vixens of proper age and stature to give Myobu an heir… Myobu had been in the process of resigning himself to a mixed match, when the Shikon Wish shaped a vixen from a human. Surely the occurrence of such a thing was a sign from the kami that Myobu was to have her. Why else would she become a kitsune?

If she had been meant for the Great Dog, the kami would have reshaped her into an inu youkai. She was Myobu's fate. Part of his destiny, the female who would help him gain dominion over all the Four Lands.

Kiyohime was driven to kill Myobu's mother by desire to avoid marriage to the Great Dog, and Ryuukotsusei, the last of the Northern Dragons, was dispatched by that unintelligent fool of an inu hanyou. Through these events was Myobu denied not one, but two kingdoms.

And now, thanks to the trickery of the Fox Princess, Myobu could never again set foot in the West.

All these things, he laid at Sesshoumaru's door.

But Myobu would have his revenge. In time, he would have the North and the South. It would take only patience and cunning, and liberal use of Inari's ki-pearl. Even sweeter still, he would have Kagome-hime.

He saw the way the Dog Lord watched her, the way he protected her and panted after her.

She would be Myobu's for the power she represented and possessed. And more importantly now, she would be Myobu's because it would cause the Lord of the West pain.

And as for the West…

Running his tongue along his left incisor, Myobu went to his magical workroom and retrieved the enormous sea turtle shell he kept there. Inverting it, he filled it with water taken from a ning-ya's grotto. Two drops of his own blood and the water began to swirl, forming a miniature whirlpool. A conduit to another realm.

Staring into the hypnotic motion of the water, Myobu listened.

"Yesss, yessss," he murmured to himself, scales spreading across his face and arms. It was difficult to hold onto his fox form when he used what remained of his dragon youki. But it was necessary. Necessary…

"I will do asss you sssay," he told the churning vortex before him.

Then he severed the connection, pouring the water out onto the floor. It spread around his feet, seeping into the woven mats like blood on a battlefield.

Myobu imagined it was the blood of his enemies, pooling around his ankles as they breathed their last.

He wore Inari's ki-pearl on a chain around his neck, charmed to be invisible. He pulled it out now, squeezing the small jewel in his fist. With a mental twist, he accessed her youki. His green fox mask markings grew jagged at the edges, bleeding over his skin like ink on parchment, until his face was that of Aobozu. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

When he opened them, he saw the world as Inari saw it. He told her to move toward the door and her body obeyed. Inuyasha stood in his path, and Myobu smiled and murmured to him, stroking the hanyou's cheek with Inari's hand.

Inari fought him. He was able to control her for a few moments only. But she would get weaker, of that he was sure. It would take time, years perhaps, but one day she would be nothing more than an extension of his will.

Myobu could never rule the West. But Inari could. Once Sesshoumaru and that little scrap of an heir were disposed of, Inuyasha would be the Lord.

And Myobu, through Inari, would be his consort.

-l-

There was a new awareness between Sesshoumaru and Kagome following her kitsuneno'otan. A carnal knowledge of each other that neither could deny.

Kagome would run her fingers through his hair, and Sesshoumaru would remember the sting of his scalp when she pulled those very same locks, crying his name. Her leg would brush his as they lay together, the pups around them, and he would recall the delicious pressure of her thighs locked around his waist, the curve of her breast in his hand.

She gave him looks of molten foxfire, the scent of her arousal chasing him through the halls of the shiro when she caught sight of him sparring with his sworn warriors, or when they walked together in the gardens. He bared a fang, and she smirked a knowing womanish smirk, and ran her fingers over his chest, playing with the edges of silk cloth, but never quiet daring to slip under and caress the skin beneath.

Three times, he almost took her. Once in his bed, when she had lain with the entire length of her body pressed into his side, the scent of her lust and his own filling his nose and making his eyes bleed red.

It was only the thought of answering Rin and Shippou's questions after the act that stopped him.

The second time she was in the dojo courtyard, practicing with her shuriken, and wearing the uniform of the palace trainees that somehow seemed more suggestive than all of her elegant kimono. The sight of her, concentration on her face, her hair bound back, exposing the back of her neck to his view as she arched and threw, muscles sinuously sliding…

He'd hurried away before he could forget himself.

The third time it had been the sight of her fangs. He admitted to himself now that he'd always found them almost unbearably attractive. When she bared them, his control snapped. He blinked and she was in his arms, moaning his name, the scent of her driving his passion to new heights. With a great rip of cloth, he parted her kimono, uncaring that they were in his study and any of his councilors could walk in. Pleasure taken with one of such beauty was not something to be hidden.

She scrabbled at the knot of his obi, and he tore at her breast bindings, his fangs lengthening as he licked at her neck, finding the sweet spot where he would bite, where he would mark, where he would claim…

Mine.

With an abruptness that left Kagome staring at him in wide eyed astonishment, he thrust himself away from her, his iron will tested by every step back he forced himself to take, when his whole body was screaming now, more, closer, mine, minemine.

His dignity hanging around him in tatters, Sesshoumaru resolved that something would have to be done about this madness. To take Kagome as a lover was one thing, and something he'd hesitated over only because he didn't want to give her an expectation for something more that would result in anger and disharmony within the pack. But this, what he'd almost done…

He, Sesshoumaru, who had walked the path of Supreme Conquest for over a hundred years, had almost claimed a mate with no rhyme or reason that he could see, no aim in mind. He had almost been overcome by the desires of his bestial nature, a nature he had always ruthlessly bent to his will.

It would not stand.

"I must go," he said to Kagome, rearranging his clothes so the silk hung properly once more.

"Go?"

He didn't turn to look at her. He feared that if he did he would be once more overwhelmed by the need to possess her.

Without saying more, stopping only to place the Seal of the West on Inuyasha's bed, Sesshoumaru left his shiro. He would go into his lands and hunt alone, as he had always done until so very recently. There, he would master himself and his instincts, as he always had in the past.

And when he returned, everything would be as it was.


45. Absence

It was safe to say that Inuyasha had never confused Kagome as much as Sesshoumaru.

After her kitsuneno'otan, he blew hot and cold. One moment his desire was so thick in the air that she could smell it halfway across the shiro, and the next he was shoving her away and telling her that he had to 'go,' but not where he had to go, or why he had to go, or even when he would be back.

Clearly, being unable to commit was a family trait.

At least she was fairly certain that Sesshoumaru didn't have an undead former love who looked exactly like her wandering around in the woods somewhere… But then, Sesshoumaru had been alive for hundreds of years, so who knew? Maybe he did have some secret girlfriend out there that he could only visit on the third blue moon of every fifth year because she was under a curse and it was all horribly star crossed and that was why Sesshoumaru seemed so cold to the world at large.

It occurred to Kagome that she was being slightly, just slightly, paranoid.

Sitting down and discussing the whole mess with Inari helped to settle her mind, and made a few things clear.

First, she and Sesshoumaru had never discussed what they were to each other. It could be that he thought she just wanted a casual lover – but inu were not known for being quite so free in their affections. Or, it could be the opposite: that he wanted a tryst only, and sensed that her heart was more engaged than his.

Whatever the case, he was bothered by something, and when he returned, presumably from finding things to kill until he felt better, Kagome would need to have an honest conversation with him.

And, having gone down that road once before and not liked it one bit, Kagome was determined not to be drawn into another tale of unrequited love. Three months. She would wait for Sesshoumaru to decide what he wanted for three months. It wasn't a very long time for someone with her lifespan. After that, while she wouldn't seek out other partners, neither would she keep herself hidden away. She was done putting her life on hold.

That decided, she bent herself to the task of helping Inuyasha govern the West in Sesshoumaru's absence.

-l-

Sesshoumaru spent the first few weeks of his journey patrolling the borders of his lands, paying particular attention to the long border between the West and the East. Now that he knew the identity of his enemy, past events were coming into focus, forming a pattern that he was convinced he would have noticed sooner if the powerful instincts he kept wrapped close to his bones had not been pushing him towards a certain vixen.

His distraction had been so complete that for the first two nights he had hunted too much game, used to having a vixen and pups to feed when he traveled. Angry at himself, he'd spent the next three days meditating beneath a waterfall, the sound of roaring water filling his ears as they had once been filled by Kagome's chatter of the future and the laughter of the pups as they played.

He had to master this absurd longing. He would. To be so undisciplined was a weakness he could not afford. Look at what allowing intstinct to roam unchecked had done to his great and terrible father. Look how he himself had been manipulated in the past like a puppet on strings through his attachment to Rin.

It was his duty to care for his pack. But this thing that threatened to swallow his reason whole went beyond that. It was madness. Sheer insanity. If he allowed it in, his tightly coiled control would unravel, rendering him as irrational and unable to master his youki as Inuyasha. Perhaps even more so. Left unchecked, his power could turn him into a ravening beast.

He missed them. His pack. He missed the sounds of their breathing and the warmth of their bodies at night. He missed the brush of familiar youki against his own. He even missed Mother's irritating manner.

Most of all he missed blue eyes and dainty fangs smiling at him.

When he found himself in the vicinity of Jun's village, it seemed natural to make his way toward the headman's house to check that Kagome's ward was well. He did not bother to hide his presence. The villagers would recognize him.

And he found he wanted to be seen.

By the time he stood before Jun's dwelling, she and her mother were by the door to greet him. Jun was dressed in the kimono Kagome had made for her. The kimono that was the same color as Kagome's tails.

"Inu-sama," the girl's mother greeted him politely, bowing low. Sesshoumaru ignored her. It was Jun he was interested in.

As the silence stretched on, the woman straightened once more.

Being a child, Jun was the first to lose patience. "Where is the Fox Princess?" she asked, staring up at Sesshoumaru.

"Where is the Fox Princess, Honored Father!" Jun's mother hissed.

Jun nodded, but did not repeat the correction, instead switching to, "Are you really going to be my Honored Father-in-Law? Everyone in the village says that I am going to marry your son, the Dog Prince in Red."

Sesshoumaru considered this. "Inuyasha is the brother of this one. This Sesshoumaru's son is too young to take a wife."

"Oh," Jun said. "Will you be my Honored Brother-in-Law then?"

Her mother looked like she might faint at any moment.

"Perhaps."

It was not a lie, and if being thought Inuyasha's future bride would protect the girl from the wrath of the villagers, he would not strip that protection away.

Jun took this in, and then she smiled at him. Her brown eyes reminded him of Rin, but her next actions brought forth memories of Kagome.

Darting forward, she tapped him on the hand with her small fingers. "Can't catch me!" Then she turned and took off running as fast as her short human legs could carry her.

Now Jun's mother appeared mortified, and afraid for Jun's life.

Sesshoumaru ignored the woman's apologies in order to give chase. He allowed Jun to evade him for a full two minutes before catching her and instructing her in strategy.

When it grew dark, Sesshoumaru returned Jun to her home and retreated to the forest.

The next day, he went back to the headman's house.

A month and a half was spent instructing Jun in foraging and tactics for evading capture. By the end of the third week he'd told her every story he knew at least twice.

So he began repeating the ones Kagome had told to him.

Jun was just as baffled by the future's human sorcery as he was, a fact which he found reassuring.

-l-

When light dawned on his fifty-first day in Jun's village, Inuyasha found Sesshoumaru by the stream where he was teaching Jun to fish.

"Inuyasha-hiko," Jun said politely, putting her palms flat against her thighs as she bowed. Sesshoumaru was pleased that she remembered her etiquette lessons.

Inuyasha was taken aback. He blinked, and then he scowled, fixing his golden eyes on Sesshoumaru. "You got a minute, inu-sama?"

Sesshoumaru inclined his head. "Stay here, Jun."

They moved far enough away that Jun would not be able to hear them, but not so far that Sesshoumaru would lose track of the little girl.

"Well this is damn pathetic. You know that, right?" Inuyasha opened the conversation.

Sesshoumaru's lips tightened, but he refused to be drawn into a pointless battle.

"Why are you here, Inuyasha?"

"Officially? I'm here because Inari says Myobu might be sniffing around the Southern Islands. Unofficially, I'm here to kick your ass for leaving Kagome. I mean, what the hell?!"

Sesshoumaru snarled. "It is none of your concern."

Inuyasha's sword hand flexed around the hilt of Tetsusaiga. He looked like Father. "Bullshit. Kagome's moping around the palace trying to put on a brave face for the runts, Shippou hates you for makin' her cry, you left the Seal of the West with me, and I find you out here with the only human outside of Edo who has anything to do with 'Gome. It sure as hell is my business."

"I require solitude."

Inuyasha jerked his chin toward the human girl diligently trying to catch fish with nothing but her hands.

"Jun requires training."

"That kid is nice and all, but that ain't the reason you're here," Inuyasha scoffed. "She's a way for you to feel close to Kagome, and if you don't realize that then your ass is dumber than I thought."

Sesshoumaru's eyes widened, then narrowed, his hands clenching into fists. Choosing not to dignify that claim with a response, he instead queried Inuyasha on how the hanyou had located him. He'd been hiding his scent and youki. If Inuyasha had discovered some way to circumvent the technique, Sesshoumaru wanted to know about it.

Inuyasha grinned humorlessly, his fangs protruding over his bottom lip. "Kagome. You know that protection amulet she made for you?"

Sesshoumaru placed his hand over his heart. The origami dog, given to him as a token just before that fateful exhibition match with Inuyasha, was always there, tucked between silk and armor.

"So long as you got something her magic's touched, she can find you in her mirror. Shippou can do it too, since he helped make the amulet. Kitsune thing, I guess."

Sesshoumaru was at once both discomfited and relieved to know that he and his vixen were connected in some way.

Mine. Mine. Mate. Mine, whispered the beast within.

Sesshoumaru steeled his resolve.

No.

He was in control. He, Sesshoumaru, would not be a slave to his baser desires.

"This one will travel to the Southern Islands to hunt Myobu. You will return to the shiro to guard the pack," Sesshoumaru declared.

"Like hell I will! I got just as much right to kick Myobu's face in as you do, for what he's done to Inari! I won't – "

"You will." Sesshoumaru took a menacing step forward, his youki uncoiling to freeze the air.

Jun whimpered, less sensitive to their auras than another demon or gifted human would be, and yet still aware of the malevolence surrounding Sesshoumaru.

Inuyasha's ears flicked, a muscle in his jaw twitching. "Fine. I'll go protect them for you. But dammit…" he floundered for a moment. "You got a good thing going with Kagome. And for some reason you make her happy. Don't screw that up."

Don't screw that up like I did.

The sentence hung unspoken in the air between them.

Sesshoumaru said nothing.

"Feh." Inuyasha turned away, heading back the direction he came. "You know," he called over his shoulder, "I've thought you were a lot of things, but a coward was never one of them."

Then he was gone.

-l-

When Inuyasha got back to the shiro, he headed straight for the room he shared with Inari in the royal wing, swinging in through the window so that he could avoid walking in the hallways. He wanted a break from all the idiots who kept asking him when Sesshoumaru was coming back, and he didn't want to face Kagome's disappointment. Not yet.

Dammit, he hated it when she cried. The runt he could put up with. Even Rin's tears didn't bother him that much. It was different because she was a kid. But Kagome? All she had to do was sniffle and it just shot his day all to hell.

He dropped lightly into his room, blinking and looking around when he realized it was dark. He could smell Inari. It was weird she hadn't lit one of the lamps or something.

She was kneeling in the center of the floor, staring at her hands.

"Nari?" Inuyasha said, moving to stand next to her. She hated it when he messed up her hair, so he ran his fingers down the smooth column of her neck instead. "You alright, vixen?"

She didn't move.

"Nari!" Inuyasha said. Sharper. More insistent.

"Inuyasha," she whispered. Blood began to leak from one of her eyes.

In an instant he scooped her up in his arms, cradling her against his chest. "Inari, don't be stupid. You don't have to hurt yourself fighting him."

Her eyes flashed with golden foxfire and she slumped weakly against him. Inuyasha shut the hell up, figuring he could yell at her later, after he'd listened to whatever she was trying so hard to say.

"Promise me… promise you will never take me as your mate. Never!" She grasped at his haori, one of her claws nicking his skin. "Not until my ki-pearl is returned, or Myobu is dead!"

Inuyasha felt like he'd been punched in the gut with Sesshoumaru's acid, but he gave his word. "I hate this," he said gruffly, his ears laid back flat against his head. "Wish I could do something."

Inari coughed, another bloody tear rolling down her face. "Nothing to do. He uses my own strength against me. Just hold me."

Inuyasha leapt onto the bed, making Inari as comfortable as possible. She nuzzled his neck, whispering, "No matter what I say after this, you must keep your word."

Inuyasha kissed the top of her head. "He'll be dead soon, Nari. Sesshoumaru went to the Southern Islands to get the bastard, just like you said."

So faint that even Inuyasha didn't hear it, Inari said, "But I didn't…"

-l-

Sesshoumaru walked along the beach, scowling as the smell of salt and surf invaded his nose. While pleasant for the most part, the scent of the sea was overpowering, making it difficult to track Myobu, no matter what face he was currently wearing.

Having already scoured the more remote parts of the Southern Islands, Sesshoumaru was in the Port of Ning-ya, the largest Southern youkai community outside of Kiyohime's palace.

This was the port through which the Southern royals did most of their trading, thanks in no small part to the large cove screened by a series of small barrier islands, and protected by a tribe of ning-ya youkai who had sworn themselves to the South. Sesshoumaru had not set foot on its beaches since he was a pup, sent to visit in order to foster an alliance. That was of course when the North was still ruled by dragons and Ryuukotsusei had been threatening war…

Since it was quite certain that Kiyohime would strike Myobu down if he was idiotic enough to approach the Palace by the Sea, it followed that the Weasel Dragon might attempt to lose himself among the crowd at the Port of Ning-ya.

A blaze of powerful youki made Sesshoumaru look out over the water. There, in the distance, he could see the looping coils of a massive sea serpent curling through the waves beyond the barrier islands. The serpent raised its triangular snout, silver eyes fixing on Sesshoumaru. A frill of skin the color of seaweed arched around the dragon's head, giving it the appearance of being crowned.

It opened its jaws, and two large fangs became visible, each filled with the deadly poison that had once killed Inuyasha.

Then the serpent gave a hissing roar and plunged forward, its undulating body sluicing through the water at a speed even Sesshoumaru found impressive. Others standing on the beach began moving away from the water, but Sesshoumaru paid them no mind.

The serpent arrived at the shore, curving its body up to tower over Sesshoumaru, poised to strike.

Then it vanished in a flash of sapphire light, coalescing into the form of Kiyohime.

"Ssssessshoumaru-sssama," she said with a smile. "To what do I owe thisss pleasssure?"

He inclined his head to her, being courteous to the one who ruled the lands in which he traveled. "Myobu is rumored to be in the South."

Kiyohime's expression never changed. "Ssstraaange. I would think here isss the lassst place he would hide. If he isss here, I have no knowledge of it."

Sesshoumaru was silent, absorbing her words.

"Would you care to ssshare my den for the night? You remember where it isss. It isss the very sssame one we dissscovered asss neonatesss. I have improved on it over the yearssss."

"That would be acceptable."

Kiyohime began to walk, and Sesshoumaru fell into step beside her, both of them careful to neither fall behind nor pull ahead.

"Thisss one had hoped your presssenccce meant the Little Fox hasss consssented to a match between usss. Thisss Kiyohime ssstill ssssearches for one worthy of ssssiring the Sssouthern heir."

Taken by surprise, Sesshoumaru's heart beat an odd tattoo in his chest. The tilt of Kiyohime's head told him she had noticed, but she wisely refrained from comment.

"This Sesshoumaru will have no mate."

-l-

Kagome looked into her little round mirror, silent tears streaming down her cheeks. One fell on the glass, obscuring the image of Sesshoumaru and Kiyohime.

She'd wanted to check in on him, to be sure that he was alright. To see if he had found Myobu, if he would be home soon, so that she'd have something to tell the kits. Inari had encouraged her to watch him in the mirror, and eventually Kagome had taken that advice.

Only to see Sesshoumaru agree to spend a night with Kiyohime, and declare that he would never take a mate.

She sighed.

There was a knock on the door.

"My lady?" Takeshi called when Kagome didn't answer. A pause. "Kagome-hime? Inari-sama wished me to see if you are alright."

Kagome went and opened the door, not bothering to hide the tears on her face. Takeshi had likely already smelled the telltale salt.

He gazed at her a moment, then respectfully offered her a silk handkerchief. She took it, gratefully drying her eyes and giving him a wan smile.

"Would my lady care for a walk in the gardens? The flowers always cheer Rin-sama."

And now Kagome laughed. It was a watery laugh, but a laugh just the same. "Thank you, Takeshi. I think I would like that."


46. Time

Sesshoumaru sat in quiet repose in the seaside cave Kiyohime used as a den. While he and Kiyohime had long been acquainted and were betrothed at one time, he did not trust her enough to truly sleep. She seemed to share his misgivings, for she watched him through slitted eyes, lounging in a hollow in the sand.

In the shallows just beyond the cave, a group of ning-ya sang, voices climbing and falling in sonorous melody for the pleasure of the Lady of the South.

"Thisss one would offer you her body for the night, Sssessshoumaru-ssama," Kiyohime's words imposed on the tranquility of the moment.

Sesshoumaru did not move. He did not even blink. "And this one would decline, Kiyohime."

Kiyohime smiled and waved one hand to say that she was not offended by his refusal. A being of cold logic like himself, she rarely lost her temper. He had once thought she would make a good mate for that very reason.

Now he found her manner… lacking.

"You desssire the Little Fox. Thisss I underssstand. If ssshe were able to give me heirsss, I would court her myssself."

"This Sesshoumaru has no need for more heirs."

Why did it feel as if he was repeating a mantra?

But he had no time to think further. His amulet of protection burned against his chest, a sting of foxfire that he felt through the silk of his clothes. An instant later he sensed the approach of a powerful aura.

Not as powerful as himself or Kiyohime, but powerful enough.

He stood and moved to the entrance of Kiyohime's den, wind lifting his hair and sleeves and the spray of the sea wetting his face. The ning-ya had stopped singing.

The sea boiled and began to churn, the waves changing direction until a whirlpool formed. Kiyohime stepped up behind Sesshoumaru.

"Mother," she said simply.

With a speed to rival Kiyohime's in her serpent form, a youkai emerged from the center of the swirling water. From the waist up she appeared to be a beautiful human maiden, save for the fact that she had six arms and two large fangs protruding over her lips. They reached all the way to her chin, dripping with the poison that Kiyohime had inherited.

From the waist down she was an armored centipede-serpent, deep seaweed green with a yellow underbelly. A hundred segmented legs helped her gain purchase in the sand, one of the reasons she could move so quickly.

She wore no clothes, though a circlet of pearls dangled on her forehead. The long black hair that tumbled over her shoulders and hung over her breasts was her only modesty.

Sesshoumaru remembered her. He had been presented to her in the Southern shiro when she was still Lady of the Southern Islands.

"Jishinamazu," he greeted her politely.

"Sesssshoumaru-sssama," she returned, lisping around her giant fangs.

"What do you want, Mother?" Kiyohime asked flatly.

Jishinamazu stared at her daughter, and then ignored her in favor of addressing Sesshoumaru. "I have heard that you ssseek my grandssson."

Sesshoumaru nodded, resting his hand on the hilt of Bakusaiga.

"I know what he hasss done. I will help you find him, if you will come with me to my palaccce beneath the sssea."

Sesshoumaru hesitated for only a moment. He wished to end things with Myobu without resorting to war with the East, something that attacking the Eastern shiro would all but guarantee. No, he needed to challenge Myobu to single combat outside of his territory.

Only then would Sesshoumaru's pack be truly safe.

Subtly, Sesshoumaru prodded Jishinamazu's aura with his own. His initial impression held true. While she had seemed dangerous to him as a pup, now she was nowhere near a match for him.

Confident that she did not pose a true threat, Sesshoumaru acquiesced to visiting her undersea palace.

"Are you coming, Kiyohime?" Jishinamazu asked just before Sesshoumaru stepped into the vortex of water.

"Thisss one hasss not the time," Kiyohime's answer floated to him on the tide.

-l-

"I'm worried," Kagome confided to Inari and Yukiko, watching the kits play out of the corner of her eye to make sure they wouldn't overhear. "This is the longest he's been away from the shiro since Naraku. At least… it's the longest he's been without taking me with him. What if something's happened to him? What if Myobu – "

"My son is more than a match for the Weasel Dragon," Yukiko opined, snapping her fan open to hide the movement of her lips from any who might be watching.

Kagome sighed. She didn't really believe that Myobu was capable of defeating Sesshoumaru. But her greater fear was one that she couldn't bring herself to say aloud.

What if he was staying away just to avoid her? What if he had discovered that Kiyohime was who made him happy?

What if the kits cried for their father at night, and it was because of Kagome that he didn't return home?

What if he regretted the vow he had asked her to make, that she would never leave his pack?

"I'm sure he'll return eventually." Inari said. She ran her tongue over her left fang, and Kagome blinked at her, made uneasy by the mannerism Inari surely must have picked up from her uncle, Myobu. "But you should not pine for him, Kagome-hime. You deserve a male who will be present when you wish it of him."

Yukiko sniffed, but offered no rebuttal in Sesshoumaru's defense.

Kagome felt her heart sink.

-l-

Jishinamazu's palace was fashioned from living stone – coral that had been coaxed somehow to grow into walls and turrets. It was completely dry on the inside, the halls lit with glowing fish trapped in orbs of glass.

Bones littered the entranceway, the remains of aquatic youkai dressed in moldering armor, some still clutching weapons.

Jishinamazu noticed the direction of Sesshoumaru's gaze. "I wed Kiyohime'sss father for hisss power, wealth, and posssition. When sssshe cut him down before hisss time and took my title, I needed a new kingdom to rule. Thisss wasss once the palace of The Sssea Princessss. Now it isss mine." She gestured at the scattered bones, pointing out the skeleton of a warrior still holding a dusty bow, a broken arrow shaft lying next to him. "The fool actually called for a human to ssssave her. Urasssshima Taro. I poissssoned him very eassssily."

Sesshoumaru tilted his head. Jishinamazu was rightly proud of her strength and had left the scattered bones of her conquered foes here as a testament. And yet… he could not help but wonder what Kagome would have to say of her actions.

He was certain that she would not approve.

Jishinamazu headed down a hall and Sesshoumaru followed her, making sure to stay far enough back that he would not be struck with her tail. Her many feet made a skittering sound that echoed off the walls.

She led him to what appeared to be a magical workroom of some kind. As he watched, she picked amongst shelves full of jars and implements, her six arms making the work go faster. One arm held what looked like a turtle shell, the others rapidly grabbing up bottles and either discarding them or tucking them into the upturned shell, as if it were a basket. Once she was satisfied that she had what she needed, she went to the center of the room and wound her body into a coil, rearing up to tower over him.

"I will need ssssomething of yourssss," she told Sesshoumaru. "A hair, blood, a claw, a fang… it matterssss not."

Sesshoumaru was not a sorcerer. He had no real knowledge of the intricacies of magic. And yet, he knew that his fangs were highly prized by those like Totosai, who practiced transmorgrification. Did it not follow that the rest of him would be just as valuable?

"Why?" he asked Jishinamazu.

She sucked her teeth, her long tongue swiping poison from the tips of her fangs. "I am a blood witch," she answered. "It isss how my magic issss fueled. I cassst the ssspell for you, ssso you mussst pay the pricccce."

-l-

Eventually Kagome's worry overcame her conscience. She'd told herself that she wouldn't do this unless it was an emergency, but Sesshoumaru hadn't contacted them or been seen by anyone they knew in so long…

Kagome took out her little circular mirror and breathed on the glass, searching out the spark of her youki that lived inside Sesshoumaru's amulet of protection. Her heart pounded in her chest. She expected to see him trapped somewhere, maybe hurt, frantically trying to get back to them, to get help, maybe lost in another realm…

He was sitting in a sumptuous palace, being served tea.

Kagome didn't realize how hard she was squeezing the frame of the mirror until the glass cracked, neatly dividing Sesshoumaru's face in two.

All this time… all this time, she'd been afraid, and Rin had been watching the sky, and Shippou had been crying… all this time, and he was drinking tea in a palace, probably Kiyohime's juding by the furniture.

"Why that no good… arrogant… inconsiderate – When I get my hands on him!" Kagome ranted, choking on her rage.

She forced herself to calmly put her mirror down. He'd already made her crack it, she would not throw it against the wall.

-l-

"I am sssorry we could not come to an arrangement," Jishinamazu said as she opened the whirlpool that would allow Sesshoumaru to leave her realm and return to the Port of Ning-ya.

Sesshoumaru glared. "In the future, do not waste this one's time."

"A thousssand apologies." She bowed her head, waving him through the whirlpool with all six of her arms.

Narrowing his eyes, Sesshoumaru took his leave.

He emerged on the shore just beyond Kiyohime's den, in the exact place where he had left. And yet… It was evening when he departed, and now the sun rose high. Had he been in Jishinamazu's realm that long? It had seemed like only a few hours.

He entered the den and found that Kiyohime had gone, which was not surprising. What was surprising was that her scent had faded as well.

Turning on his heel, Sesshoumaru exited the cavern, searching the waves until he spotted the bobbing head of a ning-ya. "You, merman," he hailed the youkai. "When was Kiyohime last present on this beach? You will tell this Sesshoumaru."

The merman surged up in the water, revealing his humanoid torso and arms. "The moon has drawn the tide into the cavern seven times since our Lady of the Southern Islands swam these waters."

Sesshoumaru clenched his teeth, a growl erupting from deep in his belly.

Seven moons. Seven moons had passed here while he spent a few hours with Jishinamazu. Time must move differently in her realm – and she had not warned him.

His mind was flooded with a litany of curses, most of which he had learned from Inuyasha.

He had begun to suspect that Jishinamazu lured him to her palace only to obtain some piece of his body for use in her magic – to what purpose, he knew not. So he had refused to pay the price of her spell and only pretended to drink the tea her servants had prepared for him, refraining from cutting her down because he needed her to open the gateway that would allow him to return to the world.

But now it seemed more sinister still. What if she had been meant to distract him? His pack could be in danger.

And he had been gone from this world for seven moons, and away from the West for ten.

With a violent explosion of youki, Sesshoumaru ripped away his corporeal form, taking to the skies as a vibrant ball of light.


Notes:

Okuri's name: In Japanese folklore, an Okuri is a large dog or wolf that follows travelers at night. Usually thought to be a portent of death. In my head, his hair kind of looks like Wolverine's from X-Men.

Kiyohime's name: In The Tale of Kiyohime, Kiyohime is the daughter of a lord who becomes a sea serpent, out of her rage at being scorned by her lover.

Myobu's name: See notes on previous chapters.

Takeshi's name: A Japanese male name meaning 'fierce warrior.'

The formal make-up worn for the feast: Is based on the make-up worn by performers in Japan, particularly geisha and the actors in kabuki theatre. All the female youkai that are part of a noble house will wear white make-up with different embellishments that represent their powers. The kitsune have fox masks, Kiyohime has scales, Yukiko and Rin have purple eyeshadow that gives the impression of dog tails, etc.

Neonates: Proper name for baby snakes.

The Blue Monk/Aobozu: The name is taken from Japanese folklore about a monk who steals children, but I made up pretty much everything else to suit the story.

Kitsune no Kotei: Translates to The Fox Emperor.

Isonadehime: In Japanese folklore, Isonade is an enormous shark-like sea monster. I tacked on 'hime' to the end, because I've decided that it's the naming convention of the Southern royals that all of the girls have 'hime' in their name somewhere.

Itachiryu: I just smashed the words for 'weasel' and 'dragon' together.

If you are confused by the bloodlines: Remember there is a chart in my fanart section.

Kitsuneno'otan: The phrase is derived from 'kitsune no otan' which is literally 'the turning of the tail.' The ceremony is inspired by the ceremony maiko used to undergo to become geisha. A geisha in training, a maiko, wears a red collar to signal that they are still in training, because red is the color of innocence. Once they are ready to become full geisha, men bid for the chance to take their virginity. Once the ritual ceremony is complete, the maiko is a geisha and begins wearing a white collar, a color that indicates sensuality. The geisha ceremony is called 'the turning of the collar.'

The idea that kitsuneno'otan would occur as a coming of age/adulthood ceremony comes from the practices of tribes from several different cultures. Much like I've had the kitsune do here, when a young tribe member was on the verge of adulthood, an older tribe member would be chosen to take their virginity. Another tribe member, usually a holy person, would look on to make sure the younger tribe member wasn't abused. The idea was that a younger tribe member needed to be taught how to have sex, and shown what it was supposed to be like so that they would know if they were being abused, and how to treat others.

Nine is a sacred number: I completely made this up. But it made sense to me, that nine would be a sacred number, since the kitsune goal in life is to gain nine tails.

Jishinamazu: Her name is taken from a sea monster that is known for causing earthquakes by slapping its tail against things.

The Palace Beneath the Sea: The character of Jishinamazu and her palace are inspired by the Japanese folktale Urashima Taro. In the story, a giant sea centipede (though in some versions of the tale it is a sea scorpion) is menacing the kingdom of the Sea Princess. The Princess sends one of her subjects to land to get help, and a fisherman named Urashima Taro is brought to the Palace Beneath the Sea. Urashima Taro fights the centipede, and kills it by shooting it with an arrow coated in his saliva. The Princess offers to let him stay in her kingdom forever in gratitude, but he declines. However, when he returns to his village, he discovers that time moves differently in the realm of the Sea Princess, and 300 years have passed. Everyone he knows is dead. - Obviously, in my version of the story, the centipede is the victor, and takes over the Palace Beneath the Sea.

How Long is a 'Moon': I got this question multiple times already, so I thought I'd add a note. In many cultures, and in story telling convention, a 'moon' refers to the period it takes the moon to go through a full cycle of waning and waxing. This process is a month long. So, a 'moon' correlates to a month.

Chapter Text

47. Return

"You let him escape! We have failed."

"Perhapsss not."

"Perhaps not? How have we not failed? You didn't get anything of his to use in a binding spell, and he didn't drink the sleeping tea."

"But he hasss been away from the Fox Princcessss for nigh on a year. Our ssspy sssays thisss hasss angered the fox. Perhapsss ssshe will be angry enough to leave the Wesst, and then sssshe will be oursss."

"Mine. She will be mine. Just as Inari is my spy, not yours."

"Of courssse, my lord. Asss sssoon as ssshe isss far enough away from the Great Dog, we will ssstrike. Ssshe isss the key. The Sssshikon Jewel hasss alwaysss been the key, and now ssshe posssssesssessssss sssssome of the power of the jewel. Until we have her, it isss too dangerousss to challenge the Lord of the Wessst, but once ssshe issss in our grassssp…"

"He will die."

"Yessss. They will all die. And we will rule."

"I. I will rule."

"Of courssse, Itachiryu."

"Don't call me that!"

"A thousssand apologiesss."

"…When do we go after them? Now?"

"Paitenccce. Wait and work your magic on the ki-pearl. Let them grow lessss vigilant, and give me time to prepare the ssspell."

"I am tired of waiting."

"It will not ssseem like ssso long. At leassst… Not to you."

-l-

When Sesshoumaru crashed to a landing in the Inner Courtyard, he was amazed and relieved to find that the shiro had never come under attack during his absence. Not once.

It didn't make sense.

But though his palace was intact and all who dwelled within safe, things were not as he remembered them.

Exhausted from the youki he'd expended during his headlong flight, his aura so diminished that it was doubtful his pack would immediately notice his presence, he first went in search of his pups. When he entered the room where they had their lessons, he was informed that Rin-sama and Shippou-hiko now joined one of the classes of younger warrior trainees in the mornings, and had their other lessons in the afternoon, on the orders of Kagome-hime.

Sesshoumaru went to watch them train and was pleased with their progress. When the weapons master dismissed them, he revealed himself, anticipating their usual warm greeting.

Rin did not disappoint him. She ran to him, stopped to bow just before she reached him, and then collided with his legs as always.

Shippou, however, hung back, a sullen look on his face. When Sesshoumaru raised a brow, the little kitsune he had come to think of as his son sketched a perfunctory bow and mumbled, "Welcome home, Sesshoumaru-sama."

When the pups bustled off to bathe before their afternoon lessons, he heard Rin whisper, "See? Rin told you Sesshoumaru-sama always comes back."

-l-

Sesshoumaru decided to have a bath himself before seeking out the rest of his pack. Though he would never admit it out loud, his limbs trembled and he found it difficult to stand. He would not have them see him in such a state, especially as it seemed that the risk he'd taken in expending such a large amount of youki had been unnecessary.

While in the bath house, he could not help but overhear two of the servants speculating over whether 'Sesshoumaru-sama knows about Takeshi.' They left before he could question them.

Had Takeshi been slain?

Once he returned to his room to dress, he discovered Inuyasha's scent all over his balcony. It seemed that the hanyou had been sleeping there, in order to watch over Kagome and the pups in Sesshoumaru's absence.

That was well enough. At least Inuyasha had the sense not to get his stink all over Sesshoumaru's bed. It had taken ages to get it out the last time.

Sesshoumaru stretched out on the soft sheets, inhaling the scents of Kagome and the pups, a contented rumble starting in his chest. He did not try to stifle it.

After some time he felt rested, and summoned Jaken.

The slap-slapping sound of Jaken's feet in the hall and his exultant cry of "Sesshoumaru-sama, you have returned to this one, your most lowly servant!" was, at least, familiar.

Sesshoumaru allowed Jaken to bow and scrape for several minutes, before thumping the imp on the head. "Jaken, tell this one why the palace whispers of Takeshi."

Jaken seemed to shrink in on himself, resembling a turtle more than an imp as he tried to disappear into his robes.

"Jaken."

His retainer burst into a monologue of apologies and pleas that Sesshoumaru not punish him for failing to keep 'that disastrously strong-willed Kagome-hime' in line. Sesshoumaru ignored all the blather, focusing instead on the pieces of information that mattered.

Takeshi was a Warrior of the West, bound to Sesshoumaru's service. He was Inari's guard.

And he was courting Kagome.

It is well, he thought to himself as he made his way to the dojo, his feet traveling the path of their own accord. It is the best possible outcome. Now she will not look to this Sesshoumaru for such things, and all can go on as it did before.

A group of Sesshoumaru's warriors greeted him, and he nodded to them each in turn, at last calling for Takeshi to step forward.

"Sesshoumaru-sama," Takeshi bowed. He was a black-haired inu youkai, shorter than Sesshoumaru, but also broader in the shoulder. His weapon of choice was a naginata – a pole-arm topped with a six inch blade.

He is loyal to the West, Sesshoumaru thought, inspecting the other male. Takeshi bore no noble crests that Sesshoumaru could see, though he supposed females could still find Takeshi's countenance pleasing. If Kagome is pupped, it would be a simple matter to bring Takeshi into the pack.

Then he would not be forced to remind Kagome of her promise to stay with him.

"You will spar with this Sesshoumaru."

Takeshi made himself ready. The other warriors formed a crowd around the practice ring and began placing wagers on how long the dark inu would last.

Of course, Sesshoumaru attacked without warning, feinting and then spinning away, drawing his sword with the sound of steel on wood, it would be equally simple to kill him and raise the pup as my own.

Takeshi swung his glaive out and down, seeking to disable Sesshoumaru's right knee. Still weakened, Sesshoumaru was unable to parry the blow and instead caught the end of the glaive before it could connect and yanked it away, uncaring that the blade sliced his hand down to the bone.

Rather than be drawn in close to grapple with a taller and stronger opponent, Takeshi relinquished the weapon.

The battle was swift and brutal from there. Takeshi was no real match for Sesshoumaru, and had Sesshoumaru been at his full strength he would have already won. But Takeshi put forth a valiant effort, striving honorably until he was given no choice but to yield or die. Still, when Sesshoumaru exited the practice ring and Takeshi was carried off by two of his comrades to see the palace healer, Sesshoumaru was certain of two things.

First, he had proven that he was the superior male in every way.

Second, Takeshi would be unable to attend Kagome for several nights to come.

Sesshoumaru chose not to think about which pleased him more.


48. Sick

In the end, Sesshoumaru did not have to seek out Kagome. She came to him.

Her youki announced her presence long before he looked up to find her standing in his bedroom doorway. A fiery churning of anger and resentment stretched out before her.

"Vixen," he stood to greet her.

She marched straight up to him and slapped him across the face. His eyes widened in shock, and then narrowed. A thin line of blood appeared above one of his facial stripes.

"A year, Sesshoumaru. A year."

"Ten moons," he corrected. He would not offer her excuses of entrapment like a whinging pup. He had more honor than that. He had chosen to leave, and in his arrogance allowed himself to be tricked. He deserved her ire.

She slapped him again.

"Did you know that Shippou thought you were angry with him? Because you promised to teach him and Rin the sword, and then you vanished without saying goodbye?" A wave of red moved through her hair, the long mass reverting to its natural color.

"Inuyasha –"

"Inuyasha is a horrible teacher. He has no patience, and he yells."

Sesshoumaru blinked. This conversation was not going in any way how he had expected. Pride pricked at him. Was she not happy to see him returned? "Ten moons is not so long. Cease counting time as a human does."

Kagome raised her hand to slap him for a third time. Sesshoumaru seized her wrists. His left hand, wounded in his skirmish with Takeshi, began to bleed anew.

"You will desist."

Kagome snarled, her eyes flashing green.

Sesshoumaru roared, the sound shaking the walls, an anguished release of frustration and a demand that his vixen submit rolled into one.

He was tired. So tired, in body, mind, and spirit.

Kagome went limp, letting herself dangle from Sesshoumaru's grasp. He pulled her more securely into his arms, eager to leave his scent on her skin, little shocks of heat going through him at every point where their bodies touched.

"Ten moons is long enough for your kits to miss you. Ten moons is long enough for the pack to feel the loss of its alpha. Ten moons is far too long for the West to be without its lord," she said against his throat, her voice just as hard as it had been before she submitted.

"It was… unplanned. And all was provided for."

"Damn it, Sesshoumaru!" she pushed away from his chest as far as he would allow. The way she dropped the honorific on his name made his heart skip a beat every time she did it. "We need more than food and shelter and instructions on running the West from you. We need you. I think you know that."

And just like that, the madness Sesshoumaru had been running from, wrestling with and locking away in the back of his head sprang forth, stronger than ever before. It was a disease that he didn't know how to cure, a delirium that could only be calmed by the beautiful creature in his arms.

The beautiful creature who was even now growling at him.

It hurt. It hurt in a way he had never thought to be hurt.

"Forgive me."

He said it like an order, but they both knew it was a plea.

She cupped his face in her hands, searching his eyes with her own. After what felt like an eternity, she leaned up and ran her tongue along the blood on his cheek.

He trembled.

"Yes," she said. "But you will never do this again. If something's wrong, you'll talk to me. If you have to leave and it's not some world ending emergency, you will tell the kits goodbye. And don't think I don't know about Takeshi. I know, and I don't approve. You severed the big tendon in his leg. It was very petty of you. He'll be at least two weeks healing, and you know he wasn't disputing your claim as alpha. And it wasn't like you were here for him to ask permission to court me. Permission that you will give, by the way."

When he examined his motivations, Sesshoumaru found he had never considered his place at the head of the pack to be in jeopardy. He'd harmed Takeshi purely because the black-haired inu had known the pleasure of Kagome's love.

He wisely elected not to tell her this.

"Now put me down."

He did so, and watched as Kagome imperiously made her way to the door.

"Where will you sleep?" he heard himself ask, then ground his jaw shut before he could curse.

She faced him. "Tonight? With you. But Sesshoumaru… I'm not going to keep myself on a shelf. If I want to date, I'm going to date. But I remember my vow."

He locked eyes with her. Her phrasing was strange – more of her future language – but he understood what it was that she said.

No matter how many other males she allowed to court her, she was still his.

He cleared his throat. "The pups?"

"They're with Yukiko. I didn't want them here for," she made a gesture that encompassed the room, "this. They've been upset enough."

He nodded.

"I'll go get them now."

As soon as the door closed behind her, Sesshoumaru sank down onto the bed and squeezed his eyes shut, all the strength he had left draining away.

He didn't know why it had never occurred to him that Kagome would find another male if he didn't claim her. Or that he would ache inside at the thought of it.

He still wanted her. Wanted her as he wanted no other. And she?

She no longer wanted him.

Truly, he was love sick.


49. Years

Kagome's relationship with Takeshi lasted for seven more months after Sesshoumaru's return, and ended on a quiet afternoon in the private gardens. Takeshi and Kagome walked, arm in arm, as they often did.

"I'm sorry you haven't seen the kits much." Kagome paused beneath her favorite sakura tree, cupping her hands around a blossom. "Rin's been spending a lot of time with Sesshoumaru, and where she goes, Shippou follows." She tilted her head back, her eyes finding the balcony that led to Sesshoumaru's bedroom.

Takeshi inclined his head, a soft smile on his face. He had a steady, even temperament. In their almost year of courtship, Kagome had only heard him raise his voice once, and that was to shout a warning to a fellow warrior. "It is right. I am only their servant and teacher. Sesshoumaru-sama is their father."

"You're more than that, Takeshi!" Kagome chastised him, turning to look into his face. He was not as tall as Sesshoumaru, but still far taller than she. They'd been told often that they made a handsome couple, with their dark tresses and vibrant eyes. Plain, Sesshoumaru had once sneered soon after his return, until Kagome took him to task for it. But acceptable.

"I am not," Takeshi asserted calmly. "Not to them. And, I think, my lady, not to you."

Kagome felt the blood drain from her face. "Takeshi? What…"

He shushed her, and offered her his handkerchief. "It's alright. It really is."

"It's not. Not when you're saying – when you're suggesting that – "

"Kagome-hime, tell me true. Why do you allow me to court you?"

Kagome stopped and made herself think past the ready answers that sprang to her lips. Takeshi was serious, and so she owed it to him to think about his question, to push beyond the words she knew he wanted to hear and tell him the ones that even she had hidden from. She twisted his handkerchief between her hands, wrinkling it hopelessly.

"Because you're dependable," she answered, shamefaced. "You've always been here when I needed you, and you always will be. You're a very good friend. How can I be any less for you, than what you've been for me?"

Takeshi was silent.

"Is that so wrong?" Kagome asked. Tears of frustration gathered at the corners of her eyes. Her voice broke. "A life together based on mutual respect and friendship?"

"No." Takeshi smiled, one of his brilliant, heart stopping smiles that seemed to brighten the very air around him. He cupped Kagome's cheek, and she leaned into the touch. "Some loves are quiet things. But would you live without passion? A fox with no fire?"

"You're wrong," Kagome protested stubbornly. "I do love you. I do."

Takeshi kissed her lightly on the lips, his hands curled over her shoulders. It spoke of farewell, and Kagome felt nothing but relief.

"I believe you. But ours is a love more suited to siblings than mates, I think," he said in a low rumble once they had parted. "I have asked to become one of the scouts that range through the Western Lands. Sesshoumaru-sama approved my transfer this morning."

"I'll bet he did." Bitterness roughened Kagome's voice, her hair turning red at the tips.

"Kagome-hime… You are angry now, but I have sensed for some time that you stayed with me out of honor and loyalty. That reflects well upon your character, but I do not wish a mate of duty. I do not wish to be the sensible choice, but the only one. And besides," he teased gently, even now the kind man who had helped Kagome through the days when she was a single parent and she and Inuyasha were struggling to learn to rule the West. "What demoness would settle for a soldier when she may have a lord?"

Kagome huffed and shoved Takeshi away, as he no doubt had meant for her to do. "I may not have a lord. And even if I could, I don't want him. I've got too much self respect for that."

"Who are you trying to convince, Kagome-hime?"

The use of her honorific needled at Kagome. It was Takeshi's one fault, that he was so conscious of their difference in status.

"Leave me," she spat at him, hiding behind her temper. A gust of wind blew through the garden, whipping Kagome's hair around her face and sending a rain of sakura blossoms down around her.

She decided to blame Sesshoumaru for this. And why shouldn't she? As soon as she'd laid eyes on him again after his disappearing act, she'd been hurt and angry and sad and scared – but beneath it all was a love that grew through her heart like a choking vine. She still loved him, despite what he'd put her and the kits through. She still loved him, even as she pursued a life with Takeshi, she could admit that now.

She loved Sesshoumaru, as arrogant and inconsiderate as he could be, and she didn't know when it had started, or how to make herself stop.

But how could she, when every day she awoke in his arms and they turned to raise a family and rule a kingdom together? How could she not love the father of her children and lord of her lands?

But she had learned a lesson, these past two years. Takeshi was right. By itself, respect and friendship wasn't enough.

And sometimes, neither was love.

-l-

Six years after Kagome saved Jun from Aobozu, on the girl's sixteenth birthday, Kagome and Sesshoumaru returned to her village to claim her. The village threw a feast in their honor, and Sesshoumaru was pleased to see that some of the gold he had given Jun on their first meeting had been used to purchase her a well made trunk full of fine and useful possessions.

Jun still wore her kimono of foxfur, and she had grown into her overly large brown eyes. She was extremely tall for a human woman, her head reaching Sesshoumaru's nose. When he had the opportunity to speak with her, he was pleased to find that she had continued to practice the skills he'd once taught her.

"May I ask what the Fox Princess and her husband plan to do with me now?" Jun asked once they had left the village, her trunk stowed on Ah Un's back. The young woman was seated in the front of the saddle.

"Sesshoumaru-sama does not have a mate," Kagome said, a wide fox-smile stretching her lips.

Sesshoumaru wondered why it should wound him to hear her repeat something he had said so often himself.

"Oh." Jun looked between them. She opened her mouth to ask a question, but Sesshoumaru spoke before she could get it out.

"We travel to the East, to the village of Edo. There you will live with a clan of humans the Lady of this one's pack has chosen to protect. You may train at the school of the tajiya, apprentice to the village miko, or seek to find an acceptable male to wed. The choice is yours."

Jun was silent after that, as it should be. They had given her much to think on.

But it was a long way to Edo. Though Jun rode upon Ah Un and Sesshoumaru and Kagome flew upon his youki cloud, eventually they stopped to camp.

Once on the ground, Jun clambered out of Ah Un's saddle and bowed to Sesshoumaru, her palms against her thighs. "This lowly one would beg for a birthday wish."

Sesshoumaru glanced at Kagome and found her giving him a soft smile, a look that she had gifted him with only rarely since his ten moon exile from the West. "Name your wish," he said to Jun, so that Kagome would keep smiling.

He likely would have granted the human her wish anyway. He had a … fondness for her.

"My wish is for Sesshoumaru-sama to tell me again the story of The Girl Who Fell Through Time."

Kagome gave a little gasp.

Sesshoumaru folded himself down to sit against Ah Un's flank. "I am not certain I remember the tale."

Jun laughed at him. "Yes you do! 'Once, not long ago, a loud human girl fell through a hole in time. She wore an indecent kimono of the future that made her seem a fallen woman, and had hair that stuck out all over her head like straw.'"

Kagome growled.

"Please Sesshoumaru-sama? For my birthday."

Very carefully not looking at Kagome, Sesshoumaru replied, "Youkai do not celebrate birthdays."

"But I'm human."

Sesshoumaru grew still. Kagome and Rin were human once.

He began to tell the story.

"Once, not long ago, a loud human girl fell through a hole in time. She wore an indecent kimono of the future that made her seem a fallen woman, and had hair that stuck out all over her head like straw."

He cut his eyes at Kagome. Her face was red and her arms were crossed over her chest, the fur of her tails bristling. Sesshoumaru continued. "But despite her obvious flaws, the girl was possessed of great honor and bravery, and a strength of spirit to rival most youkai…"

Kagome sat down across from Sesshoumaru.

-l-

They delivered Jun to Edo some days later. Before they departed, she asked, "Will I see you again?"

"Perhaps."

"What happened to the Girl Who Fell Through Time, after she made the wish on the magic jewel?"

It was Kagome who answered. "We'll tell you when we find out."

-l-

A few months after they settled Jun into her place at the tajiya school, Sesshoumaru presented both Rin and Kagome with gifts. For Rin there was a much coveted wooden practice sword. A matching one was provided for Shippou – as part of Rin's gift, so that she would have a sparring partner. Kagome's lips twitched at that explanation, sensing the truth.

Sesshoumaru didn't want one kit to get a gift without the other.

His present to Kagome was a new kimono, more beautiful than all the others Sesshoumaru had ever given her. The first two layers were the familiar fabrics of gold and pink, colors that complimented her complexion and hair. But the top layer of heaviest silk was different. While in the usual shades of green she had taken to wearing since becoming a kitsune, the pattern on the sleeves and obi was of a block of flowers inside geometric borders.

It was Sesshoumaru's crest, the same one that graced Rin and Sesshoumaru's clothes.

When she questioned him, he said only "Are you not the Lady of the West?"

Lady of the West.

She had performed the duties for many years now, but until this moment no one had called her by the title outside of the stories humans whispered over campfires. Even then they were more likely to name her the Fox Princess or the Red Vixen.

"Why now?" she whispered, not realizing she'd spoken out loud until Sesshoumaru answered her.

He studied her with an intensity of attention that should have been disturbing, but wasn't. "It is the anniversary of the day that you joined this one's pack."

And then Kagome understood. His conversation with Jun on the day they took her from her village.

Youkai do not celebrate birthdays.

But I'm human.

Sesshoumaru didn't know Kagome's birthday, or Rin's, so he was instead celebrating the day of their rebirth as youkai. The day of the wish.

It was a concession. An acknowledgement of the customs of their race.

Something he had never done before.

Kagome smiled, and wept.

Sesshoumaru licked the salt of her tears from her cheeks.

-l-

Inari's magic was fading. Worse still, her mind seemed to be fading along with it. She rarely had anything good to say about Sesshoumaru, and at times she startled and looked wildly around, unsure of where she was or how she had gotten there. Kagome worried that it had something to do with her lost ki-pearl.

But everything that could be done to find Myobu was already being done. It was as if he'd fallen off the face of the earth. Sesshoumaru had even gone so far as to send a messenger to mainland China on Ah Un, in case Myobu had left Japan.

Kagome only hoped that something could be done for Inari before it was too late. For Inuyasha's sake just as much as the vixen's. In the meantime, Inari's new guard, Shiori, a female bat hanyou Inuyasha had recruited into the West's service, stayed with her day and night.

-l-

Kagome always meant to visit her human friends more, but inevitably time would get away from her, and she'd look up to find years had passed.

Time was both slower and faster as a youkai. Her kits and her packmates and she herself had barely aged at all, and yet when she looked into her little circular mirror, she would find that Miroku and Sango had another child, or wrinkles, or grey hair, and off she would go to visit them, remembering Inuyasha's words about spending what time with them she could.

Knowing she didn't stay away on purpose, Miroku and Sango started holding an annual festival in Edo, and sending a messenger – usually Jun, because she wasn't afraid of Sesshoumaru – to the Western shiro to invite Kagome. They called it the Festival of the Fox Shadow.

Every year, Kagome attended in a different guise and frolicked with the villagers. The festival lasted for nine days and nine nights, and was filled with dancing and fun, as villagers wearing kitsune masks and false tails played games and tricks on each other. At night, they left out treats and trinkets, to honor the fox.

The festival got its name the first year it was held, when Miroku and Sango's eldest son – named Higurashi in her honor – spotted Kagome's shadow, and asked her to reveal herself. She had done so, letting her hair flow red and her tails manifest, laughing a fox-laugh to see the villagers so taken with her.

As his reward for being so quick witted, Miroku's son had proven himself to be a chip off the old block, and requested a kiss. He'd thought she was beautiful since he was a child and saw her climbing through his window during one of her visits, or so he said. Flattered, Kagome had indulged him, giving him a kiss that he wouldn't soon forget, even if he found another woman with a fox-face!

The next day, when Sango asked, Higarashi had said simply that Kagome'd granted him a wish for spotting her fox-shadow.

Ever since then, when the festival was held, all the villagers would search for someone with a kitsune shadow, in the hopes of having Kagome grant them a wish. She'd granted around eight or so, so far. One for each year she was caught.

This year, Sesshoumaru escorted her to the village outskirts before taking himself off to the hut where Jun lived, one of the village's most celebrated tajiya. People stopped and bowed as he passed, murmuring respectful greetings. He rarely acknowledged any of them.

Off and on over the years, Kagome had wondered if Sesshoumaru was in love with Jun. She was the only human in the village he ever visited, he always remembered her birthday, and had even introduced her to Rin and Shippou. But as time went on and no hanyou were born, Kagome decided it was unlikely. Jun, in her forties now and heavily scarred from many battles, was another of Sesshoumaru's adopted children, and she loved him as she had been unable to love her own sorry excuse for a father.

Kagome watched Sesshoumaru knock lightly on Jun's door, then transformed herself into a little girl with a pop and ran off to play with the village children.

"Grandmother, grandmother," she called to Sango, running up the steps of the Sunset Shrine to jump into the old woman's arms.

Sango and Miroku had shriveled up over the years, their faces like dried cherries and their hair like grey string. But Kagome still loved them, and they still loved her, their old friend turned guardian spirit. She kept them healthy and gave them what strength she could, sneaking into their rooms during her annual visits to place spells on their pillows and breathe her magic into their mouths.

She made sure to learn all the names of their children, and their grandchildren, determined that she would care for them all, when Sango and Miroku were gone.

-l-

It was the fourth night of the festival when a human caught her shadow. This year it was a girl, not one of Sango and Miroku's, and she wanted a spell that would reveal her true love.

Feeling clever, face sly, Kagome presented the girl with a thorn.

"Place this in the bed, and invite your suitors to be a guest in your house for the night. If the man feels the thorn, tell him you have looked and there is nothing there. The one who stays is the one for you."

The girl thanked her, and fled.

Kagome laughed a fox-laugh, bringing the festival to a halt as all the humans stared. She had played a trick of the very best kind! There was no magic about the thorn she'd given to the young woman. Every man would feel it.

But a man who stayed in spite of it would value the girl over his own comfort.

-l-

Fifty years after Inari had begun fading, she staggered her way into Sesshoumaru's study in the dead of night. He was awake, unable to lie near Kagome a moment longer without revealing the desire he felt for her. As she had made her choice not to be his lover very clear, he would not dishonor the both of them with his obvious need.

"Inari?" he questioned when the golden kitsune stumbled across the room, her knuckles white as she gripped the edge of his desk. "Where is Inuyasha?"

"Asleep."

"And Shiori?"

"Outside."

She took a deep, heaving breath. "Kill me," she begged him before collapsing on the floor. Like the words had taken all that was left of her strength.

Sesshoumaru stood and looked down at her. "You wish to die?"

"Only way," she mumbled. "Inuyasha won't… but you. Please. Can't fight… anymore."

Kneeling, Sesshoumaru turned Inari over and laid his claws against the soft spot beneath her chin. All it would take was one twist, or a moment of concentration to bring his poison to the surface. "This is your wish? Why?"

Inari's eyes fluttered shut. She mouthed the word 'hurt' once. And then again. Hurt.

Sesshoumaru flexed his fingers. If he did this thing, granted this request, Inuyasha would never forgive him. Kagome would despise him. It would tear their pack apart… and yet he had claimed Inari as one of his own. He owed her a duty. An end to her pain.

Sesshoumaru watched Inari writhe on the floor, her tails and hair splayed. Her face was bleached of color, her lips gaping open.

"This one has failed to protect you." Despite extensive searches, they had yet to locate Myobu – though he mysteriously still ruled the East from wherever he was hiding. They had yet to retrieve Inari's ki-pearl.

Sesshoumaru made a decision. "If you still wish this when the sun sets tomorrow, this one will grant you an honorable death."

He would speak to the pack. Make them understand.

But the time never came.

It was as if the night in his study was a turning point. The next day dawned, and Inari greeted it with more color in her cheeks than any had seen in many years. She was lively and talkative, and while not quite her old self, she seemed well again. Even her magic had returned, though she seemed to have lost a great deal of her skill.

Inuyasha was estatic. Kagome's laughter filled the halls.

And Sesshoumaru said nothing at all. He told no one of the night Inari asked to die by his hand, for it was not his to speak of.

-l-

"You're trying too hard," Inari said, pulling the spell anchor from Kagome's fingers.

"I've stopped improving," Kagome whined, an ache between her eyes making her cross.

"Don't be so hard on yourself. You earned three tails in your first few years as a kitsune. You should be proud."

Kagome sighed, but bowed from her seat. "It is a reflection of my teacher."

"Keh," was Inari's reply, in perfect imitation of Inuyasha's voice.

Kagome giggled.

"Come, let us walk in the gardens and visit Ah Un. Sometimes the best thing that can be done is to take a break and relax! Perhaps go on a short flight…"

"You know Sesshoumaru-sama doesn't like me to leave the palace grounds without him or Inuyasha."

Inari's eyes flared gold, but Kagome wasn't looking and so didn't notice.

"Speaking of relaxing," Kagome said once they were in the gardens, her arm through Inari's. "Inuyasha has seemed particularly… mellow… lately."

Inari smiled a small, secretive smile. "I am going to give him a riddle. I will tell him that if he gets the answer right, I will be his mate, but he may only guess once."

"Oh, how cruel!" Kagome cried, though she laughed when she did it. "Let me guess: No matter what he says, it will be the right answer."

Inari nodded, her mouth stretching inhumanly wide.

"But what of you, Kagome? Have you any special lovers?"

Kagome shook her head. "I promised Sesshoumaru-sama that I wouldn't leave the pack. And besides," she confided. "I think I spoiled myself for lovers by having Sesshoumaru as my guide in my kitsuneno'otan. There really is no comparison."

"Yes, I remember!" Inari agreed, her tails thrashing.

They weren't to know that Sesshoumaru heard them and swaggered all the rest of the day.


50. Waiting

"Is it so hard to admit you want her?" Mother asked, her yellow eyes piercing Sesshoumaru. She held her fan lazily before her face, taking up all the room in Sesshoumaru's study with her mere presence. "You've been pining for her ever since that kitsune sex ceremony, and scaring the servants half to death with your wrath every time another male takes notice of her. Sesshoumaru, my son, you love her."

"Not enough. Not in time," Sesshoumaru repeated words his mother had once said of his father, his face expressionless. Against his will, his eyes flitted to the ink well in the shape of a dragon that sat on the corner of his desk. There was a smooth, shiny spot on the dragon's nose, where he often stroked it with his thumb, that had not been there when Kagome first stole the trinket for him.

"Is it not Kagome who told this one that there is always time?"

"And how often have you said that love is folly?" Sesshoumaru retorted, in no mood to be questioned.

"To love a human is folly," Mother corrected. "But a fox is not sea foam. She will weather the waves."

Sesshoumaru turned his back on his mother, rising from his seat and striding to the window that overlooked the garden, watching his pups play chase with his vixen.

How he wanted to join them.

"And if she were still human?"

"Then I would do what any mother who loves her pup would do," Yukiko casually answered, inspecting her claws as if they were discussing nothing more important than the weather. "I would kill the girl to save you from yourself."

Sesshoumaru attacked faster than mortal eyes could follow, and in the next instant had his mother pinned to the wall, forearm across her throat. His youki was rising – his lips opened wide, showing all of his teeth, eyes rolling red, his ominous silence saying more than words ever could.

They stayed there, frozen, for an instant outside of time, the clashing of two titanic wills.

And then Yukiko roared, her power crashing over Sesshoumaru like a tidal wave. He locked his knees, fighting the urge to submit to her, to whine, to beg for forgiveness. Taking one carefully controlled step back, he released her throat. He would not bow.

He bowed to no one.

But he was humbled. He was the Great Dog, the Lord of the West, and yet he was no match for the inu youkai woman who had birthed him.

There was the sound of glass shattering. Sesshoumaru cut his eyes to the left to see a young cat hanyou – one of the strays Inuyasha collected and brought to work in the West – in a servant's uniform standing in the doorway. The male's spotted cat ears were flat to his head, and there was a tray of broken crockery at his feet.

"Now look what you made me do," Yukiko huffed. "I've frightened this poor kitty into spilling the tea."

Sesshoumaru went back to the window, listening to the tinkling sounds of the cat clearing away the glass, the scent of cat-fear in his nose.

It did not improve his mood.

"I thought it questionable, when I first heard you'd taken kitsune into the pack."

Mother was still talking.

"You remember. But now, I think they've been good for you. You were always so dreadfully serious. No idea where you got it from."

"Is that all, Mother?"

"You'd best act quickly, before another male does!" Yukiko snapped her fan shut, her low growl telling him that she was not above punishing him like a wayward pup. But she left him in peace, at last.

His gaze returned to the gardens, where Rin, Shippou, and Kagome all stared up at him.

-l-

"How much longer, Grandmother? Spellcrafting shouldn't take this long!"

"It hasss been a few daysss only. Without ssssomething of the Iccce Dog'sss, it issss all that much more difficult. Jusssst wait."

"I've had enough waiting! If it's difficult, it's your own fault for failing to get something of the Great Mongrel's. How hard is it to snip a hair or get his saliva from a cup? Bah! It's been a few days here, true. But outside your realm, half a century has passed. Each day Sesshoumaru and his ilk live in contentment is an insult to us. To me."

"Peacceee, Itachiryu. All is in readinessss. I have only to prepare the ssssleeping dusssst."

"Don't call me that!"

"Yesss, of courssseeee. Ssssummon a courier through that mirror of yourssss. We ssshall ssssend the meansss to enact our plan to our ssspy."

"Inari is my spy, Grandmother. Just as this is my plan."


51. Legacy

What made near immortality difficult, Kagome realized, wasn't living through the passage of time. It was that others she cared for didn't.

Miroku was dead, despite all of Kagome's magic. She'd known of course, that it couldn't last forever. Only a white fox with nine tails could give the gift of life, and Inari said those were so rare that some thought they'd never existed at all.

Kagome looked to Sesshoumaru, at the sword he carried on his hip.

But her alpha shook his head, and she knew he was right. It was Miroku's time, and to call him back would only be a torture for him and his family as they had to watch him die all over again.

They went to the funeral, their whole pack, even Yukiko, and stood openly, undisguised. Kagome wanted everyone to see how special Miroku was, to have so many friends across species.

"Now you see," Yukiko whispered, so low the humans couldn't hear. "You shouldn't love sea foam. It asks only for pain."

Kagome looked at the inu through the tears in her eyes, to see that Yukiko was as haunted by her past as she had been the day Kagome first met her.

"Even sea foam is beautiful before the next wave hits," Kagome whispered back. "And the more precious for its brevity."

"Perhaps," Yukiko grudgingly allowed.

-l-

There was a feast in Edo that night, a bittersweet celebration of Miroku's life and a final farewell for his spirit. Tables were pulled from every hut and set up in the village square. Sango, bundled tightly against the cold, face pinched with sorrow, sat in between Higurashi and her third daughter, Mayumi, who had inherited Miroku's spiritual powers and now served as the village miko. Kagome herself had given Mayumi her first bow, one taken from Sesshoumaru's armory of youkai weapons.

Kagome and the other youkai were spread throughout the crowd, easily mingling with the humans. The villagers of Edo were well used to Kagome and Inuyasha and the kits, and even Sesshoumaru; so much so that they didn't react to the additions of Yukiko, Inari, and Shiori. There were some speculative whispers about how Sesshoumaru and Yukiko were related, looking as alike as they did, but those quieted down after Sesshoumaru pointedly addressed her as 'Mother.'

Soon people began to approach Sango's table, telling stories of Miroku's life. The crowd went quiet, the better to hear tales of the man who had been one of their elders, and helped to found the school that made them prosperous.

"He was a dreadful flirt, was Miroku," a washerwoman belted out. "But he never meant nothin' by it. He'd come to bring me the washin' for his young ones, pretty as you please, and be smilin' and wagging those brows o' his at me, and then his wife would walk by and he'd plum forget where he was or what he was doin'. Always said he was married to the prettiest one in the village, an' that's the truth."

"He was kind. And funny. He made me laugh when no one else could," Jun declared. She was dressed in her foxfur kimono, as always, her silvered hair pulled back in a tight bun. Though she'd gone on to become the Head Tajiya of the village when Sango got too old, she never wore armor. Her foxfur kimono was better than any armor that could be made for her.

The youkai went last.

"I never met this human. But I wish I could have."

"I first saw Miroku when he and his friends came to break a barrier I had cast. He was a strong warrior. I remember sensing his spiritual power, and being afraid. But he never hurt me. A lot of humans have hurt me, but he never did."

"The monk," Inuyasha choked. He cleared his throat and started again, tilting his head forward to hide his eyes behind the fringe of his bangs. "The monk was alright, for a human. One strong bastard."

"He always let Rin put flowers in his hair. And he had a very kind smile."

"He was pack," Shippou declared, the dark look on his face daring anyone to contradict him.

No one did.

Yukiko said nothing of Miroku, but lowered her fan and openly studied Sango's face. "There is much that is different about us, humans and youkai. And yet, this Yukiko is also a wife who lost her husband." She bowed her head. "I grieve with you, Sango of Edo."

The first tear Kagome had seen Sango shed creased her weathered cheek.

"Miroku was," Sesshoumaru said slowly, "a human of honor and uncommon wisdom. This one would... call him friend."

Kagome let out a frantic gasp, taking in a large gulp of air and tensing her jaw to fight back tears. Her throat was constricted, a horrible pressure in her sinuses. Sesshoumaru's words… But she wouldn't cry any more today. Not when there was so much about Miroku's life to celebrate.

"I have seen the future," she spoke clearly, looking out at the gathered crowd of humans, hanyou, and youkai, "and I can say that it is better because of Miroku and the life he led." She met Sango's eyes. Her mouth was dry. "Miroku was the Monk Who Carried Wind in His Hand. He was the Monk of the Shikon Quest. And he was a Friend of the West. But by far the greatest achievement of Miroku's life was you. Each and every one of you."

And with that, she turned her face away, her lips trembling. She blinked rapidly to clear her vision, a lump in her throat threatening to strangle her. She couldn't breathe.

And then a large hand caressed the nape of her neck and Sesshoumaru's aura was at her back, steadying her. She swallowed, facing the crowd again, and smiled a tremulous smile.

Inuyasha had moved to take Higurashi's seat next to Sango, and sat holding her hand. Yukiko stood with Jun, her fan a brightly colored butterfly of silk and steel. Rin was in the blacksmith's lap, no doubt trying to sweet talk her way into being taught to forge a sword. Shippou was perched on Mayumi's shoulder, the miko engaged in speaking with Inari and Shiori.

And Sesshoumaru and Kagome, the Lord and Lady of the West, were surrounded by young tajiya, all spoiling for stories of Sesshoumaru's conquests and Kagome's travels.

They were Miroku's legacy.


52. Shadow

Sesshoumaru sat reclined against a tree in his private gardens, Kagome a warm weight along his side. The sleeves of their kimonos overlapped one another, the sign of the West marching across the red-orange of Sesshoumaru's sleeves to the blue-green of Kagome's.

He had claimed her, as much as he could.

More and more often these days, his eyes traced her cheekbones, her throat, her forehead, wondering what shape noble crests would take, should she ever acquire any. It was strange to think that he had once fled his own palace in horror at the thought of her – of any female – wearing his mating mark.

He sighed.

Kagome was the Lady of the West, and she wore the crest. That would have to be enough.

It is not enough.

A high pitched squeal brought him out of his thoughts and he looked up to see Rin and Shippou whacking at each other with their wooden practice swords. As per usual, they were playing Lady and Steward, a game of their own invention in which they were enemies until a greater threat forced them to form an alliance. Then they would spend the rest of the day fighting with anyone who would stand in to be their foe (Jaken, more often than not), and declare that they were the most fearsome heroes to ever walk the land, that songs would be sung about them.

The game was obviously based on Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha, and the pups' own expectations of what their future roles in the West would be. Rin took it for granted that as Shippou was her brother, he would of course be her second, and Sesshoumaru had never found any reason to deny that it would be so.

Sesshoumaru's lips twitched in amusement as Rin executed a leg sweep that dumped Shippou on his tail. Squeaking in outrage, Shippou waved his free hand and disappeared with a pop, reappearing behind Rin.

"No fair!" she cried. "No magic!"

They took off across the garden again, and Kagome lifted her face, butting her forehead softly against Sesshoumaru's chin. "They're growing up too fast. I miss it when Rin used to cover us in flowers. Now it's all upholding the honor of the West and sword fighting and learning to ride dragons. In ten years at the most, Shippou will get his second tail!"

That was true. The little kitsune, while still a pup, was at least a head taller than he had been when he first joined Sesshoumaru's pack. "They are young yet," Sesshoumaru said, gently brushing Kagome's hair back from her face. She no longer expended energy on keeping it black every day, and this day it was as red as her tails.

Kagome scoffed, lightly poking him in the side with one claw. "You act like you don't wish they'd stay small forever, but I know you have a flower crown Rin made for you preserved amongst the scrolls in the library."

Sesshoumaru's lips twitched again. "We could have more pups," he said offhandedly.

Kagome went rigid, her claws pricking at his arm.

This was why Sesshoumaru stayed silent more often than not – words had ever been his enemy.

He did not look at Kagome's face. He was sure he would see disapproval there.

Shippou and Rin loudly announcing that they were now allies allowed him to extricate himself from Kagome's grasp. Striding into the center of the garden, he challenged the Lady and her Steward, and prepared to spar with his pups.

Kagome looked on with wide, confused eyes.

-l-

To her great frustration, before Kagome could find out what in Amaterasu's name Sesshoumaru had meant by we could have more pups, she was called away to receive a guest. At times, being the Lady of the West was disturbingly like being a professional hostess.

Glaring at Sesshoumaru's back, she pasted on a smile, and went to greet the courier from the Southern Islands who had just arrived. At least, Kagome assumed the lizard youkai was from the Southern Islands. He smelled of the sea.

He said he had a rare tome of magic that Inari had written and asked Kiyohime for, though he would not allow Kagome to examine the wrapped parcel herself.

"Only Inari-sama, those were my instructions, Kagome-sama," he said, bowing low and pressing his forehead to the floor.

"Rise," Kagome told him gently, still uncomfortable with such subservience, no matter how often it happened. She had a servant take the courier to Inari, and thought nothing more of the incident.

-l-

That night, Inuyasha asked Kagome to walk with him in the gardens after dinner. She went, shrugging when Sesshoumaru caught her eye. Whatever was bothering Inuyasha, she had no idea. Maybe he wanted to talk about Miroku.

And besides, he might have some insight into just what, exactly, was going through his brother's mind.

When they were in the center of a moonlit path, Inuyasha mimed covering his ears. Kagome's eyebrows arched, but she obligingly dug a silence totem out of the pouch of magical items concealed in her obi and activated the spell. "No one can hear us."

Inuyasha nodded. "Something's wrong with Inari."

Kagome blinked. "What? But she's been so much better. So happy. Her magic never fully recovered, but whatever Myobu did to her ki-pearl seems to have stopped hurting her."

Inuyasha shook his head, his knuckles white around Tetsusaiga's hilt. "She made me make a promise a long time ago. A promise that we'd never get married or mated or anything so long as her ki-pearl was still out there." He met Kagome's eyes. "She just gave me a riddle. Told me that if I could solve it – "

"She'd be your mate." Kagome squeezed her eyes shut, her own problems forgotten in an instant.

"Nari would never. Never. I don't know if it's her way of asking for help cause she can't tell us any other way, or if someone is making her say it but – "

"I understand," Kagome interrupted again, already moving back toward the palace. "I'll do my best. I'll check right now, for any enchantments around her. I've only got six tails, but – "

"So's the Weasel Dragon," Inuyasha reminded her, falling into step at her side.

She gave him a grim smile. "We should get Sesshoumaru."

"Not yet. Find out what's what first. See if it's something that can be fixed or if we have to… If…"

"It won't come to that."

Kagome prayed she wasn't lying.

-l-

She made Inuyasha wait in his seldom used study while she entered the bedroom he shared with Inari.

Making herself walk unseen, she became one with her fox-shadow and slipped under the door, reveling in the power of true transformation. Shadow Gliding was a skill she had mastered only after many years of practice. It was a dangerous art, for the shadow form was seductive. Even a few seconds after assuming it, Kagome could feel the pull of the darkness, the thrum of a great heartbeat that wanted her to frolic beyond the edges of light forever. She could be the space between the stars, the curtain among the trees, she could be what lay at the bottom of men's souls, what waited in the deep…

She pushed the haunting whispers back with a force of will, and allowed herself to skitter around the edges of Inari's dressing table, thankful that Inari's magic wasn't as powerful as it had once been. Otherwise, she would already know that Kagome was present.

Inari was seated on a carved chair with a silken cushion, spreading little spell bags out over the surface of her dressing table. Kagome could not detect scents when she was in shadow form – something that had been incredibly disconcerting the first time she assumed it – but she recognized the wrappings of the package the courier had brought earlier in the day.

So it wasn't a tome of magic, but spell bags that Inari had received. Kagome's shadow flickered momentarily, her edges blending with the darkness in the room before she forcibly took herself in hand. She had to stay focused, no matter that dread was starting to claw at her belly.

Shiori was nowhere to be seen.

Not wanting to look, and yet knowing that she had no other choice, Kagome glided silently from her vantage point in the corner to hang in the air directly behind Inari, peering into the mirror that hung over Inari's dressing table.

Myobu's reflection looked back at her.

In a way, it was a relief, Kagome thought even as she was struck with a hundred memories of Inari casually avoiding mirrors. At least she knew that it was not Inari herself who was hiding magic and keeping secrets. It would devaste the pack if the golden vixen had turned out to be their enemy after all. It was bad enough that she was the puppet of one, gripped so tightly that Kagome wasn't sure if there was a way to free her that didn't end in death.

Stunned, Kagome could only watch the mirror as Myobu lifted his eyes to hers. "I see you," he said in Inari's voice, his words oozing over her lips.

Then Inari turned, kimono sleeves flying, and flung one of the spell bags to the ground, just beneath where Kagome hovered. There was an explosion of bright pink light – Holy energy? How? A sacrified miko? – and Kagome shrieked, a long drawn out wail that sounded like wind screaming down a mountain top. Focus lost, grateful that at least she couldn't smell herself burning, Kagome dissolved into so many scraps of grey shadow, carried away by the seething dark of the night.

It took every bit of power she had to remember who she was.

The Shikon Miko.

The Fox Princess.

Lady of the West.

Kagome Higurashi.

Human. Kitsune. Not a shadow. Not a spirit.

Not a ghost.

Kagome.

-l-

"I see you," Inuyasha heard Inari say. He'd had his ears trained on Kagome and Inari from the instant he settled himself on top of the big desk he only used when he had to stamp his seal on stuff.

He was out of his crouch and in the hall in seconds, but it wasn't fast enough. As he watched, plumes of purple smoke poured out of his bedroom, spreading over the palace at an alarming rate that could only be accomplished with powerful magic. It reminded him of Naraku's miasma, fouling the air and making him choke.

His lips went numb. He tried to draw his sword and fumbled, falling to his knees. His eyes felt heavy, his chest constricted. A yawn cracked his jaw.

"I know what you are thinking," Inari's voice came to him. She emerged from the vile fog of magic. "Have you been poisoned again?" She smiled, kneeling to tilt Inuyasha's chin up with one delicate finger. "But poison would not stop the Great Mongrel, and it is him, more than anyone, that I need to stop."

Inuyasha growled.

"Oh don't worry," Inari's laugh sounded in the halls. "I'm not going to kill him. Not yet. I want him alive. I want him to suffer, as I have suffered. Kagome's snooping has forced me to act sooner than planned, but that is fine. I was tired of waiting."

"Not Nari," Inuyasha managed to grit out, his vision going black at the edges. In the distance, he heard Sesshoumaru roar, echoed by Yukiko. He needed to answer them. He needed to…

He needed to sleep.

"I haven't been Inari for a very long time."


53. Brave

Shippou was playing with Rin in the big sitting room where the pack went after dinner. They had to play quiet games, because the adults liked to talk about things in the sitting room, and Kagome got mad if Rin and Shippou got too excited before bed. So Shippou was practicing his illusions, hiding in different places in the room and making himself blend into the wall, or look like a seat cushion, and Rin was practicing using her nose to find him.

Shippou was holding his hands over his mouth to keep from giggling as he watched Rin prod all the chairs with her foot, in case one of them was him, when suddenly Sesshoumaru-sama and Yukiko-sama leapt to their feet, their heads turned toward the door and their youki spiking so sharply that it made Shippou's knees weak.

"Father? Grandmother?" Rin sounded scared, which was just bad because Rin was never scared. She was the bravest. "What's that smell?"

Shippou started to leave his hiding place, but a sharp bark from Rin stopped him. She looked right at him, even though he was invisible, and Shippou realized that Rin had known where he was hiding the whole time. And she wanted him to stay hidden.

Rin was Shippou's Lady, and he'd been learning how important it was for the Lady's second to listen to her. So even though he didn't want to, when purple smoke started flooding into the room, and first Sesshoumaru-sama and then Yukiko-sama roared and collapsed, Shippou stayed hidden. In fact, he didn't break cover until Rin's eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed too.

Then he scrabbled forward on all fours, patting Rin's face and sniffling. "Sister? Wake up!"

Rin didn't wake up, but she was breathing.

Taking big gulping breaths to stave off tears, Shippou stepped back and looked around the room, asking himself what Rin would do. What Kagome would do.

He sat down cross legged right where he was standing, his tail sticking out jauntily behind him, and did his best to center himself. Then he expanded his youki outward.

The purple smoke felt like magic. Oily, slimy magic that stuck to everything. Looking at it too long made Shippou's eyes start to droop, so that probably meant it was a sleep spell.

But if it was a sleep spell, how come Shippou was still awake? And who had cast it? It didn't feel like any magic that Shippou knew. It was wrong, like… like Naraku's miasma had been.

It was full of suffering.

The sound of approaching footsteps made Shippou's ears twitch. Frantically, he stood up and grabbed at Rin's obi, using it to pull her across the room and stuff her under a pile of pillows. She might be mad later that he'd messed up her kimono and accidentally banged her head into the table, but he was going to be steward some day, and part of being steward was keeping the Lady safe.

And another part of being steward was making sure that if the Lady couldn't go on to rule the West, that the steward could, so Shippou made himself invisible as best he could and jumped up to cling to a spot on the ceiling.

Shippou couldn't smell who was coming because of all the purple smoke, so when the door slid open and Inari-sama slunk into the room, Shippou's jaw dropped.

That's why the spell didn't work on me. If she'd made it work on kitsune, she'd have put herself to sleep too.

Why that no good, stupid, idiot Inari! How could she do this to them? To Inuyasha? Inuyasha was mean sometimes and he yelled a lot, but he didn't deserve this!

Shippou was getting ready to jump out of his hiding place and call foxfire down on Inari's head, when he remembered about the ki-pearl. Maybe Inari couldn't help what she was doing? If she couldn't, Shippou shouldn't hurt her.

And she had a lot more tails than him. It probably would be bad to attack her anyway.

As Shippou watched, Inari made her way to Sesshoumaru, bending over him and resting her claws on his throat. "Not yet," she muttered to herself. "Get the girl. Lure them out."

She stood back up and Shippou let out a sigh of relief.

But then Inari went straight for the pile of cushions where Shippou had hidden Rin, and Shippou had to stuff his fist in his mouth to keep from squeaking.

Inari delicately pulled a few pillows off of the top of the pile, revealing Rin's face. "There you are."

Bad idea or not, Shippou couldn't let anything happen to Rin.

He jumped from his hiding place with a battle cry of "For the Lady of the West!" and let loose a stream of emerald flames from his fists. Inari turned, batting his foxfire away, and Shippou scampered for Yukiko-sama and pulled her war fan out of her obi, spinning to brandish it at his attacker. The fan was heavy enough that he had to hold it with both hands, his arms shaking.

Inari laughed, and it didn't sound very nice at all. It didn't sound like her.

There was a blur of motion that Shippou couldn't follow, and then he was being held aloft by his tail. He tried not to cry, he really did, but it hurt and he was scared and whoever was controlling Inari was going to get Rin, and what if Sesshoumaru and Yukiko never woke up and –

Not-Inari shook him by his tail. "Cease your sniveling, brat. And know that I spare you only because kitsune have become scarce since the Years of Naraku."

Plucking up his courage, Shippou made a wild slash with the war fan, shouting, "They're about to become a lot scarcer! You're going to die!"

Not-Inari knocked the fan out of Shippou's hands. It landed on the floor with a thunk, the sharp ends of the hidden blades stuck firmly in the wood.

"Don't try my patience."

Going over to the wall, Not-Inari pushed Shippou against it and drew a knife from her obi. Shippou was sure he was going to die, but Not-Inari just used the knife to hang Shippou from the wall with a handful of silk, and muttered a spell.

Shippou couldn't move.

"Good. Now stay there. You're going to deliver a message for me."

Not-Inari told Shippou what to say, then she slung Rin's unconscious body over her shoulder and left.

-l-

Kagome didn't know how long it took her to pull herself together. It was still dark, so it might have only been a few hours. Unless she'd been out for a full day...?

She rematerialized on the bridge over the koi pond between the Great Outer Gate and the Inner Gate, and immediately hailed a sentry.

No answer.

Stumbling a little, white spots dancing before her vision, she made her way back into the shiro.

Every single youkai she encountered was asleep. Some were sprawled on the ground, as if they'd fallen where they stood, others were slumped over in chairs or lying across tabletops. None of them could be woken.

Kagome could feel magic in the air, pressing down on the shiro, a smothering mass that made her vaguely nauseous. But she was too drained, weakened by her struggle to come back from her scattered shadow form, to tell more about the spell.

If she'd thought attack was even a remote possibility, she never would have taken to the shadows. It was excellent for spying, and great fun to skim, weightless, through the night, but she was also very vulnerable. Inari – no, Myobu – had known that all he needed to do was shred her shadow, and it would take ages for her to come back together again, if she even managed it at all. A strong wind could have done just as much damage.

And in the meantime he, through Inari's body, had put the entire shiro to sleep.

Kagome forced herself to run, ignoring the pounding of her head and the way her stomach rolled with every step. She was suffering magical backlash, but she had to get to the pack, had to get to Sesshoumaru if it wasn't already too late…!

She encountered Inuyasha in the hall of the royal wing. He was on his back, his legs tucked beneath him, as if he'd been on his knees and then fallen over backwards. Tetsusaiga was partially pulled from the scabbard, but Inuyasha hadn't managed to draw the sword.

Kagome straightened Inuyasha's legs so that he rested comfortably on his back, and moved on.

She found Sesshoumaru and Yukiko laid out on the floor of the pack's customary sitting room, their clothes tangled around them. It looked as though Yukiko, at least, had been able to put up a fight before the sleeping spell claimed her. Her tessen was stuck firmly in the floor.

Kagome was both relieved and confused at the lack of blood. She'd expected to find Sesshoumaru dead, killed in his sleep because Myobu was too cowardly to face him in battle.

And then her eyes caught on the far wall, where Shippou dangled, completely motionless. She cried out, her eyes flashing and holding a luminous green. She was across the room before she had made a conscious decision, pulling Shippou from the wall and cradling him to her chest.

As soon as she touched him, he started to squirm, and then to cry, clinging to her and burying his face in her kimono. Kagome thought it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever heard, for her senses were still so distorted that she hadn't known, hadn't been sure that Shippou was still alive until he let out that first sob.

Kagome cried with him, comforting him by purring a tuneless little song, running her claws through his hair and fur over and over and over again.

"My precious kit, my little Shippou," she crooned.

"Rin! She took Rin! I tried to stop her," Shippou told her between hiccups. Haltingly, the tale tumbled out of him in fits and starts, until Shippou grew quiet, only the occasional sniffle revealing he'd been crying at all. "When she took Rin, she gave me a message. She said, 'Tell the Fox Princess if she wants to see the heir again, she will come to the place where it all began.'" Shippou's eyes watered, but he manfully swallowed back the renewed sobs that threatened to shake him apart. "I was so scared," he said into Kagome's neck. "Without Rin, I was so scared. The most scared."

"No," Kagome reassured him, even as she made plans. "You were so brave. The bravest."

Tell the Fox Princess if she wants to see the heir again, she will come to the place where it all began.

That could only mean one thing.

Kagome was going to Edo. To the well.


54. Centipede

The first thing Kagome did to prepare for her departure was to carry the slumbering inu of her pack to Sesshoumaru's bedroom and lay them out on the bed. She put her lord in the middle and laid Yukiko and Inuyasha on either side of him, the long white hair of the three intermingling.

They were so still. Unnaturally so. Like the ice of winter.

Like death.

But they were not dead, and none of them would die. Rin would not die. Kagome wouldn't allow it.

At last, she returned to the sitting room where she'd found Shippou, and retrieved him, pulling Yukiko's tessen from the floor as she left. It pulsed with power in her hand, not burning her, but issuing a warning. The war fan was forged with the fangs of the Inu no Taisho for the female who had borne his heir, and the fan wanted its intended wielder.

Kagome hung the fan from her obi.

"There is something very important I need you to do, Shippou," Kagome told her son, even as she hated herself for putting this burden on him. In the years they had lived in the West, Shippou had been able to be a normal kit with no more worries than any small youkai might have. But now… now, Kagome was going to have to ask more of him, as she hadn't since the Shikon Quest.

She carried her little kit to Sesshoumaru's bedroom and placed him amongst the sleeping members of their pack. Shippou's chin quivered, but his eyes were hard and older than their years. "I'll protect them, Mama," he swore, tiny hands curled into fists.

Kagome nodded, heart burning with pride. "I know you will. But that's not all I need you to do."

Reaching into her obi, Kagome pulled out a few flat leaves that she had been imbuing with her youki during odd moments. She always carried such objects these days, for they made powerful spell totems.

She handed them to Shippou.

"I have to go after Rin and bring her home. I need you to try to lift the sleeping curse while I'm gone. Focus on Sesshoumaru first."

Kagome did not say, We may need the Tenseiga.

Shippou took the unformed spell anchors with trembling hands, but he nodded determinedly. "I can do it," he said, trying to reassure himself as much as Kagome. "I can."

"Of course you can," Kagome agreed. She bent and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "I love you." Then she looked at the three sleeping inu, and kissed them as well. She loved them all. She brushed her lips against Yukiko's temple, and Inuyasha's cheek, and Sesshoumaru… Sesshoumaru she kissed on the lips, and did not let herself think about why.

When she rose, she felt a tugging pulse of power from the fan dangling by her hip. It was close to Yukiko and wanted to be reunited with her.

That gave Kagome an idea.

She was still weak from the attack on her shadow form. Her youki was drained, any capacity she had to cast spells not prepared in advance diminished. If she went after Rin like this, it was likely that she wouldn't be coming back. But if she took a weapon forged from the fangs of the Inu no Taisho…

She couldn't wield the Tenseiga, and she wouldn't take the Tetsusaiga from Inuyasha. That left Yukiko's war fan.

Hageshiiha, the tessen whispered its name to Kagome. Fierce Motherhood.

Kneeling on the bed next to her pack elder, Kagome pulled Yukiko's mouth open with her right hand, and with the left ripped out Yukiko's canines, one after the other. "I take your fangs, I take your strength," she intoned even as she cauterized Yukiko's gums with a touch of foxfire, so that she wouldn't choke on her own blood.

Shippou was watching Kagome with wide eyes. Kagome winked at him, trying to project a demeanor of confidence and self assurance.

"Shippou, I'm going to make a charm that can return what I'm borrowing from Yukiko to her. I need you to give it to her when she wakes up, okay?"

Still wide eyed, Shippou nodded.

Kagome took a deep breath. Then she plucked a single hair from her head, and ripped out her own canines by the roots, letting out a high pitched whine at the pain and feeling blood dribble over her chin. Without taking the time to wipe her mouth, she wrapped the hair around both teeth and bathed thing in her blood, before burning the blood away with foxfire. This was a darker magic than Kagome usually performed. Blood magic.

She realized that it was only after Inari started avoiding mirrors that she had taught Kagome this type of spell weaving.

Well, what Myobu had imparted would now be part of his undoing.

Kagome handed the grisly charm to Shippou. "Tell her to break the hair when she wants her youki back," Kagome lisped around her missing teeth.

Then she backed away from the bed, lifted Yukiko's canines, and wedged them into her mouth in place of the ones she had just given to Shippou.

For a second, nothing happened.

Then Kagome's back arched and she screamed, power rushing from her mouth in a burning torment to fill up the rest of her. It was like she'd eaten fire, or was breathing it. She was a volcano, pressed and pulled from within and without until she was almost destroyed with the force of raw nature that she struggled to contain.

Yukiko's power was immense. Kagome would be very, very sorry when it came time to give it back. It stretched her to bursting, and she could already tell that her spirit would never be quite the same shape again. But she couldn't worry about that now. Her eyes were spilling foxfire and her spine was bowing, her knees reversing as she started to shift into her true form. Fur sprouted along her skin, and then disappeared as she fought to hold on to her humanoid shape.

Pack. Kit. Kit. Avenge. Rend. Burn. Kill. Kit. Kit. Mine. Pack. Mine.

She couldn't afford to lose herself, lose her mind to the instincts that were bolstered by her borrowed power. She had to save Rin. Rin. Her kit.

Rin.

And like that, the beast within stopped gnashing its teeth, allowing Kagome to take in a long, deep breath and let it out. And then again. In. Out.

In. Out.

Her love for Rin was stronger than the instinctual desire for blood.

Slowly, summoning a ball of foxfire in each hand, she found her center. It felt like eons passed. A millinium of fighting within herself, of forging a will like iron, of building a wall between her thinking self and the unreasoning id that wanted to lay waste to the country side.

Her respect for Yukiko and Sesshoumaru, who lived daily with this internal, eternal battle, blossomed into awe.

And perhaps she understood them better now. If a single moment of inattention could result in becoming a slavering beast, Kagome would likely also be reluctant to grow close to others, to tempt herself with strong emotions.

Sesshoumaru and Yukiko were revered throughout the land as beings of immense power. And yet, the greatest marker of their strength was that neither had become slaves to the very power they wielded.

With a final sigh, Kagome straightened, her tails writhing around her and her eyes burning with green flames the color of acid. The Hageshiiha pulled itself from Kagome's obi of its own accord, the base smacking into Kagome's palm.

It accepted her as its master, at least for the time being.

The fur of Shippou's tail was standing on end. He stared at Kagome, open mouthed.

Kagome smiled a wide fox smile. "Remember. Give the charm to Yukiko when she wakes. Tell her to break the thread when she is ready for her youki to return," Kagome said in bell like tones that seemed to echo from one word to the next.

Then she stepped out onto the balcony and took to the air, flying upon a wave of emerald flame.

-l-

Jun woke, completely and all at once, the sixth sense honed by years of service as a tajiya screaming at her.

Something was not right.

Quietly, with a minimum amount of fuss, Jun stood and slipped into her foxfur kimono, tying the sash and pulling her grey hair back into a functional bun. Then she retrieved the sickle made from a youkai's rib bone that she used to fight, and a handful of throwing stars that had been a birthday gift from Sesshoumaru-sama and the Fox Princess.

Satisfied that she was as prepared as she was going to get, she stepped out into the night, only to come face to face with Sango.

"Sensei," Jun said, bowing to the older woman. Though her face was wrinkled and her shoulders stooped, Sango carried the Hiraikotsu on her back as if it weighed nothing at all.

"Jun," Sango said briskly. "You feel it too?"

"Yes. Something's coming."

"No," Sango corrected, looking out across the village, her milky eyes unfocused. "It's already here."

Jun blinked, but did not question it. Everyone knew that Miroku had been the one of the school's founders that had otherworldly powers, but then Sango-sensei was very old and wise. Experience was a power of its own.

"I will gather the others," Jun said, moving to do just that.

Sango held up a hand. "No. Miroku… Miroku spoke to me. In a dream. He's waiting." Sango smiled a truly terrifying smile. A smile that spelled death. It was beautiful. "And tonight's as good as any to join him."

Jun said nothing, instead falling into step with Sango as they headed toward the disturbance.

It was coming from the clearing that held the well.

-l-

Kagome made the trip to Edo faster than she ever had before, the landscape passing below her in a blur of color. Her borrowed power sizzled beneath her skin, leaving shadows on her bones, her mouth throbbing with the fangs that were not her own, but none of that mattered.

Rin mattered. And Inari, if she could still be saved.

The night grew darker as Kagome passed over the Eastern border. With Yukiko's youki crackling in her veins, she could actually feel the difference between the Western Lands and the East. She was of the West, and there she was welcome, cradled, cherished, a child and protector. The East was… muddled.

She protected the village of Edo, and she was kitsune, and yet she was not of the East. The land felt foreign. Not hostile, not exactly, but not safe either.

The Goshinboku rose up from the swirling mass of trees flowing beneath Kagome's feet, and she brought herself to a halt, landing with a flourish. She did not have the skill to wield this much power gracefully, so she settled for theatrical.

She was a kitsune, after all.

"Myobu," she called out, the stars shining down on her. Sesshoumaru had once told her that the stars were the eyes of the inu who guarded the gates of heaven. Were they watching her?

She strode into the clearing that housed the well. Myobu stood balanced on the well's rim, facing her, looking exactly as he had the last time she saw him in his kitsune form. It was as if not a single day had passed – he still wore his green silk finery from the Feast of Four Treaties, with the sharply pointed collar and equally pointed boots. His hair was still the color of old blood, the top half pulled up in a warrior's knot, while the rest hung to his waist. His tails tumbled around his knees in a tangle, his green fox mask markings making him look more sinister, his teeth bared in a supercilious smirk.

Inari stood next to him, her eyes empty, her body lightly swaying from side to side. Now, with Yukiko's youki bolstering Kagome's kitsune power of Sight, she could see the line of compulsion connecting them. Myobu was wearing Inari's ki-pearl as a hair ornament. It gleamed gold and red in her vision.

"Where is Rin?" Kagome demanded, voice flat.

Myobu cocked his head, and Inari mimicked the movement, an eerie puppet.

"There's something different about you, Fox Princess," Inari and Myobu said together, their voices interweaving. Kagome was struck anew by the family resemblance. Of course, their coloring was completely different, but they had the same fox mask markings, their eyes were the same shape, and there was something about the sharpness of their noses…

Raising the Hageshiiha, Kagome assumed a ready stance, knees slightly bent, the sharp blades of the fan pulled back by her ear and pointed toward her opponent, her other arm extended for balance.

"You are going to return Rin, and free Inari," Kagome informed Myobu.

Myobu opened his mouth to respond, but before he could speak there came the sound of skittering leaves and branches snapping. It was a slithering, insect sound that brought to mind many jointed legs and the creeping prowl of spiders.

A figure emerged from the shadows, a monstrous creature with the body of an enormous centipede and the torso of a woman. The centipede half was so long that it coiled in loops behind the woman's head. She had three pairs of arms, and enormous fangs that jutted over her lips, extending down to her chin. Poison dripped from them.

Kagome gasped as she recognized the first youkai she had ever seen. "Mistress Centipede!"

The monstrous woman held Rin in the grip of three of her arms. White eyes with black pupils met Kagome's in a flat stare. "I wasss called that by the Ssssea Princesssss and her cohortsssss," Mistress Centipede said. "I am pleasssed you have heard of me, Sssshikon Miko, but it issss time we call each other by our true namessss, yessss?" She affected a grotesque bow, never once loosening her hold on Rin. "I am Jisssshinamazu."

"Kiyohime's mother?" Kagome asked, remembering her lessons on the lineage of the four ruling houses. Mistress Centipede is Kiyohime's mother! And she's supposed to be dead! Inuysaha killed her when I first came through the well. What does it mean?!

But Kagome couldn't think. Couldn't concentrate past the terror of seeing Rin in Mistress Centipede's arms, and the alien youki that made her blood boil.

"I am no longer the Shikon Miko," Kagome heard herself say. She was surprised at how calm she sounded.

Mistress Centipede laughed, a noise like serpents on rocks. "Of coursssse you are. The Sssshikon is all. Where do you think your youkai nature came from? Or thisss whelp'ssss?" Mistress Centipede raised Rin higher, a fourth arm reaching up to stroke Rin's cheek. Rin jerked her head away. Kagome growled.

Mistress Centipede smiled, a thing of gaping teeth and thick red tongue. "Each of you holdssss one of the youkai sssspiritssss that made up the jewel. And with a ssssacrifice of your blood and the time magic of thisss well, I sssshall bring the jewel back again."

Kagome felt her eyes widen, her hand tensing on the base of the Hageshiiha.

Of course. Somehow everything always came back to the Shikon Jewel.

"What?" Myobu and Inari spat in tandem, both swiveling to glare at Mistress Centipede, twin expressions of outrage on their faces. "This is not the plan! What of our revenge on the Ice Dog? What of my mating the Fox Princess? Do not forget whom you work for!"

Mistress Centipede scoffed. "Thisss wasss alwaysss the plan, Itachiryu." She sighed. "There isss not enough sssea sssalt in your blood. Not nearly enough."

"I will not let you cheat me!" Myobu declared.

"Then you will die too," Mistress Centipede answered.

All hell broke loose.

With a scream and an expansive gesture from Myobu, Inari flung herself at Mistress Centipede like an avenging goddess, gold foxfire dancing at the ends of her fingertips. Mistress Centipede opened her maw wide, raising Rin to her lips, only to be thwarted by a massive boomerang flying in from the treeline and lodging itself between her teeth.

The centipede woman's head snapped back with the force of the attack, and she went skidding through the sod, dropping Rin.

Kagome spared a look over her shoulder and caught sight of Sango hobbling over. Jun was already running across the clearing and scooping Rin up, scythe in hand. The two tajiya had used old slayer tricks to keep the youkai from knowing of their presence until it was too late.

"Jun will get the little one to safety," Sango said as she drew abreast of Kagome. Her dark eyes glittered, and for a moment Kagome saw Sango as she had once been, young, vibrant, and deadly, full of life. It seemed that Sango shared the vision, because she smiled. "It will be good to fight at your side one last time, Kagome."

Kagome nodded solemnly, a soft, almost human smile on her face. And then she laughed a fox laugh, a ululating cackle that spoke of light and wild things.

Shoulder to shoulder, they turned back into the fray, just in time to leap from the path of Mistress Centipede's tail.


55. Vortex

Little paw-hand shaking, Shippou wiped sweat from his brow and gathered himself to try again to lift the spell of sleep. He was sitting on Sesshoumaru's chest, unfolding and refolding one of the leaves Kagome had given him as he searched for the right way to counter Inari's magic.

He huffed a sigh, and sniffled. He only had one tail, so he couldn't force the magic away. His youki just wasn't strong enough. He had to be clever. The cleverest kitsune.

"Dog didn't work," he muttered to himself, turning the leaf over in his hands. "Neither did a tiger, or a dragon."

And then he realized.

His spell needed to be clever. The cleverest.

He folded an origami fox and laid it on Sesshoumaru's forehead.

Please work, please work, he thought over and over, his lips silently forming the words as he focused with all his might and believed with all his heart. His head started to hurt, and tears gathered at the corners of his eyes. It felt like something had a hold on his tail, and was squeezing hard and sinking claws in, but Shippou kept pushing, squirming, wriggling his youki through cracks and crannies, a single bead of blood rolling down his chin as he bit his lip.

The blood dripped off his face and landed on the edge of Sesshoumaru's mouth.

Sesshoumaru's tongue darted out to lick it away.

"P-papa?" Shippou asked in a small voice, holding his breath.

Sesshoumaru opened his eyes, and Shippou flung himself forward, wrapping his arms around Sesshoumaru's neck.

-l-

Jun ran back toward the village, ignoring the sounds of battle behind her, even the anguished cry of, "Sango! No!" The part of her that revered her teacher was ruthlessly pushed aside, all fears and sorrow to be felt later. Jun was the Head Tajiya of the Sunset School, and right now she was charged with getting the Heir of the West to safety.

Her years of training stood her in good stead. She was able to run with Rin tucked under one arm and her scythe braced in the other, and was only slightly winded when she reached the village. As she came upon the first line of huts, she caught sight of a shock of white heading in her direction.

"Sister," Rin protested, twisting in Jun's grip, "we have to help Rin's mother!"

The white shape in the distance resolved itself into the priestess garb of Mayumi, the village miko. She was coming up the main village path, her bow in hand, and her brother Higurashi was at her side. Higurashi wore full slayer armor, his mask covering his face from nose to chin.

Jun set Rin on the ground as they approached. "I am going to go back and help the Fox Princess, I promise you, little sister," Jun told Rin. "But you must stay here with Mayumi and Higurashi, where it is safe, or we'll be too worried about you to focus on the fight."

Rin set her jaw, a mulish expression that reminded Jun of Sesshoumaru-sama settling over her features, but at that moment Mayumi and Higurashi reached them and asked what was happening.

"There is a centipede youkai attacking near the well. Your mother and our guardian fox are holding it off," Jun told them.

"Mother!" Higurashi protested, his voice muffled by his face mask.

Jun held up a hand for silence. "Mayumi, please put a barrier around the village. Higurashi, rouse the other slayers. Prepare for a siege. If I am killed, leadership of the school falls to you."

Not giving them time to argue, Jun admonished Rin one more time to stay in the village, and then she turned and ran back the way she'd come.

-l-

Shippou watched as Inuyasha paced and Sesshoumaru growled to himself, complaining about disobedient vixen who had the audacity to hide their trails so that their alphas couldn't follow. Yukiko simply sat quietly on the edge of Sesshoumaru's bed, the charm Kagome had left for her cradled in her hands, a thoughtful expression on her face. After waking Sesshoumaru, using the same counterspell on Inuyasha and Yukiko had been easy.

"You're not mad, are you?" Shippou whispered.

His adopted grandmother looked at him, one brow raised. Then she looked back to the charm forged from Kagome's fangs. "Perhaps I would have been, if she had not given me a way to reclaim what she has taken. As it is… she has gone to save my granddaughter in my stead, and I believe… I believe that the Hageshiiha has found a new master."

"The Hageshiiha?"

"My fan, pup."

"You're sure she didn't say where she was going?" Inuyasha interrupted. Shippou jumped. He was still on edge, and would be until the whole pack was together again.

"She didn't say, Inuyasha. Just that she knew where Not-Inari was talking about."

Inuyasha huffed, and then he gave Shippou a calculating look. Shippou whimpered and tried to hide behind Yukiko.

"Oi, Sesshoumaru. Aren't you always saying there are some things only a kitsune can know?"

Sesshoumaru turned red-rimmed eyes on them, pinning Inuyasha with a stare. Inuyasha nodded and grabbed Shippou up by the scruff of his neck, marching him over to the low table with a mirror where Kagome always sat to paint her face. Inuyasha plunked Shippou down on the table.

"Go on, runt. Do the thing."

Shippou blinked. "What thing, Inubaka?"

Inuyasha growled, pulling at his hair. "You know. The thing. The kitsune thing where you look for stuff in the mirror. You can find anything your magic's touched, right? Between the two of them, 'Gome or Rin must have something with your magic on it."

Shippou's eyes widened. Why hadn't he thought of that?

Turning to the mirror, he focused on the flowers he had enchanted for Rin so that they would never die or fade away. She always kept them tucked in her obi, and sometimes wore them in her hair.

A wave of holy power rose up in the mirror, the bright pink light burning Shippou's eyes and making him squeak. But that didn't matter. He knew that power. It still felt like Miroku, even thought it wasn't him. Not anymore.

"That was Mayumi," Shippou said, slumping to one side. He felt himself being picked up, and then passed into Yukiko's arms. "They're in Edo."

Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha were gone before Shippou had finished speaking.

-l-

Kagome could tell at a glance that Sango was dead. Her body lay, broken and bleeding, hanging over the lip of the well. She'd been crushed by a loop of Mistress Centipede's coils. A younger Sango would have rolled out of the way in time.

But then, a younger Sango would not have laughed and welcomed death.

Kagome had no time to mourn, and somehow she doubted she would mourn much even when there was time. Sango had lived a full, rich life, and she had chosen to leave it as she had lived it: a warrior. Kagome would not dishonor that with sorrow.

If anything, Kagome was proud. Proud, and grateful that she was able to witness Sango's final moments. She would tell the story to Sango's children, so that it would never be forgotten.

As soon as she managed to kill Mistress Centipede, that is. The youkai woman was stronger than Kagome remembered her being. Faster, too. Inuyasha had killed her when Kagome was first pulled into the past with only his claws and a cocky attitude, but this Mistress Centipede, this Jishinamazu was a better tactician and had a youki stronger than Kagome's, even with her borrowed power.

The Mistress Centipede we fought had been resurrected by the Shikon Jewel, Kagome thought, even as she bounded up and away and sent the Hageshiiha spiraling in an arc of steel and brightly colored silk. It whipped around Mistress Centipede's coils, slicing cleanly through three of her insect legs. Mistress Centipede howled and launched herself at Kagome. Kagome darted out of range of the strike, her fingers outstretched to catch the Hageshiiha as it came back to her hand. Maybe that's why this version is stronger. She's never died. Or else she was resurrected again and has had years to recover.

Myobu and Inari moved in, both of them hurling balls of foxfire at the centipede woman with incoherent cries of rage. So long as Inari was under Myobu's control, she could do nothing but mirror his moves exactly.

"Myobu!" Kagome called to him, sweeping the Hageshiiha in a circle to call up a cyclone of foxfire. She sent it careening toward Mistress Centipede, and then dove out of the way of a bubbling stream of poison shot from Mistress Centipede's mouth. Where the poison landed, it hissed and sunk into the ground.

"I'm a little busssy, Fox Princessss," Myobu shouted back at her, Inari echoing his words. The longer they fought, the more of Myobu's mixed heritage came to the fore, green-blue scales spreading over his cheeks and his tongue growing long and serpentine, so that he lisped when he spoke. He clapped his hands together, and when he pulled them apart again, three of him stood where one had been. Inari had also called up illusory doubles, and as a mob they descended on Mistress Centipede, dancing around her and confusing her.

"You have to free Inari!" Kagome told him, putting on a burst of speed and weaving in between Mistress Centipede's many legs, gouging a long cut in the centipede's underbelly. "We need her to do more than copy you if we're going to win this fight!"

"Ha!" Myobu mocked, revealing which was the real one with his speech. The doubles didn't answer her. "We may be fighting together now becaussse my grandmother hassss no ssensssse of familial loyalty, jussst like all the other dragonsss, but we are not on the ssssame ssside!" Myobu and Inari said as one.

Kagome snarled. "Fine!"

Abandoning her attack on Mistress Centipede, she waited until the real Myobu was occupied with the battle before them, and then she hurled herself at him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and pressing the blades of her tessen into his throat. He tried to buck her off, and she groped for the ornaments stuck in his warrior knot, aiming for the comb that held Inari's ki-pearl.

Prying the arm that menaced him away from his neck, Myobu bit Kagome's wrist, his fangs bearing down to scrape against her bones and foul her tendons, and she yelped, dropping the Hageshiiha, her fingers numb and no longer working. Then Myobu brought his head back with a crack, his skull connecting with Kagome's temple, making her see stars. She fell away from him, landing on her back.

Myobu turned to face her, and his face was that of Old Bozu, the Child Stealer. "I will deal with you later," he promised.

Then, three things happened at once.

Kagome's heart fluttered as she felt something at the edge of her senses. Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha were coming! But they wouldn't get there in time, no not in time…

Jun sprang up from a crouch where she had been hiding behind the well – so good at her profession that even Kagome had not known she'd rejoined the fight – and tried to behead Myobu with her scythe. But Myobu ducked, and Jun succeeded only in cutting his warrior's knot from the top of his head.

The warrior's knot that held Inari's ki-pearl.

Jagged strands of hair fell around Myobu's face even as Inari's eyes filled with awareness.

And then Inari threw herself forward, intercepting an open mouthed lunge from Mistress Centipede that was meant for Kagome, and was skewered on one of those horrific serpent fangs.

Even had the wound not been bad, Inari's lips were turning blue, foaming spittle leaking from her mouth. She convulsed, spasming so hard that she slid off of Mistress Centipede's tooth and fell to rest next to Sango, on the lip of the well.

Kagome recognized the work of the poison that had briefly taken Inuyasha.

It was Mistress Centipede plotting against them all along, using Myobu as much as he had been using Inari.

Inuyasha was going to be devastated.

But Kagome had no time to contemplate that, because the ground rumbled and rolled beneath their feet with a groan that sounded like the very earth was in pain. Kagome found her eyes on the bodies of Sango and Inari, draped over the well, their blood mingling on the stones.

A human and a youkai, their combined lives sacrificed in battle. Such a sacrifice was powerful blood magic. Almost as powerful as…

The Shikon Jewel.

When the ground groaned again, and a vortex opened within the well, Kagome wasn't surprised. She turned over and dug her claws into the soil, scrabbling for purchase, but she might as well not have bothered. Mistress Centipede's tail was caught in the time slip, and she was hell bent on taking Myobu and Kagome with her. She grabbed at each of them with three of her arms, and pulled them along as she was sucked into the well.

-l-

Sesshoumaru landed in the well clearing just in time to see his beloved vanish in a glow of blue light.


56. Fate

Sesshoumaru stared at the well.

He stared, unmoving, while Inuyasha jumped into the depths of the portal that had just taken Kagome from them. He stared, unblinking, when Inuyasha howled his rage to the sky at finding the well quiescent once more. He stared, silent, when Inuyasha gathered the mangled form of Inari into his arms and begged Sesshoumaru to revive her. He stared, unhearing, as his arm seemed to move of its own accord to draw the Tenseiga and grant Inuyasha's wish.

The world was muted. Even the voice of his inner beast could not reach him.

When Inari coughed and opened her eyes, offering him tearful thanks and regrets for her unwilling part in this plot, Sesshoumaru did not react. He felt as if carved from stone. He was as cold as the Ice Dog they painted him.

Inari retrieved a small jewel from the ground, and then Inuyasha took her away. The humans came to collect the body of Sango the Demon Slayer. A woman in miko garb pulled a comb from Sango's hair and tucked it into her own, and for the first time since Kagome vanished down the well, Sesshoumaru was tempted to move. That was Kagome's ki-pearl…! His hands clenched into fists. He was tempted to take it, to have it, this small part of her.

But no. Kagome would want it to remain with Sango and Miroku's descendants, as she had intended.

So Sesshoumaru merely watched.

Morning dawned, and still Sesshoumaru stood guard over the well, waiting for Kagome to come back.

Night fell again, and Inuyasha joined Sesshoumaru in his vigil. "Rin's fine. She's stayin' with Jun and Inari. 'Nari got her ki-pearl back."

Sesshoumaru made no answer. He was frozen, within and without.

"She'll come back," Inuyasha offered gruffly. "She always does. It's why we're holding off on Sango's funeral. Kagome won't want to miss it."

Inuyasha left at sunrise, saying he needed to send word to the West.

Sesshoumaru was left alone for eight days after that, though he hardly noticed them passing. He simply stared at the well, paralyzed.

On the ninth day, Jun marched resolutely into the well clearing, and thrust Rin into Sesshoumaru's arms. Automatically, Sesshoumaru's hands came up, cradling his pup to his chest. He looked down into her brown eyes and licked salty tears from her cheeks. She burrowed her face into his neck, and he felt a tingle of warmth, a dart of flame to thaw him.

In front of them, Jun sat on the side of the well, bracing her hands on her thighs in the manner of storytellers. Her foxfur kimono shone the color of Kagome's hair.

"I would tell you the story of The Girl Who Fell Through Time," Jun intoned.

Sesshoumaru folded himself down into a seated position and held Rin on his lap.

-l-

Kagome spiraled through a tunnel of darkness and spectral light, wrapped in the grip of a giant centipede, and it felt just like the first time. For a moment, she wasn't sure if she hadn't been falling through the well this whole time, and everything else was a dream.

And then they came to the end, slamming into the packed dirt at the bottom of the well, and Kagome's arm throbbed, sluggish pulses of blood soaking her kimono sleeve. Her vision went white as Yukiko's youki, the power Kagome had borrowed, was ripped away from her, unable to stretch across centuries. Yukiko's fangs were expelled from Kagome's jaw, and now she was bleeding there too, and her ears were ringing. There were stones in her lungs, and her magic was drained to the dregs, her skin crawling and feeling too large after containing an inu's strength. "Dogs and foxes don't mix," she muttered to herself. Her stomach rebelled, and she nearly vomited, but managed to hold her gorge because there was no time, no time…

Mistress Centipede and Myobu were there too, and they were stirring.

Praying to anyone who would listen for a reprieve, swallowing back her pain, Kagome climbed one handed up Mistress Centipede's coils, using insectoid legs as ladder rungs. The youkai woman was so massive that she bulged up and out of the well while blocking the normal ladder. In Kagome's condition, that was the only way that she made it to the floor of the well house.

Hearing a creak of wood, Kagome whirled to face the well, and then staggered and fell, blood loss and sorcerer sickness making her dizzy.

It was Myobu, climbing over the lip of the well, his hand pressed to his nose. He looked as dazed as Kagome felt. "What isss that horrid ssstench?" he demanded.

Kagome blinked stupidly. All she could smell was her own blood. Her senses were dulled to the point of being no better than a human's, worse perhaps. Were they in the future? Inuyasha had always complained about the smell of traffic and factories…

Mistress Centipede's coils twitched, then moved, flowing around until her torso was lifted out of the well. "You!" she accused, as if this had been some plan of Kagome's.

She arced up until she was pressed against the roof and then slammed her body down, arms splayed and lips wide, and Kagome knew that she was going to die.

But then the doors of the well house burst open, and two figures swept in, weapons raised. Befuddled, Kagome dragged herself over to the far wall as best she could, while still keeping an eye on the fight.

The first figure was a dark haired inu female. Tall and lithe, she was all grace and sharp lines. Her black hair was pulled back in a single ponytail that fell to her knees, and she wore a navy colored uniform of some kind. Military, maybe. She wielded an impossibly long sword like a needle, stabbing at Mistress Centipede's eyes, and when Myobu tried to slink toward the doors of the well house, cut off his route with a very familiar youki whip.

The second figure was shorter, but infinitely broader. A male kitsune with a lion's mane of orange hair tumbling over his shoulders, he was well muscled and swinging a massive war hammer. With his bulging biceps and hearty laugh, Kagome couldn't help but think of the god of thunder from Norse legend. Thor. He wore a black t-shirt and a pair of battered blue jeans, five tails spiraling out from the seat of his pants.

"Oh no you don't!" The Thor kitsune exclaimed, going after Myobu. With one heavy blow of the hammer, Myobu was laid out, unconscious on the floor. The kitsune studied him for a moment, and then went over and brought his hammer down on Myobu's head again, grinning at Kagome. "Just in case he's faking," he winked.

"Brother," the inu female called in a voice filled with competent command. "You remember that we are supposed to keep Jishinamazu from breeching the well house."

The kitsune's shoulders hunched. "Right. Sorry, Rin-sama," he said sheepishly, leaping up to help her handle Mistress Centipede.

"Rin-sama?" Kagome whispered, just before her vision greyed out.

-l-

When Kagome came to, the male kitsune was tending to her arm, and Myobu was chained in a corner of the well house, the inu youkai known as Rin-sama standing guard over him. Of Mistress Centipede, there was no sign.

"Hey, easy there," the kitsune said when he saw she was awake. His hammer was sitting on the floor of the well house next to Kagome. This close, she could see that there was a series of ki-pearls embedded in the grip of the weapon.

One of them resonated with her youki.

She looked up into green eyes. "S-shippou?" she asked, almost unable to comprehend what she was seeing.

He smiled. "Yep. Me and Rin-sama were voted the best choices to help you, since you already know us and interacting with us at this point probably won't mess up the space time continuum."

Kagome looked down at her arm, non-plussed. "You healed me."

Shippou shrugged and stood, pushing his leonine hair out of his face with one calloused hand. "I'm good at fixing things."

"You are too modest, brother," Rin-sama said, coming over to join them.

She had sheathed her sword and strapped it across her back, and now that Kagome got a closer look she could tell that this woman was definitely Rin. Her features were more mature, though as familiar as Kagome's own face, and there was a metal pin in the shape of the Western Crest fastened to her lapel, in case the crescent moon on her forehead and stripes on her cheeks didn't immediately give away who she was. But most importantly, when Kagome met Rin's gaze she saw a familiar twinkle there. She might be in the presence of Rin-sama, but her little Rin-chan still existed behind the placid mask.

Giving herself a mental shake, Kagome refocused on the task at hand. "Mistress Centipede?"

"We weakened her and sent her back down the well while the vortex was still open," Rin said. "She will appear five hundred and fifty years in the past, where she will be slain by Kikyo and Inuyasha. They will toss her bones into the well, and they will pass through the slip yet again to the present day, where they will lie dormant until revived by proximity to the Shikon Jewel over a period of fifteen years." Rin raised a brow, the corners of her lips twitching. "In a few days, she will pull your human self down the well, and so begin the legend of The Girl Who Fell Through Time."

Kagome winced, pressing the heel of her hand to her forehead.

"Makes your head hurt too, huh?" Shippou said.

He touched her temples with two fingers aglow with cool teal foxfire, and Kagome's pain eased.

"Funny, isn't it?" Shippou went on. "How she keeps trying to kill you, but she's the one who starts it all."

Kagome nodded dazedly. "Yeah. A real trick of fate."

"Come," Rin said, helping Kagome to her feet. "We must decide what is to be done with the Weasel Dragon."

But Kagome's thinking was getting clearer, and she dug her heels in, refusing to be led to the corner where Myobu was chained. "You said 'while the vortex was still open.' Does that mean the well is closed?"

"The well has always responded to the Shikon Jewel," Shippou explained. He reached down and picked up his hammer, and then swung it back over his shoulder, resting it there. "The reason it opened during your fight with Jishinamazu was because a human and a youkai bled into the well at their moments of death. It was a similar enough power that it opened the well for a short time. But yes, now it's closed again. That's part of what we have to decide about Myobu."

Kagome looked back and forth between her two kits, now grown. Now older than she was.

She could still read their expressions.

"Just tell me," she said.

"You must make a choice." Rin stepped over to Myobu and pulled his head back by his hair, exposing his throat. "Either you must sacrifice Myobu in order to open the well and return to the past to bring about a new future in which youkai live openly with humans –"

"Or you stay here in the future as you have always known it. With us," Shippou finished.


57. Choice

She had to kill Myobu in cold blood, a sacrifice in a dark ritual that would power the well enough for one more journey, or leave the life she had built for herself behind.

"Are those my only choices?" Kagome heard herself ask.

Shippou and Rin did not answer her, for Myobu had woken and was struggling in his chains.

"You won't be getting out of those," Shippou said. "I made them myself."

Kagome barely heard him. She was too busy trying to corral her whirling thoughts. They won't tell me what choice I made. Will make. Whatever. Because if they were going to do that, it wouldn't be a choice at all. They'd just tell me what to do. But maybe they'll answer other questions…

"Is Sess – everyone in the pack still alive in this time?"

Shippou opened his mouth, but Rin gave him a quelling glance.

"Keh," Shippou snorted.

Rin stuck her nose in the air. "Hn."

Kagome goggled. "You guys are doing that on purpose, right?"

Shippou raised his eyebrows. "Doing what?"

"Nevermind." Kagome waved a hand in dismissal, returning to her thoughts.

No matter what the cost, she couldn't bring herself to kill even Myobu in cold blood. She was still far too human to – no, mercy had nothing to do with humanity.

She was not just human. She was not just youkai. She was both. She was Kagome. Just Kagome. And she wanted, more than anything, to go home. There was no real question – she wanted to confess her love to Sesshoumaru and watch Shippou and Rin grow into the youkai standing beside her. She wanted to annoy Yukiko and tease Inuyasha and play tricks with Inari. She wanted her pack. And why should Myobu's death power the well, when it had taken a human and a youkai sacrifice to open it before?

Her eyes widened as the truth dawned.

Rin and Shippou were not offering her a choice of how to spend the rest of her life. They were assessing how far she would go to attain what she desired.

This was a test of ruthlessness and compassion, a tail test in which neither option presented to her allowed her to remain true to herself, to the person she had always striven to be. And neither option would truly reunite her with her pack - not in the way she wanted.

So Kagome chose to walk a third path.

Balance.

She caught Rin's eye. "You said only a sacrifice will awaken the well and let me go home." It was not lost on her that she was referring to the West, to Sesshoumaru and her pack as home even as she stood on the shrine grounds where she'd grown up. "But you didn't say the sacrifice had to be a life."

Rin's lips stretched into a slow, soft grin. "Not all power comes from death," she agreed.

With that, Kagome turned to Myobu, moving to stand over him in a few quick steps. Shippou shifted out of her way, and Kagome knelt to pry Myobu's mouth open, freezing his muscles in place with a muttered spell. Then, a wicked grin on her face that would have made even Sesshoumaru flinch, she yanked out all of Myobu's teeth.

One. By. One.

They fell to the floor of the well house with quiet tinkling sounds, each flashing with foxfire before transforming into ki-pearls of various size and strength. Kagome's aura crackled around her, jade heat lightning making her fur stand on end.

"I take your fangs, I take your strength," she intoned with each yank of her claws. "I take your fangs, I take your strength." Blood poured down Myobu's chin, his wide eyes glassy, his face a rictus of disbelief. A gurgling scream came from his throat, his lips unable to give it shape. The shackles around his hands clanked together, and then stilled at a gesture from Shippou.

Kagome winced, but kept at her grim task.

When she jerked Myobu's last molar free, a ripple went over his body, and he moaned, his skin erupting in putrid green scales. His lush red tails withered away, his features shifting until he had a wide mouth filled with serrated teeth and large reptilian eyes.

Kagome repeated the process on his dragon fangs.

His scales lost their hold and fell from his skin, leaving him as red and soft as a new born babe. His eyes shrank and turned brown, the vibrancy of his hair leeched away as the long mass of it went black as coal. His claws softened, becoming normal human nails.

A sense of presence filled Kagome, a bright light that brought to mind the aura of the Shikon, and words flowed from her tongue that she had not thought, but nevertheless spoke, "You are kitsune no more. No longer may you call yourself Myobu, or rule the East as Lord. I have won that right from you. And I shall choose your successor."

She closed her eyes and saw herself in ancient armor, a red-black kitsune of nine tails meeting Midoriko on the field of battle, an after image that was burned into her retinas. Another blink, and this time she was Midoriko, looking upon her youkai self.

Of course. This was why she had carried the Jewel of Four Souls within her body upon her birth. Miko and youkai. Reincarnation. Holy and demonic.

She was the jewel.

She opened her eyes and gathered up the pile of ki-pearls that had only moments ago been Myobu's fox fangs, and tossed them into the well. One, two, three, four… There were thirty six in total. Her tails twitching at the build up of power, she let the pearls fall down into the deep a handful at a time. Then she did the same with the triangular dragon teeth, and, in a motion that Myobu's newly human eyes couldn't follow, swiped his chest with her claws, gathering an offering of red human blood.

Three drops of scarlet followed Myobu's teeth into the well.

She never heard them hit bottom.

There was a shudder, a low rumbling quake of the earth, and then the familiar glow of time magic brightened the well house.

Kagome looked at her kits. "I'm going back. I want to see you grow up."

Shippou smiled a small, sly smile, and with a shock Kagome realized that he looked very much like Sesshoumaru when he did that.

"Shippou…"

"Go," he interrupted her. "You'll see us soon. We'll take care of our friend here," he jerked his head, indicating the cringing human man who had once been Myobu.

Kagome nodded.

Then she took a deep breath and jumped into the time slip.

For the final time and the first time, all at once.

The last thing she heard as the future faded away was Rin's voice saying, "By the power vested in me by the Imperial Guardians of the National Police Agency, I hereby place you under arrest."


58. True

Sesshoumaru paced, his eyes filled with a swirl of red and gold, fangs bared in a perpetual snarl. Thirty six days and thirty six nights. It had been thirty six days and thirty six nights since the attack on the shiro that had resulted in Kagome being pulled into the well.

He'd stood watch over the time portal for ten days, before being persuaded to return to the West by messages of Shippou's agitation. Sesshoumaru did not want his son to suffer, and he remembered well the way the little kitsune had felt abandoned the year that Sesshoumaru was trapped in Jishinamazu's palace beneath the sea.

Another crime to lay at her door.

Thirty six days and thirty six nights.

It was an eye blink to one as long lived as he. An amount of time almost unworthy of measuring. And yet these days and nights seemed longer and darker than all the other time he had spent walking the earth.

Not just because Kagome was gone, but because he feared she would not return. Certainly he had done his utmost not to let her know why she should never leave him.

He was a fool. He'd sought to keep her from having power over him, and yet she had it anyway.

If she didn't come back soon, he might have to resort to howling at the moon.

In all the years since he'd first accepted her submission, taking her into his pack, he'd had ample time to tell her just what it was she meant to him. But now she was gone, and no one knew where or when, and that thrice cursed well was only so much stone and dirt!

"Are you quite done?" his mother asked, appearing behind him. "You've sent everyone into hiding. Even Inuyasha said… now how did he phrase it? 'Hell no, don't send me in there! Let Kagome deal with his dumb ass when she gets back.'"

Sesshoumaru whirled on her, his face perfectly expressionless, though nothing could be done about the red ring around his irises. A feral voice inside seethed, screaming rejection, abandonment, mine, gone, mate, unclaimed, gone, gone…

Woe.

"Oh, Sesshoumaru, my son," Yukiko said soothingly. "Stop making that face. It's not as bad as all that."

But it was. Kagome was gone.

And Inuyasha was right. Sesshoumaru was a coward.

There had been nothing to stop him from telling her of the feelings he'd tried to deny having. Nothing kept him from courting her and making her his mate.

Nothing except fear.

Fear of rejection. Fear of admitting that he yearned, just as other creatures did. Fear that allowing instinct – desire – to rule him in this one thing would be the beginning of the end of discipline.

Fear of ruining the happiness he had never thought to have for himself, not since the death of his father. He was not one who easily inspired love in others.

So he'd been a coward, and secured a promise from Kagome that she would stay with him, thinking that would be enough.

"You know the story of the first kitsune, my son." Mother was still talking. "They are always true. She'll return."

Once, he would have said he didn't need to be loved.

Now he squeezed his eyes shut, mine, mate, gone, gone, unclaimed, abandoned, need, need, need, echoing through his skull in time with his heartbeat.

-l-

When Kagome climbed out of the well, she had seven tails.

No one was waiting to greet her, so she made her way down to the village, noting as she did so that there was a fresh grave marker out on the hill where the villagers left offerings to the kami.

Sango.

Changing direction, Kagome went to pay her respects.

Sango's children had placed a shrine for her next to the one they'd built for Miroku, exquisitely carved wooden plinths painted with their names, little stone insets placed in front of them for paper lanterns, incense, and other trinkets. There was a fresh cut flower set on Sango's shrine, and a sachet of Miroku's favorite tea before his.

Kagome knelt at the graves of her friends and summoned up the power of true transformation. Touching a finger to each of the wooden plinths, she turned them into bright white stone, and saw to it that their names were the brightest, purest red. Then she watched as the stone rippled, bubbling and churning until on Miroku's marker there was a bas relief image of him facing Naraku, the Wind Tunnel in full force, and on Sango's a rendering of her final moments, the Hiraikotsu leaving her hand to save Rin from Mistress Centipede's venom.

Satisfied, Kagome assumed a meditative pose and spent the night with Sango and Miroku, taking strength from their spirits. If she had been gone long enough that no one was near the well to greet her, then one more night could hardly matter.

-l-

When day broke, she pulled out her little mirror and breathed on the glass, searching for the new bearer of her ki-pearl. When it showed her a vision of Mayumi sweeping the steps of the Sunset Shrine, she knew that all was well, and she could take her leave of Edo for the time being.

She assumed her true form and set off in the direction of the Western shiro. Now that she was a plain kitsune once more, albeit one with seven tails, she could no longer fly, and it would take her the better part of two days to reach the palace even at her fastest speed.

No matter. It would give her plenty of time to plan a trick she could play on Sesshoumaru. Perhaps she would disguise herself as a messenger from the North, or make herself appear human again. Maybe she'd pretend to be the Wolf Princess, Ayame, and declare that she wanted to wed Sesshoumaru. That would certainly send him running! And just when she couldn't hold back her laughter, she'd drop her glamour and watch Sesshoumaru's mouth fall open!

It would serve him right for not waiting on her.

Yes, that was what she would do. Sesshoumaru wouldn't know she was back until she was standing right next to him. And then, well.

She would see.


59. Fool

Sesshoumaru was restless. He paced the floor of his bedroom, certain that he could not be feeling what he thought he was feeling. His mother sat at the low table Kagome used to dress her hair and paint her face. Discomfited by the loss of Hageshiiha, Yukiko had claimed a new tessen from Sesshoumaru's armory, and held it now before her mouth. "She returns, then. You can feel her approach."

"It is a trick of the mind, Mother. The product of desire, nothing more. She is not really here."

"I feel it too."

Sesshoumaru halted in his pacing, turning to face his mother. She arched a brow. "I have been… attuned to her, since the return of the youki she borrowed from me. She is alive, my son. And she is close. I know it."

A slender water hanyou stepped into the room without knocking, a tea tray in her hands. She was likely one of Inuyasha's latest strays. There was something familiar about the way she moved, but Sesshoumaru dismissed it, focusing instead on his mother's words.

"You have never been one to prefer the pretty lie above the harsh truth," he said.

"And it continues to be so." Yukiko folded her fan and accepted a cup of tea from the water hanyou. "Kagome is alive, and she will return to you if you strive to be worthy and wait. This is fact, my son, not some story I concoct to spare your sensibilities."

The water hanyou offered Sesshoumaru a cup of tea, but he waved her away without looking at her. He was too unsettled for tea.

"I should have never left the Bone Eater's Well," he said. His mother gestured for the servant girl to open the balconey doors, to let more light into the room. "I never should have left her," Sesshoumaru went on, this time meaning the day he had fled from Kagome's love after nearly marking her.

The water hanyou opened the right leaf of the balcony door, and a beam of sunlight flooded the room, throwing all of their shadows into sharp relief against the far wall. Sesshoumaru squinted, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Once they had, he turned to dismiss the servant, only to be brought up short by the sight of the water hanyou's shadow.

It was a kitsune, a mass of fox tails twitching playfully around her.

Sesshoumaru launched himself at the girl, sending the both of them flying. They breezed through the open balcony door and struck the railing with such force that they broke through the wood and stone with a loud crack, falling into the garden below. The disturbed branches of the sakura trees sent pink petals raining down on them.

"Sesshoumaru!" Kagome exclaimed, laughing a kitsune laugh at the trick she had played. Her disguise melted away, revealing the sweet curve of her cheek, the red of her hair. The silk of her kimono was bloody and torn, but Sesshoumaru cared naught. He hoisted her up off the grass, his arms around her waist so that he could bury his face in her neck. One of her tails twined around his left forearm. She gently cradled his head in her hands, trying to soothe him.

But he could not be soothed.

"Where did you go?" he demanded, his voice rough. Mine, returned, mine, mate, need, mate, mate.

Kagome told him of her victory over Myobu and Mistress Centipede, triumph making her eyes sparkle and her skin glow. He barely heard her, nose still buried in her neck, unable to stop the half growl, half keening sound in his chest. It was barely audible, even to youkai ears, but it was there.

He'd held onto hope, but in his heart of hearts, he had really believed that it would be centuries before he saw her again, if at all.

Sesshoumaru had taken Kagome's first suitor, Takeshi, as a sign she didn't want him as a mate all those years ago, but had meant to always have her at his side as the Lady of his pack. Had decided that was best. That it was enough.

It wasn't. It never had been. It never would be, he knew now.

It was wonderful and horrible at once, to know that he could feel so deeply. He was the Lord of the West, the Great Dog whose very heart was said to be a glacier.

And yet now he clung to a little slip of a kitsune, the foxfire in her breast burning him from within.

"What's this?" She turned his chin up with one delicate claw, rubbing her cheek against his to comfort him. "You never weep!"

"I am not."

"You can weep without tears, Sesshoumaru."

His heart skipped a beat at her intimate use of his name.

"Now, what is it?"

"This one thought you were gone forever," he told her, forcing himself to look into her blue eyes. She saw things that others did not. He deserved no less than for her to know all of his shame.

"I wouldn't break my promise," she murmured into his ear, running the claws of one hand through his hair. "Kitsune are tricksters, not oath breakers."

"This I know," he returned just as softly. "This one has been foolish, and listened to the whispers of fear."

She giggled. "What could the Great Sesshoumaru-sama possibly be afraid of?"

He closed his eyes, resting his forehead against hers and taking a deep breath.

"Sesshoumaru?"

He placed her on her feet, then knelt before her, his forehead level with her obi. Ignoring her stunned look, he took her hands. "Make to me a vow."

"What vow?" She tightened the clasp of their fingers and tugged, trying to force him to rise. "Sesshoumaru, please get up."

He stayed on his knees. "Be mine."

Mine, mate, need, mark, claim, mine.

Her eyes sparked with foxfire when she smiled, her lips curving like a bow. "Of course I'm yours, Sesshoumaru. I've been yours since the Shikon Wish was made."

Sesshoumaru took a deep breath and let it out in a long exhalation that hissed between his teeth, nearly groaning in frustration. How was it that he, who had brought entire armies to their knees, was laid so low by this one troublesome little fox? How could he make her see? He was not one for grand speeches.

But, perhaps, a grand gesture…

Releasing Kagome's hands, Sesshoumaru swept his hair to one side and let his head fall forward, exposing the back of his neck.

"Then allow me to be yours."

For the first time, he understood how a surrender could be sweet.

She gasped, the scent of lust and tears reaching his nose at the same time. She started to reach for him, and then stopped, hesitating. He couldn't keep himself from flinching, a small twitch of his eyes.

"Would you still love me, if I were human?" she wanted to know, her voice breaking on the last word. He could hear her heart pounding.

Would he love her any less, if the power of the Shikon Wish suddenly ceased to be, returning her to her short-lived original state? A thousand moments flashed by him, not just memories of her youkai self, but her first defiance in the tomb of his father, her unfearing intervention in his bouts with his brother, the way she mothered Shippou and reached out to Rin, the purity of the soul that had shone – and still shone – through her eyes, for though she was youkai now, there was no creature alive that could claim Kagome's purity of spirit, save for perhaps their daughter.

No.

Fox or human, he loved Kagome for Kagome's sake.

"Yes," Sesshoumaru said.

If loving humans was folly, he was a fool.

She caressed his neck with her claws and pulled him to his feet, her tails wildly thrashing. Her obi came unknotted, unable to stand up to the motion. Sesshoumaru caught at her kimono to preserve her modesty, but she batted his hands away, leaping into his arms.

They kissed, and it tasted like splintered wood and stone dust and Kagome's lips, the dearest thing Sesshoumaru had ever known.

The next roar that shook the walls of the Western shiro was one of triumph and joy. The Lord of the West claimed and marked his mate in the light filtering through the sakura blossoms, his teeth sunk into the side of her neck.

She returned his mark, her oh-so-attractive fangs piercing his flesh with a ferocity and passion that surprised him, but should not have. In the rush of their union, their youki spiraled wildly out of control, leaving no doubt to any in the palace as to what was happening when their auras merged.

When they both went still, their breathing slowing, Sesshoumaru gathered Kagome to his chest, gazing at her face and waiting. As he watched, noble markings came into being, curling lines of the same blue as her irises forming a fox mask around her eyes.

"Mine," Sesshoumaru growled into her ear, his entire body thrumming to be finally saying it out loud.

Kagome smiled at him, and then opened her mouth and yipped out a joyous kitsune song.

Love, love, love for my mate, Lord of the West, lord of my heart.

Sesshoumaru added his voice to hers. My Girl Who Fell Through Time, my Fox Princess of Seven Tails.

Welcome, welcome, welcome new daughter, Yukiko was the first to join their pack song, lightly stepping up to the gaping hole in the balcony railing to give them her blessing.

Honored Mother, Honored Father, chorused Rin and Shippou, leaning out of their bedroom window.

Lucky, lucky vixen. Lucky, lucky dog, Inari sang from Inuyasha's balcony.

Inuyasha was last, and he howled only one word.

Finally.


60. Epilogue

On Kagome Higurashi's fifteenth birthday, a centipede woman burst from the well house on the grounds of the Sunset Shrine and pulled her into the well's depths, and beyond.

As soon as the lights of the time slip faded, change swept over the world. Like ripples in a pond, it radiated outward from the well house, altering clothing, weapons, buildings, history, and governments until a unified world of magic and technology, humans and youkai, was the only world most had ever known.

Only two remembered both timelines, for they had existed in both: Kagome of the Eight Tails, Lady of the West and Japan's youkai ambassador to the United Nations; and Inuyasha, the Lord of the East and founder of the Hanyou Rights Foundation.

Disguised as a tourist visiting the Sunset Shrine, Kagome – no longer the girl who had been unceremoniously hauled away by fate – let out a sigh of relief. She still had several years to wait before she could reveal herself to her human family, but a few years was not so long.

And now the future she and her pack had worked so hard for was secure.

Turning, Kagome made her way down the shrine steps. When she reached the bottom, she stopped to look at the statues that stood on either side of the shrine's tori arch, guarding all who entered.

It really is a very good likeness, Kagome thought. But it should be. Shippou and I assumed their forms and posed for the statues ourselves.

To the left was a man in monk robes, a staff in one hand and a sutra in the other. To the right of the stairs was a woman dressed as a tajiya, standing in a ready pose, a large boomerang slung across her back.

Sango, Miroku… your legacy lives on.

The tajiya school that Kagome's old friends had started five hundred years ago had flourished, and eventually become the Sunset Academy for Special Forces, where police teams were trained to face youkai and those humans with otherworldly powers. Two of Sango and Miroku's descendants were going to graduate from the next class of agents, one of them the current bearer of Kagome's ki-pearl.

Kagome paid her respects and left the shrine.

Sesshoumaru was waiting for her in one of the many natural parks that had been declared protected land by the youkai royals. He was wearing his dark blue suit, his sash of office across his chest as always. Passing youkai and humans stopped in their tracks to bow to him. He could be mistaken for nothing but exactly what he was.

Kagome let her human disguise fade. She wore a skirt suit of a lighter blue than Sesshoumaru's, with her own sash of office, and a diadem resting in her red hair. The latest fashion for her tails was to drape them around her shoulders and arms, like fur stoles.

"It is done?" Sesshoumaru asked, meeting her eyes. She stood on her toes and slid one arm around his neck to rub her cheek against his in greeting.

"My young human self has gone through the Bone Eater's Well. We are safe," Kagome confirmed.

He rumbled his pleasure, pulling her close and running a fang along her jaw. "Shall we celebrate?"

Their watchers tittered, and Kagome could hear a few cameras snap. No doubt they'd be in the evening news. Annoyed, she pulled a large leaf from her clutch purse and quickly folded an origami box. She inflated the box with her breath, and just like that, she and Sesshoumaru were hidden from view.

"You know we're expected at Inari's charity ball this evening. The East is going to start offering full scholarships to doctors who specialize in youkai health. Especially those who are interested in technomagical techniques."

Sesshoumaru's expression did not change, but so well did Kagome know her mate that she immediately began to argue with him.

"It's a good cause! And it will attract better teachers to the East, which will be very good when Suki is ready for medical school."

Their youngest daughter had been born eighty-seven years ago, a white kitsune of one tail, Sesshoumaru's mark on her brow and healing in her fingers – something no one, not even the oldest among them, could remember happening before. Sesshoumaru had been torn between pride and consternation when Tenseiga had immediately abandoned him at the kit's first cries, making it clear that Sukuna was the sword's new master.

Eventually pride had won out. Suki was Sesshoumaru's darling. Kagome had never thought to see her mate do anything that could resemble doting, but dote he did. Only Suki's natural humility kept her from being more arrogant than her father.

Sesshoumaru stiffened. "Sukuna will attend school in the West, as her brother and sisters did before her."

Kagome laughed. "You keep believing that if it makes you feel better." She put her arm through Sesshoumaru's, leading him to the paddock where they had left Ah Uh. "Now, we are going to this ball." She smiled, wheedling. "The kits will be there."

"The pups," Sesshoumaru corrected, perking up a little at that. But then he frowned. "Is Shippou bringing Otohime?"

"Now Sesshoumaru, stop it. I know Kiyohime is… Kiyohime, but her daughter is a very nice sea serpent who admires our son."

Sesshoumaru scoffed. "Kiyohime used us to destroy her enemies. Were it my decision, she and the snakes she whelped would not be allowed anywhere near our pups."

Kagome nipped his ear. "Shippou is five hundred and fifty three years old, and luckily for him, his father is a traditionalist, which means his mother gets to approve his suitors."

Still bickering, they mounted Ah Un and made their way to the Eastern shiro.

Fin


Notes:

A Naginata, or Glaive: Not to be confused with a scythe, a glaive is a pole-arm weapon with a straight blade, often used by footsoldiers as it is especially useful for fighting a mounted opponent.

Timeline of '49. Years': To preemptively answer any questions, this chapter takes place over a period of 63 years.

Shiori: is the same bat hanyou encountered in the series. Only now she's in the equivalent of her teens, and Inuyasha has given her a job. I don't really mention it as it's not a main plot point, but in my head Inuyasha sort of has a ... Hanyou Outreach Program? He's made it known since becoming steward that any hanyou willing to swear fealty to the West will find food, shelter, and work at the Western shiro.

Sesshoumaru, Kagome, and Rin's modern clothes are based on what the Japanese imperial family wears in the present day. Rin, like many heir apparants the world over, is currently serving in the military, and so her uniform is based on that of the imperial guard.

You may have noticed that the number of days that pass between Kagome falling through the well and returning to Sesshoumaru is the same number of fox fangs Kagome pulled from Myobu. Think of it as his trickster youki's last hurrah. ^_~

To answer some final questions about the nature of Kagome's wish: Essentially, what it did was take the path of least resistance to achieve (eventual) peace and happiness for everyone Kagome specified. For example, Kagome becoming kitsune fulfills wishes/desires for her, Shippou, Rin, Sesshoumaru, Yukiko, and Inuyasha. And it also ensures that Inuyasha and Inari meet, and that Inari is freed from Myobu, because without Kagome needing a teacher she would have never been called to the West. And so on and so forth, ad nauseum.

I have flow charts and everything.