AUTHOR'S NOTES: Revised version #2. I fixed up some grammatical errors and formatting that I had issues with. Nothing major. Hopefully everyone will enjoy this new edited version as much as the old one.
Thanks for all your support, everyone!
oOoOoOoChapter One: In the Eye of the Beholder
There it was, waiting for him, begging for him to take it and make it his own. Placed on a pedestal within the four walls of the tiny shrine, it rested, ready for worship as it displayed its features to all who should look upon its features. And he, who had come to free it from its captivity, spared a brief moment to reflect on the thoughts it inspired within him.
In annoyance, he glared at the object that had brought him across great distance and irritating obstructions, which he'd dispatched with ease but were nevertheless distractions he could have done well without on his journey. All that trouble he had gone through in an effort to add another notch to his larcenous reputation while simultaneously acquiring one more valuable treasure for his wondrous collection…all that for this – an object that offended his refined sensibilities so. It did not live up to the reputation rumors had built it up to and he sincerely wished that the one who had expounded on its magnificence at great extent were there at that moment so that he could be properly thanked –
With a torturously slow and excruciatingly painful death!
He truly did not want to add such filth to his carefully selected and beloved collection, but neither did he particularly enjoy the thought of leaving empty-handed. Feeling morose over the entire situation, half-heartedly he reached out to take the awful treasure –
only to be knocked over as the wall exploded behind him in a shower of debris and he was suddenly flattened beneath a crushing weight!
What the devil - !
As the weight shifted, scrabbled off of him, he turned to regard this newest intrusion with narrowed eyes that promised retribution for the unpleasant surprise. His eyes peered through the darkness with keen eyesight, searched, found –
Perhaps this jaunt will not be a complete loss after all.
A true rarity the likes of which he had never seen before, she crouched before him with an odd yellow satchel slung across her back. She was dressed in the most unique clothing that left little to the imagination while a cascade of dark hair that glinted like silk spilled over her shoulders, concealing her features from his eyes, much to his regret. But that was not all his eyes took in for he also noted the bow and quiver of arrows in her possession, as well as the small bundle of fluff cradled protectively in her arms.
By scent alone, he could recognize his own and could only speculate on what a girl, obviously human, was doing with a full blooded youkai kit that she was obviously protecting as fiercely as she would a child of her own kind. It was a mystery, it was puzzling; it was –
Youko Kurama always had liked puzzles.
As he continued to observe her, he noticed the tenseness of her body as she tossed the yellow satchel off her shoulder to land with a thump on the earthen floor just before she placed the unmoving bundle of kitsune beside it. Meanwhile, her head remained inclined in a fixed position throughout it all and he realized that her attention was completely focused upon the hole in the wall from which she'd come.
And not on him.
Youko Kurama was irritated at the way in which his presence was apparently being ignored by this odd creature that he found fascinating. He opened his mouth to bring her attention around to him where it properly belonged when suddenly, in a smooth and seamless motion that bespoke much practice, she withdrew an arrow from her quiver and notched it into the bow. As she aimed it towards the hole in the wall, her chin tilted upwards, causing her hair to fall back and finally reveal the features of her profile to him.
That one word breathed like a sigh in his thoughts while satisfaction swirled through him as the package she presented appealed to both his kitsune lust for beauteous things and his love for curiously intriguing puzzles. For a moment that must have lasted a mere fraction of time, even as his keen senses swept over her and catalogued every detail from that lusciously shaped body to the vivid hue of a luminous earthy brown eye that shone with purity and determination, he absorbed the sight of her and imprinted it onto his memories even as the acrid smell of another encroaching youkai bombarded his senses.
Annoyed at the coming interruption to his perusal of his newest fascination, he turned his attention to the hole just in time. An ugly, foul-smelling youkai appeared and his form suggested that his size would have towered over a man made hut had it not been hunched over in a predatory crouch, hind legs bent as four bulging arms supported its bulky torso with skeletal claws planted firmly in the earth. It was an abomination to anyone with any sense of aesthetics and Kurama's lips thinned and sneered in disgust as he took in the scaly blue-black skin that glistened with slime even as large curling black horns protruded from its lizard-like head.
On every level, the sight of the youkai offended him and a claw flexed, ready to easily dispose of this most unwelcome intrusion. Muscles clenched and he prepared to spring himself at the youkai –
And then almost sprang backwards at the sudden arc of light that sliced past him!
Frozen in surprise, he could feel the holy power rolling off of that racing spear of light as it embedded deep into one of the youkai's upper shoulders. In amazement he watched as that youkai gave a screeching high-pitched shriek as the arrow gave off a blinding burst of light that disintegrated its left side, leaving the creature minus two arms.
Practically gaping, Kurama slowly tore his gaze from the youkai thrashing in pain on the ground to find that the human had already notched another arrow, mouth set in a determination that said more than words that she was prepared to use it. She may have been human, and a female at that, but the hard look in those beautiful eyes that were so intently focused on the thrashing creature was all warrior.
"I won't forgive you for hurting Shippou-chan."
Her voice was pitched low and soft. And Kurama was struck by the oddity of that gentle voice that held a loving tenderness to it even as it also contained her determination and her threat. As she continued to speak, he had to resist the urge to inch closer to that beckoning, caressing voice. The situation was too volatile and he didn't want to distract her attention from the still dangerous youkai or set her off by suddenly drawing her fire to himself.
Later, he promised himself. Besides, he wanted to see what else she would do.
"Give up now and leave," she told the youkai, "or continue and lose what little life you have left."
"Never!" the youkai snarled. "I will make you pay!"
"I don't think so." Her lips thinned. "You put me in a very, very bad mood. I wouldn't push my luck if I were you."
"You are just a human," it hissed as it pulled itself into a crouch. "I will take the shards of the Shikon no Tama from you, miko."
Shikon no Tama? Kurama's eyes swung from the youkai back to the girl with wide eyes. She possesses the legendary jewel? And she's a miko?
"You're a fool," she was telling the youkai, "if you think the Shikon no Tama will do you any good."
"No, it won't. It'll destroy you, eventually."
"The truth. You'll be destroyed by it just as it's been done to countless others."
"Do you think I can't see through your tricks?" the youkai accused. "You want to keep its power for yourself!"
She merely shook her head, disgusted.
"Yes, yes, yes," the youkai growled. "You are trying to keep it but I will take it from you. I will make you watch as it makes me complete. Then I will devour the kit and destroy this village with my new powers while you look on, helpless." It gave a grating, chittering laugh. "Then I will devour you!"
"Last chance," was all she said, body poised to fire. "Final warning: turn back now."
In a sudden rush, the youkai lunged, one arm swinging up and out, sweeping towards her with claws curled to slash.
She never hesitated, released.
Another arching flash of light, another blinding burst of power.
The anguished cry filled the tiny building with the audible proof of pain. The force of it reverberated in the air and threatened to shake the very walls and bring the roof collapsing down upon them as the youkai shuddered and fell, thudding to the earth, a headless corpse.
Silence fell as she remained poised, another arrow drawn and notched, aimed at the fallen enemy just in case it should regenerate itself and rise to attack once more. But it remained a lifeless mound, never to terrorize or harm another ever again.
"Well, that was exciting."
Suddenly Kurama found himself staring down the wrong end of an arrow. He didn't mind and was even pleased with the result of his ill-timed comment.
It gave him a better view of her face.
And a full frontal view was much, much better than the measly profile he'd been treated with up until then.
If his keen senses hadn't made known to him the strength of her fear, which he easily detected in her scent and the rapid beating of her heart, he would have licked his lips in anticipation. But he restrained himself, knowing either one might set her off in flight or in releasing the arrow she had pointed at his heart.
Neither option was appealing.
"Where did you come from?" she demanded, fear making her voice harsh.
"Don't you remember?" A silver eyebrow arched. "You landed on me."
Her expression went blank.
"Just a little while ago," he prompted.
Her expression didn't change.
He stiffened. Had she really forgotten? Or just hadn't noticed in the first place?
Either option was insulting to his sense of worth and he was outraged!
"You owe me an apology." His voice came out harsher than he'd intended but she didn't flinch, either from his tone or the sharpness of his gaze. "I'm not used to acting as a landing cushion for fleeing miko."
A flash of emotion flickered across her features in a moment so brief it was gone in an instant. It was so quick that any other might have had difficulty detecting it. But he was youkai and his keen senses deciphered it immediately.
And it amused him.
After all, how often did a youkai inspire guilt in a miko?
"It was an experience not without some pain," he added watching with delight as those expressive eyes of her darkened even more with heartfelt emotion. "If I'd had some forewarning I might have been able to prepare myself better against the anticipation of pain. But it was quite unexpected."
He watched, smirking, as those eyes deepened even more in hue. But then her features changed, shock and disbelief flitting across her expression before suspicion settled and her eyes regarded him narrowly.
"You're teasing me!" she accused.
A soft chuckle filled the air.
"I don't believe this!" She shook her head. "You're a youkai. Shouldn't you be trying to kill me? Not teasing me?"
He was definitely amused. "You would rather I try to kill you?"
"Well…no. I didn't say that exactly. But the teasing is distinctly disturbing, especially when it's coming from a strange youkai that won't step out of the shadows to show his face."
With a start, he realized that the darkness of the room had hidden him in shadows. And with her poorer human sight, her eyes were not as able to pierce through the darkness as his could. Not wanting her to think him a coward that clung to concealing shadows, he edged into the moonlight streaming into the room through the hole in the wall. He moved slowly, careful of any sudden movements that might startle her into releasing her weapon of choice.
And he took utmost pleasure in her shock once he was fully revealed to her sight.
He was proud of his effect on others, with women especially. And he reveled in the knowledge that the revelation of his handsome appearance could make a miko forget that he was a natural foe just long enough to cause that pretty flush on her smooth skin, the involuntary parting of those delicious looking lips, the lovely widening of those delightful eyes that were clearly admiring of his beauty, and the unconscious lowering of her drawn weapon.
Unfortunately, much to his chagrin, the effect didn't last long.
A heartbeat later the bow was immediately raised back to its prior position and her lips firmed in a determined line while her eyes narrowed in suspicion as if the momentary lapse had never been. Though he was impressed with the miko's recovery ability…he was also disappointed.
Apparently, she wasn't as affected by him as he was by her.
Kurama thought it highly unfair.
"Kagome-sama? Is the battle over?"
The trembling words drew their attention to the opening in the wall where several faces could be seen peeking around the edges of the crude entrance with frightened eyes. One of the onlookers, braver than the rest, stepped closer to study the charred remains of the youkai with awed eyes, his wavering voice betraying him as the man who had first spoken.
"Amazing! Kagome-sama, you truly are a great miko!"
Though she winced at the praise, her stance never changed as she kept her bow notched at the silver youkai, trying her best to ignore the increasing fatigue her arms were starting to feel at the prolonged position. She sensed that this new youkai, as beautiful and easygoing as his relaxed appearance seemed to be, was even more dangerous than the one she had just downed and she wasn't going to be taken off guard so easily.
The frightened stuttering had her eyes flicking in his direction before quickly refocusing on the youkai standing before her so casually. "Yes?"
"A-Are you going to kill it?"
She frowned, sparing a quick glance at the dead youkai to double check that it was indeed still dead.
"N-Not that one! T-The other one!"
Silver and white filled her vision. "Oh."
"I-Is it dangerous? O-Or are you preparing to purify it too?"
Kurama was tired of being referred to as 'it' by a poor excuse of a male who was so afraid that his voice seemed infected with a perpetual shake and he had to hide behind a female for protection. A miko, yes, but still female.
It made him ashamed of his own sex.
Exasperated with the situation and annoyed at the intrusion of these pitiful human males that were interfering in his attempts to get to know the mysterious miko better, Kurama decided to shift the tide in his favor. Ever the strategist, he did one of the things he did best.
He played on his enemies' fears.
A low growl drew all attention to him. And when he was sure that he had the full wide-eyed attention of the village men focused upon him, he bared his fangs at them and gave a hair-raising snarl while he shifted into an attacking crouch and made as if to lunge.
The reaction was immediate.
"Run! Run away! The youkai's going to eat us!"
"Aaaaahhh! Hurry! Get away!"
"It's going to kill us! Help! Help!"
The cries of the villagers as they all turned tail and ran as if one entity amused Kurama to no end. He snickered as he mused with a disgusted sort of glee that humans were really so very weak-minded.
"Well, that was childish."
He turned towards the feminine voice and found the intriguing human miko staring at him in disapproval. With a pleased sort of surprise, he noted that she had lowered her bow and, thus, her defenses.
"That was a mean trick," she scolded him. "Don't you have any shame?"
A silver brow arched. "I believe the shame followed the cowards that ran away."
"It's a natural reaction to run away from something scary. As well as anything you think is going to eat you." She tilted her head and added, as if in afterthought, "Or kill you."
"You didn't run away."
"I'm familiar with kitsune tricks." She gave him a pointed look. "But that doesn't mean I approve of all of them."
"Then I must apologize if I offended you." As consolation, he offered to her the treasure he had latched onto just before he'd been knocked down. "Forgive me?"
She stared at it then raised her gaze back to his. "Are you trying to pick a fight with me?"
"What?" Confusion flickered across his features. "Why would you think that?"
"That." Her head motioned towards the treasure. "Isn't that something you'd be more likely to give to an enemy as an insult rather than a would-be friend?"
He smiled charmingly. "It's the only gift I have."
"And it doesn't belong to you." She frowned. "Don't even bother giving me that look – it doesn't work on me.
He did his best to look innocent. Or, at least, as innocent as an infamous youkai thief could look while still holding the intended object of theft in his grasp. But, despite his best efforts, she was clearly not being swayed.
"That 'I'm harmless and innocent so you can trust me' look." She shook her head. "You remind me of a certain monk I know."
Surprise flashed through him. "That's the first time I have ever been compared to a holy man." He wasn't sure whether to be flattered…or insulted.
"Believe me, it wasn't a compliment."
"Oh?" His gaze suddenly turned curious. "Why?"
"Why what?" she asked, puzzled. "Why it wasn't a compliment?"
"No." He regarded her with a contemplative air. "You stand here bantering words with me. You didn't flee with the village men and yet you didn't attack me, either, as any other miko would have done upon seeing a group of humans being threatened by a youkai. Why?"
"Would you believe that I'm not a miko?"
He gave her a look. "I saw you fire arrows infused with holy power. Even the village man named you such. It's impossible to deny."
She shrugged. "Think what you like."
Then, to his disbelief, she turned her back on him, a dismissive gesture, as she knelt down beside the odd yellow satchel and the kitsune. Setting aside the bow and arrow, she drew the unconscious kit into her arms, brown eyes studying him with concern. As touching as he found the scene, he was annoyed with being ignored so he made a bid for her attention.
"You aren't afraid of me?"
She spared him a glance. "Do you want me to be?"
"Well, no. But you're not afraid, you're not attacking…it's not natural."
"So then, attacking and being afraid…that's natural?"
"Yes! I mean, no!" He huffed in exasperation. "You're twisting my words."
"No, I'm not," she responded absently, attention focused on examining the kit in her arms. "You're words were just confusing in the first place."
"Then I'll try to clarify." Gold eyes swirled chaotically. "Me, youkai. You, miko. Youkai and miko are natural enemies, therefore they fight. So that's why I'm asking – why aren't you fighting me?"
"Why aren't you the one fighting me?" she countered easily. "You shouldn't put all the responsibility on my shoulders, you know. Don't forget that you happen to be one-half of that little formula you just set up."
Gods, this human is irritating! Kurama thought in annoyance.
He resisted the urge to pounce and shake her until her head rattled and she spilled forth the answers he wanted to know. He'd never had this much trouble with a human before. Although…he'd never really spent much time in the company of humans so he wasn't quite sure what a normal amount of trouble they caused would be. As it was, with the way the situation was turning, he'd be grateful to never come across another intriguing odd human miko again!
"Besides," the miko continued saying as she brushed bangs away from the kit's face, "whose bright idea was it to establish that rule about miko and youkai being enemies anyway? I happen to get along just fine with them. Well, unless they're trying to kill me anyway. The rest is a different story."
"So," he struggled to sift through her words, "you aren't attacking because I'm not trying to kill you?"
He gave her a blank stare. What's that supposed to mean?
"Despite what you just saw, I don't like fighting," the miko stated calmly. "So I prefer not to get into one unless I, or other people, happen to be in danger."
"And how do you know I'm not that danger?"
She shot him a look that clearly showed the low opinion she had for his intelligence. Kurama was not used to having such an expression aimed at him and it made his fur bristle as he scowled back at the miko who was, irritatingly enough, wholly unperturbed.
"No matter how much you posture," said the miko, "you appear very fast, as most youkai are despite what they may look like. If you really meant to attack, those village men would have been dead. Instead, you let them get away." Her brow creased. "Though I have no idea why you wanted to drive them away."
He titled up an arrogant chin. "They were intrusions."
"Intrusions to what?" Confusion coated her voice. "To your thieving?"
To his startled surprise, Kurama realized that he'd completely forgotten his original purpose in coming to the village in the first place. And in his amazement, he realized something else as well.
He was still holding the ugly village treasure.
"That belongs to the village, doesn't it?" she asked. "I remember hearing some of the villagers saying that this was a shrine to one of the holy items they worshipped." She eyed the piece. "That must be it."
"How do you know it doesn't belong to me?"
She stared at him like he was crazy. "It hardly looks like something a youkai would carry around with him wherever he goes. And why else would a youkai, who the villagers clearly have no liking of, venture into a human village if not to terrify or to steal?"
She had him there.
With a grin, he abandoned pretense and gave a nonchalant shrug. "It's what I do."
"It's not a very good thing. The villagers will be upset if you take it, and I think they've already been through enough today."
"So what? It's not like anyone can stop me." He shot her a pointed look. "Is there?"
"I don't suppose you'd just leave it be if I asked you to?"
Stunned by the notion that anyone would dare ask him that, he could only regard her silently and saw that she was completely serious as she stared back at him calmly, awaiting his response. Amusement overtook him, and he began to chuckle. He'd had no idea that a human miko could prove to be so entertaining!
"I've never laid eyes on you before today," he said in a tone full of mirth. "Why should I obey a request from a strange human miko? It would ruin my infamous reputation as a thief!"
"And stealing something like that wouldn't ruin it?" she asked doubtfully, her gaze on the object in question.
Despite the fact that he'd had similar concerns over the matter, he glossed over them to say to her confidently, "Not all treasures look properly worthy to all eyes. It's a matter of aesthetics. The priceless quality of an object depends on the one that beholds it."
"If you say so."
"I do." He suddenly smiled at her mischievously. "Though to be truthful, I sometimes find the actual experience of acquiring a particular prize more fascinating than the actual object itself."
Her lips curved. "I can believe that."
Encouraged, he boasted, "I'm the best. There's nothing I can't steal!"
The soft syllable drew his complete attention, gave him a pause. Something swirled in her eyes, something he couldn't read, something intriguing. It had a hum of anticipation sizzling through his veins as she absently gathered the kit in one arm, her bag and weapon slung over a shoulder, and rose to her feet while contemplated him with a mysterious expression on her pretty features.
What is she thinking? Kurama dearly wanted to know.
He didn't have long to wonder though as, on the heels of that particular thought, she spoke. Her voice was questioning, soft, hinting at some knowledge she held that he didn't but would, most likely, desire for his own.
"If you truly think that there's nothing you can successfully steal…isn't that just because you haven't gone after a treasure that offered enough of a challenge to keep you from saying that?"
Gold eyes narrowed at the implied insult. "You think there's something I can't steal?"
She smiled slowly. "Yes."
"And what would this something be?"
"Uh-uh." She shook her head, tone and eyes chiding. "I'm not just going to tell you. That would be too easy."
"And?" he prompted. He knew she had something in mind – he just needed to find out what!
"If you really want to know, then I propose…a bargain."
"What kind of bargain?" he asked suspiciously. "Youkai aren't known for bargaining with miko."
"And are you always one for following the rules?"
"No." Humor touched his features as he was taken by her manner. "So what's this…bargain?"
"You can think of it more as a trade, if you like."
"Either one, it doesn't really matter." He made a dismissive gesture. "Just tell me what it is."
"Very well," she conceded. "Then what I propose is this: I'll give you the information on this something you can't steal if…you leave the village's treasure where it belongs. Here."
"That doesn't seem like a very good trade."
Her shrug was blasé. "It's your choice."
What to decide? To abandon the prize in his grasp that he had gone through so much trouble to obtain in the first place for the risk of the unknown? Or refuse the challenge she presented which might or might not gain him a greater prize? He debated for a moment but, in the end -
It was an easy decision.
"I accept," he pronounced and placed the object back on the pedestal.
He'd never really wanted it anyway.
"And you won't try to come back later and steal it away again?" she prodded.
He glanced back at the ugly thing. "I can promise that."
"Great!" She gave him a winning smile. "See you later!"
"Wait!" He blocked her before she made it to the exit and stared down at her unruffled features with a scowl. "What about your end of the bargain? You said you'd tell me about this treasure that I can't steal."
"I know that." Another bright smile. "But there was no time limit set on our agreement. And I didn't say I'd tell you right now."
Her utter gall left him stunned speechless.
"I'd love to stay and chat some more but my friends are probably heading back this way and I need to meet up with them and get Shippou-chan checked out." She neatly sidestepped around the frozen youkai. "I'm sure that with your keen senses you can find me anytime when you want to continue this scintillating conversation but I've really, really got to go. Bye-bye! Oh, and try not to scare the villagers too much when you leave!"
With a backward wave, she was gone.
Meanwhile, the bewildered youkai left behind…was still too stunned to say anything.
He couldn't believe that he – master of deception and nuances – had just been conned by a mere slip of a human girl! And, to think, she'd had the incredible nerve to smile at him as if it were nothing to dodge holding up her end of the trade! There hadn't even been the slightest hint of tension or fear within her – and she even had the gall to tell him what he should do in her final parting comment!
Then, his paralysis wearing off, the humor of the situation hit him and he began to laugh. Starting off low and quiet, his laughter grew into deep rolling chuckles that seemed to have no end. Unbeknownst to him, his mirth frightened the few villagers that had been brave enough to cautiously venture out of their huts upon seeing the miko pass by unharmed and sent the terrified citizens ducking back into their homes in fear for their lives.
But the laughing youkai knew none of this. And even if he had, he wouldn't have cared, too preoccupied with the newest intriguing ideas taking shape in his mind as he thought of a certain mysterious little miko.
Youko Kurama had just discovered his newest treasure.