Disclaimer: InuYasha is the intellectual property of Rumiko Takahashi, and The Count of Monte Cristo is a product of the brilliant mind of Alexadre Dumas. I own rights to neither and am writing this story for my own twisted amusement, not for profit.
Chapter Fifteen – A Bargain In The Making
The girl huddled into a tight ball, sobbing quietly. It had taken four male servants to restrain her; they had finally bound her hands behind her back, then promptly dragged her to her room in the slaves' quarters. Now, locked within the tiny, spartan cell, she allowed herself to sink even deeper into misery, her thin frame quaking and shuddering with every labored breath.
She hadn't put up much of a fight after that initial burst of power. In truth, she hadn't had the energy to fight, feeling immediately exhausted, as though she had tapped into her very life-force in that brief moment.
The master would surely punish her for fighting against him, for attacking his guest.
And Kagome didn't care in the least. She curled in tighter, wishing her arms were free to hug her knees to her chest, rage again welling up within her at the mere thought of that single hated name.
It had been ages since she had heard that cursed word spoken aloud, ages since she had allowed it even to pass through her thoughts. Time had done nothing to lessen her hatred, though. One casual mention was enough to stir up past memories firmly repressed, and the emotions that went along with those memories were as fresh as ever, like a wound left open.
He was a monster.
The door to her room abruptly slid open, and her eyes flew up in astonishment as she regarded two of her fellow slaves. Their faces were drawn tight, whether in concern or contempt she did not know. Jakotsu tended to keep the male and female servants separate, vastly favoring the former. Women were grossly inferior here, barely above the animals; she expected no compassion.
"The master has summoned you," one of the slaves spoke in a neutral voice, deigning not to meet her eyes.
Kagome sat up, aghast with open horror. It had been only a few scant minutes since she had been forcefully flung into her chamber. There was no way possible that Jakotsu's temper had simmered.
She was in for the beating of her life.
"Come," said the other servant needlessly. Both had already stepped forward to drag her from the room. Resistance was pointless; instead, she allowed herself to be pulled to her feet, cooperating enough to trudge between the two men even as fear gripped her heart in a fierce struggle. She had seen what Jakotsu could do when blinded by rage.
As they neared the front of the house, she heard the telltale sound of arguing. "Just give me a damned starting price so I can haggle you down!" a male voice rang through the thin walls. It sounded like the same demon she had injured. What was he still doing here? The thought chased through her mind that perhaps she would be forced to kneel at his feet and apologize; he seemed like he might be someone important, not that she cared.
"And what if my asking price doesn't involve money?" That was Jakotsu, obviously.
"Stop leering at me like that, you pervert! I'm not offerin' you anything else!"
Her master clicked his tongue in disappointment. "Such a pity."
The servants next to her paused momentarily, and Kagome fleetingly wondered whether she should make a break for it. She wouldn't get farther than the front gates, of course, as prior experience had taught her, but it might still be worth a shot…
"What is it you want from me? Besides that!"
"Hmm…" Jakotsu seemed to be pondering the question rather deeply, especially for him.
The two servants exchanged glances, then one calmly slid the door open. Kagome squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and obediently followed them into the room. Not more than two steps forward, she froze, staring wide-eyed at the man sitting across from her master.
This was no demon. He was human. But she had been so sure...
"Kneel before your master, slave," Jakotsu's voice rang out in steely tones.
Immediately she dropped to her knees, pressing her forehead to the ground in a sign of subservience. She knew better than to speak unless bidden, especially when she was already in so much trouble.
"Now where were we?" his silky voice continued, turning back to his guest.
"You were about to tell me your asking price."
She had been certain that voice belonged to the demon previously here. But how could he possibly be human now? Unless… a hanyou? she silently wondered. She had heard of such things before, but never had she encountered one. And if that were the case, her power must have purified his demon half. Curious. She was tempted to raise her head from the ground just to catch another glimpse of him, though she knew better than to actually follow through with this urge.
Caught up in her own inward musings, she had lost track of their conversation. Her attention jerked back to it now as the guest suddenly shouted, "You sick bastard! There's no way in hell!"
"I don't think it's asking too much," Jakotsu retorted, sounding a little miffed. "After all, a virgin slave girl is quite valuable."
"I don't give a damn if she's a virgin or not! She could be sleeping with your entire household, for all I care!"
Kagome's eyes shot wide open as she realized at last that they were speaking of her. She stared at the wood grains of the floor directly in front of her eyes, her heartbeat quickening in sudden terror. She had never considered the possibility of being sold, but it struck her now in a wave of anxiety. Life as Jakotsu's slave was no picnic, sure, but at least his preferences had kept her from having to perform any really unsavory duties. The men of the house did not get off so easily, and she had heard from other slaves that such arrangements were common in many households. Even facing terrible punishment as she now was, she had no real desire to leave this relative safe-haven. Yet, if her master was angry enough, perhaps he really would get rid of her.
"Well now, I have to say," Jakotsu's voice argued, "whether or not she's a virgin does make quite a difference in the confines of your private chambers."
"Lay off it, you pervert!" the hanyou pronounced. "That's not what this is about! Would you just give me a monetary price already?"
She could hear the smirk in Jakotsu's resulting grunt and could only imagine the expression on his face. He enjoyed watching his guest get so flustered, probably enjoyed it just a little too much. But even the effeminate landowner knew not to cross certain boundaries.
"Fine, then," he shrugged. "If we're talking only as a matter of money…" The sum that then fell from his lips was exorbitant, even Kagome knew that. She felt her clenched muscles relax as a feeling of security washed over her. No one would pay such a high price for a slave, virgin or otherwise. Jakotsu apparently didn't mean to sell her after all.
"Feh. Is that all? Agreed." Coins jangled as a sack full of money hit the table.
Kagome's head snapped up from the floor before she so much as thought to restrain herself. Wide blue eyes rested on the dark-haired man who had just agreed to buy her for an inordinate amount of money. He didn't appear in the least put out by having to pay so much. In fact, he seemed almost relieved.
Jakotsu, on the other hand, looked as though he had just swallowed a bug – a large, squishy one.
"Do you need to count it?" his guest prompted impatiently.
The words jarred him from his stupor, and he reached forward one halting hand to tip the bag over, spilling an array of specie across the table. Kagome did a double take at the amount that tumbled out of the bag - even at a glance she could tell that it was more than Jakotsu had requested.
"Keep the change," her new owner instructed, fluidly rising. "You, girl," he addressed her, and she felt a certain amount of shock that he actually looked her in the eyes rather than talking down to her as Jakotsu always did. "Do you have any belongings you need to gather, or are you ready to leave?"
Fear paralyzed her, her mouth opening but nothing more than a strangled sound making its way out. Her new owner cocked his head slightly, waiting for her to answer him.
"Kagome!" Jakotsu's harsh tone jerked her from her stupor, and her eyes immediately shifted to where he sat. "Fetch your things and be gone. You belong to Takeshima now, and you will obey him as you have obeyed me, or suffer the consequences." One of the male slaves jerked her to her feet, pulling her out of the room, back to her own tiny chamber to collect her meager possessions.
Inuyasha turned to his host with a disgruntled gleam in his dark eyes. "Was that really necessary?" he demanded.
Jakotsu, though, merely shoveled his money back into its sack. "Just take her and be gone," he snarled, having lost all semblance of a genial host.
Miroku scowled down at the road as he walked, his foul mood by no means assuaged by the heavy clink of coins in his pocket. The exorcism had gone as planned, and he had been well paid for his services. At the moment, that money did nothing to ease the rancor eating at him, though.
"That stupid Inuyasha's gone off to get some information about Naraku and left us both behind."
Shippo's announcement earlier that day had taken him off-guard; he hadn't been told of any promising leads, and the fact that Inuyasha had left on his own to chase one rankled within him. He should have been at least consulted. Hell, he should have been the one to go if travel was required. That idiotic hanyou was sure to get himself caught by some military patrol.
Shippo had been sulking when he relayed the message, that much was apparent, but Miroku couldn't help but resent that a mere child had been privy to this latest development before he was. Granted, the monk and Inuyasha were more cooperating with one another than actually working together, but of the two of them, Miroku had far more vested interest in finding the black-hearted Naraku. His very life depended on it.
Muttering a crude insult under his breath, he stabbed his staff into the ground as he walked back toward the small village. As he rounded a curve in the road, his thoughts darted over all the choice phrases he was going to deliver to the hanyou upon his return. If Inuyasha thought he could just take off without a word…
The monk halted in his steps, quite suddenly aware of the stillness around him. It was eerily quiet, he realized, mind crashing back to the here-and-now. The road was deserted enough, but on top of that, no sounds issued from the nearby rise of trees that marked the edge of a wide forest. The birds had stopped singing and no animals rustled among the tall grasses, almost as though they had advanced warning of something terrible to come.
He felt a slight stirring of wind and suddenly dove to one side; a gust of air whistled from above as something large and deadly passed through the spot his head had so recently occupied. He jerked his gaze up just in time to see the object circle back the way it had come, and his eyes nearly popped out of his skull. It was the largest boomerang he had ever seen, easily six feet in length with a razor sharp edge to it.
Scrambling to his feet, he whirled to witness the weapon as it was caught one-handed by… a woman? He blinked and shook his head as though to clear his vision, even as his hands tightened around his staff. The woman still stood there, not twenty paces away, weapon slung casually over one shoulder as though it were no heavier than a coat or a flimsy shawl. Her hair was pulled into a high ponytail, its dark lengths gently wafting in the faint wind, and her clothing was black and scandalously close-fitting, with a metal mask covering most of her face. Only her eyes could be seen, eyes full of hatred, and rage, and such violent passions…
"I must be dreaming," Miroku murmured in pure bliss, his previous ire forgotten.
"You should not have dodged that," the mystery woman spoke, her voice stringent and toneless. "Your death could have been quick and painless." With no further warning, she hurtled her weapon forward a second time.
The monk jumped out of the way once more, avoiding by a few mere inches the loss of one of his limbs. The boomerang veered slightly off course, crashing through a couple of trees before returning to the warrior's hand. With a slight pang of unease, Miroku noted how cleanly it had sliced through the thick wood.
"To what do I owe this honor?" he inquired flippantly, his grip tightening around his staff once more.
"I've come to avenge my people," his attacker announced. "Hiraikotsu!"
As he lunged aside a third time, he wracked his brains, trying to figure out whom he could have offended so deeply as to warrant a death mark on his head. No one leapt to the forefront of his mind. Sure, he had groped his fair share of ladies in the past few weeks, but it was all in good fun. No one would want to kill him for something like that.
"Listen!" he called out in a placating voice. "I'm sure we can come to some sort of agreement, if we just talk things out! I'm always willing to strike a bargain with a beautiful woman!"
"I don't bargain with traitors," came the flat response.
Miroku's mind raced through a million thoughts at once, the foremost of which being that he was at a serious disadvantage. The woman's boomerang gave her a long-range attack while his own strengths of combat were closer, hand-to-hand maneuvers. He had to get rid of her weapon somehow in order to tip the scales in his favor. She seemed to have total control over the ungainly object, though, as if it were an extension of her body.
Dodging her attacks would prove too exhausting to keep up for long. He didn't have time to hesitate. So, he did the first thing that came to mind. He dropped his staff and gripped the rosary that warded his right hand. Desperate times, as the old saying went…
She swung her hand in a powerful, downward arc, heaving the boomerang over her shoulder with an enraged war cry. Miroku threw himself out of the way, landing on his back and wrenching the strand of beads from his wrist. He felt the wind tunnel in his palm open with a howl of fury, pulling at everything within its path. The sudden upheaval disrupted the air just enough to send the deadly boomerang off course and crashing into the forest.
"No!" a strangled cry erupted from the woman. She made a startled move in the direction of her fallen weapon, only to discover that her path was blocked. Miroku had already resealed his cursed hand and snatched up his staff, leaping forward to confront his opponent.
"You call me a traitor?" he demanded as she fell back a step.
"You unleashed a monster on this land!" she snarled in return, ripping a sword from her belt and casting the sheath aside.
He parried her initial blow with his shakujou, wincing slightly as her blade bit into the hard wooden handle. After a few similar strokes, he realized that her strength didn't reside merely in long-range weapons. His staff was becoming nicked and scarred, and her movements were increasingly difficult to block.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Miroku avowed. "There were plenty enough monsters on this land before I came along."
"Sesshomaru," she hissed, emphasizing the single word with a particularly forceful blow. "You're the monk that set him free!"
A stony mask fell across his face at the accusation. The only people that knew of that particular connection between him and Sesshomaru were his fellow monks from Nishi-no. By now they would have reported to their superiors, which meant that the government had sent this woman to kill him. Suddenly his defense picked up, his fighting becoming much more efficient.
"I find I prefer Lord Sesshomaru to the monsters currently in charge," he drawled, blocking her sword with one end of his staff, then swiping the other in an attempt to catch her behind the knees. She leapt out of the way, eyes blazing at his words.
"That monster murdered my kinsmen!" she growled, tense with rage. She sprang forward to attack again. Miroku still had a few tricks up his sleeves, though. At her next thrust, he shifted his own weapon, catching her blade in the brass circle that adorned the top of the staff. Flipping the handle to one side, he ripped the sword from her grasp and sent it flying. His follow-up met with empty space; she reacted too fast, vaulting backward, flinging some tiny pellets at him as she retreated.
A burst of acrid gas erupted from the projectiles, and Miroku immediately covered his mouth with one sleeve, his eyes burning and watering. The stench was overpowering, though; he crumpled to his knees, coughing into the black folds of cloth. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw her approach—graceful, languid, and completely unaffected by the tainted air, her mask fully protecting her lungs.
"You deserve death," she stated firmly, "though spilling your blood won't bring any of my people back to life. A traitor like you doesn't deserve to live, not when so many others are dead because of you."
He continued to cough as she drew nearer, completely exposed to any blow she might deliver. His would-be executioner hovered over him, drawing a small dagger from her waist. The moment she raised her newest weapon to strike, Miroku swiped his staff at her legs. She tumbled flat on her back, dagger clattering from her grip, and he promptly ripped the mask from her face, her subsequent gasp drawing in a lung full of toxic air.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he stated firmly, pinning her body to the ground with his own as she choked on that first breath. His lungs still burned, but he had not been nearly as affected as he had appeared. Even now, the wind was dissipating the fumes from around them, and his breathing became easier with each passing moment. "I'm not aware of being responsible for any deaths."
Even with her ragged gasps for air, she was able to turn her lips into a snarl. "Your master slaughtered my entire village!" she spat, struggling against him.
Miroku, for one, didn't so much mind his position on top of her. However, he did take umbrage at her choice of words. "I don't have a master," he clarified with a stern set to his jaw, "and the one I choose to follow hasn't performed any massacres that I'm aware of. He's too busy preparing for a war against the true monsters of this land. Now who sent you after me?"
A sneer alighted upon her pretty face.
"Who?" he demanded. "If Sesshomaru slaughtered your village, you must come from the north, where he is…"
Sheer instinct alone saved his fingers from being sliced off. He had been holding her forearms down but jerked his hands away as he felt something shift beneath her sleeves, and not a moment too soon. Twin blades tore through the dark fabric, springing out from where they were attached to her wrists.
The monk snatched up his staff and rolled away as she swiped at him, coming to one knee even as his assailant leapt to her feet. He had not been quick enough this time. One of the blades had slashed across his left arm; he could feel the warm blood seeping out onto his sleeve.
"My village is not in the north," the warrior corrected him, her voice filled with scorn. "Sesshomaru sent a horde of lesser demons to annihilate it."
She flew toward him and he blocked a strike from the left, then the right, his arm flaring up in pain even as his mind raced over this new information.
"I don't believe you," he flatly declared as he defended himself. "Lesser demons would have left a path of destruction in their wake, especially traveling such a distance. I would have heard something about it before now."
The comment caught her off-guard; she paused in her attack long enough for Miroku to put some distance between them, his staff ever at the ready. The girl's lips pursed together, her eyes flashing defiance.
"I saw them with my own eyes," she snarled.
"Sesshomaru is still organizing his followers," the monk countered. "He couldn't have attacked your village."
The battle was starting to take its toll on him, the wound on his arm bleeding quite freely now and making him feel lightheaded. His opponent, on the other hand, seemed energetic enough to continue on for some time yet. And while part of him admired such stamina—especially in a woman—another part insisted that reasoning with her was fast becoming his only option. His continued denial to her accusation, however, seemed only to enrage her all the more.
"He's a cold-blooded killer," she declared, lunging forward. He positioned himself to block her strike, but she swung her arm just a hair shy, the wrist-blade crossing in front of his staff without touching it. The move was calculated; in the same fluid movement, she hooked her weapon around the shakujou, jerking it out of the way as her other fist swept in from the opposite side, connecting with his face.
Miroku slammed backward, his staff ripped from his grip as he skidded across the ground. Lucky for him, it had been a direct hit; the blade curving from her wrist would have killed him in the follow-through otherwise.
As it was, he was left prostrate and weaponless. She had already cast away his staff and was leaping toward him, death in her eyes; one hand scrambled for his last defense even as time seemed to slow to a standstill.
Suddenly, an explosion of color erupted between the two.
"Fox Fire!" Shippo crowed, landing on Miroku's chest and pelting the black-clad assailant with a series of illusions. The element of surprise worked in his favor, causing the girl to stumble back. Her ankle twisted sharply, and a cry escaped her lips as her leg buckled beneath her.
"Multiply!" the kit yelled, and suddenly five Shippos vaulted through the air and tackled the girl. Miroku sat up to watch her struggle against them, his hand absently seeking out the wound on his arm. His sleeve was wet with blood, warm and sticky.
Shippo had the upper hand for only a moment. A roar and a burst of flames dissipated his clones and sent him tumbling back next to the monk, his fur singed and faintly smoking. Between them and the warrior, a large demon cat materialized, its two tails flicking and its fangs bared.
"Kirara," the girl pronounced in a strangled whisper, and Shippo jumped to his feet, readying for another attack.
The demon cat growled and the warrior gingerly arose. For a tense moment, the four occupants of the clearing stared at one another, each waiting for someone else to make the first move. Then, the girl stepped forward and promptly gasped in pain as she placed her weight on her twisted ankle. The cat was at her side in an instant, and she collapsed across its back, levering herself up into a sitting position even as the demon's feet left the ground in a trail of flames.
"This isn't over," her voice carried down to the two remaining, her tone adamant even as she retreated.
The monk watched her go, feeling the truth of her words. It wasn't over. The two of them would meet again, he knew. And if this first encounter was anything to go by, the next time they battled one of them would end up dead.
"Geez, Miroku!" Shippo declared as the mystery assailant receded into the clouds. "Can't you take care of yourself against one measly girl?"
Miroku, though, wordlessly struggled to his feet, crossing to retrieve his staff from where it lay in the grass. He turned back to the road, leaning against the staff as he trudged forward, his eyes set on the horizon. Vaguely did his mind register the kit falling into step beside him.
As the village came into sight, he finally broke his silence. "How long were you there, Shippo?" he inquired quietly.
The kitsune sniffed and averted his eyes. "Inuyasha told me to keep an eye on you," he said, avoiding the question. "I didn't think you'd be overpowered by a girl."
So, the monk concluded, he had been there all along, stepping in only at the last moment. Miroku's right fist clenched within its glove, the crisscross of prayer beads hard against his palm. The void in his hand was always his last resort, the trump he didn't want to play. And he had been a split-second away from opening it back then.
For a brief moment he loathed himself, loathed the coward within that wished to live at any cost. He immediately squelched the feeling, though. There was no room for such qualms, not when his life's purpose was to rid himself of his cursed hand. He would do everything in his power to remain alive to accomplish that goal, even if it included using that curse as a weapon against a fellow human. Still…
"Thank you, Shippo," he murmured.
The kit peered up at him for a long moment, deliberating whether to question the monk's gratitude. In the end, he simply shrugged. "It was nothing."
Kagome's possessions consisted of a pair of sandals and a hair ribbon. Additionally, she had been stripped of the attire that marked her as a servant of Jakotsu and given a plain linen yukata to wear instead. The entire process took precious little time, although one of the women from the kitchen was also kind enough to press a small, cloth-wrapped slice of bread into her hands as she was led back to the front of the house where her new master waited. She slipped it up one sleeve, not wanting to risk this Takeshima confiscating it from her, not knowing when her next meal would come.
Jakotsu was nowhere in sight; instead, her new master stood by an open door, impatiently waiting as though he wanted nothing more than to be gone from this place. His gaze shifted in her direction as she approached, and his eyes widened fractionally. Then, he whipped his attention forward, striding out the door with a curt command for her to follow. Kagome mutely fell in step behind him, wondering what had caused that particular reaction, and what it might mean for her.
They made a beeline for the gate, and as they passed through, she allowed herself one last, wistful glance over her shoulder. She was scared, that much she could admit to herself. And yet, beneath that, part of her buzzed with an odd excitement. She did not know why Takeshima had purchased her, but he had said he was friends with Naraku, and if he was looking for the villain, sooner or later she might get her chance at vengeance. She would just have to be patient, to endure whatever situations were presented to her in the meantime.
In truth, she had never anticipated this opportunity, had never thought Jakotsu would sell her, even. When she had been younger she had tried running away to seek her revenge, only to be caught and punished at every attempt. Time had taught her the wisdom of remaining in Jakotsu's household – what, after all, did she know of living in the world? – and as such she had become resigned to her lot in life. But now, suddenly a world of possibilities opened to her. She simply had to survive long enough.
…This demon had not purchased her to, perhaps, devour her, had he? It would have been a very expensive meal, she reasoned as the thought crossed her mind. Perhaps he meant to punish her for her attack on his person. Of course, that would probably have to wait until his youki returned, if it returned…
"Hey," he abruptly spoke when they were some hundred paces beyond the gates, "don't wear your hair like that."
The command took her by surprise, her hand straying to the ribbon tying back her dark tresses. "It is as my master wishes," she automatically murmured, pulling free the binding and wrapping it around one wrist so as not to lose it.
He whirled on her then, a scowl on his face. "And another thing," he added. "None of this 'my master' shit, got it?"
Kagome frowned. Jakotsu fairly thrived on the "my master" appellation, and she had assumed that this was a universal trait of slave-owners. Still, she responded nonetheless, "Yes, Lord Takeshima."
"Oh, now that's even worse!" he declared, recoiling in horror. "Look," he started to shake a finger at her, then paused, peering over her shoulder. Kagome instinctively turned to view the manor-gates in the distance, and the two sentries staring right back at them. "C'mon," her new master growled, snatching her arm and pulling her further down the road.
She tripped along behind him, wondering what sort of nut-job she had just been sold to.
Inuyasha, for his part, simply wanted to get beyond the immediate influence of Jakotsu's estate. Then, he could extract from this girl all the information she had on Naraku and send her on her merry way. Her presence was unnerving him.
It was bad enough that her scent had reminded him of Kikyo, back when his senses had been heightened enough to notice such a thing, but did she really have to bear such a close physical resemblance to her as well? When she had emerged from the servants' quarters with her hair tied back, he had nearly suffered a heart-attack. Prior to that he had simply assumed that the resemblance was slight, a product of his cursed mind playing tricks on him, and he had ignored it. He hadn't seen Kikyo in years, after all, and with the recent news of her marriage, perhaps it was only natural for him to project her image on other young women.
With her hair pulled back as Kikyo had always worn it, though, the slave-girl was almost a dead-ringer. Either he was truly going insane, or the gods were once again laughing themselves senseless at him.
He needed to get the required information from her and get as far away from her as possible, he decided.
A quick glance over his shoulder showed him that the gates were beyond view, hidden by a bend in the road. He plunged into the cover of the forest, pulling the girl behind him. "Look," he said as he led her further into the trees, "I just want to ask you some questions about your previous owner. Then you're free to go."
Kagome dug in her heels at that last statement. "Free to go?" she echoed as her new master turned to see why she had quit walking.
"I don't do this whole 'slave' thing," he scowled.
"Free to go where?" she demanded, her expression mirroring his.
Inuyasha stepped back, confused. "What? I don't know. Wherever you want – that's not my concern."
"Not your concern?" she repeated. "You bought me from Jakotsu just so you could ask me a few questions? And then you're just going to abandon me? To what?"
"T-to freedom," he answered dumbly. Wasn't that what every slave wanted?
Her hands were shaking as reality confronted her full-force. "I-I don't know the first thing about freedom," she stated in a hollow voice, feeling the truth of every word. She had no money, no clue which direction to travel, no idea how to make her way alone in the world. "If all you had were questions for me, you should have asked them and left me in Jakotsu's household."
Inuyasha snorted. "Crazy wench. I couldn't very well ask you anything with Jakotsu standing right there."
She cast a resentful glare at him. "Since he's the one you want information on," she concluded dourly.
"No, I don't give a damn about him," the hanyou-turned-human waved one hand. "I want to know about your master before Jakotsu, about Naraku." He pronounced the name tentatively, bracing himself for another angry reaction.
Sure enough, she stiffened, her face twisting with hatred. "Get this straight," she leaned forward, boldly poking him in the chest, "Naraku was never my master. Never."
That one threw him for a loop. "But Jakotsu said…"
Kagome didn't wait to hear what he would say, huffing and stalking off into the trees. To hell with all her fears – she'd find her own way somehow and wipe that scheming murderer from the planet.
"Hey!" Inuyasha cried, bounding after her. "Where the hell do you think you're going, wench?"
"You said I was free," she retorted over her shoulder.
He snatched at her arm, whirling her to face him. "Not until after you answer my questions, you're not."
She glanced down at his grip on her, then shrugged out of it. "Naraku took everything from me," she pronounced bitterly. "Your friend destroyed my life."
"That makes two of us," Inuyasha shot back. "And he was never my friend," he added, voice filled with loathing. "When I get my hands on that filthy bastard, he'll wish he was never born."
The two of them stood appraising each other for a long moment before Inuyasha shook his head and stated, "You really are one crazy wench. One minute you're yelling at me for wanting to set you free, and the next you're heading off into the forest on your own. Do you even know which direction you're heading?"
She didn't bother responding, her eyes narrowing in a glare.
He was less patient than usual. "Dammit, just tell me what you know about Naraku already!"
Kagome frowned. As any captive creature, she had felt the need to test her new bonds as far as they would stretch, and much to her surprise she had discovered that the bonds weren't really even there. As far as her new master was concerned, they seemed to be on equal footing so far. And of course, years of slavery couldn't prevent her from pushing her luck just a little further.
"In exchange for what?" she inquired flatly, crossing her arms in a flippant stance. If she had tried this sort of thing with Jakotsu, she'd have been whipped and had her next three meals withheld. This Takeshima was different, though.
Inuyasha scowled. "In exchange for your freedom, wench."
"I've already told you freedom's worthless to me," she retorted, "and I have a name."
"Yeah? Congratulations, that makes two of us."
The furrow between her brows deepened. "You already told me I couldn't call you Takeshima," she protested.
"Well that ain't my name," he responded, folding his hands into his wide red sleeves.
"It's Inuyasha," he supplied before she could voice her confusion. "So what is it you want in exchange for your information?"
Kagome blinked, surprised at how easily he seemed to give in. "I want revenge," she stated simply, as though this should have been a logical conclusion for him.
"Then I'll kill Naraku for you," he said, flinging his hands in the air. "Hell, I was planning on it anyway!"
She stepped back, coolly assessing him. As he was, he didn't look like much of a threat. Plus, there was always the chance that he was lying to her, that he was truly friends with Naraku and wanted to extract this information from her for some unknown, sinister purpose. He seemed genuine enough, though, and she had other, more important worries to consider than some vast conspiracy theory. "Take me with you," she commanded at last.
"What?" Inuyasha recoiled. "What the hell kind of slave are you, giving orders to your master?"
"Quit talking about sending me off on my own, and I'll tell you everything I know about Naraku. You say you're going to kill him? Well, I want to be there to see it."
The flat tone of her voice put him on edge. "What did he do to you?" he inquired, not certain he wanted to hear the answer anymore.
"Yes or no?" she prompted, not budging an inch.
"Listen, wench—" His words broke off in a yelp as her hand suddenly darted forward to yank on one of his forelocks.
"My name is Kagome. Ka-go-me. Not 'wench.' Got that?"
Inuyasha dislodged his hair from her fist and stepped back. "Look," he started, pointedly not using her name, "you don't want to come with me. I don't keep good company. In fact, right now I'm traveling with a lecherous monk and an obnoxious little…" His voice abruptly caught in his throat as images of Shippo surfaced, particularly the runt's penchant for dive-bombing him every time he thought Inuyasha was off-guard.
"Yeah, okay, you can come along," he immediately changed his tune. "In fact, I have the perfect job for you."
Kagome eyed him warily. "Really?"
"Yep. So spill already."
She was still skeptical, though. "You promise you're not going to ditch me the first chance you get?"
"I swear it on my ancestors' graves," he retorted with a roll of his eyes. "Now, are you going to talk, or not?"
The girl hesitated, twisting the end of one sleeve as she briefly glanced around, noting in particular the waning light of day. "It's kind of a long story. Is the… are we… headed someplace close?"
His expression flattened, his eyes slanting to the side. "It would be if I weren't trapped in this crappy human body. We won't get back before nightfall if my powers don't return sometime soon. Come on," he added gruffly, seeing her open her mouth in a meek apology and feeling a strange need to avoid that path of discourse at all costs. "You can talk while we walk."
He tugged on her arm, pulling her in what he hoped was the right direction. The trees obstructed most of the sky and he had only vague, blurry recollections of the path he had come on. If his powers didn't return, they would probably end up getting hopelessly lost. He didn't feel like indulging that particular possibility, though, much more intent upon getting the information he had been promised.
"So Naraku was never your master," he prompted. "Then how did he end up selling you to Jakotsu?" If this story wasn't juicy, he'd gut himself on Tetsusaiga.
"I suppose it seemed like the most logical thing to do at the time," she retorted with a touch of sarcasm to her voice. "I mean, he'd already murdered the men of my family – why not make some easy money by selling the rest of us into slavery?"
"The rest of you…?" Inuyasha turned wide eyes on the girl, wondering if he had just separated her from other family members. The opportunistic part of his mind immediately pointed out that if there were others, they might have information he could use as well…
"My mother died a year later," Kagome told him, her voice catching and her eyes suspiciously watery. "I had a little brother, too, but I don't know what happened to him – he was only a baby."
"But," he faltered. Not that he couldn't see Naraku murdering people in cold blood then selling off their surviving relatives, but there had to be a reason behind it – the black-hearted bastard wouldn't go to such trouble merely on a whim. "Why? Why would he hone in on your family?" Or perhaps this was a trend, and hers was simply one of many, the suspicious part of his mind suggested.
Kagome, though, averted her eyes, folding her arms into her sleeves as she continued walking. When she did speak, her voice was subdued, disinterested.
"…Have you ever heard of the Shikon no Tama?" she asked.
The boy breathed deeply in his sleep, his bandaged chest rising and falling. He had arrived only two days ago, yet he had not awoken in that time, and his injuries seemed to heal sluggishly, as though something held him back from recovery. The woman at his bedside wondered at him being brought to her house, of all places. She knew how to care for the sick and injured, to be sure, but she had not done it for some time and she felt out of practice.
For now, his fever had broken at least. The bandages would need to be changed again later in the evening, and his wounds assessed for any signs of infection. It was the least of her worries at the moment, though.
A figure darkened the doorway, the silhouette one that she knew all too well. No greeting fell from her lips. Instead,
"You used it again," she accused.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Last night," she clarified. "You used it again. When I woke up this morning, it had a tainted aura about it." Her cold gray eyes turned on him, piercing him with a critical stare.
He looked away for a moment, then returned his attention to her, stepping into the room as a muscle rippled along his jaw. She did not shrink from him, though he obviously meant to intimidate her. "My dear Kikyo," he stated, irony in the very words, "I have told you before – how am I to purge the taint from my own soul without the power of the jewel to help me? It was created for that very purpose, after all."
"I've told you before not to use it, Naraku," she stated firmly. "There is something wrong with its aura – warped. I'm not even sure it can purify anymore. It's difficult enough to keep it untainted."
"Have you been having trouble?" he questioned in a guarded tone.
"No," she lied easily. Part of her wanted to scream at him. Of course she was having trouble – a darkness lurked within the jewel's rosy depths, and it took all her power just to keep it at bay, let alone banish it. It certainly didn't help to have demonkind – however well meaning that demonkind might be – handling the object.
"I'm sorry," Naraku spoke, contrition etched into his features, and she almost – almost – believed him. "Last night I thought for certain that I could finally be rid of this… this pollution contaminating my soul. It was foolish of me, but I keep hoping…"
"Just don't do it again," she cut him off, accepting his explanation out of necessity rather than any trust in its sincerity.
He nodded, glanced at the sleeping boy, then left the room without a word.
Kikyo dropped the rag she had been holding, wondering what her husband was up to. This feigned trust between them was like a wall of sand, waiting to crumble at the first opportunity, but maintained for some semblance of security nonetheless. Her life was nothing she had ever planned, and she was half-tempted to seize the cursed jewel and flee into the night. It was not, however, the only object which tied her to this house, she thought dourly, eyes falling on the patient she tended.
A faint scuffling at the door shifted her attention that direction once more, this time to view a boy roughly the same age as the injured one lying before her. "Did he wake up, Mother?" the newcomer asked, voice timid as his gaze shifted between the woman and the recumbent figure.
"No, not yet," came her gentle response.
It must have been frightening to a child, seeing another of the same age battling for his life. Kikyo nodded, smiling faintly.
"Yes, Sota, he certainly will."
"The Jewel of Four Souls," said Kagome, "will give great power to anyone who possesses it. Because it was… dangerous for demonkind to have access to such power, the jewel was given to my family for safekeeping generations ago. We were shrine-keepers," she added in explanation. "I come from a long line of priests and priestesses."
"Yeah, big surprise there," Inuyasha inserted sarcastically, wiggling one set of perfectly normal human fingers at her.
Kagome flushed slightly, but continued her narrative as though no interruption had occurred. "When I was very small, my grandfather began training me to become the jewel's next guardian – I remember him lecturing me for long hours, telling me how the Shikon had to be kept pure, that it must be kept from the hands of evil at all costs. Humans and demons alike wanted to possess its power, and our job was to prevent that.
"He also told me never to speak of the jewel outside our family – I don't think it was generally known that we had it. Our shrine was secluded, and we didn't receive a lot of visitors, just a handful of villagers making a pilgrimage to pray and make their offerings. The jewel was always kept out of sight, though, and heavily warded, but even with the wards, its presence wasn't completely masked – I remember feeling it, like this constant buzzing in the back of my mind. And every so often, a demon would sense its aura and attack, but my father and grandfather would take care of it before it could do any real damage. Our family had done as much for centuries.
"Everything changed when he came, though."
Inuyasha didn't need to ask who he was. The girl had finally come to the information he was craving, and she had his undivided attention.
"I can still remember the first time I saw him," Kagome said, her eyes staring sightlessly ahead. "I was small, maybe five years old, and he terrified me. It was almost as though he was surrounded in darkness, and when he spoke, I felt like a snake had slithered down my spine. He had come to offer prayers. I remember him talking to my father, very polite, and the whole time I wanted to scream for him to go away, but I was too afraid to open my mouth. When he left, I cried out of fear and relief, and my parents didn't know what was wrong with me.
"But then he kept coming back, once a month, twice a month, once a week, until he was there so often that he was like another member of the family. He brought a gift when my brother was born," she laughed bitterly, eyes dull. "I wanted nothing to do with him – my parents used to apologize for my shyness. I tried to tell them that something was wrong with him, pleaded with them not to let him come anymore, but I was only a child and they wouldn't listen.
"One day, while he was visiting, a huge demon attacked, tearing down the wards we had placed around the shrine. My father and grandfather went to destroy it, and Naraku followed. I was supposed to be hidden, but instead I was peeking out at the fight – I saw the whole thing. While they were busy with the demon, Naraku… transformed behind them, into a mass of writhing… something – he wasn't human, but somehow he had been able to hide that before. My father was stabbed through the back, my grandfather torn apart. I… I don't remember much after that, just brief images of my mother screaming, and of Naraku taking the jewel from its hiding place – I don't think I'll ever forget the triumphant expression on his face."
She paused; at some point during her story, she had begun to cry, and she dabbed at her tears now as though in some sort of stupor, staring at the resulting wetness on her fingertips as though it were some unknown substance. She shook her head once, and then her blue eyes turned toward her companion. "You know the rest," she stated, voice level. "We were sold to different households, to people that Naraku knew, that didn't care how he had acquired us. My mother wasted away and was dead within the year, and I've heard no news of my little brother since that time. As far as I know, I am the only one left."
Her tale had certainly set a sober atmosphere. Inuyasha wasn't sure what to say, how he could possibly respond. "How long ago was this?" he finally inquired in a subdued voice.
"…Ten years?" Kagome estimated. "I'm not sure of the exact dates – I was so young."
He nodded absently. Ten years put the events roughly at the same time he had been sent to prison. He recalled it being said that Naraku had come and gone from their village as he pleased, but his younger self had simply considered the villain's travels a blessing, since it meant he wasn't hanging around Kikyo in the hanyou's absence. The length of time he had invested in befriending the shrine-keepers showed definite premeditation; whether that extended to Inuyasha's fate – or whether the two were even connected – the hanyou did not know.
Night was fast descending upon the pair; at some point near the end of Kagome's narration, they had stopped walking. Inuyasha was no longer certain that they were headed in the right direction, and it had seemed a bit callous to keep his newly acquired companion moving while she recalled traumatic events. His insensitivity only went so far, after all.
His gaze shifted skyward as he wondered what they should do now. The glow of dusk filtered through the forest canopy, casting heavy shadows upon the ground. They could either continue walking and risk getting horribly lost, or they could set up a sort of makeshift camp for the night and hope to find their way in the morning. He opened his mouth to ask her preference, but his voice caught in his throat as a familiar tingling prickled through his fingertips.
"About bloody time!" he declared, lifting his hand to see the fingernails transform into claws.
Kagome's eyes widened as she watched the change tumble over him. His coloring shifted and his fangs extended; in almost the blink of an eye, it seemed an entirely different person stood before her.
"Now we can finally get somewhere!" Inuyasha announced, breathing in a lung full of air as though it were a novel experience. The girl next to him continued to stare, wordless.
"What?" he asked defensively.
Her eyes seemed to be fixed on his hair, and he did not flinch when she carefully raised one hand as though mesmerized. To his utmost surprise, though, her fingers fell not on his silver-white mane, but his ears, which she proceeded to tweak almost compulsively.
"Keh," he snorted, jerking away from her touch. "Don't do that." He did not, however, miss the faint, delighted smile that flashed across her face; it made him wonder what was wrong with women these days. Rin had reacted in much the same manner, and Jakotsu… not that Jakotsu was a woman, of course, but… well… close enough. At any rate, it was enough to put any self-respecting hanyou ill at ease.
"C'mon, wench," he gruffly said, grabbing her arm and pulling her forward in an attempt to hide his embarrassment. "We have places to be."
Her fingers fell upon his ear once more, but this time they administered a sharp pinch, eliciting a yelp in return.
"I told you not to call me that," Kagome reminded him sweetly.
A/N: Thanks for reading, and double-thanks to all those that take the time to review.
Once again I planned too much for this chapter, and I think toward the end I was getting a bit squirrelly, so I do apologize if that came through in the writing (the almost straight narration for the last scene wouldn't be a dead giveaway, would it?).
And for those who can't remember what this story was about or how it has progressed prior to this update, I've provided a summary of previous chapters in my LiveJournal, which can be accessed from the Homepage link in my profile. It's not necessarily a good summary, mind you, but it's the thought that counts.
Until next time!