A/N: So, how long has it been? Almost two years, damn. Anyway, I guess I kind of lost interest in the story for a bit. Sorry about that…I can't really do more than apologize at this point. And yeah, I revised this damn thing …again. I think I'm finally satisfied now and I'm not making any more changes.
Anyway, I hope to have this thing wrapped up pretty soon. I promise it will be finished, this one and all the others too. Until then, thanks for hanging in there!
The pain was a fine needle that stabbed her right in the middle of her forehead. What started as a pinching, annoying prickle had blossomed into a throbbing, pounding ache. It was quite distracting and she simply didn't have time for it.
The fortress had been in an uproar since morning and Makiko expected nothing less. She hadn't seen the…the horse…herself, but stories of its arrival were flying hot and heavy from the lowest wardroom to the top of the tallest tower. Although she hadn't heard tell of anyone being gruesomely dismembered as of yet, the stable staff were keeping a safe distance from their legendary, if infamous, guest.
Just how long Kuchinashi intended to stay, nobody knew. However, as stories of the late Daimyo's war stallion were as colorful as those of his former master, all of the breeding dragons had been evacuated the western courtyard
The morning had been full of mysteries, but as the afternoon started to lean towards early evening, Makiko became aware that everyone seemed to be taking the unusual events as a sign of a holiday. Most of the housekeeping staff was still in the kitchen, sitting shoulder to shoulder with members of the guard. The cooks, stewards, and other kitchen workers had pitched in and prepared food for the growing crowd, all without consulting the head of staff, and an air of decidedly festive occasion descended over the usually somber fortress of the West.
It was as if everyone was celebrating and Makiko was the only one left in the dark as to why.
It certainly wasn't because Kagome and Kohaku had returned. She'd take one look at the boy's ashen face and felt her throat go dry. Makiko considered herself to be an adequate healer, but she knew death when she saw it. Kohaku's eyes were glazed, his pupils contracted, and his breath rattled in his chest like pebbles tossed against stone.
There was nothing that she could do.
Luckily, Kohaku hadn't been damned by her lack of expertise. Makiko knew how to set bones and concoct poultices, leaving the more serious wounds and sickness to the few healers that specialized in such things. Inuyoukai were a hardy lot and the need for advanced knowledge in medicine was a rare occurrence.
Even if she had been an expert in more specialized healing techniques, she could do nothing to mend a broken soul. That was something that had to be left to priests and mystics.
Or in this case, a very young human priestess and a somewhat mystical and inscrutable inuyoukai clanlord.
Makiko shivered. She'd always respected Barou-sama, heard that he was a quiet, calm, and almost gentle personality among a race of temperamental and contentious inuyoukai. In fact, she'd rather admired him because of his air of placid acceptance; it was quite at odds with the blustering males of the fortress or even Sesshomaru-sama's cool and absolute authority.
Cousins supposedly related though their respective mothers and a mirror of everything elegant and superior in a youkai bloodline, it was no surprise that Barou-sama was highly respected by all.
Jano detested Barou-sama with a passion bordering on outright hatred. That definitely made the clanlord more interesting. Add that to the rumor that he possessed the ability to read minds, had been a student of the late Daimyo, and Makiko was definitely curious about how he could help Kohaku.
Although why he needed the assistance of a mere human, a sweet girl to be sure, but still…
Watching closely, she couldn't say what they'd done. Kagome had simply held Kohaku, the boy's head resting in her lap. Barou-sama hadn't touched the boy at all except for a fingertip that had rested briefly on the child's forehead. She heard Kagome murmur something softly, heard Barou-sama's slow exhalation and…
Kohaku simply opened his eyes, confused and disoriented for a moment as if he had no idea how he'd come to be there. Kagome gently stroked his hair and asked him how he felt, if he was in any pain.
"No," the boy whispered. "Why…why is everyone staring at me?"
"You had a fever," Barou-sama said quietly, "but you're going to fine, Kohaku. Just rest for now, and let Makiko care for you."
"Has my sister returned?"
Kagome opened her mouth to answer, but Barou held up a hand to keep her from speaking. "Sesshomaru-sama has gone to fetch her," the clanlord said in a smooth tone. "She will soon be at your side."
Kohaku smiled faintly, his eyelids already drooping. "I'm so tired…"
Barou-sama nodded to Kagome and the girl gently eased Kohaku from her lap. Moving with exaggerated care, she tiptoed to the door as if her light steps could disturb the already sleeping boy. Gesturing to Makiko, the clanlord indicated that they should follow Kagome's example and let the boy rest.
Once outside though, the young woman sagged against the wall so suddenly that Makiko had to be quick to keep her from sliding to the floor. Kagome was exhausted and her body shook with bone-deep tremors. Stroking the girl's hair as she gently rocked her, Makiko turned a baffled look to Barou.
"Is Kohaku really going to be okay?" Kagome asked, tears streaking her pale face.
Barou frowned, meeting Makiko's concerned eyes. "I've blocked the memories of what happened and what was done to him," he said, looking thoughtful. "His body will recover now that you've purified the lingering effects of Naraku's poison."
A gentle smile crossed his face and he reached out to touch the girl's chin. "Kohaku isn't the only one who needs rest," he chided. "You've been through your own ordeal, Kagome."
Shivering, she clutched at Makiko's arms. "No, I should go to Inuyasha. He's still so angry and now that Kohaku's going to be all right, I should try to talk to him. Oh, and Shippou must be so worried about us. I need to find him right away, if he teases Inuyasha right now they'll just start fighting and I…"
Barou-sama's fingertip flicked up to brush Kagome's forehead and the girl's eyes glazed over, leaning heavily on Makiko's shoulder as the youkai woman steered her to the nearest room where a bed was waiting. Once the girl was settled, already sighing in her sleep, Makiko gave Barou-sama a sly grin.
"Useful trick that is, my lord."
He shrugged. "My wife says the same thing when our children refuse to go to sleep."
She didn't miss his slight sigh or Barou-sama's worried frown as they left Kagome to rest. Makiko knew that he wouldn't have said anything to distress the girl and also knew that he wouldn't lie if she asked him directly.
"Will Kohaku recover?" Makiko wasn't sure she could stand watching as the boy died slowly. It would have been kinder if he'd never awoken from his stupor if Sesshomaru-sama did not return.
The clanlord paused, glancing at Makiko over his shoulder. "Perhaps you are right," he said, answering her unspoken thoughts. "However, Kohaku's life or death is not something that you or I might have say over. His soul is bound to Tenseiga, bound to Sesshomaru. He may have lingered only because he was not given leave to die."
Confused, she bit her lip and stared up at him. Barou-sama's face was smooth as glass, completely void of expression. "Is there nothing we can do, my lord?"
"I believe not," Barou answered. Makiko thought she saw something flicker in his eyes, a glint of possibility. "That it is not within our power is true, but Kohaku is fortunate to not rely on our limitations."
"I don't see how…"
Turning, he laid a finger against Makiko's lips to silence her questions. "Not all is as it seems," he murmured, his eyes gone strangely unfocused once again. "I refuse to believe in coincidence, or that this child would be doomed. Be patient, Makiko-san. We must wait for Sesshomaru-sama's return."
With that, he left her standing alone in the passage.
Sango knelt beside the stream, washing her hands in the ice-cold water. It felt like days since she'd had a proper bath. She wanted nothing more than to duck her head in the stream and let the cold carry away all the filth. The fear, the pain, and the memory of his hands on her…those sensations weren't as tangible as ordinary dirt and layers of sweat. The coldest water or the harshest soap wouldn't be able to numb her body or cleanse her heart.
She resolved to keep moving, keep to the task at hand. So what if a large part of her just wanted to curl up in a ball and hide from the world? It wasn't going to do her or Sesshomaru any good to retreat inside her mind just so she could try to process the past few days.
Nodding her head decisively, she filled a small container with water. Thankfully she'd been able to find some of her gear. He must have stripped her pack before he cast the spell over her, she'd found it only a few feet from their last campsite. Even though kidnapped by an immortal monster, she was only a frail human and had needed the essentials of food and water.
Again, she wondered what he'd seen in her, desired from her. Her body? Her child? It baffled her now as it had terrified her then.
"There's nothing special about me," Sango muttered, getting to her feet and brushing the dirt off her knees. "So much trouble, was I worth dying for?"
She caught her breath…and stopped that thought in its tracks. The monster was dead, but she wasn't even going to consider that Sesshomaru might die as well.
He was unconscious, sliding from her grasp almost as soon as he'd been able to recognize her face. At first, she thought he only needed to rest, that his body would recuperate from the damage. Then, as the hours passed and he didn't so much as stir, she remembered things her father had taught her back when she was training to become an exterminator.
Youkai as powerful as Sesshomaru could expend immense energy in battle. Prolonged use of that power would weaken them; consume them like a lamp burning too brightly would consume more oil. Unlike humans who had to rely on their will and physical bodies in a fight, youkai were magical creatures. Their youki was as much a part of their bodies as blood and bone, and once depleted past the point where they could recover on their own, they would die even if the physical body escaped life-threatening injuries.
It explains a lot, she thought as she returned to his side. Like how Inuyasha had always healed so quickly, or how Shippou could create illusions that seemed so real. Sesshomaru was able to wield his youki as a weapon, with hardly more effort than a flick of his fingertips. He could transform his body, how could he not survive this?
Sighing, her heart fell when she saw that he hadn't moved from where she'd left him. Across the blasted clearing, the unnamed monster's corpse was a forbidding darkness and Sango couldn't bring herself to look in his direction for very long. When she thought about what he'd done to her, she had to bite back a scream because her body trembled with anger. Still, when she remembered that poor tormented child of so many years past, she had to fight back tears.
It was not a comfortable feeling to pity the one who had violated her.
So she forced those feelings to the side and sat down beside Sesshomaru. Moving with brisk efficiency, she tore a few shreds of cloth from her yukata and wet the material with the water she'd carried back. If she couldn't heal him, she could at least clean off the dirt and blood.
Carefully, she wiped his face, admiring again the ethereal beauty of his features. The sculpted cheekbones, the smooth line of his brow, even unconscious he was composed and regal. If she hadn't seen his hidden nature, she might have thought him to be as coldly perfect as a temple statue. Instead, she saw the sensual curve of his lips, knew intimately how warm and soft they would be to kiss.
Smiling sadly, she brushed his hair away from his face, letting her fingers caress the delicate tips of his ears. Traveling down the smooth skin of his throat, she gently bathed the scratches and gouges. Sango was grateful to discover that much of the blood was not his own, and then shuddered when she remembered the horrific wounds that he'd inflicted on her kidnapper.
So beautiful, so graceful…but behind those soft lips were the fangs of a demon, sharp and strong as steel. She'd seen him be cruel and violent. Arrogant too, with callous disregard for anyone weaker than himself, because among youkai the weak became prey. Only the strong survived, and only the strongest could dominate.
Then again, she'd seen the same behavior in human men. The lords and nobility that stepped over the poor, the wealthy merchants who turned blind eyes on the starving peasants. Greedy men, driven by desires and cowardice, she'd been brought up to despise them just as certainly as she'd been trained to kill demons.
"I don't think we're so different, you and I," Sango murmured, taking Sesshomaru's hand. She'd been swept away by his sudden passion that night that she'd offered her body in gratitude for Kohaku's life. It wasn't something she'd planned or had even dreamed herself capable of; it was only that he had moved her so deeply.
Somehow, she had moved him as well. Taking her had been a momentary whim, she was sure. If he'd never approached her again, she wouldn't have been surprised. What surprised her was the deep sensuality and tenderness she felt whenever he touched her. Inexperienced in such matters, she had expected him to use her quickly or humiliate her, not coax her body into breathless pleasure.
Not love her. Not sacrifice himself because living without out her would be meaningless. She had distrusted him and he had misjudged her, so they had both been at fault for not understanding the depth of each other's feelings.
Sango rested her hand on Sesshomaru's chest; the faint beat of his heart felt like a promise against her palm. Sliding down next to him, she thought his body felt too cold, stiff almost. In the back of her mind, she kept reviewing everything she knew about youkai, trying to think of something, anything, she could do.
She knew more about poisons than she knew about healing. Her father had spoken of restorative medicines, ancient techniques that were cultivated in order to better understand youkai. At the time, she didn't understand why they would bother. It was an exterminator's job to kill demons, not to heal them.
Now she wished that she'd paid more attention, since it was her lover and not an enemy whose life hung in the balance.
Exhausted by more than worry, she felt her eyelids drooping as she rested her head on Sesshomaru's shoulder. She wished that he'd wake, give her a condescending look and calmly announce that she'd worried herself half-sick for nothing. Of course he'd come for her, of course he would defeat the evil that had threatened his woman and child. Foolish of her to think otherwise when…
A rustle from the edge of the forest immediately had Sango on her feet, every nerve quivering with alertness. Something was approaching and she had no idea if it was a harmless animal or far worse. Like Naraku, who might still be hunting for his former ally and instrument of terror. Or worse, if Naraku only waited until he was certain that his opponents were dispatched of with efficiency and it was safe to investigate.
Chills ran down her spine at the thought. Naraku wouldn't pass on an opportunity to attack Sesshomaru while he was unconscious, not that vile bastard. She was alone, not defenseless, but still alone. Her friends were gone, her little brother, even Hiraikotsu was lost to her…the only weapon she had was a dull blade made from the fang of a long-dead inuyoukai, a blade that could not be used to kill.
Grimly, she clutched Tenseiga's hilt, holding the sheathed blade in front of her in a defensive stance. A blade that would not cut, a sword that would not kill, it was all she had left to defend what she held most dear. She'd swing it like a club if that's all she could do, but she'd be damned to hell herself before she'd let Naraku touch what belonged to her!
Cursing under her breath like a soldier, Makiko stormed her way through the lower passages. After her odd conversation with Barou-sama, she returned to the infirmary in hope of finding something to ease her distracting headache. What she found instead had transcended her pain with the full force of a raging storm and nearly blinded her more effectively than the worst migraine.
The key to the medicine storage was missing. Usually kept locked more to discourage anyone from accidentally poisoning themselves, the key's location was only known to a few. Trusted and experienced healers like herself, the captain of the household guard, and unfortunately, one other person.
She was going to kill her sister.
Makiko ground her teeth, trying to imagine any excuse that Aiko might have for such a stupid trick. Then she caught her breath, her eyes widening as she remembered her sister's newly discovered condition.
Could Aiko…why would Aiko want to end the pregnancy? Honestly, Makiko couldn't think of any reason…unless it had to do with that human monk.
"Sister? Were you looking for me?"
Makiko turned quickly on her heel, immediately searching the young woman's face for any sign of problems. She wasn't pale; her cheeks were rosy and her eyes bright. Aiko slowly set down the stack of linens she was carrying and met her sister's stare curiously.
"Do you have the key to the medicine storage?" Makiko asked in an even voice.
Aiko blinked. "Why would I…" Her cheeks darkened slightly as her hand slipped under her collar. "Oh, I am sorry," she said, holding out the key with a slight smile. "I forgot to put it back."
Snatching the key from Aiko's hand, Makiko's expression grew even more severe. "And?" she prompted when Aiko didn't offer any explanation.
"And what, sister?"
In general, Makiko disapproved of individuals who couldn't hold their tempers. She admired Sesshomaru-sama for his cool detachment, his absolute control over his emotions that set him so far above average inuyoukai who were inclined to become belligerent and settle disputes with their fists. His civilized manner was an example to them all, herself included.
Although right now, she was sorely tempted to slap some sense into her idiot of a sister.
She let the key dangle from her finger, hoping that Aiko would just realize she'd been caught already and confess. "Is there anything you need to tell me?"
"I don't think so." The girl's face was guileless, completely devoid of any subterfuge or excuse. Instead, Aiko was looking at her like she was the one who had secrets to hide.
"You must have had a reason for taking it," Makiko said, her eyes sparkling with irritation. "Did you have an illness that you couldn't tell me about?"
Her sister blinked, confused. "Why would I hide anything from you?"
Growling deep in her throat, Makiko's patience suddenly snapped like a twig caught in a violent gale. She grabbed Aiko by the arm and dragged her bodily down the corridor, swearing again with language she'd heard Jano use when he was especially annoyed with someone.
"You are lying," she said coldly, catching Aiko's shocked expression. "What was it? Did you change your mind about that human's baby or did he change it for you?"
Aiko stopped suddenly, planting her feet and wrenching her arm from her sister's grasp. "I already told you," the girl snapped, "Miroku is happy, we're both happy about having a child!"
Staring into her sister's eyes, Makiko had no choice but to believe her. "What did you need?"
"I didn't need anything!"
"Then why did you take the key?"
Flushing, Aiko looked away. "It was for Miroku," she confessed, finally looking guilty and embarrassed. Under her sister's severe stare, Aiko started to squirm. "He asked if I had access to medicine, he said he needed it in case Sango-sama was injured."
Makiko swore again, rubbing her forehead in frustration. She didn't believe that for one minute. Devious and charming, Miroku was far from stupid. She couldn't say the same about her sister. The same herbs that would heal a youkai's ailments might be poisonous to a human and she was damned sure that Miroku wouldn't take a risk like that with Sango's life. Unless…
"Let's go," she said, steering Aiko towards the infirmary with a firm hand. "Show me what sort of medicines that foolish monk thought were needed."
The small fire crackled cheerfully as it consumed the dry twigs of the tinder. The flames were bright and merry, lapping at the larger pieces of wood teasingly as the coals beneath started to glow. Setting a metal bowl at the edge of the fire, Sango carefully filled it with clean water and let her shoulders relax.
It was going to be all right. She was no longer alone.
She'd been ready to go to war herself, swinging a sheathed sword and holding back a battle cry behind her lips. After the past few days, the only thing she could think was that she was about to be attacked again. It had never occurred to her how much she'd come to depend on her friends. Inuyasha's nose and sense of danger often warned them of what was coming; Kagome's cheerful confidence drove away all her doubts. Even Shippou was dependable, ready to defend his companions with his fox magic or simply lighten their burdens with his silly jokes. She was truly lucky to have such friends on her side, including one that had become most dear.
Miroku only smiled when he emerged from the thick underbrush, a few twigs and leaves still clinging to his hair. Glancing around the clearing at the unmistakable signs of battle, he took in the devastated scene. His eyes lingered on Sesshomaru's unmoving figure, and then hardened as he caught sight of the blood-soaked corpse of her kidnapper.
"It seems that I missed the fight," he said mildly, reaching up to scratch Kirara's ears. "Formidable as usual, my dear Sango."
Sango choked back a laugh and slowly lowered Tenseiga. Now would be the time to say something smart, she thought, as her muscles started to tremble. Miroku never seemed to be at a loss for words, it was her that was always tongue-tangled at times like this. Too serious, too shy...he'd always had her at a disadvantage, just like now when she couldn't even speak to answer the warmth in his voice or the lines of worry etched on his face.
"Sango?" His voice sounded strained, anxious. "Sango, are you..."
She was suddenly aware that her face was wet, tears falling unnoticed as she shook with violent, silent sobs. Sesshomaru's sword dropped from her numb fingers with a clatter and Sango slowly collapsed to the ground. Honestly, she wanted to tell Miroku that she was fine, that she'd handled everything like a strong, confident woman should, but she couldn't get the words to come out as more than a pitiful, keening wail.
It should have been an awkward moment, but as if he'd never incurred Sesshomaru's wrath in the past, Miroku didn't hesitate. He dropped his staff, fell to his knees and pulled Sango into a tight embrace.
"Hush," he whispered into her hair, rocking her in his arms like a child. "It's going to be okay, Sango. I promise, it's going to be okay."
As she slowly pulled herself together, Miroku relaxed eased Sango back. Cupping her face between his hands, he used his thumbs to wipe her tear-stained cheeks. Her eyes were swollen, her nose red, and she used the back of her grubby fist to wipe it self-consciously. Endearing and childlike in this moment of vulnerability, he thought she'd never been so beautiful to his eyes.
"It seems like you always find me crying," she muttered, embarrassed by her emotional reaction.
He smiled at that, gave her hand a quick squeeze. "We were worried about you, Kirara and I," Miroku told her. "Kohaku is safe, Sango. Kagome too, Inuyasha brought them back to the fortress early this morning."
Her expression crumbled and Sango covered her face with her hands, breathing deeply as her shoulders shook. He sat quietly, waiting for her to absorb the news that Kagome and Kohaku were alive. Knowing her as well as he did, he knew that Sango must have been absolutely desperate to protect them. Even at the sacrifice of her own safety, Sango would have put her brother and Kagome first.
He cleared his throat. "I was scared that I'd find you too late."
She dragged her eyes up to his face, her smile bleak as a desert. "I'm alive," she said simply. He saw her hand curve protectively over her belly. "We're both alive," she said in a firmer voice, and Miroku was grateful to see the color return to her face.
"And…Sesshomaru?" Miroku hadn't missed that the daiyoukai wasn't moving, hadn't stirred when he'd comforted Sango.
"He's alive," she murmured, closing her eyes as if praying for her husband's recovery. "It…it must have been a terrible battle, but he survived."
Miroku glanced over her shoulder, across the clearing where he could see a form sprawled lifelessly in a pool of dark blood. "Sesshomaru lives and your attacker is defeated," he said thoughtfully. "A terrible battle certainly."
She dropped her eyes, wrapping her arms around her body and shivering as if a cold wind chilled her. "I didn't see it," Sango whispered. "I…was unconscious when Sesshomaru came for me."
Concerned, he didn't miss the slight shudder and the way her throat moved as if she were trying to keep from vomiting. His mouth went dry in sudden horror.
"Sango, he didn't…"
"Yeah," she said, still not looking at him. "At least I think he did. He had me under some kind of spell, I can't remember exactly what happened."
"Monster," Miroku whispered.
Sango's head came up, her expression hard as stone. "He was a monster," she said in a soft, fierce voice. "He was made to be that way, just as all monsters are made. No one would choose to be that way of their own will."
His eyes widened slightly and she sighed, her shoulders sagging again as she rubbed her eyes. "Don't look at me like that," Sango muttered. "I'm not defending him, Miroku. I just can't help that some part of me pities him even now. To be so monstrous, so hated and so full of hatred…he never had a choice to be anything but a monster."
Reflecting on her words, Miroku wasn't sure that he could spare any compassion for such a beast. Perhaps Sango, with her honesty even in face of her own abuse and terror, had been able to reach even a creature so corrupted by its own darkness.
He hadn't been able to protect her from this, but that didn't mean all he had to offer now was words to comfort her. Standing quickly, he held out his hand to help Sango to her feet. "I've brought some things from the fortress," he said, his tone still mild in spite of his outrage for what she'd suffered. "Let's take a look at that mate of yours. Since he nearly killed himself to save you, it would be a shame you weren't able to thank him properly."
"For the last time," Makiko said, her breath hissing between her teeth like vented steam, "tell me where Jano and Naota are!"
The guard, a rather unpleasant individual by the name of Nizo, snorted and went back to picking his claws. "Pissed if I know, woman. Go ask somebody else."
Makiko scowled. After thoroughly reaming Aiko over her monumental stupidity in letting Miroku take what he wanted of the medicinal herbs, she'd decided that since Jano declared the humans to be his responsibility, he damned well needed to do something about it. Discovering that Jano had disappeared from his bed in the infirmary had only added to her aggravation.
So far, all she'd been able to find out was that he'd gone off somewhere with Naota. Inuyasha hadn't been seen recently either. She'd expected him to be hovering over Kagome as the girl slept and was surprised when he wasn't. One of the maids thought she'd seen the hanyou-sama heading towards the storerooms that were in the oldest part of the fortress.
Now she'd come to discover Nizo, a man she normally considered too lazy to bother with a lie, skulking down here as if he'd been ordered to perform an unpleasant task. Makiko was no fool and she knew the guards' rotations quite well as a head of staff should. There was no reason for him to be guarding the dust of an unused corridor like it was hammered from solid gold.
Now her patience was truly at its end. Makiko grabbed the reluctant guard's ear between her claws and dug in.
"Ow! Leggo my ear, you damned bitch!"
"Not until you tell me the truth," she snarled, emphasizing her words with a brutal twist. All inuyoukai had sensitive ears and could not stand having them abused. Makiko was too angry to play fair, realizing that if Nizo was keeping watch in the deserted corridor instead of drinking with his comrades, there was only one person who could have threatened him into it.
"Where is Jano?" she asked sweetly.
"Told you I don't…ow!" Nizo's eyes were watering and he tried in vain to pull away from her, wincing when blood started to trickle down the inside of his ear. "Bitch, it's no wonder he don't wanna be found by you!"
She let him go, planting her hands on her hips and glowering up at Nizo. "If you know he doesn't want to be found, then you know where he's hiding."
Nizo's surly expression only grew uglier, if that was possible. "I ain't never said no such thing!"
Makiko tilted her head to the side, "I can make you wish that you told me," she said, considering her various options to persuade. "There are certain herbs than can be added to your food that will keep you on your knees and in the latrine for days, Nizo. If you don't want to be inspecting your meals for the next few months, you'd better give me answers."
Grumbling, he jerked his chin towards the end of the corridor. "Last door on the right," he muttered. "Ain't my business to be keeping his secrets, hell with you both anyway."
Ignoring him, Makiko stalked away with her fists clenched tightly. Just like Jano to hole himself away in the depths of the fortress when she needed him to keep order. Even recovering from his recent injuries, his presence would be a welcome authority during Sesshomaru-sama's absence. Strange guests, legendary war stallions, devious monks and exhausted humans aside, she had an entire fortress full of staff and guards that needed supervision, and by the gods, she was not going to do it all alone!
Reaching the end of the corridor, she shook back her hair, straightened her clothing, and shoved the door open without so much as a polite knock.
"Jano, you miserable…"
The words died in her throat and Makiko's mouth dropped open in surprise. As far as she knew, this was an unused storeroom, but it seemed she was misinformed. Jars and containers of varying sizes lined the walls, some stacked three or four deep. All bore a fine layer of dust, but it didn't keep her from reading the inscriptions on their surfaces. Rare vintages, distillations of sake and rice whiskey, crates of small clay jars and elegant vessels, they were piled to the ceiling in no particular order.
In the center of the room, a low table was covered by empty cups and spilled liquor. The strong aroma of alcohol made her nose burn and Makiko thought that a person of weaker constitution might actually become drunk just from the fumes. The scent of exotic spices hung in the air and when her eyes met Jano's, he slowly lowered the cup at his lips and gave her a smug grin.
"Makiko, how nice of you to join us."
"What…what the hell is this?" If the household guard had known that such a cache of booze existed, there was no way it could have been kept a secret. She raised her hands and then dropped them again in exasperation.
"Oh this?" Jano took a careful sip before setting his cup on the table. "This would be the private stash of our most revered former Daimyo. Its location was revealed only…eh, recently. A finer collection of intoxicants you will not find in all of the western lands."
"Hardly." Grinning, he leaned back against a huge cask and gestured to his companions. "I'm not drunk yet, but I am working on it. Naota, on the other hand…"
Face down on the table, Naota's eyes were closed and his long braid fell over his folded arms like an afterthought. He stirred slightly when his name was mentioned, but otherwise didn't move from his comfortable position.
"Liar, you're no more sober than me," he said in a muffled, slurred voice.
"Never said I was sober," Jano replied, trying to sound dignified. His long hair trailed loose over his shoulders and he scratched absently at the bandages around his bare torso. "I should have said I wasn't drunk enough…yet."
"That the one you been talking about?" Naota asked, squinting at Makiko as if he was seeing double.
Jano positively beamed at her. "We were drinking to celebrate my soon-to-be fatherhood," he announced, reaching for a large jar. "Another round, Ta-kun?"
Raising his head, Naota was barely able to grasp the cup in front of him. "I'm not gonna drink to your virility," he muttered, swaying slightly as he brought the liquor to his lips. "I'll drink to the lady instead."
She was about to answer that when a loud snore interrupted her. Over in the corner, Inuyasha was sprawled on his back with both arms flung out on either side. His mouth was wide open, saliva glistening on his chin. With a snort, he suddenly twitched, muttered, and rolled over to bury his face in a fuzzy gray pillow.
Makiko blinked when the pillow wagged its tail, the head of a large dog suddenly appearing from under Inuyasha's white hair. It regarded her thoughtfully for a moment with dark eyes, then nudged the unconscious hanyou with its muzzle. Inuyasha grumbled softly, sounding like he was trying to curse in his sleep until the dog gave him a comforting lick on the nose.
"Brat can't handle his liquor," Naota said, sounding aggrieved. "Must be his human blood."
Jano raised an eyebrow. "And that's your excuse too?"
"I'm three-quarters youkai, you ass." Naota grinned, pushing his hair back from his forehead as he sat back. "And I can still drink you under the table."
"Is that so?" Answering the challenge in Naota's voice, Jano reached for a new jug of what seemed to be especially potent sake. "Well, we will see and…"
"Enough!" Makiko glowered at them both, hands on her hips and fuming. "I didn't come down here to watch the two of you drink yourselves piss-drunk!"
"You didn't?" Jano shrugged and sloshed clear alcohol into Naota's cup, spilling more than a bit. Apparently nowhere as sober as he was pretending, he smiled up at Makiko. "Then what did you want, sweetness?"
"Sweetness?" Makiko swore she was going to teach him a thing or two about sweetness. Not to mention the embarrassment of having him brag about her pregnancy, even if it did give her a warm feeling to know he was celebrating. If she didn't have so much to do, she'd show him a way to celebrate that didn't involve drinking himself into the floor.
All business now, she dug into her yukata for the packet of herbs. After Aiko pointed out what Miroku had taken, she'd been even more concerned and confused by the monk's actions. There was nothing here that would be healthy or helpful for a human…or woman who was carrying a hanyou child.
"Can either of you tell me what use a human might have for these?"
Naota opened the packets, rolling the crushed leaves between his fingers and sniffing thoughtfully. "I thought you were a healer in this fortress."
"I am." Makiko knew exactly how she would use these herbs, some exotic, some more mundane. "I was asking what use a human might have for them."
Rubbing his fingers together, Naota frowned and shook his head. "Not much, I'd say. This bitter root might be used to treat a fever, but I'd choose something more effective. If you steep these herbs in water, you could use them to draw out an infection, but it could leave a nasty scar on human skin."
Shrugging, he poured the contents of the packets on the table and stirred them with a finger. "Any of these can be used alone as a potent restorative for a youkai," he said, telling her the one thing she already knew. "If I found a demon at death's door from a battle, together these would be a most effective remedy for restoring their health."
Makiko relaxed a bit, grateful to hear that Miroku wasn't about to accidentally poison himself or Sango with some half-assed herb-lore. She didn't know what she'd been worried about, but it seemed the monk had no ill intentions. Although, why he would pick these well-known youkai remedies…
"However," Naota continued, oblivious to Makiko's relief, "this is something else." He held up the smallest packet, a salt that was commonly used for drying or treating animal hides. "If combined with these other herbs in the right proportions, you could produce a strong poison. In a weakened state, it could be fatal even to a strong youkai, certainly deadly to a human."
He dropped the packet on the table and met Makiko's eyes. "Has someone been poisoned?"
Her mouth very dry, Makiko swallowed hard. "I hope not."
After steeping the herbs that Miroku had given her, Sango poured the lightly colored liquid into a smaller container. When it had cooled, she cradled Sesshomaru's head in her lap and twisted a leaf and placed the end between her husband's lips.
"A restorative, you're sure?" Anxious as she was, Sango didn't mean to question Miroku, but she wanted to hear it from him just the same.
The monk nodded, leaning forward to pour the restorative tea into Sango's makeshift funnel. "As sure as I can be," he said quietly. "Aiko told me these herbs were given to youkai when they were weak from illness or injury. I confess that I don't know much about how they work."
"I hate feeling so helpless," Sango murmured, stroking Sesshomaru's hair. He was so quiet, so still. It was extremely unnerving, every few minutes she could feel the faintest of movements as he took a breath. His breathing was so slow that even when she pressed her fingers to his lips, she could feel no warmth, no blush of life in his soft skin.
A droplet appeared on his cheek, and then another and Sango closed her eyes.
Live, she whispered to him, speaking from the very heart of her soul. We need you, I need you. I swear, I will never leave your side again.
Watching them, Miroku couldn't help but feel like the intruder. All the words of comfort he knew only dried on his tongue, there was nothing he could say, nothing more than he could do. Other than to keep his silence as Sango sat a lonely vigil, waiting for the one she loved most to live. Or die. Or linger for days if that was what it took for a daiyoukai to return from the edge of darkness.
His eyes fell on the scabbard of Tenseiga, remembering again how Kohaku had died and then returned from death with a single stroke from Sesshomaru. What a mystery, he thought, and what a burden to carry. If the rumors he'd heard in the fortress were true, only Sesshomaru was able to use the blade that could cut death. What an irony that this same blade was useless when its master was the one in need.
Still, it hurt nothing to try.
"Here," he said, pushing the hilt towards Sango. "Put it in his hand, maybe it will help."
She nodded, carefully unsheathing the blade before placing the hilt in Sesshomaru's palm, cupping his pale fingers with her own as if she could will the sword to heal her lover.
Miroku got to his feet, legs aching from kneeling beside her for so long. Around them, the devastated earth was like an accusation, a slice of hell brought to the world of the living. Staring at the uprooted trees, the deep gouges where they had been torn from the ground, he let out a soft sigh. Death and destruction, it followed them like a hound after prey.
Only this time, there would be no innocents to bury and mourn. So many lonely deaths, so many graves dug in silence. It didn't seem decent to him, not even now, to leave something like that lying under kind sunshine. He would have no words to speak, no blessing to offer, for this thing that had nearly destroyed Sango, her child, and the youkai that had learned to love a human.
Dark blood, sticky and nearly black against the ground, was congealed and thick around the body. Swallowing against the nausea that rose up in his throat, Miroku hesitated to come closer. He could see the horrific wounds, no less than the bastard deserved, and steeled himself against the urge to run away. Even in death, this thing was no less horrible and no less corrupt in the eyes of nature.
"I suppose it would be decent to bury you," he murmured, forcing himself to stare down at the ravaged face. "It would be better than you deserve, actually." He stopped a breeze played with the pitch-black hair of the monster, the darkness that lay unmoving and malignant as a promised threat.
No help for it, he decided grimly. "I won't leave you to rot, although you deserve much worse," he informed the corpse. "And I won't bury you either, because your corpse would offend the spirits of this forest and only breed more evil."
Miroku set his staff on the ground, starting to remove the beads around his hand. "Luckily," he said, wondering why he felt compelled to explain even to the dead, "I am uniquely equipped to deal with something like you. Inside my palm, I have a curse, a gift of our mutual friend, Naraku. If, for once, I can use this wind tunnel to cleanse this world of an abomination like yourself, I should thank him for it."
He had just unwrapped the beads and about to open his hand, when a guttural sound, like oil and glass dragged over shredded flesh reached his ears.
"A wind tunnel, you say. That's something not tried before." Again, a dark and bubbling laugh and Miroku froze, caught in a gaze so dark and empty that it chilled him from the inside out.
"Dear gods," the monk whispered. "How can you still be alive?"
Split lips parted in a wild, feral smile. "Come closer, little monk," the monster rasped. "I'll show you how it feels to live…as the dead."
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