Thanks to Roma for her review of North Sea Dawn!
Chapter 58: Check
Sesshomaru considered his unresponsive captain in silence, which was less effective than he usually found it to be in prompting answers to his queries. Hisao knelt before him, perfectly straight and motionless, his eyes focused somewhere on the wall behind the Saidai Mao’s head. The black markings on his jaw stood out sharply – the tense muscles underneath all but screaming that the inu had news which he did not wish to share. News which, in fact, he had refused to share – insisting that they must wait for Kimi to arrive. The daiyoukai would not have been opposed to such a course of action; Kimi was in constant contact with a vast spy network. That knowledge, combined with her political experience, made her an excellent counsel during discussions of the war. However, he had rarely been told that he must have his mother present for any official business – and such situations did not end well. More rarely had one of his vassals refused a command. Such actions also had not ended well.
He could feel Kagome’s tension beside him, which prickled along his nerves. Their recent intimacy had made his youki more aware of her presence, and she sat close enough that the slightest movement would cause their sleeves to brush against one another. The proximity was pleasing, the soft scent of her was a paradoxical source of calm and tension that he was unwilling to do without. However, the quickness of the emotions flitting through her scent and sending ripples through her tightly controlled reiki was distracting. At a time when his captain was withholding information and his mother was involved, distraction could prove disastrous. Not that he would consider sending Kagome away because of it. He was honest with himself; acknowledging such a potential weakness would allow him to recognize and avoid it. It also afforded him the opportunity to recall the previous evening. Her sighs. Her moaning of his name. The grasping clench of smooth muscles around him and the press of full lips against his skin. His youki stirred at the remembered sensation of a warm ocean breeze of power washing across his senses.
She sighed and shifted. Kagome was uncomfortable, he was certain. Although he was concerned for her wellbeing, he could not help a sense of deserved pride over her state. Instinct or desire, or perhaps his newly recognized love, for his human intended had driven him to take what he had sworn he would patiently wait for. Repeatedly taken. She had enjoyed it at the time, even cajoled and commanded him to do so in ways he had not thought her capable of, but her body was not used to such activity. He wondered briefly if her heart and mind would need an equal or longer time to become accustomed to their new intimacy. Kagome had seemed as shyly surprised when she woken that morning as he had been smugly content. The unexpected timing of their actions did not, upon reflection, make him less certain or less inclined to repeat them. His youki sparked and she sighed, unconsciously he was sure, leaning closer to him.
Sesshomaru contained those thoughts, pushing them to the back of his mind to be examined and considered in a more appropriate and private setting. Instead of considering why both he and Kagome had acted so suddenly, so passionately, instead of plotting ways to repeat the experiences, he knew he needed to focus his considerable intellect upon the problem at hand.
Hisao had surely sensed the sudden rise in the daiyoukai’s energy, but he did not even blink. Sesshomaru inhaled and sorted through the scents of his captain. His usual musk and anise scent was tinted with the tightly controlled bitter wormwood that Sesshomaru associated with failure or self-loathing. It was the flavor of Hisao when he believed he had not lived up to his own expectations or those of his lord. There were few tasks that Sesshomaru had ever assigned his captain that Hisao had failed at, in his estimation, but he was still impatient to find the cause for Hisao’s distress.
Kento had begun making obvious noise at his desk – shifting papers unnecessarily and clicking brushes together – to break the silence when Sesshomaru finally sensed Kimi’s approach. She took her time walking to his study. She does love the anticipation, Sesshomaru thought to himself, glowering. When the screens slid open, he was surprised to see that she had chosen to don her formal court apparel. Her rich outer kimono was dyed purple and white with intricate butterflies dancing across the sleeves. Aki’s needle-work was evident; the wings were so realistic they seemed ready to take flight at any moment. Her mokomoko was drawn tightly around her shoulders and waist, leaving nothing to trail on the ground. Her scent and expression hinted at no weighty discussions forthcoming, but that would have been completely out of character for his mother. Never had he seen her display any emotion that she did not purposefully express – and usually with intent to manipulate others and conceal her true feelings. A tiny frown tilted down the corner of his mouth. Whatever matter the dowager Western Lady had to discuss, he was certain he would not be pleased.
“Saidai Mao,” she greeted him, with an appropriately deep bow. Sesshomaru had to suppress the desire to bear his teeth. Kimi did not grant displays of respect without intent. His mother had not bowed to him in anything but mild mockery since the day he had taken his title as Lord. “Kagome-san,” she continued, but did not greet Kento or Hisao with more than a cool glance. That was telling as well. Rarely did the demoness that had raised him neglect an opportunity to tease or poke at his two closest advisors – the comrades of his youth.
“Speak,” he said shortly. His nostrils flared in irritation and he did not bother to conceal it. Kagome’s reiki and scent ruffled at his side and she reached one small hand out, touching his elbow lightly with her fingertips. Warm, soothing power trickled into him even as her concern reached his ears and nose.
“Sesshomaru?” Her question was quiet, and he did not need to answer it.
“There has been an attempt to infiltrate the shiro and poison the body and mind of the Miko no Mao,” Kimi stated without preamble.
Immediately, Sesshomaru felt his hackles rise. Youki swelled within him and his claws clenched, as though to seize the hilt of a sword – which he did not wear in his private study. Kagome sucked in air, her fingers clenching on his arm. Kento let out a surprised noise. Sesshomaru had thought the immediate threat to Kagome had been dealt with. He did not enjoy being proven wrong. Hisao was notably unmoved. Presumptions and conclusions, possibilities, began to swirl in the daiyoukai’s mind – each more disturbing, more enraging, than the last. “Explain,” he ground out.
In concise, cool tones, Kimi explained that one of her spies within the castle had been approached to meet with a representative of Ryukostokken. Green fury pulsed in his veins as he listened to her description of the potion and its intent. Kagome was practically plastered against his side, the dry mace scent of her fear burning with togarshi flavored hate. It was important that his miko hear any intelligence, no matter how painful or frightening for her, but her reaction amplified his own response – making it a colossal effort to control himself. Hisao’s increasing tension drew his focus from Kimi’s retelling. The captain had played some part – or taken upon himself some failure to protect the West from this threat. Sesshomaru’s lungs cramped painfully in his chest. Failure, the thought was like an icy wind on bare skin, how far did this plot progress?
“-must be prepared in a tea-” Kimi was saying. Cold iron wrapped around the lord’s spine. A potion intended for Kagome. An elixir that must be prepared in tea, and would drive the priestess to complete devotion. Concern. Desire for the name that was spoken in her ear. The perfect recall of a daiyoukai burned images of the previous night into his mind. Kagome, drinking the orange and ginger scented tea. Kagome, smelling of desire. The compulsion he had felt as well, after sharing her cup, to take her, protect her, give her himself. Kimi had been visiting his miko when the tea was delivered.
Sesshomaru opened his mouth on a snarl, but Kagome’s thought must have mirrored his own and she managed to speak first, “No, Kimi!” Her whisper echoed with horror and hurt. “You gave it to me?” Kimi frowned and Hisao flinched. Kento half stood at his desk, youki ready to defend the miko to whom he owed everything. Sesshomaru sank his claws into the tatami mat at his side to prevent himself from taking action against his own mother. Poison. The bitch poisoned my mate. Kagome continued, “Why didn’t you tell me? I would have-”
“That,” Kimi interrupted, “is exactly why This One did not. You. Would. Have.” She stressed each word carefully. “Such a sacrifice could not be made by you. This One would not allow it.”
Silence reigned. Kento sank slowly back to his cushion. Sesshomaru was distantly aware of the uncomfortable tingle of his acid, unreleased and reabsorbing back into his body. Hisao’s posture stiffened further, his youki drawn up inside him like a wounded animal. Kimi’s barrier hardened, nearly goading him to test her resolve. Information, images, scents and traces of power coalesced in his mind – stunning the Western Lord with a shocking conclusion. Sacrifice, the word resounded in his mind.
“But…you used it,” Kagome said quietly, still pressed against his side. “You said you had, so who…?”
“The agent working in secret for This One. She sacrificed her own freedom, her choice, in order to give the West this advantage against the enemy. She wished to protect Kagome-san – her future lady.” Kimi spoke to Kagome, but her eyes were on Sesshomaru’s. Her expression and tone did not change, but Sesshomaru knew what that decision had cost her. He was aware, as no other could be, the weight of responsibility. It was a decision that Sesshomaru would have made himself, in the same circumstances.
He should have made it, under those particular circumstances. “It was not the place of That One.” His voice was deep, with an edge that made it clear Kimi was not forgiven, her overstepping not forgotten.
“You would have done the same,” Kimi broke off her formal speech. Sesshomaru wondered if her own emotions were closer to the surface after recent days. “I took this burden – my right as she is my vassal.” She drew herself up, restrained power making her slender form almost intimidating to the lord. “It is still my right to protect the West. I am its Lady.”
“Not for much longer,” Sesshomaru growled, his aggravation mounting.
“Not ever,” Kimi shot back, eyes flashing, anger and frustration leaking out of her barrier, “not if you continue to assume every burden upon yourself. This war cannot be won without the Saidai Mao and the Shikon Miko fighting, together – clear of mind and will!”
“Who,” Kagome spoke over the growing threat of youki simmering in the room, “took the potion?”
“Aina-san,” Hisao said lowly. Uttering her name seemed to take the will out of him, and he deflated before Sesshomaru’s gaze. His pose did not alter, but the defiant acceptance melted off of his face to reveal a naked shame and bewilderment.
“What?” Kagome pulled away from his side, and Sesshomaru was extremely conscious of the loss of her weight. Her voice was crisp and commanding, “Someone explain this to me. Now.”
When neither Kimi nor Hisao seemed eager to respond, Sesshomaru answered, his eyes considering both parties kneeling before him. “The kitsune tutor is a spy for This One’s exalted,” he spoke flatly, and he heard more than saw Kento’s flinch, “mother. She was from the very beginning. And was in contact with the North before her arrival.” He raised a brow at Kimi, who nodded slightly, confirming his suspicions. “She brought news of the plot to That One, and the kitsune consumed the potion as well. To whom she should be shackled – there was only one choice. A youki of absolute loyalty who could be assured would not take advantage of such power over another.” He looked to his captain again. The decision had been made without him, which was intolerable, but the choice had been correct. The outcome – beneficial.
“Oh, Hisao,” Kagome whispered. Sympathetic tears welled in her eyes, filling his nose with camphor and salt. “I am so sorry. Are you okay?” Hisao blinked, his startled expression matched Sesshomaru’s thoughts perfectly. He had assumed his miko would have concerns first for the female that had so willingly sacrificed herself.
“Yes, Kagome-sama,” he answered slowly. Then, quickly, “Yes, I will be unhindered on the battlefield. Aina-san,” he swallowed, his darker skin looking sallow, “she is aware that she is under a spell, and why, but the knowledge does not affect the pull of her…compulsion.”
“She is at your home?” At Hisao’s confused nod, Kagome continued, “You should bring her here as soon as possible. She’ll do better with others around her. I know a thing or two about being under a spell; I think I can help her control the,” she blushed lightly, “ah, urges.” Sesshomaru found himself in the unexpected position of sharing a substantial look with his mother. His miko was ever revealing new depths of compassion within herself, new strength and new ways to surprise him. Her attention turned to Sesshomaru, “She can still take the children to Edo, as we discussed?”
“Unlikely,” Kimi shook her head, easily adapting the shift in conversation even while Sesshomaru was still considering the consequences. “The kitsune can be apart from Hisao, but such a distance would cause her extreme agitation, possibly even pain.”
“So Edo is out, then,” Kagome agreed easily. She turned her face up to Sesshomaru, and he spent a moment admiring the blue of her eyes. A pretty face was the least of his intended’s attributes. “I know I was opposed to Inawashiro as a safe haven when you brought it up before, but the new shrine there might be the best alternative. I know it survives. I’ve been- eh,” she cleared her throat. “What do you think, Sesshomaru?”
He blinked. “Hn.”
“Good,” she clapped her hands with finality. “I assume training is excused for today while everyone prepares to leave?” The miko did not wait for a response from Kimi, but continued, “Great. What else do we need to discuss?” She looked around with expectant blue eyes. And Sesshomaru could think of nothing in that moment but admiration. And perhaps, also, the tiniest amount of relief that what had happened between them had been entirely of their own making and not the product of dark magic.
Kagome did her best to breathe evenly through her nose. She was certain she was only hearing about twenty-five percent of the discussion, but she was also aware that her input was not vital to the war strategy. Although she wanted to be included, hated the idea that Sesshomaru might try to leave her behind or shelter her when she could be of use, she didn’t delude herself into believing that she had much valuable insight when it came to the plans of attack for an entire army. With Kimi and Hisao present, Sesshomaru had more than enough ideas and suggestions to supplement his own experience. Which was a good thing, because it was all she could do to keep from letting her emotions overwhelm her.
Compartmentalization is a good thing, she reminded herself. It was something she had read about after she had been in the feudal era for a few months. Kagome had a quick temper – although she couldn’t always control it, she was aware of it. She also had a soft heart; it got her into trouble almost as often as it was a benefit. Neither of those things would have been worth researching counseling techniques or psychological therapies if she had lived a normal life in the time she was born during. However, see death, living with the threat of debilitating or mortal injury, every day made having her emotions at the surface a liability. Not only could it end up getting her killed if it distracted her during a battle for a shard, it was horribly embarrassing to break down and cry or throw a temper tantrum in front of her friends because her feelings were raw.
Her mother had been incredibly helpful in working through exercises with her for the first few times. She said it was a sign that Kagome was growing up. Of course, Kagome wouldn’t have chosen to manufacture breakdowns in front of her mother if it hadn’t been completely out of the question to seek professional help. She didn’t relish the idea of ending up committed somewhere, though, which she was sure would happen if she told any counselor why she was dealing with mild-PTSD on a near constant basis.
The mental exercises were put to good use in Sesshomaru’s study as she sat and listened with one ear while they outlined the strategy to be used against Ryukostokken. Breathe. Imagine a room, filled with books and pictures of the things that are upsetting you. Kagome pictured Aina’s mischievous smile and Ryukostokken’s sick grin. She put books on a shelf titled, Loss of Power, Helpless, and Tricked. Photos of Hisao, Kimi, and the kitsune were tossed onto a mental table. In that room she put all of the fear and shame she had felt in the moment that she thought Kimi had given her the potion. When she thought that the previous night was a product of magic rather than desire and love. She pushed it all inside, then closed the door, locking it tight.
It took several more minutes of deep breathing before she was ready to refocus, and Kagome knew she would have to pull everything out again later, when she was alone, and deal with it. She wasn’t looking forward to it, or dealing with everything else horrible that had happened in recent weeks which she had shoved down just to be able to function.
“…with that Houshi,” Kimi was saying. “If the human is as reported, This One will have no difficulty.” Kagome blinked, wondering how much of the conversation she had missed out on.
“Here, then,” Hisao pointed to a forest inked in detail on the map spread across Sesshomaru’s desk. “If you wait under the cover of these trees, my lady, if you can shield the others from aerial detection.”
“If?” Kimi raised one brow, a small smile playing at her mouth.
Hisao did not take the bait, but remained coolly professional towards her. “I do not question your ability, Kimi-sama, only the guile of the enemy.”
“Niji-san will have arrived at the Eel Valley, at least three days ago, with the message for Inuyasha,” Hisao cut off any burgeoning argument. “It will be challenging for him to meet the schedule that is necessary.”
“He will arrive on time,” Sesshomaru asserted evenly. Kagome traced up the magenta slash marking his cheekbone, then followed his golden gaze down to the map. The plateau where Inawashiro was located was many miles wide and had two other villages noted on it, but Inawashiro was the closest to the place chosen for battle. Open fields and shallow canals spread out from the small town, leading to broad pastures and meadows. Sesshomaru and Hisao had carefully selected the place that would afford the most benefit to allies while providing the fewest non-combative targets. Kagome tried to recall the actual lay of the land, from her one short vacation there, but quickly gave up. Too much of the country side had been paved over in the future, leaving her with only the impression of gentle hills that descended to a massive lake. The water there was extremely deep, and cold from mountain-fed streams. She did recall that there were even diving excursions offered in the water, due to its exceptional size and some underwater sights that she hadn’t been very interested in at the time. She wished now she had paid more attention.
Hisao dragged the smooth back of one claw up from the lake and circled the flat, farmed area. “We will stage here, and leave wide avenues between encampments for troop movements from the rear.” He pointed to the forest. “Kimi-sama will lie in wait to the west. Inuyasha-san will be already in place in the east by the time we arrive.” He tapped the precarious mountains and dangerous cliffs that bordered the other side of the plateau. “There is only one manner of approach for the dragons.” Kagome’s eyes drifted to the easy slope of multiple paths that lead north. Looks like more than one approach to me, she thought, but kept silent.
“It is done, then,” Sesshomaru declared. Kento hummed and scribbled down a few notes. Hisao began to roll up the map.
“We should use me,” Kagome blurted, then blanched when all eyes turned on her. “I, ah, I mean, he thinks I took the potion, right?” She didn’t have to say it, thankfully. They all knew who he was. “So he’ll be, er, excited…” She swallowed hard to push down all of the trails of thought that brought up. “To see me – out there? If he thinks I am coming to him, then-”
“No,” Sesshomaru bit off with narrowed eyes at the same time Kimi said,
“If timed correctly-” A warning growl from the Saidai Mao interrupted her. “Oh,” she rolled her eyes, and Kagome was surprised to hear her drop formalities again, “be reasonable, Sesshomaru. The advantage has been offered to you by your enemy. Take it and-”
“This One was informed she was not ready for direct combat.” His words were barely intelligible through clenched teeth and followed by something that sounded to Kagome like a series of low rumbles. Kimi immediately bit back with a higher-pitched, but no less threatening sound. Kento leaned far back from the table, exposing his throat, while Hisao tensed as if ready to jump into action. “So either the weapons instructor for This One’s miko lied,” his lip curled although the rest of his expression remained cold, “or it is being suggested that her life means nothing. Choose and-”
“I’m right here,” Kagome tried to interrupt calmly.
“Nothing? No, everything,” Kimi stressed. “Your little human could turn the tide, Ha!” She barked out a laugh that was as genuine as it was cutting, “She has already given you the means to do so.”
“She stays at This One’s side,” he commanded.
“Hell-o,” Kagome felt her own lip curling into a snarl. She could hear them, dammit, and she had the right to risk her life, if that is what she wanted to do. None of them seemed to be paying any attention to her; their heads were raised and their eyes unfocused. It made her want to boil over. “I think-” Raised voices in the hall and quick footsteps finally became audible to her as well. Goddamn dog ears, she swore to herself.
“Enter.” Sesshomaru’s deep voice did not wait for the servant outside to request entrance, and the irritated curl of youki that followed was completely unnecessary and misdirected, in Kagome’s opinion. She let him know by poking him sharply in the thigh and frowning when he looked her way. If he was mad at his mother, he could pick a fight with her instead of frightening the poor youkai responsible for announcing visitors.
When the screen slid open, Kagome caught sight of a furry-eared head bent low to the ground and a tail so tucked in that only the very base where it protruded from a blue kimono was visible. “Honored guest of the Saidai Mao, D-d-demon slayer Sango-san, requests-”
“Yes, yes,” Kento hurried to the door and helped the servant to stand. “That will be fine. Most appropriate for my lord, yes.” Even as he shooed the frightened servant away, Sango appeared in the doorway with a tiny Kirara in her arms, looking chagrined. She obviously hadn’t thought that her appearance might frighten the local youkai, and she wasn’t aware of how Sesshomaru’s bad mood had influenced the situation.
Kagome did her best to smile and welcome her friend, grateful that she was whole and unharmed. She also felt a little guilty that she was so happy to have Sango available to chat with. It took a few minutes for Kento to sort out the situation – relieving the servant of his duties and ordering tea, seeing that the guards in the outer chamber were prepared to turn away any other guests, and placing a cushion for the slayer between himself and Hisao. Kagome’s ire over their previous discussion had dulled to a warm simmer, and Sesshomaru’s irritated green energy was once again restrained by the time the screens were closed and tea poured for all present. Formal greetings were made and then Sango launched into her reason for arriving so recently after her last visit.
“Inuyasha sent me,” she said seriously, glancing at Kagome with an unreadable expression before turning her eyes to Sesshomaru. “He means to kill Natsou.”
Inuyasha stood quietly with a small knot of youkai. His arms crossed over his chest, the end of a wooden bokken sticking out of his fist, high above his head. A ragged blue cloth tied to the end fluttered in a chill breeze. He was seemingly instructing them on the proper way to grapple with an opponent. In reality, his senses were focused entirely on the dragon camp before him. After two days and three nights of freezing weather and inexplicable misunderstandings and accidents, Natsou was in the midst of a spectacular meltdown. Since dawn had broken, nearly an hour, the dragon captain had been practically foaming at the mouth while he terrorized his own soldiers. Inuyasha wondered in the back of his mind, even as he shook out his muscles and prepared himself, if it had been the weevils destroying half the Northern rice stores or the poison ivy oil that had been soaked into Natsou’s clothing that had pushed him over the edge. Not that it really mattered, but Inuyasha supposed that Shippo would be interested to know.
“-lazy, spineless worms! I should skin you and wrap human women in your scales – at least they would be obedient soldiers! Your mothers’ slick-” One dragon soldier, Inuyasha noted that he still bore faint silvery scars where Natsou had laid open his cheek two days earlier for missing a guard shift, opened his mouth as the captain screamed at his troops. He muttered, but Inuyasha still heard him clearly.
“No pay is worth this.”
His lips had not even sealed shut again before Natsou was upon him. He did not draw his sword, but seized the soldier by one wrist and yanked him out of line. The blue-skinned youkai stumbled, but caught his balance before he fell, turning his momentum into a rolling kick that brought him around to face his captain. It was a move that telegraphed the intent to fight back – but it was precious seconds too late. Natsou’s great sword met outstretched thigh and hacked clean through the heavy bone. The dragon captain roared, his spittle flying from his mouth to land on the stunned soldier. There was a moment of silence, then he screamed. He threw back his head as he fell, and Inuyasha’s stomach turned to see dark blue lips stretched wide around an unholy sound of agony. He hit the frozen ground like a bag of yams, thumping and settling with the faintest squish of liquid as though one root vegetable had been bruised. It was not ruined produce that ran across the dirt, but dark blood that gushed with the rapid pulse of a frightened heart and raw nerves.
“Not fit to fight for the Great Denka!” Natsou yelled, “Better those who are cowardly incompetents die here rather than stain my honor with your weak blood on the battlefield!” A few dragons near the front nodded, agreeing, but one muscle bound soldier with copper-colored scales across his forehead moved toward the injured male. “Leave him!” Natsou commanded.
“I will not.”
Inuyasha pulled a length of twine from his sleeve and tied back his hair.
Natsou leaped forward, thrusting his face into his subordinate’s. “Leave him,” he snarled, “or die beside him.” Inuyasha uncrossed his arms, letting the practice bokken dangle from his fingertips. Three more soldiers – which the dog hanyou recognized as some that had avoided their captain or muttered under their breath as he stomped around camp – stepped up behind the copper one. Their hands were loose at their sides, their feet braced wide for a fight.
“I. Will. Not.”
Inuyasha dropped the bokken. The clatter of wood on stone was masked by the clash of weapons as the dragons attacked one another. Natsou struck first, his claws sinking deep into the gut of the soldier that had spoken up. Blows were freely exchanged after that. It would have been chaos, a screaming, snarling knot of blood and fangs, and steel – if Inuyasha had not prepared for, planned for, that exact result.
Archers fired carefully into the northern camp. They set fire to the tent of the scribe and messenger that was usually by Natsou’s side. Other targets, pinpointed and tracked for days, were struck down even as they raised their weapons. Not many were killed by Inuyasha’s side, but enough, the right soldiers, to make a difference. Soldiers that were the strongest supporters of the captain. The loudest to taunt the cranes. The first to claim that they would feast on the flesh of their enemies as soon as Ryukostokken gave the order.
Then Inuyasha made his move. He drew Tessiaga and howled. He hadn’t planned to make the sound, but the instinct to claim the battlefield had overcome him suddenly, just as his youki exploded and washed over the valley. He bent his knees and sprang forward, already feeling the gloriously painful tightness in his belly and sharpness in his mind as he descended into battle. He cut down two dragons before he made it to his quarry; the first met the razor edge of his sword with a chest poorly protected by intricately linked plates of steel. Tessiaga sang as it licked through the metal and melted flesh and bone like fat before a flame. The second he caught around the neck when the blood-eyed dragon tried to charge him. Inuyasha squeezed, already losing interest in the purpling face and the claws that scrambled ineffectually at the sleeve of the fire rat even before the enemy died. He held tight, stalking toward his target while dragging the suffocating youkai beside him.
The moment the wet blade of his sword dripped against the exposed neck of the dragon captain, his rampage stopped. Eyes red with battle lust rolled toward the hanyou as Natsou turned his head to look over his shoulder. The dragon was trapped, and they both knew it. Tessagia did not need a mighty swing to sever the knobby, hard bones that held up Natsou’s head. Both youkai could feel the power of the blade pulsing with righteousness. One swift downward blow would be all that was necessary to part mind from body. The size and weight of Natsou’s sword worked against him in such close quarters. Even with his exceptional strength, there was no possibility he could bring it around to attack Inuyasha before the hanyou completed a killing strike.
Inuyasha belatedly dropped the corpse from his hand to slump at Natsou’s feet. Slowly, the fighting around them slowed to a halt. The crane army stood stiff and ready at Inuyasha’s back, just as he had instructed. They did not interfere, but were ready if the internal struggle in the dragon camp could not be resolved as planned.
“I should have followed by instinct not to trust a filthy bitch-born half-breed like you,” Natsou snarled. He spat over his shoulder, the thick fluid making surprisingly good distance to land on Inuyasha’s collar.
Youki was cresting inside the hanyou – red and sharp, eager and powerful. He wanted to unleash that fury; Inuyasha itched to toss Tessiaga down and leap upon the dragon. Pin him down with his paws and snap his jaws around the scaly enemy’s neck. Taste the squirt of bitter blood in his mouth and make the dragon soldiers cower under the sound of his bark. He gripped the hilt harder, forcing the power instead to channel as he desired, as he willed it. Tessagia, transformed and gleaming wetly with blood, began to glow. A red, hot enough to burn white at the center, lit the cold morning shadows of the valley.
“Surrender.” The word was nearly a growl, but loud enough that every dragon could hear him. Inuyasha kept his eyes on the captain, but spoke to the northern soldiers, “Surrender and fight for me, by my side, and you will have respect and rewards due a honorable youkai. Fight, and die. Flee,” he bared his teeth in a mockery of a smile. Pink holy energy exploded further down the valley, causing the dragons closest to the epicenter to cry out it alarm. “Flee and you will know no peace. Not here. Not in death.” The tension in the crowd was palatable, crawling over Inuyasha’s youki like a thousand centipedes. Eyes shifted between his face and that of Natsou. They were testing his measure, Inuyasha knew. He extended the claws of his free hand, feeling his claws lengthen in a way they had never done before except in his crazed full-demon form. Heat pulsed in his open palm. He felt like he was on a precipice, so much weighed on the outcome of this one action. So many lives were at stake. His focus was narrowed to a blade-width, ready for action, but he felt he could still hear the gentle shift of a crane’s feathers behind him. Could still hear the strain of a bow high above the valley floor.
“Surrender,” he repeated. Even as his mouth opened, he knew the outcome. Natsou’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. His youki coiled like a spring; the glint of light off of his monstrous sword reflected a degree higher. Tessaiga slashed down.
Eight dragons died at the hands of the allies of the West. Far more were killed by their own companions. Those that lived were cautious to pledge allegiance to Sesshomaru, but eager to declare their loyalty to Inuyasha. As Sango had predicted, youkai that were raised to be warriors respected strength and leadership. Inuyasha had displayed both, as best he could. They refused to bury the corpse of their former captain, but by mid-afternoon Inuyasha was sick of looking at the severed head, lolling in the dirt, every time he walked past. The wolf courier, so close to his animal cousins, was happy enough to bury it once Inuyasha stopped trying to keep it from carrying off a hand to gnaw on.
As sunset neared, he settled on the ground below a large tree and accepted a bowl of rice and meat from Tomago. He was starving, he realized, even as the sight of the rare pork made his cheeks water it also made his stomach clench. The killing had been necessary, and completely unnecessary at the same time. “Stupid fuckin’ dragons,” he muttered to himself, resolutely shoving a large heaping of food into his mouth. At least he didn’t have to stand around pretending to be an idiot any more. He snorted, almost sucking a grain of rice up his nose. Now I can just act like the idiot I really am, he though dryly.
“Stupid, yes,” a sultry voice pulled him out of his personal joke. Inuyasha would have known that voice anywhere, even when she was trying to be respectful, Niji couldn’t help but drip intimation.
“What took ya so long?” He said gruffly around the sticky rice, without looking up. He sniffed and sorted through her mild, watered-down scent. Pheremones, though less than usual. “Ice Pri- eh, hm, Sesshomaru too busy to see you first thing?” He chewed and considered. Dust, sweat. Anxiety. Fear. Pain. Inuyasha frowned and looked up as he swallowed. Blood. His eyes widened. “What the hell?”
“I apologize for my tardiness, Inuyasha-sama. I encountered a rather curious youkai on the Western border. He and his companions were most eager to learn why I was leaving the West so intently.” A bruise, eggplant purple and streaked with still-healing scratches, covered half of her face and swelled on eye shut. Her left arm hung awkwardly from a rough sling. The material had clearly been torn from her kimono.
He jumped up, upending the contents of his bowl. Fuck, I should have sent someone else, should have-
“They are no longer curious,” she said casually. She picked up a lock of red hair and studied the ends with practiced ennui. “Such forward behavior,” she glanced up, and caught Inuyasha with a wicked smile, “asking a unfamiliar female personal questions. I was properly affronted.” She dropped her hair and raised one hand to cover her open mouth, widening her eyes in mock horror. The inu hanyou could clearly make out the traces of blood in her claws. None of it smelled like her.
“Keh,” he relaxed fractionally. Niji had obviously given better than she got. “Not curious, eh?”
“No,” she responded lightly, sinking down to her knees before his small fire. He resumed his seat as well and waved Tomago over to bring two more bowls of food. “They won’t ever be again, I am quite certain. But it did delay by journey significantly.” She glanced over her shoulder, and Inuyasha followed her gaze to the small party of youkai that were admiring a lessor wolf demon and his dragon-hand chew toy. “It seems I have missed some excitement.”
“Makes it sound like anybody with half a brain would have wanted to be here,” Inuyasha grumbled. He leaned back against the tree trunk, suddenly exhausted. There was still so much to do, and he had been tense for days. The fight had sapped him unusually, too. Maybe it was the cold, or the audience, or the weight of responsibility, or maybe the new fuckin’ youki, idiot, he mentally rolled his eyes. Regardless, his energy was significantly strained.
“Hm, perhaps not. But it does make my arrival seem somewhat…underwhelming, perhaps? Or superfluous, maybe.”
“How’s that?” Inuyasha closed his eyes, too tired to banter when he just wanted the rain youkai to spit out whatever it was that Sesshomaru had told her so he could get some sleep.
“The Saidai Mao requested that you bring Natsou’s contigent to Maruyama, east of Inawashiro. He will have an emissary meet you at Kawageta on the night of the new moon, to brief you on the battle strategy.” Inuyasha’s eyes flew open. The new moon was less than a week away. Maruyama was at least a day and a night’s run for him, alone, at his full strength.
“Fuck,” he swore. If they marched at a steady pace, dawn til dusk, it would take six days. The schedule would have been tight even if Niji hadn’t been delayed. Now, he had to get his entire army and what was left of the dragons to move over 100 ri in four days. “Egg,” he barked, and the gangly crane dropped the bowls of dinner and came flapping.
“And he would like you to bring Natsou with you,” she continued, as though he wasn’t ready to snap at the next thing to draw his attention. Four fuckin’ days. Fuck. And the captain fucker too, he thought sarcastically, no fuckin’ problem. He stomped away from his fire and the rain youkai, seething.
“Get the lieutenant, and have the monks start packin’,” he ordered the hatchling. Fuck. The curse kept ringing through his mind, interspersing the hundreds of things that needed to be taken care of to get the large group moving, as undetected as possible through territory chock full of spies and thieves, and then make them run. It made getting Kagome to leave her squishy bed and hot water in her time seem like a goddamn festival.
Niji’s smoky voice was tinted with an almost unnoticeable grain of laughter as Inuyasha bent down, punched the wolf youki in the head and retrieved the slobbery, half-eaten hand of the former dragon captain. “Alive.” Her words drifted easily to his sensitive ears. “For questioning,” she clarified, finally letting a single chuckle escape.
“He can investigate this when I shove it up his ass,” Inuyasha muttered. He tossed the hand to Tomago. “Keep that safe,” he ordered, then raised his voice, “Move out at moonrise. If you ain’t runnin’ or flyin’ with me, you’ll be meeting my fist – with your face.”
“She will be fine,” Sesshomaru said quietly into her hair. Kagome nodded from her place on his chest, not questioning how he knew what she was thinking. After the strategy session had concluded, she had gone to the springs with Sango and then spent an hour closeted with the slayer in the guest room set aside for her. Her priority had been to examine her friend and make certain she was taking the prescription Kagome had ordered to help with the pregnancy. Feudal herbs weren’t as good as modern prenatal vitamins, but she was using the best available to her. Although physically, Sango was fine, Kagome still worried for her future – for the future of them all. It was a paradox, both in actuality and in her own conflicted mind, but the more correlations she found between her time and the past, the more anxious she was that things would end badly.
“I know. The shrine is safe. It is a good spot for Sango, Aina, and the children to wait. It is safe,” she repeated. “I’ve seen it.” She was reminding herself as much as him, but it was his warm palm rubbing circles on her back that did the most to soothe her. “But that was before I agreed she should go there, before we set the place for the battle. If I went home next week, it might not-”
“You stated you would not.” His hand stilled and Kagome was acutely aware of how carefully he was holding her, of the absence of any emotion in his voice. “Have you changed your mind, and now believe you would be able to return?”
“No, Sesshomaru, no,” she lifted her head and looked into his eyes. They were full of shadows; their sleeping room was lit only by a single lantern. “I’m staying with you,” she enunciated carefully, trying to will him to believe her – to agree with her. “I just wish – I just-” she let out a sigh and settled down again, her cheek pressed against his sternum. “I just want everyone to be safe.”
He was quiet for a long moment before his hand took up rubbing her spine again. The slide of the silk of her yukata between them sounded loud in the waiting silence. “I cannot promise you that all you love will remain unharmed,” he said slowly. Her eyes snapped from the pale column of his throat to the dark slits of his eyes. “Everything that is within my power, all that I can do, while still performing my duty, I have done. I will do,” he amended solemnly, “all that is within my power, all that I must seek power for, to protect what you hold close. To protect you.”
“Oh,” she sighed. Her chest felt both pleasantly and painfully tight. Worry and love tangled up together as she leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his chin. “I know, Sesshomaru. Don’t- just don’t take responsibility for more than you have to, okay? We can all look after ourselves. Besides,” she forced a smile that became easier as his own face relaxed a bit in response, “I hold you close, don’t I?” She squeezed gently, pressing her body more fully against his.
His voice was rough, “That is evident. And encouraged.”
“Good. Then make sure you protect yourself, Saidai Mao.” She could feel tears pricking at the backs of her eyes, but she couldn’t help but grin when he surged forward to seal his mouth against hers. The heat of him was delicious, washing away the chill of anxiety that had been creeping up on her since the council had made the declaration of war. The hardness of his body was reliable and a welcome reminder of how strong Sesshomaru was, how capable, how fearless and formidable a daiyoukai of his caliber would be on the battlefield. His tongue tangled with hers and she tasted the mellow bitterness of the tea they had shared and the heavy, electric tang of his youki flooding through her. His tongue chased hers and she was soon gasping for air. When he allowed her space, she found herself with her back pressed against the futon, her yukata gaping open to the waist, and her legs tangled in blankets and mokomoko and stretched over his hip.
He loomed over her. “I will – we,” he amended, surprising another smile out of Kagome, “will be victorious. Our allies have taken to their roles easily, and Kento has received word that all will be in place when the time comes. Hisao leads the most skilled youkai army this world has ever seen. Kimi-”
“Is the deadliest youkai this world has ever seen,” Kagome interrupted. She couldn’t help the feeling of mirth, even speaking of how her future-mother-in-law could no doubt decimate enemy troops with less effort than she took to arrange her hair.
He acknowledged her with a nod. “With the monk and the wolf cub at her side, the enemy will tremble at the sight.” He dipped his head and ran his nose along her cheek. Upon reaching her ear, his tongue flicked out and caught the shell, tracing it lightly enough to make her shudder.
“And Inuyasha?” she managed to ask. Kagome couldn’t help the way she worried for the hanyou. They had been friends for years, and she had seen him mature and grow – not just in raw power and martial skills but in mind and spirit as well – but she still felt responsible for his safety. From himself, and the world. Sesshomaru pulled back, frowning.
“I have told you not to speak of my half-brother while we are together like this.”
“In bed, you mean?” She laughed, even as she tried to bat her eyes flirtatiously. She pressed her bare foot against his calf and dragged it upwards. “Why not? We discussing the battle and those we both know and care for. Your brother,” she enunciated. Her palm slid from his shoulder, across his chest, to find the faint trail of hair low on his stomach. “Inu-yash-ah?” As expected, he knocked her hand away and growled, pressing her into the bedding.
He made sounds that were familiar, but she could not place them, before speaking, “I will have to ensure you cannot remember any but This Sesshomaru, if you refuse to obey.” He gripped her bare foot, swiftly pulling it free from the blankets and using it to yank her hard against him. She gasped as her pelvis made full contact with his. Duties had kept them both busy – far too busy to enjoy the newest dimension to their relationship – and Kagome was more than eager to let him help her forget everything but their bed and what happened in it. Mokomoko took over for his hand, wrapping around her ankle in a soft, furry manacle and securing her against him. Once free, his palm slid up her leg, parting her completely useless yukata along the way. When he reached the crease between her hip and thigh, his fingers pivoted to grip on globe of her bottom. His mouth found the tender spot on her neck, just above the joint with her shoulder, and he sucked. Kagome nearly blacked out at the rush of liquid heat between her legs.
Any anxiety had all but disappeared when he sniffed against her skin and murmured, “Do not worry, my miko. Tomorrow, we will leave. Tonight, there is only us.”
“He’s ready then?”
Sou did not startle at the sudden words, although Arashi knew he had surprised the captain. He waited in silence in the shadows behind the taller dragon, both considering the forces spread across the plain before them. “The Saigo Mao had determined it is time to confront the enemy openly,” he finally responded. It was an answer – without answering. Arashi was well aware of the distinction.
His black eyes left the disciplined ranks of soldiers to study the side of Sou’s face. Dull bronze skin seemed to absorb the light around it; his black hair was pulled back into a tail that had been wrapped tightly with cord. He held his body easily, heavy musculature relaxed, but capable of violent action without a moment’s thought. A killer, Arashi observed.
“Is he ready?” It was not often that the spy asked such bald questions, but the game was nearly over and he found that he desired an equally open response from one whom he respected.
“Are you?” The captain countered. He did not turn, nor even wait for a response, but lifted a helmet onto his head. “The fate of the North will be decided on the battlefield – but only by one who seizes the opportunity can it be a fate worth living. Or dying.” Sou marched away, barking orders at soldiers as he passed into their ranks. Arashi watched their interactions with great attention until he was forced to pull himself away and attend to his own duties.
“Check,” he murmured into the shadows. “How will you attempt to maneuver out of this?”