- CHAPTER FIFTEEN – DANGER -
Kagura thrashed against the chains holding her arms aloft. Her fan and feathers had been taken at the insistence of a monk the red-eyed man had called in for council, and she looked around wildly, trying to figure out where she was. Cold, stone walls, floor to ceiling bars, and dirty hay told her she'd been brought to some kind of dungeon, but the why and how were a blur. Inu-Yasha's Tessaiga had dealt more than a surface blow a fortnight ago, and its magic still poisoned her veins, leaving her almost delirious. Her gaze was glazed and full of fever, and it fell to the two humans watching her, one staring with a carnal hunger she could make out even through her daze, causing a shiver that had nothing to do with her agitated temperature to run down her spine.
"I'll end you," Kagura snarled, struggling harder and making metal clang against stone as she bucked forward. "My winds will tear you apart!"
Naraku gave a small smile and turned to the priest. "Can she be controlled?" He asked coldly, belying the feigned upturn of his mouth. "I don't want her if she can't."
The monk nodded, retrieving a scroll from robes that weren't modest or plain like other members of his calling, but thick, soft, and trimmed in orange piping. "Indeed sir. She's been heavily weakened by an enchanted attack. Now is the best time."
Naraku's grin grew, warming at a prospective conquest. "Remind me to increase your salary."
The priest's cheeks colored in pleasure, and he began chanting, holding the scroll out towards the prisoner.
Kagura stilled, focusing her hazy vision to glare hatred and wrath at the man in charge. "What is your underling doing, human?"
Naraku ignored the question, examining his nails in the dim torchlight instead. They were as manicured as the rest of his estate, and he admired their gleam.
Rage splotched the youkai's cheeks – the hanyou mutt had dismissed her in a similar manner. "Answer me!" She demanded.
"My, my," Naraku folded his arms over his chest, obscuring his fingers' impeccable tips. "You're rather vocal for someone about to be at my whim."
"Whim?!" Kagura's voice spiked. "I'll rip the pipe that gives you speech from your THROAT!"
Naraku's smile fell, and he turned to the monk. "Make the spell hurt," he said harshly, giving away his outward cool. "I want her to pay for that threat."
The other man chanted louder, and the scroll in his fingers began to glow.
A tightening started in Kagura's chest. "You think you can command me?" She spat. "My bloodline is thousands of years old! You will never—!" She choked as a sudden, sharp pain bloomed from her heart, stealing her breath with its sear.
Naraku looked over expectantly. "Never what?"
Agony ripped up her spine, and fire erupted in her chest. Kagura opened her mouth, but managed only a strangled gasp.
"No, please," he edged forward, a growing viciousness evident in his face. "I didn't hear you. I'll never what?"
The sting intensified, as if someone were reaching in and squeezing the vital muscle hard enough to make it burst, and Kagura doubled over, biting back a scream.
Naraku kept his eyes on her and motioned to the priest behind him. "More," he said. "She needs to know who she's dealing with before she retrieves what's mine."
"Sir," the monk looked to his scroll glowing brightly. "It's already taken hold. She must do any task you give her. In essence, you own her heart."
Naraku watched as the woman began to writhe and cry out, unable to withstand the pain that wracked her frame. "More," he repeated. "Now."
Kagome laughed good-naturedly. "Ahh! No more!" She gently pushed against the small arms wrapped around her waist. "I'm late for my first day of guard duty Tika!"
The young tanuki kept hold a moment longer. "Ren says you're the kindest human he's ever met," she gushed, finally letting go. "He says you were born to be an Ouja."
Kagome smiled down at the little girl, feeling the now familiar glow of acceptance at the koumori's second-hand words. "Maybe so," she offered out her palm. "But if that's the case, then it's my job to get you back to Shippo."
Tika's face fell. "Oh," she took the young woman's hand glumly. "Are you sure?"
Kagome steeled herself against the big eyes nestled in a band of dark birthmark. "Yes, afraid so."
"I've just missed you so much," the raccoon hanyou toed the ground, looking disheartened. "I wanted to spend the day together. Haven't you missed me?"
Kagome eyed the child before her, who was adopting just the right stance and tone to pull at her. They had only seen each other a handful of times in the last few weeks, and unless she was with Ren, the girl had mostly ignored her. "I have," she said slowly, watching carefully. "But I feel like I'm being played."
Tika shook her head, just as a red-faced kitsune came running down the hall, flanked by more than a half-dozen stumbling children as winded as he.
"You are!" He called, sides heaving. "Like a fiddle!"
Kagome gave the girl a hard stare, and Tika's ears wilted.
"I'm sorry," her gaze dropped to her feet. "I just wanted to meet the scary taijiya," she peeked up and lifted her hands into the air. "And see you of course!"
"Of course," Kagome agreed dryly.
Shippo rushed over, an accusing finger already pointed towards the child. "Now you listen!" He had been working on his scold the whole chase over. "Fibbing and playing cute is still plain, old lying!" He frowned down at her squat form. "And sniffing out specific people to track them down is rude!"
Tika's tail sank to the floor. "But you do it!" She countered. "You've been following Kagome for days, pretending you're taking us on fun 'trips' when you really just have us stay quiet while you peek around corners."
Shippo's own tail stiffened, growing bushier than normal. "Don't try to change the subject!" His finger wagged. "You left without telling me where you were going and made us all worry," he nodded back to the eight forms staring with wide eyes.
Kagome nodded. "Shippo's right," she made her face stern, though she was secretly pleased by the girl's resourcefulness. Ingenuity didn't put her off, even if she'd only been wanted as a pawn. "If you had just asked to see them, I'm sure he would have let you come with me to meet them."
Tika frowned. "No. He already told us we couldn't."
Kagome mocked surprise. "Shippo?" She turned to the kitsune. "You wouldn't deny them some excitement, would you? Especially after making them lurk in corners like accomplice-stalkers?"
His jaw fell. "Wha—?"
"I mean," she loaded on the admonishment. "What kind of caretaker would do that? You'd be a voyeur and a hypocrite."
The young man dropped his finger with a groan. "Now I'm the fiddle."
Kagome smiled, and Tika's tail rose as she caught on.
"Woah," the girl looked at the woman with new admiration.
Kagome winked and waved the entire entourage forward. "Who wants to see a pair of hanyou hunters I plan to tame and befriend?"
Most of the children cried 'yes', but one drew back. It was a little boy, as gray as Ibuki, and he bowed shyly, showing his horns.
Shippo stepped close and crouched down, putting an arm over his shoulder. "You don't want to Talon?" He asked gently.
The little oni shook his head and fidgeted with his hands, rolling one over the other nervously.
Kagome smiled over. "They won't bite," she said. "They're like me."
The boy looked wordlessly from Shippo to her, then returned to his feet.
The kitsune sighed. "Humans have tried to kill him his whole life," he said, answering Kagome's unvoiced confusion. "He's in no hurry to meet any more – like you, or otherwise."
She sobered and dropped to a knee. "Talon?" She called.
Big eyes rose to hers.
"They won't hurt you," Inu-Yasha's words tumbled from her lips. "I won't let them," their weight fell before her, a responsibility she hadn't felt since Souta.
He bit his lip, glancing back to his guardian.
Shippo nodded. "She means it," he assured. "Even if she sides with your sister over me."
Gripping his hand, Talon stepped forward, joining his peers at Kagome's hip.
The young woman rose, pleased as much by Shippo's support as the boy's willingness to try. "Come on," she started down the passage. "Let's see if their fangs are as long as yours."
Three children with said fangs beamed and scurried after her.
Sango ran her tongue over her blue lips, shaking uncontrollably. She surveyed the expansive hall, trying to use a critical eye, but found she was too full of relief at being out of the cold cellar to gather much information.
A heavy coat settled over her shoulders, and purple robes appeared before her.
"D-Don't want K-Kagome knowing how long you kept us down there today, eh d-demon?" Her teeth chattered as she spoke, and she clamped her lips tightly together, trying to quell their shudder.
Miroku didn't answer, untying her wrists and slipping her arms into the coat's sleeves. He buttoned the bulky garment closed, knowing her fingers were numb and useless. "She's going to undo your rope anyway, so I might as well do it for her," he fixed the woman with a warning glare. "But if you or your brother try anything, I'll run you through."
Sango sneezed in his face.
"N-Nice one sis," Kohaku mumbled, already helped into his own coat.
Miroku wiped his cheek absently. "Although the primary duty has been transferred to Kagome, I'll still be nearby," he gave her coat a final tug. "So behave yourself."
Sango tried to scoff, but her chin wavered too much. "W-With such an excellent h-host, how could I not?"
The wind hanyou bowed. "I've just repaid the kindness you showed my brothers."
"Like the k-kindness my village was given?"
Miroku ignored her, and turned toward the entrance tunnels, lightening his demeanor as he caught sight of a face that pulled at his loyalties. "Hey!" He called, waving. "Looking for a pair of ill-tempered popsicles?"
Kagome emerged with a smile, returning his wave. "I am! Have any I can take off your hands?"
The lightness left his face as small forms materialized behind her, trundling from the tunnel eagerly. The children's excitement and nervousness filled the air, and he frowned.
Sango shouldered past him, muttering under her breath. "Wasn't expecting her to do that, were you demon?"
Kohaku followed, sending back a smug look. "Thanks for the coat."
Kohaku and Sango's smugness quickly left them, brought to a training hall littered with weapons and unable to take up any. Some were valuable antiques – relics of another age – and others were blunt and obviously meant only for practice. They were all heaped in unsorted piles or leaned against rocks without care, and children waited all around them, tails twitching and feet stamping in excitement. The woman at their side, who obviously held a position of power and influence in this den of bandits, surveyed the room.
Kagome turned to look at the young man who chaperoned the younger mob. The kitsune swayed a single tail and pretended to casually lean against the open doorway, but Sango knew better. His youth didn't preclude him from being savvy enough to guard the exit.
"What do you think?" Kagome asked him. "Should they find their favorites?"
Shippo stroked his chin. "I don't know…."
Pleading filled the air, and Sango whirled around as soft faces, framed in fur and scales, begged. Their high voices bombarded her with an innocent eagerness that tugged at the hard shell around her heart.
"We'll be good!"
"I won't go after anyone's fingers this time!"
He nodded. "Alright. Go ahead."
A cheer rose up, and squat forms scrambled forward. Sango felt her jaw drop, but did nothing to lift it. Were she and Kohaku really being allowed into a hall full of weapons with… children? She watched a round, little tanuki stumble as she made her way towards a wickedly-spiked mace.
How easy it would be, to take her hostage….
"So," Kagome's voice broke her thoughts. "What's the most surprising thing about them?"
Sango tore her eyes from the girl, now rising with the mace's handle firmly in hand, and squinted at the woman's moving mouth, trying to understand. "About…?"
Sango's brows remained furrowed in confusion, and Kohaku saved her, cutting in.
"They have a weaker underbelly than we thought," he said, gesturing towards Talon and another boy, who had both grabbed bokkuns and were clumsily clacking them together. "These are not the trained hunters and outlaws we expected."
Kagome's face lit up with a wide smile. "Exactly."
Kohaku and Sango exchanged bewildered looks, and Shippo sighed, leaving his lean and padding toward them. "She wants you to see that we're just trying to exist and live our lives, the same as you," he shook his head, scattering thick bangs into his eyes. "She's a bit naïve," his gaze glinted with knowing. "She doesn't understand the ways of taijiya like most of us do."
Sango recovered, arching an eyebrow. "And you do whelp? How old are you? Forty? You can't be much more if you still only have one tail."
The young man flushed. "I've known your kind all my life – however brief the decades," he said curtly, the lightness leaving his tone. "And your current display doesn't fool me."
Kagome cleared her throat. "How old are you Sango?" She countered. "Eighteen?"
The hunter gritted her teeth. "Twenty."
"Oh," Kagome held up a hand. "My mistake. What a difference. You must know better."
Sango felt her face heat, as the kitsune's cheeks cooled.
"Perhaps you're both as naïve as I," Kagome said quietly, turning to watch the children. "Or maybe, I speak with a wisdom neither of you possess."
Kohaku opened his mouth to come to his sister's defense, but Sango shot him a stern glare, shaking her head slightly. Let Naraku's slave have the last word – verbal vindication meant nothing to the bite of steel they were mere meters from. The more confident she was, the easier it would be to snatch up a wayward hilt.
Kagome's smile returned as she watched Talon leave his sparring partner and make his way towards Tika, who was hefting her large weapon above her head, getting used to its weight and feel. "Maybe we're all fools trying to understand things we're not fully part of," she pointed to Shippo. "He the human world," and then turned her finger on Sango. "And you the youkai's."
"Hanyou," the hunter corrected.
Kagome's mouth lost its mirth. "You'd deny them entry into either, wouldn't you? Just let them scrape away at the limbo they had no part in making for themselves?" She lowered her head. "Maybe all the words they've been filling my ears with for the last two weeks are right. Maybe you're as rotten and prejudiced as they claim."
Sango missed the quirk in Tika's ears at Kagome's tone. The little girl lifted her head, watching the exchange and letting the mace's head thud gracelessly to the ground as she brought a hand to her mouth to hide her grin. She had a lot to learn from the pretty human – she knew how to get what others didn't want to give.
Kohaku, oblivious to Tika's delight, but not his sister's machinations, stepped to Kagome's side. "A one-sided story is no tale at all," he tried for gentle, feeling Sango's approval at his shoulder. "We're your people, not those demons."
The approval quickly evaporated at the derogatory tone he coupled the title with.
Kagome scoffed and left him without retort, striding across the hall and plucking free a bow and half-full quiver of arrows collecting dust amid a trio of spears. She slung the quiver to her shoulder, and Shippo's eyes widened at the practice and grace he saw.
"You never mentioned you were good with a bow," he called.
Kagome pulled an arrow from the holder and fastened it deftly. "No one ever asked," she responded lightly, pulling back the bowstring and sighting a shield on the far wall. "I'm not actually very good," she admitted, glancing back. "My brother and I taught ourselves."
Shippo crossed his arms, swaying his tail in interest. "I don't believe it. You're good at everything. Making friends, stitching wounds," he gestured to the siblings. "Disarming hateful assholes."
Kagome let out a breathless laugh and released the arrow. It flew far over the heads of the children, blurring across the hall and bouncing harmlessly off the bronze shield. She lowered the weapon and turned. "I am better at that last one," she said. "Got you talking to me, didn't I?"
Shippo gave a rueful nod. "And Inu-Yasha, Miroku, and Eichii. There's no one you can't win over."
Kagome's face fell, and her mouth twisted open in horror as bodies began to blur behind him. "Shippo!" She cried. "The taijiya!"
He spun to see Sango and Kohaku rushing for a set of scimitars. Roaring, he bared claws and lunged forward, tackling them to the ground. They landed hard, and he climbed up their legs, slashing into the backs of their coats and ripping the fabric to expose skin.
"She's a good person!" He snarled. "We're good people! You're not even giving us a chance!"
Sango cursed. "Get off me, you animal!" She turned to glare over her shoulder and saw the sharp tip of a new arrow aimed at her face.
"You take that back. Right now," Kagome said coldly. "He's no animal."
The children stilled and stared with slack-jaws, lowering their weapons.
"I won't," Sango spat, pinned by the kitsune. "You're a blind fool. No simpering slave would ever understand."
Kagome's face contorted in fury. "You know nothing about your own world, let alone theirs," she brought the bottom of her bow down, striking Sango in the nose and making the world around her spin and grow dark.
Sango groaned. "Wha—?" She tried to speak, but found her lips thick and painful. "What happened?" She looked around and saw the cluttered training hall, free now of children. Only Kagome and that accursed wind demon, Miroku, kept her and Kohaku company.
Eyes that laughed with everyone but her narrowed. "Kagome hit you in the face because you were being a horrible waste of space and air," Miroku answered, unable to completely hide his disappointment. "She has a pretty low tolerance for that."
Sango tasted dried blood in her mouth and worked to swallow it down. "Must be why she hated you for so long."
The Ouja lieutenant nodded gamely. "Maybe," he lowered to one knee, leaning close. "But she likes me now, so you best keep quiet."
Sango glared at him before lifting her gaze. Naraku's prize towered over her, still holding a notched arrow, though it was pointed to the ground.
Sango mustered derision. "So, you don't like me calling them animals?"
Kagome's fingers tightened around the weapon's neck until her knuckles went white. "There's only one person I would give that description to," she glowered down. "Your employer."
Kohaku had been relegated to the wall and sat beside his sister, keeping his hands in plain view. "He's just our means."
"Ah," Kagome nodded. "And your ends justify working with him?"
Kohaku fisted his hands in his lap. "Our village was massacred! What else would you have us do?!"
Miroku's face contorted in sudden frustration and fury, as upset by their betrayal as his hope that they would've been capable of otherwise. "An investigation!" He shouted back. "A gathering of EVIDENCE and INFORMATION!" His own knuckles curled into fists. "You persecute us BLINDLY!"
Sango reared up, rolling over onto her back. "We've been held captive for two weeks!"
"Because you killed Fuja!" Miroku snarled. "And at the first sign of leniency, tried attacking more members of our clan. Children even!"
"We didn't hurt anyone!" Sango yelled back.
"Because Kagome stopped you!" Miroku countered
Kohaku slammed his fists into the ground. "You've brainwashed her!"
Miroku's mouth twisted down into a grimace. "Or maybe she sees what you morons can't!"
"Enough!" An arrowhead butted its way into their conversation, lifting up and pointing at Sango's chest. Kagome glared from its end, and the elder taijiya gulped. "You have me all figured out – just like Miroku did – but like him, you're wrong," her eyes were cold and angry, and Sango realized she had made a terrible mistake. Her plan of befriending and convincing the girl to betray her captors was shrinking from the realm of possibility faster than she could hope to recover.
"Your hypocrisy, hatred, and thirst for violence are disgusting," Kagome continued. "You don't know me anymore than you know the Ouja," her words shook. "I am no slave, and they are not animals," her weapon edged closer, poking the front of Sango's coat. "And if you think I'll help you hurt Inu-Yasha, or any of his clan, you are delusional. Those children you pushed past in your race for swords have been hunted and mistreated their entire lives," Kagome's stare smoldered. "I suffered only a year of their fate, and would never wish it upon anyone," she turned to Miroku, drawing back. "Shippo was right. I was a fool to think their minds were big enough to change."
Miroku grabbed the collar of Sango's shirt and yanked her into a sitting position beside her brother. Anger made the jerk hard, and she winced as he shoved her back against the wall.
"I told you to be quiet," he ground out, making her flinch at the venom in his voice. "Now you've gone and upset the first human any of us have ever trusted."
Kohaku pulled his knees up to his chest and let his arms dangle, trying to act like the words didn't matter. "She has no cause to trust you," he glanced to the woman. "In that, you are a fool."
Kagome lowered her bow as derision filled her face. "No cause?" The contempt was harsh and ugly. "Inu-Yasha saved me from Naraku and his Kanaka spies, again from a youkai in the forest, and a third time from you two," she flung her bow far behind her, letting it and the notched arrow it held clatter to stone and dust. "Your bigotry truly rules you," she shook her head and sighed heavily. "They're all yours Miroku. I lasted less than an hour as a guard," she crossed her arms and stepped back. "Guess I'm not as good at disarming assholes as I thought."
Sango swallowed. She wouldn't go back into that meat cellar. She wouldn't. "L-Look here," she stammered out, her mind whirling furiously. There had to be a way to mend this. "Maybe we have things we can learn from each other. We could show you…," options rose in a panicked swirl. "How to be less trusting, less oblivious."
Kagome's features darkened.
She pressed on. "And you could teach us to trust a bit more."
Kohaku whirled on his sister, dropping his jaw.
"You were a pretty terrible guard," Sango joked weakly, meeting Kagome's eye despite the inner torrent screaming to just lunge for the heap of daggers a few leagues beyond and take her chances. "And we're not particularly decent people."
Miroku rose from his crouch. "Ha! That's the first honest thing you've said in weeks!"
Kagome looked away, staring at the flung bow, surrounded by the remnants of small footprints in the dirt.
Miroku glanced over at her, and then returned to the hunters with a shake of his head. "It's a no go sweetheart. You had your chance. Kagome's been begging to 'help' you see the good of the Ouja for days. You blew it," he reached for her torn sleeve. "Time to get up."
Sango resisted. "Please," she implored.
Kagome kept her back to them.
"What would you have done in our place?" She tried again. "We're in a hive of enemies. Wouldn't you have tried to escape?"
"Perceive," Kagome said softly. "You perceive you're around enemies."
Miroku held up his hand. "They're my enemy."
Kagome shot him a glare. "You don't count. You don't like anyone."
"I thought you said I like everyone too much."
"You know what gender I was referring to."
"Well. Sango's proven you wrong."