Chapter 25: Measuring Contest
Inuyasha paused to catch his breath; the air in the mountains was thin and he had been pushing himself for almost twenty-four hours without rest to reach the Western Palace. He leaned against an outcropping of rock, scrubbed free of snow by a bitter wind, and stared down at his brother’s castle. He could only just make out the regular lines of the walls where they had been cut from the mountain. The bulk of the main structure was still hidden from his sight by the natural features of the area and white drifts.
The hanyou rolled his head, stretching and popping his neck, and sighed. “Bastard has a good defensible position,” he admitted to himself, grudgingly. The surge of jealousy and anger that usually accompanied any consideration of Sesshomaru’s position and power was missing. He was still envious, and his brother irritated the piss out of him, but Inuyasha was surprised to find that he no longer hated Sesshomaru. The daiyoukai was still a bastard, and they would never be friends. He snorted, not that Kagome won’t try.
He straightened and began an easy walk to loosen his muscles. Kagome was the reason he had let go of that hate, not that he would ever admit it to her. She was his first friend, his best friend, and no matter how many times he had cursed her or called her weak she had never left him. Even Kikyou – the memory sparked his grief, but it faded quickly – even when he stupidly wavered between the two women, and he knew that it had been beyond painful for Kagome, the girl from the future had still trusted him. She had faith in him.
For a half-breed that had never known kindness outside of his mother or the dead priestess, Kagome was like the first sunny day of spring after a long winter. It had taken him two long years to realize that she loved him, and would always love him, even if they were never more than friends. It was her compassion – her friendship – that had brought Miroku and Sango into his pack and even the little runt, Shippo. Before Kagome, he would have avoided or even killed the same people that had become his closest allies and friends. She had shown him there was more to life than survival, more to people than hatred, fear, or mere tolerance.
And now she was with his brother. Inuyasha shook his head in a mixture of irritation and grudging amusement. He stretched out his tired legs and began to run. Only Kagome could have done what she did for him, and he was grateful. If she could make Sesshomaru accept other people – make him friendly – it would be a miracle but it wouldn’t surprise him in the least. That was Kagome. However, if the daiyoukai hurt her feelings, and fuck did that woman have a lot of feelings, Inuyasha would make sure she still got Sesshomaru’s heart. Even if he had to rip it out of the asshole’s chest to give it to her.
He pushed personal thoughts aside while he ran the last few miles to the castle and reviewed everything he needed to tell Sesshomaru about the movements of the Northern troops. It would have been a long way around to the front gate, so he opted instead to climb down one of the narrow crevices in the mountain that led to private gardens. He hoped he got the one near Rin and Kagome’s room, to save him the time of explaining himself – or punching his way through guards that weren’t expecting him, but if punching was required he could do that too. It would irritate Sesshomaru if Inuyasha roughed up some of his guards, so the hanyou figured that wouldn’t be all bad either. He could smell three distinct guards watching the castle from above. The wind was in his favor, blowing his scent away from the palace, but they would spot his red clothing against the snow easily, if they were looking.
Unfortunately, Inuyasha’s luck had never been great. He jumped down the last twenty feet to land in a low snow drift, which was covering a cluster of barberry shrubs. “Fuck!” he howled, springing out of the bushes to sit on a bare patch of ground. His feet and ankles were on fire. Where his bare skin had been almost numb from cold before, the flesh had been torn open and pierced in dozens of places. Inuyasha gritted his teeth and held his bleeding feet up off the ground. Thorns, some more than two inches long, jabbed deep under the skin and clung to his pants. He cursed, sniffing, and his nose was almost overwhelmed by the scent of pieris flowers and his own blood. He frowned, ripping out the first thorn he could reach and sniffed again.
The plant was definitely a barberry, irritatingly thorny, and common enough in Japan, but it also smelled like the poisonous pieris flowers. He breathed deeply again, brow furrowing in confusion. Pieris and amber. Lavender. Cedar.
“Generally, guests visit through the front door, rather than dropping in.”
Inuyasha surged to his feet, and then almost fell over in pain. The thorns dug deeper, and he could feel their poison slipping into his veins, but it was ignored in favor of the youkai standing before him. It was Sesshomaru’s mother. Obviously. Even if he didn’t have a nose capable of picking out her scent and finding the threads of similarity to his half-brother, he could clearly see the resemblance. Pale skin, white hair, magenta markings and a blue crescent moon. Her clothes were finer than anything he had ever seen – even what he remembered of his mother’s wardrobe. Her expression was…not even remotely cold. Amusement quirked the corners of her mouth and something else, surprise or shock, raised her brows.
He was unable to respond with anything but a stare. Even his usual gruff manner failed him. Inuyasha was inept in most social situations, and the tiny amount of etiquette he had cobbled together from his mother, Kagome, and Miroku had not prepared him for meeting the Lady of the West. The first, cuckqueaned, wife of his father. The mother of the asshole that had tried to kill him and steal his sword – repeatedly. The female that would be related to Kagome one day soon, if Sesshomaru got his way.
Another youkai, Inuyasha easily recognized the hawk blood in her scent, flew down the crevice to land a few feet away from him, sword drawn and clearly unhappy that her defense had been breached. Inuyasha only got Tessaiga half out of the sheath before the Lady dismissed her guard. With a warning look that Inuyasha was too off balance to properly sneer at, the hawk disappeared back the way she had come.
“This One is quite proud of the garden, particularly the more rare plants. It took three centuries to successfully crossbreed barberry and pieris shrubs, but the combination of flowers and fruit is quite pleasing.” She seemed to glide across the snow-dusted ground as she approached the crushed flora. “It appears to have taken significantly less time to destroy.” She turned back to face him, expectantly, and Inuyasha felt his mouth open, but no sound came out. They stood like that for several long moments, until a thorn worked it’s way to a nerve in the hanyou’s foot and the resulting acidic burn made him wince. Why the fuck would anyone want to make a thorn bush poisonous? And then call it pretty? “This One had occasionally thought of your demise, son-of-my-mate, but never did This One consider it would come so…commonly. Death by flora seems a bit underwhelming for one who has lived a life such as yours.”
“I ain’t gonna die, Lady,” Inuyasha finally managed through gritted teeth. “So don’t get your hopes up.” He kept one hand on Tessaiga, but he was aching to sit down and pull the rest of the thorns out of his skin. He refused, however, to relax his guard in her presence. Something like guilt was squirming around in his gut under the irritation at her strangely passive attitude and caution at the obvious threat posed by her enormous youki. Even heavily restrained as it was, Inuyasha was vividly aware that she was nearly as powerful as Sesshomaru and most likely almost as dangerous. Maybe more so. The guilt was eating at him, however…it was Kagome’s fault. He wouldn’t have even been considering how the Lady must be feeling if it weren’t for his friend and her constant talk of emotions. He blamed Sesshomaru as well. Before the bastard had brought it up, it had never occurred to him that Izayoi was the other woman. His mother had replaced this female in InuTashio’s life; Inuyasha doubted that she wanted to see his face and be reminded of that fact.
“Sorry,” he blurted. Her brows rose further and Inuyasha could feel a blush starting on his cheeks. He scowled.
A smirk pulled at her mouth. “Apologizing for not dying? How considerate of you.”
“For the fuckin’ bush, wenc- er, Lady. I wouldn’ta-” He blew out a sharp breath. “Fuck it. Never mind.” He took a painful step backwards, eager to be done with the weird conversation and out of her presence. “I came fer Kagome.”
The Lady considered him pensively, then her face suddenly cleared into calm politeness. “This One apologizes as well. You have received a poor welcome. Come, your injury will be tended.” She swept past him and through the open shoji screens into the palace. Inuyasha took a hesitant step and bit back a howl of pain.
“I don’t need fuckin’ tending,” he muttered.
“Nonsense,” her voice floated out to him, and Inuyasha cringed. He spent so much time around humans, he occasionally forgot how sharp youkai hearing was – especially inu. Hobbling, he reluctantly followed her inside. Despite his pain and discomfort regarding socially interacting with other youkai – particularly this one – it did not escape his notice that she had forced him to either refuse her ‘hospitality’ or walk on his own thorn-filled feet.
“Sadistic bitch,” he whispered under his breath as he made it to the doorway, bloody footprints on the ground behind him. A perfectly smooth, pale face appeared before him, far closer than he was comfortable with. He sucked in a breath and planted his feet, preparing for battle. She smiled, a feral smile of enjoyment that did not comfort him in the slightest.
Kimi summoned a servant to tend to the hanyou’s feet and kept her expression amused while they waited together in her reception room. She tucked her hands into her sleeves so that she could grip her forearms to keep her fingers from shaking and conceal her discomposure. It is not him. She felt the need to repeat the phrase to herself, although it had been obvious to her eyes and nose after the first startled moment of finding Inuyasha in the garden. Still… She found herself having to conceal not only her scent but also the sound of her heartbeat from the young male. He looks so like Toga.
Her mate had worn his hair the same way, flowing down his back. when they were in their personal rooms, and his eyes had been golden warm, just like Inuyasha’s. As though every chrysanthemum in Japan had been melted and their color preserved in his eyes. They held themselves in the same casual way – an easy strength that spoke of unconscious ego, well-deserved.
The pup was far too brash. She wished she could attribute that to living among humans, but blunt words and bold action had been given to him by the InuTashio. His scowl and vocabulary were all his own. He was both shorter and thinner than his father, his shoulders were not as wide. Although – Kimi was painfully aware of exactly how old Inuyasha was – he had a great deal of growth ahead of him, even for a hanyou. He was dirty, although none of it was more than a few days old, but his hair was well-groomed. His hands were just as broad and calloused as Toga’s had been, as though he, too, handled his sword on a daily basis and used it for more than mere training. He was not his father, no one would mistake him for the former Lord. And yet…Kimi sniffed discreetly.
Agar. Sweet woodruff. And the musky, shaded earth smell that had been Toga. Sesshomaru carried it in his own scent as well, but she had grown used to that reminder, had recognized it centuries before her mate had died, centuries before he left her heart. She had not ever expected to have her memories, her emotions, tugged on by the scent of another. She had never expected to actually meet Toga’s bastard son. She wanted to hate him. In fact, she had spent many years, many decades, hating the human woman that had ensnared her mate. Hating the pup that Toga had died to protect.
Hate was a difficult thing to hold onto. It took enormous energy to fuel and keep smoldering for such a long time, particularly given a great deal of time to reflect. Kimi had that in abundance as she secluded herself in her sky palace after Toga’s death. At first, she went a day without cursing Izayoi’s name. Then several days without thinking of the human or her hanyou pup. As her self-imposed exile continued, she faced the hard truth that Toga had not left their home one day and gone to Izayoi’s the next. Her mate had not abandoned her loving arms in a fit of spite. They had loved each other once, but their bed had cooled long before Izayoi was even born. Their relationship had become one of old friends relegated to distant acquaintances. Toga was in the wrong to try to have both Kimi as his Lady and Izayoi as his lover, but the situation was not created by him alone.
Kimi grappled with her control and took absent note of the pup’s emotions, his anxiety and embarrassment. His irritation, guilt, pain, and frustration. He apparently did not know how to mask his scent. Interesting, and rectified easily enough, if properly trained. The thought struck Kimi as strange…and unsettlingly attractive. Son-of-my-mate. He might still have Toga, the West might still have the InuTashio, if I had been able to let go of false pride and step aside for Izayoi.
A servant arrived, a young female that had attended her before. The little inu blushed prettily while she carefully tended Inuyasha’s feet, despite his rough protests. Kimi could scent her interest, but was surprised that the hanyou smelled of nothing more than mild attraction under other emotions. In a male that age, with such a lovely specimen, Kimi would have expected more. As it was, he expressed no more interest than Sesshomaru would have done in his youth – which was a strange feat in itself.
Kimi wondered if he was infatuated with the miko. They had traveled together for years; Kimi’s spies had often related tales of his dedication to her, and hers to him. He had said he was there for the miko; clearly he did not know she had been taken. Inuyasha’s interest would cause problems for Sesshomaru, and by extension the West. Taking a human for a mate was extremely unusual, more so for a daiyoukai. Making one the Lady of the West – mate of the Saidai Mao – that was another thing altogether. If Sesshomaru was determined to go forward on that path – Kimi repressed the urge to roll her eyes, of course the stubborn pup was going forward – then he needed all the help he could get to smooth his way. Kimi had already decided to stay at the palace after he returned and lend her expertise; she would give her son assistance in this area as well.
It was startling to her, how little it hurt to think about being close to Inuyasha. She had met Izayoi once, and the deluge of hatred she had felt for the pretty human had nearly overwhelmed her. The woman’s son, however…he was also Toga’s son. Despite all that had happened, or perhaps because it had happened so long ago and ended as it did, she still held her mate in a place of warmth in her heart. The hanyou could not be allowed to continue on as he was, especially if he had some intentions towards the miko. Kimi would rectify the situation immediately. While at the same time protecting the entire West from invasion, managing her spy network, and dealing with three depressed pups.
She smiled to herself. A mother’s work is never done.
“Prepare a room for This One’s guest,” she ordered the servant as soon as the girl was finished with Inuyasha’s feet. She bowed and backed away, still blushing and throwing glances towards the hanyou as she slid the screens shut.
“Don’t need one,” Inuyasha barked shortly. “I’m leavin’ soon as Kagome is ready.” He crossed his arms over his chest defiantly, but did not stand. Kimi was thankful for small blessings. If not for the pup’s injuries, he would no doubt have immediately raced away to search for the human girl and Kimi would have been forced to restrain him to prevent a commotion. Perhaps I should poison more guests. It would certainly make political celebrations more interesting.
“This one assures you, she is most certainly not ready,” Kimi said dryly. Technically, the girl was either still being tortured by her captor or was mid-escape with Sesshomaru. Either way she was not prepared for a journey with the hanyou.
“What the fuck does she have to pack?” he growled in frustration. “It ain’t like she don’t have clothes at home – more than any normal person needs. Show me where she is, or I’ll sniff her out myself,” he warned. “I ain’t carryin’ all her shit just to turn around and come back two days later.”
“Such a short time?” Kimi did her best to keep her voice politely disinterested, but the hanyou was more intelligent than to be fooled by such a ruse. She would have been severely disappointed if he fell into her trap. Inuyasha’s body went still and his spine stiffened, as though he had realized he said more than he intended.
“We’re done here,” he said shortly. He met her eyes, but his expression gave nothing away. His scent was also unhelpful, irritated and angry – nothing that was not expected. “I need to talk to the bast- er, Sesshomaru, anyhow.”
Kimi was torn between the desire to continue to bait the pup, and a need to pull him aside and explain where he had gone wrong and how he could have more skillfully manipulated the conversation. Instead, she set aside her own fun for a later date. It was in the best interests of the West. Although it had taken her nearly a full day to wring the truth out of Sesshomaru’s advisors, Kento had given her the broad overview of Inuyasha’s mission in the East. Kimi had been shocked that Sesshomaru had placed such trust in the half-brother whom he had labeled a disgrace and claimed for his own kill. Upon reflection, she was quite proud of her son. He had overcome his personal feelings to make a decision that benefited his people. It was a sign of his skills as a leader, and that he was finally putting some of his resentment towards his father aside.
If Sesshomaru could treat the hanyou as a valued packmate, then Kimi would have to do the same. Even a distant relation deserved her excellent guidance and advice. She would have offered the same to Kento if he had been in need. And Inuyasha was definitely in need. Her mind made up, Kimi smiled. Inuyasha would be steered away from trouble, to help Sesshomaru’s cause, and towards self-improvement, to help himself. Something eased in her mind, perhaps the last whispers of hate or guilt for her treatment of Izayoi. The woman was gone, but Kimi could help her son. It would be an adequate diversion between reports, paperwork, and the occasional information gathering exercise. She made a mental note to see if the hanyou would take to interrogation better than Emi had. The pup had taken one sniff of blood and promptly thrown up. Thankfully it had mostly landed on the prisoner.
“That will be rather difficult at the moment, son-of-my-mate. Sesshomaru is not in residence at this time.” She halted his protests with a smile and a raised palm. “He has left This One to rule in his absence. You may report now, as if he were here.”
“Like hell,” he cursed. “I don’t know you, Lady, but the asshole doesn’t just turn over power. And unless his tail is on fire, he don’t have shit for excuses for runnin’ away right now.” Kimi was very aware of the white of the pup’s knuckles on his sword and the tension in his legs, ready to leap into action.
“This One assures you, his reasons are-”
“I. Don’t. Give. A. Fuck.” His eyes narrowed and he got to his feet. Kimi was not immune to the wave of intimidation that rolled off of him and her own eyes narrowed. Despite his youth and lack of training, Inuyasha was a survivor. A killer, when necessary. He had not lived on his own for as long as he had without developing a cautious streak bordering on paranoia. “The next words outta your mouth better be directions to Kagome, and she better be okay, or I am gonna tear this place apart lookin’ for her. Startin’ with you.” The hilt of Tessaiga move fractionally; light gleamed off of an exposed inch of the transformed blade. She hoped his lessons on surviving in the wilds translated to understanding when he had crossed behavioral lines. They were pack – Sesshomaru had decreed it – and she was determined to be the alpha in the room. Negotiations were not going well, so Kimi resorted to releasing a bit of youki to put the pup in his place. Cool autumn winds, soaked in amber and crisp needles, blew against the hanyou. His eyes narrowed further, but he gave no indication that he was swayed. Kimi expended more energy, gradually increasing the force of her power in an attempt to push Inuyasha back to his seat and elicit his submission.
He braced his feet and gripped his sword, but did not draw. His eyes darkened, the gold rimmed with pink, and a snarl twisted his lips, but he did not bow over. Nor did he attack. At some point, Kimi’s focus switched from subduing him to testing his limits. A huge portion of her youki was concentrated on him before he even moved back a step, but her anticipation of victory was short-lived. He squared his shoulders and walked forward, until he was an arm’s length away. His face was contorted with a growl and his claws lengthened and ready for attack. She had not attempted to injure him with her youki, but the weight of it would have sent most demons to their knees.
Astonished by his display of strength, Kimi broke into a smile just as the doors were thrown open. Kento stood panting in the hallway, back bent slightly under her oppression. Hisao walked steadily behind the secretary, shielding himself with his own energy, but still clearly affected.
“My Lady,” Kento said with a bow. “Is there anything I-”
The secretary’s polite interruption was ruined by Hisao’s blunt assessment. “Inuyasha-san! Do you have a death wish? Apologize to Kimi-sama!”
“I ain’t sorry,” the hanyou ground out. Hisao muttered expletives under his breath, but not so low that she couldn’t make them out. Inuyasha’s eyes remained locked on the Lady, and she maintained their invisible battle of wills for a moment longer. The sudden reclamation of her youki made Kento sigh audibly and Hisao relax his clenched fists, but Inuyasha’s posture did not change. “If you want to dance, Lady, I’ll make the time.” He leaned forward slightly, aggressively. The behavior was that of a youth challenging for authority of a pack. Before the demon courts had been established, it would have resulted in the death of one or both participants. Even under Sesshomaru’s rule it still sometimes did. She doubted he was consciously aware of his actions, but she was, and her instincts were screaming at her to make the pup prove his worth. Kimi, the last female silver inu, did not submit to any who were not her superior in power. She overrode those instincts with a control that had been honed long before she had become Lady of the West. The hanyou continued, barely restrained from threatening her outright, “But you ain’t got shit I haven’t already seen and beaten, so cut the show and tell me where Kagome is.”
“Inuyasha-san!” Kento reprimanded.
“Moron,” Hisao spit out.
“The miko,” Kimi paused, making certain that she had his attention, “has been kidnapped by enemies of the West. Sesshomaru is retrieving her.” She waited, preparing herself to leash the pup with all of the youki at her disposal, utilizing Kento and Hisao if necessary to physically hold him. Once again, he surprised her.
“Why the fuck didn’t you say so?” He muttered an oath that made Kento’s ears turn red and Inuyasha abruptly leaned away from her. If Kimi had not scented the concern still lingering on the hanyou, she would have thought he cared nothing for Kagome.
“You are not concerned?”
“If those assholes put so much as a scratch on her, I’ll gut them and let Sango make shuriken from their claws,” he vowed with deadly intent, red flashing across his eyes. He blew out a long breath, and regained his control. “But Kagome gets kidnapped all the time. She knows how to leave a trail and how important it is to keep her mouth shut ‘til somebody comes for her.” He grimaced, “If the fucker left fast enough, he’ll find her before she even gets tied up.” The silence in the room was unfortunate, but unavoidable. Kimi wished she had more time to get to know the hanyou’s mind before having to manipulate him in conversation. His scowl was thunderous, “How long?”
Hisao frowned and Kento opened his mouth, “There are many extenuating-”
“How long did the prick wait?” His hand had fallen off his sword, but his fists were tight to the point of his claws drawing blood from his palms.
“One night. Two days.” Hisao spoke bluntly, and the deep timbre of his voice carried over the hanyou’s growls. “We received your message of the threat against Rin-yojosan. Lord Sessomaru did not feel he could leave the West until another was in place to lead.” Kimi could smell the whir of emotions, too quick to process, that filtered through Inuyasha. With an ability to see past his feelings and understand reason that she did not expect, he remained quietly frowning while he considered new information.
“It nearly killed him to stay,” Kento said softly.
“I doubt it,” Inuyasha responded thoughtlessly. Kimi wondered at the relationship between the two brothers. Sesshomaru trusted him enough to call him pack and put the East into his hands, but still Inuyasha’s first reaction was animosity. Absently, she reminded herself to probe the situation further, when circumstances allowed. She wanted to know the son of Izayoi, and to find the similarities and differences from her own offspring. “Rin…” The pup swallowed hard, and his face closed into an unreadable expression as he focused on Hisao, “…the kid and the runt are okay?”
“They are,” Hisao confirmed with a nod.
“Although they are most distressed by Kagome-sama’s absence,” Kento added.
“The miko’s new pup has been inconsolable,” Kimi said, carefully watching for a reaction. “The little inu has vexed this one most severely, crying for her mother.” The hanyou’s eyes widened, and then he scowled again in resignation.
“‘Course she took in another one. Damn wench can’t let anything alone.” He shoved his hands in his sleeves, signaling the end of the conversation, and a drop of hostilities, and turned to another topic. “How long’s he been gone?”
Kimi took his meaning and refocused his attention. “Sesshomaru left early this morning. This One will listen to your report, and make use of any intelligence so that the forces of the West will be prepared when the Saidai Mao returns with the miko.”
Inuyasha looked like he wanted to argue, but Hisao and Kento stepped in, easing him into a discussion of the Northern raiding parties he had engaged, rumors of troop movements, and the status of preparations in the East. Kimi listened intently, assessing not only his report but also the male himself. Inuyasha was not Toga. He was brash and crude. He had no technical skill at strategy or espionage. His expression seemed perpetually set in a frown. He did have a raw aptitude for battle and practical experience with negotiations, with youkai and humans, under extreme circumstances. With some refining, he would bring honor to the West. It had not occurred to her prior to Sesshomaru’s announcement that he had accepted his half-brother, but something in Kimi was satisfied by the idea that both of Toga’s sons could make him proud.
“Ryu will soon know of your movements in the East, if he does not already,” Kimi mused once Inuyasha’s telling was finished.
“Ryu?” Kento questioned. The other two inus also raised their brows at the familiarity.
“This One has seen him sucking his thumb; he shall be called whatever This One sees fit.” She waited a beat for any of them to deny her right to denigrate the Dragon Lord, her junior by many, many centuries, before continuing, “We will convene again after dining. There are other sources of information to be tapped, and This One will hunt.” Hisao and Kento stood and excused themselves. “You,” Inuyasha’s attention was focused on her immediately; she doubted it had ever wavered, “shall visit the kitsune and young Rin and join them for the meal. Then This One will require your presence until the Saidai Mao returns.”
“Whatever,” Inuyasha huffed as he turned to leave. “Kento and Hisao trust you, so I’ll share information. But if the asshole ain’t back by midnight, I’ll go get Kagome myself.”
“You will not leave without This One’s permission,” Kimi stated flatly. She held her anticipation in check while she waited for his reaction. He did not disappoint her for vehemence, although his threat lacked variety, he made up for it with scorn that any courtier would envy.
“You go ahead and decree whatever the fuck you want, Lady, it means less that shit to me. We already did that dominance thing, and I ain’t impressed.”
“Inuyasha.” The pup paused at his name and looked back through the open doorway. “You haven’t seen the least of what I can do.” His eyes narrowed before he disappeared into the hallway, and Kimi allowed herself a broad smile. Returning to the Western Palace was proving to be immensely entertaining.