Chapter 47: First Impressions
Arashi was aware he had been followed. He had been counting on it since the moment he realized there were spies in the Northern camp. Water demons of some sort, he guessed, although their youki was dispersed and the scent of such creatures was always difficult to grasp. The telltale sign of their presence was the atmosphere among the men. Some of the older soldiers recognized pheromones for what they were, and tried to nonchalantly search out the females that must have been providing the scents. It had been a long time for most of the men in the Northern Army. For those that preferred a willing partner, it had been a very long time. The warm scent of ready female was enough to cause battle hardened warriors to take their eyes off of assigned watch and stare into the trees. It did not take long for Arashi to recognize the tactic for what it was. Distraction.
He left the camp quietly long after the moon had risen, without any other dragon taking note of his absence. He found the stream out of hearing range of the others and stood in the shadow of a tree on its banks for nearly half an hour before the ameonna appeared. She coalesced from the water itself and stood dripping in the freezing air, heedless of the cold. They stared at each other for another ten minutes before a brief rustle heralded the arrival of the hanyou he had been waiting for.
Inuyasha dropped down from the top of the cliff to land almost silently, without a hint of the powerful youki Arashi had tasted during the first round of negotiations. The young dog lived up to his reputation.
“Start talkin’, or start fightin’,” he growled lowly.
The planned smile came easier than expected. “There is no need to put on that face, Inuyasha-san. I am already quite assured of your intelligence.”
Unexpectedly, the younger hanyou blushed. He scowled quickly to cover the reaction, “This is the only face I got, dragon. You’re the one who wanted to negotiate, in time, so go on then.” Despite his low-class speech, Inuyasha’s eyes narrowed with consideration. He was, as Arashi had stated, far shrewder than his demeanor suggested. The dog had not only heard his insinuation regarding the miko, but also interpreted that he wanted to discuss it in private. If Sesshomaru has not earned your loyalty, it would be worth almost any price, the spy concluded privately.
“You have made amends with your brother, over the miko, Kagome.” It was the most honest and blunt statement Arashi had made in decades. The words felt odd in his mouth.
“Half-brother,” the dog snarled, “and whatdaya know about her?”
Arashi noted that he had not denied the statement, nor had he attacked. Perhaps this situation is not so hopeless. “I had the pleasure of meeting her, some time ago, as she was taken North.” Youki flashed in the small clearing, licking up against trees and battering Arashi hard enough, with such unexpected fury, that he felt pain before he could get his defenses up. It was over as quickly as it had begun, and the spy doubted that the surge in power had been sensed by anyone – the camp was too far away. Still, it left him breathing heavily and melted snow dripping from the trees overhead. The dog is definitely coming into his maturity.
“Abducted, you mean,” Inuyasha said. Long silver bangs hung over his eyes, but it did not conceal his fury.
“If you prefer,” Arashi nodded deferentially. “Lord Ryukostokken coveted her for the rumor that she could heal youkai, and for the enjoyment he receives from taking what belongs to another. If he takes possession of her again, she will wish not to survive the ordeal.”
“Asshole’s lucky Kagome didn’t try to fry his ass,” the dog whispered under his breath.
“Indeed,” Arashi responded. He doubted Inuyasha had intended him to hear, but there was no point in subterfuge in the conversation. Not over that matter. Not when there were so many other issues that required concealment, diversion, and subversion. “I cautioned her against such action. If the Saigo Mao were to survive an assassination attempt, he would bring hell itself to those who threatened him.”
“You got a point?”
“Captain Natsou was directed to incite your wrath against your brother-”
“Half-brother,” Inuyasha interrupted.
“Half-brother,” Arashi conceded. “If you succeed in destroying the Saidai Mao, the Lord of the North will take everything he has wanted with no opposition. If you fail, that is one more obstacle out of his way.”
“Why tell me?” One clawed hand came to rest on the hilt of his sword.
Arashi paused, knowing he had to tread carefully. “You are a son of the Inu no Tashio. You were born to rule, not to defend some scrap of forest from bandits or live beneath another youkai’s boot. Hanyou or not, pure youki determines power.” Arashi let some of his own youki escape the rigid control he kept on it. “Do you intend to serve a youkai who views your kind as unworthy of life? Unworthy of protecting, having, the thing you desire most? A youkai who would crush that one because they are not his kind?”
Inuyasha rocked back on his heels, his eyes wide but his frown deeper than ever. A long, long moment later, he folded his arms into his sleeves. “Tell me.”
Kagome woke alone, again, but with the pleasant wisps of dreams or memories of Sesshomaru slipping into the futon beside her. Brushing her hair from her neck and nuzzling at her jaw. Placing his warm palm on her belly and rubbing soothing circles. Low rumbling in her ear that sounded like words but wasn’t. She had rolled onto her stomach and into the dent he had left in the wide futon. It smelled like him – cloves and man, well, demon anyway. She smiled into the bedding. He hadn’t said anything, she didn’t expect him to – would have been shocked if he had, but the way he treated her, held her, comforted her spoke volumes about how he felt. His announcement at the Ringu, ‘that one most treasured to the West’, was a declaration if she had ever heard one; it was not words of love and not spoken directly to her, but Kagome understood that there was a great deal more meaning for Sesshomaru in the gesture. It wasn’t just sex between them, although that was fantastic. The opening act is freaking amazing, Kagome grinned and blushed into the darkness, remembering the sound Sesshomaru had made when she put her mouth on him, remembering the way his tongue felt on her. I’ll be lucky if I don’t pass out after the main show.
The sound of servants moving quietly in the anteroom forced Kagome out of her blanket cocoon. She wrapped a heavier robe around herself and tucked her feet into slippers before poking her head out of the screens. Jaken was personally overseeing breakfast being laid out; she would have never guessed that he could squawk so quietly. She requested that someone check on Sango and invite her to eat in the family quarters before closing the screens again and starting her morning. A quick bath and then a search through the wardrobe for clothes that she could put on without assistance and Kagome felt ready to face the day. She straightened the futon, even though she knew a servant would come later and air everything out, and wove her hair into a quick braid. Shippo and Emi were sitting sleepily at the table when she arrived. The kit was combing through the pup’s hair while she yawned against his vest.
They both smiled when they saw her. By the time Sango arrived, Nankae had been delivered by Hisao and the children were all up and eating breakfast. They talked a mile a minute, over and around each other, about the day’s lessons, who got the last daikon, and if it would be warm enough to play outside that afternoon. “Perhaps after naptime,” Kagome answered, non-committal, as Sango closed the screen behind her. Nankae immediately started to whine, insisting that he was too old for a nap. “Really?” Kagome feigned surprise. “I had no idea! That’s wonderful. I am sure Shippo and Rin will be happy to have you join them in their math lessons while Emi is sleeping.” The inu capitulated, sullenly, and Kagome had to hide a smile.
“Is mothering really so easy?” Sango asked as she sat. There wasn’t any sadness in her tone, for which Kagome was grateful, but there was a hint of longing. Or perhaps fear.
“No,” Kagome tried to lighten her mood, “mostly it is trying to act like my own mother and hoping I don’t give anyone some sort of psychological complex.” At Sango’s blank stare she amended, “I just say things I think she would say and hope no one notices I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“I, ah, don’t remember my mother very well.”
“Acting like your father will work then too.” Kagome hoped she was saying the right thing. She would not have considered herself the best source for such guidance, but Sango needed reassurance and she was the only one available to give it. “Parents are parents, I think,” she said slowly, “no matter the gender. At least, in my time, it doesn’t seem to matter if a child has two, or one, or a whole bunch of them – as long as they are cared for and loved.”
The two women shared a smile, and Kagome was relieved for about two seconds until the shoji slid open again. “That is most wise, little miko.” Kimi, with perfectly beautiful, graceful movements, seated herself between Shippo and Sango. Little Emi almost immediately crawled into her lap, offering the daiyoukai a rather squished piece of dried horse mackerel. Surprisingly, Kimi took the fish delicately with her teeth and made a noise of approval that had Emi smiling and settling into mokomoko to finish her own breakfast. “Although, This One would add that structure is essential to provide a strong foundation for growth.”
“Maybe not quite as much structure as Sesshomaru had?” Kagome ventured carefully, hoping to earn a smile.
Kimi’s amused expression did not waver, but she stated, “That One had precious little structure, given the state of this House in those years.” Kagome tried not to wince. Open mouth, insert foot. Toga had cheated on Kimi, then essentially moved in with his pregnant mistress, during what amounted to Sesshomaru’s teenage period. “Training this morning will occur after you have met with the physician from the South. The slayer will accompany you, as well as one of the guards.”
“Okay, that’s – actually, does Sesshomaru know about the training?” While she had enjoyed the attention the day before, Kagome knew Sesshomaru was busy and shouldn’t be leaving his work just to check on her.
“Indeed.” Kimi smirked. “That One suggested that the slayer may provide insight. Reiki practice will require only stationary targets today.”
“Me?” Sango looked up from her soup, surprised. Then her expression grew thoughtful. “I had thought about other weapons that might work for Kagome-chan, in melee, but there was never time and equipment while we were hunting for the shards. And then there didn’t seem to be much of a reason.”
“And there is my complete lack of coordination,” Kagome said with a chuckle and a vague gesture. As if to emphasize the point, she accidently knocked the back of her hand against Sango’s bowl. It was only quick reflexes from her friend that kept anything from spilling. “See?” Kagome laughed wryly.
“You’re not that bad,” Sango tried to console her. The women looked at each other and both burst out laughing.
“What’s funny?” Shippo asked, finally done stuffing his face and arguing with Rin about who used the last of the yellow crayons.
“Lady Kimi has just discovered I am a complete klutz,” Kagome explained.
“Well, duh,” Shippo rolled his eyes, then flinched, seeming to realize he had insulted her.
“’Gome’s nice though,” Nankae frowned, defending her. Kagome smiled softly at the fierce expression on the little pup’s face.
“And very powerful!” Rin jumped into the conversation.
“And smart,” Shippo added hurriedly, obviously remembering Kagome’s many lectures on the importance of schooling.
“Pretty,” Emi said, pointing at Kagome. “’Gome-mama pretty like Kimi-mama.” Kagome blushed hotly. She was certainly not in the same league as the Western Lady, but it was nice to hear someone thought so – even if they were only a toddler.
Kimi smiled, revealing her fangs. “Enough, pups,” she said with the silvery tremor of laughter under her words. “Honest praise is welcome, but not so much at one time. Kagome-san will be as arrogant as the Saidai Mao if you continue.”
“Sesshomaru-sama isn’t arrogant,” Rin stated loyally. Everyone at the table turned to stare at the girl. She shrugged, “He is perfect.” And on that note of odd truth, breakfast concluded.
Sesshomaru finished reading the last of his economic reports and considered, not for the first time that morning, that it would be remiss of him not to provide Kagome with adequate instruction on the trade and harvests of the West. She was intelligent enough to learn quickly, and the knowledge would be important to her future position as his Lady. That he would no longer have to wade through as much paperwork was only a secondary benefit, he assured himself.
He had followed the movement of Kagome’s reiki as she went about her day. Since they had returned to the shiro, he found that as long as they were both within the Western walls, the youki he left with her made it easy to locate her purity and keep her position and general welfare on the periphery of his thoughts. He knew when she woke. Was aware of her state of happiness and excitement as she moved to the guest quarters to meet with the physician. She had to pass near his study on the way, and the scents of the slayer and Eiji were with her, as they should be. Assured of her safety and state of mind, he found it easier to focus on his work than he had in the weeks since the illness first struck.
It was almost startling, when, mid-morning he felt the prickle of reiki against his skin. He looked up, and found Kento had noticed as well. He sought her out with his power and found her in his private dojo. Kimi and the slayer were with her, and Eiji stood guard outside. It was more difficult to ignore her, with her power flaring, occasionally high enough to make his secretary stiffen, but she was in no danger and the training was essential, so he forced himself back to the tedious economic reports. By mid-day Kagome had returned to their private quarters to eat with the children, and he sought out Hirimoto. The two lords left Makoto and Kento to speak privately and hunted together in the mountains above the castle. Several fat mountain goats later, Sesshomaru stood silently as the giant bear crunched through the last of his meal and with a swirl of golden youki returned to his two-legged form.
“Your mother has requested I present the miko at your ceremony,” Hirimoto began without preamble.
Full of hot meat and content youki, Sesshomaru turned to walk home. “Hn.” He had not asked Kimi to approach the Southern Lord, but it would be one more assurance toward Kagome’s acceptance by the other youkai at the Council.
“Tsukahara will not be pleased, he holds no respect for humans.”
“The eagle respects power,” Sesshomaru countered evenly. He had dealt with that one many times. Never before had he given a thought to the obvious disdain that the eagle daiyoukai had for humanity. His own thoughts on the subject had changed considerably in the forty years since he had last spoken with Tsukahara. They walked in silence for a while as he considered how Kagome would react to obvious prejudice. Tsukahara might not appreciate her humanity, but Sesshomaru’s intended had won over more bitter opponents with her smile and determined brightness alone. That combined with a display of reiki would swing the eagle to side with the West, he was certain.
Of course, he frowned to himself, Kagome was not likely to let the situation rest with only her acceptance. She had extremely strong opinions on equality for youkai, hanyou, and humans. He realized that other daiyoukai did not condone his use of hanyou among the ranks of his soldiers, but Tsukahara was not one of those detractors. Power was power, regardless of the source. For his miko, however, Sesshomaru was certain she would not be satisfied until she had respect on what she considered her merits. For whatever reason – and there the great inu was still puzzled over whether Kagome had any logic behind her actions at all, or if she was guided by some unseen instinct that flew in the face of nature, custom, and reason to result in the unexpected and unimaginable – Kagome did not consider her holy ability to be something worthy of knowing and allying with her for. She wanted not just allies, but friends. More than that, she did not accept mere tolerance of what she considered to be fair treatment. She demanded willing conversion. Quietly, determinedly, she leaned against the barriers and preconceptions of those around her until she broke through.
A slayer that fought beside a hanyou. A hanyou that accepted both sides of his nature. A monk that protected demons with his sutras. Sesshomaru suppressed a self-deprecating smile. A Saidai Mao that cherished a woman. It would be interesting to see how Kagome slipped past beliefs that Tsukahara had held for centuries.
He turned his thoughts to the other attendees. “Kenjirosu is a better target for your concerns,” Sesshomaru stated.
Hirimoto made an angry sound, halfway between a snort and a growl. “Never have I known another to be so slippery and unyielding at the same time. You realize he is only attending in order to mock your decisions and fawn over Lady Kimi?”
“I am counting on it.” Sesshomaru could sense his companion’s unsettled youki. If Kagome could have seen it she would have giggled. The daiyoukai very nearly rolled his eyes – but such expression was unnecessary and counterproductive.
“You are looking forward to his behavior?” If he had been in his true form, Hirimoto’s fur would have been standing on end with irritation.
“No.” Sesshomaru let the bear churn with dissatisfaction for a moment. “Do you doubt the ability of Iwakura Kimi to twist the situation to her advantage?”
“No,” Hirimoto huffed and his youki settled. “But I do not have to like it.”
“We are daiyoukai,” Sesshomaru stated flatly, “there is much that we must do that is unpleasant.”
“And in the meantime, we must supply our forces and deploy our armies. Paperwork,” Hirimoto growled again.
“Hn.” Sesshomaru agreed. He would rather personally murder his way through the northern ranks, but his responsibilities were too great, the consequences too widespread, to allow such a course of action.
“But at the end, there will be the hot blood of our enemies,” Hirimoto stated with a sort of satisfied relish that spoke to Sesshomaru’s instincts as well.
He imagined Bakusaiga slicing through Ryukostokken’s face. “Yes,” he said with approval.
Rin sat quietly with Shippo-kun, Eiji-san and Eiichi-san standing guard nearby, and watched the arrivals for the Full Moon Council. Lessons were done for the day, and her teacher was with Kagome-sama and the pups in the ima. Aina-sensei had asked very sweetly if Kagome-sama would like to watch a brief lesson in instincts for the little inu, but Shippo-kun had explained in a whisper that the lesson was really for the human woman. Kimi-sama wanted to make certain that the miko was well-versed in youkai habits, and Shippo-kun had overheard the Lady instructing their teacher to make certain she reviewed inu development – from conception.
Rin had needed to ask what that word meant, and Shippo-kun had blushed and stammered terribly, but when he finally told her, Rin hugged him so hard he had to beg her to let go. An hour later, sitting on a high open balcony, Rin was still feeling exuberant. Sesshomaru-sama and Kagome-sama wanted to get married – Shippo-kun had said so. And Kimi-sama seemed to think that they would make babies soon. Rin was still a little vague on exactly how that happened, but her kitsune friend had at least managed to get across that Kagome-sama would be pregnant. Rin wasn’t stupid, she knew what that meant. She had seen a pregnant youkai before once, and lots of times women in human villages that were big and fat with a baby. Once, Kagome-sama had even let her touch a woman in Edo who was visiting with the two mikos. Her tummy had jumped and moved and Rin could feel the baby inside.
It was all very exciting, if a little frustrating not to have any details, and Rin found it difficult to concentrate on something that she had looked forward to in the past: visiting youkai. Shippo-kun was full of questions, sometimes she forgot that he hadn’t spent much time with powerful demons. Not that Inuyasha-san and Sesshomaru-sama weren’t powerful. They were! More than anyone, except maybe Lady Kimi. But Sesshomaru-sama was different when he walked his lands than he was in the castle; he was easier, out there. In the castle, outside of his private study or Rin’s room, or before Kagome-sama had come, Sesshomaru-sama was so stiff and cold that Rin felt badly for him. Sometimes she had asked to visit Edo just so that her father-figure would be able to relax for a day or two. Shippo-kun thought Sesshomaru-sama was scary and had even agreed with Rin that her lord was pretty, but he didn’t know how daiyoukai could be. Especially when they were trying to impress each other.
“That is Uesugi-sama,” Rin said quietly, pointing to the daiyoukai that had arrived in an elaborate kago carried by servants. The kago itself was made of dark wood that shone even in the fading afternoon light. Thick curtains were drawn back, allowing them a glimpse of the occupants. Rin could not see them very well, but Uesugi-sama had visited before, and she recognized the matching kimono of her litter-bearers.
“Wow,” Shippo-kun whispered. “She’s beautiful.” The kitsune’s eyes were so wide, it made Rin giggle.
“Rin has seen her up-close. She is very pretty, but not as pretty as Kagome-sama,” she said proudly.
“Kagome is the best, but that youkai…” Shippo trailed off, and Rin had to tap his arm to regain his attention.
“Uesugi-sama is an otter demon. She likes Sesshomaru-sama very much, but she is very fussy. Everything must be just so.” Rin lowered her voice further, “I do not think the servants like to be assigned to her. But she does look very elaborate all the time!” Shippo nodded, and while he pointed out the weapons carried by her guards, Rin thought about the demoness. It had been more than a year since she had come to the West, and Sesshomaru-sama had summoned Rin to eat with them almost every night. It had been strange, but she loved sitting so close to her lord, dressing in pretty kimono, and staying up late. Only now did it occur to her that Uesugi-sama had done most of the talking, in a low, pretty voice, and that Sesshomaru had positioned his cushion close enough to Rin that her hand brushed his sleeve when she ate. He had also carried her from supper to bed each night, and stayed far later than usual. Once Rin had even found him sleeping in her room, sitting up against the wall. That had been the last night they stayed at the palace. Sesshomaru-sama sent his apologies to Uesugi-sama the next morning to let her know that a disturbance on the border required his attention. She had spent a week in Edo with Kagome-sama and Shippo-kun, and Sesshomaru-sama was often nearby. Rin wondered if maybe the disturbance was not quite so bad that Sesshomaru-sama had to take care of it himself. She reminded herself to ask Shippo-kun what he thought about that, later.
The kago and trailing servants moved off through an arcade towards the furthest most guest quarters, and within moments a great press of youki washed over the courtyard. It was quickly reigned in, leaving only an impression of warning without threat, but several Western soldiers were waiting when a huge eagle landed. Several smaller demon birds followed behind, and, with another display of power, red and gold feathers ruffled and burst, revealing a tall, thin daiyoukai.
“That must be Tsukahara-sama,” Rin breathed. She had never met him, but she had heard Hisao-san and Kento-san making plans for his arrival. She squinted, trying to see in the poor light. “What does he look like?”
“Tall,” Shippo-kun said. Rin huffed and lightly punched his arm when he didn’t immediately continue. “I mean, his kimono is kind of funny. Red all over, and really puffy.” Rin rolled her eyes. Boys were so silly sometimes. “He doesn’t have nearly as many servants as that Uesugi lady.”
Ayame-san arrived next, and Rin stiffened when she saw the youkai’s wolf tale, but Shippo-kun waved excitedly and the wolf sniffed and waved back. That made Rin feel a little better to know the demoness was friends with her kitsune, but she still didn’t fully relax until the woman and her small group disappeared inside. The two children kept up the game until well after dark. The lanterns in the courtyard were lit, and they made it easier for Rin to point out the subtle, quiet arrival of Kenjirosu-sama, a water daiyoukai. Others came too, youkai that Rin didn’t recognize and one or two she thought she had heard of. Two human lords arrived as well, and those were greeted by Kento-san personally. Many Western soldiers were present but most of them stayed out of sight of the humans; Shippo-kun had to point them out to her. Those lords brought more warriors than servants, and only one of them was taken into the shiro. The other was led away down an arcade far opposite from where several daiyoukai were staying.
Shippo-kun threw his arm and tails around Rin to keep her warm, but eventually Kagome-sama came to get them for dinner. Rin slipped her hand into the miko’s as they walked back to the pack quarters. Shippo-kun bounced ahead of them, talking excitedly about everything they had seen.
“Will we get to meet them, Kagome?” His green eyes were practically dancing, and Rin felt a little excited too. Even if there were human lords and a wolf there, she would be with Sesshomaru-sama and Kagome-sama, so nothing bad would happen.
“You will get to see them,” Kagome-sama said carefully. Rin could tell she wasn’t sure of her answer; the miko often bit her lip when she was thinking. “I know you and Rin will be attending the ceremony tomorrow night, but I don’t think there will be much chance for you to talk with anyone.”
“Rin has been to one before,” she volunteered. “Rin had to sit quietly next to Hisao-san while Uesugi-sama and another youkai were introduced. The other youkai came to talk to Rin afterward, but Rin was very shy. Rin does not even remember that youkai’s name.”
“Uesugi…Uesugi…” Kagome-sama muttered. “That is the otter, right?”
“Yes, Kagome-sama!” Rin said brightly. It was good that Kagome-sama was learning so much about youkai; she was sure that it was important for when she would marry Sesshomaru-sama and become a Lady. Then Rin remembered what she had wanted to ask. “But Kagome-sama must tell me why Sesshomaru-sama does not like Uesugi-sama as much as she likes him. Uesugi-sama is very pretty, and seems very nice. You will tell me if we should not like her, Kagome-sama?” She turned her face towards the miko, and was surprised to find a funny expression on her face. Not quite mad, not quite happy, a little puzzled, but also…like she had expected Rin to say something like that. It was very strange.
After many steps without saying anything, the miko finally sighed, “You must decide to like someone or not on your own impression of them, Rin-chan.” Her next words were spoken under her breath, but Rin had lived with inuyoukai for a long time, she still heard, “I suppose that means I can’t dislike them straight-off either.”