Continuing Tales

Tales from the House of the Moon

A InuYasha Story
by Resmiranda

Part 31 of 42

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Tales from the House of the Moon

"And I'm haunted
By the lives that I have loved
And actions I have hated.
And I, I'm haunted
By the promises I made
And others I have broken."

- Poe, "Haunted"

x X x

The very next day Kagome went from learning how to patch up holes in people in the morning to learning how to put those holes there in the first place in the afternoon.

The irony was not lost on her instructor.

"Now you can keep yourself in business," were Kazuo's words as Kagome shuffled nervously in front of him, feeling awkward and disjointed in her skin as she waited for her first real lesson in swordsmanship.

Kazuo had picked out a semi-secluded spot on the eastern side of the shrine, shored up against the string of tree-covered hills that curved south and further east instead of on the western side, which would have placed them next to the recently cleared battlefield. Kagome found herself grateful for this small favor, as she wasn't certain she would be able to concentrate on learning how to make corpses when there were so many corpses already made and conveniently located just in case she needed one. Why bother making more?

She watched her instructor anxiously as he leaned heavily against a tree and tried to appear alert, though the occasional wince told her he was nursing another hangover and was reluctant to emerge from the shade. Kagome stood ten feet away from him in the long, green grass, and sweated slightly in her haori.

She had suggested, when they had met at the foot of the shrine steps, that she change into lighter clothes for the duration of practice, but Kazuo had shaken his head, looking at her as though she were stupid.

"Are you going to fight in practice clothes, or in these?" he demanded, leisurely cleaning his teeth with a splintery twig he had picked up from somewhere.

"Um," she had answered, "I don't know..."

"Well, then," he replied, "you might as well get used to fighting like this." Then he grinned at her before turning his head to the side and hocking an impressive hunk of mucus into the warm grass beside her. He ignored the distasteful wrinkling of her nose.

Still, his personal habits aside, she had to admit that he had a very good point even though that admission only made her resentful.

She shouldn't have been angry that he spoke the truth. It made complete sense, of course, but the fact remained that she didn't want to train in haori and hakama; both articles of clothing were both so thick and so billowy that she was certain she was going to pass out from heat or dehydration before the day was over, and just thinking about fighting in them sent a stab of exasperation directly through her brain, which then promptly settled into a throbbing pain in her skull. It was bad enough that she had to wield a sword - she didn't want to feel like she was doing it whilst wearing a parachute as well.

Kazuo was unsympathetic. "At least you don't have to wear armor," he'd said idly as they walked to the patch of ground he had designated for her training. "All that extra protection would just be unwieldy."

"Thanks," she'd said sullenly. "That's... that's inspiring."

"Hey, really? I'm better at teaching than I thought," he said. He turned and tossed a grin over his shoulder. She refused to return it.

Now, shifting from foot to foot in front of him while he massaged his temples, Kagome felt intensely nervous. She'd taken some weapons classes, but now that she was standing in front of someone who was ostensibly a master of classic kenjutsu all her meager training seemed even more paltry. She was tempted, in fact, to pretend that she'd never handled a sword before just so she would feel mildly competent for the first day of instruction, but after a moment's reflection she rejected this idea; she only had a month, after all, so she might as well pick up where she left off no matter how humiliatingly insufficient her current training happened to be.

She watched as his middle and forefingers soothed little circles into his no-doubt aching skull, and she only barely kept herself from mirroring his action. The morning had been spent changing bandages, and the stink of wounds gone sour still curled in her lungs, twisting her stomach more than usual; the smell, coupled with the ever-increasing heat of the day, had inspired an insistent pain under her own skin that she was loath to acknowledge. She could only imagine asking to be excused from battle due to a headache.

Yeah, sorry, just need an aspirin good night's sleep, she thought. Hopefully I'll feel more like eviscerating people tomorrow.

Kagome frowned; the situation was getting rather more unpleasant than she had ever imagined.

Then again, what had she expected? Truth be told she wasn't terribly certain, but it definitely had not included wooden spoons, intestines, and a hungover sensei, and, now that she was thinking of it, her last quest had involved unanticipated intestines as well. Absently, she wondered if the universe was trying to tell her something.

Abruptly Kazuo pushed himself away from the tree, the quick movement causing Kagome to snap to attention. She watched as he blinked a few times before, quite suddenly, he seemed to shed his weariness and pain; his spine straightened, his eyes shone a little brighter, and he tucked his hands behind his back, his entire bearing clearly demonstrating that he was the master of his own body. Suddenly he looked less like a sick, washed-up man and more like the warrior he was supposed to be.

He looked a lot more intimidating. Kagome nearly took a step back but stopped herself just in time.

"Stop fidgeting," he said abruptly. "Let's see what you can do with that sword."

Nodding and biting her lip, Kagome let her hand fall on the hilt of the sword at her waist as she centered her upper body and placed her feet in position. The light twist of the hips to the front still felt a little awkward to her, but she forced herself to do it properly rather than fudge it as she usually did in classes when no one was watching.

Now she was the only student. She felt the strange, assessing weight of Kazuo's eyes on her.

Look bored, she thought. Think of nothing.

Sometimes it fell into place, just as it did when she aimed her bow, and Kagome felt her mind go a little fuzzy at the edges as she slipped into the swift, sharp movements of the katas.

She heard the blade hiss against the sheath as she slid forward, drawing it out in a slash that would disembowel anyone unlucky enough to be standing next to her.

Slice, she thought.

Stab, turn, down -

It didn't take long for her to finish. Katas, after all, were the most basic of movements from which all attacks could be built, and she felt grateful that she at least knew those; she had not been able to internalize them yet, but it was a start. Pulling herself into a relaxed standing position, Kagome resheathed the sword and turned to the samurai still lingering in the shade.

He was looking at her strangely.

As the silence between them stretched out he seemed entirely disinclined to speak, and she wondered if he had been taking Make Kagome A Nervous Wreck lessons from Sesshoumaru.

Then his mouth twisted. "Is that it?" he asked.

Kagome flushed. "Yes," she snapped defiantly. "Is that a problem?"

"It's a crisis," he replied. "Good god."

Her hands curled into fists. "Well," she said snidely, "I guess you'll just have to make it into a minor disaster."

He was massaging his temples again. "How good is this sorceress you're going to be fighting?"

Kagome crossed her arms, suddenly feeling defensive. "I don't know," she said, bracing for an angry tirade. "Pretty damn good, considering she has supernatural help." And all I have are an old miko, a drunk samurai, and an emotionally-stunted youkai lord. I'm on a roll.

Strangely, however, this declaration seemed to have the opposite effect she had anticipated. "Oh, good," Kazuo said. "So we can safely assume you are going to get injured no matter what?"

Eeek, Kagome thought, suddenly feeling the need to release a bit of tension, even if only in her head. Out loud, she said, "Maybe."

"Let's just assume that you are and go from there. What weapons does she use?"

Kagome frowned. "A bo," she informed him. "And throwing knives."

The samurai scratched his chin thoughtfully. "A bo and throwing knives," he repeated. "This sounds tricky."

That seemed about the crux of it. "Pretty much," Kagome agreed.

Kazuo ignored her, pursing his lips. "So," he said slowly, "you're going to have to get close so she can't use those knives against you."


Oblivious to her inner primal-scream session, he continued as though thinking out loud to himself. "And she has godly help, which makes things even trickier. I'll bet she's, oh, ten times better than you and has excellent form." He gave her a look from the corner of his eye.

She wrinkled her nose, annoyed. "Well I haven't spent my life as some evil spirit's toy puppet," Kagome told him haughtily, feeling the need to stick up for herself. "That sort of cuts back on my ill-gotten superpowers, you know."

"Yes, yes," he waved the hand that had been rubbing through his three-day beard. "That's fine. You'll just have to fight as quick and dirty as possible. Luckily," he puffed out his chest, "I am the master of quick and dirty fighting."

"You don't look it," Kagome said dubiously.

"I've been ill," he replied. "But trust me: I'm incredible."

Intensely aware that she really had no choice in the matter, she nevertheless gave it a valiant go. "I'm not really comfortable fighting dirty," she informed him, sliding her eyes away from his. "It just seems... you know, unfair."

"I'm sorry, do you have a god that you can pull out of your pretty little ass?" Kazuo wanted to know. "Because that would be a great trick."

Kagome scowled at him. "Don't be so crude." Soldiers, she thought with irritation.

Kazuo just grinned at her. "Very well," he said. "Ready?"

The way he was smiling set her teeth on edge. "For what?"

"Keep your hand on your sword," he said, "and follow me." Almost as an afterthought, he added, "And try not to break an ankle."

Then he whirled away from her and took off across the field.

Kagome heard a quick gasp escape her own mouth -

" - ah - !"

but her feet had already processed his command, and she felt her sandals bite into the tender grass beneath her as she dug in and raced after him.

It was a lot harder than it looked; Kazuo was fast, and he darted from side to side. At first she had tried cutting through his zig-zagging path, but the moment he glanced over his shoulder to find her taking a shortcut he had yelled at her to follow him exactly.

"You don't want to get hit with knives, right?" he'd shouted back to her, his voice almost lost in the wind and severely muffled by his shoulder. Just like Sesshoumaru - and Inuyasha, and Miroku, and probably all other classically trained warriors - he leaned forward, keeping his sword arm in front of him as though running into a stiff wind even when his feet were cutting a diagonal over the ground.

When she strove to trace his steps she found that she was hopelessly slow until she copied his posture. It was incredibly difficult to keep her balance as she always felt like she was about to pitch forwards and end up face down in the dandelions, but that was probably part of the secret; it appeared that the sprint was just a fall, delayed indefinitely.

She was still slow as hell, though, and more out-of-shape than she had thought, her cross-country trek and two-day journey to the shrine notwithstanding. It had been a long, long time since she had been forced to run for an extended period without the benefit of adrenaline, and she was out of breath within minutes. Kazuo stood at the far end of the field - it was probably five hundred meters between the hill and the forest opposite - and smirked at her as she struggled to retrace his footsteps.

When she finally came to a stop in front of him, sweat pouring down her face, he was shaking his head.

"I think I killed you twenty-two times," he said, "but I might have lost count."

Kagome just panted, lifting her arms and letting her sleeves fall down past her elbows, seeking ventilation and ignoring the dubious look he cast at her rather meager biceps.

He let her rest for almost a full minute.

"Ready?" he said as she was in the middle of pulling her haori away from the damp skin of her stomach, and he was already ten meters away when she gathered her wits enough to say, rather faintly, "...what?"

"Keep up!" he yelled. "Keep your hand on your sword!"

Jolting into action, Kagome wondered how long she would last if she tried to kill him after she caught up.

She chased him across the field for an hour, pausing after each lap for her to gulp some water and take a quick sixty second break before starting out again; when he finally told her to take a longer break she didn't even bother to thank him, merely dropped where she stood, first to her hands and knees, and then to her stomach.

With great interest, Kagome watched a line of ants march in front of her nose while Kazuo poked her with his toe.

"Go, go," he urged her. "Have a walk. Go to the stream or something. Your muscles will seize up if you don't move around."

"But then you wouldn't be able to make me run any more," she said petulantly into the ground, not caring that she was probably smearing dirt all over her face.

"No," he said, and she could hear the leer in his voice, "then I'll just be able to do what I want with you."

A brief, soothing vision of Sesshoumaru casually melting Kazuo's face off flashed across her mind, but after this indulgence she reluctantly pushed it from her mind on the grounds that she would be forced to find another teacher, and that would just waste time that she didn't have. Stiffly, she climbed to her feet and stumbled into the trees.

She returned twenty minutes later, sleeves pushed onto her shoulders and the hems of her hakama tucked into her obi to expose her skin to the air, and sloshing slightly with each tottering step.

"Clever," Kazuo said when she came to a stumbling stop in front of him. "You know if you run now, you'll get sick."

Crap, she thought. "Sorry," Kagome replied almost sheepishly. "I wasn't thinking about that. I was just thirsty."

He appeared to ponder this revelation for a long moment. "All right, no more running today," he told her finally, "but you'll start again tomorrow, so be prepared."

The wave of relief that hit her was so powerful her knees buckled for the briefest of moments before she caught herself. "Thank you, Kazuo-dono," she replied fervently, lowering herself with rather more dignity than falling before placing her hands on the ground and bowing deeply.

When she climbed rather stiffly to her feet the samurai was looking pleased with himself, as though impressed with his own mercy. She smiled at him on the grounds that it payed to keep him happy. "What next, Kazuo-dono?" she asked brightly.

He jumped, very slightly, and for a strange moment he looked shocked, as if he had expected her to vanish in a puff of gratitude and was surprised to still find her standing in front of him. Then the expression vanished from his face and he smiled at her with that strange, devilish smile that seemed so carefree and so ironically jaded at the same time. His grin was so dazzling it was almost unnatural to see it peeking out between his lips; his pearly white dew-drop teeth were such a striking contrast to the dark purple bruises that bloomed beneath his eyes and the sickly, lined pallor of his face that the sight seemed almost grotesque, and Kagome found herself glad that he didn't smile very often.

She must have been staring because his face fell within moments and he looked at her with a nearly blank face, though his eyes shone almost resentfully. Kagome fought to keep her eyes on his features.

Without warning he whipped around and began to stalk across the field, though this time he merely walked, and his back bowed, shoulders slumping so subtly that, had she not spent so much time attempting to decipher the moods of a certain poker-faced youkai lord, she would have missed it completely. With a sinking feeling in her stomach, Kagome followed him.

Kazuo didn't say anything to her, though. The moment they reached the edge of the trees on the other side of the field - Kazuo rather sooner than Kagome, who felt so stiff and tired she was certain she might never walk properly again - he turned to her and gave her an appraising look. Kagome stood in front of him and nervously allowed him to size her up.

"Right," he said after a moment, "put your hand on the hilt of your sword."

Uncomfortably she shifted from one foot to the other. "I thought we weren't doing any more running today?"

"Oh, we aren't. We are merely practicing sword work."

Unconsciously she gave a sigh of relief; she had been unreasonably paralyzed by the thought that her small moment of gaping at him - which had been, at the very least, terribly impolite - had bought her another hour of zig-zagging across the summer field.

"Don't get too comfortable," Kazuo said sharply. "Practice unsheathing the sword so the blade faces outwards. The element of surprise is going to be one of your only assets, so you have to get this right the first time."

"What am I going to be doing, exactly?"

He gave her a look of intense impatience. "That is not important right now. The important thing is speed and perfection. Even if you don't get anything else right - " he raised an eyebrow - "and you probably won't - this will be your best chance. So shut up and draw."

For a second Kagome almost snapped at him, but she reined herself in.

If this is going to be one of my only chances, she thought, then I have to do my best. I have to get it right.

Her features hardened and she planted her feet firmly beneath her. She let her eyes close slightly, striving to feel the connection with the ground; in the end, that would be what would give her the extra power she needed to draw the sword with the force necessary. Left hand wrapping around the scabbard, she felt her thumb wedge itself between the wood and the metal of the tsuba; her hand tensed and she pushed.

The tiny tsinkt of the wakazashi slipping out cracked like the sound of waking up.

And then Kagome whipped the blade from the sheath, lunging forward and dragging the edge against an imaginary body. She didn't want to think about how that would really feel.

"Terrible," Kazuo said, causing her to look at him in surprise. "Again."

Awkwardly she slipped it back into the scabbard and recentered.

This time when she lunged forward, she felt the blade leaping free. Was that supposed to happen? Unsure of herself she glanced at Kazuo, who had seated himself beneath a tree fifteen feet away.

To her chagrin, he was taking a pull from a sake bottle. "Where did you get that?" she demanded, letting her sword droop until it bumped against her leg.

The samurai shrugged. "Secret," he grunted. "Again. You know what's supposed to happen, now make it happen."

"What is supposed to happen?" she wanted to know, deciding to ignore the alcohol for now.

"Full control," he said, waving the sake bottle vaguely in the air as though to make a point. "The sword is an extension of you, and you're letting it go wild. It jerks out of the sheath. You're failing to keep the strike smooth and the blade waves all over the place."

Kagome was beginning to feel intensely stupid, and she wondered exactly why she had bothered to take all those classes when she could have spent all that time doing something that would have served her just as well, like picking her nose. She wanted her money back.

Beneath his tree, Kazuo shifted, draining the sake from the bottle, and Kagome watched with a strangely horrified fascination as he lifted his hand to the tree just above his head. Her eyes widened as his hand disappeared into a well concealed hollow. When he drew it back out, it was clutching another bottle.

She felt almost hypnotized until he spoke. "Come on," he said. "You haven't got time to gape. Again." He pinned her with a bizarrely lucid gaze from the corner of his eye. "Repeat that action until I say stop. Make it smooth."

Nodding, Kagome lifted her chin and slipped the blade back into the scabbard.

Concentrate, she thought.

Kagome focused, and struck.

x X x

Sesshoumaru was not thinking about the way Kagome's arms draped around his neck, nor the way her soft breath ghosted over his throat, nor the way her legs clung to his waist, nor even the way the firm, posterior curve of her thighs shifted beneath his fingers.

Nope. He was definitely not thinking about those things at all, because he had far more pressing problems with which to occupy his mind, such as counting backwards from one hundred.

Unfortunately Kagome kept foiling this very delicate mental operation by shifting her position whenever he was somewhere between seventy-five and sixty, which caused him to lose count and subsequently forced him to start all over again. The entire endeavor was so frustrating in so many ways that he was very close to dropping her on the ground and dragging her for the rest of the way by her feet. Of course, she would not be happy about that course of action and would definitely inform him of that fact loudly and repeatedly, but she would survive even if his sanity did not.


Sixty-seven, he thought with determination. Sixty-six... sixty-five... sixty-four... sixty-three...

Kagome wiggled.

Sixty... sixty-three... sixty-two...

"Hey, Sesshoumaru..." she mumbled again. He could almost feel her lips on his neck.

Sesshoumaru gave up. "Yes?" he bit out curtly.

She did not seem to register his discontent. "Slow down," she told him sleepily. "Your armor is really uncomfortable for passengers."

Sighing, he slightly adjusted his grip and leaned forward a little so that she could nestle more comfortably against his back. He hadn't carried her like this since she had left over a year and a half ago – and, in the more secret recesses of his mind Sesshoumaru had to admit that he had missed doing so - but somehow he didn't remember this activity being nearly so distracting.

On his back and oblivious to his disconcerted musings concerning their position, Kagome was feeling very unhappy about the fact that every muscle in her body hurt and that this kept her from enjoying, on an embarrassingly perverted but highly delicious level, the particularly delightful way that her legs were wrapped around Sesshoumaru's hips. Kagome was not accustomed to being so sensually aware of her own body – nor the bodies of others for that matter – and normally she would have been wary and a little frightened of her own attraction to him. However, there was still a little, almost-innocent illicit thrill to be had from it, and as this was probably the closest she would ever get to achieving actual eroticism with Sesshoumaru she felt that it was entirely safe to appreciate it on whatever level she could.

Unfortunately not even the youkai lord's usual grace cushioned his footsteps enough to spare her from the slight jolt of his shoes as he strolled through the trees, and that alone did a very thorough job of driving all sensuous feeling from her limbs.

On the other hand at least she was not propelling herself under her own power, as she probably would have fallen asleep halfway to the forest and spent the night in the field with all the beetles and snakes and other highly unpleasant creatures had Sesshoumaru not been so fussy about her. She'd felt his youki swell and ebb all day as she trained, rising or falling depending on whether he was approaching or retreating from her position, until he had created a circle of sine waves around her. He was just like a broody mother hen with her wayward chick. Still, she was grateful, since he had descended from the sky in the graceful way that chickens didn't and wondered out loud what the hell she thought she was doing with her head in a pile of rabbit poop.

"In my time this is considered to be one of the best hair treatments," Kagome lied, too tired to blush but not to be embarrassed.

"I had no idea you came from so far back," he had replied. She watched wearily as he tilted his head to the side and appeared to consider her. "Are you going to sit up and brush yourself off?" he finally asked.

"I don't know," she snapped, "are you going to carry me back if I do?"

"Were I you, I would try it and find out."

She did, and he did. Kagome found herself too tired to really do much to thank him except attempt to tighten her arms, but her limbs were as strong as noodles and Sesshoumaru wasn't good at the whole hugging thing so she suspected that he might have missed it.

Didn't matter, she decided as the trees broke and the clearing that housed their campsite swept in to meet them. Sesshoumaru strolled to where the blackened skeleton of their fire sat, and began to lower himself to one knee in order to allow her to fall off his back as gently as possible.

"Nng, wait," Kagome mumbled. "I need a bath."

Sesshoumaru, who had finally reached 'fifty-three,' abruptly lost count again.

He was silent for a moment as he tried to phrase his question properly in his mind. "Are you suggesting," he said after a moment, trying to keep his imagination as blank as possible, "that I bathe you?"

He earned a half-hearted smack on the shoulder for that question, which he thought was rather unfair. "Don't be a pervert," muttered his passenger. "I've got my backpack already. Just carry me to the stream."

One of her hands lifted from where it clung to his chest - Sesshoumaru tried not to be displeased about that and failed - and from the corner of his eye Sesshoumaru saw her wave it in the direction of the water, just in case he had forgotten where it was.

For a moment he considered refusing to be her pack horse, but he just could not form the words. With a mental sigh he turned in the direction of the stream and began to walk.

Kagome thought she might have fallen asleep on his back, because when he set her down she felt as though she had suddenly been jerked out of a very pleasant dream which might have been about having her very own youkai carrier service. Still, he'd done what she'd wanted, so it was bath time. She couldn't wait to get the grime off her body and rid her hair of its inadvertent special treatment.

His boots were shifting lightly on the grass as he walked into the trees to give her privacy. Yawning a thank you at him, Kagome turned to her backpack and began the arduous task of moving her limbs, searching through the depths and wincing whenever she brushed a blistered hand against something, which was all the time. Distantly she wondered if she was going to be able to move at all tomorrow, and if she would even be able to use her hands.

For once she was glad that the stream was cold; by the time she'd finished her hands were so numb that she couldn't decide if they were going to fall off first from abuse or from cold. It was like a race - what would get her first? Maybe Sesshoumaru would make a bet with her. The odds favored abuse. Kagome entertained herself with calculating the probability of each outcome as she stumbled back through the trees to camp.

When she got there, she found Sesshoumaru stripped of his armor, legs folded beneath him, and poking the fire with his bare hands. His arms were bare, too, sleeves pulled back to reveal his striped wrists and well-formed muscles, and he wore such a surprisingly inward look of concentration on his face that Kagome was taken aback. She stood at the edge of the clearing and stared at him, wondering what sort of pod-person had replaced her companion.

"It's impolite to lurk," Sesshoumaru said. Long tapered fingers reached into the fire again, then grabbed something nestled in the heart of the flames and flipped it over before retreating again.

No, Kagome thought, that's definitely him.

She stumbled into the circle of light, dragging her backpack behind her. "I don't know if you're the best person to give a lecture in manners," she said dubiously.

"Are you perhaps implying that I am less than courteous?" he wanted to know.

For half a second Kagome wondered just how dense he really was until she saw him studying her from the corner of his eye and realized that he was teasing her. The teasing gleam and the dangerous glint were very similar, of course. It wasn't surprising that she'd almost missed it.

"And if I was?" she said, drawing up beside him.

One of his eyebrows twitched in amusement. "Then it makes no difference," he told her. "Even if I am not courteous myself I know it when I see it."

"Oh, really?" she asked, letting her backpack fall from her sore fingers. The numbness had regrettably worn off. "How do you know that?"

"One does not need to be a warrior to determine terrible technique. The blood gives it away. Sit down."

He changed subjects too quickly, and Kagome barely had time to think about his sudden command before she found that she was lowering herself to the ground. She would have complained about his arrogance, but she found she quite liked the idea of sitting down, so she let it slide. Just this once.

Of course, given the current condition of her body, this took almost a full minute and required some very strange contortions that left her wishing that she hadn't changed into her pajamas just yet - it wasn't beyond the realm of imagination that Sesshoumaru might be able to peek down the front of her shirt as she settled herself rather gingerly.

Not that he would do something like that, of course. He was very direct; if he wanted a look at her he'd probably just remove her clothes himself.

Kagome felt her eyes glaze over just a bit at this mental image as her breath caught a little in her throat.

Yes... she said to herself, very carefully. That was a very bad thought. We should probably not think it again. Nervously she shot a glance in his direction, paranoia spiking to alarmingly high levels.

He was staring at her.

Kagome squirmed and looked away.

The blush was thundering up her throat and across her face. Sesshoumaru watched with interest as she nervously chewed on her lip and shifted where she sat. It was fascinating, as each movement caused her pain, which caused her to wince, which caused her to chomp down a little harder on her lip, which at last caused her to squirm with discomfort, thus starting the process over again.

Briefly he wondered what was making her so embarrassed before deciding that he didn't want to know. The less he knew about the inner workings of her mind, the better, since it would probably only confuse him in more ways than one, and she perplexed him enough already. Causing him confusion seemed to be her favorite hobby.

It was best to get this over with.

Kagome was studying a leaf with intense scrutiny. It wasn't nearly as interesting as she was pretending it was, so the sound of something heavy hitting the ground and the light movements flashing in her peripheral vision were more than enough to cause her to turn around and look at him as her curiosity got the better of her.

Sesshoumaru was nonchalantly reaching into the flame - just how indestructible was he, anyway? she couldn't believe some of the things he'd managed to survive - and when he withdrew his hands again he held in each of them a small, smooth stone. They were just like the stones at the bottom of the stream, worn down into perfect little ovals. Carelessly he tossed them aside before reaching into the fire again and repeating his actions.

After about ten or twelve stones he seemed to be finished. Without moving he let his hands rest against his lap and he turned his face toward her.

"Don't look so shocked," he said mildly. "Do you have any bandages?"

Belatedly Kagome realized that her mouth was hanging open, aghast at what he had been doing. "Oh, my god," she blurted. "Yes, just a minute, don't move - "

Her hands were on her backpack, and then her backpack wasn't there anymore. The thumb and forefinger of her right hand pinched at the air for a moment before she realized that there was no zipper because it had disappeared.

Whipping back around, she saw him shifting and turning toward her, her backpack in his hands.

"Sesshoumaru!" she said. "I would have found them for you! Don't touch anything if your hands are burned. I'll go get some water from the stream, wait here - "

He was looking at her strangely. "These are not for me," he said. She watched as he unfolded one hand toward her, revealing the unblemished palm.

This was all getting a little too weird for Kagome. She blinked at his hand as he used it to open her backpack himself and rummage around inside. Automatically she hoped he wouldn't find anything terribly embarrassing in there, but it didn't seem to matter; within seconds he'd found the white first aid box and set it on the ground before opening it. He poked experimentally at the creams arrayed inside before looking back to her, slightly helplessly.

Shaking herself, she frowned. "What are you looking for?" she said, deciding just to go with whatever he had in mind. He probably had a good reason for roasting rocks in the fire before pawing through her things.

"Your blisters," he said.

Kagome blinked, eyes glancing down to her own fingers. "Um. They're on my hands. What about them?" she asked blankly before glancing up just in time to catch him rolling his eyes.

"Yes, I know," he agreed patiently. "I meant something to heal them."

Realization was slowly dawning. "Oh," she said, as though he had just imparted a great truth that she would forget in the next five minutes. "Um. The pink and white tube is antibacterial anaesthetic?"

He looked at her for another long and calculating moment before he gave the tiniest of shrugs and selected both the medicine she had indicated and the greatly diminished roll of bandages. She watched as he uncapped the tube of ointment and unrolled the long, white fabric. Then, turning back to her, he reached out, drew her hands into the space between them, and squeezed a generous amount of cream into her palms.

Gently, he began to massage her broken, weeping hands in his own as he rubbed the medicine into her wounds before he began to wrap her hands in clean, white strips.

Kagome suddenly felt even dizzier. Blinking, she wavered slightly where she sat, and tried to sort through the chaos in her head.

"Uh... what are you doing?" she asked fuzzily.

"Ensuring that you will be able to train tomorrow," Sesshoumaru replied, though his voice sounded even more clipped than usual. "Consider this as a safeguard on the amount of time I have invested in you."

Oh, she thought. "Er. Thank you."

Sesshoumaru didn't reply, merely finished looping the cloth over her fingers and dropped her hands, trying to ignore the way her breath was hitching in her suddenly fascinating chest that he most certainly was not going to look at.

Damn her delightfully skimpy clothes. The perk benefits of this journey were definitely becoming a little more distracting than he had anticipated, and not for the first time Sesshoumaru wondered if he had not been just the slightest bit dishonest with himself concerning his motivations for accompanying her. Quickly he shut down this line of thinking on the grounds that too much thought tended to be even more distracting and dangerous. Slowly, Sesshoumaru turned and gathered the small pile of hot stones before he stood up and thoughtfully strolled to the spot beneath the tree where they slept.

"Come," he commanded her absently.

She had been flexing her fingers experimentally in a small daze, but at the sound of his voice Kagome jerked herself out of the vague pink soup her brain always seemed to float in whenever she grew too tired.

"Uh," she replied intelligently, but her body was more up-to-date on current events than her brain, so she pushed herself to her feet as best she could without using her hands and trotted over to him. "What's going on?" she asked as he sat down as regally as possible. It was quite fascinating how he could make even the act of plopping down in the dirt seem regal. It seemed a very impressive if rather useless talent.

He nodded to the spot next to him, rather regally. "On your stomach," he said.

Kagome looked down at her sleeping bag, still in the same spot as last night. "Er..."

She was being reticent. Sesshoumaru sighed. "The sooner you do so," he said, "the sooner you may sleep. Do you have a blanket?"

"In my bag," she replied mistily, already lowering herself to her knees.

She was finally on her stomach against the slippery waterproof material of her sleeping bag when he returned - the aches and pains really were rather bothersome when it came to things like moving - and could feel her eyes fighting to slide shut and drop her off into dreamland so they could get some proper rest. Valiantly she fought to keep them open. Any vaguely titillating thoughts she might have been entertaining vis a vis her relationship with the youkai lord that she rather fancied seemed to have vanished, slipping away and hiding inside her utter exhaustion.

Her eyes had gone all funny as well; everything seemed too sharp, or blurry, or something. Black leather boots and white silk hakama filled her vision.

"Do not fall asleep yet," she heard him say. She nodded, uncertain she would be able to form anything recognizing words any longer. She was just too sleepy...

Her hearing was strange, too. She heard him sit down next to her, and the sound was far sharper and louder than the rustle of silk should have been. There was a tickling sensation as the blanket settled over her.

"What're you doing?" she muttered against her sleeping bag, her face pillowed on her hands folded under her temple.

"Fixing you," he said, and then, very gently, she felt the backs of his fingers rest against a muscle in her back that throbbed with pain before they slid away, leaving a hot weight in their place.

The stones, she thought. He's giving me a damn hot stone massage.

Kagome opened her mouth to laugh, but yawned instead as the warmth spread out across her skin.

He set another stone against her back.

"Where'd you learn this?" she demanded muzzily.

The soft rustle of his movements paused for a moment before resuming. He placed another hot stone over the swell of muscle shored up against her spine.

"I learned it..." he said softly, before falling silent. She waited for him to catch up with himself while he laid another stone down.

"Izayoi," he said finally. "Inuyasha's mother."

The warmth spreading over her was making it hard to work her mouth. "Why?" she managed.

For a moment he was silent again. Kagome could hear the crackling of the fire at the edge of her hearing, sparking against the night. Her eyes were closed, and she did not remember allowing herself to shut them.

"I watched her do this to Inuyasha," he said finally. "I was... not as gentle as I could have been in his training."

I knew it, Kagome wanted to say. I knew you were the one who taught him how to fight. But she didn't want to make a big deal out of it - it might embarrass him, or upset him, and she was too tired. So all she said was, "Mm. Okay."

At the soft sound of her voice Sesshoumaru paused once more, the feeling of iron bands of muscle in his shoulders curling tight over one another, tense at the direction of this conversation and knowing where it was headed. It was unnerving to find that he was unbearably reluctant to tell her of these things, and yet a part of him was just waiting for the chance to do so. Yet she didn't seem inclined to pursue this any further - tonight, at least - and now he could not decide if he felt happy or disappointed at this unexpected reprieve. Maybe later they would speak...

It was not hard to remember how to do this, though. In his mind's eye, the soft white hands of Izayoi - wrapped in protective cloth - picked up warm stones and laid them over the bright red haori of her young son. She never said anything reproachful to her son's half-brother who pushed him so hard, either. Maybe she, too, understood the necessity of making him hard and tough, though she never could resist lifting the tears from her little boy's face with the hem of her kimono sleeves. And when the boy's training progressed and he finally stopped shedding any tears at all, especially in front of his older brother, she would dab gently at his dry cheeks anyway.

Sesshoumaru looked down at his own kimono sleeves, and for the briefest of moments he had to repress the urge to brush his fingers over her face, had to stop himself from trying to catch the tears that weren't there.

Instead he continued his task, letting the warmth soak into her tortured body.

There were only two stones left when she shifted again, and, almost asleep, she muttered something softly; had he not been youkai, he would not have heard it.

"You didn't tell me how your day was," Kagome mumbled, her voice fuzzy with sleep.

Hand in midair, his movement hitched very slightly as he continued to lower the stone carefully, blinking. "No," he agreed. "I did not."

The corners of her lips turned up gently. "So... tell me," she sighed. "I hope it was a good one."

Almost shocked at the strange question, Sesshoumaru merely finished his work - eventually when she turned in her sleep the weights, hopefully cooled by then, would tip off harmlessly onto the ground - and sat back, looking at her.

She looked almost peaceful. Much more peaceful than someone in her amount of pain should have looked, at least. Black eyelashes feathered against high, smooth cheeks; her brow remained unwrinkled, her hair fell softly over her shoulders, and she seemed entirely unconcerned with the dangers and trials that faced her.

Very slowly his arm rose, as if of its own accord, and he stretched his fingers out, across the void between them, to catch a lock of hair. He let it glide over his skin for a moment, almost hypnotized by his own actions, before letting it fall. Then he leaned back quickly, as though just realizing what he was doing.

She did not stir. He could still smell the faint, metallic smell of youkai blood that clung to his hair and clothes, all the blood he'd shed just for her. He'd shed a lot today. He'd shed more tomorrow.

"Fine," he murmured to the darkness, to the leaping flames, to his strange memories of stones and fire-rat fur, to no one at all. "It was a fine day."

x X x

There was a clash of metal as Kazuo's katana slid down the sharp edge of her wakazashi, and at the feel of the slice of his blade through the air, centimeters away from her billowing clothes, Kagome twirled on her toes and darted away, the trembling of her limbs barely registering above the sound of her heart pounding in her ears.

Her arms burned. Her legs burned. Her lungs burned.

Stepslideshift - RUN -

The thoughts flashed through her mind like slippery silver fish, glowing as the light hit them and then disappearing again as they twisted and zipped into the shadows, leaving only the lightest of impressions that they had ever been there at all.

And that was fine. Thinking too much could get you into trouble. Then again, thinking too little could get you into trouble, too. Thinking that you might be thinking too much or too little would definitely get you into trouble. She'd been in a lot of trouble because she couldn't stop thinking about her body or her position, and then because she couldn't stop thinking about thinking about those things.

Theoretically, of course, the world should fade the way it did when she shot an arrow or did her katas, but in practice things seemed to get a little bit trickier. Apparently it was a lot harder to feel Universal Oneness and Tranquility when one was being attacked by a grinning, six-foot-four samurai wielding a live blade. And Kazuo grinned quite a bit. She had yet to figure out why.

Not that she was thinking about those things at all right now, because she was currently honing her survival skills, which meant staying light on her feet and allowing only enough brain activity to remind her of what she really should be doing, like stepping in rather than instinctively flinching away, or darting left against a right-handed opponent and getting behind the range of their weapon instead of intuitively - and, it turned out, stupidly - beyond it.

It was all rather difficult, and right now the long grass wasn't helping her run, though she was definitely not thinking about that. On the other hand, she could hear Kazuo coming through the dry, rustling sea right behind her - use everything, he had told her, always know what's going on - so she knew when to dart and generally which way she should go, if her own heavy breathing and sharp footfalls didn't drown him out.

It was ten days since her first training session, and she had become good at dodging. She had to, partly because while Kazuo was very, very good, even while hungover, he was still using a damn sharp sword that had probably cut men in half who had been twice her size. Really, though, that was only part of the reason; mostly she'd become good at dodging because that was what Kazuo had made her practice the most. He seemed to feel that she had a talent for it, or, at the very least, should develop a talent for it very quickly.

"I'll bet by the end of the month your fighting technique will still be shit, but you'll be good at running off," had been his precise words after their second training session. They'd spent two hours darting back and forth across the field, and, at the very end of their run, he had turned on her with his sheathed sword. Kagome had moved entirely on instinct, and, entirely by luck, had dodged it neatly.

She'd been miffed after his words had sunk in. "Why's that?" she demanded. "What makes you think I won't be good at fighting?"

Very lazily, Kazuo had picked his teeth with a splinter of wood. Like sake, he seemed to have an endless supply of splinters. "You still just stand there, waiting for someone to jump in. You're used to it, I'd wager. It'll take a lot more training than we have time for to get you on your toes."

That had stung, but had been so annoyingly true, too. She'd sniffed at him, trying to cover her hurt feelings. "What if I'm very bad at running away?" she demanded.

"Then you'll be very dead," he replied, "so we can only hope you're good at it."

"I thought you were teaching me to fight?" Kagome had demanded, trying to suppress the frustration in her voice.

Kazuo had shrugged at her rather laconically. "Running away is part of fighting," he intoned, sounding downright diplomatic for a change. "After all, you might stay alive long enough to inflict some damage if you keep running until the right moment."

It made sense, she had to admit. How did that phrase go? Run away, and live to fight another day? Or was it run away and live to run away another day? For some reason, the latter was seeming more and more appealing as her training progressed. Kagome was finding out that she didn't really like fighting at all.

In fact, she liked it even less than she had anticipated, and that made getting in the mood to train even more difficult. The sound of metal on metal hurt her teeth, her hands were coarse ghosts of their former selves, it was hot, and Kazuo was unpredictable, constantly vacillating between serious sensei and grinning, insolent jerk who didn't really care if she lived or died.

Still, as always, getting attacked did a lot to banish her hatred of fighting, since the fear tended to shove any self-indulgent whining straight out the back door of her brain.

And, well... There was at least one perk: the fact that Sesshoumaru never failed to make her feel better with warm river stones and quiet conversation when she got back to camp in the evenings. It was almost worth it to feel like worthless crap all day just so she could feel the relief of being herself with him at night.

Behind her was the tell-tale slip of a foot against the grass - it sounded like snake scales rustling over each other - and her brain screamed at her to dart to the right, so she did, feeling her shoes bite into the earth beneath her. Kagome didn't really like to analyze why her brain told her such things - it was wiser just to do what the hell it told her to do and then figure it out later - but this time she knew just what was happening.

She couldn't tell what foot Kazuo was lunging forward with, but he was right-handed so there was a better chance of him attacking her from the right. If she moved forward and into his attack - except she would be beyond his range, so she would be out of his reach and behind his blade - she could turn and bring her blade out and DOWN -

Kagome knew better than to think she would hit him, and he didn't disappoint her. He also whirled neatly away and blocked her easily and then -

attacked, and lunged -

and she was lucky he was such a good teacher, because she was already running away. She was fighting dirty by not fighting at all, not giving an opening or taking any real risks. She was doing her best to draw her opponent out and make him tired, make him make that one fatal mistake. In a true samurai duel between two master swordsmen, there would be one move. Just one cut, and the whole thing would be over. But she wasn't a master swordsman, and it was likely the madoushi wasn't either, so this would be a real duel and not a "true" one, and the reality was that she needed to win, not become a master or keep her form perfect, or anything like that. All she needed to do was stay uninjured for as long as possible.

Endurance and surprise, Kazuo told her, over and over. Endurance and surprise were her weapons. They might not be the most elegant or cultured or artful weapons, but they would serve her best in a real battle, and she need not bother herself too much with all that other stuff. After all, being a living swordsman who fought realistically was far more preferable to being a dead swordsman who had fought truthfully.

Kagome was learning that reality was almost always a lot grimier and dirtier than truth. She'd learned this lesson before, of course, but for some strange reason it seemed a bit more immediate this time around.

She was definitely running out of breath, though they had been at this for nearly an hour, so her endurance had improved quite a bit, she supposed. Whether or not it would be enough to save her skin was another matter entirely, and one which she felt almost entirely disinclined to think about even though she thought about it all the time in the back of her head. Just the suggestion of running into battle the way she was now was enough to drain the blood from her face and cause her heart to collapse into a singularity of panic.

Then again, she was getting pretty good at dodging those feelings as well as dodging blades; the principle was the same, at any rate. Redirect, refocus, and stay alert for ambushes.

Ambushes were the worst - she'd been sick this morning for the second day in a row because she just couldn't shut her stupid brain off long enough for a good night's rest. Kagome had tried explaining patiently to her internal organs that twisting themselves up into knots was bad for everyone and probably, in fact, decreased the likelihood of all of them escaping intact, but that little pep talk oddly made her feel worse.

Taking great, burning gulps of air, Kagome tried not to wince at the jolting of the impact of her feet against the ground - each harsh stop against the earth jiggled sensitive bits like her stomach - and tried to listen.

He was still behind her, but now that she concentrated she could hear him panting nearly heavily as she, indicating that the high afternoon sun was taking its toll on him as well.

With difficulty Kagome wriggled her dry tongue around in her mouth, trying to work up enough saliva to make a noise.

"Ka - Kazuo-dono - " she panted.

Behind her there was a strange noise, as if Kazuo had just swallowed a bug. "You want to stop?" he demanded. She could tell he was trying to keep his voice as level as possible, but there was too much air in his words. There was the briefest of pauses before she heard him give a very wheezy laugh and his footsteps slowed. On the not-unreasonable suspicion that he might try to attack her just to "keep her on her toes" as he liked to say, Kagome kept running for another ten meters before she, too, slowed to a stop and turned.

He was already heading straight for the copse of trees nearest to the shrine, his steps slightly heavy as he raised his hands to his face to wipe the sweat from his eyes. Kagome followed him, doing the same.

Damn, so much sweat, she thought glumly as she resheathed her sword. I could irrigate a garden. Just stand in the middle and shake my head. Little kids can dance in my spray - no. Never mind.

When she reached the shade of the trees, Kazuo had already downed a whole bottle of sake and was starting on another one from his secret cache.

"Alcohol just dehydrates you," Kagome informed him reproachfully, like she had informed him for the past ten days. Leaning over she scooped up her own bottle, though hers was filled with water, and gave him a look as she took a pull from it.

"That just means I should drink more," Kazuo replied, long bony fingers coming up to catch a dribble of sake as it escaped his mouth.

"Nrg," was all Kagome had to say to that, turning away. Gingerly she took another gulp of water before swallowing rather noisily. Recapping the bottle, she set it down on the ground at her feet and then began to stretch out her muscles so they wouldn't seize up. Warm stone could only do so much, after all. If she was going to be any good at all...

...which she wouldn't. So forget it.

Then again, were Kazuo's insults actually his special brand of... well, of making her tough? Perhaps she was doing better than his constant mocking suggested. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Kagome was convinced, in a very fragile, ghostly way, that she was improving far more than she thought she was. Then again, what if she was doing even worse?

Her stomach did a little dance at that notion, and Kagome placed a hand quickly over her mouth in order to stifle the little urp it inspired.

Stupid nerves, she thought, feeling rather crankier than someone pumped up on endorphins really had any right to be. Maybe... if I find out once and for all...


Kagome didn't look at him as she talked - she was still stretching her hamstrings and her eye had been caught by a particularly vicious looking flower down by her toe that seemed, strangely, to be more wasp than flower - but she heard him swallow another mouthful of vile stuff before answering.

"What?" he wanted to know.

She continued to study the flower, wondering if she should reach out and try to determine if it was, indeed, as mean as it looked. "I was just..." she said, trailing off.

Kazuo waited. This was one of the many ways in which he was different from Sesshoumaru. Eventually natural curiosity would overwhelm the youkai lord and he would begin asking questions rather more pointedly; Kazuo just waited while she ordered her thoughts. Sometimes she was certain he forgot that she had spoken after a while, since occasionally surprise would slink across his features when she once again opened her mouth, and she could almost see him running after the train of thought that had left the station ten minutes ago. He was good at concentration when it came to fighting, but he wasn't the greatest of thinkers.

Absently she cracked her knuckles, pulling the ropes of muscle high in her shoulders tight across her bones, trying to stretch them out like a band of taffy. "I was just..."

Kazuo was silent. Kagome heard swallowing sounds.

She straightened and began to stretch her arms, giving him a dubious look. "Well, first," she said, "why are you drinking?" Her toes felt itchy at the question, as if she was readying herself to duck away from a blow even though the samurai was eight or nine meters away.

However, Kazuo seemed less than inclined toward any quick movements. Instead, he just shrugged. "We're taking a break. That calls for a drink!" He flashed one of his eerie white smiles. "Now what was it that you really wanted to ask me?"

Kagome gave him a look. "Fine," she said. "I really wanted to ask you... uh..."

Kazuo kept his steady gaze on her as he polished off the bottle.

"Er... how..." Kagome wondered, "how am I doing?"

The samurai stared at her for a moment. "How are you doing?" he repeated. "Why don't you tell me?"

"I meant with my technique," Kagome said severely as she began to stretch her wrists. "How it's improving. As for me, I'm doing just dandy, thanks."

"Good to know, good to know," the samurai said. She watched as he relaxed his fingers, letting his sake bottle fall to the ground before he lifted a hand and rooted around inside his topknot, pulling out a long splintery piece of wood after a moment's searching.

Kagome's nose wrinkled. Don't do it, she thought. Don't stick that in your mouth, don't stick that in your mouth -

Kazuo stuck it in his mouth. Kagome stuck her tongue out in disgust as he began to roll it between his lips, chewing thoughtfully.

She watched as his eyes narrowed, seemingly staring off into the distance, and though she was intensely curious about what he was thinking, she couldn't help but keep her mouth shut and give him the same courtesy he gave her and allow him a quiet moment to think in peace.

After the requisite moment had passed, he appeared to reach a conclusion concerning her progress.

He carefully removed his makeshift toothpick - Kagome was just waiting for the day when he gave himself a splinter in his tongue - and tucked it back into his topknot. "You," he said, "are doing as well as can be expected."

For a moment Kagome was quiet, one of her wrists still caught and contorted in her hand, before she rolled her eyes. "Oh," she said. Really, she scolded herself, you probably shouldn't have thought it'd be anything more than that. "Is that good or bad?"

"It's..." Kazuo trailed off. "It's expected."

"You're not a lot of help, you know that?" Kagome told him, dropping her arms and shaking out her limbs in preparation for the next round of dodge and parry.

"Well then I'll just sit under this tree and drink sake if you don't think I'm helpful," he replied mildly, "but you're doing as well as can be expected. I think that is the best you could hope for, under the circumstances."

"So... I'm doing well?" Kagome asked, twisting her back in an attempt to crack the vertebrae as she strolled back into the grass.

"As well as can be expected."

"And that's the best I can hope for?"

Kazuo flashed another eerie smile, this one without warmth or humor. "Sure," he said. "Why not?" There was the slick sound of his katana sliding out of its scabbard. "Ready?"

"You're so comforting," Kagome told him as she unsheathed her own weapon.

"And I try so hard," he replied, and then he lunged at her again, and Kagome took off running, trying not to think about what would happen should she be caught, should she do less than expected. The high twanging of her nerves would only distract her.

Kazuo chased her over the field, and she dodged his attacks as best she could - though even now she could tell when he had to jerk backwards to avoid actually injuring her, and she cursed each instant. Her slip-ups were growing fewer and further between, but it only took one to bring her down.

Don't think, she thought. Just... go.

Kagome ran, darting through the tall, rustling blanket of the field, feeling the hems of her hakama being pulled back, dragging against the long dry whips, her shoes biting precariously into the carpet of slippery strands. Summer sun and golden grasses and the flash of her pursuer's blade all blurred together across her eyes.

"Having fun yet?"

Kagome almost groaned. He always asked this when she was getting tired; she suspected he thought of it as some sort of test of her ability to concentrate on the non-concentration required to survive. In her thigh, she felt ligaments tensing as they slid one muscle over and against another, and she was vaulting over the boulder someone had carelessly left hidden in the grass.

Her voice jarred as she landed and took off again. "No!" she answered, short of breath already. She kept a hand on her scabbard, ready to rip it out of her obi and smash someone in the face with it, but in her other hand she kept her wakazashi low and ready to bring up at a split-second's notice.

"Okay!" Kazuo replied. "What about now?"

Her heart leapt.

Kagome twirled to her right just in time to miss the downstroke of his blade that would have sliced her brain in half. She didn't even bother trying to hit him with her own blade - he'd block it easily - just took off at a sharp angle into the deeper grass. She felt the little budding stalks of the towering weeds whip and scratch over her sweaty face.

Already he was fast on her heels. "What about now?" he wanted to know, and she could hear him grinning.

Kagome threw herself sideways. There was the clash of metal in a slow motion moment - she thought she saw her sensei stumble, just a little, but it had to have been her imagination - and she was free again, leaning forward in the samurai run she hadn't yet mastered as she beelined her way out of the dangerous foliage and back into the more foot-friendly, but also, regrettably, more exposed terrain.

Air burned as it snaked in and out of her mouth. The arches of her feet twanged. Her shoulders screamed for mercy.

He didn't bother to ask her this time, and she barely made it out of weapon range, though she forgot to move in and moved away instead. Kazuo would not let that go.

"How about now?" he demanded jovially.

Kagome darted, heard the whistle of his blade, moved away further, because he was probably turning and could catch her on the follow-through.

He was very close. Her breath sang harshly in her throat.

and then -

"Now?" he cried happily, and Kagome twirled and ducked -

The katana sliced harmlessly through the air, whistling over her head, and without thinking Kagome lashed out with her sword, nearly chopping off her instructor's kneecaps before she jumped to her feet and darted away -

but there was something wrong. Too slow. Feet slightly tangled in the hem of her hakama. Kazuo just a little too drunk. Something.

Whatever it was, it gave Kazuo just enough time to slice her leg open. It didn't take but a moment.

Then it was over, and the world seemed ever so slightly... off. Brighter, and louder, and suddenly a bit more crimson.

Oh, Kagome thought. It was all she could think of to think.

It was quiet. Serene. They were both very still.

She was still standing, but there was pain. A high, stinging, sore pain right across the side of her left thigh.

There was blood, too. Quite a lot of it, actually, seeping into the already red fabric of her hakama and spreading little blobby fingers through the woven cloth.

Kagome squinted, trying to figure out what had just happened to her.

"Um," she said. "Kazuo-dono?"

From the corner of her eye she saw the lanky samurai waver where he stood, just a little, as though he had shuddered beneath a blow. He didn't answer her.

"Er," she muttered, "I think I got injured." She blinked again.

Oh, you think? her brain said, sounding annoyed despite the fact that her brain was, technically, her, and she was feeling more scared than annoyed, and more confused than scared.

The part of her that was scared was thinking, This is what is going to happen to you. They will butcher you when you go to save Edo. You are going to die.

And the part of her that was confused was thinking, Why aren't I crying? This really hurts, but I'm not crying at all. I really should be crying. Or maybe I'm doing well to not cry... No, this really does hurt, but I'm not crying. Shouldn't I be crying?

"Kazuo-dono?" she said again, feeling slightly lost. She didn't know what to do, or what to think, or what to feel -

The world swayed. Or maybe she swayed. Yes, on reflection, the latter was more likely. She swayed, and there were things to be done.

Perhaps, she thought, very deliberately, I should go see if Fuyu can patch this up. Hm. Might need some help, there.

Kagome looked up, mouth open to ask Kazuo to help her out, but when her eyes met his she froze.

The samurai was pale as rice powder, dark eyes and dark, circular bruises of exhaustion giving him a gaunt, hunted look. For the briefest of moments Kagome wondered if he had been injured as well, but a cursory glance revealed no blood or guts, and at any rate his eyes were glued to her leg. He seemed entirely focused on the leaking red liquid seeping from her wound, shining between the ragged edges of her ripped pants.

She stared at her leg for a minute longer.

"Man," she said suddenly. "I'm so bad at sewing. This is gonna look awful."

Kazuo still wasn't saying a word.

So... catatonic instructor. This is... well, probably not good, Kagome thought to herself. Experimentally she flexed her left leg, but the sudden bright lance of pain that shot straight up the side of her thigh and across what seemed to be her entire lower body quickly put an end to that. She heard a hissing noise, and it took her a moment to realize that it was her own small gasp of pain.

She saw Kazuo jerk at the noise and she looked up at him sharply. He looked like he was about to be sick. Desperately Kagome plastered a grin across her face.

"It's just a scratch!" she said brightly to him - she had to lean a little to catch his eyes. "See?" She gestured at it with the hand that wasn't holding the wakazashi - funny, but she would have thought she would drop it - but she didn't bother to look at it herself.

His eyes flickered between her wound and her face.

"It's fine," Kagome reassured him, still smiling. Funny, but hearing those words seemed to make it a little more real.

He was still frozen, gravitating back toward the wound, and she had to bend down a little more to catch him again. "But," she said, trying to sound cheerful, "I think I might need some help to get back to the shrine? Could you give me a hand?"

She smiled.

There was a long moment, and then Kazuo exploded.

It was like watching a mountain get dynamited. He had been so still, so paralyzed, that when his face suddenly melted into an ugly, twisted expression of rage, Kagome thought she had to be interpreting it wrong. He couldn't go from frozen to molten just like that -

He leaned forward, with all the appearance of a gargoyle. Then he yelled.

"Get out of here!" he screamed.

His voice was high and raw. It echoed. As the sounds bounced against the hills he waved a long, boney arm, as though trying to swat away a fly. "Get your filthy ass out of here, you stupid bitch!"

He lunged forward, waving his arm again. The tip of his bloody katana dragged a little in the dirt.

Kagome stared.

Low in her throat, she felt her heart twist and shy away.

Instinctively she took a step back, though it was more of a lurch, and then she was in the middle of a summer field, wide wound across her thigh, and Kazuo was walking away, a purposeful stomp to his step, as though he were mad at the soles of his shoes.

He didn't look back.

Then the world seemed to turn over and become real again.

Very slowly Kagome shook her head. What the hell had just happened? What was going on? And how was she going to get back to the shrine without passing out?

The universe was not treating her well today, and at this realization Kagome scowled at nothing in particular. "What the goddamn shit...?" she muttered to herself on the off chance that swearing a little might make the pain in her leg go away. It didn't work, but she did feel ever so slightly better.

"Fuck," she added, just for good measure. "Now what?"

The one leg supporting her felt weak, but she didn't dare sit down. Instead she very slowly bent her knee and knelt, keeping her injured leg out to her side at an awkward angle and planting the fist still clenched around the wakazashi against the hot, dry grass as it folded under her. When she felt that she had her balance, Kagome took a deep breath and bent over, squinting in order to see the injury more clearly.

Gingerly she dabbed at it with the as-yet unsoaked cloth of her hakama and was quite relieved to find that it appeared to be extremely shallow; the little flaps of the wound where the katana had cut cleanly through seemed mostly skin, so there was little - if any - muscle damage, which was a bit of a blessing. If she used the right medicines it would be easily healed in a week leaving nothing but a thin line of scar to mark its place.

On the other hand it was, in fact, bleeding rather copiously. With a sigh, Kagome gripped the hem of her hakama and began to rip.

Two minutes later she gave up trying to rip the thick fabric - why did such dramatic gestures always seem so much easier in the movies? - and instead hiked the wide hem up and wrapped it as tightly as she could around her upper thigh. Theoretically, Kagome supposed, she could have tried cutting strips with the blade she still held in her hand, but she wasn't sure she trusted herself to perform surgery with the wakazashi on her clothing while she was wearing it. Instead she just stood up, fisting the end of the excess fabric in a hand and holding it in place, and then turned toward the shrine and began the limping, laborious journey back to the long flight of steps.

She looked back only once to see Kazuo, head tipped back, sake pouring down his throat, and she couldn't decide whether to hate him or hurt for him so she just turned back and limped on.

A little over half an hour later, Kagome found herself getting stitched up by her mentor while a little cluster of soldiers hovered in the doorway, though occasionally Fuyu would turn and try to shoo them away.

Most of the samurai had vacated the shrine over the past week and a half, but there were still a couple hanging around tending the garden and it had been one of them who carried her up the steps. To Kagome's surprise they had collected quite a bevy of soldiers around her as they ascended, each of them peering at her with what seemed to be concern, though one of them did try to cop a feel of her exposed leg. He'd got a good kicking from one of the others for that. Secretly Kagome suspected they might like her just a little bit, since she was a tad gentler than Fuyu, but then again maybe they all just wanted a flash of decently shapely ankle. Either way it had put her at the top of the steps and into capable hands, so she was happy about that.

"Oooh," Kagome hissed. Fuyu was good with a needle, but it still hurt going in.

"Oh, shush, girl," the old miko chided. "The wound's worse than the cure. Shoo!" This last comment was directed toward the men in the doorway. Without much care Fuyu stuck the needle through Kagome's skin again and left it there as she picked up her spoon and brandished it threateningly. "You got her here safely, now get!" she informed the looming figures loudly.

There was a small chorus of grumbles, but everyone seemed to respect the spoon. The soldiers melted away as Fuyu turned back to Kagome, who was staring with fascinated incredulity at the needle stuck through her flesh.

"I know you've seen a needle before, girl, so don't gawp like a fish!" the old woman snapped. Her dry, slightly wrinkled hands tightened on Kagome's leg as she pinched the piece of metal between thumb and forefinger and pulled it through.

"Hey! I was just - I'm not a pin cushion!" Kagome informed her reproachfully.

"Eh?" Fuyu said, sliding the thread after the needle. "Well, that's a shame. You make a good one."

"Ng," Kagome replied as she was skewered again, reluctant to get into a verbal sparring match with such a huge distraction capturing her attention. She would definitely lose.

It was over fairly quickly, and then Fuyu stood up and stalked over to one of the three corners of the hut piled high with ointments and lotions.

"So," she said sharply as she inspected the haphazard collection in front of her, "you're finally fighting for real, eh?"

Kagome, who had been peering at her leg and admiring, in a rather detached sort of way, the fin stitching on her wound, looked up in surprise. "What? Oh... well, I guess so. Maybe."

Fuyu just grunted as she cast a diamond-hard look at her pupil over her shoulder. "Mm," she said, appraisingly.

Unsure what else to do, Kagome stared back.

Then the old miko shrugged before bending down and selecting a large jar. "At least you're not crying," she said as she straightened and strode back to her patient.

Kagome shrugged back at her. "I guess I must be getting tough."

Fuyu only raised her eyebrows in what was probably disagreement before she uncorked the jar and dipped her hand inside. When she withdrew her hand there was a thick, orange goo on her fingers. With more care than Kagome thought the old woman had possessed, she began to smear the stinky unguent on Kagome's wounded leg.

They were both silent for a long moment. Outside in the courtyard Kagome could hear the muted murmur of soldiers gossiping and telling each other dirty jokes; through the cracks in the hut, she could see the sun light squeezing inside as the afternoon turned toward evening. Far off, a couple of crows cackled at each other.

Fuyu smoothed soothing circles into Kagome's stitched wound. Her face looked hard, but almost serene.

Kagome's mouth twisted.

"He yelled at me," she blurted. Inside her head she heard the echo of his cruel words bouncing up and over themselves, lodging deep in her brain to be replayed in moments of doubt. Her stomach was twisting worse than ever.

Get your filthy ass out of here.

The older miko didn't seem to make much of this declaration. "Mm," she said. "What did he say?"

"He told me to go away, and he called me... a stupid bitch."

Long white strands of hair that had escaped from her low ponytail swayed gently as Fuyu nodded. "And?"

Kagome frowned, just a little, and leaned forward a fraction. "And then he went back to drinking," she said.

For some reason Kagome had expected the other miko to be angry about this, but Fuyu just nodded once more.

There was a long silence.

"Um..." Kagome began.

Fuyu interrupted her. "Do you know why Kazuo stays with me?" the old woman asked almost dreamily. Kagome watched, almost hypnotized, as her mentor wound the long strips of clean fabric between her hands, and picked up her patient's leg in strong, cool fingers and began to loop the bandages over her wound.

Kagome shook her head. Over and over Fuyu looped the white cloth against her skin and the long, angry red line on the side of her thigh was swallowed slowly by a blanket of woven white.

"Kazuo," Fuyu said, her voice calm and still, "is a deserter. He has no family. He stays here because he has nowhere else to go."

Very slowly, Kagome blinked. Her mouth was very dry, and she licked her lips. "Um..." she said again, low and timid, "then... why did he...?"

With care, the older miko tied the bandage into place and stared at her handiwork. For some reason, Kagome thought she was avoiding meeting her eyes.

"Why did he yell at you?"

"Er... that, too, I guess," Kagome muttered.

Fuyu sighed, her eyes seemingly fixed on the white fabric she had wound around the leg in front of her. "Kazuo was never really meant to be a warrior," she said absently. "He hates injuring others. He probably yelled at you because yelling at himself would just look silly."

Kagome swallowed. "Oh," she said softly. "He was... angry at himself."

Fuyu nodded.

"Why does he drink so much?"

There was a long, pregnant pause. "He... is not made to kill people," Fuyu said finally, and her voice was barely above a whisper now. "I suppose that one could say that now that he has done so, he is broken."

And in the darkness of Kagome's head, she saw a young boy in taiji-ya garb turn and smile at her.

Kohaku, she thought. She remembered the words of Sango, who had loved her brother so much.

He had been a gentle boy. He was never meant for that sort of thing either.

She hadn't cried at the wound, but for some reason the ghost of the haunted boy who gave his life twice brought a sharp knot in the back of her throat and a stinging to her eyes.

"I... Kohaku..." Kagome breathed sadly.

The old woman's face creased sharply at the sound of Kagome's voice. "I don't know who this Kohaku is," she said, "but I was thinking that Kazuo reminded me of someone else."

Kagome knew the answer before she even asked, but she had to do it anyway.

"Who?" she whispered, mouth dry.

The old woman's lips twitched, as though she had seen the punchline of a stupid joke coming from a mile away.

"You," she said. Then Fuyu raised her eyes.

Kagome couldn't move; she felt as though she were pierced, straight through the heart with a blade of flint. Fuyu looked straight into her head and chased her down, kept her from retreating, turned her around and forced her to really see, and Kagome could do nothing but swallow hard.

Fuyu was very still, so when her lips moved, it was as if the world had folded and collapsed around her mouth.

"I wonder," the old woman said thoughtfully, "if you still think the sacrifices are worth it?"

She'd aimed her arrow at so many people. She'd purified so many youkai. But that was then.

I didn't really think of it, did I? I thought evil was evil, and needed to be punished, needed to be neutralized. And it does, it's just... I'm older. Is evil still evil? Is it still that way now?

The words were already tripping off her tongue before she could stop them.

"Of course it's worth it," Kagome heard herself reply.

Then she didn't have anything else to say, so she stared back at the older miko, and they sized each other up.

The silence between them stretched tight, and then -

"Good girl," Fuyu said suddenly, patting Kagome right on the cut on her thigh. Kagome yelped in pain.


Fuyu didn't seem to care, and was already rising to her feet. "Think you can get back to your camp by yourself?" she asked.

Scowling, Kagome scrambled up after her. "Yes, but - "

"Excellent," Fuyu snapped. "You can have the rest of the day off. And don't make me rethink my generosity!"

For one long moment Kagome just stood there until her body, who knew the meaning of the words 'day off,' jerked into action and her feet carried her, stunned, out of the door and into the sunshine.

x X x

The snake youkai lashed its tail against the ground, gasping for breath against the fiery poison seeping through its veins. Sesshoumaru sat, rather regally, he thought, on a tree stump some feet away.

"I can wait," Sesshoumaru said as though he were remarking upon how nice and bloodshot the sky seemed this evening. "I have all the time in the world."

The snake hissed angrily. "You have no time at all, Sesshoumaru-sama," it said, sibilant voice caressing the words with almost as much poison as Sesshoumaru had injected into its bloodstream.

"Correction," the youkai lord replied mildly, "I have all the time in the world compared to you."

There was another dry thwap as the snake slapped its tail into the earth, as though trying to distribute its pain evenly.

"Just tell me," Sesshoumaru continued, "any information you know, and I will make your death much quicker."

"I've survived worse than this," the snake hissed harshly. It's breathing was becoming more laborious by the second.

"Somehow," said the youkai lord, "I doubt that."

The snake let out another howl of agony. Ignoring it, the lord folded his hands into his sleeves and turned his gaze to the sunset.

Sesshoumaru was feeling more than a little perturbed, though he was taking great pains not to show it; this was the sixth youkai he'd found and killed today. First there had been the beetle, then the wolf - a scrawny one from the south, not one of Kouga's clan - then the two leopards and the hawk. Each one of them had reeked of the hunt, and there was no hunting for a few miles around unless one was inclined toward a delicious but probably gamey meal of human.

They all knew who he was, too. Not that everyone shouldn't know who he was, but it was just that much more sinister, knowing that they knew and had come anyway. Not to mention that he hadn't heard anything of his home, positive or negative, so he could only assume that it was still standing and still under the command of Myouga and the guards, but still, the ignorance was a small agony in the pit of his stomach whenever he thought of it, and he thought of it often, especially when killing insolent youkai. At least Kagome was safe.

Yes, he thought sourly, at least she's safe.

He couldn't believe how much comfort he found in that thought, nor how much he hated thinking about the alternative to a safe Kagome, which was a Kagome in danger, and he worked very hard at avoiding that. Clearly, of course, his relief was the relief of a job well done' or so he kept telling himself. Sometimes he wondered if there wasn't more to it.

For some reason, Sesshoumaru suspected that he was getting very good at not being entirely forthcoming with himself concerning his own motivations, and the thought irked him. He really didn't need to lie to himself when there were so many other people willing to do that for him, but on the other hand he couldn't think of any other plausible explanation for his increasing anxiety and obsession with her well-being.

The snake howled again, effectively - and mercifully - interrupting Sesshoumaru's thoughts.

Anyway. She was safe.

"I believe you have had ample time to reconsider your position concerning any useful information you might possess," Sesshoumaru said, standing up and strolling nonchalantly over to the writhing youkai.

"I have!" the snake cried. Sesshoumaru watched as it bit down on its own wrist.

"And?" he said.

The snake swivelled an evil eye on his tormenter. "I didn't say I'd changed my mind."

"All right," Sesshoumaru replied.

He cut the thing up a little more and gave it another dose of poison to keep it quiet before he turned and walked away.

Nightfall was rising over the trees. It was time to head back to Kagome.

Briefly a vision of Kagome in her thin, figure-hugging clothes flashed across his mind, her body cast golden orange in the light of the fire, and his feet sped up. There really was no point in denying himself this small pleasure, after all. He'd had a long day of killing things, and she was a lovely sight for sore eyes.

I should start getting the stones ready, he thought, imagining her melting beneath the soothing warmth as he placed them carefully against her body. It was certainly a better image than his memories of Izayoi and his little brother, at any rate, so it was an acceptable image to entertain. Three across the shoulders, he thought, and then down the spine...

And then blood on the air.

Sesshoumaru's first thought was, the snake was a decoy, and his second thought was, she's dead, and he was already flying through the air toward the smell of her blood, his mind full of nothing but the white-hot fog of panic and the bright, metallic silver of fear.

His hands curled reflexively into fists, and he could feel his own claws digging into his palms; his heart beat against his chest like a club against a door, and down in the pit of his stomach a curdled purple agony rose up.

He thought he could smell smoke, and tears. He thought he could smell the crease in history as it curled back.

My fault, he thought. Stupid, stupid.

His brain itched. Her blood filled his nose, his entire world, and the universe was a green, whipping blur as he streaked toward her, eyes wide, searching, searching -

Sesshoumaru's haste was so great that he nearly ran right over the one he was looking for, but it really didn't matter. She was sitting beneath a tree, as though waiting for him. He caught her shoulders in his claws.

Alive, he thought. Not dead.

Now he could just smell her blood and her annoyance with him. The smoke and tears were gone.

For her part, Kagome was entirely too self-absorbed at that moment to realize what was going on with him.

Dammit! she thought. And I was just getting to the good part, too! Beneath her fingers, the spine of the book she had been reading creased rather neatly, breaking the binding. She'd barely had enough warning to put it down as Sesshoumaru came crashing through the trees, so there were probably a couple of torn pages as well.

It had been a brand new book, too. Kagome pouted up at Sesshoumaru who was staring down at her as though surprised - she could see the slightest lift of his eyebrows, and his lips were ever so slightly pursed - but other than his expression and the fact that he had just come barreling out of the forest just to fondle her shoulders he seemed completely normal. His hair was a mess, though.

There was a pricking sensation on her shoulders. Yeesh, she thought, you'd think he'd learn.

"Ow," Kagome informed resentfully. "You have claws." She reached up and picked a twig from his bangs before flicking it away and waited for him to say something snide.

It didn't happen.

Instead, Sesshoumaru continued to stare at her.

After a moment of this, Kagome began to squirm a little. "Er," she said, "what's going on? Do I have something in my teeth?"

She'd been angling for a reaction, but was disappointed. The youkai lord just blinked slowly, and Kagome suddenly realized that she was thinly dressed, and his skin was on hers.

He was very close. If she leaned in only a few centimeters, she could touch her nose with his; she could see the strange, hard line of his markings on his skin, far more perfect and clean than any tattoo could ever be, could see the strange gold color of his eyes, dark at the edges but shining in the middle.

His lips looked very soft.

And, she thought dreamily, if I leaned in a few centimeters more, I could -

She had the briefest of dangerous visions of Sesshoumaru, lips to her throat, pressing her to the ground beneath him.

Suddenly wildly embarrassed, Kagome planted her hands on the ground and scooted backwards, or tried to. "Uh," she floundered. "Sesshoumaru?"

Then she felt the pressure on her shoulders ease up as he blinked again and then suddenly seemed to realize what he was doing. He drew back, and the world seemed to come back into focus again. Kagome took a shaky breath.

"God, warn someone when you're going to do that," she said unsteadily, looking away from his still strangely surprised expression.

From the corner of her eye, she saw him give the most minimal of elegant shrugs. "You are injured," he said finally.

It had been a very long day. "What? Oh, yeah. My leg. Don't worry, it's nothing bad, I just got... cut during training."


Her gaze flickered back to his face, but she didn't see anything angry there. It was probably safe to assume that he wasn't going to go kill Kazuo. "Here," she said, gesturing to her thigh.

And then Sesshoumaru did something very unexpected. He reached down and, calmly and gently, slid her pajama pants up her leg.

Kagome couldn't even squeak.

He was being very careful not to touch her skin directly, she could tell, but she was on fire all the same, and suddenly her strange little crush seemed a lot more insistent than normal. She stared transfixed at the strong hands gently bunching the material before them as he came closer and closer, up the swell of her calf, over the small bump of her knee, and then the curve of her thigh -

The bandage, now brown with dried blood, emerged. When he had revealed most of it, Sesshoumaru stopped.

Kagome was definitely not thinking about the fingers brushing against her inner thigh, and she was certainly not thinking, incoherently, please, and, just a little further...

Oh, dear god.

And Sesshoumaru could not think clearly, either. He could not stop staring at her. His relief was like water on his tongue.

He couldn't... didn't... he wanted...

Well, he wanted many things. But she was safe.

Sesshoumaru withdrew his hands, only to place his fingers lightly against the bandage. Kagome tore her eyes away from his claws to his face, only to find him staring at her, as if he could read her thoughts floating in the darkness of her head.

He still hadn't said a word. Kagome shrank away, looking for something to say, cast about, found something.

"I didn't cry," she said abruptly. "I'm not weak, I didn't cry..."

There. She saw it. She saw his eyes soften, though it was so subtly that she was almost convinced that she imagined it. She wondered if he pitied her. The thought made her a little angry.

She kept talking, because she didn't know what else to do. His fingers were still on her thigh. "I didn't cry, I came back to camp all by myself. Made dinner, too. Um... It'll be fine, and I'm fine, and... and I didn't cry - "

"Kagome," Sesshoumaru said.

And she hadn't cried, and she wasn't going to, even though she definitely felt like it.

Slowly, Sesshoumaru removed his fingers from her thigh and moved them to her face, brushing away the tears that weren't there.

Kagome felt her heart stop.

Then, just as quickly as he had appeared, he seemed to break whatever spell he had fallen into. Abruptly Sesshoumaru pulled away and rose to his feet.

"You should rest," he announced imperiously, as though he hadn't just felt her up. "Can you walk?"

Dumbly, Kagome nodded, feeling slightly swept away by events.

"Good," Sesshoumaru told her, and then he turned and began to walk toward the campsite.

Giving up on making sense of the world today, Kagome scrambled stiffly to her feet as well and hobbled after him. "Hey," she half-yelled at his retreating back, "aren't you going to apologize for your stupid claws?"

x X x

At noon the next day Fuyu gave Kagome a thunderous frown and gave her bandages a particularly vicious tug as she tied them.

"Gnnnnrrrrg!" Kagome groaned between gritted teeth, her fingers scrabbling for purchase on the wooden floor beneath her. She refused to say, "ow" any more. She didn't want to wear it out, after all.

Fuyu didn't seem to mind the pain she caused. "Oh, yes, you're fit to train," she snapped sourly. "Just a moment and let me check again." She gave another tug.

"EEEEnnnnk!" Kagome replied.

"Seems like it still hurts."


"Still think you should train?"

"Yes!" Kagome blurted. "Yes! I have to."

"Oh, very well," Fuyu growled at her, "but don't say I didn't warn you. If you pull those stitches out you'll have to redo them yourself."

Kagome just nodded, watching as Fuyu tied the bandages off and then pulled her hakama down to cover her leg. "Right," the old woman said, climbing to her feet, "off you go. Tell that drunk bastard not to take his stupid shit out on you."

"Sure," Kagome lied, standing up. Her leg felt much, much better today, far better than she had thought it would, but she still was definitely not going to risk angering Kazuo. He had the big long sword, after all.

Fuyu just grunted and turned away, indicating that their conversation was over, so Kagome gingerly swung her backpack onto her back, checked to make certain that her wakazashi was securely in place, and walked out of the hut and into the sunny courtyard. She only had the slightest of limps and arrived at the top of the stairs without any trouble.

She leaned forward and looked down the long sweep of alabaster stone, just waiting for her.

Oh, steps. I love you so much, Kagome thought. With care, she leaned against the wall and inched her way down.

She really was doing much better than she had thought she would. That morning she had awoken snuggled up next to Sesshoumaru and feeling quite all right with the world; she hadn't even remembered that she'd been injured until she shifted to sit up.

"Oh. Right," she'd said at the sudden twinge.

"Forget something?" Sesshoumaru had asked, giving her a little smile when she shot him a glare.

"It's morning. I'm not at my best."

"Mm," he'd replied, and even though he'd said nothing at all Kagome was left with the distinct impression that he was agreeing with her in a less than complimentary way. She'd smacked him on the knee. He gave her the smallest of grins.

"Just for that, you don't get to spy on me while I take my bath," she'd told him. That wiped the grin off his face rather quickly. She was still patting herself on the back for that one.

After a little longer than she would have liked Kagome reached the bottom of the steps and turned right, towards their little outdoor dojo. She took a deep breath.

He was her teacher, and he had screamed at her to go away.

She couldn't, though. She needed him. Dimly, she wondered if he regretted saying those things to her, or if they were what he had always thought, and getting them out had been a relief.

In her stomach was a little, acidic knot of apprehension - she'd almost rejected her breakfast this morning, too, but had managed to keep it down - and now it tightened.

When you go to fight, Kagome thought, you'll feel like this. You'll feel worse, but you'll still have to go and do it.

So go.

Kagome went.

When she found him, Kazuo was drunk, sprawled beneath his tree where he kept his secret stash, and surrounded by sake bottles. Just the sight made her nervous.

He looked asleep, but as she took a timid step forward her shoes flattened the dry grass. At the sound he cracked open an eyelid.

Kagome almost froze, but really, he was just looking at her with a weary eye and didn't seem overly inclined to be abusive. He seemed, by all appearances, to be incredibly relaxed about the situation, which was more than she could say for herself, and she wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to have such liquid courage all the time.

She didn't have a flask, though, so instead of trying it out Kagome just swallowed hard and walked up to his supine figure, keeping her eyes on his own. As she neared him, she saw his eyebrows draw downwards, and for a moment she thought he was angry. That wasn't it, though; he just seemed rather perplexed.

She came to a halt a few feet away and put her backpack down. "Are we training today or what?" she asked him as haughtily as possible.

Instead of insulting her, he surprised her.

"How's your leg?" he wanted to know. His voice was fuzzy at the edges.

Kagome shifted a little on her feet. "Fine," she said. "It feels okay."

The samurai just snorted.

"It does," she insisted.

"If you say so," he replied.

"I do say so."

There was a little moment, and then he had folded his limbs and clambered rather unsteadily to his feet.

"You still want to fight? It hurts much worse than that, I'll tell you."

I know. I've always known, Kagome thought. I don't know if I'll hurt for the rest of my life, like you do, but I think... I think it's worth it. She lifted her chin.

"Yes," she said.

Kazuo looked away, seeming like a man who was neither pleased nor displeased, merely secure in the knowledge that the outcome he had predicted had come to pass.

"You are a brave fool," he said finally. There was the sound of his katana streaking from its sheath, and then there was a clash of metal as Kagome blocked.

She was already racing away from him as he followed through his downstroke, and he took off after her.

Tales from the House of the Moon

A InuYasha Story
by Resmiranda

Part 31 of 42

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