Expression shifting into a thoughtful scowl as his golden eyes carefully scanned the distant tree line, InuYasha straightened his back and breathed in deep, searching for any sign at all—even the smallest hint of movement or scent. The fuzzy, little white triangles that were his ears twitched and turned, straining to hear any kind of tell-tale sound. After another minute of silence, he breathed an audible sigh and slouched down, tucking his arms more securely around the legendary sword, Tetsusaiga, as he settled in to wait.
It shouldn't be too much longer now.
A distant rumble, more of a vibration than an actual sound, erupted in the forest to the east. The hanyou broke into a trace grin as the light of amusement sparkled to life in his gaze. "Broke your barrier, monk," he muttered.
"It wasn't that strong. We didn't want to hurt them, anyway, now did we?" Miroku, the once-itinerant-monk, remarked casually. Opening his eyes, letting the hand drop that he had held perpendicular to his face, he glanced at InuYasha. "Though, if Marisaiko had done it, it would have taken them longer to break it."
The mention of the young woman—his daughter—brought an unmistakably proud smile to Miroku's face.
InuYasha snorted. "She's got more spiritual power in her little finger than you've got in your whole body," he pointed out indelicately. "Kind of makes you look bad, if you want my opinion."
The blatant barb did nothing to dispel Miroku's good-natured amusement.
It was true, though. It was also something that no one had actually considered at the time, not that it would have changed anything. When Kagome had offered to carry a baby for Miroku and Sango, who were unable to have a child of their own, no one had really stopped to think about what kind of ramifications it would have on the child in the long run. The result, however, had been Marisaiko, a child with a ridiculous amount of spiritual energy—almost as much as her surrogate mother—maybe more. No one was quite sure since Marisaiko had opted to learn the art of the taijya instead, following right along in her mother, Sango's footsteps.
A distinct rustle off to the left drew their attention. A moment later, Shippou wandered out of the trees, heading straight toward InuYasha and Miroku. "They passed me," the kitsune remarked in lieu of a proper greeting, straightening the lush fur he wore around his neck. It was almost insane, how much Shippou had grown over the years. There were times in the past when InuYasha had wondered if he were doomed to remain the tiny kit that Kagome and he had encountered years ago. It wasn't so, and, given that he stood eye to eye with InuYasha now, it was fair to say that the youth wasn't exactly the runt that InuYasha liked to tease anymore.
Ears flicking as he considered Shippou's statement, InuYasha slowly nodded. "Jirou?"
"He sensed my trap," Shippou said with a shrug as he flopped onto the grass, hitching his hands together behind his head and crossing his ankles, and his voice held a hint of amusement in his tone. Then he sighed. "Ai almost got caught, though."
"Not surprising," Miroku said with an offhanded shrug. "That girl doesn't pay nearly enough attention—kind of like someone else I know," he added for good measure.
InuYasha made a face. Kagome said the same thing often enough. It was the miko's considered opinion that their daughter took after her father just a little too much. "She gets things done, don't she?" he retorted rather mulishly.
Miroku chuckled. "She does," he agreed easily enough. "Never said she didn't."
"She almost took down the headman's hut yesterday," Shippou pointed out.
"So she got a little excited," InuYasha grumbled, mostly because he'd already gotten an earful about Ai's perceived recklessness last night from Kagome—and worse, the slice of humble-pie he'd had to eat a few days ago from Sesshoumaru, no less.
"Oh, yeah, I forgot to ask, how did your meeting with your brother go?"
InuYasha snorted. "Keh! Half-brother, thanks," he grumbled since he really didn't want to think about that anymore. "It was fine."
The expression on Miroku's face stated quite plainly that he didn't believe InuYasha's claim, but he kept his counsel on the matter.
"Give up, Miroku," Shippou intoned without moving. "Considering he probably had to apologize, it's a fair guess that it didn't go well."
The ex-monk chuckled, but he did let the current topic drop. "So, whoever gets past Ichisaru and makes it back here first . . ." Miroku mused.
InuYasha nodded, but didn't comment, his scowl intensifying as he considered the situation. It wouldn't surprise him if Ai was the first one to break out of the forest, especially if it came down to a regular foot race. On the other hand, he knew, didn't he? Jirou . . .
He sensed their approaches well before he saw them. Dashing out of the trees, the two hanyou were dead even, and as they reached the impromptu gathering, InuYasha broke into a vague smile.
"Not bad," he remarked, nodding slowly as he shifted his gaze from his daughter to his son. "Not bad, at all."
Ai shot her father a saucy grin. "I had an off day," she said.
Jirou rolled his eyes. "You did not," he muttered, scowling at the ground. Ai's grin widened as she glanced up at her brother, who stood pretty well even with InuYasha.
"Where'd you leave the ape?" InuYasha asked, forestalling the argument that he figured was coming. As well as the twins usually got along, on the rare occasion that they did fight, it could turn pretty damn nasty.
Breaking out of the forest, Ichisaru dashed toward them, looking none-too-pleased. "No fair," the monkey-youkai complained as he dropped to a walk. "They cheated."
Arching an eyebrow, Miroku pushed himself to his feet and glanced at the twins. "How did they do that?"
Ichisaru snorted. "They had banana pocky," he grumbled.
InuYasha didn't miss the secretive little grins that passed between the twins. "Pocky?" he repeated as he slowly shook his head.
"It worked, didn't it?" Ai said, crossing her arms over her chest as her expression shifted into one that so closely matched the ones that InuYasha sported whenever he'd gotten caught with his hand in the figurative cookie jar, so to speak.
"Keh," InuYasha snorted, jamming Tetsusaiga through the waistband of his hakama, he turned on his heel and started away.
"Training done for the day?" Jirou called after his father.
"Yeah," InuYasha called back without breaking his stride as Miroku fell in step beside him.
"Okay," Jirou said as he broke into a run.
"Oi! Where are you going?"
He didn't stop. "Exam!" he replied, sprinting past his father as he headed toward the village—toward home.
Stretching out on his side before the fire pit on the rough wood floor, Jirou flicked his ear when Kagome tweaked it in passing as she moved to stir the contents of the cast iron pot suspended over the flames.
"I hate math," he muttered without dragging his gaze away from the book on the floor in front of him.
The Miko of Legend giggled. "So did your father," she admitted, "though, for completely different reasons . . ."
"But I'm in college. Why I need to take math courses when I'm studying literature is entirely beyond me," he said.
"Because it's the standard curriculum," Kagome reminded him in her ever-patient way. "You only have to take it this year, anyway, so it's not that bad, right?"
He wrinkled his nose, eyebrows drawing together as his hanyou ears flicked in sullen irritation. "Depends on your definition of 'bad', Mama."
Kagome laughed softly. "Not even a year of it, Jirou. You only have to have one semester of it, then you never have to take it again."
He heaved a sigh, drumming his claws against the floor as he forced himself to focus on the page of the book once more.
"Mama, I'm going now!" Ai hollered as she burst into the hut, yanking her haori off as she made for her tiny bedroom.
Kagome sighed, likely wondering how much good it would do to remind that particular child that she really ought to wait until she reached said-bedroom before she started stripping off her clothing. "Take it easy on your cousins," she called out instead. "Your father's still fuming over having to apologize to Sesshoumaru for the last time."
"It's not really my fault that Isa-chan wasn't paying attention," Ai grumbled, wrinkling her nose, golden-eyed-gaze bright, betraying the amusement that she wasn't really trying to hide. "He's been told that he should never let his guard down."
"Isamu was answering a phone call," Kagome pointed out, leveling a no-nonsense look at her daughter.
"He still let his guard down."
That earned her a very stern look from her mother, who straightened up from stirring the pot to cross her arms over her chest and arch a black eyebrow at Ai.
Ai got the gist of the unspoken message as she made a face and she stepped out of her room, toting her bright pink backpack with her. "Okay," she said in a tone of voice that was laced rather heavily with a great deal of feigned tolerance, "I promise I won't attack baby-chan again unless he's expecting it."
Sparing a glance at his twin, Jirou wisely hid the trace grin that was threatening, lest his mother take offense to what she'd feel was entirely misplaced humor. Considering 'baby-chan' had a terrible habit of lingering on that oh-so-precarious line between completely insufferable and entirely ass-tastic, Jirou didn't feel nearly as bad for his cousin as he supposed that he ought to.
Truthfully, it was highly unlikely that Ai would have actually done as much damage as she had if Isamu had been paying more attention, all things considered. Sure, Ai was tough, but then, so was Isamu. After all, he'd spent years, training under his father—the great and mighty Sesshoumaru—as well as InuYasha, and he was next in line to be the tai-youkai, which meant that he had to be better than just about anyone else, or at least, tougher than anyone who might come along and challenge him for the position. It had always bothered Ai that she wasn't quite as good as Isamu, and for the perceived slight, she had nurtured her rivalry with the youkai to the point of near-obsession.
Rummaging around in her backpack, Ai snorted indelicately. "I'm going to beat him yet," she insisted, tugging out a white silk scrunchie and letting the bag fall for the moment in favor of hurriedly pulling her long, silver hair back into a careless pony tail. "Then I'll be the next tai-youkai."
"Except you're a girl, and you'd have to kill Isamu if you wanted to do that, anyway," Jirou pointed out dryly.
"Okay," she said, snatching up the bag again and tugging impatiently on the zipper. "I'll let him live with the shame of having been beaten by a girl, then—and who says I can't be tai . . . hanyou, I guess?" She broke into a grin as she whipped around on her heel, pausing only long enough to jam her feet into her sneakers before she headed for the door once more. "Bye, Mama! I'll crash at jiji's if it gets too late!"
Heaving a sigh as she slowly shook her head, probably at the entirely disrespectful way that Ai had just referred to her uncle, Kagome said nothing for a long moment.
"Isa-kun should just be glad it was a bokken and not a real sword," Jirou pointed out in a rather neutral tone of voice, "and at least it was a clean break. If she'd used Haretsuhana, he'd probably be missing an arm instead."
Kagome sighed and slowly shook her head, but she let her arms drop as she turned away from the fire and stepped over to retrieve the water bucket, instead. "She broke his arm," Kagome went on, unable to fully repress the hint of censure in her words. "That girl . . ."
Snapping the book closed and sitting up to stuff it back into his book bag, Jirou hurriedly got to his feet and reached for the bucket. "I'll get it, Mama," he said.
The miko finally broke into a little smile as she rose on tip-toe to tweak Jirou's ear. "What happened to the days when I could carry both you and your sister around?" she mused wistfully.
"You haven't been able to do that in years," he pointed out, cheeks pinking like they always did whenever Kagome waxed nostalgic. At least, there was no one there to hear the oftentimes embarrassing baby stories that his mother so enjoyed. She said that it was her right as his mother. He really didn't have anything to use against that argument, either, unfortunately.
"Hmm," she drawled, patiently moving her hand when he tried to pull his ear away from her. "You know, I think you're going to end up taller than your father. I mean, when he was your age, he was shorter than you are now." Her little smile widened. "You look just like him, too."
"Yeah, but you've always been shorter than him—and Ai's even shorter than you," he replied with a little smile as her hand finally fell away. It was something that Ai absolutely hated to have pointed out, too, and that never ceased to amuse Jirou, as well. Of course, she, like Jirou, wasn't completely done growing. InuYasha had said before that hanyou didn't actually stop growing until they were closer to thirty years old. "I'll get your water now."
"Thank you," she called after him as he moved toward the door.
Stepping outside into the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine, he spared a moment to shift his gaze over the forest he called 'home'. The hut that was actually more of a house was built near the Bone Eater's Well, and Kagome had been quite amused when she'd realized that it stood in the same place as the shrine house five hundred years in the future. Over the years, InuYasha had tried his hardest to incorporate things into the house that Kagome would like—things that she was accustomed to on the other side of the well, but he hadn't been able to put in running water or some of the other things, which, Kagome insisted, was fine. She said that it would look odd to have those things in the house already, given the times. But she hadn't complained when InuYasha had gone to the trouble of insulating the place, and she certainly didn't have an issue with the idea that he'd built separate bedrooms for everyone, too.
Originally, they'd lived in the village, or at least, on the outskirts of it. InuYasha, however, preferred the relative privacy the surrounding forest afforded them, especially when more people started settling in the village. It didn't take long, it seemed, for people to realize that InuYasha could and did protect the village, making it one of the safest areas in Japan. For a boy who had split his time growing up in modern day Tokyo and here, the village certainly wasn't what he'd consider to be 'urban', but Kagome had said before that the village had roughly tripled in the last twenty years since Naraku and Hisadaicho were destroyed.
He'd been told that, other than the growth of the village, the place hadn't changed much in the years that had passed since his parents and Miroku and Sango with Shippou in tow had traveled all over in their search for the Shikon no Kakera and, ultimately, their showdown with the entity known as Naraku. He'd grown up on the tales and stories, the history and lore. If he'd heard it one time, he'd heard it a hundred, and yet, he never got tired of it, either. His father, InuYasha was one of the fiercest, most renowned beings alive—given that he'd had to struggle to prove himself so many times over. He'd defeated Naraku with the help of his friends, and later, he'd defeated Hisadaicho, as well—albeit, with the assistance of Jirou's uncle, Sesshoumaru, and his mother? 'The Miko of Legend . . .' he thought with a wry smile. Miroku and Sango were highly revered in their village—the village that they'd rebuilt from nothing after the taijya were massacred. Even Shippou had a name that was growing in repute ever since he'd started helping to administer the kitsune exams.
Setting off toward down the path that led to the stream behind the hut, Jirou sighed.
That was the problem, wasn't it? Everyone in his family and extended circle of family had made names for themselves. Even Ai, his older twin sister—older by a measly five minutes—was becoming more and more notorious. Given that she had a temper that could easily put their illustrious sire to shame and the basic skill set that were nearly on-par with InuYasha's, too, it wasn't really surprising. Jirou wasn't a slouch by any stretch of the imagination, but Ai . . . Having been taught how to fight, how to track, how to survive since before he could remember, he could easily hold his own, of course. Even so, Ai had always been just a little bit faster, a little bit better, a little bit more aggressive . . .
If he were to be completely honest with himself, he'd have to admit that it bothered him a lot. It didn't used to, and he wasn't even sure when it all occurred to him. It wasn't like he'd simply woken up one morning, only to realize just how vast that shadow really was, how cold it was, even when he was surrounded by the warmth of his family. He was never introduced to anyone as 'Jirou', nope. It was always, always the son of InuYasha or the son of the Miko of Legend . . . as Ai's brother . . . and even as the nephew of the Inu no Taisho . . . and in this word—in this era—it was even tougher.
Hopping backward as the bucket flew out of his hand, he barely had time to raise his hands to block his face as an explosion of blinding white light, accompanied by clumps of dirt and grass that flew up from the spot where he'd just stepped mere moments before, flashed like a strobe light before fizzling out, leaving his highly sensitive ears ringing unpleasantly. Landing on his rear in the middle of the path, it didn't take more than a second for him to ascertain the scent of his assailant, and he shifted his scowl off to the left and up. "What the hell was that?" he growled, slowly pushing himself back to his feet once more without taking his eyes off of the miscreant female standing on the sturdy tree branch as Kirara, the fire-cat-youkai nimbly weaved around her feet, rubbing her head against the girl's ankles.
"I'm helping you with your training," Marisaiko remarked, completely blowing off the irritation that was rife in Jirou's tone. "'Always be on guard', right?"
That didn't deserve an answer, as far as Jirou was concerned. Brushing the dirt off the back of the lava eel clothing that he'd been given at the age of thirteen when he'd completed the first phase of his training, he snatched up the bucket and stalked off down the path.
He heard her drop out of the tree, heard her land with a dull 'thump', but he didn't look back to see if she was following or not. He knew she was. He could feel her aura closing in on him as he increased his gait a few degrees and stubbornly refused to acknowledge her existence.
"Okay, I'm sorry," she said as she fell into step with him, but sounding anything but contrite. Fiddling with the belt of her taijya armor—armor almost exactly like her mother's, though Marisaiko's was trimmed in the purple scales of an unfortunate snake-youkai—Marisaiko's first solo victory—she was a little sidetracked as she tugged the short sword out of the purple sash she wore around her waist and laid it on the grass beside her. "Are you done with exams yet?"
"Just honors calc to go," he muttered, still not quite ready to forgive her for her failed attempt to blow him up.
She made a face. "I don't get it," she remarked at length as she sank down in the sparse grass on the edge of the stream. "Is the world on the other side of the well that complicated?"
He let out a deep breath as he set the bucket aside for the moment and sat down beside her, hooking his hands around his legs. He knew what she was talking about. For years, he'd gone over his schoolwork with her, teaching her the things that he'd just learned in school since she wasn't able to get through the well. Though she and her parents lived in the taijya village a good half day's walk from the one that he called home, it wasn't unusual for the family to make the trip as often as once every couple weeks. The friendship that the adults had formed so long ago held fast through the years, and if Marisaiko's family didn't come to visit, Jirou's would make the trek, instead. Try as he might, however, Marisaiko hadn't quite caught onto the subject of higher mathematics, not that Jirou faulted her for that. He barely understood it, especially in the beginning, and explaining it to her had proven to be pretty near impossible.
"They say you need it if you want to study engineering or something," he allowed with a shrug since he'd just had the same kind of discussion about the necessity to take the honors calculus classes in his current field of study.
The expression on Marisaiko's pretty face left little to the imagination, as to what, exactly, she thought of that. "But you're not going to live there all the time, are you?"
He shrugged. "You're kidding, right?"
She frowned at him. "I'd miss you if you did," she admitted.
"I don't have to, and even if I did, I don't think I would," he assured her. Sure, he liked going there, and he always enjoyed school, even when he complained. Kagome insisted that he and Ai be educated, even though InuYasha wasn't nearly as concerned about it, but if it made his mother happy, then his father was content to go along with it, anyway.
The thing was, while Jirou could and did appreciate the modern world, he felt more at home here, and he always had. Ai, on the other hand, was more than happy to spend the bulk of her time there, especially as she'd gotten older. Preferring to hang out with her friends and practicing at Sesshoumaru's home, she really only came back to the past for training and when their parents insisted.
"Why are you so quiet?" Marisaiko asked, leaning to the side, nudging him with her shoulder.
Blinking away the thoughts that had been running rampant through his brain, he nudged her back with a soft chuckle. "No reason," he replied.
She didn't really believe him. He could tell from the telling pause before she spoke again. Then she laughed, turning her head just enough to cast him a mischievous little grin, her violet eyes taking on that certain sparkle that always ignited whenever she smiled. "So, give me the new one," she prodded, apparently deciding that trying to drag it out of him wasn't going to work, anyway. Over time, it had become a habit for Jirou to teach her the latest quote that had gotten stuck in his head since the last time he'd seen her. The last time had been a verse from a ridiculously catchy J-pop song.
He thought it over, his gaze shifting heavenward.
"' A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.'"
She considered that for a moment as a thoughtful frown seeped over her features. "Is it from a book . . .?"
He shook his head. "A letter, actually. Frost Robert—a poet—he wrote it to a friend."
"So . . . he's saying that a poem can only come from . . . pain . . .?"
He shrugged. "It seems like it," he allowed slowly. "I don't know if I agree, but I guess he'd know better than I do."
"But there are other things in life that are worth putting to words, aren't there?" she persisted, her gaze shifting out over the rippling current.
"It seems like the things that are longest remembered are things that make you sad," he remarked.
She considered that for a moment, then shook her head. "Oh, I don't know about that," she finally said. "For every sad thing I remember, I remember ten good things, too."
Jirou bit his lip. "Yeah, I guess," he agreed slowly, almost cautiously. She had a point, didn't she?
"Is Ai-chan still here or did I miss her?" Marisaiko went on, effectively changing the subject, seemingly unaware that Jirou was still pondering what she'd just said.
He blinked. "Oh, uh, no. She went back, probably to break Isa-kun's other arm."
Marisaiko rolled her eyes since she'd heard about the incident just after their arrival in the village a few days ago when Kagome had told Sango about it. "Isn't it a bad idea to get on the wrong side of the future tai-youkai?" she asked rather dryly.
"Maybe, if she cared," he replied with a wry grin.
Marisaiko sighed. "Figures," she muttered, shaking her head. "I was going to ask her if she wanted to go with me tomorrow."
She nodded, digging a tube of chap stick out of the elbow pad compartment. "I'm supposed to go take care of a youkai that's taken up residence inside a shrine just south of here," she said after applying the gunk to her lips and stashing the tube away once more. "Shouldn't be any real trouble, but it's nice to have back-up."
"I'm free tomorrow," he grumbled, a scowl shifting over his features as he stubbornly refused to look at her.
Marisaiko looked at him. He could see her out of the corner of his eye. "Oh, I didn't mean anything by it," she replied a little too nonchalantly, in his estimation. "It's just . . . What about your exam?"
"That'll only take a couple hours, and it's early," he informed her, trying to brush aside the feeling that Marisaiko was only humoring him now. "Or I can go get Ai, if that's what you'd prefer."
"No, of course not!" she insisted, tucking an errant strand of coal black hair behind her ear. "You can come with me, then," she stated.
Stifling a snort, Jirou abruptly stood and retrieved the water bucket again.
'Take it easy, Jirou,' his youkai-voice said. 'She wasn't trying to offend you.'
Jirou waded out a few feet into the water before rinsing the bucket and scooping up the fresh water. 'I know,' he thought, still unable to brush off the hint of irritation that lingered. 'I . . . know . . .'