Continuing Tales

Tales from the House of the Moon

A InuYasha Story
by Resmiranda

Part 29 of 42

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Tales from the House of the Moon

"Winners never talk about glorious victories. That's because they're the ones who see what the battlefield looks like afterwards. It's only the losers who have glorious victories."
- Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

. . .

It did not occur to Sesshoumaru until it was far too late that demonstrating his one-armed handstand technique in the middle of a forest trail was not the most dignified of positions for a distinguished and feared being such as himself. In fact it could even be considered downright childish behavior; certainly unbefitting a youkai lord at any rate.

Still, he reflected, at least his hakama stayed where they were supposed to.

He had to admit - not that he cared at all - that she had very nice legs, too, so really this little oversight was not so terrible. No harm in it, really. He quirked an eyebrow and allowed his eyes to follow the graceful curve of her ankle that sloped gently the further up it went.

Kagome caught his expression. Face red from her prolonged inversion, she struggled to follow his line of sight but gave up when she found herself looking down her own shirt.

"What are you looking at?" she demanded, voice strained.

Your modesty is being compromised, he thought, mentally trying it out.

No, no... something else. I can see your -

Forget that, never mind. You have lovely -


He sighed and settled for clearing his throat meaningfully.

However, before he was able to skirt the issue, a slight breeze picked up. Sesshoumaru saw her eyes widen comically at the unwanted feel of air on her naked legs.

"Aiee!" she shrieked indignantly, and fell over.

He watched, barely containing his amusement, as she scooted backwards off the trail and into the protruding roots of a particularly gnarly tree. She winced at the new lumps digging into her abused flesh as she scrambled to cover her calves. Sesshoumaru repressed the urge to roll his eyes. Why she found the situation so embarrassing was beyond him; the hakama had only fallen to her knees, whereas her strange uniform she used to wear had fallen to mid-thigh, even when she wasn't upside down.

Plucking fingers pulled the thick red fabric over her shins. "I knew it!" Kagome cried, as though in righteous triumph. "I knew it all along!"

The upturned corners of his lips fell back as he tried to figure out what it was, exactly, she had always known. His confusion must have shown in his face, because she actually deigned to enlighten him for once, instead of merrily skipping off and leaving him in the dark as she usually did.

"I knew you were peeping!"

Sesshoumaru scowled. "I do not peep," he said icily. "I cannot help it if you lack the proper maidenly decorum required to retain your modesty."

"Pervert!" she cried, her hands now holding the hem of her hakama firmly to the ground, her legs comically skewed Sesshoumaru felt the beginnings of a sneaking suspicion that she was teasing him. There was no possible way her theatrics could be genuine. Well, two could play that game.

Very slowly, making certain she was watching him, he bared a pointed fang and leered.

Kagome flamed scarlet and turned her face away, sticking her nose up in the air in a manner not unlike a cat pretending a particularly mortifying incident had not just occurred. The comparison interested him.

"I'll have you know," Kagome sniffed, distracting him from his analogy, "that I am a really powerful miko - "

" - woefully untrained - " he cut in.

"Not the point!" she snapped. "Anyway, I am a really powerful - " here she shot him a sideways glare, " - albeit untrained - " she conceded " - miko, and if you put your pervert hands anywhere they aren't wanted, I'll purify your perverted fingers off!"

She really did make it too easy. "How fortunate for me," he said blandly, "as I doubt very much there is anywhere my hands are not wanted." Kagome gave a strangled squeak and he was left with the distinct impression that her hackles were raised sky-high, putting him even more in mind of a cat. To his surprise he found the notion of Kagome as feline rather intriguing, and as she groped for a response Sesshoumaru absently entertained himself with the thought of her sitting at his feet and worrying the end of his obi.

The vision distracted him on so many levels that he nearly missed what she said next.

Registering her voice he shook away the perilously diverting mental image and refocused on the distinctly-human Kagome, still sitting ten feet away from him in a jumble of roots. She seemed somewhere between apoplectic and mortified, and had turned fully away from him.

Sesshoumaru cast about for something to mollify her. "Forgive me, you were being uninteresting," he said, striving to sound conciliatory.

Kagome cast an unreadable glance back over her shoulder. "I said, whatever, and stop showing off!" she repeated.

Returning to the familiar, comforting state of confusion in which he spent most of his days, Sesshoumaru quirked a brow. "Showing off?" he wanted to know.

He watched as her eyes narrowed in a scathing glance. "Yes," she said primly. "You're still upside down. We all know you can stand on one hand, pardon me for not having youkai strength, you can stop now."

Oh, he thought. "Is that all?" he asked. Not bothering to wait for an answer, he bent his arm slightly before he launched himself into the air, gracefully turning his body upright and landing lightly on his feet.

He absently brushed the dirt from his hand, happily noting that he had avoided accumulating any of it beneath his claws. "Shall we go?" he asked, looking up.

She was holding out a hairbrush to him.

Sesshoumaru looked at it blankly.

He watched as a small smirk bloomed on her face. "You have flower petals in your hair," she informed him. "Though if you want to leave them in, that's fine by me. They look rather fetching."

Kagome couldn't help but repress a giggle at the growl that rumbled in his chest as he snatched the hairbrush from her fingers and turned away from her.

Truth be told, she was rather impressed with the win she had pulled out of that conversation at the last second, though if his hair weren't so long and the forest floor so covered in rotting flowers from the trees above she would have been forced to admit defeat once again. Still, all things considered, it had been amusing and she felt that congratulations were in order. She grinned to herself. Sesshoumaru pulled her out of her small but satisfying victory party by tossing the brush at her feet. She looked up to see him once again blossom-free, and smiled.

He seemed unamused. "How," Sesshoumaru said, slowly and distinctly, "did I allow you to coax me into such foolish behavior?"

Kagome scowled at him as she stuffed her brush back into her bag. "I didn't coax you into anything. You told me I was standing on my hands wrong and decided to impress me."

The choking noise that curdled in the back of his throat was nearly lost in the sound of the closing zipper. "I am impressive enough; I need not demonstrate that fact."

Kagome hiccupped and coughed over her own incredulous snort, but he ignored her and continued. "I was simply attempting to instill in you the knowledge of proper form."

"Yeah, but I can't do it with one hand."

The youkai ran his claws through his hair, giving the distinct impression that he was preening. Unwillingly, her eyes followed the motion of his fingers. "Your deficiencies are not my problem," he informed her.

Tearing herself away from his hair, Kagome rolled her eyes. "So what? The point is that I didn't make you do anything. You did it all on your own."

For a brief moment she thought he looked slightly panicked, but if he was, he rallied quickly. "Your incessant whining drove me to it," he said hastily. "So you see, it is your fault."

Kagome buried her face in her hands.

Still, she was feeling very pleased with her handling of the situation, as she seemed to have successfully coaxed him out of the silent shell with which he had surrounded himself for the first hour of their journey. Actually, she'd finally figured out that he had been more reticent than usual - if that were possible - whenever they had found themselves in anything less than total privacy, save for those first five minutes after she had arrived. When she had stumbled through the gates of his home he had bantered and teased her, and then, as though he had suddenly come to his senses, he had cut her off, leaving her suspended inside her anxiety without him to distract her; if anything, his sudden cool attitude toward her had made her even more anxious. Then he had loosened up again when they were in his office, but in front of his guards he had been downright frigid.

She didn't blame him, of course; despite the fact that he did not act angry he was most likely a little upset that she had dragged him into her problems. She might even feel that way were she in his shoes. It seemed, now that she had taken the time to think about it, that it had been very self-centered of her to want to visit him, and foolish to think she would be welcomed. Perhaps, she had speculated miserably, his teasing at the gate and light, weary mockery in the confines of his study had not been playfulness, but cruelty, designed to beat her down, humiliate her enough into leaving.

If that had been the case, Kagome had surmised, then she was clearly too thick to take the hint, and now he was most likely regretting his subtlety. Still, once on the road she had decided that it was going to be an awkward and upsetting trip if he did not stop sulking about their unhappy circumstances, and she had set her mind to work on ways to break free of the sullen silence that had engulfed them.

They were making decent time, and Kagome estimated that they had traveled about three miles before they reached the forest for which they had presumably been aiming. The sun had risen quite prettily over the pristine landscape, but, sadly, she had been in no mood to appreciate it. Instead of skipping frivolously through the flowery fields and generally reveling in the beauty of nature, she'd spent that first hour staring at the back of his head as they walked down the dirt path toward the southeast.

Worriedly she had groped for something to say - something inoffensive and bland, just to feel out the situation - but uncertainty struck down most of the things she wanted to talk about, as she had no idea whether or not his irritation had eclipsed his bizarre and reclusive mischievous side. The various topics conceived and subsequently rejected included innocuous inquiries as to the status of their progress - 'are we there yet?' - compliments on his home and his servants - 'they suit you' - and light-hearted comments as to his person - 'did you know the sunrise turns your hair pink?' In the end, though, she settled for regression.

"My feet are killing me," she'd announced ten yards into the forest. It seemed like a good topic to use as barometer; his reaction would tell her how he was feeling. If he insulted her, he was probably mildly upset. If he refrained from insulting her and merely teased - though sometimes it seemed as though he had redefined both words to mean the same thing - then he was feeling indifferent, or lightly well-disposed. If he cut her head off, he was pissed.

Kagome had waited for his response.

To her surprise she had seen his shoulders slump very slightly, and belatedly realized that he had still been holding them in a slightly hunched posture, as though tense and anxious. However, this fact turned the gesture into a welcome one; instead of slumping in defeat or exasperation, he seemed to melt into a comfortable stance. She found the reaction strange, as she thought the further they were from the relative safety of his home he would grow even more tense, but before she was able to ponder this great mystery Sesshoumaru had stopped and turned. He no longer wore that strange, tight expression. Instead he appeared light and bland, just like he had when she arrived, just like he had in his office, just like he had when they had traveled together the last time she was here, and it struck her, bizarrely, that he might not look like this for anyone else but her.

The thought caused her breath to catch in her throat.

She'd stayed silently rooted to the spot as he had looked her up and down, almost as though checking her out, and she'd had to suppress the blush that arose from his scrutiny. Finally he stopped and let a small, superior smile grace his features.

"How disappointing," he'd said.

The dizzy, breathless feeling left as soon as it had come, and Kagome had scowled. "Don't be so rude," she snapped back, temper flaring. "I bet if you were human you'd be complaining, too!"

The smile increased fractionally. "Indeed, but that is not what I was referring to."

"Oh?" she retorted. "What were you saying, then?"

"I made a bet with myself as to how long it would take you to start whining," he sniffed as he turned back around. "And I hate losing."

Kagome didn't know whether to feel insulted that he had assumed that she would whine - choosing to conveniently ignore the fact that he hadn't been wrong - or to feel triumphant that she had caused him to lose the bet. She supposed that it depended on what the bet had been.

She frowned at his retreating back, staying where she had halted. "What was the bet?" she demanded.

He turned again, faintly surprised, and appeared to think for a moment as if wondering whether or not to tell her the truth.

Kagome raised an eyebrow, crossed her arms, and tapped her foot.

The corners of his mouth twitched, as though he were suppressing a laugh. "I bet that you would begin to whine before the sun was up," he informed her. "So, as the sun has been up for a considerable amount of time, I have lost the bet."

"Oh," she said, slightly placated. "What do you owe yourself?"

Sesshoumaru seemed vaguely perplexed at the question. "I hadn't thought that far," he said. "Perhaps I will merely permit myself an unspecified indulgence in the unspecified future." Kagome pursed her lips; Sesshoumaru 'indulging' in something struck her as faintly bizarre. He seemed too severe and reserved to 'indulge' in anything, but, then again, it seemed strange because he obviously did not permit himself to indulge very often. She felt mildly sorry for him before shaking her head and straightening. He was still looking at her, though his eyes seemed to be gazing far away. Kagome refrained from tossing a glance over her shoulder to see what was so fascinating behind her.

"So..." she had ventured instead. He dragged his attention back from whatever cloud he'd been sitting on.

"How about indulging in carrying me? Because we're going to make bad time unless I switch to walking on my hands."

He smirked at that.

"Then walk on your hands," he had replied.

"Fine," she shot back, enjoying the flash of surprise that splashed across his face and was gone. "Hold my backpack."

Which found her where she was now, which was sitting in a feudal forest - once again - in a state of highly enjoyable exasperation - once again - and attempting to surreptitiously massage her bruised behind. Kagome sighed inwardly and wished that she hadn't panicked like a prude little schoolgirl and scrambled away without looking where she was headed; trees just didn't seem to be well disposed towards her.

Well! she thought, she was certainly not well disposed towards them either! What good had trees done for her lately? Stupid trees, always... standing still and providing shade...

"If we are quite finished?" Sesshoumaru said, effectively throwing a cow in front of her train of thought. She looked up, but despite his words he still did not seem as unhappy or tense as he had at the gates of his home. She idly wondered what had changed between now and then. Maybe she really was good for him, like Myouga had told her.

Shoving aside her musings, Kagome stood and shouldered her backpack once more. "Okay, but I wasn't kidding. Unless you carry me we're going to make really bad time."

Sesshoumaru shrugged as she limped toward him. "I am willing to accept a poor time," he said.

Kagome chose to ignore the subtle jab hidden in his answer and she groaned at him in a last ditch attempt to soften his position on the issue. "You never had any qualms about throwing me over your shoulder before," she reminded him.

He was silent. "And," she added, desperately pulling out her trump card, "that always shut me up. It would be in your best interests." Kagome finally drew up next to him.

He quirked an eyebrow at her, slight smile still playing on his lips. "Is it now?" he asked as he turned and continued walking. "What if I prefer your chatter to your weight?"

"Pfft!" she cried, hobbling alongside him. "Why the hell would you want to listen to me complain?"

He shrugged. "Background noise," he replied.

Kagome smacked him in the arm, and, ignoring the highly irritating smirk on his face on the grounds that it would only encourage him, limped ahead.

. . .

They didn't make it to the shrine that first day. Handstand-demonstration detours aside, Kagome simply could not keep up the pace that was required for a speedy journey, and at nightfall they had been forced to engage in a rather spirited argument about whether or not they should stop. Kagome insisted that they continue - I'm not weak, she had argued - and Sesshoumaru demanded that they halt - you will rest willingly or I will tie you up and force you to do so, he countered - and eventually only the threat of being wrestled to the ground and trussed like a chicken changed her mind.

Which had probably been a good thing, she reflected now, as she had barely made it through dinner and then had dropped off to sleep the moment she hit her sleeping bag.

"Not weak?" Sesshoumaru had said pointedly when he woke her that morning.

She'd stuck her tongue out at him, which, looking back on it, had set the tone for the day.

Now it was late morning, and Kagome was attempting to persuade Sesshoumaru to entertain her. It wasn't working very well.

"I spy with my little eye..." she said, casting desperately about for something she had not yet espied. Not that it mattered, since Sesshoumaru refused to play, leaving her to talk to herself.

She was nothing if not determined, though.

"...something... yellow. Yes. I spy with my little eye something yellow."

Sesshoumaru said nothing.

"Give up?" she asked him, grinning as impishly as possible at his stoic profile.

Sesshoumaru continued to say nothing. "Your obi," she informed him. "I'm surprised you didn't get that one; I thought it would be easy."

Sesshoumaru carried on saying nothing.

Kagome was feeling annoyed, which was only marginally better than bored. She wasn't entirely certain this net gain outweighed the price she had to pay, which was no doubt high, at least in terms of the amount of Sesshoumaru's good will she was no doubt rapidly consuming.

"I spy with my little eye something cranky," she announced, angling for an amusing reaction.

"You," he said abruptly.

Well, it's a reaction, she thought. "I am not cranky," she said. "If anyone here is cranky, it's you."

"I am not," Sesshoumaru replied. "You are cranky. I am dignified."

"Why, because you're as interesting as a rock?" she demanded.

The youkai tilted his face towards hers before he looked away. He shrugged, as if to say that rocks could be quite interesting indeed. "No. Because I refuse to engage in pointless games," he informed her.

Kagome scowled. "It wasn't pointless. It was just to pass the time because I was bored."

She saw him purse his lips as he gazed thoughtfully into the distance. "Perhaps you are bored," Sesshoumaru postulated, "because you are boring."

Irritation deepening, she leaned in toward him, attempting to glare the hell out of his face. "Hey, I am not boring," she snapped. "You happen to be the boring one around here."

"How so?"

"I tried to start up a conversation, but no! You wouldn't have any of it."

The slightest frown of confusion crossed what she could see of his face. "Yes I did," he said, sounding puzzled.

"Pfft!" she huffed. "You wouldn't tell me anything you did while I was gone! I don't call that very accommodating. Or interesting."

Sesshoumaru smirked, the slight tilt of his lips deepening the shadow at the corner of his mouth a fraction. "I did not refuse to answer," he said. "I merely said I did nothing." He paused and blinked. "Which is the truth." He sounded almost rueful, and Kagome found herself half-believing him. "Hmph," she said. "I doubt that, but I forgive you."

"You forgive me?" he said incredulously.

"Yes," she shot back, "and don't make me reconsider!"

"I would not dream of doing anything to rescind your gracious pardon," he said dryly, looking down at her. "Yet the fact remains that, should you wish to have an interesting conversation, you must first introduce an interesting topic, and not just any fool thing that passes through your brain."

Kagome wrinkled her nose at him, and his lips twitched. "I don't know what would engage your interest, Sesshoumaru-sama," she said.

"Perhaps you should ask, Kagome-sama," he replied.

Well. That made sense. "Uh..." Kagome floundered slightly, "what would engage your interest?"

For a long minute she thought he wasn't going to answer her - which, she reflected glumly, would be the same as saying that nothing interested him - but then he frowned suddenly.

"What are you thinking of?" Sesshoumaru enquired. "And please refrain from saying 'something blue.'"

Kagome was momentarily overwhelmed by a vision of Sesshoumaru throwing her into a pit of quicksand. She floundered a little more, trying to trace back the line of her thought to before she had attempted to play a game with him.

"Um..." she said.

He rolled his eyes slightly at her scintillating remarks. She flushed. "I think I was wondering when this story was going to diverge from the one I read," she blurted, which was true. Ever since the thought had waltzed across her mind yesterday morning it had been returning with increasing frequency, and now that she was apparently following the story exactly, she was beginning to suspect that she was doing something wrong.

"Oh?" Sesshoumaru said, raising a brow quizzically. He actually seemed interested.

She nodded. "Usually the stories I read only vaguely resemble what actually happens," she said. "But I dunno. Maybe this is different because I'm the main character. They seem to be more accurate about the main story and I've just been a side character until now."

He tilted his head. "Hmm," he replied. "What if it doesn't diverge?"

Kagome shrugged. "Then there won't be any surprises." Except for the one at the end.

"Which," he remarked, "is, in itself, surprising."

She laughed. "I guess so," she said. "But you know, I really, really would have liked for this one to be different. I'm nervous about fighting."

"You have fought before."

That startled her. Kagome squinted up at him, but his face, as usual, revealed nothing of what he was thinking, only that he wasn't thinking much.

"I don't know," she replied. "I've only fought with a bow and arrows before, but that's not good for one-on-one combat. So I'm really uncomfortable thinking about it."

"You think you will become a master of the sword in time to save the village?" Sesshoumaru asked incredulously. For his part, he was beginning to worry about Kagome's plans, especially as she didn't seem to have any.

He watched her shrug. "No," she replied. "I expect to be barely competent in time to save the village."

"How competent is barely competent?" he asked sharply.

"I don't know. Can we stop talking about this?"

He shot her a look, but seemed disinclined to pursue this line of questioning further. Kagome felt a small stab of relief when he turned that tense gaze from her to the road ahead.

Swallowing, she did the same. An hour later she felt marginally better about the situation, and they were traveling in companionable silence. It was nice not to have to talk about everything, she decided, turning her gaze to the canopy laid out against the sky. She stared up at the green leaves as they passed beneath them, letting the filtered sunlight fall on her face in splashes and briefly shut her eyes.

Inhaling deeply, Kagome felt some of the anxiety in her stomach loosen with the beautiful scent of the summer forest, and she wondered if her companion felt the same thing. Surreptitiously she let her gaze slide to his profile.

She was almost disappointed to see that he continued to look the way he always looked - as if someone turned off the light in the attic, she thought - but then again she had no idea what he was thinking. Perhaps he was enjoying the fresh air and the wilderness as much as she, but just kept his thoughts to himself. On the other hand, Sesshoumaru did not seem to be the sort of person to get mushy about nature - or anything - so he could have very well been thinking about anything. Like... Kagome cast about.

His kingdom, maybe. Or fighting. Blood. Looking pretty. Filing his nails -

"I realize that I am pleasant to look at," Sesshoumaru said, suddenly jolted her back into reality, "so you need not hide the fact that you are doing so."

His golden eyes turned on her. Kagome felt her face flare incandescent. "I was not ogling you!" she snapped. "I was just... wondering what you were thinking!"

He arched a brow. "Then you need only ask," he replied. "And how fortunate that you have, as I was, in fact, wondering what miko training entailed. Perhaps you are inclined to enlighten me."

Kagome blinked. "Um..." she replied. Frantically she thought back to the very short, very tiny lessons Kaede had taught her, the gathering of herbs and which ones were good for what, and how to concentrate her power.

Sesshoumaru was raising his other brow as he waited, no doubt with dwindling patience.

Helplessly she shook her head. "Um," she said again. "Focusing power," she hazarded. "Medicines. Er... ceremonies. And prayers. Maybe meditation...?"

The youkai lord seemed amused. "You do not know," he stated.

Even though she did not, in fact, know the exact details, Kagome nevertheless felt that he was impugning her honor. "Hey!" she said. "I was busy hunting down the shikon shards and looking for Naraku! I didn't have a lot of time to sit around in shrines burning incense!"

He wasn't listening. Instead he had regained that far-away look in his eyes. After a moment he deigned to speak. "Tell me, Kagome," he said thoughtfully, and for some reason she imagined him stroking a little goatee as he said it, "what do you think you will do when we reach Fuyu's shrine?"

At his side, Kagome frowned, staring up at the sky as she thought. "I don't know," she said at last. "Ask her to train me?"

Sesshoumaru casting a dubious glance in her direction. "Oh, really?" he said. He was obviously falling somewhat short of total faith in her persuasive abilities.

Annoyed at his insinuations she spoke more sharply than she intended. "Yes," she snapped. "I will ask her to train me. What else would I say?"

He shrugged, seemingly unfazed by her short temper. "I do not know the ways of mikos; you are the only one I have met and I gather that you are somewhat... unconventional."

Kagome snorted. "That's one way of putting it," she said. "Incompetent is more like it, though."

After a minute in which there was no response, she looked up at him, only to see him staring off into the distance with a look of intense concentration - or perhaps mild indigestion - slightly marring his smooth features. She almost drew his attention back to her, but after a moment's wavering decided to stay silent. It was strange, sometimes, that she could read him so well and yet so poorly at the same time.

Either way she supposed that it didn't matter. At least he tended to ask the right questions.

They walked on in silence again. Kagome stared down at the ground that passed beneath her sore feet, composing a little speech in her head that she would say to Fuyu-sama when at last they came face to face, though since most of her entreaties involved a fair amount of foot-kissing, she was not certain how persuasive they were.

Still. Weren't mikos supposed to train other mikos? Wasn't there some kind of unwritten miko social contract? It seemed that there should be, but then again she wasn't really a miko, so it wasn't surprising that she didn't know.

It didn't matter. Once she explained her position to Fuyu-sama, the other miko would have to help her. Mikos were bound to help those in need. Therefore she need not know anything about anything.

Secure in her ignorance, Kagome resolved not to think about it, instead turning her attention to the still-pressing problem of waltzing into a shrine with a demon lord in tow. It probably would not make the best impression, and any mitigating lies she could tell - a pet, a slave, hey, I caught this youkai can I keep him - would insult him and she'd never hear the end of it. Kagome frowned fiercely. Stealing another glance at his companion, Sesshoumaru noticed that she was deep in thought, moving her lips a little as she apparently tried to puzzle out a particularly vexing problem, and he wondered whether or not to tell her that they were close. He estimated only a few minutes, though the time was growing shorter with each step. He was glad that they were close, as she was still limping and it was becoming harder and harder for him to refrain from picking her up and carrying her the rest of the way. Truly, he would not have minded; she was soft and light, and it had been quite a long time since he had cupped his hands against those lovely legs of hers -

Sesshoumaru jerked his eyes away, scowling, and tore his mind from her and back to the situation at hand. He lifted his face and sniffed again.

Yes, all was right, but there was... something on the wind, though. He could smell the holy power at the shrine - it wasn't very strong but it was definitely there - but there was something more. There was a smell of sickness and disease, old blood, festering wounds, tattered skin and missing limbs, and under that was the sickly scent of -

Two minutes later they broke through the trees.

Kagome was so engrossed in thought that she jumped when she felt the lightest of touches on her shoulder. Her head snapped up, and her breath caught.

Before them lay the shrine.

It was stately, looming above them and perched on the side of a hill, and no doubt one could see the village it served from the top of its steps. It seemed comfortable, peaceful; the building was edged in on all sides by trees, shady and welcoming. By all appearances it was like any other shrine, except for one thing.

Kagome narrowed her eyes.

There were dozens of men lingering on the hill and on the steps, some clumping into groups, others isolated - there was even a small group at the base of the hill, joking back and forth with each other as they bent and tended a small but flourishing garden - each and every one was bandaged up in some fashion. Each of them had been wounded in some way, and yet the low murmur of voices seemed gentle, a tranquil sort of lull, hospitable and sweet. The stone and grass were both bright and warm beneath the sun, seeming to welcome those seeking shelter and succor within.

This really was not what she had expected. Biting her lip, Kagome surveyed the almost-pastoral scene in front of her. Where had all these men come from? Surely they had not all come from a single village? If she squinted, she could make out that some of them seemed to be wearing armor.

Soldiers? she wondered.

Oblivious to Kagome's confusion, Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes slightly at the vista in front of them.

So this was what he had smelled. Or part of it, anyway. Sesshoumaru found himself reluctant to move forward, as the smell from the shrine - and one, stronger, but further away, where, where - was pungent. It curled in his nose, dark and insidious, like poisoned smoke. Sesshoumaru refrained from placing a sleeve over his face to filter out the scents that plucked at his stomach.

Forcibly he shook himself - he had smelled this before, it was not a problem - and turned his attention to the miko beside him.

He studied her, noticing that while Kagome radiated puzzlement and anxiety her face seemed as determined and strong as it almost always did. She glanced up at him.

"Shall we?" she asked.

He only looked at her, but she appeared to take his silence as the equivalent of a 'yes' - and it probably was - so she just turned away and began to walk forward, across the wide field and towards the foot of the hill. Sesshoumaru followed.

The closer they drew, the more Kagome noticed the fading of the light background noise, of the low hum of camaraderie and good humor. The scraping of armor against the stone steps, the light and easy banter of companions, even the heavy slice of farming tools against the earth - all were falling away as she and the youkai lord walked across the field, and though she was keeping her eyes trained on the top of the shrine steps she could still feel the heavy weight of dozens of wary gazes falling upon her.

They had walked only halfway across the field when a figure appeared at the top of the shrine steps, dressed in red and white.

Kagome blinked. Instead of the young or middle-aged woman Kagome had been expecting, the miko - Fuyu-sama, that's her name, remember, Fuyu-sama, she chastised herself - was much, much older. She was maybe a few years shy of Kaede's age, but where Kaede had been large and matronly this woman was rail thin, sharp where Kaede had been soft. Even at this distance, Kagome could feel the piercing gaze she leveled on them.

In her stomach, she felt something give a little lurch of displeasure at the sensation of being pinned beneath that glare.

Wow, this is just not very encouraging, Kagome thought, and, behind her, she felt a tiny swell in what until now had been a constant level of youki.

Sesshoumaru was reacting, very slightly, to the shrine and its inhabitant. Kagome wondered what that meant.

Haha! Even less encouraging! she thought, slightly hysterical. As they drew closer, the miko began to descend the shrine steps, and Kagome caught the strong footfalls and the slightly stooped shoulders, caught those gimlet eyes that did not leave her. She felt her hands tighten on the straps of her backpack, a little spark of fear striking in her chest, though she would be damned if she was going to show it. She kept walking, letting time stretch out, until they met at the bottom of the steps.

All around them were the staring eyes of the men, and Kagome caught the slight scent of injury and recovery all around her. She could see each man from the corner of her eye, sizing her up and finding her wanting.

Pay attention! she reminded herself sharply. Forcing herself to focus again on the task ahead of her, Kagome turned back to the figure in front of her.

There wasn't much to look at. The older miko stood stock-still, glaring, the wind picking up her long grey hair and tossing it gently behind her.

She didn't say a word.

Giddily Kagome decided that some polite deference might be in order.

With difficulty due to the weight of her backpack, she bowed deeply at the waist. "Fuyu-sama - " she began.

"What the hell do you want?" the miko said. Her voice sounded like crows' claws scratching over metal.

Startled, Kagome shot out of her bow and took a step back, only to see the miko take another step forward, almost predatory in her deliberate movements. "Spit it out, girl, I've not got all day!" she barked.

Aren't mikos supposed to be kind and good and merciful? Kagome wondered. Or is that not a requirement? Did this one slip through the cracks?

The glowering face in front of her hardened further, the cracks in the skin deepening, stretching tight in a thunderous scowl that only the aged can achieve; it was a look full of displeasure and impatience, of dire duty. It was not a kind face to begin with, and the expression carving itself into it made her look almost ghoulish.

Kagome tried to swallow the nervousness that had appeared in her throat like a lump of some bitter, half-chewed fruit. "I - " she croaked, licked her lips, tried again. "I have come to ask you to accept me as a student."

"Don't need a student," the miko said immediately.

Great. "Um," Kagome faltered. "Um, I just need to learn one thing..." It was deathly quiet all around them, and Kagome wished she could take a step back and to the side, so she would run against the comforting solidity of the demon lord behind her. She did not dare, though.

Fuyu was still not impressed. "Which is?" she demanded.

Willing her voice to stay smooth and steady, Kagome took a deep breath. "I only need to learn how to seal a god."

The old woman's gaze flickered to Sesshoumaru, and Kagome repressed the impulse to turn around and look at him as well, even though the sight of him - why was he so comforting? - would be enough to ground her again.

"A god," the miko said.

"Er," Kagome replied intelligently. "Yes. There is a sorceress in Edo - east of here - and she is, um, making all of Edo sick, but she's doing it with the help of - "

"Silence, girl."

Kagome silenced, her mouth snapping shut so sharply she almost sheared off the end of her tongue. The miko was still looking over Kagome's shoulder, and it did not look like the thoughts in her mind were at all pleasant.

Kagome counted to three to give herself time to calm her breathing and the nervous palpitations of her heart.

When she was finished Fuyu was still studying Sesshoumaru with a beady eagle eye, and Kagome wondered if he found the old woman as intimidating as she did. Probably not, she decided glumly. The stirring of youki and holy power around them had not died down, and it was probably only a matter of time before one or the other sought dominance, and neither of them seemed to be the sort to back down for the simple reason of keeping the peace.

Finally the old woman opened her mouth.

"Very well," she said. "Let's discuss this further inside the shrine."

Then she narrowed her eyes, still staring straight at the youkai lord.

"But no filth allowed." Kagome gasped and felt a flare of fury in her chest. The sudden rush seemed to correspond with a spike in the demon lord's youki, but she didn't really notice it. Scowling ferociously, Kagome stepped in front of him, blocking him from the old miko, her hand going automatically to the hilt of the wakazashi at her hip.

"Hey!" she almost shouted at the woman, her face going hot and cold with anger. "Don't be so damn rude!"

Fuyu's eyes widened, and the youki and holy power in the air both flickered as though guttering in the wind before each settled down.

No one said anything for what seemed like a long minute, but Kagome was so indignant that it didn't register with her. She was working up a good, fuming tongue-lashing about the value of good manners and courtesy, and how she didn't care that Fuyu-sama was a miko and an elder, didn't her mother teach her anything?

Except then she heard Sesshoumaru laugh his short, sharp laugh, his audible smirk, and she looked over her shoulder at him.

He was smiling without humor. She saw his eyes close briefly.

"I will make camp," he announced to her, as if they were alone. "You will join me at the end of the day."

Then he turned and began to walk, back across the field to the forest, his beautiful silver hair tossing gently in the wind. Kagome didn't even try to suppress the strange pang she felt at the sight of him strolling so nonchalantly away from her.

"Come," snapped the cracked voice of the miko, jerking Kagome out of her strange, sad trance.

She whirled back around to see the older woman already scaling the steps of the shrine. Dimly, Kagome registered a restless stirring around her coupled with the low grumble of discontented voices, and the eyes that had been so wary before were now feeling sharper and more malevolent. Not daring to look around, she hastened to follow and tried to ignore the empty space behind her that should have been filled.

The shrine was like any other. It looked serene and peaceful, nestled against the hillside, and Kagome wondered how anyone who lived in such a beautiful place could be so sour. Perhaps Fuyu-sama had only been there a few weeks? Was new to the job? Ate brimstone for breakfast? The possibilities were endless, but Kagome thought that if she could live here - sans grouchy priestesses - she would be quite calm and peaceful about the whole thing, instead of so bitter and turbulent as her almost-mentor seemed to be.

Once inside Fuyu-sama didn't even offer her any tea or food, despite the fact that it was obvious Kagome had come a long way and was clearly tired and sore. Instead she gestured sharply to the floor, indicating that Kagome sit.

Kagome sat.

Fuyu-sama lowered herself across from her, moving a little stiffly but still quite agilely for someone of her apparent age. When she was settled, she stared at Kagome down her strange, sharp nose, and said nothing.

After a moment she said even more nothing. For someone who had such an impressive voice at her command, Kagome thought, Fuyu seemed to say nothing even more effectively. She had a truly remarkable silence.

Casting her eyes down, Kagome suppressed the urge to fidget.

"Why do you travel with a youkai?" Fuyu said abruptly, causing Kagome's heart to choke before she quickly recovered, looking up again.

"He's a - " Not friend! her brain screamed. Remember what he suggested? " - an ally. He's an ally."

Fuyu seemed unimpressed by this news. "Why does a little girl like you have a youkai as an - " here the miko seemed to be rolling the idea around in her mouth, finding it distasteful, " - ally?"

The other woman's attitude was beginning to grate on her. She thought about saying none of your business! but decided that such a reaction would probably not be conducive to her goals, which, in the last five minutes, had reordered and rewritten themselves to learning how to seal, learning how to fight, and getting the hell out of here.

"He and I fought together once," she said. "And I performed a service for him as well."

Fuyu's eyes narrowed. "Who did you fight against?" she demanded.

You're not going to believe me, Kagome thought. "Naraku."


Kagome didn't like the sound of that 'hm.' She had expected it to sound disbelieving, but instead it sounded bored, even though Fuyu was clearly old enough to remember the stories of the fearsome hanyou that must have trickled down through the country. The fight had torn up a good stretch of land through three different villages, after all; it was probably not until the Tokugawa period when the story had disappeared or morphed into something unrecognizable, cannibalized for parts, gutted for thematic elements.

Still, Fuyu did not appear well-disposed towards following this line of questioning. "What service did you perform?" the woman demanded, one eyebrow drawing down while the other rose, like two bushy grey caterpillars on a see-saw.

This time she didn't hesitate.

"That is a private matter, between him and me," Kagome told her.

Kagome knew what her evasion sounded like - it would have been the same even had he been human - but it was, in the end, something she could not discuss. He wouldn't want anyone to know his suffering, nor her hand in his vengeance.

It was their secret, the foundation of the thing that was them, the tiny grain of sand inside the pearly layers of their bond. She had never told anyone - except Amaya, who had been there - about the things of which she and Sesshoumaru had spoken nearly twelve years ago in the light of the fire. It didn't seem right to reveal to anyone the depth of his mourning and grief; he would not have even shared it with her had he not been so desperately debilitated, so crippled by the weight of Rin's loss, and she respected that.

As for her, she, too, didn't want to share this mystery with anyone. It was an almost selfish impulse, but it was for them, for him and her, alone. If she had nothing else of him, if she were to disappear into the future, if he were to leave her behind, she had this.

The old miko was still looking at her, the bright suspicion shining in her eyes. "I see," Fuyu said.

No, you don't, Kagome thought. No one does. Except us.

"Why is he here now?" Fuyu asked.

"There are dangers right now, connected to both of us," Kagome answered carefully. "He is... protecting me, until I go back to Edo."

"Because of this... service... you performed."


There might have been something to the set of her face, but Fuyu seemed to relent - not quite satisfied, but satisfied enough to leave this line of questioning alone for now - and sat back slightly.

"So," she said lightly. Kagome was not fooled by the sound of her voice. "You wish to save Edo from a sorceress, and she gets her power from a god."

That was pretty much the gist of it, Kagome decided. "Yes."

The miko was looking her up and down. "You are untrained." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yes," Kagome said, voice stiff.

"Woefully untrained."

Kagome chose not to say anything to that. She could tell Fuyu was baiting her; enough time arguing with Sesshoumaru had taught her to recognize that particular tactic.

"A miko," Fuyu repeated, "woefully untrained, small, weak, and lacking in proper conduct as evidenced by the company she keeps, who wants to learn how to seal a god."

"And fight."

"Ha!" Fuyu snorted. "I don't know anything about fighting. You'll have to find someone else to teach you that. But that's not my concern. A useless miko who wants to learn something from me."

Valiantly Kagome bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood.

"For nothing."

She swallowed hard. "Not for nothing!" she protested. "I know a little about herbs and I'm good at healing. I can clean, and cook - "

Fuyu cut her off with a weird outburst of barking laughter. "What do I need with a cook or a maid?" she demanded. "The soldiers take care of themselves, and I take care of myself."

Dismayed, Kagome leaned forward a little. "But I do know things about medicine!" she said urgently. "Obviously you care for those who need medical attention. Don't you need... you know, help with that at all? Assistance?"

She trailed off. The old woman was stroking her bony chin thoughtfully, as though she had just seen a particularly unpleasant chore become someone else's particularly unpleasant chore.

"There could be something," Fuyu replied after a contemplative moment. "There's always something you could do, I suppose."

This did not sound promising. Kagome was about to open her mouth to ask what this something could be, when a vision flashed across her mind and -

- grey skin and glass eyes and flies and maggots and rotting meat and bowels and death and death and death and -

- she reigned herself in.

"Anything," she answered instead, almost desperately. "I'll do anything you want me to do."

The old woman snorted. "You don't even want to know what it is I'll ask."

"Er," Kagome stumbled. "I do, but it wouldn't make any difference."

Shifting on her knees, Fuyu looked at her speculatively. "You have a daiyoukai at your disposal, yet you are going to undertake this task yourself?"

"Yes," Kagome answered immediately, fervent and sincere. "This is my responsibility, not his."

Shaking her head, Fuyu began to chuckle, her harsh frame rattling against itself. "You are a fool," she said. "A complete fool."

Her words stung more than they should have, but Kagome couldn't risk offending her. Humiliated and frustrated, she said nothing.

After a moment the chuckles subsided and the woman's bones ceased to jerk and poke against her skin. "Very well," she said, still sounding maliciously amused. "I will teach you how to seal a supernatural being, which includes both gods and youkai, and in return you will - " here she chuckled again, which Kagome did not find at all encouraging, " - assist me in my medicinal duties. I think I shall require four weeks of service from you."

Kagome felt her face melt a little in vague, helpless despair. Would there even be any of Edo left after four weeks?

Fuyu went on, seemingly amused at Kagome's distress. "It would be only two weeks, but you also said you wanted to learn how to fight," she continued, "so I will only require your assistance for the first half of each day. Since you want to learn how to fight, I suggest you find someone to teach you during the afternoons and evenings. We'll start before dawn."

At the last second Kagome realized that this was essentially a favor, and she refrained from groaning, as she could almost hear her mother's admonishing tone concerning gratitude and things of that nature. "When before dawn?" she asked instead, succeeding in keeping a majority of the despair from her voice.

Fuyu grinned almost sadistically at her newly acquired slave labor, which made her face split like the chop of a hatchet against an eldritch tree, revealing two rows of hard yellow teeth. "An hour. Early. There's lots to be done in the mornings."

Kagome could only imagine. "All right," she said finally, wondering what the hell she had just blissfully jumped into. Maybe she should have asked what would be expected of her.

Except she couldn't, because she needed a mentor, and this was the nearest that seemed to be of any use, and she needed to do this quickly. It didn't matter that some other miko might have taught it to her for nothing, since she still needed to find someone to teach her how to fight. It would have probably taken her a month to train either way, and the sooner she started, the better. There was no time to waver about this.

There was no time at all. She should have had all the time in the world, but now she had none. No time, and no choices.

Kagome placed her hands on the floor and bowed low. "Thank you, Fuyu-sama. I am humbly grateful to you for your help."

"Quite groveling," Fuyu snapped. "I have a task that needs doing, so you might as well get started." Kagome heard the scraping of a body against the floor and jerked her head up to see the old woman rising to her feet. Nervously Kagome popped up also, brushing the hair from her face.

"Tie your hair back," the older miko barked. "And leave that monstrosity here."

Disconcerted, Kagome dropped her backpack to the ground before fishing out a ribbon and hastily tying her hair into a high ponytail. Fuyu glared at her.

"Forgive me!" she gasped, her fingers working furiously. She barely had time to let her hands fall before Fuyu was already out the door and into the courtyard. Kagome hurried after her.

They descended the steps, Fuyu stomping on ahead while Kagome limped down, her feet still sore and fiery from her journeying. She winced at the pain and repressed the childish urge to make a face at the back of Fuyu's head. The old miko probably had eyes back there, keeping watch for signs of insolence, and the punishment probably wouldn't be anything as benign as writing out, 'I will not blow raspberries at my teacher' five hundred times.

Fuyu reached the bottom before Kagome did, and Kagome's progress was made even harder by the fact that any stray, bandaged soldier sprawled in their path would lift his feet away for Fuyu but place them back for Kagome. Miserably, she picked her way down the steps.

When her feet hit earth again Kagome hobbled after her new mentor, who was striding towards a small wooden hut Kagome had not noticed before. Before she had a chance to arrive, Fuyu had already gone in and come out twice, depositing two carts in front of the door. One of them contained a couple of shovels.

"Gardening?" Kagome asked when she arrived. She could do gardening.

"In a manner of speaking," Fuyu said, hefting the handles of one cart in her hands. Then she lifted a hand over her head, signaling something to the men sprawled on the steps, who then rose and began to move down. Fuyu didn't wait for them, and, grabbing a cart, Kagome followed suit and trotted after her toward the fields.

However instead of stopping they went on, past the little harvest plots the men were tending and out beyond the grounds of the shrine, banking sharply to their right and around the hill. The soldiers followed behind like a strange wake in the grass.

Fuyu was clipping along at a swift pace, and Kagome strove to keep up.

It was hot. She could feel the perspiration rolling down her back and beading on her upper lip, and the sweat of her feet caused the blisters to sting even more than usual. After fifteen minutes of this quick striding, Kagome resigned herself to pain and began to count her steps, one-two, one-two, making up her own pathetic cadences, trying to focus on something other than the sharp, knife-like pains.

Twenty minutes into their walk and Kagome was beginning to register something strange at the edge of her senses, but she couldn't quite put her finger on what it was that plucked at her, trying to capture her attention. She frowned.

"Your youkai is following us," Fuyu remarked nonchalantly, distracting her from her puzzled thoughts.

Kagome hadn't noticed, though once the older woman had mentioned it she immediately pinpointed Sesshoumaru's presence, high above them, tracing their steps. "Yes," she replied. "He's, um, keeping watch."

Fuyu trained her eye upwards on the distant white smudge against the hard blue sky. "What kind of demon is he?" she asked speculatively.

Kagome followed her eyes. "He's a dog demon," she informed her.

"Ah," Fuyu replied. "That would be why he is so far up."

Kagome suspected that she was still too tired to keep up with current events as well as she should have. "What?" she asked, confused.

The old miko shook her head, her slate-grey hair swaying lightly with her movements. "You will see soon enough. Try taking a big breath, girl."

"I have been," Kagome said, almost - but not quite - resentfully.

"Through your nose, fool."

Is she always this unpleasant? Maybe this is only the hazing process, Kagome thought miserably, though she suspected it probably wasn't. She couldn't remember the last time she had encountered such an unpleasant individual, and she had encountered a lot of them. Well, maybe those two men who couldn't keep their hands to themselves... and the madoushi...

Okay, so there were plenty. That still didn't excuse Fuyu's rudeness. Kagome scowled at the woman's back before inhaling deeply.

There was a slight scent -

- the wind shifted -

- oh, there it was.

Kagome gagged.

It was rank, and rotten. Like bad meat and compost, sewage and trash heaps. It was the sort of smell that reached down through one's neck, grabbed the stomach, and pulled.

Kagome coughed and heaved, just a little, at the same time, the resulting choking noise grating over her throat and leaving it lightly sore.

"Oh, god," she exclaimed. She tried to push the cart with one hand so she could use the other to cover her nose, but it wobbled and wavered, and she had to catch it before it toppled. Letting her mouth drop open slightly, she settled for shallow breaths, trying to avoid the nose, but she could taste it, too.

"Oh, god."

"You'd better get used to it," the miko said. "There's lots more of that where we're going."

Oh, GOD. "Where are we going?" Kagome demanded, her voice bordering on shrill. Mentally she kicked herself, trying to get a grip.

She recognized this smell, but it had never been so... potent before. She had never been the one who had to deal with it. That had been Inuyasha and Miroku, because they were tough and inured to it, but if the carts and the shovels were anything by which to judge then she was going to grow up and get tough really quickly, right now.

Fuyu hadn't lied. If there was one thing Kagome was sure that Fuyu didn't do, it was lie. She might have been a cold, crotchety bitch, but she wasn't a liar. She had said there was lots more of the smell where they were going, so there was lots more of the smell where they were going. Even where they weren't going, because it traveled on the wind, blissfully caressing their faces with decay.

She'd smelled it at the shrine, too. Kagome realized that, now, so that she didn't need Fuyu saying, "we usually don't do this, but it's too close for just a prayer," to know that this was not a regular occurrence; it was just too close, that was all. There were too many men at the shrine, injured and repairing, newly minted into cripples and malformed figures, for her to have been so naive as to not realize where they must have come from.

There was a lot more stench where that came from, because it came from a battlefield, ripe beneath three days of midday summer sun.

The closest Kagome could ever remember being to so many dead human bodies was Sango's poor ghost village, and even then they had found it before everyone became less and less human and more and more organic human components.

Like protein. Gas. Slippery organs. Iron - there was a lot of iron in the blood, after all - and contaminated water. Whatever had been the last meal. Whatever had been two meals before that.

They had been half a mile away when Kagome had taken her first good whiff and wished that she hadn't, and the closer they came the more she twitched with repressed heaves.

So when they reached the edge of the battlefield, Kagome tried to choose between fainting and vomiting before desperately balancing on the equilibrium between the two, in half-sick half-gone territory. It was a fine, fine line.

"Better get to work!" Fuyu announced, morbidly cheerful, and Kagome dizzily watched her tramp off through the horse dung and horse parts, through the lumps that had once been human beings but were now just dead things melting in the shells of their armor. The silent sweep of men behind her murmured with something like industrious camaraderie and fanned out into the battlefield as well, stepping carefully around the things that had once been their friends. They wasted no time in bending and picking up a body here and there and beginning the trudge to burial.

She watched as Fuyu heaved a body onto her cart, and then another, and then another before wheeling it away to a line of shallow graves, off the battlefield and already filled, before she dumped them off. There were several men already digging, and next to them a pile of salvageable armor and weapons was building up steadily.

Kagome was rooted to the spot, her eyes taking in the wide, wide field of bodies, of stinking, decaying bodies that she had to help bury.

She thought she might lie down and die right with them.

From the corner of her eye, she saw Fuyu glance up at her frozen assistant and scowl. "Hurry up, you useless girl!" the miko half-yelled, half-snarled, and somehow Kagome's legs jerked into action.

She stumbled onto the battlefield, unable to breathe, unable to think. She remembered from some science class - a useless, annoying, disgusting fact that her brain decided she needed to recall - that scent came from tiny molecules of the thing that smelled escaping into the air.

She smelled corpses. Her nose was full of corpses. Her lungs were full of corpses. The entire world, stretching as far as she could see on all sides, was full of corpses. She could only be ghoulishly grateful that there were too many to burn; the stench would be even worse.

Fuyu was yelling something at her, the men were tossing low gallows-humor murmurs back and forth, but Kagome couldn't hear over the screaming in her own skull, the horrible knowledge that this was where everyone ended.

Had she been too young the first time she had lived in the Sengoku Jidai to realize it? Too sweet and naive? Too distant and good and pure and pretty and oh-so-fucking-innocent?

She must have been. She must have been.

She couldn't remember...

She came to a body. Her first.

Mentally sobbing, Kagome bent and put her hands gingerly against the former human being's armor, trying not to touch his - no, its, its - clothing or skin, but ultimately had to tangle her hands in its kimono. It was so heavy, too heavy, heavier than her, but with the help of a knee she got it onto the cart, already sweating, panting, breathing -

She couldn't take this, and yet she was. This wasn't so bad, except it was, but she was okay. She hauled another body into the cart, and then a third.

She'd done it. Triumphantly, she grabbed the handles and began to carefully maneuver the cart around the dead bod -

- no, around them, around them -

- around the obstacles on the ground, toward the already impressive graveyard, unmarked, unmourned.

She was concentrating only on that goal, and so when she slipped in horse shit she almost didn't register that she was falling.

It only took a moment to fall, but it seemed like forever, and she was flinging her hand out, toward the ground, instinctively trying to catch herself. And it would have been fine, if it hadn't been for him. For it. If it hadn't been for it.

It was right there, lips pecked away by birds, maggots crawling in the wound that killed it, eyeless, and, worst of all, armor-less.

Her hand was falling toward what had been its stomach.

No, his stomach. His stomach.

Then her hand hit his skin and went through -

She probably screamed, but afterwards she couldn't remember.

Her escape was a stinking blur, and then she was at the edge, puking up her meager sustenance into the grass, clogging her nose with more rancid stench, except this stench was hers though that fact did not make it better. As she rejected the contents of her stomach, she frantically wiped her hand against the hot sun-baked grass, edged away from it. Tried not to vomit any more and did it anyway.

She felt Sesshoumaru - radiating something, something fierce and angry, hard and helpless - come down from the sky and land twenty feet away, but he did not come any closer.

Go away, Kagome thought, miserably. Go away.

She heard the squelch and crunch of blood and grass as Fuyu strolled up behind her.

Go away, Kagome thought, furiously. Go away.

She'd vomited everything now, was only spitting acid. Her body felt as though it were trying to eject her windpipe, her tongue.

"Should have asked what I wanted you to do, shouldn't you?" Fuyu said, and through the retching and the pounding blood and the dripping bile-laced snot, Kagome could hear the bitter years of burying in the miko's voice, the dark years of sealing death inside the earth, the nights of nursing sickness to health, or through to the end - all the real things a miko did - and discovered why Fuyu was so curdled and sour.

What an ugly, ugly world. What an ugly, ugly fate.

Why had she ever thought being a miko would be a good thing?

No wonder Kikyou wanted to escape. There had been the jewel and the fight, but there was also this.

Kaede had been so old. She must have been so, so strong.

Kagome's stomach heaved harder, and she was glad Sesshoumaru was standing away, away from her, because she didn't want to get anything on his perfect white clothes, didn't want him to see too closely the human things of which she was made, exactly like all those dead men rotting beneath the sun.

She spat.

Fuyu sighed.

"Well," the old miko said. "You agreed to this. This was the price."

She sounded almost mild, almost abstract. Nonchalant. The calm center of endings.

Kagome heaved again, even though each gulping breath only drew more rotten, fetid stench into her lungs, choking her on the little bits of human disintegrating into the air. Her eyes streamed.

"Of course, you could go and fight without knowing the things you need to learn," Fuyu murmured quietly, behind her, serene, like the whistling boatman on the river Styx, "but then you would die."

Like this, Kagome knew, and behind her eyelids, in the darkness of her head, she could see their dripping faces, their vacant eyes. Like this.

"So," Fuyu said, "you'd better get up - "

- like this, like this -

" - if you want to survive."

And that was that.

Tales from the House of the Moon

A InuYasha Story
by Resmiranda

Part 29 of 42

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