Chapter 17: Defense and Determination
“This One does not see any human whores with you, Arashi. Unless you are dragging your mother’s corpse behind you.” Ryukostokken dug his claws into the floor on either side of him. He had to remind himself that he still needed the spy. Once the West had been toppled and the cowardly dog lay whining at his feet, then he could gut the hanyou. He savored the imagined feeling of his claws ripping through the belly of the vile disgrace to the dragons. His entrails would steam in the cold Northern air when they spilled. Ryukostokken took a deep breath, and released sharp puffs of smoke into. That day would be a good day.
“The miko is well guarded. I have found a way to her, but it will sacrifice one of my informants within the Western castle, Denka-ue.” The shorter, stockier frame of the hanyou knelt several steps below the Northern lord, his head bowed in a show of deference. A lock of black hair on either side of his face had escaped his short ponytail and cast shadows across his grey skin.
“You will bring that pup’s human bitch before This One, or an informant much closer to the North will be sacrificed.” Ryukostokken stood and stepped forward until he towered over the other male. A door slid open, the audible rub of wood on stone announcing the presence of the wind demoness. She knelt beside the hanyou with a whisper of respect. Ryukostokken admired the bruises on her wrists and throat, wondering how much longer she might have been able to live without air. Perhaps he would test the theory when night fell again. Once he had the miko… That thought fueled both his lust and his anger, although Ruykostokken felt them so closely they were as one emotion. “This One goes to inspect reclaimed territories.” He grabbed the female by her hair and jerked her to her feet, displeased when she made no sound of pain. He allowed his claws to dig into her scalp until blood trickled down her neck and her sightless eyes widened with effort to hold back a scream. “Upon returning, the miko will be on her knees before this one, or I will use your blood to slicken her replacement.”
The dragon lord left without a backward glance, his youkai transport gliding gracefully behind him, despite her injuries. The spy remained as he was for a long moment, contemplating the deep game of shogi he had played for many years. Arashi thought on the value of a general versus a knight, and the strategic importance of a pawn that may be promoted. They had reached mid game, and the hanyou was a 9 dan player – an elite. He considered many ways white and black might move forward, he even calculated the chances of one side or the other winning. “Check, white,” he whispered to himself. Decision reached, he stood and disappeared into the shadows to follow the game to its conclusion.
Sesshomaru was not pleased. Each step he took made the stench of wolf stronger, and he found his control threatening to slip again. He could imagine what young Kouga thought of the miko. Any male not blinded by his own narrow vision would see her beauty, her power, the value she could bring to a pack. No other would have her. His youki was rising and his beast clawing for release, demanding that he take her, mark her, and spill the blood of any who made claim to what was his. He pushed both youki and beast down. Kouga was a valuable ally, one with power in the East that Inuyasha would need if he were to bring stability back to those lands.
Kagome was his. Mokomoko tightened without any conscious thought on Sesshomaru’s part, helping her to keep up with him and pulling her closer. Her scent drifted towards him, layered heavily with his own. Fresh cherry wood. Dew-kissed magnolias. Sour melon flesh – anxiety, but for whom he could not tell. The hot pepper of her irritation – that was most probably for him. He was aware the miko did not like being herded or dragged, and with mokomoko he managed to do both at the same time. She was his, and the wolf would know it. By her scent. By her position. By Sesshomaru’s dokkaso seeping into his open wounds, if necessary.
He seated himself on the dais in the reception hall, assisting the miko to his side. She had just settled Emi when the shoji at the far end were thrown open and the wolf entered. He was fast, Sesshomaru noted with a strategic eye. It was unlikely that the miko was able to follow his movements, but the daiyoukai had no such difficulty. Kouga made straight for the dais, his intention to reach the female clear. Sesshomaru halted his progress with a punch of forceful youki. The wolf dropped out of his run to glare and clutch his chest in surprise.
“Perhaps things have changed in the East, but in the West it is customary to have introductions before an audience is held,” Kento said calmly. “My Lord, may I present Kouga-san, leader of the Eastern Wolf Tribe. Kouga-san, you are received in the Western House of the Saidai Mao, Sesshomaru-sama and Kagome-s-”
“Yeah, I already know them.” Kouga grinned, baring his teeth in a way that Sesshomaru found offensive. The wolf stepped forward, reaching one hand out, and the daiyoukai could smell anxiety and irritation growing in the miko. Surely she does not fear for herself while I am near? The Western Lord repressed a frown. “How is my woman?”
Sesshomaru went still. The miko was untouched, he knew, so she was not the wolf’s woman. She had also mentioned that the presumptuous barbarian was an idiot and unable to listen to her. It was reasonable to assume that she had refused his advances. She had most strenuously not refused Sesshomaru’s. His lips pulled back to reveal the smallest flash of deadly fangs. Sesshomaru had cause to teach Kouga his place, and how it did not come near the miko’s.
Hisao entered the room and flanked him on the opposite side from Kento, protecting the female. That was good. “Do you make a claim?” His voice was steady and cool, and the wolf looked confused.
“Like I been telling dog-tur, er, your brother for years. Kagome’s my woman.” He puffed his chest out and his eyes ran across the miko possessively. Mokomoko twitched, and the wolf hesitated. “Don’t worry, Kagome, I’ll carry you back to the East and you can scrub off that dog smell at the first springs we cross.” Her irritation and worry were ready to boil over, but Sesshomaru ignored it, eager to let his own instincts run free. The miko was his, and he would be most pleased to make a demonstration. His eyes felt hot and poison pumped through his veins. He had to remind himself that the wolf couldn’t be killed – Inuyasha needed him. The mongrel just needed to be taught a lesson.
“The miko carries the scent of her pack. This one will give you a single opportunity to dismiss your claim, and your insults to the House of the West.”
“Yeah? Or what? Just ‘cause Kagome hangs out with that half-breed doesn’t make her a dog. I claimed her first and-” Sesshomaru’s claws lengthened and he could sense Kento and Hisao preparing to back away from the coming battle. His anticipation was cut short.
“Don’t call Inuyasha that.” The fury in the miko’s voice was white hot. She stood, shrugging out of mokomoko with some difficulty and settling Emi into the fluff. It prevented Sesshomaru from pulling her back with his tail and kept the child warm. He tensed, ready to leave his tail for his advisors to guard and leap after the miko. “I’m not a dog, Kouga. I’m not a wolf either. I am most definitely not your woman – as I have been telling you for years. I am Ka-go-me, do you hear me? I am my own person, and if you think I need anybody to fight for me, you need to think again.” Her reiki rose, still encased in his youki but intensifying to illuminate her from the inside out. The sharp tang of an ocean breeze mixed with her peppery anger, and the wolf hesitated. Sesshomaru stood as well.
“The miko will-”
“Stay out of this, Sesshomaru,” she snapped. The daiyoukai’s eyes narrowed on her back. She was his, and she would accept his authority. Challenging him in front of others was unacceptable. The wolf smirked again and his ego won out over his survival instincts.
“I knew you didn’t want this pompous ass, Kagome. Come with me and I’ll show you how much you’ll like being my woman.” He reached for her hands and winked lasciviously. Sesshomaru clenched his teeth in anger and his youki whip appeared of its own accord. Emi awoke and began to whimper.
“Do. Not. Touch. Me.” The miko’s hands were fisted at her sides. Sesshomaru couldn’t see her face, but the wolf’s grin was slowly sliding into a pale mask of uncertainty. Then fear. “I am here because I want to be here. When I want to leave, I will. I want to be your friend, Kouga-kun, but if you don’t get it through your thick skull that I don’t want you I will have to burn it into your brain, got it?” She poked him, right between the eyes, and the smell of burnt flesh assailed Sesshomaru’s nose. The wolf yelped and jumped. Before Kouga managed to slap a hand against his forehead, Sesshomaru caught sight of the perfect finger-shaped hole of purification.
“Miko,” Sesshomaru began, but for perhaps the first time in his long life, his laconic persona was the result of an inability to find words to express himself. The female, his female, had defied him and denied his right to claim and defend her – in front of other males. She had also quite neatly put the wolf in his place, and declared that she wanted to be with Sesshomaru. All while keeping intact an alliance they needed.
It was not inu, or youkai. It is Kagome. He couldn’t decide if he was displeased with her refusal to allow him to protect her, as was his right, or proud of the strength she displayed. Perhaps both. There was also his long-term strategy to consider. “I am here because I want to be here. When I want to leave, I will,” she had said. She wanted to be with him, but, as she had reminded them all, she could change her mind. She was not youkai, but human. He could not let her go, so logic determined that he must make her want to stay. The matter needed considerable contemplation…which he did not have time for at that moment. There were many things he desired that he did not seem to have enough time for.
“And you,” the miko spun and narrowed her eyes at him. Sesshomaru found himself in the unfamiliar and unenviable position of wondering how to calm down a female who, as far as he could tell, had no reason to be angry with him. “You woke Emi-chan!” she scolded. She stalked back to the dais and picked up the fussy toddler.
Sesshomaru had, of course, been aware of the whimpers and worried sounds of the pup, but it was perfectly safe and there had been more pressing concerns. The miko acted as though Emi had been left out in the snow without food. She cuddled the pup close and Sesshomaru would have reprimanded her for her tone, but she also picked up mokomoko and wrapped it around them both. Where his tail tucked under the child and across the miko’s lap, he could feel her hand stroking along his fur. If he hadn’t known better, he would have been certain that the woman had learned how to apologize in inu. Of course, that was not the case, but still…some of the tension drained out of his body. He settled back into a seiza, his ruffled pride soothed with her attentions, and silence, as well as with the obvious display of her desire for his proximity. If the wolf had not lost hope for any chance with the miko when she burned his flesh, the sight of her wrapping the daiyoukai’s tail around herself would have beaten the message into him.
“Tell This One what you know of events in the East.” Sesshomaru had regained complete control of his indifferent mask and he waited for the wolf to respond. The lesser youkai was slow to set aside his disappointment and shock, but after a few moments he straightened and began a recounting of happenings in the Eastern lands. Kuren had sent summons to the wolf clan, notifying them that a wolf youkai refugee had come from the north, claiming that his own pack had been completely wiped out by attackers. Kouga was dealing with a pack dispute along his southern borders so he sent Ginta and Hakkaku to collect the refugee and receive any messages from Kuren.
“I should have gone myself, I would have been faster. If I was there when they came, I could have taken care of the damn dragons before they did their work.” Sesshomaru almost regretted bringing the miko and pup with him as the wolf recounted the news his packmates had given him. The pup slept through the telling, but the miko became heavily scented with sadness as he described what they had found.
The two wolves arrived as the slaughter was finishing. The sizeable village outside of the Eastern castle had been crippled by disease. Any who survived, even those still suffering from the pox, were murdered. “There was no honor in these killings, no purpose. No food or land was taken, the castle was abandoned to stand empty. Single males were cut down by hunting groups of three or four dragons. Females and children were torn apart as they tried to flee or hide. Kuren’s family was tortured. They took the heir and she was-”
“You are certain it was dragons,” Sesshomaru interrupted swiftly. They all knew what had most likely happened to the female crane youkai. There was no need for the miko to hear it confirmed.
“Ginta and Hakkaku are slower than a breeding toad youkai, but their noses are good. If they say it was dragons, that is the truth.”
“They didn’t get sick, did they?” The miko’s worry filtered through her depressed spirits. “Those boys need to go to Edo and get-”
“We already got your medicine, Kagome. The houshi and his woman brought some to us, and sent messages with some of my faster runners to warn other villages of the sickness. There hasn’t been a single report of illness south of Edo.”
“Thank the gods,” she whispered. Sesshomaru spoke with Kouga long into the night, discussing various means for enemy egress from the north and key supply routes. The miko finally slumped against him, her eyes drifting shut and her scent smoothing out with sleep. Still he kept her at his side while he informed the wolf of his plan. The daiyoukai shared what the wolf needed to know of the strategy; it was illogical to inform him of all of the details. There was the expected amount of denial, sputtering, and outright refusal regarding Inuyasha’s role, but the wolf kept his voice down.
Sesshomaru smirked to himself. No doubt the youkai was afraid to wake the pup and miko and incur her holy wrath again. Eventually, Kouga came to his senses and saw reason. He agreed to his part, and to stay the night at the castle and return east in the morning. He left the reception room with a last, mournful look at the miko, and Sesshomaru dismissed Kento and Hisao. He gathered her up in his arms and carried her back to her new sleeping chamber. As he slid the screen closed behind him and lay her down on the bedding, he allowed himself a genuine smile. Their sleeping chamber.
Kagome blinked in the darkness for a few moments, trying to remember where she was. She was warm and tired, but she also needed to use the facilities. She was lying on her side with Emi curled against her front. The little girl had her hands wrapped around the neckline of Kagome’s robe. The miko blinked. She was pretty sure she was wearing a kimono when she fell asleep; she vaguely remembered someone helping her get ready for bed. Kagome blushed. She very much doubted that Sesshomaru had called in a servant to help her change. The miko carefully loosened Emi’s fingers and tried to wiggle away from her without waking the toddler. She promptly ran into a hard body. An arm snaked around her hip, pulling her closer, and Kagome held her breath. Hot lips pressed against her neck.
“Rest,” he commanded in a sleep-roughened voice.
“Sesshomaru,” she whispered, once again embarrassed, “I really have to go.” He hesitated for a moment, and then relaxed his hold. With a relieved sigh, Kagome squirmed out of the futon. When she was finished, she washed her face and hands with cool water and then stopped, staring at the rice paper screen between her and the sleeping room. Always before, Sesshomaru had pulled her into bed, or she had fallen asleep and he had laid down with her. She hadn’t had to make a conscious choice. She was fully awake. If she went back to bed with him, she was admitting, to herself and him, that she wanted to be there. Which was true, she realized.
Kagome blushed again. When did that happen? Two weeks prior, she had admired Sesshomaru’s fighting skills, his patience, his cold, perfect beauty. Without her noticing, she had also come to see and admire the loyalty he inspired in his people, his determination to protect and provide for them. He was not just patient with Rin, he truly loved her. However hard he tried to conceal it with the facade he wore, Kagome could see that the human ward had become his daughter. If that weren’t enough of a revelation, he had a soft spot for children. Sesshomaru had a soft spot. He cared for Shippo, provided for a home for Paho, took in the inu pups. He even found a way to make a place for Inuyasha, to give the hanyou a new purpose and at the same time, a wary kind of acceptance by full youkai. In their own gruff, sometimes ferocious-bordering-on-murderous, way, the half-brothers had come to at least tolerate one another. Kagome knew that Sesshomaru deserved much of the credit for the change in their relationship.
She wondered if he respected her. He seemed to appreciate the value of her knowledge and healing skill. He hadn’t outright killed her earlier when she told him to butt out. Oh, crap. Kagome closed her eyes as she realized what she had done in a fit of temper. As if it hadn’t been bad enough that she burned Kouga, he mostly deserved it, she had told the Killing Perfection to mind his own business. In front of his men. And Kouga. He hadn’t removed her head, though, or even verbally put her in her place. Instead, he let her fall asleep on him. That was…surprising, encouraging, or possibly disturbing. He might just have a tiny bit of respect for a human miko. That was a huge change for Sesshomaru.
There was also his body. Yeah, that, Kagome thought, leaning back against the wall to keep from sliding into a lust-induced puddle. Sesshomaru was beautiful, no one could deny that. It turned out, on closer, more naked inspection, that he was also muscular beyond belief. Sleek and toned from fighting, sparring, and who knew what else, the daiyoukai was mouth-watering without a shirt – Kagome felt her face go bright red – or any other clothing. She had a strong intuition that he would know how to use that body too. Get yourself under control, pervert! Kagome buried her face in her hands, but she couldn’t deny the thought, once it had entered her mind. Sesshomaru was an excellent kisser, not that she had a lot to compare to, but still… She got weak and melty when he whispered against her neck, she couldn’t imagine what it would be like if he was really trying to turn her on.
He was a dog. An actual dog. Kagome had felt some reservations about that, but the more she considered it, the more it didn’t really matter. He was still him, no matter what shape he was in. And if they did become more…physical…if he even looked like he would suggest it, she would just be very clear that she did not want puppy kisses. Although, his fur was incredibly soft and warm. If she cuddled – Kagome stood straight. She was getting ahead of herself. She wanted to sleep next to Sesshomaru. She, Kagome squelched the girlish impulse to giggle or hyperventilate with awkwardness, wanted to sleep with him. Sesshomaru seemed to be headed that direction, but she wouldn’t know for certain unless she committed to that desire.
What about love?
Kagome squared her shoulders. She didn’t think she loved Sesshomaru, but she thought she could. She refused, however, to wait around and let herself become more attached, hoping that he would declare his undying devotion to her. Been there, done that. As unlikely as that outcome had been with Inuyasha, it was preposterous with his older brother. Kagome wasn’t a girl with a crush any longer; she was a woman. After risking her life, tracking down shards, and killing the most devious and evil creature in Japan’s history – not to mention giving up her heart and having it gently, but resolutely, handed back to her – all without any parental oversight, she figured she had more than earned the claim to be an adult.
If she wanted something, she was going to go after it. Sesshomaru might refuse. He might even be offended. It would definitely take work to elicit any feelings that might be love, or even affection, and a damn miracle if she could get him to admit it. Kagome wasn’t one to back down from a challenge, though.
She slid open the screen and made her way through the dark to the raised futon. She only tripped once, and felt her way under the bedding without falling onto Emi or Sesshomaru. Kagome held her breath as she slid over, finally encountering his heat through a sleeping robe. He lay on his back, silky hair spread around him, and the child on his chest. She could barely make out the shadowy lump of Emi, snuggled against his sternum and listening to the steady, low vibration he emitted. Kagome hesitated one last time, but she wasn’t given the chance to back out. A strong arm wrapped around her, pulling her into his side and capturing her leg between his own.
“Sleep.” His command was followed by a brush of lips across her forehead. The miko relaxed, resting her cheek on his shoulder and reaching out to cover Emi’s hand – directly over his heart. She smiled in the darkness, recognizing all of the soft, happy feelings that came with being close to him, with him wanting her close. It wasn’t love, but with a nudge, it could be. A tsunami of excited fear washed through her, making the daiyoukai sniff and twitch.
“Goodnight, Sesshomaru,” she whispered to let him know she was fine. She could let herself love him. Now she only had to find the tenderness under all of his ice, and find out if he was willing to give her the same chance. Kagome went to sleep dreaming of ways to make the Killing Perfection let go of his control long enough for her to get close to his heart.
“We will move tomorrow,” Arashi said softly from the shadows, watching the flow of water down the aqueducts in the village.
“There has been a change since last you were here. Several orphans have been taken in from the northern towns. One clings to the miko constantly.”
“That only benefits us.” Arashi watched his informant out of the corner of his eye. The inuyoukai’s face was unreadable, as usual, but his kimono was creased, as though it had been slept in. The hanyou considered the implications such carelessness could have on the youkai’s ability to perform certain tasks. It might require certain adjustments to his strategy.
The informant shifted restlessly, “You’re sure he will want to go with her?”
“If he doesn’t, I will encourage him.”
“It will be better to have her out of the castle,” he muttered. The informant stiffened, almost imperceptibly, as though he had said something unintended. Interesting, Arashi noted the admission. This one may have his own agenda. It is good that I have never truly trusted him. The traitor to the West continued as though he had not spoken, “I think Ryukostokken has underestimated Sesshomaru-sama if the dragon believes my Lord will allow an incursion on his home to go unanswered.”
“The Denka-ue’s estimations are none of your concern. Play your role, and the miko will be removed. Forget your place and… Do not forget your place.” Arashi jumped onto the stone lip of the aqueduct. He picked up speed sliding down the steep incline and then took to the air, silent and invisible in the thickly falling snow.