Disclaimer: I do not own Inuyasha or any of the characters from the anime/manga series.

Inutaisho, the demon lord of the Western lands, folded his arms across his chest and fixed the young man with one of his more intimidating stares. It had the desired effect, the young man's face paled a shade further and he swallowed nervously. He was mildly pleased to see that the boy didn't flinch away from his gaze as so many others would have done and had done on numerous occasions. The striking golden eyes so like his own remained fixed, staring straight ahead, the boy's body was held ramrod straight. Inutaisho casually circled the unfortunate young man who stood as immobile as a statue carved in ice. The boy displayed no outward signs of fear, but Inutaisho didn't need outward signs to read his son. His ears picked up sounds of the accelerated heartbeat, the shallowness of breath. These signs might be undetectable to other than youkai ears but they were vivid indications to the youkai lord. Every twitch of a muscle in the face, the barest shift of stance, all were telling signals to Inutaisho, as blatant as if the boy had scrawled them on the wall. Sesshomaru knew he was in trouble and would have to answer to his father for his actions.

Inutaisho stopped his methodical pacing just behind his son's left shoulder. He leaned close so that his lips were just inches from the boy's ear. "I expect an explanation," he intoned softly. "I do not, however, expect it to be adequate."

Sesshomaru swallowed hard. "Yes, my lord Daimyo."

His father stalked across the room, the leather of his armor creaking ominously. Simply to burn off a little excess energy, and drive a point or two across to his adolescent son, he sent a thin flail of golden youki to wrap around the leg of a chair and drag it noisily over. He flopped gracelessly into the seat, one leg automatically kicking over the armrest as he planted his chin on his fist and stared at his son. "So? I'm waiting, what was the fight about this time?"

"We weren't fighting," Sesshomaru answered. His father's eyes glinted dangerously. "My lord Daimyo," he added quickly, a bead of sweat sliding down his cheek.

"Funny, that's not the version I heard," Inutaisho said dryly. "Is that the same story your cousin is going to give me?"

"I don't know," Sesshomaru said and groaned inwardly. I don't know was not an acceptable answer to his father. Not ever. "I mean, my lord Daimyo, I don't know what Naota is going to say we were fighting about. We were playing a game with Namichi and a few others and after I caught him cheating for the third time, I got angry and called him out."

Inutaisho grimaced and rubbed his face. "So you attacked your cousin because he was cheating at a game? Thank the gods it wasn't something serious. If you overreact like this over a game, I'd hate to see what you'd do if he really pissed you off. Twenty stitches this time, Sessh. Twenty!"

"I'm sorry, father," Sesshomaru said, looking down at the floor.

"You're sorry?" Inutaisho asked sarcastically. "You should be a damn sight more than sorry. You could have killed him."

Inutaisho stood and paced around the boy again. "Are you a child who needs your claws filed down because you can't control your temper? Or are you just so fascinated by slicing people up that you'll use any excuse to start a fight?"

"He was cheating," Sesshomaru burst out. "He was doing it on purpose to get under my skin, like he always does."

"I don't give a shit what Naota does to you," his father snapped harshly. "You're a hell of a lot stronger than him and you know it. How many times do I have to tell you to control your temper, especially around Naota?"

Sesshomaru stared at the ground, fuming but unwilling to open his mouth and dig his hole any deeper. Inutaisho looked at his son's sullen face and frowned. He placed his finger under the boy's chin and turned his head to the side. Three pale pink marks were visible against the skin of his son's throat, running from just beneath the jawline to his collarbone. "He marked you," Inutaisho said in satisfaction. "Good for him."

Sesshomaru twisted away from his father's grip. "You always take his side," he grumbled. The demon lord scowled at his son, both for the disrespect and for the resentful tone he heard in those words. "In this, you're damn right I'm taking his side. Naota may be your cousin, but he doesn't heal like we do, he's not as physically tough or as fast as you are. Did you want to kill him? Do you like bullying people who can't fight you back on your own level? That's pathetic, Sessh. I won't have my son behaving like a common beast of a youkai."

"It wasn't like that," Sesshomaru yelled, smarting from his father's accusation. "It wouldn't have happened at all if he'd just backed down like he should have. He's always got to push at me even when he can't back it up. It's not my fault he was born a weak, worthless hanyou who..."

Inutaisho struck his son hard in the face, hammering him with the full strength of his armor-clad hand. The younger demon flew several feet across the room and struck his head against the rough stone wall. He flopped limply to the floor and lay unconscious, his nose bleeding freely. The demon lord scowled fiercely for a moment and looked at his hand in contempt. His anger had come out of nowhere, he'd struck before his son could even realize what he'd said. Instant self-loathing filled him and his mouth twisted bitterly. "Inoki would be so proud of me," he said in a soft, dry voice.

He strode to the door, his fingers flexing absently. "Ari!" he called out sharply.

Ari's dark head appeared at the end of the corridor. "My lord?" he asked, his face neutral. Inutaisho jerked his head in the direction of the study as he walked briskly past his bodyguard. "Take Sessh back to his room, will you?"

The bodyguard's face remained impassive. "Of course, sire." Ari went into the study and picked up Sesshomaru and settled the boy's limp body over his shoulder. The young lord's white hair fell loosely over his face and Ari tried to walk gently so as not to jar the unconscious boy with too brisk a pace. As he proceeded down the corridors to where the family quarters were located, he became aware that he had acquired a small entourage.

"So," he said in his soft, mild tone. "Were you listening at the door this time or are any of you going to tell me what really happened this afternoon?"

Three youngsters instantly let themselves be seen. They had every intention of staying by Sesshomaru's side until he woke and was able to talk to them. Ari personally had no interest in changing their minds and they knew him to be quiet and trustworthy, an all ages favorite among the household's children. He might the Daimyo's own personal bodyguard and as deadly a fighter as anyone except the lord Daimyo himself, but Ari was also pleasant, tolerant of even the most inappropriate or childish questions. He never got angry, rarely raised his voice and had a shy smile ready for everyone from the battalion commanders right down to the stable hands who kept the Daimyo's courtyard spotlessly clean.

Ari raised his eyebrows at the smallest adolescent who was wearing a rather cumbersome set of bandages wrapped around his neck and upper chest. Naota grinned up at him, settling into a light jog to keep up with the bodyguard's long legged pace.

"Just a friendly disagreement between men," Naota said easily.

Jano snorted, flicking his dark hair out of his eyes. "You were cheating, Naota."

The boy laughed, unconcerned with how close his indiscretions had come to ending his life. "Yeah, so what if I was? A little guy like me has to find some way to level the field. Sesshomaru was being a snot anyway."

"Ari-san, is Sesshomaru going to be okay?" Namichi asked, her brow crinkling in concern.

He glanced back at her. "I think so, Nami-chan. He's got a nasty bump on the back of his head and he'll feel those bruises for some time, but I think he's going to be fine." They had reached Sesshomaru's room and Ari set the boy gently down on his bed. Sesshomaru let out a low moan of protest. "There you see? He'll be up and around in no time. Maybe next time he'll think first before he disobeys his father."

Naota looked guilty. "It was my fault, Ari-san. Sessh had every right to be mad at me. I'm the one who should be punished."

"You are not the Daimyo's son," Ari said gently. "This isn't about you, Naota. Try to remember that." Now that his delivery duties had been completed, he headed out the door. Ari paused and glanced back at the young demons. "If he has trouble waking up or can't remember his name, call for the healers immediately. Even heads as hard as Sesshomaru's don't take kindly to hitting walls at that speed."

Jano leaned his elbows on the side of the bed and stared at his cousin. "You okay there, Sho-kun?" Sessh rolled over and winced. "Do I look okay, idiot?"

The boy grinned toothily at him and looked over at his other cousins. "Sounds okay to me!"

Sessh sat up, holding his head gingerly. His ears were still ringing. Namichi tried to dab at his bloody nose with a damp cloth she'd brought from the bathing room. He batted her hands away. "Leave me alone, damn it."

"Fine," she snapped, throwing the cloth at him so it smacked wetly against his chest. "You wanna lose the attitude, Sho-kun? I was trying to help."

"I don't need your help," he growled, wiping his nose with the back of his fist. He felt dizzy and wanted to lie back down and sleep until his head stopped hurting. He'd really rather be alone with his humiliation but he had a feeling his cousins weren't going to leave even if he asked them to.

"I'm sorry Sessh," Naota said finally. "It's all my fault you got hit."

"Shut up, runt," Sesshomaru muttered. "Why can't you just learn to move out the way like a normal person?"

Naota bounced onto the end of the bed and Sesshomaru thought he might be sick. His little cousin was actually a half year older than him but looked much younger. "I'm still sorry about getting you in trouble. I told the healers it was accident. I don't think they believed me."

Sessh glared at him. "Stop apologizing already, it's giving me the creeps." He dabbed at his nose again. The bleeding had stopped pretty much but his mouth was starting to swell up where his father had decked him.

Naota smirked. "And you say I can't duck a punch. You should see your face, it's turning purple."

Jano whacked the smaller boy lightly on the head. "Knock it off, Ta-kun. Can't you see that Sessh is in pain? If the Daimyo hit you we'd be scraping your brains off the wall."

Naota was unrepentant. "All I'm saying," he began. Jano and Namichi exchanged significant looks and the girl quickly grabbed the hanyou boy to drag him out of the room. "I think Sho-kun has had enough of you for today, cousin. Let's go down to the kitchen and see what they're making for dinner tonight."

He was willing to be diverted. "Mmmm dinner! Nami-chan, do you think that the cooks will feel sorry for me when they see my bandages? Because I want to weasel them into making something sweet for dessert, I coulda died you know!" His voice trailed off as the taller girl pulled him down the hallway. Jano rolled his eyes expressively at Sessh and his cousin's mouth quirked in a smile. "Nothing fazes him, does it?" Jano said.

"Lack of intelligence or common sense. I'm not sure which."

Jano settled on the edge of his cousin's bed, picking a bit of dirt out from under his claws. "Seriously, Sessh, I thought he was a goner that time. He just bled out so fast I didn't think he was going to survive. He wouldn't have if Namichi hadn't stuck her fingers in the wound and stopped the bleeding."

"Are you going to lecture me too?" Sesshomaru grumbled. He hadn't been trying to murder his littlest cousin, but he knew that was exactly what it looked like. The damn fool had turned at just the wrong moment when he'd swung his hand. Instead of a smart slap on the head, his claws had punctured the boy's throat. He'd jerked back in surprise and torn a nasty set of gashes right down Naota's chest. Sessh grimaced at the memory. It was a stupid, stupid accident and he knew his father would never believe he hadn't meant to hurt the brat that badly.

Jano decided to interpret his cousin's glum expression as a sign he wanted to be left alone. "You gonna be okay if I leave?"

Sesshomaru felt the lump on the back of his scalp. It ached like hell but he didn't think his skull was cracked. "Yeah Jano, I'm not going to have a fit or start foaming at the mouth."

"I'd stay to see that." Jano sounded mildly interested. Sessh laughed out loud and wished he hadn't. It hurt too much. "Maybe later, you go on and get dinner before Naota takes it all. He can really stuff himself for being such a little turd."

He waited until his cousin had left and shut the door behind him before easing back against the pillows. Sessh grit his teeth and tried to find a comfortable position for his head. Youkai healing abilities or not, he was in for an unpleasant evening. Sessh didn't want any food himself, just the thought of it made him queasy. Damn him, he thought resentfully. Why'd he have to hit me so hard? Naota is a weak, worthless hanyou. He's practically a human, he doesn't even look like a demon. His cousin was actually a three-quarter demon, born of a full youkai mother and hanyou father, but he didn't even have claws. His face was as round and soft as any human child's and his teeth were disturbingly small and blunt.

Not that Sessh had ever seen a human up close, but he'd heard the talk of the court about Naota's obvious defects. In spite of them or maybe because of them, the Daimyo still seemed to favor the boy. It rankled Sesshomaru that his father was so soft on the mouthy little brat. Any other youkai child, himself included, would have been disciplined severely for the pranks that Naota engineered. Instead the Daimyo laughed loudly at his nephew's jokes and jests, teasing the irrepressible hanyou about his utter lack of appropriate behavior.

He snorted to himself and had to use the cloth Nami-chan had thrown at him to wipe away the blood that was crusted under his nose. Stupid Naota, he thought, always getting everyone else in trouble but himself. He shivered, thinking of the look in his father's eyes just before he'd struck him. Sessh bit his tongue, knowing that he'd let him mouth get the better of him. He sighed and brushed the hair out of his eyes. Did his father really think him so stupid that he'd try to murder his cousin in front of witnesses? Probably. Sessh yawned, feeling sleepy in spite of his headache. It would be gone by morning, as would the bruises, he could count on that at least.

"Furthermore, I am deeply unhappy with the level of security that is surrounding the fortress proper. It's one thing to pass known household members into to the lower levels, it's entirely another to let uninspected tithe convoys right into the main courtyard. Next time I get wind of such lax security I'm going to personally oversee the next training session for the household guard and it's not going to be a fun day for anyone."

Inutaisho stalked the room restlessly as he dictated to his personal secretary. Juni scribbled frantically to keep up with his lord's garrulous mood, his nose buried in the sheets of parchment as he tried to take notes. The lord picked up a small glass of strong liquor as he wandered around his study, his soft embroidered robe trailing behind him in a cloud of gold and green silk. On the floor near the big, unlit fireplace, Izitaki was lounging on his elbows, looking magnificently bored.

"What's got him in such a pissy mood?" he said in a low voice to his half brother Ari. "He ranted for almost an hour about the kitchen staff wasting provisions by not putting up that shipment of fruit. I know it spoiled but it's still just fruit."

Ari shrugged lightly. He knew his lord was still nursing a little guilt and anger over what had happened with his son that afternoon. In typical Inutaisho fashion, he was avoiding thinking about the subject by focusing on mundane household details. Ari covered his mouth to muffle a soft yawn. "He's just letting off a little steam, Taki. It's easier on the furnishings if he does it verbally."

Inutaisho shot his bodyguards a look. "You two have something else you'd rather be doing?" he asked archly. Izitaki grinned. "Of course not, my lord. You know I live to hear your lectures on sanitation and plumbing." The lord Daimyo plucked a fresh peach from the bowl on his desk and hurled it at his flippant bodyguard. Izitaki caught the peach with a smile and bit down into the sweet fruit.

"You have no idea how much work I have to do," Inu said coldly. It seemed like no one on the staff had a clue how to manage when he was out of residence. For the most part, he trusted his staff to keep things running, he trusted his advisors and councilors to manage the court and he trusted his captains to keep the army in fighting condition. Just when he thought he could relax and have a bit of a rest, that his entire world was running smoothly, some idiot of a low ranking guard forgets to inspect a convoy. This in turn caused a delay in the unloading of the produce that the traders were bringing in, which led to an entire shipment of fresh melons being left to ferment in the hot courtyard, causing a drove of flies and insects to infest the lower levels of the kitchen. Then, some fool on the cleaning staff forgot to reopen the water main after cleaning the ducts and the plumbing for the entire north wing had backed up, causing a mass evacuation of the servant's quarters. Now he had half a fortress full of displaced employees trying to sleep in the main audience hall while the other half grimly tried to scrub the stench out of the north wing. There were days when it just didn't pay to get out of bed in the morning.

And then there was the incident of this afternoon, which most of his personal staff was still trying to tip toe around. He'd been in the process of chewing out his captain of the household guard over the convoy when a red-faced young healer had burst into the room, apologizing profusely for the interruption, but would the Daimyo please come immediately as his son had apparently slit his nephew's throat and the boy was bleeding all over the infirmary. He'd gone at a dead run to see about it and found Naota sitting up in bed as the healers wrapped him in bandages. Apparently the strike had just missed all the major vessels and arteries even if it had bled spectacularly. Naota was going to be fine, although he was giggling incoherently from the medication he'd been given to block the pain. All he was able to discern was that Sesshomaru had for some reason tried to tear his young cousin's throat out. Naota tried to insist to the healers that it wasn't deliberate, but Inutaisho knew that Naota would have likely covered for his cousin even if he'd been missing a few limbs. It was like the boy to brush off a near miss, his nephew was always cheerfully unconcerned with his own safety.

That did not excuse his son. He half believed it was really an accident but he was still furious at the lack of control such a mishap implied. Since birth, his son had been trained to use his claws with care and the discernment such weapons deserved. For the most part, fights between young youkai were part of growing up and he was pleased to see that his son had inherited both his strength and his mother's deadly grace. It was up to him now to make sure the boy didn't learn to enjoy ripping things up for the fun of it. Control was the key, self-control. There were always going to be accidents but did the damn kid really think that he was going to tolerate such behavior?

Inutaisho became aware that his bodyguards and secretary were staring at him. "That's enough for tonight," he said gruffly, waving his hand to dismiss Juni. It was time for him to let his son in on a few details about what it meant to be lord of the Western lands and show him how even the Daimyo himself had to answer for his actions. Sessh was old enough now to start taking on some responsibility. But first he had something he needed to take care of, he'd put it off for too many years already.

"Ari, Izitaki," he said, strolling around the room to where his guards sat. Ari stood to attention, but Izitaki just looked up at him curiously from the floor. Most lords wouldn't put up with the younger brother's casualness in his presence. Inutaisho found it refreshing that at least Izitaki and his brother didn't dance around him like anxious courtesans when he spoke to them. They were friends more than they were guards and he had no concerns whatsoever when it came to their loyalty.

"I want you to make preparations for a short journey, leaving tomorrow afternoon. It won't take long, we'll be back here in plenty of time for us to meet up with the southern command for our scheduled rendezvous. I need to visit an old friend and I want Sesshomaru to come along with us." That got a raised eyebrow from Ari. "Where are we going, my lord?"

Inutaisho smiled grimly. "I need to see a man about a sword."