Actions

Work Header

Metamorphosis 2: Legacies

Chapter Text

'Keh!'

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."

"Keh."

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."

"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 . . .'

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"I don't sense anything," Jirou remarked with a thoughtful frown, hanyou ears flicking as he strained to hear, to smell, any youkai in the vicinity as Marisaiko and he stared at the humble Inari shrine situated at the bottom of the hill, mostly for weary travelers who wished to stop along the way and for the local farmers to make their offerings to the kami of agriculture.  The building was little more than fifteen feet wide by perhaps twenty feet from front to back—hardly large enough for a youkai of any real consequence to have taken up residence, in the first place.

The taijya scowled.  "I don't, either," she admitted without shifting her gaze away.  "But the locals swear that there's—something—in there."

"They also said that they haven't seen it," Jirou pointed out, crossing his arms over his chest, hands hidden in the folds of his haori, as he leaned back on his heels.

"But the offerings they leave keep disappearing, too," Marisaiko said slowly, as though she were pondering the situation.  She shook her head, the long, black ponytail she wore to keep her hair out of the way while she worked, swinging pertly with the motion.  "What do you think?  I suppose we could always just post a couple ofuda and call it good . . ."

Jirou snorted indelicately.  "Sounds like something Papa would accuse Miroku of having done, back in the day."

"Are you calling him a shyster?"

Jirou shook his head but grinned.  "If the proverbial shoe fits . . ."

She laughed and started walking once more, striding purposefully toward the small shrine.

Letting his arms drop to his sides, Jirou followed Marisaiko.  It was weird, really, he thought.  The headman of the village that had requested the taijya's assistance really did seem convinced  that there was a youkai taking up residence in the tiny shrine, and he figured that stranger things had happened, so it might not be completely out of the range of feasibility.  When he considered all the stories that he'd been told over the years, all the things that seemed entirely too impossible, so much larger than life, he figured that anything was possible, but if that were the case, then why didn't they sense the presence of a youkai?

Marisaiko knelt down to retrieve a tiny bit of fabric off the ground.  Turning it over in her nimble fingers, she bit her lip—a normal enough expression for her when she was concentrating.

Peering over Marisaiko's shoulder, Jirou frowned.  Rather rough grayish-brown material—definitely homemade—it really wasn't very remarkable otherwise.

"What's that?" he asked when she remained silent.

"I don't know," she admitted at length.  "Maybe it's not important.  Who knows?  But it's dry—bone dry."

Leaning over her shoulder, long enough to pluck the scrap out of her hand, he straightened up as he looked it over, too.

'True enough,' Jirou thought  It had rained most of the day, had only just stopped in the last hour, in fact.  If the little swatch of fabric had been there, it should be damp, at the very least, and probably ought to be soaking wet.

Even so, a bit of fabric didn't really mean much.  He lifted it to his nose, but wasn't surprised that he couldn't rightfully ascertain a clear scent, either.  Well, that wasn't entirely true.  He could make out a bit of the scent, but it was more like hints and traces, kind of like puzzle pieces, really, and, considering he had no idea, just who or what they were even looking for, it was impossible to say if the things he could discern even belonged to anyone of interest, anyway—or if the convoluted smells all emanated from a single being, for that matter.

He handed the scrap back and stepped around her, inhaling deeply as he passed through the three vermillion torii, gaze focused straight ahead, fixed upon the twin kitsune statues flanking the opening.  Stepping over to the bamboo fountain, he took the ladle and cleansed his hands and rinsed his mouth before dumping the rest of the water onto the ground and replacing it once more before stepping into the shrine.

Before the small alter were empty bowls, an empty flagon left carelessly on its side, but the shrine itself was empty, despite the lingering smell of incense.  Still, he rang the bell and clapped his hands twice before lowering his head for a few moments of prayer.  Kagome had insisted upon her children learning the Shinto faith, even if InuYasha wasn't exactly religious.  Having shown the proper respect, he flattened his ears as he wrinkled his nose and fought back the urge to sneeze, then slowly pivoted on his heel, letting his gaze shift over the empty interior.

"Well, the headman was right about the offerings being taken—or eaten, anyway," Marisaiko remarked quietly as she stepped into the shrine.  She followed Jirou's lead and offered a silent prayer of her own before resuming her inspection.

Jirou grunted.  "Whoever it was isn't here now," he said, satisfied that there really wasn't anyone inside the building.  "Even so, I still don't sense any youki."

She slowly shrugged off the small hip-pack that she used to carry some of her smaller necessities, and Jirou raised an eyebrow as she pulled out two small onigiri and placed them upon the alter.

"Come on," she said as she strode briskly over to him, grasping him by the arm and tugging him out of the shrine behind her.

"What are we doing?" he asked, tugging his arm free and casting her a quizzical glance.

Crossing the path, she led him a few feet into the cover of the forest before turning her attention to a sturdy-looking tree.  "We're waiting," she said, careful to keep her voice down as she started to climb.

Rolling his eyes, Jirou caught her around the waist and leapt into the branches.  "What makes you think that the thief is coming back?"

She shrugged as she made herself comfortable on the branch.  Their view of the shrine was pretty obscured, but it didn't matter when they would be able to sense anyone who happened to stop.  "Free food," she replied in a completely matter-of-fact tone.  "Even though that's entirely despicable."

Settling back against the sturdy tree trunk, he folded his arms together, resting his bare feet on the roughened branch.

"So . . . " she drawled at length, breaking the companionable silence that had fallen between them.

He sighed.  "So?" he echoed.

She shrugged, her gaze scanning the area near the shrine that they could see through the veil of foliage.  "So . . . Are you going to tell me what's been bothering you lately?"

Grimacing inwardly, Jirou stifled a sigh.  It wasn't entirely surprising that Marisaiko would pick up on his general preoccupation of late.  Even when he succeeded in hiding such things from his family, which wasn't nearly as often as he might have liked, Marisaiko was not nearly as easy to fool.

It was a strange thing, maybe.  The two of them had always been closer than anyone else, even closer than he and his own twin.  That wasn't to say that he and Ai weren't close.  They were, but there was a certain degree of separation, too.  Maybe it was because of Ai's tendency to be more reactive than Jirou, or maybe it was simply the underlying sense of sibling rivalry that had always delineated their relationship.  He didn't know, but there had never been that kind of feeling with Marisaiko, either.

"Dunno what you're talking about," he muttered, scowling over her head at nothing in particular.

"Even Ai's noticed it," she went on in a carefully nonchalant tone, ignoring his claim entirely.  "Says you've been too quiet lately.  I mean, you're always quiet, but she said you've been almost distracted—I think that was her word for it, anyway.  Want to talk about it?"

He sighed, letting his head fall against the tree, staring at Marisaiko through half-closed eyes for several long moments.  Watching as the breeze tossed her ponytail, as she kicked her feet that dangled off the branch, he couldn't help but to feel slightly stupid about his own feelings.  She'd never understand, would she?  Marisaiko, whose entire life seemed like it was preordained, that she had always been the blessed child . . . How could she understand, really, when, in all honesty, Jirou himself didn't?

"It's nothing," he stated once more.  "At least, it's nothing important."

She wasn't buying.  He could tell by the way her thin shoulders stiffened just a little, could tell by the way she sat up just a little straighter, could tell by the subtle shift in her aura.  "Okay, then tell me what's unimportant, then."

He opened his mouth to insist once more that there was nothing at all bothering him.  The words died on his tongue, though, when a slight movement off to the left drew his attention.  Sitting up straight, he caught Marisaiko's eye and held up a finger to his lips before pointing in the direction of the movement.

Carefully getting to his feet, he pushed himself off the branch to one that was a little closer to the shrine, though not quite near enough to draw notice.  It afforded him a better view, and he frowned as he watched an old farmer, leaning heavily on a walking stick.

The old man shuffled forward as Jirou relaxed slightly.  If that was the thief, he'd eat his sword, and he stifled the urge to sigh.

But the old man pulled a small pot of sake out of his haori as he passed under the Torii.

"False alarm," Marisaiko muttered, her voice barely above a whisper.  But she'd known that he'd hear her.  "Posting a couple ofuda is starting to sound better and better by the second."

"It's a shrine," Jirou pointed out with a shake of his head.  "If that's not enough to dissuade someone, then a couple ofuda won't, either."

She sighed.  "We're going to be here for a while, aren't we?"

Jirou didn't respond to that since he had a feeling that she was absolutely right . . .

 

 




 

 

InuYasha stomped into the hut with a loud, "Keh!" as he let the bamboo mat that covered the doorway fall back into place carelessly.  "Oi!  Kagome!  Where the hell are you?" he called.

Poking her head out of Jirou's bedroom, she scowled at her mate.  "I'm in here, dog boy, and just why are you bellowing?"

He snorted again. "Do me a favor, will you?  If one more villager shows up, asking me to get rid of the rat-youkai in their hut, tell 'im to shove it up his—"

She rolled her eyes, but broke into a grin.  "I'm not telling anyone to shove anything anywhere," she retorted, though she sounded more amused than irritated at his harsh choice of words.  Leaning in the doorway, she crossed her arms over her chest and slowly shook her head.  "It's nice to be needed, isn't it?"

That didn't deserve a response, as far as InuYasha was concerned, and he stomped over to the fire pit, yanking Tetsusaiga from the waistband of his hakama before sitting on the floor, cross legged, with his arms wrapped around the legacy sword.

It figured, didn't it?  For the last month, all he'd done was vermin control in the village, and, to be honest, he was getting a little impatient.  Part of it was just dumb luck, and part of it was by design, he supposed.  He had consciously taken a step back in the last few months to allow his pups to get their feet wet, so to speak.  Even so, the lack of real challenge was grating on his nerves, and it just figured that Kagome could see the humor in it, too.

"InuYasha . . ."

Blinking away his thoughts, InuYasha shifted his gaze to his mate—and the thoughtful frown that had solidified in her expression.  Still leaning in the doorway, she was frowning at him, deep in thought.  He waited for her to speak.

The miko sighed, and it struck InuYasha not for the first time that in the twenty-plus years that she'd been his mate, she hadn't really aged at all.  Then again, he probably hadn't, either, but then, he couldn't say he had ever been in the habit of staring at his own reflection to make that sort of judgment call, anyway.

"Spit it out, wench," he prompted when Kagome remained silent.

She made a face but pushed herself away from the doorframe to wander over to his side where she knelt beside him, her gaze trained on her hands, folded in her lap.  "I wondered," she finally said in a slow, almost calculated sort of way, "has Jirou said . . . anything to you?"

"'Bout what?"

She shrugged, and her exhalation was a little louder than it should have been.  "I don't know," she replied just as slowly, "It's just a feeling, I guess . . ."

Ears twitching as he pondered her assessment, he scowled at the fire.  It'd be easy for him to automatically reassure her, certainly, but he knew from past experience that her feelings were dead-on most of the time.  "What kind of feeling?"

Letting out another deep breath at the softness behind InuYasha's tone, she shot him a wan smile, as though she were trying to convince him that she was wrong, after all.  "He . . . He just seems so . . . distant lately . . ."

Considering her statement, InuYasha nodded just a little.  He'd be lying if he tried to say that he hadn't noticed the same thing, and it shouldn't have surprised him that Kagome had noticed it, too, since she tended to be far more intuitive than he ever was.  "You're reading too much into it, Kagome."

"No, I'm not," she insisted matter-of-factly.  "At first, I thought maybe it was too much for him—Todai's not an easy university—but it's more than that.  It's like he's . . ." Trailing off, she sighed again.

"Like he's trying to figure things out," InuYasha finished for her.

Her scowl darkened as she turned her face to stare at InuYasha.  "But what things?"

Giving an offhanded shrug, InuYasha rolled his eyes.  "Things, wench, things," he insisted.  "Be weird if he wasn't.  He ain't a pup anymore."

Waving her hands dismissively, Kagome made a face.  "Yeah, okay, but what kind of things?  And why can't he talk to us about it?"

"Leave him alone, wench," InuYasha stated flatly.  "He'll talk when and if he's ready, and if he don't, then it ain't any of our business."

The mulish set to her features stated quite plainly that she didn't agree.  Not surprising, he figured.  Years of being a mother hadn't helped to quell her unnatural need to fix everything and everyone . . . and he loved that about her, too.

"Maybe if you talked to him—"

"Forget it, wench," he interrupted with a shake of his head.  "And don't you do it, either.  I mean it."

She uttered a longsuffering sigh designed to let him know exactly what she thought of that idea, and he opened his mouth to say something else, but was cut off short by another voice.

"Oh, there you are, InuYasha," Miroku remarked as he pushed the bamboo mat aside and stepped into the hut after allowing Sango to enter ahead of him.  "Here."

It was pure reflex that caused InuYasha to catch the small cloth pouch that Miroku tossed to him.  The jingle of coins rattled in his hand, and he dropped it on the floor beside him.  "You took money again, monk?"

Miroku grinned, raising a hand perpendicular to his face as he made a bow.  "It's only right, considering.  If you'd just accept payment for your services, you'd be rich by now," he pointed out.

"Don't need it," InuYasha insisted stubbornly.  "And it ain't no big thing, anyway."

"Oh, it's not that much," Miroku insisted.  "Just a few coins, and they were glad to give it."

"Then you take it," InuYasha grumbled.

Sango smiled, her long, black pony tail flipping over her shoulder as she glanced from her husband to InuYasha and back again.  "Houshi-sama, you know as well as I do that InuYasha only helps the villagers because he cares about them," she pointed out reasonably.

"Keh!" InuYasha growled, hooking the cloth bag on the claw of his index finger before flicking it to Kagome.  "As if!" he grouched, cheeks pinking as he wrapped his arms a little tighter around the sword and closed his eyes, set to ignore his annoying friends.

It wouldn't matter, anyway, not really, considering that most of the time, Kagome ended up giving the coins that they did have to anyone who needed it.  They had everything they needed, and that was enough for him.

Miroku sat down beside InuYasha.  "Did Marisaiko or Jirou say when they'd be back?"

Stepping over to pour tea, Kagome shrugged offhandedly.  "No, but Marisaiko did say that the shrine's only a couple hours' south of here, so it would depend upon how long it takes them to deal with the youkai."

"You worried, monk?" InuYasha couldn't help goading.

Miroku chuckled.  "Not in the least," he assured the hanyou.  "Those two are more than enough to deal with whatever they find, I'm sure."

"Were you two going to start back today?" Kagome asked before InuYasha could needle Miroku further.

Sango sighed.  "We were going to wait for Marisaiko, but . . ."

"Ichisaru heard something about some youkai near the village, so we figured we'd better," Miroku replied.  "Apparently, there was some trouble near Midoriko's cave."

"Midoriko's cave?" InuYasha echoed, opening his eyes and pinning Miroku with a no-nonsense glower.  "Ape-shit tell you anything else?"

"No.  He only heard that there were a couple youkai who wanted to pass through to get to the cave.  He said that they left when they were told they couldn't enter," Sango added.

"Anyway," Miroku said, holding up a hand to decline the offer of the cup of tea that Kagome held out to him, "if you'd tell her that we've already gone back, we'd appreciate it."

"Yeah, sure," Kagome replied with a bright smile.  "I'll ask Jirou if he'll escort her home."

"Thanks," Sango said, hurriedly giving Kagome a quick squeeze.  "She can make the journey alone, but . . ."

Kagome waved off Sango's unvoiced concern.  "It's not a problem."

InuYasha stood up, shoving Tetsusaiga through his waistband once more.  "I'll be back in a day or two," he said, striding over to kiss Kagome's cheek.

"You're going, too?"

He shot her a droll kind of look, as though she ought to have figured as much.  "Keep those pups of yours out of trouble, will you?"

Kagome laughed and gave him a quick hug.  "You love those pups," she reminded him.

He followed Miroku and Sango toward the door.  "Keh," he replied, but the smile he spared her before stepping outside spoke volumes.

 

 




 

 

 

"Here."

Marisaiko jerked back as Jirou dangled a big, fat rabbit before her face.  Hunkered down next to the fire pit, she'd just finished building a makeshift spit out of stout sticks.

She shot him a droll look but took the animal and jabbed it onto the sharpened stick.  "I thought you were going to catch some fish?" she said without looking up from her task as she settled the stick over the supports she'd already erected to roast it.

"I was going to," he agreed.  "But the rabbit was right there, so-o-o-o-o . . ."

Settling down against a nearby tree, Jirou pulled his sword, Shinkoukage from the waistband of his hakama and wrapped his arms around it protectively.  "What's the plan now?"

She didn't look nearly as irritated as he figured she probably was.  Having spent the better portion of the afternoon, sitting up in a tree while they waited for the thief to show up again, only to end up, admitting defeat, at least for the day, they'd decided to make camp and try again tomorrow.

"With any luck, the thief will show himself," she said.

He grunted in response.  "If you think so," he allowed.

She didn't say anything to that.  She probably thought the same thing he did: that it'd take a whole lot of luck to catch that thief.  'Unless they're stupid,' he thought wryly.  'Never discount the intelligence—or the lack thereof—of the enemy, after all . . .'

"If the thief isn't youkai, then this is all pretty pointless, isn't it?" she finally remarked, idly turning the rabbit as the pleasant smell of the cooking meat resonated from the fire and wrenched an uncomfortable groan from Jirou's empty stomach.  "I'm a taijya, not some weird, medieval police officer."

Her assessment drew a chuckle from him, mostly because it always amused him whenever she referenced things from the present day and things that she, by rights, shouldn't know anything about.

"Pointless, maybe," he allowed, "but it's kind of . . . nice out here."

Pivoting on the balls of her feet, she stared at him for a moment.  He could feel the intensity of her gaze, as though she were trying to see right into his mind.  "It is," she finally agreed.  "It's probably a lot like it was when our parents were searching for Naraku."

"There's nobody like that anymore."

She frowned.  "You say that like it's a bad thing," she ventured, choosing her words carefully.

He shot her a droll look.  "I didn't.  I just meant that Mama, Papa  . . . your parents . . . They really did something, you know?  Everything they did . . ." Trailing off, he scowled.  He still couldn't put his feelings into words, and he sighed.  "It's just not like that now."

Marisaiko stared at him, but slowly nodded.  "But isn't that a good thing?"

"Yeah," he allowed.  It wasn't like he actually wanted some great evil to rise, to threaten all of those whom he held dear.  That would be stupid, after all, especially after his parents had fought so hard to quell it before, had struggled to achieve the relative peace that was the only world that Jirou knew.

No, it wasn't that he wanted anything like that.  But what he did want . . .

Suddenly, she pushed herself to her feet and shot Jirou a mischievous grin.  "Come on," she prodded, rolling her hand as though the gesture would hurry him along.

"What?" he asked as he slowly stood.

She laughed, tugging the two, wicked-looking chakram off her belt.  Tossing them into the air, only to catch them in her gloved hands, she raised her eyebrows at him.  "Let's find out if my Suigin are faster than your Shinkoukage," she goaded.

"As if!" he scoffed, jamming the scabbard through his waistband before drawing the sword.

She hopped back, rapid firing both chakram at him with a wave of her arms.  He grunted, using the sword to deflect the first one, jerking his arms slightly to the left to deflect the second, grimacing as the harsh clang of metal meeting metal rang out, as the force of the chakram reverberated through Shinkoukage and up his arms.

With a soft laugh, she caught the rebounding circles and dashed to the side as she fired them off again.

The blur of silver moved almost faster than he could see, but he managed to deflect those, as well, as he darted forward, intent on closing the distance that Marisaiko was widening.  Disarming her was a challenge, not only because she was human, so he couldn’t rightfully unleash much in the way of a real attack, but also because she was far too quick, too nimble, and she was entirely too good at anticipating his movements, too.

Springing back, she caught the rings in mid-air, then launched herself forward, spinning the rings on her fingertips so fast that the high-pitched whistle made him flatten his ears against the sound.  She knew it—counted on it—and he gritted his teeth as blocked the accursed chakram again.

"Why can't you use oba-chan's double-damned Hiraikotsu?" he growled, barely managing to deflect the second ring.

She laughed.  "That thing's too cumbersome," she replied, "and they've fought together for so long, it's bonded to her."

Grunting as he blocked the next volley, he grimaced as the second one nicked his knuckle.  That one fell harmlessly to the ground, though, landing with a dull thud in the grass.

She shot forward, whipping the chakram he'd deflected back at him once more as she dove for the other one.

He let go of Shinkoukage with one arm and raised it to defend against the oncoming projectile as he drove his sword, point down, through the center of the ring, effectively pinning it in place.  Uttering a terse growl as the blade of the other circlet sliced through the lava eel haori's sleeve, he twisted his wrist and caught it, too, ignoring the pain that erupted in his hand as the blade grazed his palm.

"All right, you win," she said, rolling her eyes despite the grin on her face as she held out her hand for her weapons.

He handed the one over as he jerked Shinkoukage out of the earth.  Then he flicked the tip of the sword against the dormant chakram, flipping it up into the air.  She caught it and hooked them back on her belt once more.  "You're getting a lot better," she commented, her cheeks flushed from her exertions.

"I could have done that faster, but I'm pretty sure your parents and mine would have my ass if I hit you with a Kaze no Kizu or something," he scoffed, dropping his sword into the scabbard on his hip so he could lift his arm to inspect the damage.  The cut on his palm wasn't enough to worry about, and the tear in his sleeve was of little consequence since it would mend itself by morning.  The cut on his forearm, though, was deep enough.  Grimacing as inspected the laceration, he wasn't surprised to see that it was bone-deep.

She made a face at the blood running down his arm, dripping off his elbow onto the ground.  "Sorry about that," she muttered, digging into her pack for a kerchief.

Biting her lip as she carefully dabbed at the wound, she studiously avoided his gaze as she sighed.  "That's really bad," she remarked slowly as she inspected the wound.

"It'll be fine," he said, taking the kerchief and applying pressure to it stop the bleeding.

Marisaiko didn't look entirely convinced.  Lifting her chin, tilting her head back, she frowned at the falling dusk.

"We don't need to start back now," he said, figuring that she was trying to decide if it would be safe enough to travel at night.  "It'll be healed by morning."

"Maybe," she said slowly, dubiously, "but you know how Kagome-oba-chan is when you get hurt."

He snorted indelicately since he did, indeed, know how his mother was.  She'd worry, she'd fret, and then she'd scold if he admitted that he'd allowed Suigin to hit him on purpose.  "I'm not a pup anymore," he grumbled, ears flicking as his irritation sparked.  "Forget about it.  It'll be fine, I said."

She stared at him for a moment, arms crossed over her chest as a stubborn expression darkened her countenance.  Finally, though, she shook her head and gave up on the idea.  "Come on," she said, grabbing his arm and turning back toward the fire.  "The rabbit's probably . . ."

Jirou drew up short when Marisaiko did, and he blinked in surprise.  The fire was fine, blazing merrily in the falling night, and everything was exactly as it was before Marisaiko had challenged him to a match.

The rabbit, however, was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Flicking his ears, Jirou listened to the sounds of the forest as he followed the scent of the roasted rabbit that still lingered in the air.  His stomach had escalated from an unpleasant rumble to a full-out growl, and he sighed.

For a brief moment, he'd considered heading for the stream to catch a few fish, but stubbornness—a trait he had apparently inherited in abundance from his father—had reared its ugly head.  It was his rabbit, damn it.  He'd caught it, skinned it, gutted it, and hell if he wasn't going to eat it, too.

Erupting in a low growl as he quickened his pace, he couldn't help the rising irritation—the sense of indignant outrage—that someone would dare to steal something like his dinner.  'I mean, who the hell does that?'

Whoever the hell did that wasn't going to get away with it, damn it.  At least, they weren't, not if he had something to say about it.  How ridiculous was it, anyway?  In what world did he have to chase after his own damn dinner after it'd been caught and cooked?  It was enough to make his irritation spiral just that much higher, brighter, and it didn't help that Marisaiko had simply shrugged and dug into her pack for some dried meat she'd thought to bring along.

She'd offered him some, too, but Jirou had declined on sheer principle, and he'd heard her sigh when he stomped off into the darkening shadows of night.  It didn't help that he knew—knew—that she was back at the campsite right now, thinking that he was being ridiculous about the whole affair, too.

'Women,' he thought with an inward snort, hands unconsciously balling into fists as he stomped along,  With the exception of his mother, whom he figured was damn near saint-hood, most of the women in his life tended to drive him completely and utterly to the brink of his sanity at times, and, while Marisaiko normally didn't fall into that category, even she was grating on his frazzled nerves tonight . . .

He'd grown up with her around, though, and she was as close to him as a sister.  He couldn't remember a time when he didn't know her, but he'd always realized that there was something comforting about her, too.  She was, in essence, the big sister for both himself and Ai, even though it wasn't until later that Kagome and InuYasha had explained to them that Kagome had actually given birth to Marisaiko for Sango and Miroku.  Well, to be honest, it was more Kagome than InuYasha who had explained it.  Given that InuYasha wasn't exactly what one would consider to be good with words, it wasn't unusual.

Even so, it did answer the questions that had always lingered at the back of his mind, though.  Marisaiko had always smelled vaguely like Kagome, too, but it wasn't until Kagome explained it that he'd realized that the curiosity had always been there, not that it mattered, because it didn't.  Once, InuYasha had told him that family were those you chose to protect, not simply those who were related by blood.  It was a lesson that Jirou had pondered, and, in the end, had come to appreciate for the simplicity of the emotion behind it.

And he'd tried to do that over time, had paid more attention to the lessons, had fought that much harder during training.  He was good.  His father had said as much.  Sesshoumaru had seemed pleased enough, too.  Everyone said that he was definitely his father's son, and yet . . .

Yet, he knew, didn't he?  Knew the part that was never voiced out loud, knew in his heart what they were all thinking, even as they said the things that were nice to hear . . . All of them thought that he was good, certainly, but he wasn't like Ai, and not at all like Marisaiko, who was strong enough in her own right.  Jirou wasn't quite great, not in the same way that InuYasha was, and he wouldn't ever be, either.

Scowling at his own thoughts, he had to tamp down the slow burn that only seemed to grow brighter every time he let himself dwell upon it.  There wasn't much he could do about it, and it was his problem.  His family loved him, and he knew that, too, and because he did, he couldn't help the feelings of guilt that accompanied those thoughts every time they occurred to him.  He knew from what his mother had said that InuYasha had grown up alone, that he'd been a cast-out, unaccepted by humans or by youkai, that he hadn't really fit in anywhere.  But InuYasha had always gone out of his way, hadn't he?  Helping the villagers with their problems, fighting to make sure that everyone was safe, and he'd done all of that to ensure that his own children would never have to feel as though they had nowhere to belong . . .

And maybe that was what had made InuYasha truly great . . . and maybe that was the real reason why Jirou would never quite be able to measure up, after all.

The memory from his youth, the time that Ai had grabbed the last cup of ramen and taken off with it, sprang to life in his head.  They'd been left with their grandmother on the future side of the well while InuYasha and Kagome had gone to take care of some youkai that was bedeviling a nearby village . . .

"It's mine.  I found it," ten-year-old Ai taunted, waving the cup in her hand by rotating her wrist left and right in front of his face, but just out of his reach.

"Baa-chan bought it for me," he complained, making a swipe at the Styrofoam cup but missing when she yanked it back.  "Give it back, Ai!"

"Nee-chan," she corrected—something else that she knew damn well irritated the crap out of him.

"I'm not calling you that," he growled, making another swipe at the cup and missing yet again.

"But I am," she pointed out in an entirely too-logical tone, her gloating smile widening a few degrees as she continued to bait him.

"By five minutes!" he shot back, wondering vaguely just how much trouble he'd be in if he gave into the urge to beat on her.  "That's not enough to matter!"

"But I'm still older," she insisted, the gloating tone in her voice adding a luster to her bright golden eyes.  "If you want, I'd even let you call me 'aneue'."

"Fat chance, Ai!" Jirou shot back.

"Catch me if you want it!" she said, wheeling around on her heel and taking out at an all-out sprint . . .

Blinking as he stopped short, Jirou stared at the cave where the smell of the roasted rabbit was strongest.  Expression shifting into a close affectation of his father's infamous 'pout', Jirou squared his shoulders and strode forward with purpose.

 

 




 

 

Settling back against the cold stone wall of the tiny, dank cave—more of a crevice in the rock than a real 'cave'—Kiri tore into a rabbit haunch with a vicious abandon.  After weeks of little more than hit and miss meals that didn't really amount to much, it was a welcome change.  Still steaming from the campfire where she'd found it, the smell of the roasting meat had lured her near—nearer than was probably wise, all things considered.   It was a bit more daring and maybe closer to 'stupid' than she normally allowed herself to be, but it hadn't taken her long to ascertain that the pair that inhabited that makeshift campsite were too busy, sparring nearby, and the tantalizing aroma had ultimately been her undoing.

Uttering a low moan, she dropped the bones carelessly before reaching for the rabbit again.  The other haunch pulled away easily enough, and she stripped the meat off of it in record time.  By the time she finished that one, the edge of her hunger had waned, and she took her time as she licked her fingers.  She couldn't help the contented sigh that slipped from her as she reached for the rabbit once more, and in the back of her mind, she knew that she'd be sorry if she tried to eat the whole thing.  She ignored that voice of pragmatic advice.

Grasping the rabbit in her hands, she pulled it apart as more juices ran down her hands, as the aroma of the roasted meat strengthened with the burst of steam that escaped.  It was still plenty hot—nearly hot enough to burn her hands.  She didn't care.

"Just who the hell are you?"

Rasping out a high-pitched squeak, Kiri bobbled the rabbit but didn't drop it as she braced her feet against the rough dirt floor and tried to propel herself backward, only to be brought up short by the wall behind her.  She couldn't rightfully see his face as he filled the opening of the cave with his body.  Hands propped on his lean hips, he seemed much larger, much more ominous than he likely was.  She could only discern his outline, but she didn't have to be brilliant to realize that he was definitely one of the two that she had seen sparring near the fire where she'd found the roasting rabbit.

"Do you always go around, stealing people's dinners?" he growled, stomping forward and whipping half of the rabbit out of her slack hand when she remained silent.  He seemed to pause long enough to think about something before snatching the other half, too.

Clearing her throat once, twice, mustering as much of her waning bravado as she could—not much, given the situation—she sat up a little straighter.  "I didn't steal it," she shot back haughtily.

He grunted.  "Keh!  So this isn't my rabbit?"

Thankfully, the cave was too dark for him to really make out her features as her cheeks flushed hot, and she shrugged.  "It was there," she replied, "and you weren't."

"So, you found our camp, saw the fire, took the rabbit that was obviously cooking, had to have seen us since we never left that clearing, and that wasn't stealing?" he retorted, abject disbelief rife in his tone.  "Do you think I'm stupid?"

Face scrunching up into a scowl, Kiri forced herself to stand up.  "I wasn't stealing," she stated once more.

"Oh?  Then what do you call it?" he growled.

"I . . . uh . . ."

"Forget it," he grumbled, turning to stomp back out of the cave, only to stop short and pivot on his heel to face her again.  "You're the shrine thief," he said, his tone taking on a more incredulous lilt.

"I'm not a thief!" she shot back hotly.

He uttered a terse growl, and he moved so fast that she didn't have time to react.  Grabbing her wrist—he'd managed to stuff the roasted rabbit into his other hand—he dragged her out of the cave despite her protests.  "Move it," he ordered, giving her a little yank to propel her forward.

She tried to dig her heels in, but the moist ground, still damp from the downpour of rain that the area had received earlier in the day, lent her absolutely no real resistance, and she stumbled.  "Where are you taking me?" she demanded, struggling against his iron grip and failing miserably.  "Who do you think you are?"

"Come on," he growled, nonplussed by her lackluster show of resistance.  "You're going to explain yourself to the village headman tomorrow—and he can figure out what to do with you."

"N-No!" she gasped, yanking on her arm, struggling to wrench it away from his grasp, and irritated in the extreme that she couldn't.  "What does it matter?  It was just some cold rice and a little bit of sake!"

"Yeah, offerings that were left for Inari, not for you," he retorted.  "But I suppose you didn't steal those, either."

Wincing as his grip tightened slightly, she stumbled after him when he gave her a rough little yank, catching herself on the sleeve of his haori before she ended up, flat on her face in the dirt.  If he noticed, she didn't know, but he didn't slow or stop as he marched her back toward the campsite where she'd stolen the rabbit.

Sparing a moment to cast a fulminating glower at him, she frowned when she caught sight of the perky little white ears atop his head, nestled in the mass of the silver hair that almost seemed to flow around him.  She'd never seen his kind before, but she stifled a groan, anyway.  Not human, maybe, and that would have been bad enough, but to have been caught by a youkai . . .?

No doubt about it, she should have left the stupid rabbit where she'd found it.  If she had known it would come to this, she certainly would have.  Letting out a deep breath, she slowly shook her head, wincing again when his grip tightened just a little more around her wrist.

"You're going to make my hand fall off," she complained as she renewed her efforts to emancipate her wrist.

He uttered a sound suspiciously like, 'keh', but remained silent otherwise and kept moving.  No, check that.  He lifted the rabbit to his mouth and bit off a huge hunk, which only served to heighten her already soaring irritation.

"You've made your point," she ground out, "so let me go, you oaf!"

The light from the fire could be seen through the dense foliage, and she made a face.  How the hell was she going to get out of this, anyway?  Curse her stupid stomach.  It figured, didn't it?  The one time—one time—she'd cast aside her usual sense of caution, and look how it ended up . . .

"I saved some dried meat for you," the woman called out from her spot near the fire.  She had her back to them, and Kiri's gaze narrowed as she took in the sight of the woman's clothing—clothing that labeled her as a taijya.

The one who still held onto her wrist snorted indelicately and propelled her forward with a little tug as he let go of her wrist and sent her stumbling along ahead of him.  "Rather eat my rabbit, thanks," he bit out tersely.

Casting a surreptitious glance over her shoulder at him, Kiri blinked and slowly turned to stare at him.

Golden eyes snapping, a definite sign of his irritation, she was sure, and yet, there was a frankness behind his gaze that was more than a little unsettling.  He eyed her without a change in expression, and she really couldn't tell exactly what he might be thinking.  There was a complete void in those eyes.  He could be staring at anything at all, and yet . . .

And yet there was something in his stance, in the way that he almost lazily slumped back against the trunk of a gnarled old ash tree, as he continued to eat the rabbit . . . There was an easy grace there, worn so loosely that she doubted that he even realized it about himself . . . She had a feeling that she couldn't outrun him, even if she tried.  Maybe it was the way his ears kept twitching, turning outward as he monitored the surroundings.  Of course, that didn't mean that she wouldn't try, just as soon as the opportunity presented itself, either.

"You . . .?" The woman trailed off as she glanced over at her companion and caught sight of Kiri, as well.  Slowly rising off the ground, she didn't seem especially wary, though she did regard Kiri with an air of open curiosity.  "Who are you?" she asked, though not unkindly,

"She's a thief—the shrine thief," he said in a no-nonsense kind of way.

The girl's eyebrows arched, disappearing under the thick fringe of black bangs on her forehead.  Crossing her arms over her chest, she slowly, carefully looked Kiri up and down, almost like she was trying to make up her mind about something.  In the end, she nodded vaguely, almost without realizing that she had even done it.  Kiri bristled, straightening her back, drawing herself up to her full height, which wasn't really that much, but still, as she fought down a blush that threatened at the entirely too-close scrutiny she was under.

"Eat that," he said striding over to deposit half of the rabbit in the girl's hand.

Staring down at the roughly torn carcass, she frowned at it for a moment before slowly stepping over to Kiri and holding it out to her.  "Here," she said in an almost friendly, definitely soothing tone.  "You only took food because you're hungry, right?"

"Keh!  She already ate some of it, Mari," he grumped.

"It's fine," she said, waving off the surly words as she handed over the rabbit.  "Here."

"Th . . .Thank you," Kiri replied, grudgingly accepting the rabbit while refusing to even glance over at the irritated male.  He unsettled her, and that knowledge only served to further her irritation.

The girl smiled.  "I'm Marisaiko," she supplied as she turned back to the fire once more and sat back down before waving a hand to invite Kiri over to sit with her.

"You're a taijya," Kiri remarked, slowly wandering around the fire, putting a safe enough distance between herself and the youkai exterminator.

Marisaiko nodded.  "I am," she agreed.  "What's your name?"

"Kiri," she said, unsure why she was telling Marisaiko any such thing.  How long had it been since she'd actually told anyone her name? she wondered vaguely.

"Kiri," Marisaiko repeated thoughtfully.  Then she smiled again.  "And him, over there, that's Jirou."

Kiri scowled into the flames for several seconds.  "But he's youkai," she ventured shaking her head in confusion.  "Why would you travel with him when you're a taijya?"

"Keh!" Jirou snorted, even though he was slouching far enough away that he really shouldn't have heard Kiri's commentary.  "I'm hanyou," he pointed out.  "Like it matters."

Marisaiko stared at Jirou before slowly turning her attention back to Kiri again.  "Ignore him," she said in a conspiratorial whisper.  "He's apparently in a bad mood."

"Yeah, having to hunt my damn dinner twice tends to do that to me," he added loudly.

Marisaiko sighed.  "You got it back, Jirou.  Let it go."

He snorted again, but didn't comment.

"He always gets grumpy when he's hungry," Marisaiko explained, a trace smile tugging at the corners of her lips,

Kiri swallowed hard, frowning at the rabbit half in her hands.  "Aren't you . . . hungry?" she asked, holding out the rabbit just a little.

Marisaiko waved a hand dismissively.  "No," she insisted, the friendly smile returning, "I had some supplies I brought along.  Anyway, you're welcome to it."

Kiri scowled, but bit into the rabbit.  It took a few tries to swallow, though, and she wasn't sure why.  Somehow, the friendly expression on the taijya's face . . .

It bothered her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Reclining against the stout trunk in the lower branches of the ash tree, Jirou scowled down through the thickening foliage at the two near the fire.  Marisaiko had spread out the blankets that she'd toted along—always prepared, even though this little venture wasn't supposed to have taken this long and certainly shouldn't have become an overnight outing, either.  Talking in hushed tones to the rabbit thief—Kiri, she'd said her name was—Marisaiko seemed to have completely forgotten that Jirou even existed, which was fine—sort of.

What did bother him was the idea that Marisaiko was making friends with her.  After all, that girl had stolen from the shrine and from them, as well, and if she did that, then it stood to reason that she'd stolen a lot of stuff from other people and places, too, didn't it?

'And yet, that doesn't bother you nearly as much as Kiri herself does.'

Scowl shifting into a more irritated, near-pout, Jirou wasn't entirely sure he ought to answer that, either.

Anger alone had compelled him to drag her back to the campsite—anger and the thought that she should be made to fess up to the village headman.  Sure, he'd noticed, even without being able to properly see her, that her arm was painfully skinny, almost to the point of emaciation, really, and he'd realized, too, in that cave, that she wasn't much more than a tiny slip of a girl, even shorter than Ai.  It didn't feel like there was much of anything between her skin and bones as he'd gripped her wrist and dragged her along behind him back to the camp.

Even so, what had surprised him was when he'd finally gotten a good look at her within the circle of light of the dancing fire.  She was tiny—damned if she wasn't—barely standing even with his chest, actually.  He could easily rest his chin on the top of her head if he wanted to.  Everything about her was tiny, though, and that was what had surprised him.  Painfully thin, really, as though she hadn't had a decent meal in weeks—maybe ever—to the point that the brownish leggings and yellow happi that were obviously made for a man larger than her hung off her diminutive frame in a rather sad kind of way.  The happi, in fact, was long enough that it reached the girl's knees, though it bore no crest on the back—nothing to answer the question as to who, exactly, Kiri really was.

But it was her eyes that had given him pause.  Large, sky blue eyes, that middle shade between noon and afternoon, framed by the darkest black lashes—eyes that, for a moment, were enough to make him forget that she really was so damn small.  He'd never seen eyes that color before, not even in magazines or on television.  Most blue eyes were either polluted with color that dulled their vibrancy, watered down with the grayish shades that dimmed the color entirely, or were achieved through the use of contact lenses, but in this time, this era, those tricks weren't possible, and Kiri's eyes . . .

He snorted to himself, still not willing to completely forgive her for stealing his dinner, for stealing offerings from a holy shrine.  Even children knew better, knew that stealing from such a place would be simply inexcusable.  That she would stoop to such a thing . . .

'Or maybe you're simply taking things a little too literally.  After all, you grew up in a shrine—well, partially, anyway.  She didn't, and you've seen for yourself: she's alone, and she's young.  If you were her, what would you do to survive . . .?'

Making a face at the voice in the back of his mind, Jirou crossed his arms tighter against his chest.  True, he had been raised in the shrine, to a point.  He had learned the rituals and proper etiquette, to the point that it was pretty well second nature to him.  Jii-chan, when he had still been alive, had always insisted that he learn everything, even while he complained about 'that temperamental hanyou'.  Jirou hadn't bothered to remind jii-chan that he, too, was hanyou, mostly because he figured that the old man was more put out by the 'temperamental' part, anyway.

But what if he hadn't been, or more to the point, what would his upbringing have mattered if he were faced with the idea of having to fend for himself?  He scowled as a voice that sounded entirely too much like his mother whispered to him.  As much as he hated to admit as much, she wasn't like him.  If he were in her position, he would still be able to hunt his own food, to protect himself if need be.  This girl?

Narrowing his eyes as he leaned slightly to the side, just far enough to get a better view of the girl in question, he sighed.  Still speaking to Marisaiko—or, to be more precise, listening as Marisaiko spoke—she had polished off the half of the rabbit in short order, attesting to the fact that she really had been hungry—and he knew well enough that she didn't actually have anything, either.  If she had, she'd have said something when he'd dragged her out of the cave, and that was more than enough to prick at his conscience, too, even as he wondered vaguely if she had anywhere she considered home.  Something about the way she kept glancing around, as though she expected something to jump out of the shadows at her, bothered him.

She wasn't that old.  He didn't know exactly how old she was, no, but she couldn't be older than seventeen, eighteen, tops.   From where he sat, he could see as she quickly, almost nervously, shook her head, ducking her chin, hiding her face in the stark shadows of the long, reddish-golden hair that hung loose, almost to her waist.  Pulled back on the right side and held in place by a strangely ornate hana kanzashi, her hair curled slightly, stirred in the evening breeze that rippled over the clearing.  Judging from her hair and eye color, she had to have foreign roots, as well, and just how much of a disadvantage did that put her in, to start with, too . . .? Given that the people in the area weren't exactly known for their acceptance of foreigners, their general distrust of anyone or anything that they perceived to be different, was it really any wonder why she was alone?

Even so, there was something about her that unsettled him, even if he would be hard-pressed to know why that was.  He didn't feel threatened by her, but there was something else there, something that he didn't quite understand, that he couldn't quite put his finger on.  Somehow, he felt as though there was something about her, something that was just outside of his comprehension.

'Why am I even thinking about her?' he wondered, golden gaze clouding over as he slowly shook his head, as he idly lifted his hand to toy with the fang that hung around his neck: his father's fang that he'd had for longer than he could remember.  Ai had one, too.  Totosai had created them, and, from what he'd been told, the talismans hid their hanyou features in the present day, but not here in the past.  He didn't know how they worked, but no one outside of their family seemed to think anything about them, so he supposed they did what they were supposed to do.  InuYasha had said before that they also allowed him to know when either he or Ai were in trouble as pups, and, though they didn't really need that kind of protection anymore, neither of them had bothered to take them off.

He scowled.  His family, his people, the ones who created a place where he belonged . . . And Kiri?  Did she have such a place?  Had she ever had that . . .?

Heaving a sigh, he leaned back, let his head fall against the tree trunk.  What did it matter, anyway?  Tomorrow, they were going to take the girl to the village and they'd let the headman figure out what to do with her, and then he would go home and get back to the life he knew.

 

 




 

 

Sailing over the tops of the trees that lined the forest road between the two villages, InuYasha heaved a sigh.  After having rushed back to the taijya settlement, he couldn't help but feel as though he'd wasted his time, and that was a feeling that had never sat well with him.

The gate keepers could only say that the two were most definitely youkai, but they couldn't rightfully identify them.  In the years that had passed since Kagome had purified the Shikon no Tama, it wasn't unheard-of for people to travel to visit the cave, and occasionally, the taijya would allow them, but no youkai had ever been granted access, mostly because the cave entrance was inside the village walls, and the taijya discouraged visitors.  There were too many secrets in there, remains of lesser youkai that were used for various things, from weapons to armor, and the barrier that Miroku kept over the village to protect it from those who would do them harm couldn't be breeched.  If a youkai bore a grudge against the taijya, if they used Midoriko's cave as a cover for their attempts to infiltrate the village, the carnage they could perpetrate would potentially be catastrophic.  The art of being a taijya was a sacred thing steeped in ancient tradition, and even those who sought to learn the arts, to settle in the village, were only granted full access after proving their worth.  Even so, it wasn't that the taijya refused to allow people to visit Midoriko's now-dormant cave, to pay homage to her sacrifice and even to offer their own prayers for her soul, it was more just the simple fact that, in order to do so, visitors would have to make their way straight through the heart of the village.

Letting out a deep breath, he pushed off the ground again, impatient to get home, to see Kagome.  Besides, Jirou ought to be home soon enough, and it had occurred to InuYasha as they'd traveled to the taijya village that he should probably try to encourage Jirou to devote a little more time to training.  It wasn't that Jirou didn't try.  In his own way, he tried twice as hard as Ai, but he'd be lying if he said that he hadn't noticed the same things that Kagome had when it came to his son.  The real trouble was, InuYasha wasn't entirely sure that there was anything he could do about it, either.

'Or if there's anything I should do about it,' he thought with a scowl.

That was the real crux of it, wasn't it?  Kagome might well notice that there was something going on with Jirou, but InuYasha . . . He had a feeling that had more to do with a sense of just not being good enough, which was stupid, in his opinion, but then, he wasn't Jirou, either, and it wouldn't really matter if InuYasha tried to tell him differently, the boy had always tried so hard to do the things, to be the things, that he perceived that his father wanted him to be, even if nothing really could be further from the truth.

And it had been there all along, ever since the pup had learned how to walk after Ai had accomplished it.  Then he'd learned to talk, but Ai had done that first, too.  Then there were the lessons in fighting and tracking and hunting, and all the while, Jirou had always lagged just a little bit behind his sister.  It didn't make InuYasha any less proud of his son, but he'd always sensed the frustration on Jirou's part, had seen the doubt in his gaze whenever he thought that his parents weren't looking.  To that end, InuYasha had always tried to show Jirou that he was just as good as Ai, even if it was in a completely different way.  True enough, Ai might well be faster or more natural with fighting, but . . . But the truth of it was that InuYasha tended to worry less about Jirou, mostly because Jirou had always possessed a more methodical mind, was less likely to act impulsively, was more likely to keep his composure, and the worse the situation was, the more level-headed Jirou tended to be.

Glancing down at the path below, InuYasha's scowl darkened, and he erupted in a low growl as the scent filtered to him, and he dropped out of the sky and directly in the road in front of Sesshoumaru.

"This is my forest, bastard," he said without bothering with any pleasantries.

"Out of my way, InuYasha."

"What are you doing here?"

His question earned him a momentary glance but little more as the stoic youkai kept moving.

"Have it your way," InuYasha growled, drawing Tetsusaiga and leveling it at his brother.

Sesshoumaru finally stopped and pivoted on his heel, his expression remaining stony, blank, as he stared at his half-brother.  "If you must know, I'm searching for someone," he admitted at length.

Satisfied that he'd made his point, InuYasha dropped the sword back into the scabbard once more, opting instead to cross his arms over his chest as he fell in step beside Sesshoumaru.  "You wanna just say who so I can say that I ain't seen 'em, you can ignore me, then I can get moving again?"

Uttering a sound that was suspiciously close to a sigh, even though InuYasha would have been hard-pressed to call it that, Sesshoumaru kept moving.  "Kagura," he finally said at about the time that InuYasha was giving up on actually getting an answer out of the stubborn youkai.

"Kagura?" InuYasha echoed with a marked scowl.  "Actually, I really ain't see her," he admitted.  "You want I should tell her anything if I do?"

"No," Sesshoumaru replied bluntly.  "Now, go away, ignorant half-breed."

Stifling a snort, InuYasha shook his head and started to run.  "Any time, bastard!" he called over his shoulder before pushing off the ground and into the sky once more.

His scowl didn't dissipate, though, as he scanned the forest below.  'Lookin' for Kagura, huh?' he mused.  It wasn't as though he actually expected to spot the woman, no, but if Sesshoumaru was looking for her here, of all places, then there was little doubt in InuYasha's mind that she had to either be here or was here recently, anyway.  'Keh!  And he thinks I'm ignorant . . .'

To be honest, he still didn't really get it.  He'd thought that everything was going to be fine when Kagome had used the Shikon no Tama to bring the wind sorceress back to life twenty years ago after Hisadaicho had used her in an attempt to destroy Sesshoumaru.  It wasn't until later that they'd discovered that Kagura had flat-out refused to go back home with Sesshoumaru.  InuYasha never really had understood that, though Kagome sort of did.  She'd said that it wasn't surprising, all things considered,  She'd said that, given what had happened, maybe Kagura didn't feel as though she deserved to do so, but that was dumb, in his opinion.

In any case, it didn't really matter.  The two were still together in Kagome's time, and that was enough for InuYasha.  He'd given up trying to figure out the intricacies of the entire thing long ago.  Because the well was left open to connect the two eras, Kagome had worried at first that there would be strange repercussions, but Sesshoumaru had said that his memories of the past were clouded, as though parts of it were unclear, and he could remember vague parts of it, but it was always a little subdued—at least, the parts that concerned InuYasha and his family, anyway.  He'd gone on to say that, as time passed, more things solidified in his mind, and his conclusion was that, since InuYasha and Kagome and their family were still passing through the well, thereby existing in both places at the same time, that they were writing their own current history in the past.

In the end, Miroku had considered it, too, and his deductions made the most sense.  The ex-monk believed that the open time slip had created a paradox, of sorts, that could only be repaired by Kagome and InuYasha actually living out their lives in real time, so if something hadn't happened that concerned them yet, of course Sesshoumaru in the future couldn't remember it because the future was always subject to change.  Sesshoumaru didn't remember the birth of the twins, for example, until after it had happened twenty years ago, and he could remember things about his past dealings with InuYasha now that he couldn't remember before, too.  Miroku had gone on to say that maybe it was the only way that the universe could reconcile itself with something that, by rights, shouldn't happen.

Not that any of it made a damn bit of sense to InuYasha.  It didn't, and he figured it didn't really matter that much.  It wasn't like he and Sesshoumaru ever had sat down and compared stories, anyway, and it wasn't really an issue, either . . .

Heaving a sigh, InuYasha shook his head.  It didn't matter, anyway.  Things would work out the way they were supposed to be.  Funny how he hadn't realized that when he was younger.

Now, however, he was anxious to get home, back to the village, and if he were lucky, Kagome would have a nice, hot bowl of ninja food ready and waiting for him, too . . .

 

 




 

 

Striding ahead, Jirou stubbornly refused to slow down, refused to even turn and look over his shoulder.  Almost home, and he couldn't wait to get there, either.

He heard the giggles behind him and rolled his eyes heavenward, ears twitching as he reigned in the urge to growl.

How did it happen?  Just how in the hell had it happened?  Somewhere between the time that he'd marched Kiri into the camp with the proof of her theft right there in his hands and this morning when Marisaiko had doused the fire with a heap of dirt, she'd apparently gone and lost her freaking mind.

"Ready?" Marisaiko called up to where he was still reclining.

Jirou dropped out of the tree and nodded, but when he'd headed off toward the village to deliver the deviant to the headman, Marisaiko had stopped him.  "Where are you going?" she called after him.

He stopped and turned to face her.  "Where are you going?" he countered instead since it looked to him like she was heading in the opposite direction with Kiri.

"Kiri's coming with me," she said as she slung the bedroll over her shoulder.

"Going with you?" Jirou echoed, eyes widening.  "Back to your village?"

She nodded.  "Yes."

Darting forward, planting  himself in the middle of the path, he crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at Marisaiko.  "She's a thief," he pointed out hotly.  "And what about the headman?  You're just going to take off without telling him we caught her?"

"She's coming with me," Marisaiko stated once more.  "Besides, he thought that there was a youkai, and there wasn't.  Mystery solved."

He snorted as the memory faded away.  He supposed that he shouldn't really care.  Common sense told him that Kiri would be dumb to try to rip off anyone in the taijya village, and he figured that Marisaiko was aware of that, too, and okay, so maybe he was being harsh on the girl.  Even so . . .

Even so, he couldn't quite shake the feeling that there was more to Kiri than met the eye, which was kind of stupid, considering he'd just met her last night.  But it was that feeling that made him feel entirely unsettled, wasn't it  . . .?

Lifting his face, drawing in a deep breath, Jirou sighed.  The smell of InuYasha's Forest was enough to take the edge of his raw nerves.  He'd spent the better part of his lifetime, wandering these woods.  They were less than five minutes from his home, and that was good enough for him.  Without another word to his traveling companions, he took off at a sprint.  Besides, Marisaiko knew the way.

Breaking through the trees—he'd skirted around the village—Jirou dropped to a walk as he approached the welcoming house.  Pushing the mat aside, he ducked through the doorway and wiped his feet on the small mat that Kagome left there since neither he nor InuYasha bothered with shoes.

Glancing up from some herbs she was bundling to hang up to dry, Kagome smiled at him.  "How was it?" she asked, setting aside her work as she got to her feet.  "Where's Marisaiko?"

"She'll be here in a minute," he replied, leaning down so that she could kiss his cheek.  "There wasn't a youkai."

"Oh, that's good," Kagome said, hurrying over to make tea for him.  "Are you hungry?  I have a few onigiri . . ."

"I'm fine," he told her.  "Where's Papa?"

She waved a hand dismissively.  "Well, he went to the taijya village with Miroku and Sango, but he just got home a bit ago.  Then Uta-san came by and asked if he could get rid of a badger youkai that has been holing up under the water trough near her hut, though I imagine he should be back shortly."

"A badger youkai?" he echoed, a grin surfacing on his features.  "Bet he loves that."

"I can't believe you took off," Marisaiko complained as she stepped into the hut.  "Thanks a lot, Jirou-kun."

He rolled his eyes.  "It wasn't like you'd get lost or anything," he replied.

"Who's this?"

Glancing over his shoulder as Kiri let the mat fall closed behind herself, Jirou snorted.  "The shrine thief," he said simply.

"The—" Kagome's eyes widened as she shot Jirou a scolding glance.  "Jirou, I don't think—"

"I'm Kiri," the girl in question said quickly, cheeks blossoming in embarrassed color.  "I . . . I didn't mean to steal . . ."

"She's alone," Marisaiko added.  "Jirou's just mad because she helped herself to the rabbit he caught last night; that's all."

Kagome didn't look any less confused, but she smiled at the girl and offered her a low bow.  "Hajimemashite douzou yoroshiku."

Kiri shifted from foot to foot as she slipped off her geta and stepped up onto the wooden floor.  "H-Hajimemashite," she echoed, quickly ducking in a quick bow.

Jirou scowled at the perceived rudeness of the gesture, but Kagome only smiled.  "Kiri, is it?  What a pretty name!  Would you girls like some tea?"

Kiri's discomfort only seemed to escalate as she hesitantly followed Marisaiko past Jirou to kneel near the fire.  Letting out a deep breath Jirou joined them, though he sank down on the opposite side of the pit in the center of the floor.

"Where are you from, Kiri-san?" Kagome asked, handing each of the girls a cup of tea from the ornately carved wooden tray that InuYasha had made her years ago for her birthday.

Kiri shrugged then shook her head.  "I'm not sure," she replied at length, her gaze taking on a hint of confusion.  "I-I mean, I don't really know . . . My mother and I were traveling a lot.  I guess that's kind of what I remember."

Kagome handed Jirou a cup and sank down beside him, clutching the tray to her chest as she frowned at Kiri.  "Did something happen to her?  Your mother?"

Pursing her lips, Kiri made a face.  "She died."

Her matter-of-fact reply bothered Jirou.  Sipping the tea, Kiri could have just been talking about the weather or something equally unimportant and not the untimely death of a loved one.  The shadows that lingered in her eyes, however, bespoke something else entirely.

"I'm so sorry," Kagome said quietly.  "What about your father?"

"He died just after I was born, I think."

"Oh . . . I'm . . . I'm so sorry . . ."

"It was a long time ago," Kiri said, her voice barely a whisper.

It wasn't surprising when, a moment later, the unmistakable scent of Kagome's tears hit Jirou hard, and he gritted his teeth.

"Kiri-chan's coming home with me," Marisaiko stated.

The miko sniffled loudly and forced a brilliant smile.  "I'm sure your parents will love to have her!  Of course, you're welcome here, too, Kiri-san.  We have a daughter, too—Jirou's twin sister, Ai."

"Twin?" she echoed, her gaze shifting to Jirou momentarily before she quickly looked away again.

"Don't worry," Marisaiko assured her.  "Ai's nothing like him."

Reigning in the urge to snort at Marisaiko's very blatant chiding, Jirou slowly shook his head.

If Kagome sensed the slight tension in the air, she didn't comment on it.  "Well, you'll both stay here tonight at least," she insisted.  "Jirou can escort you both home tomorrow."

Jirou stifled a sigh.  Somehow, it wasn't really surprising, was it?  Kagome had a tendency to warm up to people in record time.  He'd had seen it himself too often to count.

'So do you,' the voice in his head reminded him.  'Usually, anyway.'

'I don't,' he argued almost absently.  Wrapping a long strand of hair around her finger over and over again, Kiri scrunched up her shoulders, almost like she was trying to make herself even smaller.

'She's not used to being around someone like your mother, is she?'

He ignored that comment.

Silence fell, thick and wide, as though no one really knew what to say.  Frowning as he drank his tea, Jirou couldn't brush aside the unwelcome feeling of sympathy that gnawed at him.  How long ago was 'a long time', anyway?  To have lost both of her parents that early?  And just what would his life have been if he'd lost either of his own parents . . .? Try as he might, he couldn't even imagine that, and, to be honest, he didn't really want to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

InuYasha stomped into the hut, ears twitching, expression scrunched up with his infamous scowl firmly in place.  "For the last damn time, I said fucking no!" he bellowed, seemingly at no one in particular as the mat fell back into place again.  "Go the hell away before I gut you!"

"Please, sensei!  I'll do whatever you ask!"

Sitting up a little straighter, Jirou frowned at the closed doorway at the voice that had drifted through the bamboo mat.  "Sensei?" he echoed as Marisaiko quickly ducked her head, but not before he saw the smile on her face, too.

"InuYasha, who's out there?" Kagome asked as she casually sipped her tea.

He snorted.  "Keh!  An annoyance, that's who," he growled.

Jirou intercepted Marisaiko's questioning gaze and gave a little shrug.

Kagome made a face and started to rise.  InuYasha snorted indelicately, jerking his head to tell her to sit back down again.  She complied, despite the foreboding frown on her pretty face.  "InuYasha . . ."

He plopped down with a huff, face screwing up in a pout as he drummed his claws on the floor and shook his head stubbornly,  "Some brat," he finally stated.  "Wants me to teach him how to fight."

Kagome looked surprised at InuYasha's admission.  "He wants you to teach him how to fight?  Who?  Someone from the village?"

"Keh!  Never seen him before in my life."

"You helped to train me," Marisaiko pointed out reasonably.

That earned her a sidelong glower.  "That's totally different," he pointed out in a growl.  "It was that or let that monk teach you crap that don't fucking work."

Kagome rolled her eyes since she knew well enough that InuYasha really did respect Miroku's abilities, even if he wouldn't ever admit as much.  "Why don't you want to teach him?" she asked as she got up to fetch her mate a cup of tea.

"Are you kidding?" he grumbled.  "Pup damn near tripped over his own feet—standing still.  If he can't even stand on his own, then there ain't no way I'd ever put a sword in his hands, either."

And there wasn't really anything else to say to that, either.  If the guy really was that bad, then Jirou couldn't blame InuYasha for feeling the way he did.

Blinking suddenly, InuYasha deliberately sniffed the air seconds before his gaze lit on Kiri and stuck.   "Who the fuck are you?" he demanded.

The girl in question flushed as Jirou opened his mouth to answer.  Marisaiko was faster.  "Jirou and I met her near the shrine we were checking out," she said quickly, smoothly, and with a smile.  "She's coming back to the village with me."

InuYasha considered that then nodded as he slowly got to his feet.

"InuYasha, where are you going?" Kagome asked as he pivoted on his heel and headed for the door again.

"Better go fishing since I only brought back two earlier," he tossed casually over his shoulder.  "C'mon, Jirou."

Jirou hopped up and followed his father.

 

 




 

 

Kiri blinked as Kagome stuck a wooden board with a bowl of strange-looking vegetables under her nose.  "Could you cut these up for me?" she asked sweetly.

Marisaiko shot her an encouraging smile when Kiri glanced at her, only to find her with one of the wooden boards and more vegetables that she was cleaning, too.

"Oh, uh, okay," Kiri replied as Kagome handed her a small knife.  "How do you want them?"

"Just in bite-sized pieces, please.  They'll be perfect for fish stew."

She made a face, mostly because she wasn't very good at this kind of thing, but for some reason, the idea of helping Kagome felt somehow comforting.

"I hope you girls are hungry," Kagome went on as she worked on some vegetables, too.  "Knowing InuYasha, he'll come home with more fish than we'll eat in a week . . ."

"Tadaima," another hanyou called out as she stomped into the hut and let the mat fall into place behind her.  She, like Jirou, was silver-haired, and she, like Jirou, had those cute little, fuzzy ears on top of her head.  She was a lot smaller than Jirou, however, and her clothing was entirely bizarre.  Wearing a strange short skirt with a tight-fitting pink shirt with no bindings at all, she paused long enough to kick off her odd shoes before stepping onto the wooden floor.  "Hi, Mari-chan . . . Who's this?"

Kiri tried to summon a timid smile, but couldn't quite manage it.  Given how many times she'd had to introduce herself in the last few hours, she figured it wasn't really surprising.  Before she had a chance to answer, though, Marisaiko spoke up.  "This is Kiri," the taijya said.  "Kiri-chan, this is Ai, Jirou's sister."

Ai's grin widened.  "Jirou's older sister," she added.

Kiri slowly shook her head.  She wasn't entirely sure whether or not Ai was joking, but it almost seemed like she was.  Her confusion must have showed on her face because both Marisaiko and Ai both burst into laughter.

"They're twins," Marisaiko managed to say between giggles.  "Ai-chan's older by five minutes."

"Yeah, but Jirou likes to pretend that he's the tougher, stronger twin," Ai added for good measure.

"He's kind of a jerk," Kiri muttered.

"He's really not," Marisaiko assured her.

Kiri gasped, dropping the small knife when she realized a moment too late that she'd spoken out loud.  "O-Oh, I didn't mean—"

To her surprise, Kagome laughed softly.  "I got the impression that the two of you didn't exactly meet on the best of terms," she said, waving a hand dismissively.  "The first time I met InuYasha, he saved my life—then he tried to knock my block off."

"You know, oba-chan, it's kind of a miracle that you married him," Marisaiko remarked.

"Mama loves Papa," Ai cut in.

Kagome heaved a sigh, but smiled.  "I do," she allowed.  "I must, anyway . . ."

Marisaiko laughed.  "Well, if that's how it's done, then I guess Jirou will end up marrying Kiri-chan, too."

"Oh, don't do it!" Ai lamented.  "Jirou's not nearly as much fun as he could be!  You'd be bored out of your mind!"  Tapping her chin with a tapered claw, she seemed to be deep in thought for a moment before finally shrugging.  "Unless you like poetry and stuff, that is.  Then he'd be perfect for you!"

"All right, that's enough," Kagome interrupted briskly.  "Kiri-san looks like she's ready to bolt."

Ai giggled, waving a hand at Kiri.  "I'm sorry; I'm sorry," she insisted between bouts of laughter.  "So, I'll change the subject.  What's for dinner, Mama?"

Kagome smiled at the girl.  "Fish stew," she said, tilting her face to the side when Ai leaned down to kiss her cheek.  "Are you eating here or did you just stop by for a change of clothes?"

Laughing softly at the teasing censure in her mother's voice, Ai shrugged as she yanked a sheathed sword from a large black bag that she let drop to the floor.  "Well, I was planning on going back tomorrow," she said, leaning the sword against the wall as she headed toward one of two doors on the east side of the hut.  "Jiji offered me a little job."

"Nothing dangerous, I hope?"

"Not really dangerous, no.  I mean, there's nothing that dangerous on the other side, Mama," Ai called, her voice muffled by the wall.  "Kei is going to go talk with the representative of the neko-youkai about renegotiating the present treaty, and he asked me to go along, just in case."

Kagome frowned.  "But the treaty's still active, isn't it?  No one's broken it, have they?"

Stepping out of the bedroom in clothing that closer resembled Jirou's outfit, Ai shrugged.  "No, but I guess there have been rumors, so jiji just wants them to give their word that they're not going to cause trouble . . ." She made a face, wrinkling her nose.  "Actually, he wanted to know if Papa would go along, but I volunteered.  Besides, Papa's not very good at being the voice of reason."

"And you are?" Marisaiko challenged mildly.

The girl broke into a rather smug smile.  "Well . . ."

Kagome let out a deep breath.  "The neko-youkai aren't exactly fond of your father or your uncle, so be careful, Ai."

"I will, Mama," she insisted, gently taking the board from Kagome before settling down on the floor to take up the task of vegetable preparation.  "Promise."

 

 




 

 

 

" . . . He's still there."

"I know."

" . . . I think he thinks you'll change your mind."

"Keh!  He can keep thinking that."

Grabbing a very large, very unhappy fish, Jirou tossed it onto the shore, sparing a glance at the poor and rather unfortunate human who was trying to hide behind a smallish tree and failing miserably.  "You could always teach him a few little things so he'll go away," he suggested in an overly-nonchalant tone.

Before InuYasha could respond, the guy tripped over a tree root that stuck out of the ground as he tried to move in a little closer.  He smacked his forehead against the trunk with a sharp hiss of breath.

Jirou intercepted his father's telling look.  "You just saw that, right?" he asked as he grabbed a fish and chucked it onto the bank.

Jirou sighed and nodded, figuring that InuYasha's initial statement about the guy's clumsiness wasn't far off.

"So, what's the story?"

Blinking at the abrupt change of topics, Jirou slowly shook his head.  "I dunno," he allowed with an offhanded shrug.  "I've never seen him before today, either . . ."

"Keh!  Not his story!  That girl Mari brought with her—who is she?"

"She's . . . She was hungry, so we gave her some food," Jirou replied.

He nodded.  "You catch the youkai in the shrine?"

Jirou made a face as he grabbed another fish.  "There wasn't one."

"Then who was stealing?"

Giving what he hoped was a casual shrug, Jirou shook his head.  "We, uh, we didn't catch the thief."

InuYasha caught another fish and straightened up.  "That should be enough—unless someone else shows up for dinner, anyway," he remarked, heading for the shore with the struggling fish in his hands.  "Leave it to your mama to invite half of Musashi to a simple meal."

Smiling slightly at his father's disgruntled tone, Jirou slowly followed behind him, only to settle down on the bank to help clean the fish.  Everyone knew that InuYasha's bark was definitely worse than his bite, especially when it came to Kagome, and, though he may not say as much and tried to act like the proverbial tough-guy, they also knew that InuYasha never turned anyone away, either.

Well, except for the guy who wanted InuYasha to teach him how to fight, that was . . .

Dragging his claws over the skin of the fish to remove the layer of scales, Jirou frowned as his thoughts wandered.  He wasn't entirely sure why he wasn't telling InuYasha the truth about Kiri.  Well, that wasn't entirely true.  InuYasha tended to be far more outspoken, and if he had said how they had really met her . . .

'Yeah, maybe, but why do you care what your father thinks of her, anyway?'

He didn't, not really.  Of course, he didn't.  Why the hell would he?  She'd done something wrong, and that was hardly something he was trying to cover up.  It wasn't that, and even if InuYasha did offer up his opinion on the matter, Jirou doubted that he'd really hold it against her.

'Or maybe you've decided to cut her some slack?'

Letting out a deep breath, he frowned to himself.   Had he done that?  Was there a place in the back of his mind that had decided maybe he was being too hard on Kiri?  To be fair, he supposed, he normally wasn't that quick to condemn someone, even if the whole situation really had been pretty cut and dried, or maybe Marisaiko's relatively quick acceptance of Kiri played a part in it, too.   After all, Marisaiko was a damn good judge of character and always had been.  Maybe it was a part of her spiritual power that allowed her to discern people so quickly.  Jirou had been told often enough that he, too, was decent at the same thing—a trait that he'd inherited from his mother.  Even so, there was something unsettling about Kiri, too, even if he couldn't rightfully say why.

"You gonna gut that fish or are you just gonna stare at it all afternoon?"

It took a moment for InuYasha's question to register in Jirou's preoccupation.  When it finally did, he slowly shook his head.  "Oh, uh, sorry.  I was just . . . just thinking, I guess."

He could feel his father's gaze on him, though he didn't look to verify it.  "About anything in particular?"

Somehow, he still couldn't quite bring himself to putting a words to it.  "Just . . . Just about that guy," he lied, hoping that InuYasha wouldn't call his bluff.

InuYasha snorted.  "Keh!  What about him?"

Relieved that his father wasn't going to make an issue out of it, Jirou shrugged.  "You going to feed him?" he asked, jerking his head in the direction of the human who was still trying in vain to hide.

InuYasha shot Jirou a foreboding glance.  "And encourage him?  Hell, no."

"I don't really think he needs much in the way of that."

His answer was a longsuffering sigh. "No, and don't suggest that to your mama, either."

That drew Jirou's smile.  "Did he tell you why he wants you to train him, sensei?"

InuYasha balled up his fist and thumped his son soundly.

"Ow!"

"'Sensei', my ass," he growled.

Rubbing the soreness away on his head, Jirou's grin didn't falter.  "Can't blame him from wanting to learn from the best, oyaji."

"Keh!" InuYasha retorted, dropping the entrails from the last fish onto a small pile of leaves before scooping up the cleaned fish to rinse in the stream.  "Whatever.  It still ain't happening.  Now, get moving.  Your mama's probably already hollering for these."

Following InuYasha, Jirou made quick work of rinsing the fish he'd cleaned, and the two of them headed back down the trail that led to the house once more.  The young man ducked back behind some dense bushes, and InuYasha shook his head, muttering something about stupid pups under his breath.

It struck Jirou as a little pathetic, all things considered.  Either he really was stupid or he was beyond desperate, but why in the world was he so set on learning how to fight, in the first place . . .?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Trudging along the sun-dappled path through the forest, Kiri said nothing as she lagged slightly behind Jirou and Marisaiko.  It was a slightly muggy morning, and she had little doubt that it would be a lot more unpleasant by afternoon, but there wasn't a cloud in the sky, either, and she let out a deep breath, sending the bangs on her forehead flying straight upward.

Face crumpling into an expression of complete self-disgust, she shook her head.  To be honest, she'd meant to sneak out of the hut last night while everyone was sleeping.  She was better off on her own, and she knew it.  Having any kind of attachment to anything or anyone was nothing but stupid.  She knew that better than anyone.

But it was so interesting, watching the family's interactions, that she'd sat at the fire pit for hours, even after Marisaiko, Ai, and she had helped Kagome clean up after the meal despite the matriarch's insistence that they should just relax.  At the time, she figured that it was the least she could do, considering that the food was more delicious than anything she could remember, even Jirou's roasted rabbit.  She'd even said more than she meant to, told them more about herself than she ever told anyone, but it was easy—too easy—to talk to Marisaiko and to Kagome, and even to Ai.

InuYasha was a little more perplexing.  The way he spoke was borderline rude, almost abrasive, and yet, the more he blustered, the more Kagome smiled, and no one seemed to be the least bit bothered by it, either.  As though they were used to his behavior, and Kiri supposed that they had to be, they all seemed to just laugh off his brusqueness.

Jirou, however . . .

Jirou was entirely beyond her comprehension.  Offering his family almost shy smiles, even occasional soft laughter, he didn't say much, barely more than a few sentences here and there, but she'd caught him staring at her a few times—staring at her in an entirely unsettling kind of way—like he was trying to see into her mind or to figure out something about her.

Most of his initial irritation seemed to be gone, at least, which had to account for something.

Even so, if anyone else had noticed, she didn't know, but she'd watched in silence when he'd refilled his bowl with stew and had slipped out of the hut, only to return a little while later with an empty bowl and no comment.  She didn't know what he'd done with it, but she had a sneaking suspicion that he'd given the food to the guy that hadn't left since he'd followed InuYasha home.

Just now, though, she had to wonder about the soundness of his decision to do such a thing, given that the strange guy was following them.

She wasn't sure when she'd first noticed that they had a shadow.  It wasn't too long after they'd left the village when she'd first spotted him, ducking behind a tree.  It was just unsettling at first.  Now, nearly two hours later, it was annoying, and if either Jirou or Marisaiko realized that they were being trailed, she didn't know since neither of them seemed to be the least bit concerned, and, while they were walking in silence, it was a comfortable kind of silence: the kind that only people who had known each other for a long time could actually achieve without it feeling stilted or unsteady.

She'd only agreed to go with Marisaiko to the taijya village to get farther north, anyway.  She could have traveled alone—that's what she was used to—but it was nice to travel on the roads instead of having to stick to a less-direct route, which was more normal for her.  Even so, she'd learned long ago that it was better to try not to draw too much attention to herself.

It was her coloring, she supposed.  She could vaguely remember her mother, tossing a blanket or a shawl over her head whenever they encountered people on the road.  Even in the sweltering heat of summer, it happened.  Back then, she hadn't realized why.  After her mother died, though, she had found that people tended to look at her strangely or even with unfounded suspicion, and as she grew older, she'd started to realize that people didn't trust foreigners, and that was what they automatically assumed she was.

So, she'd learned to avoid people for the most part.  Life, she found, was easier that way, even if it was a little lonely sometimes.

"Should we take a break?" Marisaiko asked.

"Tired?" Jirou countered.

She shot him a grin.  "Nope," she replied.  "I could use a drink, though."

Kiri considered that as she shielded her eyes against the sunlight and looked up at the sky.  Not a cloud to be seen, but the mugginess in the air was growing steadily worse.  "How much farther?"

"We're about halfway there," Marisaiko said, turning just enough to speak over her shoulder, though she didn't stop walking.  "You'll like my parents."

"What about him?" Jirou asked as casually, jerking his head vaguely to indicate someone behind them.

Marisaiko giggled, but raised her voice so that it would carry.  "I don't know, considering he's still trying to hide . . ."

Jirou chuckled, his little ears twitching, when he suddenly stopped short and held up a hand to halt the others.  "I know you're there.  Come on out."

For a moment, Kiri thought that he was speaking to the guy that had followed them from the other village, but the hanyou's gaze was still fixed straight ahead, and a moment later, a very odd-looking being stepped out of the trees.  A sudden shiver raced down her spine as she eyed the stranger warily.  Pasty, white skin, owlish, hooded black eyes, but it was the weird way that his limbs all seemed to be garishly elongated that stopped her in her tracks.

"White hair . . . dog ears . . ." The stranger trailed off, deliberately lifting his chin slightly, deliberately sniffing in Jirou's direction.  "And the stench of the inu-youkai—and human."

Kiri frowned at the interloper, anger flaring to life at the unmistakable mocking in his tone.

Jirou, on the other hand, just shrugged.  "And you're an eel-youkai . . . Did you want something from me?" he asked in an almost bored tone of voice.

"You're his son, aren't you?  The one they call InuYasha . . .?"

This time, Jirou heaved a very loud sigh and crossed his arms over his chest.  "Let me guess: he killed one of your kin?"

"Why, yes."  The eel-youkai chuckled nastily.  "Fight me."

"I don't fight anyone for no reason."

"Well, he's not here, so I guess you'll do."

Jirou shook his head.  "No, thanks."

"Jirou-kun, I—"

A low growl from Jirou cut Marisaiko off abruptly.  "Stay out of it, Mari."

She sighed but took a step back.

Satisfied that she was going to comply, he shook his head.  "Get out of our way."

"How dare you make light of me!" the eel-youkai growled, his voice trembling, breaking in his rage.  "Damn you!"

Kiri blinked as the eel-youkai shot forward in a blur of motion.  Jirou barely had time to raise his arms, crossing them in front of his face to keep the eel from hitting him dead-on.  He slid back, but didn't lose his footing.

With a loud screech, the interloper dashed toward Jirou again.  Jirou managed to sidestep him, eliciting a menacing growl from the eel, who spun to the side, swinging a fist at the hanyou and missing him entirely.  "I don't want to fight you," Jirou stated once more, hopping out of the eel's way again.

"Well, isn't that too bad?" the eel-youkai spit, his eyes narrowing dangerously, barreling forward, smashing his shoulder into Jirou.

Jirou stumbled back a couple steps but caught himself easily.  "Then by all means," he retorted dryly.

The eel-youkai was undaunted, launching himself at Jirou once more.  Jirou spun around, whipping the sword out of the scabbard, moving so fast that the blade whistled as it sliced through the air, as he swung it, as it smacked, flat-side hard against the eel's side.

He fell to the ground with a sharp hiss, bracing his hands on the ground to push himself back to his feet, only to stop when Jirou leveled the sword, holding it mere inches from the eel-youkai's throat.  "Get lost," he said in the same even tone of voice.

The eel-youkai glared hard at him.  "Finish me!" he hissed.  "Isn't that what your father would do?"

"I'm not my father," Jirou replied, lingering for another long moment before turning on his heel, dropping the sword back into the scabbard once more.

"Jirou-kun, watch out!" Kiri heard herself scream as the eel shot to his feet, as he swung his claws at Jirou's back.

In another blur of motion, in flashes of metal that glinted in the hazy, late morning light, the eel-youkai hissed in pain as Marisaiko's chakram impaled his arms, bore him down, flat on his back, pinned him to the ground.

Jirou pivoted, arms crossed over his chest as he shot Marisaiko a dark look.

The taijya ignored him as she stomped over to retrieve her weapons.  "He wasn't going to finish you off, but I might," she said in a deathly-quiet voice.

"Bitch!" the eel-youkai hissed.

The hiss turned into a groan, however, when she stepped on his arm at the elbow joint before leaning down to yank the first chakram free.  Then she stalked around him to plant her foot on the other arm.  "Are you going to leave now or shall I finish you off?"

He glowered at her for a long moment before finally, furiously, jerking his head once in a nod.  Marisaiko leaned down and very slowly, very deliberately, yanked the second chakram free.

It took a minute for the eel-youkai to get to his feet this time, but when he did, he spared a second to glower at each of them before he headed off into the trees.

Marisaiko waited until the youkai was gone before she knelt down to wipe the chakram in the sparse grass beside the road.

"I didn't need your help, Mari," Jirou finally said in a tight, clipped tone.

"I know," Marisaiko replied quietly.

He sighed.  "Thank you," he grudgingly added.

She started to say something, but the thought died before it was put into words.

"You!"

All three turned to watch as the guy from Jirou's village ran up behind them.  Stopping short, bending over with his hands resting on his upper legs as he struggled to catch his breath, he raised a shaky finger to point at them.  "You," he repeated, straightening his back, though he didn't lower his hand.

Marisaiko glanced from him to Jirou then back again.  "Me?"

He nodded.  "You . . . Will you be my sensei?"

 

 




 

 

"There it is."

Jirou stopped beside Marisaiko at the bottom of the steep hill surrounding the taijya village.  From where they stood, they could only really see the outlying huts that surrounded the village proper.  Over the years since the first one had been destroyed, it had prospered, well enough that people who didn't know about the destruction wouldn't have realized it, but the huts on the outside of the great stone wall surrounding the actual village were inhabited by those who were apprenticing in the art.  They hadn't earned the right to move into the sanctity of the walls yet.

From what he had been told, the walls had originally been built of wood, but when Sango and Miroku had decided to rebuild the village, they'd constructed the stone walls, complete with the ancient symbols etched deep in the anchor stones—the symbols that held the barrier permanently in place over the village.  Miroku meditated daily to strengthen that barrier so that the village could never be breeched by youkai, intent on doing harm.

"Looks like everything's under control, sensei," Jirou remarked.

She rolled her eyes and shook her head.  "I'm not anyone's sensei," she retorted, smacking Jirou with the back of her hand, though not hard.

Jirou barely managed to hold back the grin that threatened.  All things considered, he couldn't help it.

"That's your village, sensei?"

Face screwing up in a marked grimace, Marisaiko shot the newest addition to their traveling party a very dark glower.  "I'm not your sensei," she pointed out for the fiftieth time in the last few hours since he'd finally gotten the nerve to approach them.

The guy frowned thoughtfully.  "Then . . . Uh, what should I call you?"

She heaved a sigh.  "My name is Marisaiko," she replied.  Then she nodded toward Jirou.  "That's Jirou, and that's Kiri."

He blinked, almost like he was surprised by Marisaiko's introduction.  "Marisaiko-sama," he repeated.

She rubbed her forehead.  "And you are . . .?"

He looked surprised that she'd asked his name.  "M-Me?" he stammered, drawing a raised-eyebrow-ed expression from Jirou.  "Oh, uh, Kuro," he hurried on to say.  "Just Kuro."

"Okay, come on," Jirou said, heading back toward the path that led up the hill.  Glancing at Kiri in passing, he stopped.  Staring at the village with a strange sort of foreboding in her gaze, she looked like she was trying to decide whether or not she actually wanted to approach.  "Something wrong?" he asked with a frown.

Blinking quickly, she shot him a startled kind of glance.  "No," she replied, sounding more casual than she looked.  "Nothing at all."

"If you could teach me how to fight, then I'll do whatever you say," Kuro said, hurrying after Marisaiko, who increased her gait in an effort to get away from the poor guy.

Jirou shook his head.  To be honest, he wasn't entirely sure, what to think of Kuro, either.  He'd felt sorry enough for him last night to take him a bowl of fish stew, but had spent the entire time, listening as Kuro wracked his brain, trying to come up with a way to convince InuYasha to train him.

"He's your father, right?  So, you know him pretty well, right?"  Kuro paused long enough to wolf down a bite of the stew.  "This is . . . really good . . . Do you think he'd agree if I tried a different approach?"

"Why do you want to learn how to fight?" Jirou asked, shifting his gaze up to the myriad of stars dotting the skies.

Kuro sighed.  "I just . . . I have to," he replied before digging into the bowl once more with gusto.

"Oyaji . . . He's not very good at changing his mind," Jirou warned mildly.  "Why him, anyway?"

Giving a little shrug, Kuro frowned, setting the bowl aside and pushing the billowing sleeves of his haori up so that he could hook his hands around his bent knees.  "Because he's the best—the toughest.  At least, that's what they say . . . They say he defeated Naraku and that butterfly, too.  They say he's the bravest, that he can stare down even the mightiest of youkai, and he doesn't even bat an eye.  They say he's never lost a fight."

Jirou didn't respond to that.  What Kuro said was true enough.  InuYasha was an undisputed fighter—everyone knew that, and, as InuYasha's son, he knew it better than anyone.  It wasn't the first time that someone had sought him out to challenge him, in one way or another.  Usually, they wished to test their skills against one of his caliber.  Sometimes, they wanted to have InuYasha teach them a technique, and occasionally, he did, but no one outside of the family had ever gotten him to agree to any kind of long-term training, either.  The puzzling thing about Kuro, however, wasn't his request.  It was the man himself, despite the midnight hair that hung to the middle of his shoulder blades, clubbed back in a low-hanging ponytail.  His clothing was pretty unremarkable—a dark blue haori, cream-colored, rough linen hakama, white socks, and hemp sandals—but his bearing bespoke something else entirely.  From the upright stature, almost rigid, actually, to the way he held his head, just a notch or two higher than anyone else, Kuro seemed to hold onto an air of regal refinement that even his clothing couldn't hide.  There was something almost unsettling about the way his dark brown eyes shifted in the moonlight, almost like he was trying to keep tabs on the surrounding area, like a seasoned soldier, even if he wasn't.  If Jirou hadn't already seen how clumsy Kuro was, he might not have believed it, but he was no commoner, either.

And, too, he had to admit that the idea of Marisaiko being Kuro's new target 'sensei' rather amused him.

"You can ask my mother," Marisaiko suggested, increasing her gait once more as she tried to shake off the persistent human.  "She's a much more experienced taijya than I am."

"But the way you took down that youkai!" Kuro insisted.  "It was like . . . like . . . magic!"

That statement wrung a very loud snort from Jirou, mostly because he was the one who had bested the eel-youkai first.

"You . . . You fight well."

Blinking in surprise as he shot Kiri a quick glance in time to see her duck her chin, to catch a strand of hair that was being tossed into her face by the moist air and tucked it behind her ear.  Cheeks pinking delicately, she stared down at the ground, but kept moving.  "Th-Thanks," he stammered, unsure why he suddenly felt a little bashful.

She said nothing for a moment.  Then she shrugged.  "You could have killed him, couldn't you?"  It was more of a statement than a question.

"I don't kill anyone if there's any way around it."

Turning her head, letting those sky blue eyes meet his, she seemed to be trying to figure out something , and he stubbornly refused to look away.  "But he was going to kill you.  If it wasn't for Marisaiko-chan, he would have," she stated.  "You should have done it."

Jirou frowned.  "You're welcome to do the fighting the next time," he replied stiffly.  "Otherwise, keep it to yourself."

He felt her sigh more than he heard it.  It was more of a slight, sharp rise and fall in her shoulders.  "Won't do much good for anyone if you're dead," she retorted.

Halting abruptly, Jirou reached out, grasped her arm to stop her, too.  "Like your parents, you mean?"

She seemed surprised by his softly uttered question—surprised and a little taken aback.  Almost as quickly as the surprise surfaced, though, it dissipated, only to be replaced by a more guarded expression—one that made her seem a hell of a lot older.  "Maybe."

Letting go of her, he started walking once more.  She fell in step beside him, but she could well have been a million miles away.  Behind them, he could hear Marisaiko as she tried to dissuade Kuro, but he didn't listen to them.  Too busy, trying to figure out exactly who Kiri really was, he frowned at nothing in particular as he kept moving.

"It doesn't look very secure," Kiri ventured, waving a hand in the general direction of the village.

"Secure enough," Jirou remarked, only paying half-attention.  "The barrier keeps it safe."

"A barrier . . .?"

He nodded.  "Sure."

"But what about you?"

He shrugged.  "It won't purify me, if that's what you're wondering.  My mother's blood keeps it from affecting us."

"Because you're half-human?"

"Nope, because Mama's the strongest miko alive; that's why."

They walked on in silence.  The faint smell of smoke coming from the small fires within the huts on the outskirts of the village to the left of the path wafted to him—a comforting scent that carried with it the familiarity of things he'd known his entire life.  A few children were playing in a little field farther along, and the sounds of their laughter, their hollering, filled his ears, too.  Back when they were children, Ai, Marisaiko, and he would often be found, playing with the other children in that same meadow, and that memory made him smile just a little bit.

"I changed my mind," Kiri suddenly said, spinning on her heel, crossing her arms stubbornly over her chest as she shot Jirou a belligerent sort of look.

"About what?"

Jerking her head toward the village, looming on the horizon, she frowned.  "I don't want to go there," she stated.

"Where do you want to go?" he countered, arching an eyebrow to emphasize his question.

She shrugged.  "I'll just . . . just keep going," she said.

"Alone?" Marisaiko asked as she drew abreast of them.

"Sure.  I'm used to being alone."

Marisaiko shot Jirou an imploring glance.  "But you're welcome to come with me," she reminded her.

Kiri shook her head, took a step back in retreat.  "It's fine," she insisted.  "I'll just leave you here."  Turning to go, she stopped for a moment but didn't look back at them.  "Uh, thank you," she said.

Jirou scowled as he watched the diminutive girl disappear into the trees on the right side of the path.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jirou scowled as he watched Kiri disappear into the trees, unsure exactly what to make of the girl's hasty departure.  He didn't know why she had suddenly decided to take off, and he didn't know what he should do about it, either.

"Do you think she'll be okay?" Marisaiko asked, also staring into the direction that Kiri had gone.

"I don't know," he replied, crossing his arms over his chest.  "She said she would be."

Marisaiko didn't look convinced as she bit her lip and slowly, slowly shook her head.  "Then I guess . . ."

Drawing a deep breath, Jirou shrugged and turned back.  "Come on," he said, striding forward once more.

"You're not worried about her?"

Sparing the taijya a sidelong glance, only to find her frowning at the dirt under their feet, Jirou stifled a sigh.

It wasn't any of his business, was it?  If she wanted to take off alone, there wasn't much he could say or do about it, even if he wanted to, but even so, why should he?  "Nope," he replied without missing a step.

Marisaiko sighed, frowning unhappily at the dirt path.

Jirou said nothing, but he knew that look.  He'd seen it way too many times over the years.  Usually, it meant that she was considering doing something that would mean more work for Jirou.  This time, though, she didn't suggest anything, and he refused to open his mouth to ask her, especially since he already had a good idea, as to what she would say, anyway.

"She . . . She didn't leave because of me, did she . . .?" Kuro finally asked, breaking the silence that had fallen and grown.

"I doubt it," Jirou replied.  Then he stopped, turning to eye Kuro for a long moment.  "Where are you going to stay?"

Kuro blinked, as though Jirou's question made no sense to him.  "Well, I can stay anywhere, really.  I mean, I don't need a bed or anything.  I can make do."

Shaking his head as Kuro patted the bedroll he had slung behind his back.  "That's not what I meant," Jirou clarified, casting Marisaiko a surreptitious glance that she studiously avoided.  "No one's allowed into the village unless they've earned the right or are known to visit the taijya—and you are neither."

He looked duly perplexed for a minute.  Marisaiko sighed.  "Kiri was invited," she stated bluntly, though not unkindly.  "You . . . You weren't.  To be honest, I have no idea who you are or what you want."

"Well, I want you to be my—"

She waved her hands quickly to cut him off.  "I know that," she said, scowling at her overeager, would-be pupil.  "I'm not saying that I'll agree to any such thing, but why?  Why are you so desperate to learn how to fight?"

About fifty emotions seemed to flicker to life on the man's face, only to disappear before they could rightfully be discerned.  In the end, a weird sense of determination took its place.  "I just need to," he replied.  "I have lots of reasons, and none are more important than any of the others."

"I don't know if that's going to be enough to get you into the village," Jirou pointed out.  "Strictly speaking, taijya aren't 'fighters', per se.  They learn to kill youkai.  It's an art created to protect humans from beings that are stronger, tougher, more ruthless . .  . It isn't meant to be used to beat on other humans."

Kuro scowled at the ground, kicked his feet a few times in the dust.  There was something altogether miserable about the way he stood there, about the way he frowned at nothing in particular or at everything in general, and in it all was something vaguely familiar about it, too.  "I just want to learn how to defend myself," he muttered.  "That's all."

The rawness in Kuro's tone gave Jirou pause.  Somehow, there was a vulnerable truth in that statement—a truth that Jirou recognized because he knew it himself.  The things that drove Kuro . . . How much of his feelings were similar to the ones that Jirou lived with every day?  Oh, the circumstances were different of course, but the underlying emotions . . .

"Okay," Marisaiko said, offering Kuro a tentative smile.  "I'll do it.  I'll train you."

 

 




 

 

'Why?  Why did I take off?  Why did I just leave them?'

Wandering through the dense wood, trying to ignore the strange and foreign sense of melancholy that had crept over her in the hours since she had broken away from Jirou and Marisaiko, Kiri wrapped her arms tighter around herself, but kept moving.

'It's stupid!' she berated herself.  'I don't . . . don't need anyone, and I don't want to be around them, either!'

It was true, wasn't it?  It was something she'd lived with for so long, had, in fact, cultivated it.  Funny, really.  She hadn't realized that it was something that one could learn.

There was a time when she had tried to find a place to belong.  When her mother had died, she had tried to find a place that would accept her.  Even as a child, she'd learned quickly enough that it wasn't possible.  No one trusted her—an outsider—and they hadn't wanted her around.  She was an oddity, labeled as an outcast because of the way she looked.  Back then, she'd tried to dull her hair, to darken it, dying it with berry juice or smearing mud into her locks, and it had worked, to a point.  One family had almost taken her in, at least, until she was bathed and the color all washed out.  The polite and friendly smiles had turned to frowns and shaking heads.  They were sorry, but they didn't have room, didn't have the means to support another mouth to feed.  The mother of the home had given her a few dry biscuits and a skin of water before putting her out of their hut, and she'd moved on.  It was the last time she'd tried to find a new family, though she did try harder to darken her hair, but there wasn't a damn thing she could do to mask the color of her eyes.  She'd learned to avoid meeting people's gazes, and then, she'd learned to avoid people completely.

Eventually, she'd decided that she didn't care if people accepted her or not, had stopped trying to stain her hair, had stopped meekly averting her gaze as she'd adopted a new belligerence, as she'd convinced herself that she didn't need anyone—something she'd believed without question—at least, until she'd met Marisaiko and even Jirou.

And yet, the resentment that had come with the confusion that riddled her—confusion as to why she was so unwelcome, the temerarious grasp of a child's skewed logic—had grown, and ultimately, it fed her ability to put aside the whispered voice of her dead mother, the lessons taught to a child who hadn't yet realized that the world wasn't a beautiful place.  That resentment had allowed her to squelch the feelings of guilt when she'd stow into a village in the silence of the dead of night, allowed her to carefully, quietly pick through those faceless villagers' belongings, to take the things that she needed to survive.

So why did it bother her so much?  Why did it matter to her, the disbelief on Jirou's face when he'd caught her, had dragged her back to their camp . . .?  Why did she care that he'd so casually told his mother that she was a thief?  It shouldn't matter to her.  She was past caring what anyone thought of her.

At least, she thought she was.

Heaving a sigh, she gave herself a little shake, tried to remind herself that none of it mattered anymore.  The sun was hanging low in the sky, and she really needed to find some kind of shelter.  One good thing about having spent most of her life on the move and out of doors: she'd learned how to read and predict the skies, and, as she shielded her eyes and turned her face upward, she could smell it in the air: the storm that was coming.

"You . . ."

Her chin snapped back down at the rasping, harsh word, eyes flaring wide in recognition as the eel-youkai that had tried to pick a fight with Jirou on the road stepped out from behind a tree.  Arms hanging limply by his sides, dried blood smeared carelessly from the still-open wounds, he glared at her as his all-encompassing rage seemed to flicker around him, distorting the very air, like heat waves rising off the earth.  Head lowered, gaze fixed on her, he watched her like an animal stalking its prey.

"What do you want?" she asked, her voice low, steady, despite the tattering beat of her heart that thundered in her ears.  Even injured, there was still an overwhelming sense of danger surrounding the youkai.  Stepping back, as though she needed to put some distance between herself and him, she tried to think of something—anything—that could get her away from him.

The chuckle that rumbled out of him was devoid of humor, full of irony.  "You're one of them," he hissed, his voice little more than a rasp, a rumble.  "You'll do."

"I-I'm not," she countered weakly, recoiling at the rage so thick in his tone.  It occurred to her in an oddly detached kind of way that reasoning wasn't going to work on him.  "I . . . I barely know them . . ."

"Yet you were traveling with them—with him," he hissed, "with the pathetic son of that tainted hanyou!"

"You don't even know him.  Why do you hate him?" she heard herself ask, grimacing inwardly at the unvoiced challenge in her question.  Antagonizing he eel-youkai wasn't exactly the smartest course of action, and she knew it, especially if she had any hope of getting out of this encounter alive.

The eel-youkai erupted in a low growl.  "His father—InuYasha—killed mine!  He spared no thought for my family, just cut him down because he could!"  Uttering another terse laugh, he took another step toward Kiri.  "I'm just returning the favor."

She swallowed hard, willed her pulse to steady.  It didn't really work.  "Then there's nothing you want with me," she replied.  "I just met them.  We're not even friends or anything."

A strange expression entered the youkai's gaze, and his slight grin widened as he prowled closer.  "You lie."

Stepping back again, she didn't take her eyes off of him.  Moving slowly from side to side, he was closing in, albeit, slowly, cutting off any means of escape, if she were inclined to try.  Fighting to ignore the basic instinct to flee, she forced herself to stay her ground.  Somehow, she knew—just knew—that if she did, he'd cut her down without a second thought.

She yelped when he lunged at her, his claws cutting through the air, as she barely managed to stumble back, far enough to avoid them.

Laughing as a maniacal grin widened on his features, his hand shot out, the backside of it connecting with Kiri's cheek.  She grunted out a half-cry, half-groan as her body flew back, as she landed hard, as the world went black.

 

 




 

 

"Kaze no Kizu!"

The deafening scream that escaped the eel-youkai as the flames of the attack engulfed him forced Jirou to flatten his ears against his head as he jammed Shinkoukage into the scabbard and dashed forward toward the fallen girl.  Lying in such a tiny heap, she looked so much smaller than she was, and he dropped to his knees, hands shaking as he slowly, cautiously, felt her limbs to make sure nothing was broken.

He still didn't know why he'd followed her.  That hadn't actually been the reason that he'd stopped in only long enough to say hello to Sango and Miroku before setting off once more.  Marisaiko had given him a rather curious glance, but she either didn't see anything amiss with his hasty exit or she figured he wouldn't 'fess up to anything, anyway.

He hadn't set out to find her.  That would have been dumb, after all.  He didn't really know much of anything about her, and most of what he did know wasn't exactly positive.

So, why had he veered off the path when he'd ventured across the lingering smell of her?  Why had he altered his course, following her scent deeper into the forest?

He still didn't know the answer, but he grimaced as he gently turned her head, saw the already livid bruising that marred the pallor of her cheek.

With a soft groan, she scrunched up her face, but didn't open her eyes.

"Kiri-chan?" he said, his voice oddly harsh as he gently touched her unblemished cheek.

At the sound of his voice, she slowly blinked, her gaze seeming to have trouble, focusing on him.  "J . . . Jirou . . .?"

Only then did the breath that he hadn't realized he'd been holding rush out of him with a heavy whoosh.  "Can you sit up?"

It took a moment for her to gather herself enough to try.  He reached out, helped her sit up.  She winced as she reached up to gingerly touch her face.  "Ow . . ." Suddenly, though, her eyes flared wide, sitting up a little straighter, and she grasped his arms tight.  "Where?  Where is he?"

"It's all right," he assured her.  "He's . . . He's gone."

She stared at him for several seconds, as though she were trying to figure out if he was lying to her.  Then she nodded.  "He said your father killed his," she said quietly.  "He said that he killed him for no reason."

Jirou frowned.  "He wouldn't," he stated flatly.  "He's never killed without a reason."

Kiri sighed, letting go of Jirou's arms as she melted back onto the ground once more.  "Tired," she muttered, closing her eyes.

"What?  No," he retorted a little more sharply than he meant to be.  He didn't know if she'd hit her head, but the blow to her cheek had to have been hard enough, and if she had a concussion, then she really didn't dare go to sleep, either.  With a grimace, he hopped up, grasping her hands and tugging until she finally complied, her expression mulish, at best, as she swayed on her feet.  "Come on," he said.

"Where?" she demanded.  He could tell from her tone of voice that she was dangerously close to tears, and he grimaced.  He supposed that she probably did want nothing better than to lie down once more, but that was the worst thing she could do at the moment.

"Oba-chan needs to look you over," he replied with a sigh.  "It isn't that far."

"Oba-chan?" she echoed with a sniffle.  She was scowling when he glanced at her, angry at her own perceived weakness, he figured.

"Mari's mother," he clarified.  When he was a child, Kagome had gone to school to earn her nursing certificate, figuring that it would be most helpful in the past, where she and InuYasha spent most of their time, and she'd taken the time to teach Sango and Miroku everything she'd learned.  In fact, the only real difference was that Kagome had tested to earn her certification, while Sango and Miroku could not, though, in this time, it hardly mattered.  She'd also tried to teach InuYasha, but he was far more adept in breaking bones than he was in mending them, after all.

Kiri stopped in her tracks.  "I . . . I don't want to go there," she said.

Jirou scowled at her.  "Here," he said, holding out his hand.

She shook her head.  "I'm fine," she insisted.  It struck him, how she used that one simple phrase to hide behind, and for some reason, it seemed a little sad.

He sighed.  "I'll carry you," he offered.  "It's going to be dark soon, and we'll get there faster if I do."

She shook her head again, crossing her arms over her chest stubbornly.  "Can't we look for a cave or something?  And you can go.  I just . . . just need to rest for a few minutes."

"You took a good hit," he reminded her.  "You were out cold when I got here.  You could have a concussion."

"A what?"

"A concussion," he repeated.  "It could be bad, and I'm not as good with treating stuff like that.  Sango or Miroku could—"

"I'm fine," she stated once more, "and they won't let me in there, anyway."

"They will," he insisted.  "You're with me, and Mari—"

"I'm—"

"—Fine, yeah, so you've said," he growled, then heaved a sigh as he rubbed his face and struggled to control his rising irritation.  "Don't be so stubborn.  Let me take you there.  Maybe it's nothing, and if so, then I apologize, but if you aren't, then they can help you."

"What do you care?  I'm just a thief, remember?" she ground out, wincing as she tentatively reached up to cradle her injured cheek.

"Don't be stupid," he argued.  "Besides, Mari likes you, and she's worried about you, taking off on your own again."

"Then go back and tell her that I'm okay," she retorted, her face paling just a little more as the seconds ticked away.

Scowling at her since he knew damn well that she wasn't going to comply with his wish to return to the taijya village without incident, he reluctantly gave in.  She really did need to lie down, and standing around, arguing, wasn't doing her any good, either.  Maybe she didn't have a concussion, he didn't know, but he couldn't really force her to go anywhere she didn't want to, either.  There wasn't much that Sango or Miroku could do, aside from giving her some aspirin or something like that, anyway, and he could keep her awake until the danger passed as well as they could.  "All right," he finally allowed with a sigh, "but you can't go to sleep for awhile, so you're going to have to humor me, okay?"

She sighed, too, but let him lead the way as he searched for an open enough area to make camp.

"I'm going to gather some wood," he told her when he located a small clearing in the midst of the trees.  He could tell from scent that there was a body of water nearby, and, with a little luck, he'd find some clay close, too—at least, enough to make a poultice for her cheek, anyway.  "You can sit here and wait, but keep talking."

She looked like she wanted to argue with him, so he was relieved when she sank down on a large rock, instead.  "The youkai . . . You killed him, right?"

Letting out a deep breath at her softly uttered question, Jirou shook his head.  "It was him or you, Kiri," he replied, picking up a few fallen branches.  They may not burn long, but they were plentiful enough that he wasn't worried about running out of fuel during the night.  "He wouldn't have just left you alone."

"I . . . I know," she said, her voice barely more than a whisper.  "He was going to kill me . . . so thanks."

The almost pouty way that she'd offered her gratitude made Jirou smile vaguely.  It kind of reminded him of the way that he and Ai would apologize to one another when they were children, fighting over the last box of pocky.  Those grudging words were only offered after Kagome had insisted, after she reminded them that they should love each other.  Nope, he knew damn well that Kiri wasn't at all pleased that she felt compelled to offer her thanks, in the first place.

"You're welcome."

She wrinkled her nose.  "Why did you follow me?"

Dropping the armload of wood he'd gathered, Jirou reached for a long stick to break it up.  "I . . . I don't really know," he confessed, deliberately focusing his attention on the branch in his hands.  "But I'm glad I did."

She seemed surprised by his admittance.  To be honest, he kind of was, too.  Dropping the wood, he stepped a few paces away, far enough to start clearing a space of dried and rotting leaves that covered the forest floor.  "Me, too," she said quietly.  "You, uh, you don't have to stay with me, though," she went on.  "I'm used to taking care of myself."

His scowl darkened.  He could see it in her face: the pride that she couldn't squelch, that she hid behind, that she wore like a second skin.  Yet, there was something else, something beyond that, and he could see it, too.  Did anyone else?  Is that what Marisaiko had sensed all along?  Behind the tough outer shell, underneath it all, there was a vulnerability, and maybe Kiri didn't sense it herself, and if she did, she probably tried to kill it off.  She hated that part of her, didn't she?  That part that hated being alone, that wanted to belong somewhere—anywhere—with anyone . . .

"Maybe you shouldn't be," he finally said, inflicting enough nonchalance into his tone to cover up the hint of pity that she'd hate.  "I don't think anyone should be alone."

"How would you know?" she countered, though she wasn't as belligerent as she could have been.  "Your family . . . I've met your family.  You wouldn’t know—you don't know."

Giving a little shrug as he knelt down, as he arranged some wood in the middle of the small clearing he'd created.  "No, but my father does," he replied.  "His father died the night he was born, and his mother died when he was still a child.  No one would take him in, no one took care of him, either.  Half-youkai, half-human—the humans were afraid of him, and the youkai hated what he was—and he grew up on the outside . . . and there was no one for him, either.  So, he knows, and he told me before that the reason he fought so hard was so that he could create a place where we could live, where we would never know the kind of life that he'd lived, up until he met my mother."  Looking up from his task of starting the fire, he let out a deep breath, a little smile.  "You can let yourself belong, if that's what you want . . . with us.  With me . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Leaning in the doorway, Sango winced as Kuro tripped over his feet.  Marisaiko hopped back, but shoved him down in the process as the rebounding chakram barely missed his head.  She wasn't sure whether to think that he was incredibly tenacious when he pushed himself off of the ground and back to his feet—or incredibly stupid.  Then again, maybe 'optimistic' was a better way to look at it.

"S-Sorry!" he blurted as he hopped up off the ground, sparing a moment to dust himself off quickly before reaching for the bokken he'd fumbled and dropped just before Marisaiko had unleashed her weapons.  He grunted as he hit the ground again, only this time, Marisaiko hadn't yet made a move to attack him, either.

'Stupid,' she thought with an inward sigh.  'Definitely stupid . . .'

"Not going well, is it?"

Letting out a deep breath, Sango didn't turn toward the sound of that voice—the one she knew better than she knew herself.  "Maybe we should suggest that she use something a little less dangerous," she ventured.

Even as she said it, though, Marisaiko resheathed the chakram on her belt and reached for a wooden bokken, instead.  Kuro yelped and threw his hands up over his head when she flicked it against the length of the one he'd dropped for a second time, neatly flipping it up into the air for him to catch.  It bounced off his raised arms and clattered helplessly, harmlessly, to the ground for the third time in as many minutes.

"Well, it's just . . . just the first day," Miroku offered, though he sounded rather dubious.

"It could . . . could get . . . better . . ." Sango ventured, then sighed and slowly shook her head.  "Maybe . . ."

Miroku chuckled as he drew up beside her.  "No wonder why InuYasha refused to train him.  That one wouldn't stand a chance, even in practice."

Wincing as the poor young man hit the ground again, Sango shook her head, too.  "Do you think we should stop them?"

Slipping his arms around Sango's waist, he sighed softly as he gently rubbed his cheek against hers.  "He really seems to want to learn," he surmised.  "They say that perseverance pays off."

"There's a difference between perseverance and sheer foolishness," she countered.

Miroku sighed.  "He'll do better once he works out his nerves."

Sango still wasn't sure she agreed, and to be honest, Miroku didn't really sound that optimistic, either, but she pushed away from the doorframe, sparing a moment to rise up on tiptoe to kiss her husband's cheek before slipping out of his arms and back inside.

"Where are you going?" he called after her.

She turned just long enough to peer over her shoulder at him as a rueful little smile turned up the corners of her lips.  "I'm going to put together an herb sachet and a salve," she said.  "Something tells me that he's going to want a good, long soak after this session."

Miroku chuckled.  "My wife is as wise as she is beautiful."

"So you've said, houshi-sama.  So you've said."

 

 




 

 

"We'd get there a lot faster if you'd let me carry you," Jirou pointed out for, what had to be, the umpteen-millionth time since they'd started out this morning.

Kiri shot him a dark look.  "I can walk," she said.

Then again, he was making a little progress.  Given that she refused to say anything to him for the first few hours after he woke her up around mid-morning, it had to be something.  It was safe to say that she was pretty irritated with him, especially when he'd insisted that she stay awake, well into the night—at least, until he was reassured that she didn't have a concussion, after all.  Of course, by then, any good will that he'd managed to perpetuate when he'd swooped in and saved the day for her was all but gone.

Even so, it had to mean something that she hadn't suggested that the two of them part ways again, and he hadn't bothered to suggest that they return to the taijya village, either.  He had a feeling that it wouldn't have made any difference, anyway.

He sighed.  "So, are you going to tell me where we're going?"

"Nowhere," she replied.  "Anywhere . . ."

Her second statement was more of a mutter that he may not have actually heard, had he not been hanyou, to start with.  He frowned at the cryptic tone in her voice.  "That's pretty vague.  Is this how you make all your decisions?"

She shrugged.  "It's worked for me so far."

They walked a little farther as Jirou scowled.  The air was thick, heavy, promising a storm that had been brewing for days, but hadn't broken yet.  His thoughts weren't too far off of that.  For as much as he'd rambled on the night before in his efforts to keep her awake and talking, he couldn't rightfully say that he'd learned much about her, either.

She held her secrets closer than anyone he'd ever met before, and yet, he'd seen glimpses of it, too, hadn't he?  The sadness in the depths of her gaze that she hadn't been able to completely hide . . .

"Your, uh, family," she said, breaking through his reverie in a soft, almost halting, tone.  "You're all really close, aren't you?"

"Yeah," he replied with an offhanded little shrug.  "Sometimes, I think we're closer than we should be."

He could feel her gaze on him, even though he didn't look to confirm it.  "You shouldn’t be?" she echoed.  "Why?"

Letting out a deep breath, he crossed his arms over his chest under the copious sleeves of the black haori.  "I don't mean that," he said.  "I . . . I love them, sure.  I just . . ." He made a face.  "It's . . . Eh, I can't explain it."

"Sometimes," she ventured, her voice still barely more than a whisper, halting, failing, almost to the point that he had to wonder if she realized she was speaking out loud.  "Sometimes, I wonder what it would have been like, if my mother hadn't died . . . I wonder where we would have ended up?  I wonder . . . I wonder if she would have been like . . . like your mother . . .?"

He chuckled.  "I don't think there's anyone quite like my mother," he told her.  "At least, that's what Papa says, and I guess he'd know."

That sad expression flickered over her features again, lingering a little longer than usual this time, and Jirou regretted his statement.

"I bet she'd have been just as great, though maybe in a wholly different kind of way," he went on, trying to soften the statement he'd already made.  "Do you . . .?  Do you remember anything about her?"

She stopped suddenly and plopped down on a fallen tree trunk, shoulders slumping, chin ducking low, and she seemed to almost shrink into herself.  "I remember . . . She used to carry me when I'd whine that I was tired," she said.  "I was . . . four?  Five . . .?"  Shaking her head, she smiled sadly.  "Too big to be carried, anyway.  Then she got this cart, and she pulled me in it, even when there wasn't a road."

"It's what a mother does," he allowed, sitting beside her, pausing a moment to listen to the sound of the birds.  "How old were you when she died?"

Kiri didn't answer right away.  Jirou was beginning to think that she wasn't going to when she sighed.  "Guess I was about seven.  Maybe I was six."

He digested that for a minute, frowning to himself as he considered what she'd said.  To have lost her mother that young?  Just what kind of hell did that play on her mind . . .? "Who took care of you then?"

"No one," she said, that pragmatic tone back in place again.  "No one wanted a foreigner's child."

He opened his mouth to say that it wasn't possible, that a child that young didn't have the ability to care for herself, but a voice whispered in the back of his mind: the gentle reminder that his own father hadn't been much older than that, if he even was that old, when Izayoi had died, leaving InuYasha all alone, too.  He was hanyou, though, which made him stronger, tougher.  Looking at Kiri?  So small, so delicate, and so very, very alone . . . Just how in the world had she managed . . .?

'By stealing, by hiding, by running,' the voice in his head told him.

He winced inwardly.  Somehow, that put everything in perspective, didn't it?  Why she'd steal from a shrine, why she'd risk discovery to take a rabbit from their campsite, and the irritation that had accompanied those things before was somehow gone.

"Do you want to come home with me?" he asked, purposefully injecting enough nonchalance in his tone to cover up the emotion behind his words.  There was no real rhyme or reason behind it, but the idea of leaving her alone, of walking away, knowing that there was no one out there, waiting for her . . . It bothered him.  "Mama's always more than happy to take care of people, you know?  She'd love having you there."

For one wild moment, he could see the way her eyes lit up, only to be quelled a split-second later as she offered him a curt shrug and a soft grunt in reply.  "I don't really need anyone to take care of me," she assured him haughtily.

"Okay, I just thought it'd be kind of a distraction for Mama, you know."

"Distraction?" she echoed, shaking her head just a little.  "What do you mean by that?"

Jirou shrugged.  "You ever hear the stories?" he countered.  "The ones about the miko and the hanyou that defeated Naraku years ago?"

She looked thoughtful for a moment, but sighed and shook her head once in a curt kind of jerk, almost like she hated to admit that she didn't know the tales.  "Uh, no . . ."

"Then you're about the only one who hasn't," he admitted with a wry grin.  "Mama and Papa hunted down Naraku.  Back when Mama first came to—to the village, she accidentally shattered the Shikon no Tama, a sacred jewel that was said to be the physical embodiment of an ancient warrior miko and the souls of thousands of youkai.  Anyway, Mama was born with the jewel inside her body, and when it was torn out, all these youkai tried to steal it—wanted to use it to make themselves more powerful—and when a carrion crow stole it, she attached the severed foot to an arrow, the arrow struck the jewel and shattered it.  Then they spent months, trying to hunt down the shards."

"So, where does this 'Naraku' come into the picture?"

He shrugged.  "Naraku wanted to jewel more than anyone, and he was far more crafty than the others were, too.  Then Papa found out that Naraku had killed its previous protector, which wouldn't have been that big a deal, except that she was his first love.  Naraku had tricked them both, and in the end, Kikyou had pinned Papa to Goshinboku with her sacred arrow for fifty years.  Mama freed him."  He chuckled softly.  "Anyway, they, along with Marisaiko's parents and a kitsune named Shippou—you haven't met him yet—hunted down Naraku and, ultimately, destroyed him."

She digested that in silence.

Jirou sighed, his gaze slowly shifting over the surrounding forest, not really looking for anything in particular.  No, just . . . looking.  "Well, there was a lot more to it than that, but that's the gist of it, anyway."

Kiri nodded.  "Okay, but how would I distract her?"

This time, Jirou chuckled.  "Well, Mama tends to get bored sometimes, and Papa swears that she volunteers their help, since 'help' usually involves Papa's brawn, just because she has nothing better to do.  Not really true, no . . . I mean, Mama just loves to help people.  So she'd be helping you, and that would make her happy."

Sending her a sidelong glance, Jirou was somewhat relieved to see that, while Kiri still had that stubborn frown on her face, he could also tell that she actually was considering his words.  Suddenly, though, she bit her lip and quickly gave her head a little shake.  "I . . . I shouldn't stay around here," she finally said, her voice dropping again.

Scowl deepening as he watched her, as he took in the way she glanced around, eyes constantly moving, as though she expected someone or something to leap out at her, Jirou shook his head.  "Are you . . . in some kind of trouble?" he asked in what he could only hope was a nonchalant tone of voice.

Her eyes darted to him, an almost startled expression surfacing on her face before she managed to blank it once more, before she shifted her gaze away again.  "Nope," she replied, and if he hadn't caught her look just a moment before, he might well have believed her.  Too bad he also knew damn well that she wasn't going to tell him exactly what kind of trouble she might be in . . .

"So, you just shouldn't stay around here," he remarked instead.

She sighed, but it was more of a simple lifting of her shoulders than a truly audible exhalation.  "Yeah, that's right."

He sighed, too.  "Then tell me where you're going," he prompted.

"I don't . . . don't know," she stated, but this time, she sounded weary, as though she was simply tired, maybe not in a physical sense, more like her mind was just overwhelmed by her own thoughts.  "It's not like I have anywhere I have to be," she went on with a little shrug.  "Just something I have to do, is all . . ."

He considered her statement for a long moment.  Something about the expression on her face, the determined glint that entered her gaze . . . He wasn't entirely sure what to make of her cryptic statement, but the tone of her voice . . . "What kind of 'something'?" he asked in what he hoped was a casual sort of tone.

"Just . . . something," she replied.  "Thanks for the offer, Jirou-kun, but—"

"I could help you," he cut in, unsure why he was saying any such thing, especially when he really didn't have a clue what the 'something' was, in the first place.  "I mean, as long as it isn't anything bad, anyway."

She wrinkled her nose and opened her mouth, probably to tell him exactly what she thought of his off-handed comment.  Abruptly, though, she snapped her mouth closed and then choked out a laugh.  He blinked at the rather pleasant sound.  Roughened a little, almost like she didn't rightfully know how to truly laugh, it was still an entirely welcome.  Adding a heightened brightness to her eyes, a sparkle that brought to mind the light, shimmering on the surface of the water . . . Jirou blinked, stared for a moment, and then, he smiled, too . . .

 

 




 

 

 

"All right.  I think that's enough for one day."

Grimacing at the dryness in the young taijya's voice, Kuro couldn't contain the groan that slipped out of him as he flopped over onto his back, letting his hands fall wide at his sides, and he winced as the struggled to control his labored breathing.  "Th-Thank you . . . sensei," he managed, but only after several long moments.

She rolled her eyes as she rounded on him after replacing the bokken on the nearby rack mounted to the side of the hut that she called 'home'.  Planting her hands on her hips, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other and slowly shook her head.  "I told you, don't call me that," she muttered, slowly shaking her head.

Kuro made a face, pushing himself upright before rolling onto his knees, hands on his thighs as he ducked his head in a bow.  "But you're training me, and—"

This time, she sighed.  "I'll be honest, Kuro-san, I don't know if this is a good idea.  I mean, you're just not very . . ."

He grimaced again, chin snapping up, though he remained still otherwise.  "No, please!" he blurted, unable to help himself.  "I'll do better tomorrow; I promise!"

She didn't look like she believed him, and he supposed he couldn't really blame her for that.  In the course of the few hours that they'd been training, he had to admit that he wasn't able to actually do anything that might have even remotely impressed her, and he sighed.  "Please, sensei," he murmured, squeezing his eyes closed as he shot forward, his forehead nearly touching the hard-packed ground.

"Don't do that," she grumbled, letting her arms drop to her sides for a moment before crossing them over her chest instead.  "And just 'Marisaiko' or even 'Mari' is fine."

"Please!" he begged once more as he bent a little bit farther.  This time, his forehead did touch the ground.

"Why?" she asked instead.  She didn't sound entirely exasperated, and Kuro figured that was worth something, at least.  "Why do you want to learn so badly?  Surely there are other things you can do.  Not everyone is cut out for this, anyway."

"I just . . . I have to!" he insisted without raising his head.

"I take it the two of you are done for the day?"

Marisaiko didn't answer her father right away.

Miroku glanced from Kuro to his daughter then back again as a thoughtful frown surfaced on his features.  "Mari, why don't you go help your mother with dinner?" he suggested gently.

She didn't answer him, but Kuro opened his eyes in time to see her feet as the taijya walked away.

Miroku sighed.  "Sit up," he said softly, his feet coming a step, two steps, closer.  "Please."

Reluctantly, Kuro complied, scowling at the ground, stubbornly refusing to meet the man's gaze as he hunkered down in front of him.

It felt like an eternity before the ex-monk spoke.  In reality, it was probably only a few seconds, but there was something about the intensity of his stare that made Kuro want to fidget despite his resolve not to do so.

"You're cursed, aren't you?" Miroku finally asked.

Kuro's eyes shot up to meet his, just in time to see the light of apparent understanding dawn on him.  The same violet eyes as his daughter, Miroku seemed like he was considering things, as though he were trying to decide something before he spoke again.  "Of course you are," he finally went on, nodding slowly, as though everything made perfect sense to him.  "Will you tell me how it happened?"

"Y-You can tell?" Kuro asked before he could stop himself.

Miroku chuckled, but it was not unkind.  "No one alive can be as clumsy as you are," he stated flatly.  "I'm not trying to be harsh, but . . ."

Kuro heaved a sigh.  "My father is at war with a neighboring daimyo," he admitted.  "Their fathers were, as well, and even their fathers' fathers . . . There was an old man who fancied himself a seer who told my father's enemy that he had visions that my father's oldest son would win the war and bring about his ruin, so he found an old miko who professed to having the ability to cast curses, and he paid her to curse me."  Kuro made a face and slowly shook his head.  "She wasn't very good at it, I guess, because I didn't die—I was no more than a babe at the time, and I don't remember it, of course—but they said that the she maintained that the curse would kill me before my third birthday.  I didn't die, but . . ."

"But you ended up like you are now," Miroku concluded.

Kuro nodded.  "And it should have been simple to hunt her down and make her lift the curse—my father tried to do that—but the miko disappeared, and no one has seen or heard tale of her since."  Sitting up a little straighter, Kuro couldn’t help the stubborn little scowl that shot to the fore.  "My father tried to have me trained for a time, but after awhile, no one would agree to help me . . ."

Miroku digested that.  "And you need to find her to get her to lift the curse yourself."

"Y-Yes . . . But how did you know?" he couldn't help asking.

Miroku chuckled again.  "Well, I know something about curses myself," he admitted.  "My family bore a curse for a very long time.  I had a hole carved into my hand, as did my father and his father before him.  That hole—the kazaana—sucked in anything in its path if I didn't keep it covered and sealed with prayer beads.  It grew worse and worse slowly.  My grandfather and my father were both sucked into that cursed hole in their own hands . . . InuYasha, Kagome, and Sango and me . . . We hunted down the being that had cursed my grandfather and defeated him before the kazaana was able to suck me into it, too."

Neither said anything for a few moments.  Miroku seemed to be deep in thought.  Suddenly, though, he nodded once and stood, offering a hand to help Kuro to his feet, too.  "Come on," he said as he gave Kuro's hand a light tug.

"Where are we going?"

The ex-monk led the way toward a dirt path that disappeared in a cluster of trees that hid a small stream from view.  "You look like you could use a good soak," Miroku tossed casually over his shoulder.  "Sango made a salve for you since she figured you'd be pretty sore.  After that, I'll see if there's anything I can do to at least lessen the curse.  I can't promise it'll work, but it can't hurt to try . . ."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"So . . . you want to retrieve a kimono that your mother gave you because some guy stole it," Jirou said as he followed along behind Kiri, ducking his head to avoid a low-hanging branch since Kiri stubbornly refused to use the perfectly good road to travel.

She paused long enough to cast him a withering glance over her shoulder before moving on once more.  "It's a special kimono," she insisted haughtily, "and it was my mother's, which is why I have to get it back."

Jirou sighed since he really hated to be the one to point out what should have been obvious.  Still . . . "If it was stolen a couple years ago, what makes you think you'll be able to get it back, assuming that whoever stole it even still has it?  And even if he does still have it, how are you going to find the guy, anyway?"

She snorted indelicately, but didn't miss a step.  "Idokaezan is easy to find," she grumbled.  "Getting inside his castle is going to be the tricky part."

"Castle?" he echoed dubiously.  "A thief that owns a castle?"

"I didn't say he was a thief."

Raising an eyebrow, Jirou shook his head.  "But you said he stole the kimono."

"He did!"

"So, he's not a thief, but he stole your mother's kimono . . .?"

“Yes,” she maintained.  “Anyway, I’m going to get it back.”

“But it’s just a kimono,” he pointed out in what he hoped was a reasonable tone.

It was the wrong thing to say.  “How would you know?” she growled, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice.  “That kimono was all I had left of my mother, and even then, it’s mine!  My mother—” Biting off her words with a vicious sort of ruthlessness, she quickly shook her head.  “It’s the very last thing I had,” she said once more, only this time, there was a vulnerability in her words, a sadness in her aura, that touched him.  After all, if he were her, if Kagome had died when he was a pup, wouldn’t he have held onto whatever he’d been left with of hers . . . .?

“Listen, I didn’t mean it like that,” he told her.  “I only meant, would your mother really want you to put yourself into any kind of danger, just to retrieve her kimono?”

She didn’t respond to that right away, but he could feel the tension slowly, slowly ebbing away from her, too.They walked awhile in silence, but it was far more comfortable.  She seemed to be lost in thought, and Jirou contented himself with scanning the forest, making sure that there were no dangers lurking just out of view.  The skies overhead were hazy, overcast, still saturated with rain that had yet to fall, and it was on the tip of his tongue to tell her that they probably should start looking for somewhere to shelter in case the rain decided to break loose.

It also occurred to him that he hadn’t told anyone where he was going, either, since he’d fully intended on just returning home after seeing Marisaiko back to her village.  There was a good chance that he was going to catch seven kinds of hell once he returned home when all was said and done.

He frowned.  Maybe he wouldn’t.  After all, it wasn’t like he was still a pup, and Kagome might well be upset that he hadn’t informed them of his plans, he also knew well enough that she always tried to give both him and Ai a measure of independence, too.  Besides, he had a feeling that Kagome herself would be of the opinion that he should follow Kiri, if, for no other reason, than to make sure that the girl didn’t find herself in a situation she couldn’t control.  No, if anyone would say anything to him about it, it would be InuYasha, and only because of the worry he’d undoubtedly cause his mother . . .

Even then, he had no real inkling as to how long he’d be gone.  If Kiri would let Jirou carry her, they’d get where they were going a hell of a lot faster than they would if they continued to plod along, but at least at the moment, he figured that there wasn't any way she'd agree to that at all . . .

“My father gave it to her, the kimono,” she admitted quietly, breaking the companionable silence that had fallen.  “He said it would keep her safe . . . She never wore it, but . . . But she’d hold it sometimes at night, after she thought that I’d fallen asleep.  She . . . She’d hold it and cry.  Well, maybe not cry, but she’d have these tears running down her cheeks . . .”

He digested that for a long moment before letting out a deep breath and slowly shaking his head.  The sadness of her quiet statement dug at him deep.  He could kind of understand why her mother might have done that, and he had little doubt that Kiri understood, too, at least, now, but as a child?  How much had Kiri really understood?  And, given such a memory, then he supposed he could understand why she’d want the garment back so desperately.  “Okay, then,” he stated.  “We’ll get it back, but how did this Idokaezan get it in the first place?”

Heaving a sigh, Kiri stopped abruptly, pivoting on her heel—no small feat in the geta sandals she wore—to pin him with a longsuffering sort of look.  "It's a long story," she grumbled, crossing her arms over her chest as she swung around again and stomped away.

"We've got time," he pointed out in what he hoped was a neutral tone of voice.

He couldn't see her face, but he didn't need to.  The irritation at his statement fairly radiated from her, and for a moment, he didn't think she was going to bother to answer.  In the end, she uttered a curt growl of frustration instead.  "He owns this spot near the water," she said.  "I mean, I didn't know it at the time.  It isn't fenced in or anything, so I caught a fish, and I was trying to cook it when his soldiers found me, and they dragged me into the castle and accused me of stealing it.  They said I cut down a tree, too, which was entirely stupid because I didn't have anything on me that I could have done that, in the first place, and everyone knows that green wood doesn't burn, anyway.  Then Idokaezan demanded that I pay him for the fish and tree . . ."

Jirou nodded slowly.  "So he took your mother's kimono as payment."

She sighed again and rather miserably shook her head.  "He did say that he'd sell it back to me," she muttered, the hint of irritation in her voice blossoming into an impotent growl.

“Sell it back?” he repeated dubiously.  “Then you have the money?”

He didn’t miss the slight stiffening in her back and shoulders—just a momentary flash of indecision.  “I have a little bit,” she admitted.

He scowled at her response, unsure exactly what to make of it.  “How much more do you need?”

She sighed.  “He didn’t really say how much,” she replied in such a way that implied he ought to have realized that much.  “Anyway, I’ll figure it out.  Don’t worry about it.”

“Considering your idea of figuring stuff out usually involves stealing from shrines or hapless travelers, I’m not so sure I should ‘not worry about it’.”

She wasn’t impressed with his off the cuff retort, and the baleful glower she cast over her shoulder at him said as much.  “I didn’t ask you to come along,” she reminded him hotly,  “so if you’re only going to insult me and treat me like I’m stupid, then just go away.  I was fine before I met you, and I’ll be fine when you’re gone, too.”

For some reason, her statement bothered Jirou more than he wanted to admit, even if he wasn’t entirely sure why that was.

Probably because she’s right,’ the voice in his head pointed out in a rather philosophical tone.  ‘She actually told you to go away, ur mother'be we'y involves stealing and you ignored her.  You might think that she’s too weak to be left to her own devices, but don’t forget: if her mother died when she was a child, she’s managed to take care of herself without any help from you or anyone else for years already.

He made a face and brushed off the statement.  “All right, Kiri-chan,” he relented, deliberately ignoring the questions that stirred in the back of his mind.  “We’ll do it your way.”

 

 




 

 

 

“So he’s cursed?”

Miroku nodded slowly as he stretched out on the futon, leaning up on his elbow as he idly watched Sango as she moved quietly, efficiently, around the small bedroom.  Her form, hidden demurely within the soft folds of the simple white kimono, took on a warm glow from the frail light from the lantern suspended near the doorway.  InuYasha and Kagome had helped to build this house, and many of Kagome’s sensibilities from her modern life had influenced the structure.  Miroku didn’t mind at all, given that the extra privacy was a welcome thing, in his estimation . . . “Yes,” he replied.  “I was able to temporarily lessen the effect.  He still needs to find the miko who cursed him originally to have her remove it, if she will, and soon, but . . .”

Sinking down on the futon beside him, she drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them as she considered her husband’s words.  “But isn’t that dangerous?”

Miroku made a face since Sango, being one of the smartest people he’d ever known and by far, the most perceptive, hadn’t taken long to figure out the drawbacks of what he’d done, too.  “It can be,” he allowed.  “I discussed it all with Kuro before I performed the rites.  He still wanted to do it.”

Sango nodded slowly but said nothing.  She was right, of course, and that was the rub.

I need to tell you a few things before we try to help you,” Miroku said as Kuro winced and rubbed at his shoulder where he still sat, submerged in the small pool of the healing hot spring.

If it will help, then I don’t care,” Kuro stated flatly.

Hold on.  You need to hear me out,” Miroku insisted.  “I cannot undo the curse, you understand.  I can attempt to lessen it, but if you cannot find the miko that cursed you to start with, then you’ll regressworse than you are now—and it will only go downhill from there until . . .

Kuro considered that for a long moment, worrying at his lower lip as he considered the repercussions that Miroku had just spelled out.  “How long before it starts to worsen?

This time, Miroku sighed.   “I don’t know,” he admitted quietly.  He wasn’t entirely sure that Kuro actually appreciated exactly what Miroku was telling him, and considering the consequences could be dire, then he owed it to the young man to make absolutely certain that Kuro truly understood.  “I’ll basically just be buying you time to find the miko and to get her to undo the curse.  If you cannot find herif you cannot get her to undo the curse—you must know exactly how bad it could get.

"Bad enough to kill me.  That’s what you're saying, right?"

Slowly, Miroku nodded.  "The curse itself wouldn't kill you, but the end result could easily be death if you cannot control your body."

A strange sort of expression slowly surfaced on Kuro’s face: a stubborn sort of determination that surprised Miroku, though he couldn’t rightfully say why that was.  “I’ll find her,” he stated quietly, a darkness entering his gaze as he stared out over the surface of the water.  “I’ll find her, and she will remove the curse.

Sango sighed, breaking through Miroku’s reverie.  “Why didn’t you tell Marisaiko about all of this?”

Miroku shrugged.  “He asked me not to.  I mean, it’s only a big deal if he cannot find the miko or if she won’t remove the curse, but he said that the other lord paid her to do it, so it wasn’t a personal vendetta or anything.  Chances are good that she'd remove it . . .”

Sango rolled her eyes.  “And you don’t think that our daughter might well suspect something tomorrow morning when he’s suddenly able to stay on his feet without tripping?  You forget who Marisaiko really is.”

"Oh, I know who she is well enough," Miroku said with a chuckle since he’d thought as much himself.  “But it’s Kuro’s story to tell,” he maintained.  “Marisaiko would have figured it out herself easily enough if she possessed first-hand  knowledge of curses.”

Sango nodded slowly.  “Well, I guess it’s for the best,” she allowed, her eyes igniting with a very amused glimmer.  “At least I can sleep tonight without worrying that he’s going to roll into the fire pit or something.”

 

 




 

 

 

She couldn’t sleep.

It was late, she could tell.  The hut had grown silent hours ago, so silent that she could hear herself blinking in the darkness.

It just didn’t make sense.  Her first thought was that Kuro was just suffering a severe bout of nerves, but as the training session had progressed, he had gotten worse, and honestly, she was more than a little afraid that he was going to end up maimed or dead if he kept insisting on the lessons . . .

Heaving a sigh, Marisaiko sat up, figuring that the idea of actually sleeping tonight was just not going to happen.

Grimacing in the darkness, she slowly shook her head.  The real problem, she thought, was that she dreaded the morning, dreaded telling Kuro that she really didn’t think she could train him, at all.  The poor man was going to end up being killed or at least seriously maimed if they kept trying when he couldn’t even keep his feet under him in the best of times.

And she hated that, she had to admit.  She hated to have to admit that she couldn’t do something.  It grated on her nerves, on her pride, far more than she wanted to allow.

It was hard, wasn’t it?  Growing up around Ai and Jirou . . . As much as she adored them, as much as she considered them to be siblings, even if they weren’t really . . . It was difficult, watching them accomplish things that she would never be able to do.  If she had to admit it, at least to herself, she’d say that the two of them had driven her much more than she’d ever inspired them.  Because they were hanyou, things were easier for them.  They were better, faster, stronger, and Marisaiko had always fought to keep up, to be as good, as fast, as strong, as smart . . . It was that feeling of being somehow inferior that drove her beyond her own limits at times, that stilled her tongue when she felt like complaining, especially on days when she felt like she was forever seeing the two of them, slowly widening the distance between their abilities.

It wasn’t as bad years ago.  She was older than them, she was more advanced than they were, and she was the one that the twins had always looked up to.  It seemed like forever ago that they were chasing after her, trying to get her to show them how to do this or that.  As they’d all grown older, though . . .

Which was probably why she’d agreed to train Kuro, in the first place . . .

Damn her pride, anyway.

Tossing aside the thin blanket, Marisaiko stood up.  Sometimes if she couldn’t sleep, she’d get a head start on making a simple rice porridge for breakfast, even if it would be hours before dawn finally broke.  Either way, she’d found that it was oftentimes better to keep her mind occupied than not, especially when she wasn’t particularly proud of the thoughts that were keeping her from resting, and she couldn’t help the acute shame that seemed to take a physical form, that chased behind her as she cross the wood floor to the mat that covered the doorway.  She loved both Ai and Jirou, and feeling jealous of them, for any reason and for any amount of time, felt entirely dishonorable to her . . .

Letting the mat that covered her door fall behind her as she stepped out of the room, Marisaiko frowned.  The mat that she’d given Kuro just before retiring for the night sat off to the side, still folded with a thin blanket atop it, but the young man was nowhere to be seen.  Maybe he’d decided that learning how to fight wasn’t really something he could do . . . Maybe he’d decided to sneak away in the middle of the night?

That thought made her bite her bottom lip as she grimaced inwardly.  As clumsy as he was, she couldn’t help but to worry that he was going to go out there, trip over something, and end up gravely injured.

But there wasn’t really anything she could do about it, was there?  After all, she barely knew him, didn’t actually know much about him, either, aside from the fact that he couldn’t quite keep himself from stumbling over his own feet, and she really had no idea just when he’d left, either.  He could still be in the village or he could be pretty far, if he’d left just after she’d gone to bed.

And still, she couldn’t quite help the guilty pang that shot through her, either.  She hadn’t meant to discourage him or humiliate him to the point that he’d skulk off in the middle of the night.  When she figured that she’d tell him that she couldn’t train him, she’d thought to try to do so in such a way as to spare as much of the poor man's pride as she possibly could, and now . . .

Well, maybe it really was for the best.  It was entirely possible that he'd finally listened to what she said earlier.  She only hoped that he'd be able to find something that he was capable of doing, something that would help him to forget the idea of training, anyway . . .

Letting out a deep breath, she strode over and swiped up the empty water bucket.  Normally, she’d have filled it before bed, but she had forgotten, which was just as well.

Sparing a moment to slip on her shoes, Marisaiko pushed the bamboo mat aside and stepped out of the hut, only to make a face as the rain hit her, full-on.She had been so deep in her own thoughts that she hadn’t realized that it was raining.

There really was no help for it, though, and she pulled the edges of her kimono together and hurried toward the corner of the hut, fully intending to head for the small well.

A flash of lightning split the night, and Marisaiko stopped in her tracks as the training yard was illuminated for a few moments.  Standing there in the same area where she’d tried to train him earlier that day was Kuro.  He stood, holding one of the bokken in his hands.  In the staggered flashes of light, she watched as he swung the weapon a few times, as though he were practicing.  But his motions were strangely efficient, even rather skilled, and oddly enough, he didn’t seem clumsy at all, either.

All in all, he reminded Marisaiko of a video that Jirou had showed her once on his phone—a movie, he'd called it—about a samurai who had opted to turn against his life of violence and war and had tried to lead a simple life.  At one point in the movie, the man had stood, alone, practicing with a sword in much the same manner as Kuro was now.  It was . . . "Remarkable," she breathed, ignoring the rain that soaked her to the skin.

As though he sensed her presence, his head snapped to the side.  When he saw her, the bokken dropped harmlessly to his side . . .

 

 




 

 

 

Staring out of the mouth of the cave, listening to the dull patter of the falling rain, Kiri stifled a sigh as she let her chin fall onto her crossed arms.  She hated nights like this, nights when she was left alone with nothing but the thoughts that constantly tumbled through her head—memories or dreams or things she simply didn’t understand.  Some of the things seemed like they could be memories, but they were so odd that she knew in her heart that they couldn’t possibly be.  Even so, those things . . .

The golden dragon, scales such a deep gold that it almost seemed to glow in the moonlight, silently slipping through the sky overhead, twisting and turning into itself, through the hoops created by its serpentine body, as she heard the vague whispers that she was entirely too young to understand, but the dragon, as fierce as it looked, made her giggle, even as it stretched its wings, mid-air, even as it reared back and unleashed a ball of fire as bright as the sunshine in the noon-day sky . . .

“Here.”

Kiri started, jerking back slightly as Jirou shoved a well-roasted and very fragrant fish under her nose.  “Oh, uh . . . Thank you,” she replied as she took the stick.

If he noticed her preoccupation, he didn’t comment as he hunkered down beside her and took a small bite out of his fish.  “It’s raining even harder now,” he remarked, lifting his gaze as he scowled thoughtfully at the falling drops.

She nibbled at the fish since it was still too hot to manage much more.  “Do you think it’ll stop by morning?”

He shrugged.  “Maybe . . . You don’t like traveling in the rain?”

Snorting indelicately, she took a big bite, blinking fast as the heat nearly scalded her tongue.  “Hardly,” she shot back once she’d managed to swallow.  “Figured you’d hate it though . . . Dog ears, you know.”  To emphasize her point, she used her free hand , balling up her fist and extending her index finger as she held it up to her head where her ear might have been if she were inu-hanyou like him.  Then she wiggled her finger for good measure.

He rolled his eyes but chuckled.  “Okay, it is kind of a pain when I get water down in them, but that doesn’t happen too often,” he remarked.  Suddenly, though, he shot her a puzzled look.  “Are you . . .?  Are you teasing me?”

Kiri blinked, letting her hand fall away from her head as she realized that she was, indeed, teasing him.  Had she ever done that before with anyone?

Don’t answer that,’ she told herself sternly.

“No, I'm just . . . just making small talk,” she muttered, turning her attention back to her fish once more, glad that it was dark enough that the warmth that filtered into her cheeks would go unnoticed.

"When I was a pup, I use to hate storms," he admitted, ignoring her brusque answer as a hint of wistfulness crept into his tone.  "Ai used to tease me all the time, especially when I . . . When I'd go hide next to baa-chan . . ."

"Storms don't bother Ai?"

"Back then, I didn't think she was ever afraid of anything," he said, and in the flash of lightning, Kiri saw the pensiveness that stole over his features.  "But I think . . ." Trailing off for a moment, he shook his head as he gathered his thoughts.  "Well, jii-chan said that sometimes, people who are afraid of something will try to hide it by acting like they're not afraid of anything."

She frowned as she considered that theory, as a sudden surge of indignation rose up from somewhere deep inside.  "And that's what you think I'm doing, right?  That’s the point of your stupid story?"

"Wh—?  I—No," he insisted.  He even managed to sound duly perplexed, entirely confused.

She wasn't buying his feigned innocence; not by a long shot.  "You think I'm scared?  Of what?  You?"

She thought maybe he sighed, but she wasn’t sure.  “I’m not really your enemy, you know,” he pointed out reasonably—almost too reasonably.

“Then what are you?” she countered.  She hadn’t meant to inflict as much hostility into her tone as she had, and she grimaced inwardly.  It was second nature, she supposed.  Over the years, she’d learned well enough that no one really wanted her around.  Jirou . . . He wasn’t any different, was he?

Her question, however, seemed to give him pause.  Finally, though, he sighed and gave a little shrug.  “Well . . . we could be friends,” he ventured.  “Not yet, I guess, but eventually.”

She snorted.  “Friends?” she scoffed, even as a strange kind of prickle erupted behind her eyelids.  “What does that mean?”

She could feel him staring at her, even though she stubbornly refused to look at him, to verify it.  “You don’t know what a friend is?” he asked slowly.

“I know what one is,” she growled, her irritation spiraling higher faster and faster.  “What I don’t know is why you’d say that to me!  You said it yourself, didn’t you?  I’m a thief, right? Just a thief who steals from shrines, and—”

“I’m sorry,” he cut in calmly, as though he were completely oblivious to her rapidly escalating temper.  “If I were you—if I’d had to deal with everything that you’ve had to—”

“I don’t want your pity,” she ground out, clenching her jaw so tightly that her teeth hurt, “and I don’t need you or your help, so why don’t you just run home to your mama and papa and leave me alone!”

“Maybe I should,” he agreed easily enough.  “If I pitied you, then I guess I would do that—just pack it all up and go home.  But I don’t pity you.  I want to help you; that’s all.”

Something about his words, about the strange look on his face, stopped her tirade. Eyes glowing even in the semi-dark, he stared at her in such a way that she wondered for a fleeting moment if he could see inside her head.  It made no sense at all to her, and yet, she couldn’t force herself to break the eye contact, either.  She wasn’t sure why, nor did she understand the sudden warmth that opened up deep in her belly.  It wasn’t unpleasant, no, but it was entirely unsettling, just the same.  “You . . . You really do?  Want to help me?” she repeated almost incredulously.

“Yes,” he assured her.  “I do.”

She stared at him for several long moments.  She couldn’t quite help it, could she?  No one had ever said that they wanted to help her before, and even though common sense told her that she couldn’t—couldn’t—simply trust someone, especially someone she’d just met, there was something about Jirou—almost a feeling of familiarity, though why that would be, she couldn’t begin to understand, and as much as she didn’t want to admit as much, it was there, wasn’t it?

That old feeling that she thought she had outgrown or killed off a long time ago in that part of her that was still that lonely, desperate little girl . . . It was back with a vengeance: that desire to belong somewhere with someone, and maybe Jirou . . .

Maybe she could belong with him.