The first thing Miroku noticed when he awoke was that he was floating.
The second thing he noticed when he awoke was that the person who had knocked him out in the first place was sitting in front of him, cross-legged, hands folded inside her kimono layers, looking at him with huge red eyes that were full of nothingness. That nothingness reminded him vaguely of something from his dream that he could not place, haze seeping through his eyelids, and then he remembered it: downy feathers crushing his legs and shock still covering his mind like a thick robe. He tried to stand, couldn't, and as a last move that he knew simply could not work for so many reasons, gripped the rosary beads around his right hand and bit his lip so hard he drew blood.
He was knocked back to the side of the stem of the feather before he could try to move again by a pair of hairpins that she blew in his direction lazily, as they pinned his robes to the side of the feather. Two more pins struck the fingers on his left hand and the red tint to his vision disappeared with the sudden grasp of terrible pain all over his body.
"Idiot," said the woman in front of him firmly, ran a hand full of long fingers through her thick black hair, and reached behind her, withdrawing a wad of clean strip bandages. "Didn't you learn anything from that half-wit's mistakes? Don't try and fight while you're injured--" Grabbing his hand before he could speak, she pulled out the pin with a yank, licked it clean of the blood layer over it, stuck it behind her ear, and wrapped a strip of the bandages around his palm.
Grinning smugly up at him, she sat back, and he found that his tongue was suddenly working again. "We are..." he said weakly, and gripped at the edge of the feather that kept them in the air in an effort to hold back the insanity that crept up his spine. "Where are we?"
"...Hmmph," she said, her eyebrows raised in a perfect arch, wrapping her hands back inside the folds of her kimono. "You're blazingly calm for one in such a compromising situation. Thank the hells you are not one of your... companions. How is it that you are so calm...?" She grinned a terrible grin, fangs split over tight lips, and, as if playing with a habit ages old, moved her fingers from the kimono sleeves and withdrew the long fan that he had come to dread, fingering it gently, pushing soft tufts of air into her face. "The hanyou boy would have tried to slice my stomach open by now."
He nodded, once, acknowledging that, demon that she was, she still could speak the truth, however insulting it might be. He would not lose his head, now, he couldn't, and he wouldn't. "Answer my question, Kagura, and I will answer your own."
She laughed. It was a sinful laugh. He wanted to strike her in the face, for that laugh, and for her being here: but he wouldn't. He couldn't; he had to tear the information he needed, and he needed to tear it from her.
"Very well," said she, "we are on a feather torn from my hair that floats above Naraku's castle." She spat the name. He looked over the side, and saw, as he his eyes opened and shut against the harsh wind currents, the sprawling points of light gray that was Naraku's fortress, amongst the thick foliage of dark green and black. He squeezed his eyes shut. "Yes," she said, and clicked the fan open and shut, "we are floating here, and you owe me an answer, boy."
"Why do you call me boy when you are younger than a yearling child?"
"Why do you answer questions with questions?"
"I am calm because I was made to be calm," he said simply, and tugged on the turquoise beads resting along his arm. "I was made to be calm, just as you are made to guard." He heard a sharp intake of breath, and he wasn't sure whose it was. "I cannot not stay calm forever. I will snap --" He rested his bandaged arm on his legs, seeing the liquid red of blood seeping through the sterile white, "--and so will you, and then answers will be answers and questions will be questions."
"Hmmph." She looked at him from across the downy feather, drawing her fan into her dark sleeves. "You are smarter than I was informed of." She drew her knees to her chest, and rested her head against them. "You are certainly are different from your companions; although, not completely free of weaknesses, are we? You have that weakness for the female --" She snorted at his pale face. "--And yet, you have respect for those who are better than you in battle."
"You are cunning," he said. "Too cunning. He has created you without cunning judgement on his part."
"...You shouldn't really wonder how I came to be: it is none of your business. You are here for a..." She drew the fan to her lips, and tapped it against her mouth, contemplating. "...Gamble, houshi. You are not pure, boy, so you might not put up a fight to a compromise, will you? I do not have the time for this, and neither do you."
He was silent: the images of Sango and Shippou torn and bloody lay just beyond reach at the back of his mind, pushed back to the place of his thoughts taken over by numb shock. And he wondered, and what he wondered made him sick. "...I will listen," he said hoarsely, and sick numbness spread through his mind.
"I know where they are," she said quietly, and nodded to herself after a moment, silently. "I know where your kitsune child and your mate are, monk, and the hanyou boy stuck with the likes of Kanna."
"...She is not my mate..." He covered his face with his torn robes, rubbing at the dry skin for the mere want of having something to do than lie there helpless as his enemy crowed over him like a haughty cock. Say little, do much, he whispered to himself, lying like a coward. And that burned, and so did the absent gaze of Sango that whispered words in the back of his head: he was a sinner. "She is not my -- you know nothing of me. Do not even try to distract me --" He shook his head, and gave a soft grin. "I am not as arrogant as Inuyasha, or as foolish as Kagome-sama. You can use nothingagainst me."
"Be still!" she snapped, and knocked him lying flat. "You will hold your tongue in the presence of a lady -- you are a terrible monk, for one brought up in such a wonderful household. The grandson of a monk who was so close to..." She trailed off, sheathed her fan once more, and offered him her palms raised. "You are willing, then, to hear my offer?"
"...I am willing," he whispered.
"I will take you to them," she said, and began to wrap clean bandages around his arm -- he could not concentrate on anything as his focus was beginning to waver with pain. "I will bring you to the taiji-ya and the kitsune and the hanyou, and I release the miko girl --" His focus sharpened -- Kagome-sama -- Inuyasha? "--And you will kill Naraku."
"No!"he snarled, and yanked his arm from her, not noticing the twitch of her face that waved over before she returned to the cool mask of indifference. "I do not need your permission to kill Naraku!"
She was quiet for a moment, then turned away from him, and he was stunned.
"Keh," she said after a moment, "-- You know what it is to be free. I envy you for taking such things for granted." She turned toward him, liquid blood eyes ablaze, and tightened the last few dressings on his arm with a frustrated pull. "I cannot do it alone!" She cried finally, and her face convulsed in disgust. "I'm a simple fucking puppet, priest. There's not much I can do in the face of danger. I can't eat without food turning to mush in my mouth, and I cannot roam the world like the wind is meant to, and I cannot -- I cannot breathe, anymore." And she was silent, then, horrified.
He spoke after what seemed like ages. "I cannot trust you."
She barked out a cruel laugh, and the mask returned once more. "Do you think I am asking you to? All I ask of you is to grant me this one wish: I will not make promises I cannot keep. I will return your idiot child and the demon hunter, and you will kill Naraku with your companions safely returned -- the miko girl and the hanyou and the kitsune and the taiji-ya." She moved her fingers over the base of the fan. "And of course, the Buddhist monk stained with a curse made by the one he is destined to kill. What more do you ask of me, boy?"
"How will they be brought to me?" He whispered, and she breathed again.
"I will bring you to their hiding place," she whispered back, and looked warily beneath her, to the shimmering castle below, the barrier winking up at her, her heart pounding in Naraku's palm. "But we cannot be seen. Kanna's mirror can reach the far ends of the earth, and I do not know how to thwart it..." She grinned up at him, and touched the scar along her back. "But you do."
He closed his eyes. The Holy one hates him who says one thing in his mouth, and another in his heart. Buddha forgives me; it is to save the lives of those who will save the world.
"I accept your offer," he said, and hated himself.
Mudou Yuka was worried.
She had known the Higurashi family for as long as she could remember; her parents were friends with the old grandfather. He gave them discount on the shrine gift shop, and they let him talk himself out and fed him with the various fried food Yuka's mother carried around on her. Her father owned the neighborhood grocery; the Higurashi were always welcome: and that was where Yuka had met Kagome, toddling around with the small girl around the floor of her father's shop, sucking on lollipops and playing games and singing songs in the small, childish way that toddlers do. Kagome's mother would buy foods of all kinds and flowers by the dozen, and sing light words of praises towards Yuka, ruffling her hair.
"They're a strange bunch, the Higurashi," her father would say after the family would leave, and smile fondly. "But they're fiercely loyal -- we wouldn't have them any other way. They're excellent shrine keepers, and excellent chefs." He would always pat his stomach. "I have never tasted better ramen."
Strange, she reflected, as she sat by a tree in the early afternoon just outside the Higurashi shrine. They are weird, she thought, and shifted her legs under her, gazing up at the shrine house from where she sat. But they had never been as weird as they had been this past schoolyear -- these past months -- these past days, even though she could remember times at when she had been defiantly angry at the rumors about the shrine protecting family. The strange, almost disconcerting aura around the place where she sat was worrisome; and she wondered, at times, what had happened to cause things to happen so.
Kagome had been gone on the day of her fifteenth birthday, when it had started. She'd never climbed the steps to the bus. Yuka had wandered about the school campus calling her name, and had rushed home to call the Higurashi, worry staining her cheeks red. Kagome was never absent -- she held school in the highest regard -- Yuka had seen the other girl come to school and throw up half the time she was there just so she could learn advanced geometry. But when she had called no one had answered; no one had answered for days.
And then, it seemed, forever after that, Kagome-chan had been absent for most of the school year, only returning for important tests -- and lately, not even then. Yuka would try and visit her, desperately, bringing piles of schoolwork, knowing how Kagome held schoolwork high above everything else, but would always be turned away by the old grandfather, as he swept the shrine floor. He would only accept the schoolwork, shake his head sadly at her, and continue to sweep the floor, singing strange songs ages old and mutter angrily about dog demons. So he had ceased to give excuses, and she had ceased to complain.
She knew she was the only one who bothered, anymore.
Yuka had tried again today, and there he had been, sweeping the steps. She had given him the books and schoolwork mutely, and he had nodded, and she had turned and walked from the shrine -- but had stopped, for some strange reason, at the huge tree surrounded by the whitewashed fencing, and had stared up at it. The God Tree: the shrine protected it. Some said it was more than five hundred years old. She believed it was much older: Yuka loved plants, and Kagome had loved them too, and she thought she still did: but she didn't actually know that, because she didn't know Kagome anymore.
The short glimpses she'd have of Kagome, the girl had been thin and pale, and had taken most of the periods to sleep. She was obviously sick; half the time she'd stare into space, eyes glazed, and would randomly walk into things, and then not even notice various cuts along her body. Kagome-chan, they'd say, and send her home. You need to rest -- you are obviously too sick to come to school -- why would you do such a thing, if you are too ill to stay awake? She would object, and sing out weakly that she was fine, and then Hojo would come and she would accept a date from him and wander off and stick him up. Yuka didn't truly know what made the poor boy run around her like a lovesick puppy; he didn't seem to give up. And Kagome-chan was in love with another: everyone knew that.
It had hurt when they'd found out. Once upon a time, Kagome had told her everything! And one day, randomly, out of space, I have another boyfriend! And he's rude, selfish, objective, evil, and he doesn't like me, ugh! And then, the one day they'd been able to meet him, he had been kind and courteous and caring and so obviously in love with Kagome, even if he was a bit strange: and Kagome was obviously in love with him, through and through. Yuka didn't blame her: he was a handsome guy. Strange, but handsome. And polite, too. Yes, very polite.
...She would have told Kagome of such things.
So now, here she was, sitting by a huge five-hundred-year-old tree, the white fence digging into her back, staring mutely down at her feet, drawing circles on the stone tiles of the shrine pathway. She didn't know what she was doing there -- but no, she did. She'd missed the God tree. She missed Kagome. She missed walking home with the sweet girl whose name had been on every boy's lips since they'd entered middle school, and she missed licking ice creams and seeing Kabuki and swinging at the playground. But she didn't know quite what she was doing there: she obviously was an obtrusion; she was just a girl sitting by a tree that was obviously something sacred, that she shouldn't even have been sitting by in the first place. What was she doing? Why was she here? Why was Kagome ill for three weeks at a time and then, randomly out of nowhere, reappearing for a day, sick and pale and drawn, before disappearing for longer periods and never answering her phone calls? Where was her best friend?
After a moment she swayed to her feet and grabbed her backpack, her throat swelling with worry and hope. Maybe Kagome would get better. Maybe is not the right word, she told herself fiercely, and trudged down the pathway towards the entrance. She would get better.
But before she could return to the exit, the shrine-shed's doors opened with a click.
She whirled around, and clapped her hands to her mouth, shock making her freeze in her steps, and had the worst feeling of déjà vu she'd ever experienced in her life. She'd had this dream before; she would be standing at the shrine at the edge of the entrance, and the shrine doors would open, and a girl would stand out, and she would be covered in blood, and the sun would just be setting over the swaying trees. The girl was standing there, and Yuka knew that girl. ...But no, no she didn't. Because that girl was tall, and browned by many days of endless voyaging in the sun, her clothes torn and ripped in places, long black hair hanging in limp strands damp with perspiration, blood streaming down her arms and legs.
"...K-Kagome-chan...?" Yuka choked out, feeling bile rise up in the back of her throat and was trying to swallow it down. She stood there with her fingers to her lips, looking at the girl in front of her, bruised and bleeding. She was standing in front of her and she was real, and her eyes were full of weary fear, standing with her hands clenched at her sides and her lips drawn into a thin line. And she was sick, she was sick, blood rushing from the scrapes on her knees and arms and elbows and feet, her green-and-white uniform now stained with a deep, ferocious red. She couldn't feel her body: she was going to be sick, she knew it: this thing, this thing could not be her friend. It was... something, someone -- something else.
"...Yuka?" Kagome asked faintly.
She rushed to Kagome's side like she always did in her anxious dreams, and led her to the shrine seats by the well shed's doors, begging her to sit down and rest before she killed herself, a song singing out in the back of her head like a bird. "Kagome-chan --" She said, and her voice was high-pitched with fright, "--what are you doing here? You should be resting! You'll kill yourself -- I mean, you'll kill yourself -- what were you doing in there, are you alright, have you eaten anything, what's going on, why are you --"
Kagome began to cry.
Kagome began to cry.
Yuka was shocked mute. Higurashi Kagome did not cry! This girl in front of her was not -- could not... this could not be Higurashi Kagome, killer of icky gooey spiders that the other girls were afraid to touch, sweet and funny and beautiful Higurashi Kagome, whom half the boys in their grade were hung up on! This crying girl with her knees torn and bloody could not be Higurashi Kagome, whose mother made the best ramen and food that had ever been cooked in Tokyo, and whose little brother was the best athlete in his school! This was not Higurashi Kagome, who was lovely and polite to everyone she met: this was... someone else, someone Yuka did not know. But then she realized as the girl took huge breaths of air, and let out choked sobs, that this was Kagome, and Kagome was crying.
Yuka grabbed the girl's hands, and looked fearfully up into her face, the face of the girl she thought she had known. "Kagome-chan! --" She half-screamed, almost hyperventilating with fear. "Kagome-chan, tell me what happened, before you fall into a million pieces and won't be able to get up again...!"
"I c-can't!" The girl sobbed, and buried her face into her sleeve. "Y-you won't believe me -- no one will -- I tr-tried s-so hard, and I, I know something is wrong, and h-he's in danger, both of them, and, and, and she'll kill him, I know she will!" Huge, choking sobs escaped her lips, and tears covered her face like a heavy gloss. "He's trying to save them and he doesn't know how --" And she broke out afresh, the small thin body she had shaking in its foundation with the heart-wracking gasps of air she tried to draw, and failed.
"I will." She made a promise to herself, right then, that she would make up for all those days lost of not being able to be the friend she should have been, because something was wrong. And she had never found out what the girl named Higurashi Kagome had been born to do, born to be: no one had. So Mudou Yuka was going to save her best friend, and she was going to do it with courage, like she knew the old Kagome had been like. "I'll believe you no matter what you say."
"...Thank you," the other girl said after a moment, tears still streaming down her face in rivers.
"You're welcome," she whispered back, and knew there would be no turning back.
Sesshoumaru, demon lord of the western lands, was content.
His Rin danced joyfully among the lily pads on the pond that she bathed herself in, shaking her head like a puppy not yet a yearling child -- such was not far from the truth, he thought, and half-remembered his brother doing the same -- streaming water down from her cheeks. Her clothes were soaked to the point of translucency, and clung to her small, girlish thighs as she giggled and splashed around in the water like the girl she was, humming bits of songs of joy that burst like the clear bubbles she blew in the pond water.
Jaken sat huffily a few paces away on the bank, watching the girl as she bathed and giggled; Sesshoumaru himself reclined quietly under the trees that lined the pond's source, a thin, bubbling creek that streamed over smooth rocks. It was nearly dusk; they had stopped for the night as the sun had reached the end of its journey towards the far horizon. Rin had begun to blink sleepily towards the end, and Sesshoumaru had done what he had always done in such situations: he nodded towards Jaken, who had sighed heavily and pulled the stumbling girl towards the pond, snapping at her angrily to bathe before she began to attract flies. And now she giggled sleepily amongst the frogs and lily pads, singing throatily as she threw water over her hair and pounced over long-legged storks who squawked indignantly as she giggled all the more.
The demon lord set his eyes to the sunset and, turning his head slightly to his huffy servant mere paces away, called softly out as he always did. "Jaken," he said, and nodded at the toad-like creature that bobbed his head up and down respectively in turn, and stood, gripping the staff on which the two heads glared down at the ground so fiercely. Jaken hobbled humbly towards the pond's edge, wading in, pleased yet disgusted, and grabbed Rin's hair, grinning happily at the girl's pained squeal, pulling her half-fondly towards the bank, and throwing her on the shore.
"Jaaaaken-sama," the girl whined, and rubbed her head with her small, girlish hands where the toad-youkai had grabbed at her hair. "Rin wasn't through yet, Jaken-sama!"
"Dry yourself off, child," the small youkai sighed half-heartedly, and fixed his bulging eyes on her disapprovingly. "You look like a fish, so soaked. Hmmph! And we stop, just for this! If it were just me and Sesshoumaru-sama like old times, we would not have to stop, and we would not have to 'bathe', or whatever it is that humans do, because I never have to bathe, I never have to rest, I never cling to the master's robes and whine about being hungry or needing a 'bath' or being 'sleepy' or 'tired', I never have to be so disgustingly --"
"'Mmmkay, Jaken-sama," said Rin cheerfully, and patted the demon on the head affectionately in mid-sentence. "Jaken can stop talking now. Rin will dry off for Sesshoumaru-sama and go to sleep like a good girl. Rin doesn't want to be a bother to Sesshoumaru-sama."
Jaken merely coughed a mumbling reply and pouted. Rin giggled.
Sesshoumaru, watching the scene from a few paces, under the obliging trees, blinked slowly with huge, golden eyes, petting the pelt on his shoulder absent-mindedly, drawing little comfort from the gesture. This was... familiar, yes. Rin was familiar, as was Jaken, and the scene that was played out in front of him was so much familiar that it drew a curling of his lips inward, as he blinked on, oblivious. Rin was cheerful as always, and managed to provoke Jaken in a way no one else could. It provided small amusement, but amusement all the same; Sesshoumaru-sama was not easily entertained, and yet he was entertained by these small gestures of familiarity. Familiarity provided a stronghold of knowledge, if only briefly. He could count on these short episodes of amusement, if he could count on nothing else.
He sat, quietly, and watched Rin dance sleepily around the fireflies, wringing out her long black hair and stumble into the long grasses, almost fast asleep before she hit the ground. He made a low sound of approving, deep in his throat, at that, and watched Jaken sit begrudgingly near the girl, flexing his webbed fingers over his chest, and closing his eyes in euphony. Sesshoumaru's companions slept, and Sesshoumaru himself watched, as he did every night that they stopped, and was for once not afraid to admit to himself that he was content.
But the scent of Naraku came to him floating on the wind, and his eyes narrowed, and he rose, breathing in deeply, blinking slowly in quiet and dignified confusion.
There was of course the scent of Naraku, the slightest turn of the wind bringing in the scent of a scent within a scent; the wind-sorceress's, as he knew the wind would bring. But yet still wrapped in that scent was another's, and it was not the mirror-child's as he would have expected, but someone altogether different in every way, and Sesshoumaru was caught off his guard, for the first time in quite an endless while.
...The monk's scent?
...The monk's scent?
He drew his fingers to tenseiga at his hip, and was not surprised to find it warm and pulsing with the slow energy that he was beginning to accustom with the sword. Tenseiga, he thought, and frowned, softly, beautifully, gracefully as always, and began to glide softly over the multitudes of waving field grass in the valley of their camp. I know you well enough to trust you. I do this for you, and not for my brother or his companions, as you are able to find the knowledge for which I know. I do this for you as a way of repaying a debt, and nothing more, as you well know.
He glided softly away; and he was unaware at first of the soft, brown eyes that watched him go.
The thanks for this chapter go out to Bikutoria, the fantastic person she is, for not only BETAing this chapter, but giving me some major lessons in characterization. ;) She could have been studying for college, or going on a cruise, but instead, she helped me, and had at least five philosophical discussions with me while I wrote this! Also, much thanks to Crimson, who was kind enough to BETA this chapter and give me cheerful praise when I most needed it, and pointing out certain mistakes without being to harsh about it. I demand that all of you go and hug the both of them. Also much thanks to Rurouni Star, Rae George, Lynnxlady, and Resmiranda, all of whom can provide proper inspiration when it comes to strange plotbunnies. This story is for you, my people!