Disclaimer: Knock knock.

Who's there?

..I don't own Inuyasha!

…One order of seppuku, coming right up…

A/N: Hey, all. Been a while, eh? Moving and a new semester of big-kids school and repeated illness and the death of your only remaining grandparent and hurricanes that never materialize in one's area but worry you anyway and finals and removing tend to block up creative outlets like this. You get what you pay for, I guess.

By popular request – i.e. two separate people have suggested it – here's a brief recap of what happened last time:

Brief Recap of What Happened Last Time: Kagome figured out that she propositioned Inuyasha when she was drunk. It was stormy and humid and too hot, so she lay there and angsted for a while, secure in the knowledge that Inuyasha was no happier than she was, then cried herself to sleep; an odd dream about naked poker, a visit from her mom, then Midoriko intervening to show her a bit of Kikyou's memory commenced, in which we saw what we pretty much already knew (Kikyou didn't like her job, nor having the hots for Inuyasha). Kikyou herself popped up afterwards to add that Inuyasha was on a strict, self-imposed, lifelong no-nookie diet thanks to Fluffy's declaration that he would kill any girl who might even have the slightest chance of being able to have Inuyasha's kid. Joy!

An argument broke out as to whether the plan to use the Jewel really would've worked, and Kikyou contradicted her advice from the day before by asking Kagome if she's thought of accepting Inuyasha, the same way she asked him about it some time before; apparently, something or another had happened to make haste advisable in seeking out Naraku before he popped up and killed her, which would suck for everyone concerned. As this is Kikyou talking, she gave no reason as to what marrying Inuyasha and killing Narkie-poo had in common, and no other details came up before Sango woke Kagome up. Kagome decided to expunge some of the dream's and her own residual frustration by immediately having a good cry, loud enough for everyone inside to hear. Speculation ensued amongst the servants, to no one's surprise.

Meanwhile, Inuyasha spent a sleepless night agonizing over a lot of things, not all of them specified, and went for a run outside, where it was thundering in an unpleasantly mood-matching fashion. Lightning zapped a tree, and he got the men to help clear the branches away from the shrine, which Kaede entered as soon as possible, and in which she found a Something, dun dun dun.

Inuyasha got to go inside and see Kagome atop Sango in only a bikini top and shorts, as the latter was also sleep-deprived and receiving a massage. Miroku took her to his room for sleeping purposes – one hopes – and Shippou escaped wet-dog smell by going to get breakfast, which meant only a kitten bore witness to gel application, vital inquiries as to how Inuyasha catalogues smell, and Kagome flattening him with an anticlimactic double Sexy Look and Stupid Question combo.

Fair warning: this puppeh is 34 pages in Word. HOOGE.


Chapter 39

When her attempts to apologize and/or worm an actual answer out of Inuyasha merely threw him deeper into Sulk On The Floor mode, Kagome gave up and stretched out with her back to him, closing her eyes with a little sigh. The notion of going to get food herself or perhaps retrieving some manga from under the bed was appealing, but she suddenly found her eyelids weighed more than the rest of her head combined, a condition prohibitive to movement or intelligent thought; she had only to find a comfortable position on her back and listen to the unaccustomed peace on both sides of her skull for a few minutes before she was out like a broken light.

Inuyasha didn't realize she was actually asleep till she turned over and disturbed the kitten, which mewed crankily at him. "The hell you want me to do about it?" he grumbled at her sotto voce. "Go sleep somewhere else."

The calico summed up her opinion of the world in general with a long, yawning glare, then got up, streeetched, clambered onto the small of Kagome's back, and curled into a soon-snoring ball.

Great. Irritation rose afresh, particularly when he moved to reclaim a spot on the bed and his wet sleeve snagged on something just underneath the metal frame. Sango's gonna have to clean this place up. He freed himself with one claw, hopping lightly onto the mattress and sitting cross-legged between Kagome and the wall. If he got the blankets wet by planting his butt in one place too long, well, that was just too damn bad.

His left ear moved to catch a very quiet duet of wheezing noises: girl and cat were breathing in near-perfect synch. Cute. It was, actually, sarcasm notwithstanding, and Inuyasha gradually relaxed as the rhythm continued undisturbed.

There wasn't much to look at in the little room, and it took only a few seconds to ascertain that neither the TV nor the things Shimoko had left around it were worth watching. That only left the bed's occupants; in a rare attack of insight, Inuyasha quickly realized the folly of trying not to look at Kagome, and settled for giving her a clinical once-over, beginning and ending above the neck. Nope, nothing wrong: her features were peaceful, the blue stuff was almost dry, and she appeared to be drooling.

Inuyasha snorted gently, leaning down a little closer to her face. Both ears focused to his right for a moment, losing interest when he identified approaching footsteps as an old servant's shuffling gait. There was no reason to be particularly concerned about their situation: even a kugutsu couldn't approach the room without him hearing, smelling or seeing it first, no matter what form it took or weird tricks it used.

…Not to mention that his mind was just getting too damn tired of emotional shocks to work itself into its usual knots about what might happen if he did or didn't do this or that. If he was here to protect Kagome, and she wasn't upset about anything for the moment, that was good enough.

Remembering the river and Shimoko's rebuke for having let his guard down, he sat up a little straighter, trying not to let himself relax too much. He didn't have to actively worry about it to know that there was no telling what Naraku might try to pull with the curse's end rapidly approaching, or that he would be impossible to fight head-on till he chose to come out. Fucking coward. Where the hell is he hiding, anyway? This room was safe, so far as Inuyasha could tell, but the rest of the castle and grounds would have to be searched before he'd let Kagome wander around unguarded.

"Frog sauce needs more…diamonds," the girl mumbled, breaking him out of his reverie.

It took a moment to confirm that she had not, in fact, made any sense. "…The hell?" Sure enough, she was deeply asleep. Weirdo. Inuyasha watched her turn her head to rest against her other arm, shifting about till her hip rested against his knee. He glanced at it, decided there was no immediate danger, and occupied himself instead by stroking the kitten's head with one finger. The little creature half-woke, batted at him, and missed, then clumsily leaped onto his arm in order to grab his hand and begin gnawing his palm. Her back legs joined in, pushing reflexively against his forearm till she had to wriggle back into position to maintain the battle.

"Stupid cat." Inuyasha flexed his fingers so that the business ends were out of feline reach, otherwise letting the kitten have her way with him. He could barely feel the needlelike teeth prickling his skin, and if the little pain in the ass was busy attacking him, Kagome could sleep in relative peace.

A few moments later, his eyes strayed back to the girl and stayed there. Like I'd ever let any of those stupid hags wash fire-rat fur. Moron. The superiority tingeing that last bit was only partly spoiled by a self-conscious sniff at his free sleeve. Doesn't stink that bad. …Does it?

"Twelve cups of cinnamon to Portland," Kagome muttered.

"What the hell is…never mind." Gotta ask Sango if this is normal for her. He wouldn't put much past Kagome, that was for sure.

A deft movement of his other arm blocked Inu-chan's sudden attempt to reclaim her spot on Kagome's back. "Why don't you go somewhere else now? Like the bottom of the river?" She fell onto her side, chewing his sleeve and then her threadlike tail with absentminded vigor.

Well, here he was again, keeping Kagome safe...from a baby animal the size of his fist. This wasn't exactly what he'd had in mind when he came in earlier, that was for sure. Feh. If she can cry her eyes out, turn around and pretend to hit on me just to give me a heart attack, then fall asleep, not much is wrong.

His decent mood faded somewhat as his gaze followed the fluid curves of her hips, down bare sides and up her back, coming to rest on the scar defacing the shoulder nearer him. He'd hardly noticed it lately, even when he passed over it applying the gel. Funny, that she didn't seem to mind so much anymore if it showed, either…

That gave his spirits an unexpected lift. If being near-forced to talk about it had helped her get over her self-consciousness, that made at least one benefit Kagome had gotten out of her time here. …Granted, a drop of good in a river of very bad was nothing to brag about, but it was something.

Emboldened by the thought, Inuyasha ran his thumb across the scar's thick edges, depressing the shiny flesh in renewed curiosity. He couldn't suppress a stab of gratitude that his hide was considerably tougher and quicker-healing: otherwise, he'd be patterned with old scars like a Chinese tiger demon. His mind's eye crossed painfully just trying to picture it.

Kikyou's blood-soaked corpse flickered across the mental image just as he was starting to enjoy it, startling him badly enough to make him inadvertently dump the little cat onto Kagome's rear and half-wake them both. Cursing, Inuyasha held his breath till the girl wriggled the kitten off and resumed snoozing. Shit. He dropped onto his elbow, reclining on his side next to her, breathing deeply to calm down. It had been a while since he'd had one of those moments. The worst part of them was always the attached recollection of how, immediately after his mother had ordered him away from the body, his first reaction had been to find someplace quiet and be violently sick, a reaction he hadn't been treated to before or since. He couldn't help worrying that he might remember it a little too vividly one of these days and…ew.

There was no such danger this time: the worse that happened in the next few minutes was that Inu-chan clambered into his hair, got entangled, and settled in for another nap, guaranteeing that he wouldn't be able to remove her without a lot of mutual grief. "You get lost in there, I'm not cutting you out," he murmured.

Kagome half-grunted in her sleep, shifting around in a distinctly uncomfortable fashion. Inuyasha patted her back without thinking, then did it again when his callused palm made an interesting sound against her gel-dried skin. When it became clear he wasn't hurting or bothering her, he indulged his impulse to hear that weird little rasp again, over and over, with only the gentlest pinprick of ingrained guilt. She asked me to put the stuff on. Why would she care if I touched her now?

She wouldn't, of course. That was the recurring problem. But maybe, if he didn't let pointless guilt or his baser instincts get to him…well, nothing had come of their spending so much time close together, had it? Hell, they'd done more than this already, and neither of them had dropped dead or been struck by lightning or whatever he'd been led to believe would happen if he forgot his place. Besides, the alternative was to treat her like a leper or ignore her completely till the curse was up, and that definitely wouldn't work. He'd just go nuts, and – even worse – hurt her feelings in the process.

Sheez. The very concept was still a little hard to fit beneath his ears—hadn't he just about imploded thanks to her insistence on being, not just near, but with him? Having direct influence over someone else's well-being outside the possibility of murdering them was weird enough, but knowing he could really hurt the person he liked and trusted most of anyone he'd ever met…it was almost scary. On second thought, Inuyasha wasn't even sure he was happy with that kind of responsibility. Too easy to screw up, and too hard to fix it, that was the problem.

"You need more cookies," Kagome announced, voice remarkably clear for having been directed into her arm.

A quiet half-snort, half-chuckle escaped him. Now, that word, I know. "Sure I do, wench," Inuyasha murmured, patting her head gently. She made a noise of assent and turned back over, shifting onto her side facing him.

That weird feeling he'd come to associate with Kagome crept over him again, a sense of utter peace only slightly marred by the vague notion that he was doing something wrong to be this comfortable. Both were more intense than usual, thanks to his not-quite-functioning brain and that scare she'd given him—what had she been thinking? And after her apology for her drunken behavior, too. She just had to go and bring that up, then get in his face and then drop off to sleep…

Even if he'd had the energy for it, though, Inuyasha really wouldn't have been angry, or at least not for long. It would have taken a heart a great deal harder and pointier than his to withstand Kagome's snoring, drooling and mumbling, which, far from making her look pretty but stupid, made her look pretty and stupid in an unfairly endearing way, as if the steadily growing affection she'd been dredging out of him the past several weeks wasn't enough. The fact that she was worn out from crying over him and Kikyou was a nice little jab to the nuts, of course, but—

That was it: he realized with a slight start that a huge part of his inner turmoil was just because he flat-out liked her. That was all. It was as if the pent-up anguish and rage he'd let run wild that morning had been blinding him; with their release, he could clearly see that he'd been wasting a lot of time and raw emotion on a problem he hadn't really had in the first place. If Kagome could enjoy being here, why couldn't he enjoy her being here? It wasn't as if her presence would change his decision or the curse itself, and those were the only things over which he had any real control. Why worry about anything else, except maybe Naraku? …And Sesshoumaru? And Kouga, and possibly Kikyou, and…?

Inuyasha frowned, mind flicking leisurely through each one with a minimum of distress. Naraku was definitely a problem, and not one to pass off to Sango and Miroku while he skipped off into the afterlife, but they'd already established that. Fluffy would be a bigger, more permanent pain in the ass; he'd have to ask Shimoko to enlist her mother to help keep him off Kagome's back. Same with Kouga, who seemed to be wary of both Fluffy and Shimoko: temporary alliance or not, Sesshoumaru was no friend of the wolf demons, especially considering what they had done to that little girl he'd ended up with.

Now, that was an interesting recollection. Despite himself, as he played with a free strand of Kagome's hair and kept an ear out for intruders, Inuyasha had to wonder what kind of human could worm her way into Sesshoumaru's shriveled excuse for a heart so thoroughly that he'd not only revived her, but cared for her till adulthood, risked his standing in keeping her too long, provided enough of a dowry to entice a respectable human to marry her, deigned to sleep with her, let the child live and volunteered to watch over her descendants. Any one of those factors would have incredible, but all together, it was too much to believe. Must be one hell of a story. Inuyasha smoothed Kagome's hair absently. Like he'd ever tell us. Oh, well. Maybe Shimoko can find out more before I die.

Oops. His mind wasn't so hazy that it didn't mind letting that slip. In fact, it cleared a little, and not in a pleasant way. Crap. He took the easy way out, dipping his head to Kagome's neck for a long noseful of gel, sweat, and the light, sweetly indescribable smell that was her. Sure enough, his discomfort faded, and annoyance with that black band returned, a foe familiar and trivial enough to be comfortable with.

He'd had more serious ones, not all of them external. Take lust, for example. Inuyasha had been staring at her for several minutes now, less than a foot away from all that heady-scented skin and conspicuous curves, with no one around to judge or stop him—and he hadn't wound up molesting her, or vice versa. If he just let himself look, he could deal with the rest of his stupid body's stupid urges to do stupid things. Why hadn't he been able to figure that out? He wasn't an animal, no matter what some of the servants might say. The fact that the smell of tears effectively killed any mood her other scent might provoke had nothing…well, not too much to do with it. Now, just lemme stay half asleep and keep her all the way asleep for the rest of the time, and we'll be okay.

Kagome mumbled something that sounded a lot like his name, confirming it somewhat by flopping back onto her stomach and moving up against him. He scooted back reflexively, not out of aversion, but to avoid pressing her sunburn. Shit, does she like hurting herself, or what? His head drooped till his cheek rested against her jaw again. Moron. His eyes decided there was no point in staying open; sleep deprivation heartily agreed, pointing out that his ears and nose were still on duty. A moment of rearrangement assured him he wouldn't smother her, and then he could use her neck as a pillow without so much as a twinge of worry. There.

He had no way of knowing that the red was slowly fading from his half-closed eyes, or that his stripes had also dimmed quite a bit—or that they snapped back into full vividness the moment he raised his head at her irritated sigh. "Kagome? You okay?"

The girl stirred, squinting despite the room's almost nonexistent light. "Mmmm. Kinda." She mustered the strength to turn onto her side facing the door, and promptly smushed her back right up against his chest, curling herself into a partial ball. "Stupid boobs."

Inuyasha rolled his eyes, tapping her shoulder tolerantly. "Yeah, yeah." His brain abruptly backpedaled and tripped over one word as he started to grumble, "You really need to…wait. What?" Was she actually awake, or aware of what she'd just said?

"Got PMS, hurts to be on 'em or have arms smushing 'em." He raised his chin to allow her room to shift higher, aware that she was in genuine discomfort, however odd its source might be. As if she sensed his confusion, Kagome followed up with a yawn, then, "Sorry, body gets iffy every so often right 'bout now. Being a girl's no fun."

"Keh." Nothing helpful came to mind, so Inuyasha settled for an involuntary glance at the area in question as she tried to relocate her arms comfortably. It didn't look particularly troublesome to him, but then again, he wasn't female, and he wasn't going to help by staring or asking any more questions. He settled for draping an arm over her hip and wondering at the familiarity of this position despite their having done so…twice? Thrice? You'd think I'd be able to remember something like that. Remembering most things pre-Kagome had gotten increasingly weird lately. "Go back to sleep."

Kagome stretched, wriggling till her back – nothing else – was comfortably settled against his chest. "Need more hanyou furniture. Comfy."

His snort ruffled the loose hairs against her temple. "Don't your shoulders hurt, too? …The sunburn, I mean?" He was going to smell like her for days at this rate; somehow, that didn't seem as potentially deadly a prospect as it would've last night. "Too hot for this."

"Then cheer up." Kagome nudged his right arm with her elbow.

"Feh." Comfortable silence took up the slack as she drifted off again, leaving him to ponder the practical advantages of the flimsy black thing she was wearing and how he could convince her not to ever set foot outside her room in it. He didn't have any modern money, and threats would probably backfire. Nor would she probably like being tied to a pillar, even if he got Sango to do it. Hmm…

Inuyasha mentally shrugged, burying his face in the sweaty curve of her neck and shoulder. (Was there a name for that part of the body? More importantly, why would he care?) All I have to do is ask if she wants Kouga ogling her again. Even the thought made him scowl. Maddeningly clueless as she could be about some things, she had to have seen the wolf's reaction to the last time she'd ran out underdressed. I might not notice everything, but damned if he wasn't drooling all over the place at her. She can be so friggin' clueless sometimes. Least I can tell when someone's staring at—


No human eye could've tracked his reflexive leap onto all fours, nor the movement in which he jerked his neck around at an unnatural angle to look at the voice's source. "Kikyou! What're you doing up there? I didn't—"

"I know perfectly well you did not see me." From her vantage point a few feet above the foot of the bed, just out of his vision, the priestess 'stepped' down gracefully to the floor. Her expression was tensely blank, the cause easy to guess: in addition to whatever else the priestess had seen, Inuyasha had instinctively flattened over Kagome, as if Kikyou was some kind of threat.

It took him a few seconds too many to remember to push himself back onto his side, then onto his knees. He spared Kagome a glance to be sure she was still asleep, half-consciously comparing her sedate heartbeat to his own shock-fluttering pulse. "Fuck. I didn't mean to—I wasn't doing anything, I just—"

"I see you've thought about it further since we last spoke." Kikyou's eyes closed, a habit that had always made her look more patient and sorrowful than he'd ever been able to stand. This time was no exception. "I came to tell you Naraku is no threat today, and perhaps tomorrow. You need not fear him or his puppets in that time."

As badly as she'd just scared him, Inuyasha suddenly wanted to hold her, so much that he had to press his arms to his sides to keep from leaping at thin air, or whatever ghosts were made of. Ghosts. His fists clenched. "How do you know? And what's this you told Kagome about not looking for him, then having to figure him out now? What's going on?"

"You'll find out soon enough. Be prepared for a…fairly unpleasant surprise." Kikyou opened her eyes and smiled thinly, regarding Kagome with…no, that had to be his imagination. Why would Kikyou seem to be anticipating whatever it was? "Till tomorrow, you can relax your guard and let her rest. The girl has suffered enough for one morning." Her smile was back to melancholy beauty now, so that he grimly knew he hadn't imagined anything. "'Dirty laundry,' indeed."

Crap! "How long have you been in here, Kikyou?"

"I once had a wound very much like that one, there." One arm shimmered translucent as it rose to indicate Kagome's back, solidifying the moment it stopped. "Also a sign of grief and helpless anger. Strange, how these things have a way of repeating themselves."

The atmosphere seemed to hum gently, as if unspoken words could clot the air itself. Thick-tongued, Inuyasha watched her helplessly, flinching when she spoke again. "You've had plenty of time to make a decision. I expect an answer soon, when I explain the particulars in private."

"The…?" His heart did a few double-skips. She was actually going to tell him why she'd asked him to think about marrying Kagome? But— "You know what I decided, Kikyou! Why screw with me now? Don't tell me you changed your mind!"

He would have given a great deal to take that back: not just the words, but the bitterness that had suddenly welled up, erupting in a snarl with which he had no right to address Kikyou. But… "I've been honest with you this whole time! Why can't you trust me enough to tell me anything, especially about Naraku?"

Her eyes narrowed. "I know you are honest, Inuyasha. Exercise that now, and tell me, how do you think the girl will react to that creature's death?"

That was such an odd question that he wasn't sure he was supposed to be able to answer. Kikyou did that sometimes, usually to make a point, and it never failed to frustrate the hell out of him. "What's that supposed to mean? She wants him dead just from what she's heard, about Miroku, and you and me—" Her meaning suddenly hit him like an ogre drop-kicking him in the stomach. "Oh." Inuyasha shook his head irritably, finally dislodging the kitten from her clinging perch. She scrambled onto the pillow and watched in wide-eyed misgiving as he got up, paced to the door, stopped, paced halfway back, and abruptly dropped to his haunches, one foot tapping restlessly. "What the fuck does that have to do with it? You want to keep Naraku alive so you don't have to tell her, or what?"

"Why would I tell her?" Kikyou snapped. "If she insists, the truth will suffice. She should know already that the Jewel maintains the curse, and Naraku's death will have no effect save to free it from an unwholesome influence."

"Kikyou…" Inuyasha got up slowly, trying to phrase his next question. Why wouldn't she give him a straight answer for once? "What does that have to do with wherever Naraku's hiding?"

The priestess looked at the bed again, where Kagome was still sound asleep. "The Jewel allowed her father and brother to cross its boundaries with no trouble. Considering her reincarnation in addition to its obvious favor of her bloodline, she may very well have the power to disturb the curse itself. If she becomes overwrought, it may even act on its own in response. A certain degree of preparation is necessary for the entire castle's safety."

"Safety?" He couldn't keep skepticism out of his voice. "She has a bad temper, yeah, but Kagome's not gonna hurt anyone. All she'll do is yell and maybe cry a lot."

"You underestimate the danger. This time, not only your own life is at stake, Inuyasha. Think about it very carefully." Kikyou bowed her head. "I will speak with you again tonight."

"Kikyou, where is he?" Inuyasha crossed the room swiftly and made himself stop just short of her. "I swear I won't do anything stupid. Just tell me."

She smiled sweetly, sadness almost overwhelming him again. "I could, but—"

"Shimoko!" The mattress lurched with the force of Kagome bolting upright, then half-tumbling off the bed, stumbling to her feet and racing to the shoji. "Crap, she's here!"

"Kagome, what the hell…?" His neck began to tingle in the almost-itchy, always-annoying manner that signified a demon crossing the barrier. "Hold on a second, will you?"

"Come on!" Without looking back, Kagome flung the shoji open and disappeared down the hall.

"Shit…" Inuyasha glanced back at Kikyou. She was gone. He let out a huge sigh. Maybe they're doing this on purpose to see when I crack. Either way, he had no choice but to follow.

As it happened, Souta and Kohaku were just out of Kagome's way as Inuyasha caught up with her outside and politely reminded her about her attire. "…when the whole place can see you almost naked?" he was snapping as the boys approached.

"Hey, Souta, Kohaku-kun," Kagome greeted them, nodding to the other children's deep bows a few feet away. The young slayer's head was still bandaged, but he seemed sturdy enough on his feet. "Shimoko's here. Want to come say hi with us?"

"You're in your underwear," Souta said accusingly.

"Shut up. You're as bad as Inuyasha." She turned to the hanyou long enough to pull her eyelid down and stick her tongue out, ignoring his response in kind. "Now, do you wanna come or not?"

"No need, Auntie. Good morning, everyone." Shimoko approached them from behind with her usual nonchalance, twirling a black umbrella back and forth in her hands against the light drizzle. The castle boys immediately mumbled excuses and vanished, leaving Souta and Kohaku to fidget under the demon's amused gaze. "Guilty consciences? I told you to rest for two more days at the least, boy."

"We were just going to the river to get some more water to wash his head off, so no one else would have to do it," Souta volunteered when Kohaku visibly failed to come up with a suitable answer. "He's feeling a lot better."

"So I see. He escaped without a concussion, then. Very lucky." Souta yelped as the water gun half-hidden inside his borrowed kimono somehow appeared in Shimoko's hand. "It's far too miserable a day to stand around here. Why don't we go someplace private and have a little talk?"

Despite Inuyasha's best efforts, they ended up heading towards the river for that purpose instead of the nicely dry castle, and he fell silent, ostensibly too sulky to join in the small talk, but deep in thought about his conversation with Kikyou. Dangerous, huh?

"I have something for you, Auntie," Shimoko announced as soon as they were out of servant earshot, just inside the woods. The demon folded her umbrella, handed it to Kohaku, and pulled a slender folder from her fashionably too-thick coat pocket. "The prints should be fairly waterproof, but you may not want to test that out here."

Kagome took the little packet with a quick bow, lifting the flap just enough to rifle through the contents. "Thank you, Shimoko-san. I'm sure I'll enjoy this—crap!" She nearly slammed the paper closed and shoved them into her shorts' shallow back pocket. "What did you do that for?"

"Merely illustration, Auntie," the demon said innocently, ruining the effect with a smirk of criminal proportions.

But she turned serious the moment Souta began to demand to see what looked like several developed pictures, and Inuyasha wondered what could've made her face go quite that shade of red. "That can wait, Souta-dono. I can't stay long, and Sesshoumaru wouldn't like to know I was here, provided he didn't have me followed in the first place. …Where are your bracelets, Auntie? No, that can also wait." She produced a fan from somewhere, flicked it open and waved the humid air about with genteel irritation. "My mother is thinking of paying a visit soon, with or without Sesshoumaru's consent. Would you mind terribly, oji-chan?"

"Nah, that'd be pretty handy," Inuyasha said after careful deliberation. Kagome nodded agreement. "We need to pick her brains about Naraku, and besides, I wanna ask her if she'll deal with Fluffy 'bout this place when I'm gone."

Kagome's hands clenched. "Inuyasha, you—"

Shimoko stiffened, hissing between her teeth. "Dammit!" Her vehemence startled them all. Kagome understood a moment later, then Inuyasha. "Sesshoumaru must've heard when I did, the nosy bastard, and now…" She rolled her eyes, but wasted no time on theatrics: "I have to go now. I'll be back here at sunset, you got that? Take care, good luck, and don't make him kill you, oji-chan."

"That's really cool. I wonder how she does it?" Souta wondered aloud, stepping into the space Shimoko had just vacated.

"Sesshoumaru-sama is coming?" Kohaku looked slightly ill. He glanced around, going paler when he felt behind him and discovered he didn't have his chain-sickle with him. "What does he want?"

So much for taking it easy. Inuyasha glanced at the boys, wished momentarily for Miroku and Sango despite her indisposition, and jerked his head behind him. "You guys get out of here. I'll take care of him."

"Who's this guy again?" Souta asked.

"Shimoko's dad. Powerful demon, not a nice guy. Now move it." Kagome could sense Sesshoumaru zeroing in on them from the castle, no doubt scaring most of the servants half to death in the process. "Go that way so you don't have to meet up with him."

Souta scowled in automatic little-brother rebellion. "That's not fair, I...hey! Wait up!" Kohaku had already set off at a trot, forcing the other boy to jog after him, complaining all the way.

"That was easy," Kagome remarked, watching them disappear into the trees. She frowned. "Is it safe for them to be running around alone, with Kohaku-kun still hurt?"

Inuyasha debated filling her in, remembered that he didn't know much more than she did, and shook his head instead. "It's okay for now. You should probably go back, too."

"Indeed." Sesshoumaru didn't bother to come forward as they whirled around; she swallowed reflexively as their eyes met, but stood her ground and let Inuyasha move in front of her. Despite herself, Kagome noticed their visitor hadn't bothered to disguise himself this time: his pristine white feudal clothes were all she could see. Does he have a closet full of those, or do they just get washed whenever he feels like dressing up? She bit the insides of her cheeks before he could notice and get stabby. Somehow, she doubted Sesshoumaru was used to being laughed at.

Unfortunately, the demon's sharp gaze had remained on her and missed very little. "This Sesshoumaru amuses you?"

"Um…no. Private joke, sorry." Kagome forced what she thought to be a bright, cheerful smile, then dropped it when both brothers looked at her as if she'd spontaneously grown a purple beard. Trust my face to be the one thing that gets them to agree on something. "What did you want?"

There was the barest pause, juuust enough time for Sesshoumaru to look her over and frown in such a way as to tell her a bikini-clad human teenager was clearly not worth his time. When he spoke, though, it was with unexpected courtesy: "This Sesshoumaru will speak to Inuyasha alone now." He caught her uneasiness and startled her further with a slight smile. "This Sesshoumaru has not come to fight, only to speak to Inuyasha. If he behaves, he will be unhurt and able to tell you…certain things later. At the moment, you have business elsewhere, I believe." His nose twitched, wrinkling very slightly.

Inuyasha bristled, though he knew that gesture hadn't been directed at either of them: the offending smell's source spoke up from behind Sesshoumaru a moment later. "He's right, Kagome. Besides…" The hanyou wasn't the only one considerably irritated when Kouga strolled out towards them, elaborately casual about nearly bumping into the other demon. Worse than a kid, Kagome thought in amused disgust. Souta got over "I'm ignoring you, nyaaa" years ago.

Sure enough, according to the game's unwritten rules, Kouga lost a second later by glancing behind him to gauge Sesshoumaru' reaction – none – accepted his defeat philosophically, and turned his attention back to Kagome. "I told your family where your kid brother was, but they want to hear about it from you." He held up the folded cell phone suggestively. "Why don't we go back to the castle and talk it over with Dad?"

"Where the hell have you been?" Inuyasha folded his arms and shifted to block Kagome from the wolf's sight. To Kouga's credit, he'd kept his eyes almost entirely where they belonged—for now. "And who the hell is 'Dad'?"

Kagome quickly sized up her options: stay, explain Kouga's proprietary attitude, deal with Inuyasha's reaction; go with Kouga, hope Sesshoumaru would leave Inuyasha's limbs on, do damage control later; or, most attractive, save a lot of trouble, and go jump headfirst off the highest third-floor balcony. Sigh. Door Number Two it is. "You guys do need to talk about things here, Inuyasha," she said aloud, pressing his arm urgently to make sure he got the point. "And I should make sure Dad believes Souta hasn't really been eaten by the squirrels, or else he might come out here himself." Inuyasha's expression somehow devolved even further, forcing her to step away before he could point out that neither Yoshio's courage nor his bowels were strong enough for that. "I'll be back out here as soon as I can, okay?"

It was not okay, but she was right. That didn't mean he had to like it, though. Why now? Was karma keeping score, and his brief bout of peace had to be balanced by dealing with almost everyone at once? No, the peace had been in exchange for last night. According to that logic, though, now he was due for—

Inuyasha mentally kicked himself in the groin. "Yeah, go ahead and straighten things out. Just be sure to come back here if the wolf tries anything, you got that?" On impulse, he slipped his haori off and settled it over her shoulders as lightly as the damp material would drape. "Here. Shimoko said you can still get burned when it's cloudy, remember? You don't know how long that stuff'll last."

Her irritation at the wet-blanket feeling died abruptly as she caught Kouga's disappointment and Sesshoumaru's…something, she couldn't quite tell. Huh. Kagome shifted the haori around like a red cape. Her legs were still unmistakably visible, but now, it occurred to her, she wouldn't have to walk around with Kouga (un)dressed like this; the servants had more than enough to talk about lately. What they would make of her wearing Inuyasha's clothes was their problem. "Thanks." She smiled at him, bobbing her head gratefully for the thought. "I'll be sure to—"

"Wet dog," Kouga said disdainfully, flapping a hand in front of his nose. "Don't worry, Kagome, you can ditch that thing when we get back to your room."

"You're not going in her room, asshole," Inuyasha snapped over Kagome's sputtered attempt to say the same thing with some semblance of politeness. "Besides, I thought you'd be scared to go anywhere without Fluffy here to back you up?"

"We'regoingnowKougalaterInuyashabuhbye!" Kagome was off at a high-speed trot before the last of her babbling was out. As she'd hoped from Kohaku's example, Kouga stayed long enough to make a rude gesture at Inuyasha and nod curtly to Sesshoumaru, then ran to catch up and ask how she could get sunburned further through clouds.

"Stupid fucking wolf," Inuyasha muttered. It was cold comfort to hear Kagome mumble something about magic, or UV rays, or maybe magic UV rays, and abruptly change the subject.

His half-brother's expression was unreadable, as it had been through most of the exchange, but Inuyasha suddenly got the impression that he didn't disagree with the assessment. "This Sesshoumaru has no interest in 'backing him up,'" the demon said coolly. "A temporary alliance is the best he may hope for, no matter how powerful he thinks himself in comparison to you."

Inuyasha snorted, unconsciously easing Tetsusaiga in its polished sheath. "Keh. He'll be lucky if I don't kill him first."

"If you wish. Ownership of land and castle would remain unchanged by his life or death." Sesshoumaru appraised him for a few silent moments. "Whatever childish delusions you still may hold, rest assured our noble father's land shall stay in this Sesshoumaru's hands no matter how the wolf tries to manipulate the girl and her father."

"That dumbass couldn't manipulate dirt into mud," Inuyasha retorted, not caring that his tone earned him a slightly raised eyebrow. "Not even Kagome's dad would be fucking stupid enough to listen to him. Besides, Kagome said she'd get the land protected or something."

Sesshoumaru smiled thinly. "Quite wrong on both counts." Inuyasha started: that tone always preceded something he didn't want to hear and couldn't fix. "She may be first in line to receive her father's property, but so long as he lives, Higurashi Yoshio has every right and plenty of reason to sell this land back to its rightful owner." The demon glanced up, otherwise ignoring the rain's increasing strength. "As to his intelligence, it has been insufficient to convince him that the wolf is not betrothed to his daughter, though that is hardly—"

"Yeah, I know. Look, can we get this over with? This weather sucks."

"If you don't like it, calm down." Sesshoumaru raised his head just high enough to look down at his half-brother in utter disdain. "Reports have indicated the girl has strength comparable to her predecessor, more than sufficient to discourage unwelcome advances—so long as they are unwelcome, of course."

"Of course they fucking are!" Never having been well-versed in the nuances of conversation, Inuyasha was far too irate now to recognize a trap, and leapt to the wrong conclusion at the smirk his answer elicited. "What, you think she's stupid enough to get with him just to be safe? And why the fuck would you care, anyway?"

"The same mistake, and with your first woman's reincarnation?" Thunder boomed softly, far-off but painful to Inuyasha's ears as his brother smiled wider, then actually laughed. Inuyasha had never been sure Sesshoumaru could laugh, much less heard it. "How pathetically typical. Perhaps you'll be luckier in courtship this time, and you will be the one to die."

A streak of lightning bisected the sky above Sesshoumaru's head. Tetsusaiga was unsheathed and pointed at Sesshoumaru's chest before thunder crackled in reply. "Take that back now, you—" He literally bit the words off, blood seeping down his jaw in warm, swiftly diluted trickles beneath clenched fangs. "Why'd you come here? And why would you care about Kagome, huh? I haven't done anything with her, and I'm not gonna, so you can leave her the hell alone!"

Sesshoumaru frowned again. "Why would this...ah, yes. Of course." His face smoothed out. "That." He tilted his head, eyes half-lidded with apparent indifference. "You have no plans for her, but object to Kouga vying for her attention? A penniless human girl could do far worse than attach herself to the head of a demon clan."

Shame tempered Inuyasha's urge to chop his half-brother into snobby little pieces: he would've said the same thing not too long ago. "Yeah? Well, she wouldn't be in this situation if it wasn't for your stupid ass-kissers screwing everything up!" As Sesshoumaru began to interrupt, Inuyasha suddenly recalled exactly how Yoshio had been able to get ahold of the land, and grinned in savage anticipation. "It's not really their fault her dad got the land, though, is it? None of them knocked up some human and then let a hanyou kid get control of things, did they?"

His life very nearly ended in a split-second; only a quick, reflexive jerk of his wrist deflected Sesshoumaru's attempt to slash his throat open and forced him back with a credible counterattack. The rain was coming down in stinging sheets now, but Inuyasha could clearly see his half-brother's expression, and it was his turn to savor the reaction he'd gotten. "What's the matter, Sesshoumaru? Not so much fun when someone rubs your mistakes in your face, is it?" He swiped some of the blood off his cheek with his free hand, conscious that he might have to dodge again any second. Hell, just that look is worth it!

"Who told you? One of those stinking bats?" This was another first: Sesshoumaru was speaking through clenched teeth, voice raw and almost shaking. He took a step towards Inuyasha from his new position, now less than ten feet away and at his brother's eye level. "No, those who knew all the details would rather have died than told you. Then who—" His eyes widened, then narrowed. "Shimoko! That—"

To Inuyasha's disappointment, Sesshoumaru abruptly stopped growling and spoke normally again after a barely discernable pause. "This Sesshoumaru did not come to discuss that. Higurashi Kagome, however, is a matter of some concern."

Inuyasha started again as Kikyou's voice came to mind: "If she becomes overwrought...a certain degree of preparation is necessary for the entire castle's safety."

He shook his head, apprehension working its way through the satisfaction of having openly pissed his brother off. No way. Nuking spiders is one thing, but... "Look, she's not gonna do anything, okay? Just leave her the hell alone. She's gonna have a hard enough time with her old man and that damn wolf bugging her once I'm gone."

Sesshoumaru stared at him for so long that he half lowered Tetsusaiga, then raised it threateningly. Thunder rumbled again. Does it wait for me to do that, or what? "I don't care what you wanna think about humans—" He wasn't sure why, but he suddenly had no desire to bring Rin back up. "—but I'll say it again. Don't bother giving her any shit. I'm sure you'll have fun kicking everyone out whenever the worm finally sells this place off, and then she'll have to try to figure out what to do with 'em..." Inuyasha cut himself off with an involuntary growl, knuckles going white on the sword's hilt. "That is, if you don't break your promise and just butcher everyone."

There was no response; Sesshoumaru had evidently found out that, at the curse's end, the castle and its inhabitants would not disappear or be slaughtered by their master, respectively—not surprising, given his alliance with Kouga and the wolf's tendency to let things slip.

Inuyasha planted his feet more firmly in the wet ground, rubbing his poison-stung cheek again and renewing his grip on Tetsusaiga as Sesshoumaru stood motionless. He usually knew better than to take his half-brother's statue impression as encouragement, but... "Her family's a big enough pain in the ass. You might know, you might not." He was probably talking too much, but he actually had what seemed to be Sesshoumaru's whole attention for once, and he wasn't going to waste time choosing his words carefully. "My point is, I know you hate me, and I don't give a shit. Just don't screw with her 'cause she got involved here. It's not like you'd get anything out of it anyway."

"Your manners are poor as ever." The corners of Sesshoumaru's mouth might've twitched; Inuyasha couldn't be sure if the drops hammering his face had an illusory effect. "If you want something from this Sesshoumaru, threats will get you nowhere."

Appropriately foul words flitted through Inuyasha's brain, dancing out of his reach as he tried to settle upon which to use, and then trotting merrily away when he realized what Sesshoumaru might be hinting at and went weak-kneed. He's gonna— Inuyasha bristled. What, he wants me to beg! No, he hadn't said that, only... Fuck. Begging or not, the very concept of being forced to ask Sesshoumaru nicely for anything made him want to throw up—preferably on Sesshoumaru.

If it was for anyone, anything less, he would've recommended his brother do a number of unpleasant things with himself, including but not limited to the use of his own claws, excrement, and something else disgusting he couldn't think of. But...

Sheathing Tetsusaiga and forcing his arms to relax took more effort than any battle he'd ever fought; only the thought of those back at the castle kept him from thinking he would have preferred a few broken bones and major blood loss to this. It was for Kagome's sake, though, that he bent his head sharply and mumbled, "Please leave 'em alone and give her a break. She really fucking needs one."

There. An unpleasant taste lurked in the back of his mouth, and his heart was thudding so rapidly that he knew Sesshoumaru could hear it over the thunder. The demon also likely smelled his fear—not that Inuyasha was afraid he would have to ask again, or more nicely, the prospect of which suddenly no longer seemed life-threateningly abhorrent. Why was Sesshoumaru so interested in Kagome? The only times he'd ever taken a direct interest in Inuyasha was to hit him or have something taken away, and the first had already been ruled out…

Inuyasha's chest felt much colder than the thick, sullen atmosphere could account for. He risked a glance up. "You gonna answer me, or what?"

"You have less than a month of life left." Sesshoumaru took a step towards him. Another. "The curse did not account for the existence of a girl capable of winning your affections, did it?"

The hanyou shook his head urgently. "She hasn't—"

"And without asking any favors in return." The demon moved forward again. "A novelty in any age."

Cold vanished under a flood of heat, indignation and embarrassment jumbled up with a lot of other things he didn't care to examine. "How did you—"

The distance between them was alarmingly small now. "If she had, you would not have spoken on her behalf."

I fucking hate it when he knows he's right. "Are you gonna get to your point? Either you have one and want to screw with me instead of telling me anything, or you just came out here for the hell of it."

"This Sesshoumaru is aware that Shimoko comes here regularly…" A glimmer of anger resurfaced. "…though not that she was sharing information of that nature." His hands came up and rested loosely within his wide sleeves. Inuyasha thought of his haori, glancing involuntarily towards the castle. "That may make this somewhat easier, though, as you already know of Rin."

It wasn't the way he said it that grabbed Inuyasha's attention, nothing special about tone or inflection—it sounded more like Sesshoumaru had never heard of anyone by that name. Not surprising, but still bizarre. "Yeah," he said cautiously, ready to jump forward or back if his half-brother showed signs of turning psychotic again. "What about her?"

"Higurashi Kagome is descended from her fourth son, as are her siblings. This Sesshoumaru will ensure their physical and financial well-being, as promised." The demon nodded shortly and turned on his heel with a decisive squelch. "That is all."

"The hell it is! Wait a minute!" Inuyasha darted around and glared at him from a human's bad-breath distance. "You think you can just say that and leave?"

A blindingly quick right hook to Inuyasha's gut was his answer. "And why not?" That long-despised voice didn't help the pain that forced him halfway to his knees, or the discomfort of rain hammering his hunched back. "This Sesshoumaru has no further business here that Shimoko could not conduct herself. She will be angry enough that the news was already delivered."

Inuyasha tried to straighten up, then settled for being able to breathe, thinking as fast and hard as he could. Logically, he was aware that he had never been successful in talking with his half-brother; violence tended to supersede words, and Sesshoumaru's eloquence with both always guaranteed Inuyasha's defeat. Futhermore, he was still doing fairly well here, and it would be stupid to push it when he was only down one punch.


He shook himself to loosen up the heart-clogging knowledge that Kagome was not only going to be safe from this particular threat, but taken care of, given about as big a respite as he could've hoped. The relief was almost as dizzying as his attempt to move forward, far too heady to let him care that he'd been tricked into being polite to him. Also aware that this could be the last time he and Sesshoumaru ever spoke, Inuyasha took as deep a breath as his tenderized diaphragm would allow and managed to speak through gritted teeth: "So Kagome's…okay? No killing her 'cause you think she and I…?"

Sesshoumaru dismissed the question and flicked water out of his bangs with a single gesture. "Has your hearing deteriorated? Whatever the girl chooses to let you do is her business. Human fertility is no longer the problem that it once was – rather the opposite – and this Sesshoumaru will not break an oath based upon her lack of taste." His features darkened. "The wolf, however, must also be discouraged. Her pairing off with him would be as repugnant as with you, and he has no impending death to deter a permanent arrangement."

"I told you, she's not interested in that moron. And if you're gonna be helping her out, she has no reason not to tell him to fuck off." The hanyou couldn't help cheering up a little at the prospect. "So, what's gonna happen? They move in here, you buy 'em a house, or what?" His good mood vanished. "You didn't say what'd happen to the servants and…"

The rain had slowed to a looser, wider pace, so that Inuyasha could ignore the water on his ears. With that renewed concentration and a slight improvement in his middle, he was able to fully appreciate how still the demon stood, and for how long, nearly two whole minutes. Inuyasha had just resigned himself to watch for his exit when Sesshoumaru suddenly said, quite clearly, "Kagome would not let that happen."

Inuyasha blinked. Then he did it again. "Huh?"

"Certain traits fade in and out of families, but stubbornness tends to remain firmly in place. Five hundred years is far too short a time in which to breed it out of a bloodline, no matter how far-flung or thin it runs." The drops slowed to a gentle tapping as Inuyasha looked askance at his older brother. "Add to that an unfortunate tendency to place others far ahead of oneself, and one wonders how they survive long enough to pass them on, short as their lives may be."

"How'd you know? Have you been spying…on…oh." Rin was the same way, eh? Inuyasha shifted his weight, uncomfortable with the subject now that Sesshoumaru was being right again. But, instead of turning the conversation to Naraku like he probably should, he asked the first thing that came to mind: "So, was Rin a pain in the ass, too?"

Sesshoumaru's glare was instantly back, though not as fierce as Inuyasha would've expected, had he given the matter any forethought. "One is glad that you will not pass on the inability to think before you speak."

Inuyasha snorted as rudely as he could, groping for a suitable response. To his irritation, nothing came up that didn't contain profanity. Besides, curiosity was rearing its misshapen head again: what had Rin been like? As if he'd ever tell me. It took some effort not to blurt out another question, which would likely get him pummeled.

Sure enough, when Inuyasha remained silent, Sesshoumaru seemed to relax a little, just enough to continue. "The girl doesn't look like her, not with seven generations between them," the demon said in The Tone, "but the connection is definitely there, even without having triple-checked and repaired Jaken's records. Odd, how small details stand out in one's mind…"

"Like what?" Inuyasha reflexively shook his hair out as a stray drop found its way into his left ear. "Like…that thing she does with her eyes when she smiles?"

"Almost closing them, then opening them wide, you mean?" Something very, very weird passed between them for the barest second, a sort of companionable amusement that vanished as Sesshoumaru shook his head, unsmiling. "'Pain in the ass,' indeed. This Sesshoumaru has seen no evidence in eight hundred years to suggest anybenefit from contact with humans in any respect, particularly with regards to your kind."

That particular insult was too old and well-worn to do more than give Inuyasha a twinge; the sensation he got when he shrugged was much worse. "Well, yeah, they breed too fast, they can't move worth crap, their senses all suck, and they get old and die just when you've got 'em trained to stay out of your way. That's what you always pounded into me, right?"

No answer. Inuyasha carefully stretched his arms and folded them behind his head. "I'm not sayin' you're wrong. But you can probably see where I'd get kinda curious, hearing that you kept a human around and…" He shrugged. "None of my business." A careless glance at Sesshoumaru revealed nothing helpful. "I don't think she coulda been exactly like Kagome, though. Kagome's way too nosy, plus she keeps picking at your sore spots and tells you she's just tryin' to fix 'em. You'd kill her after an hour of it."

"It is none of your business." Sesshoumaru extended one slender hand and let the steady drizzle massage his palm. "Were your short lease on life to be taken into consideration, though, it might be said that you should be cautioned not to repeat your own or my mistake in your time left."

More silence passed; Inuyasha couldn't resist prompting him with, "Mistake? As in…?"

The demon's hand curled into a seemingly delicate fist, white flesh standing out against the morning-dull trees behind him, purple stripe tapering out of sight into the curves of his muscled arm. He scowled at it, though his annoyance was plainly not with any part of his body. "You attempted to help a human girl for mutual benefit, but let mistrust over come between you, and this is the result." His fingers moved slightly to indicate their surroundings. "You failed to learn that the only one capable of guarding your interests properly is yourself. Placing your faith in the priestess was an understandable but exceedingly stupid mistake."

That was more than Inuyasha was ready to hear. "Yeah? What's your excuse?" he snarled, lowering his arms to a more defensive stance. "You think keeping the kid long enough for her to get attached to you of all people and then dumping her did either of you much good? Not to mention—"

"That would be exactly the point, if you would bother to listen," Sesshoumaru cut in savagely. "Involving yourself with a creature as short-lived as a human guarantees inconvenience at best and—"

"Everyone getting screwed over?" Inuyasha hadn't meant to say that aloud, but out it slipped, and Sesshoumaru stiffened. "What, you thought she was just some kinda pet? Keep her while she's little 'n cute, then give her away and forget about her once she gets too big?" His brother was now tense as a full-drawn bowstring, but Inuyasha found himself just as angry, venting frustration he'd forgotten he'd ever pent up in the first place: "And you couldn't even leave it at that, you stupid bastard! You! Mr. 'Eww, the human Dad brought home is breathing my air'! Every time she came into the room, you looked at Dad like he'd asked you to be polite to a pile of fucking manure! Your daughter's a know-it-all, but she had a point once about her husband, not being attracted to humans till she fell for him—sound familiar?"

"As it does for you." The admission was quiet, but so heated that Inuyasha swallowed his denial and listened instead, ears laid back. "Her revival was experimental, at Tenseiga's behest, and there was no need to send her away as a child…no more trouble than a hungry stray, as you so eloquently put it." Sesshoumaru rested one hand on the sodden, feather-furred thing on his shoulder, then let it drop back to his side. "She requested little, kept Jaken busy, and provided distraction in days of very dull travel. There was no reason not to keep her, not till she was suddenly a woman and her chance of normal human life ruined."

The last word left a raw edge to the air, so that Inuyasha was almost afraid to breathe till Sesshoumaru exhaled sharply. "It was carelessness, some vague notion that her presence was more amusement than trouble. Then it became a sort of pity, the stray no longer able to feed itself, and no reason to cast it off."

"Pity, huh?" They had a silent staring match through the gradually strengthening rain. The hanyou broke it first, folding his arms again as curiosity nibbled at him with renewed urgency. "Hell if I want to know any details, but…shit, I'm almost dead, and I sure as hell won't tell anyone. I'm not gonna give you any crap about pity, either. I just haven't been able to figure it out…why'd you do it?"

Seconds scraped away at his nerves. He didn't dare look directly as Sesshoumaru, not till he realized he'd gone a whole minute without having to defend his life. Fluffy, putting up with a question like that? Inuyasha turned his head very slightly. Huh. Never seen him look at the ground without me on it. The uncomfortable novelty was too much: Inuyasha waved a hand nonchalantly and grumbled, "Fine, sorry, too nosy. When'd you meet Kagura?" Oh, shit, that's right. "We do kinda have to ask her about her psychotic—"

"Would you tell this Sesshoumaru anything about an intimate encounter?" The demon's golden eyes left the ground long enough to pierce his half-brother. "Be thankful that this much has been said at all."

Delayed reaction. Pathetic. Inuyasha eased Tetsusaiga a few inches back out of its sheath. "No, I wouldn't, 'cause I never had any, thanks, and I'm not, because you've got a perfect chance to explain why you turned into such a hypocritical asshole. At least you were a principled asshole when I knew you."

Yet again, Inuyasha was sure he'd have to defend himself any second; yet again, Sesshoumaru's only response was verbal. This time, though, it was so emotionless as to sound unnatural, even for him. "Rin approaching this Sesshoumaru privately to offer an apology for troubling her benefactor had nothing to do with principles, and everything to do with the reality caused by letting those principles slide even once. As said, it was a mistake to let her stay for too long, and you are in no position to make reparations when you forget yourself."

Again, denial tried to make its way out of Inuyasha's mouth, then gave up when the demon closed his eyes. Whether he was remembering something or trying to shut it out, Inuyasha wasn't sure. "Your emotional well-being is your own problem. Attempting to make yourself or her feel better about your mutual loss will make the separation infinitely worse, particularly for the girl, and this Sesshoumaru has no desire to pay for any more counseling sessions than necessary."

"And you think I'm just waiting to do the same thing and then skip off and let her clean up, right?" Inuyasha's fingers were white-knuckled on his sword's hilt, claws drawing blood on his wrist. "I'm not you, and—"

"Stop that," the demon said distastefully, indicating Tetsusaiga. "Kagome is not Rin, no, and you are most decidedly what you are, hence the warning. Rin maintained a sense of decorum…when she was old enough to sit still…and this Sesshoumaru was aware of her status from the very beginning. Neither of you have those advantages, particularly that of honesty. Considering your—"

"When did you meet Kagura?" That was another mental escapee, but one Inuyasha was glad for, as it effectively shut his brother up about why they were Doomed. Even if she was going to come against her husband's wishes, it couldn't hurt to grease the wheels a little. "Did you have the kid with you then?"

It took Sesshoumaru only a moment to change gears, falling back into his usual businesslike blandness—or was it? "This Sesshoumaru first left at Father's death in order to pursue rumors that the demon who mortally wounded him had been maneuvered by Naraku."

The air itself shuddered, more of a tangible phenomenon than visual. The demon glanced around appraisingly, then continued as if their surroundings hadn't done something fairly unsettling. "He it was who made several bids to secure as much power as he could in as little time, and did much damage with his brief ownership of the Shikon no Tama. Kagura was the first product of his experiments with his own body."

"So she does smell like him," Inuyasha muttered. How does he stand it?

Sesshoumaru scowled. "What was that?"

"Why'd you marry her?" He couldn't help wrinkling his nose a little. "Even if you don't spend that much time together, she has to be prrrrrrrgh!" His throat was working one second and crunched into the width of a rice ball the next, courtesy of his brother's fist.

"Few people have earned the right to speak that way about her, and you will never be one of them." Sesshoumaru dropped him back against the tree, advancing as Inuyasha choked on his attempts to breathe. "From the time of that creature's death to our agreement to marry, Kagura was informally regarded as heiress to the land her 'father' had terrorized, and every demon suffering delusions of grandeur within two hundred ri came running to challenge her and her siblings for the right to control his territory. She defeated or eluded every single one of her attackers and survived to seek out this Sesshoumaru and make her intentions clear."

"Don't…" It hurt like hell to talk, but there was no way Inuyasha would let that one slip. "…Rin?" he gasped.

"She had recently been married and was living at her new home," Sesshoumaru said matter-of-factly. "This Sesshoumaru's retainers had stopped nagging about her and started on the subject of marriage instead. As Kagura had no wish to rule, and the castle had just been discovered to be uninhabitable, our difficulties were resolved in one step."

"Like…hell." The demon raised his eyebrows at that. "Way…acted…Rin…"

Dammit! Inuyasha staggered to his feet and addressed Sesshoumaru at eye level, rasping, "Need to talk to Kagura…but what about Rin?"

He took a breath, trampling any reply by rushing ahead: "Raised her, paid to marry off, let your brat live—loved her, then got with Naraku's daughter? The hell?"

Sesshoumaru raised his eyebrows again, then favored him with a smugly unpleasant smile. "Can your brain not hold two thoughts straight? Rin's marriage was the solution to—"

"Fuck that!" Much as he'd always hated Sesshoumaru, at least Inuyasha had known what he was thinking. If all five hundreds years had done for him was to let him love a human girl himself and then abandon her for some strange, foul-smelling demon, Inuyasha rather bitterly thought he'd preferred his old stuck-up self. "You didn't wanna…get rid of her, even if she was human! You could've just bought Kagura's lands! Why…?"

The demon's elegant disdain vanished; in its place was such raw something that Inuyasha tried to recoil, thumping his head painfully on the trunk. "Rin was not human in that she received everything this Sesshoumaru had power to give, and knew it, and was grateful without debasing herself. Her last wish was to know if my life without her had been easier and happier than what she had seen of it. Even a human with the heart of a child knew better than to expect a demon in his prime not to look for his equal amongst his own kind, where a woman might live longer than fifty withered years, invite no ridicule for her existence, and have sons of the proper heritage. Her last thought was that this Sesshoumaru should be happy thus, you ignorant, misbegotten worm, not whether she had been displaced, and her opinion carried more weight than any hundred of you could ever imagine."

His eyes narrowed to slits, contempt radiant in every line of his face and body. "Even if the girl was to drag you out of the curse, you would fight it, and her, because you cannot let go of the idea that devotion is best proven by staying miserable at someone else's behest. If old Myouga is right, Kagome knows as much, but hasn't taken steps to convince you. Pity, though she'll no doubt recover with time."

Inuyasha did not answer, only partly because his lungs had stopped working. Someone was calling his name, an old woman's voice, instantly familiar.

"Who are you?" Sesshoumaru's senses had never catalogued Kaede as a child, much less her elderly state, and he watched her closely as she creaked a bow at them.

"Kaede, younger sister of Izayoi-sama's head priestess, honored Sesshoumaru-sama," the old priestess said warily, dipping her bare head. "I apologize greatly for my presumption, but it's quite important. Please forgive the interruption."

"What is that in your hand?" A rain-soaked but curiously stiff scrap of fabric was out of Kaede's loose grip and in Sesshoumaru's before she knew he had moved. He held it up so that the rust-stained yellow was in all three's line of sight. Inuyasha's eyes widened. "Human blood. But no smell of it, only that of—"

"Kagome!" Inuyasha snatched the scarf from his brother's unresisting hand and inspected it closely, heart hammering in rising panic. "What the…?"

Never slow on the uptake, Sesshoumaru thought for a moment, then frowned. "Did you say you needed to speak with Kagura about…Naraku? Why would—"

"Where'd you get this, old woman? Where?" Inuyasha grated, nearly tearing the fragile thing in his urgency to turn it to a side that smelled like the blood staining all but a tiny corner.

"It was left in the shrine when I entered this morning." She winced at a soft boom overhead. "If it is Kagome's, and the blood is not hers, then—"

"Shit!" Inuyasha disappeared from her startled sight around Sesshoumaru, who watched the hanyou set off towards the castle, his injuries momentarily forgotten.

"You." The demon raised his head to give the elderly priestess his customary once-over. "This Sesshoumaru requires information."

"Yes, Sesshoumaru-sama?" Kaede bobbed her head as politely as she could, unafraid but distinctly uncomfortable. This was going to be a very long and unpleasant day, and not just for her. As long as Kagome is all right…

Kagome was all right. …Well, she wasn't bleeding or anything. In that respect, things were all right. Otherwise, if one counted a conversation with her father after Kouga and a surprise Sesshoumaru visit cutting into a much-needed nap, things could've been a lot worse—assuming "things" was roughly equivalent to "disembowelment by fork."

Otherwise, things really sucked

"So, have you set a date yet?" Having been reassured that Souta was in one piece and having the time of his life, and with a tentative offer to visit firmly turned down, Yoshio was, unfortunately, comfortable enough to be himself.

Her temples felt ready to burst, and it wasn't even mid-morning. "That'd require an engagement, Dad. As there is none, I'll have to say no."

"Oh, really? These things do take time. …Say, honey, what's his favorite dish? Akemi's getting pretty handy in the kitchen. She managed not to burn the water last night."

Kagome forced a noise of polite amusement, having heard that one no less than six times already in as many minutes; Yoshio's high spirits were more than she was feeling up to dealing with. The haori was still prickly and too hot, but its presence had seemed to irritate Kouga, who was less persistent than usual and handed over the cell with minimal fanfare. That had been great, until it became evident that her good luck for the day had thus been sucked dry.

Yoshio chuckled. "Good one, eh? Oh, right! Are you two getting your own place once this is over, or are you staying with us?"

Oh, to spontaneously combust right about now… "Dad? We're not engaged. I am not living with him. Is there anything else you want to talk about, or should I call you later?" Better to let that one slip her mind than have Kouga pester her later with another call.

"That's my traditional little girl. …Nooo, I think that's about it. Call me if you need anything, okay, honey?"

"Sure, Dad. Love you, buh-bye." Kagome hung up and was immediately very glad for the phone's size, which rendered her attempt to strangle it unsuccessful.

"He seems like a nice guy," Kouga remarked, leaning in a bit too close to reclaim the little piece of plastic. Servants eyed them sideways as they passed the little courtyard in which Kagome had made the call. "So…" He paused. "How are you?"

"Good," she replied, also in English, with some relief. A wise woman once said, "If he's learning, he's not hitting on you." "And how are you?" She started towards the nearest passage to her room.

"They're at it again," a bath attendant whispered to three of her friends. It was common knowledge that Kouga-sama had been away for a while, using some strange device to learn a language no one had ever heard of, and that Kagome-sama was supposedly helping him.

"Ah, but she's rejected him," another said gravely, nodding to the haori. "In case his smell's not thoroughly on her enough already, I suppose?"

"Poor Kouga-sama. I really thought Kagome-sama would have better taste, too," the eldest murmured as they bowed past the English lesson.

"No, no," Kagome said loudly. The four each suddenly developed severe arthritis, shuffling along as slowly as possible, ears straining to catch any Japanese through the foreign words. "'Exhausted' means I really need to sleep, Kouga-kun. And I can do that without help, thank you."

Kouga's laughter covered the girls' nervous giggling, which was lucky for them, as it took Kagome at least three solid minutes to convince him that she really hadn't gotten any sleep, no, it was not anyone's fault, and she would see him later; by the time he turned and strode away, Kagome had completely forgotten about the servants' presence, and they had acquired all sorts of fresh material to pass onto their other friends later that day—and it wasn't even noon!

Then—then Kagome tried to get comfortable on her bed, folding the haori as neatly as it would fold and using it as a pillow, figuring that her scent was already all over it, so what harm was a few more hours? Inu-chan instantly roused herself from a lonely little nap, climbing onto the human girl and demanding recompense for her abandonment at the top of her diminuitive lungs.

Exasperated, Kagome nonetheless managed to occupy the kitten by grabbing a sneaker, dangling it between the headboard rails, and wedging it in place between rail and TV with a blanket. She settled down, then squirmed around to remove the pack of photos from her back pocket and shove them underneath some of the neglected items atop the TV. There, consarn it. Wanna sleep now.

And sleep, she did…until a pinprick on her neck jolted her awake. "Owwww." A reflexive slap produced an odd little squeak, so that Kagome looked at her palm in alarm. "Myouga? Is that you?"

"Greetings, Kagome-sama," the flattened flea demon somehow managed to get out. He grunted, popping back into fullness a moment later. "How are you this fine day?"

"Tired. Where've you been?" She rubbed her eyes with her free hand, letting him jump to one shoulder.

"Oh, here and there, sampling the fine air of the grounds, indulging in the freedom of Kouga-sama's mobility in perfect safe…ahem. …How has Inuyasha-sama been?"

"Safety?" Her mind was too slow to work that one out, so she shrugged and let it go. "Inuyasha's about as dangerous as a newborn kitty. You might get pouted or cuted to death, but that's about it."

Myouga tried to chuckle, producing a dry little squeak instead. It sounded so much like the ones she'd given her father that Kagome raised an eyebrow at him. "What? You're afraid of the kugutsu? They have no reason to go after you. …I think."

"Er…" Myouga hopped lightly onto the haori. "You…have discovered more about the curse than you knew before, I hope? Some of the…physical limitations?"

"…Y'mean the boundaries?" What the…? "I already knew about those."

"No, er, the interpersonal ones." The flea leapt back onto her shoulder, dropping his tinny voice to an incomprehensible mutter. "That is…"

"Hmm?" Kagome sat up. A lightbulb suddenly clicked on in her head. "Oh! You mean…" The bulb went pop as her face warmed. "What, you mean about me and Inuyasha not…stuff? I thought it was Sesshoumaru who made that rule."

"How did you hear about that?" he demanded.

"Um…it's complicated." Kagome didn't like where this was going. Crap, I don't even like where it is now. "Anyway, what does that have to do with anyone's safety? If Shimoko could tell I hadn't done anything with Kouga, her dad could probably figure out my life story with one sniff."

"Oh, nothing, Kagome-sama, nothing at all!" Myouga gave a few eye-crossing bounces to emphasize his fake cheerfulness. "I wasn't worried in the slightest that any rule might be broken and Inuyasha-sama lose himself and be forced to kill anyone, not a bit!"

"You what?" Kagome snatched him out of the air, nearly jamming the tiny body right up against her nose as the air thickened warningly. "Don't tell me that's a curse thing, too! Didn't anyone have anything better to do in your time than think of ways to make sure Inuyasha's life was total crap?"

"Well, I wouldn't put it that way," he wheezed, squirming his way into a position in which he could breathe freely. "I didn't think Inuyasha-sama would actually do such a thing, of course, and only monitored Kouga-sama out of concern that he might be plotting something with his pack. Luckily, their main objective is to consolidate their power after…these events, and nothing to do with Inuyasha-sama."

"…Uh huh." It was tempting to flatten him again, but Kagome knew nothing would come of it except momentary satisfaction and the loss of some potentially valuable information. "Did you 'monitor' the only guy here fast enough to get away from Inuyasha because you thought Inuyasha was the kind of guy who'd throw everyone's life away for a chance at getting busy at least once before he died, or just because he's a hanyou? That was probably why that rule got stuck in there, too, I bet." She frowned as it hit her that it had been rather considerate of Naraku to keep the "guests" in mind at all—but, then again, anything that implied fault on Inuyasha's part would be right up his alley. "God only knows what Sesshoumaru wanted, either. You'd think he'd leave him alone by this point."

"Now, now, Kagome-sama." Myouga smiled benignly, folding all his limbs at once. "Wouldn't life be dull if any of us were just left alone?"

Kagome twitched. "One, that's not what I meant, and you know it. Two, I would give my right arm and both kneecaps for some dullness right about now, thank you kindly, and three, please don't say that, or you'll jinx every—"

Inu-chan stopped gnawing on the shoe's toe and mewed urgently, looking for a shorter way to the floor than what was available; seconds later, footsteps crashed into earshot, and the shoji slammed open hard enough to crack wood and tear paper. "Kagome!"

"Bye, dullness," she replied, too bemused to think of anything else to say.

"What the fuck is this?" Panting slightly, Inuyasha stalked over to her and thrust something out for her inspection. "That's your…thing, isn't it? How the hell did it get blood all over it?"

"That's my scarf, Inuyasha, and I used it to help the servant who got hurt yesterday by that bat demon," she said after a moment's examination. Her smile of reassurance had no effect on his wild-eyed glare. "Did he drop it somewhere? I know it probably looks bad, and the smell can't be fun, but—"

"There is no scent except yours!" Inuyasha stabbed a finger at it, puncturing the fabric and scattering drops everywhere. "Not only does it not smell like anyone used it on a wound, Kaede didn't see anyone wearing it yesterday, and none of the servants ever said anything about it!"

Cold prickled along Kagome's scalp. "But…that's impossible, I did it myself. Besides, Kirara was there, and she would've known something was up if the guy was bleeding and there was—hey!" She stabbed a finger at Inuyasha triumphantly. "You said you could smell the guy's blood, and you even knew who he was. Taro's brother, right? Bring him in here, and we'll see whether I'm crazy or not."

Inuyasha stared at her, then nodded shortly to cover the awkward silence as she waited for an answer. "Fine." He whipped around and flung the shoji open with frightening speed. "Everyone out there who can hear me, come in here, now."

Five servants, one young man and four women, quietly filed into the room, hunched as far as was necessary to avoid Inuyasha's eyes. "Who knows where the woodcutter Taro is right now?"

"The one with a scar on his face," Kagome added, just in case more than one servant matched that fairly common description.

"My uncle is feeling ill and resting in our quarters, Kagome-sama," the tallest girl volunteered, obviously puzzled but glad for the chance to address her and not their dangerously quiet lord. "Shall I fetch him for you?"

"No, that's okay." Kagome tried to relax as Inuyasha frowned at her. She waved at him in dismissal, as if he couldn't hear her heart pounding and probably smell her growing fear. This has to be some weird mistake. Maybe Naraku just got bored enough to duplicate and mess up my things without asking first? "Your other uncle, his brother—how is he?"

A short pause confirmed her suspicions so effectively that she almost felt sick. "Well," the servant said haltingly, loathe to offend by a straight answer, "it's very difficult to say, Kagome-sama. I'm afraid it might be possible that—"

"Taro doesn't have a brother, does he?"

The whispered reply of "Ah…n-no, Inuyasha-sama, I don't believe so" hit Kagome like a ton of feathers: a gentle fluttering of realization before dread settled over her in heavier and heavier waves, weighing her down with the knowledge that whatever she'd encountered yesterday had not been human.

Inuyasha dismissed them with a short gesture, not caring what kind of gossip the rush to get out of his presence would lead into. "Shit. Shit. Shit."

"I was careful," Kagome said without knowing why. "I had Kirara with me, and arrows. I was just going to the Tree, and—"

"The Tree?" Inuyasha scowled at her in disbelief. "Then what were you doing by the river?"

"There was a bat demon by the Tree, it was dead, and it was icky, so I changed my mind!" Her hands trembled as she unconsciously rubbed her neck. "Kirara checked the guy out for me and stayed there while I tied up his leg and everything!"

"I didn't kill any of the bats, Kagome." She stared at him in disbelief as he crouched by the bed, looking up at her intently. "None of 'em even got hurt that bad. One might've run into a servant after the fight, but Shiori came with seven demons guarding her and left with seven demons guarding her. None dead, and sure as hell not by the Tree."

"But I saw it when I looked by the Tree! And even I smelled blood on the guy, and the bat demon, and so did Kirara, or she wouldn't have let me near him!" Kagome protested.

"I know! I did, too, and when I said I knew who it was, I meant Taro, who does have a scar on his face." Inuyasha rocked back on his heels. "How did you know that, anyway? And what made you mention a brother?"

"The guy said he was Taro's brother, even told me about the scar…like he wanted to be sure I knew who he was talking about." Meaning… "So, he pretended to be someone else and basically told me enough to make sure I could figure out he was lying? And how did he get real blood all over him to make you think he was Taro? This doesn't make any sense!"

Anger broke into her fearful daze, sharpening her mind enough to look back at Inuyasha and recognize gratefully that he was as confused and disturbed as she was, but didn't blame her for the incident…whatever it had been. "Okay, let's assume it was a certain sick bastard who has a tendency to mess with people. Why would he go to the trouble of planting a fake bat corpse and a fake hurt servant where I only had some chance of going, and do a good enough job that we only knew they were faked because he fed me enough details to figure it out? Where'd he get the blood? Where did he go?"

"Taro's sick, they said…" Inuyasha tapped a foot restlessly. "Better go check him out. And if it disappeared…are you sure it wasn't a servant you'd seen before?"

She shook her head emphatically. "No way. I'd know his face if I saw it again…but his voice was kind of familiar."

Inuyasha snorted. "I know the feeling." He could identify more servants by the backs or tops of their heads than their faces—a disadvantage of being bowed to so often. "Anything he said that mighta been important, like the scar thing?"

Kagome couldn't help grimacing. "No, the only other things he said were about Kikyou, or how I shouldn't trouble mys—"

"He what?" Inuyasha was instantly off the floor and in her personal space. "What did he say?"

"All about how great she was at kicking ass and healing people, nothing but compliments." She scooted back uneasily. "I think he was just trying to weird me out."

Inuyasha's brows drew together. "…You said you thought you knew his voice, right?"

She risked a staring match with him and was rewarded with a couple of missed heartbeats. That can't be healthy. "I…think so. Why?"

"You met a kugutsu face to face before, didn't you? Where's that mirror of Shimoko's?" Inuyasha ducked under the bed, located the velvet wrap and pulled it onto the bed. "If we use this bloody thing, d'you think I could see his face? It's yours, so that should work."

There was no time to argue, not with his urgency and her own curiosity hurrying her along; moments later found them crouching on the bed, hands resting on the mirror's edges, with Kagome dangling the scarf over its surface and Inu-chan peeking up at them from her hiding place under the bed. "Should we wait for the others?"

"No, no, go right ahead, Kagome-sama," Myouga's voice urged from somewhere in her hair, nearly scaring her into dropping the scarf.

"Come on, Kagome," Inuyasha urged her quietly, and she instantly complied.

Light leapt out at them, but slower, almost languidly, markedly different from their other uses. When the light finished oozing into the center and the picture cleared to reveal the blood-spattered forest floor, it wasn't from Kagome's perspective, either; they could see Kirara moving aside to let Kagome rush forward and drop to her knees, mouth moving to ask if he was all right.

"What the hell?" Inuyasha muttered. Kagome bit her lip.

"Remarkable," the flea commented from his new perch on the mirror's edge. "I thought the object was supposed to convey its owner's point of view?"

Neither paid attention to him, as the image was suddenly and rather insultingly focused on Kagome's lower anatomy. "I thought he had his eyes closed!" she hissed.

Inuyasha's only response was to growl softly. The image moved upward to her face when the fire-cat returned, but flicked back and forth from blatant staring to a properly averted gaze, depending upon whether Kirara was looking at him or not. His kimono was offered, a hand pressed obediently into his hip, and his ankle lifted to Kagome's shoulder. "I thought I was helping him, the stupid, ungrateful…"

She stopped dead. The hand that had been moving idly in the dirt as he talked had not been idle. Kagome now saw he had been writing, taking his time as his "rescuer" grew visibly more uncomfortable in order to make the words as clear as possible.

"'Easily taken'?" Inuyasha read aloud. "What's that supposed to…?"

The wrapped leg was gently removed from her shoulder, placed on the forest floor. Kagome clearly panicked when the perspective stood much higher off the ground, ostensibly keeping his eyes politely low, but using the excuse to peruse the girl's body at leisure, ending slightly below the neck. Then he glanced down and used the stick to demolish the words, and—

The mirror was yanked from beneath their hands. Kagome yelped as the dim light assaulted her eyelids and a thudding crash against the wall made her ears ring. "That fucking rat! It was him!" For the third time in less than twelve hours, Inuyasha was so angry that he could hardly stand to look at anything for fear he'd start chewing through it…until he noticed how white Kagome's face had gone. He swallowed hard, reminding himself that he had to calm down: his midsection was still pulp, for one, and Kagome probably didn't need to be told that she could've been killed at any second, just as the kugutsu had written. He plopped down next to her, took one of her hands, and ignored Myouga's grumbling from where he'd fallen between the thrown mirror and hard wall. "Look, Kagome, Kikyou told me earlier that he's…gone for today, or something. You don't have to worry about him for—"

"He's the one who has to worry." Kagome flung her head back, roaring behind them, "Kikyou!"

Her voice echoed faintly off the polished walls; Inuyasha edged away from her a little as it became apparent that her principal reaction was not humiliation or fear so much as pure rage. "I know you're here, Kikyou! You knew he'd done this, didn't you? This was why you told me to go after him sooner and not later, right? Well, I'm convinced now! You get another point!"

Kikyou flickered into clarity in front of her. "As well you—"

"Don't give me that, Kikyou." Kagome rounded on her, dropping Inuyasha's hand to stand up closer to the priestess' spirit than she ever had. "I won't blame you for him manipulating, ogling and threatening me, but would it have been too much to know about it before everyone else saw it, too? He went to all this trouble for a reason, and if you knew about it, I'm guessing you could've dropped a couple clearer hints than 'Naraku is a jerk, so hurry up and find him, bye'! And what's this about him being gone for today? Have you talked to him? And if he's gone, then why not tell us where he is while we have the chance at it? Whose side are you on, anyway?"

"What would you do if you knew where he was?" Kikyou countered, tension trickling off her translucent form like smoke from a poorly covered lamp. "The Jewel may obey you and erase his existence, or it may turn dark enough in his power to give him greater power than ever before."

"You've asked that before, and your reasoning's gotten crappier," Kagome said flatly.

Inuyasha opened his mouth, shut it, and tried again after more deliberation. "Shut up a second, Kagome." Then he rushed ahead, aware that Kagome might just take her anger out on him now: "If he's really hiding someplace so secret that he couldn't be found all these years, Kikyou, it's probably someplace hard to get him out of, right?"

The priestess nodded. "I see you understand."

"But if it's so secure…" The hanyou looked down at the Inu-chan, who was arch-backed and stock-still against the bedpost, too afraid of the ghost to move under the bed. "If we do get him out of it, that means he probably couldn't find another place like it, right?"

Kikyou regarded him with silent disapproval. He shrugged helplessly. "And if we destroy or block it up somehow, he has to be out in the open where we can actually kill him like those damn kugutsu, right?" His eyes widened. "Wait a second! You knew there was still a kugutsu out there, but you still told me it was safe! Why didn't you mention that?"

"Naraku is incapacitated for now—"

"But not the kugutsu! It could pop up and rip Kagome apart in the time it takes her to blink, Kikyou! You can't keep these things to yourself all the time!" Inuyasha was nearly tearing his hair out. "Why the hell didn't you say anything?"

Kikyou looked at him, then at Kagome, whose face was still white under faint sun lines, intent with anger and bewilderment. "If you would think as you did in using the mirror, you would know there was no need. I've given you plenty of information as it is, including that creature's existence. Reminders are not my responsibility."

"So you don't mind if I get killed and things go to hell?" Kagome didn't care what the curse thought of that one, or that Kikyou was right about that last part. "Or if Inuyasha gets killed? Don't you think he's gone through enough already?"

That struck a nonexistent nerve; whatever Kikyou had been prepared to share vanished in coldness bordering on outright hatred."All the same in the end, I'm sure. Good day."

The silence upon her departure might have lasted several minutes if Kagome hadn't reached down to pick Inu-chan up. The kitten immediately attempted to burrow between her arm and upper body. "Ow. No claws, kitty, okay?"

"Kagome?" One of Shippou's eyes peeped around the corner, then the other. "What happened?"

"Oh, nothing. Just a lot of talking." Kagome exchanged a long glance with Inuyasha, clapping her hands softly to keep from upsetting the little cat. "Shippou-chan, if you would, get Miroku and Sango down here, and maybe Souta and Kohaku? We've got a little more talking to do." And if I have to call the Jewel out, well, so be it. But first… She picked up the haori and wrapped it around her bare shoulders again. There. Stare at this, you freak. Hell if I'm going to sleep before we've stopped talking about it and actually found you!

A/N: This is all going somewhere, I promise. For the record, fluff was preempted by plot, but that doesn't mean there's not quite a bit of it coming up.

Happy New Year's. May 2006 be infinitely less suckful than '05.