Disclaimer: I don't own Inu-Yasha or any of Rumiko Takahashi's characters. The only one here I made up is Yoshio, and he's a bit player and I don't want him. ;; Rub it in, why don't you?
A/N: Wow, this is weird. First-ever fanfic to be put on the 'Net, and first Inu-Yasha one. ahem Hi, everyone! Well, this idea's been done by at least 19 other people according to my summary search, but this story's more of a warmup for me than anything...I have a few more original plotbunnies careening around my brain at the moment. We'll just see. (Not that I'm putting no effort into this. On the contrary, I was up all night getting it out of my brain. :D) Now, on with the chapter, which just sets things up, so please be patient:
There's nothing quite like having a crappy song stuck in your head to make a bad day worse.
Dee dee deeeee dee dumm doooo dooooooo dee dee deeeee dee dumm doooo dooooooo dee dee deeeee dee dumm doooo doooooooSTOP THAT!
Her mind obediently shut up, then circled happily back to a subject the song had evicted moments ago. Birthday today. You're 15. Your brothers and sisters are going to shower you with presents, and your dad will give a big speech about how much he loves you...and then your sisters are gonna hide your presents and not give 'em back till you let them have half the makeup they gave you...and you'll have to buy them ice cream tomorrow...and you don't wear makeup, with brown eyes you don't even bother and they know it...but hey, if you're lucky, Souta will have caught you another worm! Your very own pet! Again! And don't forget you're 15! Only 4 years ago now that
And Kagome squeezed her eyes shut and began to hum, loudly, tugging a loose ebony strand near her ear in rhythm. She didn't know the name of the tune, but it was annoying, repetitive and perfect till she could get home and let Akemi and Nabiki take over.
"Kagome!" She rolled her eyes as quickly as possible, then plastered a nice smile on and turned to meet her friends as they jogged towards her. "Hey, happy birthday!" Eri squealed, too busy clapping and hopping on one foot to notice Kagome's eye twitching.
"Yeah, I hope your sisters let you keep your presents this time," Yuka added.
Kagome didn't bother hiding a second, bigger twitch, and her friends laughed and patted her back in supposed understanding. "Yeah, they're tough. Just get your little brother to hide your stuff this time, like I said last year!"
Kagome nodded, setting off with a wave and a valiant promise to try to keep her presents out of her loving family's clutches, waiting till she was around the corner to siiiigh and slouch over. It was bad enough that it was her birthday...did everyone have to drag it around and talk about presents on top of that?
Noooo no no no no no no no "Hi, Houjou-kun." The plaster in her smile was a bit cracked this time, but the boy riding towards her was far too dense to notice. Kagome sometimes wondered if she should try wearing clown makeup to fake a smile and give her facial muscles a break....Well, she did wonder today, anyway. Her mind always went out into left field on her birthday-it was a defense mechanism, she supposed, and it was kind of fun while it lasted as long as she kept it under wraps. The fact that she hadn't slept last night likely wasn't helping. Yes, Houjou was plenty nice and cute and so on, but he was like a...how to describe it?...A booger, maybe? No, that didn't quite fit...
Kagome caught herself sighing and easily turned it into a yawn. Yeesh. She was losing it. The guy really wasn't that bad.
"So it's your birthday today, Higurashi? Get any good presents yet?" Houjou swung one leg over his bike and gave her his best grin, blissfully unaware that her eye was twitching nonstop now in rhythm to her silent chant of not that bad not that bad not that bad to keep from yelling at him. "Here." He pulled out a small package elaborately wrapped in pink and yellow cellophane. "It's a heat compress for your shoulders. You seem kinda tense lately."
Kagome strangled the impulse to ask him why he would buy something so nicely wrapped and then tell her what it was before she could even touch it, and opted to smile again. "Why, thank you. I'm sure it'll be good for helping me stress." She coughed. "Helping me with stress."
Houjou only grinned sheepishly and rubbed the back of his head. "Aw, it was nothing, Higurashi. Say, I know it's your birthday and all, but do you want to go to-"
"I can't do anything today...or till the weekend, Houjou-kun. Lots of celebrations with my family," Kagome said quickly, ducking around the bike and smiling. Back off slooowly...sloooowly now...
"But today's Monday," Houjou objected. "Maybe tom-"
"Birthday, Houjou-kun! G'bye!" And she was off down the street for dear life, praying neither of her sisters would catch on that she wanted to go out for ice cream with them for once, coerced into paying or not...anything to escape Houjou. Two years now of presents and turn-downs. You'd think the guy would get a clue. But nooooo...hmmm...boogers don't live that long...now if only he really was a STOP THAT!
But Houjou was the least of her worries, as she soon discovered.
"I'm ho..." Kagome bit her words off as she looked up in the act of removing her shoes and found all five of her siblings, most of the house staff and her dad all gathered around the Western-style table in the front dining room.
All of them stared at her, faces grim, then turned back to Yoshio Higurashi, who looked ready to faint. "Sit down, kiddo," Akemi said abruptly, and her gruff, almost kind tone scared Kagome worse than any conniving she'd ever heard. A cold, sick feeling began pooling in her stomach and curling around her spine as she sank into a chair next to Souta. He promptly grabbed her hand with both of his and scooted closer.
He's being scared in front of everyone? Kagome didn't know what was worse, Akemi being nice or this. All she knew was that something was badly wrong, just like
No! Don't think about that. Listen to Dad, moron, he's talking now!
"Kagome," he said gravely, passing his hand over his face in an attempt to stay calm, made all the more pathetic by a tiny smear of soy sauce that his repeated gestures had smooched all over his cheek and forehead. "I was just telling everyone that I...that, is w-we th-think we m-might be...er..."
"We're broke, Kag," Nabiki said bluntly. "Daddy blew all our money on some old land in the middle of nowhere for no reason."
"Isn't there some way you can fix this? Sell it back or something?" Yusaku demanded as Kagome's jaw fell open, mind working to process the new information. She scooped Souta onto her lap, almost wishing for his usual protests about being eight years old and too big for this as he silently buried his face in her shoulder.
"This was a sound financial investment according to several trusted sources," Yoshio argued, but with an air of resignation and fear that said he had no other defense. He sighed. "How was I supposed to know the woods were home to some kind of endangered species and development's been restricted?"
Kagome's mind was slowly beginning to clear. Her father worked with three other businessmen in more of a loose alliance than a company, buying and selling real estate and sometimes acting as middlemen on commission. All four had been extremely lucky, arriving in Tokyo just in time for an upswing in the economy. As expensive as land was in Japan and especially in and near the capitol, they had managed to pool their money and acquire outlying property just as several international companies moved into the area and expressed interest in building on it. Ever since she was old enough to understand it, Kagome had always been wary of her father's business: it was too risky and he was too naïve and impulsive to have survived on more than luck for this long. Knew we'd get screwed sooner or later, but...
"That means you can't build on it?" Ataru looked as if he were just beginning to grasp the situation. "But if no one can build on it and you spent all our money, what's gonna happen to the house and everything? How're we gonna eat?!"
"You bought a piece of land without checking for environmental protection or developing ordinances?" Having found her voice, Kagome glared at her father, who hung his head in abject acceptance of his own stupidity.
"It didn't seem like a bad idea at the time," he told the floor lamely. "There's an abandoned old castle deep in the woods near it, too, and a few big companies were interested in clearing the place out for a summer resort. Not many people in that area. There was a lot of speculation and the price was starting to go up, so my partners told me I should take the gamble."
It took all of her willpower not to grab the nearest porcelain dish and chunk it right at him. "You used our money and not any of theirs?! If it was such a smart move, they wouldn't have made you do it! What in the hell were you thinking?!"
Akemi cackled and clapped, while Nabiki regarded Kagome with surprise and her brothers wisely kept quiet.
Yoshio's head snapped up. "Don't you dare speak to me that way, young lady! I moved fast because I didn't know that that area became a squirrel preserve about five hours before I signed the papers, and if I'd been able to read government minds, I wouldn't have done it!"
Souta's whisper was lost in Kagome's sudden growl. "You always do this, Dad! First that porn shop in Kyoto-" She belatedly clapped her hands over her brother's ears and ignored Yoshio's protests that it was a respectable manga chain. "Then that stupid plot to buy roach motels in Hokkaido and sell them as time shares...you got lucky the first time and we got lucky you were too drunk to go to the meeting the second time! And now you've lost everything because of a bunch of effing squirrels?! Why do you have to do this kind of thing, Dad? If M-"
Silence descended. No one in the room breathed for the count of five. Then Kagome swallowed hard and bowed her head, whispering an apology.
Yoshio took a deep breath and let it out. The tension in the room eased, but only slightly. "I'm sorry," he said quietly to the housekeeper, cooks and maids standing off to the side. "You'll have to find work elsewhere. You can leave tonight. I'll have my secretary type up references for you in the morning."
"You don't have one anymore, remember?" Akemi pointed out carelessly, lighting a cigarette to restore the last of her nerves.
Kagome shot her sister a Look. "I'll do it, Dad. We'd better eat dinner first, and you can tell us what we'll be doing next."
Once dinner was served, possibly for the last time, Yoshio recovered enough to assure them that they would not starve. The protests were long and loud when their father revealed his master plan to keep them off the streets: "I know just the place. It's a cozy little shrine in the countryside on that land I bought."
From Nabiki as she deftly knocked Ataru's chopsticks away from the biggest octopus ball on the table: "A shrine?! Do those places even have electricity? Or toilets?"
Akemi, picking at her food: "In the country? Dad, do you know how many men are gonna drive out to the middle of nowhere and back with all these kids around? What am I supposed to do?"
Yusaku, busy slurping noodles, also wanted to know how he was supposed to pay for college now, much less commute or live in a dorm; he had managed to get into a fairly prestigious school thanks to their father's success, and his grades were not sufficient for any kind of scholarship. Even if he were to get a job, the tuition would be too much for him to handle on his own.
Ataru was more of his sisters' frame of mind now, wondering aloud how he was supposed to get any girls to come out to a crappy little shack in the middle of the woods with six other people in it. Nabiki and Akemi were more than happy to point out that the way he was slopping his soup everywhere, he'd never get any girls near him anyway, so no big loss.
Souta merely listened and looked up at Kagome fearfully. She swallowed once, twice, then spoke up. "Why can't your partners help us? They're the ones who got you into this mess."
Yoshio gulped. "They've said...they just won't. Six children, school tuition and college...it's more than they could help us with."
"So the answer is that they're all irresponsible scumbags," Nabiki said thoughtfully. Yoshio coughed and turned his attention back to his dinner.
More grumbling about their father's partners and why he couldn't just sue the bastards ensued. Yoshio was explaining that he had no proof that they'd had any part in his purchase when Kagome spoke up again. "Dad?"
Her siblings paused to look at her. Kagome's face was eerily calm-too calm. "What about school?"
Yoshio was sweating bullets by this point, but took several bites to buy time before answering. "Souta is the only one legally required to attend school anymore, so I'll be tutoring him till he can pass the appropriate-"
"Tutor him in what, real estate?" Nabiki muttered, getting up from the table.
"What was that?" Yoshio demanded.
"Well, you did screw everything up, Dad," Akemi snapped. "Make Kagome teach him. She's the egghead."
"Nah, she'll be doing the housework. We won't have anyone there to pick up after us, remember?" Nabiki pointed out.
"Oh, yeah." A moment later, Akemi easily ducked the shoe Kagome sent flying at her head, and Nabiki also dropped to the floor with practiced ease as the other loafer sailed over her.
"What about me?" Yusaku asked again, and Kagome felt rather sorry for him. After all, he was the only one in the family who was in college, and if he wasn't a terrific student, he still tried. Akemi had never even pretended an interest in more than chasing men from the safety of their huge home, and Ataru was too busy mourning his love life now to think about his high school career. Heaven only knew if Nabiki cared.
But as she moved back to her seat and listened to Dad explain that Yusaku had the option of possibly finding a job and a small apartment somewhere-"At this time of year?!"-it also occurred to her that if she didn't go to high school, her chances of eventually getting into college were shot, and without college she had no hope of getting a career anywhere.
Yoshio had evidently thought of this, too. He moved closer to her after the meal had been cleaned up and said in an undertone, "You know, there are plenty of lovely offices in Tokyo that offer entry-level positions for-"
"For women with degrees who're just marking time till they get married," Kagome interrupted coldly. "Isn't there anywhere at all near there I can commute to?"
He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "No, honey, there are no schools within forty kilometers of the place. I wouldn't be able to pay tuition or drive you anyway."
And that was that.
The family's initial hopes that one of their many friends would offer to provide them some help soon died as said friends melted into the woodwork after sending their sympathies and not much else. Yuka and Eri were properly mournful that Kagome would be leaving so soon (her father's former prestige and Kagome's excellent grades had proven sufficient to allow her to take her final exams early, rather than her having to drop out-a small blessing, but one she was glad enough to have), but any hint that Kagome might stay with one of them till she was through with high school was not forthcoming. She really hadn't expected it, but that hadn't made saying goodbye and heading back to the rusty import they'd bought after selling both the family cars any easier.
And much as she would've liked to dismiss her sisters' banter about housework as teasing, Kagome knew they were dead serious: getting them to pick up after themselves would be like teaching drunken monkeys to read, except that monkeys would be better students. It was such a complete waste of time to try to bully, plead, force, threaten or otherwise persuade those two to help clean the little shrine that she gave up after Nabiki's third "suggestion" that money would be excellent motivation for them to pitch in. A little cooking was all she could get out of them despite her best nagging efforts, and her father was too worn down from constant sniping about their fall in fortunes to help.
The boys were a little better; even Souta started cleaning up his own messes and learning to do laundry by the second or third week they spent in the shrine, which proved to be tiny, cramped and provided with only the most rudimentary electric wiring. Most of this was used by Nabiki's 13" TV, which did not have cable but did provide an astonishing array of generic soap operas.
But once they arrived at the shrine, Kagome was much too busy to mope about anything. Yusaku spoke with his advisers and wrangled an agreement to postpone his education for a few years and found a friend willing to rent him a room while he worked full-time to help support the family. Ataru's complaints soon ceased under the weight of Kagome's glares, not to mention all the repairs that needed to be made around the place. And Souta's initial upset over leaving his friends and school behind soon subsided upon his discovery that, even outside the lessons his dad and Kagome gave him daily, there was a lot to do in the woods.
"I'm bored," he whined the second day after they arrived. It had taken pathetically little time to unload the battered family car and unpack what few possessions they hadn't had to sell to pay various people and credit card companies off.
"Then go play," Kagome said absently, intent on mixing detergent for a vat full of shirts and shorts.
"I don't wanna go by myself," he whined. "Come in the woods with me and make sure there's nothing bad in it."
She was about to snap back at him when her hand suddenly twitched violently and spilled detergent all over the grass. Damn sleep deprivation... Kagome sighed and shrugged in defeat, then left a note for their father inside and steered Souta out into the woods.
It was only a few hours after they set off, and Souta had already spotted at least 17 trees suitable for building a fort. Kagome had only agreed absently because a creepy feeling had, well, crept up on her as they walked through the old woods. It was peaceful and quiet, but as Souta shouted and ran into a little clearing ahead, Kagome's skin began prickling. It grew stronger as she followed him and saw that he was already halfway up the trunk of a massive tree.
"Get down here!" she yelled, rubbing vainly at her now-crawling skin and stepping uneasily up the gentle slope formed under the snaking roots. Her ankle caught on one, and she went down heavily. "Dammit," she grumbled, getting to her feet carefully and reaching out to steady herself against the trunk.
White blanked her vision for a moment, and an image of something flickered across it before the trunk came back into focus. Kagome stood stock-still, highly unnerved, then placed the other hand on the tree to push herself off.
White again, but the brief flash of color - red? - that accompanied it also had feeling attached: anger, regret and a heavy sorrow that brought tears to her eyes. Kagome wrenched her hands from the bark and stumbled backwards, gasping for air as she scrambled away.
"What's eating you, Sis?" Souta demanded from near the top of the tree. "Isn't this great? Look, I can see above the other trees! There's that weird castle over there!"
Kagome shut her eyes and rubbed them, suddenly too tired to follow as he jabbed a finger at his new discovery. "That's great, Souta. C'mon down, we've gotta go home now."
She told none of her family about the little incident, not wishing to be ridiculed for weeks or to have to explain that she wasn't sick. Now that he didn't have anything to do except teach Souta every once in a while, Yoshio had developed a few odd notions, one of them paranoia of Kagome falling deathly ill. It was just a little annoying, to say the least.
Odd notions or not, their father eventually adjusted to the forced inactivity and closeness with his children. This wasn't as much of a blessing as it could've been without his older daughters' aptitude for smart remarks, but all in all, the family settled in and learned to survive quite nicely, Kagome thought. Regular money from Yusaku, who'd managed to find a decent job from a new friend, and occasional trips out to a nearby village ensured no one went insane or hungry, and even Nabiki and Akemi adjusted to their lack of credit cards...after a while.
And thus the time passed. Even with the lack of presents (or partly because of it), her 16th and then 17th birthdays passed with much more calm than their predecessors. Kagome was able to sleep soundly, if not happily, in the knowledge that not much else could go wrong, and her sisters would only give her things they had long since lost interest in; even Souta managed to find a baby bird and then a lost cat in the woods for each birthday instead of something that crawled.
Still, it wasn't an ideal life by any means, and the shrine wasn't terribly comfortable in the winter. After one of Yusaku's Christmas presents turned out to be a set of space heaters, they discovered that the only thing worse than a lack of central heating was a complete, overload-induced lack of electricity, and after much conferring, whining and bargaining, it was agreed that each member of the family would give up a meal a day for a few months so Yusaku could buy a small, cheap generator in case of emergencies. The generator coughed, sputtered and smelled funny, but it was definitely worth it, as they all agreed the third time the lights went out.
Kagome woke up one morning three days before her 18th birthday in a cold sweat. Despite the early spring coolness outside, she felt more break out as she stared at the ceiling, barely aware of Akemi's teeth grinding or Nabiki snorting in her sleep across the tiny room. No, no, no, it's too early, not now, no
"YES!" Their father's bellow shook the thin wooden walls, and her sisters jerked awake with muttered curses, wondering who was dead now and taking no notice of Kagome's sweat-streaked white face as she shakily got up.
Yoshio was holding his cell phone (he had kept it "for emergencies" and rarely used it, but more out of possessiveness than thrift) and doing some kind of war dance out in the yard as his children yawned their way outside. "It's not even 7 a.m., Daddy," Nabiki groused, sitting down on a newly repaired step with an irate yawn. "What's wrong now?"
"Someone wants to buy us!" he shouted, pumping the cell phone up and out like a tiny plastic pompom.
"Buy us?" Ataru repeated with some interest. "Is it a girl?"
"No, no, son! A wonderful company is going to lease the land we're on, turn the castle into a hotel and make us all filthy rich!" Yoshio grabbed Souta's hands and started dancing him around in circles.
"You mean, we're not gonna have to live here anymore?" Nabiki said slowly, and Akemi whooped right in Kagome's ear, jerking her out of her trance.
"What about the squirrels, Dad?" Kagome asked, backing out of harm's way as Souta was swung clear off the ground for a few seconds. Yusaku, who was visiting and had just come out of his futon in the kitchen space, followed suit, eyeing their father warily.
"Plenty of the little nutcases to go around," Yoshio said cheerfully, setting his youngest down with a thump. "Nutcases, get it?" Kagome managed a weak smile and sat down on the steps next to Nabiki, who was grinning and clearly plotting what her first purchases on returning to Tokyo would be.
Yoshio's jubilation subsided just enough for him to explain himself over breakfast, and Kagome was too uneasy to comment despite the good news. One of his partners had just called-he held his hand up to silence their protests. This partner's son-in-law had worked on the research team that'd provided the statistics that proved the squirrels were endangered in the first place, and a new report showed that the population had rebounded nicely. Now that the squirrels were somewhat safe, the land could be leased to make use of existing property (the castle) while they waited for permission to clear the rest of it for more development.
Now that this information had been ascertained, the partner's other son-in- law, another real estate broker, had been dispatched to "accidentally" leak the news to potential buyers, and had done his job so well that the worthless land had become one of the most sought-after spots in the Tokyo area. Untouched castles in undisturbed forests that were still relatively close to major cities weren't easy to find anymore, and this castle had the added bonus of supposedly being haunted. Such places were often more valuable and could charge more for ghost hunters and thrill-seekers than a regular hotel could for regular guests, even rich ones. In short, the Higurashi family was now in possession of a gold mine.
The prospect of regaining their former wealth galvanized Nabiki and Akemi the way nothing had since they'd moved to the shrine. Even as Kagome tried to digest the information, Nabiki decided that their father must leave that very morning to close the deal as quickly as possible, and Akemi dispatched Souta to run Daddy a bath while she picked out something respectable for him to wear and Ataru washed and polished the car. Yusaku, who had said nothing since waking up, just shook his head and went back upstairs for a brief nap.
In record time their father was standing out in the yard next to the feebly glimmering family Bug. "Now," he said briskly, surveying each child with mock solemnity. "I'll have a few hours before I have my first meeting, and I want to get something for each of you-" His hand was already up to signal silence before the word 'want' was out, and the expected outburst promptly died. "First, Akemi. What would you like?"
"Anything, Daddy?" she breathed, eyes glimmering and hands clasped.
"Of course, dear." He smiled expansively, only wavering slightly when she pulled out a sheet of paper with tiny scribbles all over it. "What's that?"
"Those are the latest Versace gowns I saw on TV, Daddy, and my measurements and the colors and styles I want," she said happily. "Oh, thank you!"
"Of course." He carefully folded it and stuck it into his wallet. "What about you, Yusaku?"
"I'd like a laptop, Dad, with a battery...help with school when I go back," Yusaku added, and Yoshio chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder.
"I want a DVD player," Ataru said without preamble, and Nabiki punched him in the back of the head.
"Owww! What was that for?" he demanded.
"He was going in age order, dipwad," she retorted, then smiled at Yoshio. "I'd like a new TV, Daddy, the biggest one you can carry without hurting yourself too much."
"Coming right up! And a DVD player for you, Ataru?" Ataru nodded sulkily.
"If Nabiki's getting a TV, can I have a PlayStation and that one old DDR game you said I could have when I turned ten?" Souta demanded, tugging on his father's sleeve.
"Of course, Souta, and one of those mat things to go with it." Souta grinned from ear to ear, and Yoshio turned to Kagome, ignoring Ataru's demands of why Nabiki didn't smack him for going out of order. "What would you like, honey?"
"I really don't want anything," Kagome said honestly. "I'll get to go to school again, right?" He nodded. "Then that's fine. No present for me."
Nabiki made a loud noise that sounded suspiciously like obnoxious kissing and then patted her rear suggestively. Akemi grunted, rolled her eyes and glared at her sister as she took out a cigarette. "Good God, Kag, you're such a martyr. You're not gonna get anything better by holding out. You might as well just say something you want now and quit wasting our time."
Kagome glared back. Akemi knew how much she hated smoking and how afraid she was of any kind of unnecessary fire in or near the shrine. "I'm not holding out for anything. Not all of us think we're gonna die if we don't get something expensive."
Nabiki snorted and scratched her head with only one finger, making sure Kagome saw which one. Kagome stuck her tongue out, but stopped as Yoshio frowned at her.
"Hey, what are you trying to imply?" Ataru demanded, and even Souta looked miffed.
"They're right, Kagome," their father said coaxingly. "It's so close to your birthday, too." Kagome's hands clenched into fists. "Don't be afraid to ask for something. You deserve it more than anyone else after all you've done for the family."
Great. Akemi and Nabiki were making quiet retching noises and Souta was fidgeting with impatience. Yusaku met her pleading look with a helpless shrug, and Ataru wasn't going to help, either.
Her mind wandered frantically, trying to pin down something, anything she wanted. But if she was going to be able to take the exams for high school, even if she'd be the only 18-year-old in her class, she'd have a future again, and no cleaning to do; she'd make new friends, and maybe even a boyfriend. The thought cheered her up so much that she opened her mouth to insist that there was nothing in the world she could've asked for...and shut it under Akemi's glare. No way was she going to get away with that now-she'd have her shoes stolen, jam in her hairbrush, toothbrush in the toilet and all sorts of nasty things in her bed for weeks after this if she still didn't ask for anything.
In desperation she glanced around the shrine. Her eyes fell on a stretch of ground she'd just finished weeding yesterday on one side of the steps. "Could I have a flower, Dad?"
"A flower?" he repeated blankly.
"Yeah, Dad, any kind of flower we don't have here. Maybe a rose or something I could transplant to the new house." There. That would do it.
A loud "Pfffffft" behind her said otherwise. "A flower, Kag? That's the lamest thing I've ever heard," Akemi said flatly.
"Friggin' suck-up," Nabiki muttered, heading back into the shrine. "Call if you're gonna be late, Daddy, okay?"
Yoshio was walking on air...or at least he would've been minus the 48" TV box he staggered under as he made his way to the car. He'd made it to Tokyo in record time and met up with his partners at a bar despite the early hour; upon hearing of his mission, one had handed him his credit card and bade him hit the stores right then with all the generosity of a wealthy drunk. Yoshio had been all too happy to comply, and now the little Bug was crammed with plastic-sheathed designer dresses, electronics and...he frowned, knees buckling as he lowered the passenger seat and eased the box in. No flowers yet. He probably could just grab a cheap one from a department store...but this was his Kagome! And it was almost her 18th birthday! With a self- righteous huff he headed downtown for the meeting, promising himself one more trip to the store before heading back to his adoring family.
Precisely fifty minutes later, he walked out of the mirror-paneled, imposing building and looked around for someplace that provided liquor. He marched into the nearest bar, plopped down on a stool, and handed the barkeep the credit card and an order for as many beers as he could drink and still stay upright.
Two beers later, his eyes grew misty and his lips quirked into a smile...two more beers, and he was grinning like a madman...two more sips, and his head thumped onto the counter with a sharp thunk.
"Whass'matta, bud?" an American businessman nearby inquired in English, leering in a comradely fashion and attempting to place a hand on his shoulder. Neither man noticed how badly it missed as Yoshio began to sniffle.
"Ilostallmyfamily'smoneytosquirrelsandnowthey'reallgon nahatemeevenmoooore!" he wailed on a single breath.
The American's face creased into a sympathetic, red-mottled grimace. He patted Yoshio sincerely and asked why squirrels took his family's money.
The story came out, though not as coherent as what had actually happened: Yoshio had gone to the meeting full of hope, only to find that his partners were mysteriously absent. After five minutes of awkward chitchat, a discreet call had revealed that none of the partners were to be found, and another, more open call to the room soon after revealed that they were not coming. It seemed the son-in-law partner had failed to mention that he had yet another married daughter, whose husband worked for a large local paper. The paper had caught wind of the castle's fate as a hotel and raised a stink about it; then it caught wind of a rumor that a strip club in Tokyo was maybe thinking of perhaps moving near it to escape city taxes once development was OKed, and the public outcry it elicited by the time news arrived from Son-In-Law #1 that the squirrel population not only was not recovering, but seemed to be suffering predation or disease, was sufficient to scare off any potential leasers for miles. Yoshio knew his partners would be very sorry that they'd failed to pass along the inside information once more, so sorry, in fact, that they'd even apologize for asking him to repay the credit card that...he...
And Yoshio suddenly cackled and slapped the bar in delight, and the American stopped patting and asked what the matter was. Yoshio said that nothing was the matter, except that he'd never given his partners his address and they assumed he was living with relatives, as Yoshio had been too ashamed to admit to the world that they were living in an old shrine. Wouldn't it be a shame if he 'forgot' to return the credit card, left the receipts on his partner's doorstep to prove that it hadn't been stolen, and went back home with all the souvenirs?
This idea was so irresistibly clever and underhanded that the two men's congratulations did not stop for a solid half-hour, during which the drinks kept coming and other patrons chose to ignore them or get up quietly and leave rather than ask why the American kept patting Yoshio on the butt.
Soon the bar closed and Yoshio and his new friend parted ways. Yoshio waved unsteadily over his shoulder and staggered over to his car, trying to get the door open...but the TV was on his seat. He blinked, then remembered this was an American car, and he cursed the Western Hemisphere thoroughly as he circled around and got in. Thoughts of his American buddy warmed his heart back up, though, and he began to hum "God Save the Queen" in tribute as he started the car up.
The receipts were swiftly and silently delivered, save for a bit of slight noise he made by stumbling into a trash can and upsetting two large cats. Then it was back to his car, back to cursing and circling around to his own seat, back to humming "Barbie Girl" as he started the car and backed into the fence, crushing the expensive worked iron before shifting and pointing the car back out onto the road and towards home.
Or so he thought...the road didn't seem prepared to stay straight, and he defiantly refused to follow its wavering as it began to snow lightly. This was odd...but the snow was nothing compared to the road. After about an hour he vaguely remembered something about turning and home, but a sudden, violent wave of nausea clouded his already vaporous brain, and he drove on aimlessly, concentrating on No pukey no pukey no pukey no oh hell I need to stop and then slammed on the brakes.
It wasn't until he raised his head, shuffled away from the bushes he'd just defiled and noticed how cold and wet everything was that he saw that he was in the woods, and an unfamiliar part of it, too. Snow had started to pile up a few inches thick and was filtering in rapidly through the trees overhead, which formed a much thinner canopy than the ones near the shrine. He took one look at the car, decided that it was much too heavy to carry, and set off bravely in search of a way to get the ground to stop moving. Him not moving was really nice, too, but the snow was cold.
A few minutes later, without the light from his headlights to guide him, Yoshio decided that it was also really, really dark as well as cold. This meant he had no clue where he was going, but if he stopped, the snow would eat him. And it'd be cold.
But his legs, already stiff and jerky from too much sitting and alcohol, were beginning to give out, and try as he might, pleading and even offering to pay them if they'd just keep working, he was starting to stumble a lot, and it hurt more to get up each time. He was too occupied with his newfound disability to notice something watching him from nearby, or a gentle whisper of movement in the undergrowth to the side and then ahead of him.
Soon Yoshio was in serious trouble. The snow was coming down faster than ever, and his legs had firmly rebelled against the nicest arguments he could offer. He sat down in the snow, noting unhappily that it was very very cold, and his head sank to his chest. The shivering that'd assailed him not long ago was gone, replaced by a kind of numbness...except for his butt. That was cold. And wet.
I don't wanna die with a wet b.........what's that?
He squinted against the icy flakes battering his eyes. Yes, it was definitely some kind of light ahead. Light means stuff. Stuff means fire. Fire means warm and no wet! His legs agreed, and he found himself back on his feet and stumbling towards the wavering pinpoint with newfound zeal.
Ten painful and soggy minutes and only about thirty yards later, Yoshio stumbled straight into a crude wooden wall and sat down abruptly. Within seconds his eyes unfogged enough to determine that there was flickering orange light coming from its side, i.e. a door, which made this big thing some kind of crude hut. He crawled around to the side and saw a tiny room with a small fire in the middle, not to mention a large futon laid out neatly to the side.
His mind was not up to questioning the presence of warmth and bed in the middle of nowhere. It was only sufficient to unfold the straw mat covering the doorway, crawl into the futon and fall into a deep, uneasy sleep.
A pounding headache and the wind on his face woke Yoshio up sometime in the afternoon. When he sat up, he immediately sank back into the futon's dry warmth, groaning and trying to work moisture back into his mouth. Why am I hung over? Kagome never lets me get...wait, where am I?
The previous night's events came rushing back, and he groaned again, this time with feeling. He had failed to get the land sold, he had gotten drunk, he had let an American...yeah...and then he'd dumped the receipts for all those expensive souvenirs right on his partner's doorstep, not returned the credit card, and then drove off when he was so drunk he could hardly see straight! He could've killed someone!
Another gentle gust of cold air interrupted his self-recrimination, and he opened his eyes to see...the sky?
He sat up carefully and looked around. He was still wrapped securely in the futon's blankets, but there was nothing around him but snow. The hut and its fire had disappeared.
Blink. Blink. Well, that was something. Maybe he was still drunk...? No, he was too hung over to be drunk. That made sense, if nothing else did. Yoshio twisted around and looked behind him. The sky was clear and the sun was out, but it was still snowing gently and the piles were getting higher. Had he been more coherent, he would've noticed that the snow on his futon was melting instantly, but without soaking the fabric.
He twisted a little further and spotted a distant smear of darkness on the horizon. Vaguely he remembered that his car was God knew where, and in this snow, he wasn't going to be able to drive anywhere any time soon. Maybe that smear was the castle he'd heard so much about?
A soft, short whistle near his elbow jerked his head around, and he groaned and massaged his temple. When he reopened his eyes, they bulged: a line of kanji and hiragana was being scratched into the snow when he was the only person in the vicinity. Slowly he watched in absolute disbelief, and when it was done he slowly read aloud: "Please fear not, good sir, and follow to the castle where my lord has prepared a place."
But there was no time to wonder: the cold was starting to seep through the futon's thick cover, and as he watched, a set of tiny footprints set off through the snow towards what he presumed to be the castle. It dimly occurred to him that they looked funny somehow, besides the fact that they were there in the first place, but his head hurt enough as it was and he abandoned trying to puzzle it out. After a dumbfounded moment or two he threw off the covers, then thought better of it and draped it over his shoulders as he staggered after the footprints.
For such a supposedly small whatever-the-hell-it-was, the prints' owner moved fast, and Yoshio had to pause for breath and to recover his hung-over self a few times. The prints always stopped to wait till he straightened back up, mumbled an apology and started walking once more.
Soon the castle became clearly visible even to Yoshio, who was sweating profusely and dragging the futon behind him in the snow. When they marched up the wide courtyard and drew near the great steps, the footprints stopped, and Yoshio watched as the kanji for "Welcome" drew itself before him.
"Thanks," he mumbled with an awkward bow, and proceeded to stumble up the steps, never noticing that something gently tugged the futon from his grasp as he trudged upward.
In the dim afternoon light and from several torches lit up along the walls, he could see a great entrance hall. Yoshio slipped off his business shoes, unconsciously wriggling his toes as he timidly walked through the entrance hall and into the grand court. "Hello?" he called, his voice sounding thin and lost.
No answer. He didn't know if he really wanted one, though. This place was kinda cursed and he had just been brought by here by a ghost or something, of course.
Cursed? Yoshio blinked. No, just haunted. Or had he heard about a curse somewhere?...One thing was for sure, though. His stomach was definitely growling.
Almost on cue, a strong smell of fish and miso drifted towards him, and he happily followed, walking through several rooms full of beautiful hangings, armor, and all sorts of museum-quality things in a hungry stupor. Soon he found himself in a little room with three braziers lit, providing warmth and enough light to see a small table groaning with food: fish and miso and dumplings and sake and tea and all sorts of things. His mouth watered, and he grabbed the chopsticks and began shoveling almost the second his knees touched the floor.
About halfway through, his stomach stopped screaming at him and Yoshio was able to look around with some appreciation, noting that the old place was wonderfully preserved despite its great age and reputation. Was someone living here? Or was it...? He looked down at the food and gulped, wondering if it would turn him into an oni or a ghost like in an old story...then shrugged and set about eating the rest. No point wasting it if he was already doomed.
His luck had not run out, though. As soon as he was finished, the opposite shoji slid open and revealed a steaming bath and a small area for cleaning himself. He gratefully partook, leaving his clothes in the little dining room and changing into a kimono someone (something?) had swapped for his clothes when he had toweled himself dry.
Yoshio wandered around the castle for several hours, marveling at the simple beauty of the smaller rooms and grandeur of what must've been the throne room and lord's bedchamber. Some of the more private rooms on the highest floor were locked, and he only tried them once more before getting a strong feeling that he'd better leave them be. As it was, he found that he'd barely explored half the castle before night fell again.
In 'his' room, the way to which he found lighted with fresh torches, Yoshio saw that dinner had been set out, along with his clothes, which were clean and dry but folded incorrectly. He smiled and gave thanks in case anything could hear him, but decided not to complain. He was lucky and superstitious, after all, not stupid.
He was also very tired. Once he'd eaten and laid his chopsticks down, another shoji slid open and he saw a futon prepared for him. With a last "Thank you very much" and a glance back at his dishes, Yoshio laid down and was soon fast asleep, feeling safer than he had in years.
Birds chirping outside woke Yoshio up the next morning, 10:38 according to his watch. He yawned and stretched, rubbing his eyes and muttering a morning greeting as the shoji slid open again to reveal breakfast. He was suddenly reminded of his cell phone and stumbled over to his clothes, then slid it out of his pants pocket. He flipped it open and cursed: he'd left it on all yesterday and that night, and its feeble beeping had gone unnoticed. The battery needed recharging, and the charger was in the car.
Well, all the more reason to be on his way soon. With only slight regret, which only deepened slightly more upon remembering all the explaining he had to do at home, Yoshio quickly ate breakfast, remarked aloud how good the food was again, thanked the empty air and changed into his own clothes. Then it was off through the confusing order of rooms and luckily into the entrance hall on his first try, down the steps and into the cold air.
Yoshio paused at the steps, turned around and bowed deeply, calling out his last thanks before setting off briskly and nearly slipping on a small ball of snow at the bottom. He hopped around to the side of the stairs to make sure he hadn't twisted his ankle...he hadn't, thank goodness, but the change in direction made him wonder if he was sure where he'd left his car....No, this was probably correct. In fact, if he circled around the back of the castle, he'd find it even quicker.
With this firmly in mind, Yoshio set off at a good pace, stepping gingerly through piles of mushy, melting snow and stopping dead when he rounded the second corner: there at the very back of the castle grounds, completely untouched by any snow and with air so much warmer than its surrounds that he could feel it from there, was a little garden.
Entranced, Yoshio came closer, then leaned in to feel the air and sighed blissfully. There was only one kind of flower, one he'd never seen or heard of; he'd never smelled it, either, as he knew he'd remember that light, sweet perfume if he ever smelled it again now. It grew in bushes about waist high, with waxy green leaves and thin but tough-looking stems. The buds were new and a beautiful lilac, striped thinly with black The few already in bloom were almost bell-shaped, but more graceful, and Yoshio had to wonder if any stores in Tokyo had any flowers even remotely like this.
Flowers... Flowers! Kagome! Flowers! These were flowers! And she'd love them, too. Anyone would...even her sisters would like these. Yoshio smiled tolerantly at the thought and reached out to pluck a blossom. And failed.
Dammit. The stems were even tougher than they looked. Yoshio pulled harder, and harder, till the whole bush was shaking with his efforts. Grrrr...fine! He reached lower, got a good hold right above the roots, and yanked as hard as he could.
With a triumphant grunt, he pulled a few flowers free of the bush, roots and all, and was congratulating himself when a voice thundered behind him. "Just what in the hells do you think you are doing?"
A/N: Long enough for ya? No idea how long the others'll be. Next chapter and all our other favorite characters (well, some of 'em, anyway) will be up in a day or two, maybe more if I actually get reviews. I'm easy like that. ;D smacks self for review-begging