Something to Smile For
It was mid-morning by the time Kagome returned to the past with Sesshomaru. The passing of the storm the night before had left the land clean and the air crisp. The sun shone brightly, and the happy calls of songbirds flitted through the clearing of the old well.
So many times had Kagome been overjoyed to be welcomed back to this world by such a happy greeting; but on this day, despite the sunshine and the warmth carried on the breezes and in the songs of animals unawares of the building tension that gripped the land, the greeting she received was far from welcoming, bringing sorrow and the full weight of her heavy burden instead of a joyful return.
"Lord Sesshomaru." Hasaki was there to meet them. He and he alone of the youkai guard Sesshomaru had stationed at the village outpost had been entrusted with the Lord's true whereabouts, and it was he who had detected the scent of the General and come to give him the urgent news. "Fortunate timing has seen to your return, my Lord."
Hasaki bowed respectfully, but with haste to remove the formalities before he began his debriefing. "At first light our scouts reported of a large group of mortal holy men moving in our direction. They have taken shelter at a shrine to the east. However, a small group arrived not two hours ago demanding to speak with you, my Lord, and the Lady Miko." As he spoke of her, Hasaki's expression softened from that of the warrior. He bowed his head as he turned his eyes to her. "You have my condolences, Lady. The priests that arrived at the village carried with them the body of a mortal monk I am told you knew."
Even in speaking that one simple word, she gave far too much away. The loss of a comrade, a friend, was difficult for any creature; but as a leader, it was imperative that her mourning not be seen by her followers lest they see a weakness to be exploited. Placing a steadying hand on Kagome's shoulder, Sesshomaru diverted the commander's topic.
"Who leads these priests?"
"A man by the name of Ungai, my Lord."
"Ungai?" That name. He had heard that name before.
"Thank you, Hasaki." Kagome had recovered herself quickly at the mention of Ungai-sama. That name she knew as well, and she understood the tone of anger that threatened to break through Sesshomaru's steady voice. Hasaki, however, had no knowledge of such things. And though he might not have detected the shifting energies that had told her of Sesshomaru's displeasure, it would not have taken much for him to see that, as far as Sesshomaru was concerned, Ungai was no friend.
She cut in to dismiss the Inu commander. "You may return to your post. Sesshomaru and I will see to the welcome of our guests."
Though somewhat hesitant to take the order of the Lady when it had been to the Lord that he had been giving his report, her tone spoke of a position that he had no wish to dispute again. With a short nod to the young miko, and a subtle look to Sesshomaru to affirm that there was no more need of him, Hasaki turned to take his leave.
"I guess this is hard on all of us," Kagome said softly once she was alone with Sesshomaru again. She brought her hand to her shoulder, covering his and giving it a gentle squeeze. "I remember what happened to Rin, too. But Ungai-sama is well known and well respected. With Miroku…" She couldn't bring herself to say it. It still seemed so impossible. Swallowing down the tightness in her throat, she forced herself to continue. "Without Miroku, we need a voice to speak for the Word."
Sesshomaru pulled his hand away. The gesture was meant to be for her support. He had no need of such things. "I am not disputing that," he told her curtly.
"No," Kagome agreed. "But your conflict with Ungai means you have to be that much more neutral. They only know how they see you act, and right now, even the smallest of reasons is more than enough. So we won't give them any."
She forced a smile. If she mourned, it would be on the inside. If she felt pain or sorrow, she would not let them know. She would play her part, be the icon and the image. She could do it, she knew she could. She knew she could, because she knew that through it all he would be with her. Even with something as simple as a touch, and he had made the most terrible and painful feelings of loss and sorrow, guilt and regret seem more bearable. Only a touch, and he had reminded her all over again what they were fighting for, what her friend had died for.
Reaching forward, she took hold of his hand again, urging him gently to walk with her. Even walking forward towards an impending war and the many hardships that still lay ahead, that he was with her, the smile never left Kagome's lips.
Arriving at the village of Endo was like stepping into a new world. The village, once so quiet a peaceful, had become a buzzing outpost for the movement of troops and supplies, the crafting and sharpening of weapons and defenses, and the seemingly endless movement of messengers and guards. The rolling fields surrounding the village, where children's laughter could be heard only a few short days ago, had been trampled by the movement of men and tools and scorched by the pits where fires had been struck to feed and warm the growing army of men and youkai alike.
The trees of Inuyasha's forest closest to the village had been clear-cut away, their limbs and sturdy branches used to craft arrows and spears and great pikes that had been buried deeply in the earth in an ever-growing barricade wall. Along this perimeter, Sesshomaru's stationed youkai guard could be seen patrolling, the ones they passed greeting Sesshomaru and his Lady Miko with curt bows of acknowledgement before continuing on in their duties.
The sandy streets within the village were crowded, men and women hurrying about in a kind of organized chaos. The fighting men of the village had taken in recruits called from neighboring settlements, the elders giving the best instruction they could to the youth and boys that had come to find their name and meet their destiny. Women that had not taken with the children carried baskets and pots and bundles of things to be washed and cooked, woven and stitched, burned and kept. And moving through their midst, the stark red and white of miko garbs could be seen as they calmly and gently gave their blessings to the children of war.
In some ways, it was terrible to think that all of these people were here to fight in a war that she was responsible for. But in so many others, it was inspiring to see what these people could accomplish and their dedication to the cause of peace to come.
So many eyes turned to Kagome as she walked through their midst. So many that would stop what they were doing to see the Miko that would lead them and the youkai Lord at her side. So many. So many it seemed like they couldn't possibly be looking at her, because whatever they saw was so much bigger than one person could ever be. They looked to her for a promise of the future, for strength in the days to come, for leadership. They looked to her for hope.
But what those good people did not know, was that when she looked back at them, when she gave them her warm smiles of support and encouragement and saw those eyes become bright even when worn with exhaustion from their labors, was that it was from them that she found hope as well, in them that she could see a future not yet come to pass.
It was a kind of poetic justice that the shrine above the village, a place that the human settlers had so often turned to in times of trial and fear provoked by the demons of the land, that the command centre for this war where youkai and mortals would fight side by side had been set up. Though it was for utility that it was chosen, being the largest building and most suited for the heavy traffic, it remained a symbol of strength and support for the humans that had patroned the shrine in the past, and one of acceptance and unity to those youkai that were now being welcomed on the sacred grounds.
It was here that they found Old Kaede. Her command belied her age as she made her way from group to group, villager to villager, human to youkai; taking reports and giving instruction for the run of food and supplies and making preparation for the lodging and care of so many in a village that had grown in size by a hundred times in only a few short days.
When the old woman saw Kagome's approach, her wizened features broadened with a welcoming smile. ""Dear Kagome, what a relief your presence brings to these old eyes. These past few days, as you can see, have been quite eventful."
"They certainly have." Kagome couldn't have agreed more. She smiled for her old teacher. "But I can think of no one better to be organizing all these people than you, Kaede."
"Now, girl, none of that." Kaede's modesty wouldn't take the compliment. "I will have ye know that I have been quite looking forward to the time when you take over in these warring plans of yours. This old woman has had quite enough for her old bones. But first …" She trailed off with a heavy breath, turning her eyes to look across the courtyard where a group of robed men stood at the site of a new grave. The old woman's voice softened with wistful remembrances. Loss had become too great a part of their world, and she far too accustomed to its impact. "There are more personal matters to attend to, young Kagome."
Kagome forced her eyes away from the gravesite to nod her understanding. "Are those men Ungai's priests?" she asked the elder miko.
Kaede nodded. "Hai, child, that they are."
"We speak to the priest first."
It was Sesshomaru that had spoken, and Kagome was quick to agree, bidding her old teacher a short farewell as she turned to follow Sesshomaru's lead.
They found the elder priest inside the shrine, his hands and head bowed in prayer before the God's dais. As they approached, he straightened, even without seeing knowing of the presence of a powerful youkai. He turned to them, the shadows of the building making the hard surface of his eyes seem even darker as they locked with Kagome's.
"You disgrace the Kamis by allowing youkai to walk in their shrines, young miko."
"It is no disgrace to embrace life," Kagome replied evenly. "We are all children of the earth. We all want to live in peace, to see a world where our children won't have to fear. There is nothing in the Faith or the Word that would see such a vision as a disgrace."
"Some would argue otherwise," the old priest stated carefully.
But Kagome only lifted her shoulders in the vaguest of shrugs as she replied, "Some always do."
"Hn." In his many years, Ungai had seen the types of men that would lead armies, heard their words of grand visions and their claims of victory and conquest; but in all his time, never had he heard such claims as the miko was making now. She argued not for power, conquest, or a will spoken by her God. She made no demands for submission, and yet rose an army to fight against the voice of opposition. She was not of the oppressed that he had so often seen fighting against the subverting wills of corrupt men who would so carelessly lift their arms in feeble and often futile engagements with armies they had no hope of defeating, nor was she seeking glory or payment as the bandits or mercenaries that would often aid these causes. She simply stood with confidence, rose her army around her, built her defenses and rallied her troops as she waited for the inevitable battle to come to her.
"And you?" Ungai had turned his sights to Sesshomaru. "What has a youkai of such destructive power seek to gain from this ungodly alliance?"
The old priest sought to draw him out by the challenge issued in his tone, but Sesshomaru would have none of it. This mortal had already been shown the error of going against him, he would not lower himself to repeat the lesson. "This Sesshomaru gains nothing that he would not have taken otherwise," he replied flatly, Superiority and condescendence dripping from his tone. "However," the word was made with emphasis as he looked down at the miko who had turned to him with a hard scowl marring her features. "Recent events have made it clear to me that such a victory would be incomplete if all creatures could not partake of it."
It was probably the best response she could have gotten from him given the circumstances, but Kagome still made sure to roll her eyes at the arrogant dog in annoyance before she looked back to Ungai. "We truly do all want the same things, Ungai," she told him sincerely. "If only you would sit and talk with us and other youkai and humans that have found strength and hope in this alliance, I am certain you will see this as well."
"Ah, I's afraid dat you gonna have to be doin the talking on your own, li'll miss. I need to steal ol' Sess here for a time."
"Tagwin?" Kagome turned curiously towards the voice, but when she saw the vibrant bird saunter his way into the room, a bright smile split on her lips. "Tagwin!" she greeted him cheerily. "It's so good to see you."
"An' you as well, li'll miss," the bird returned with a charming grin. "Been takin' care o' yourself, I hope." His eyes had shifted, looking down to take focus on her growing belly. When he looked up again, his smile grew devious and he sent her a sly wink. "An' not been letting that ol' dog be t'inking he'sa boss."
Kagome giggled. She really loved that Tagwin could insult Sesshomaru right in front of him and totally get away with it. "No," she told him through another light giggle. "No worries there." But, pushing down her laughter, she tried to bring her focus back to the situation. "So what's up, Tagwin?"
With a shake of his head, he replied, "Not'in you need be worryin' about li'll miss. You'sa be seein' to your guest's comfort. Sess an I'll be takin' care o' it."
"Okay." Seeing no reason to concern herself at the moment, Kagome turned back to the old priest. "It looks like it's just you and me, Ungai-sama. Would you care to join me in a walk around the grounds?"
Her offer was as genuine as the smile she was giving him, and the old priest found himself agreeing to her terms. Miko and priest made their way out of the shrine, and only when their ears could no longer detect his voice did Sesshomaru speak.
"What is the meaning of this, Tagwin?"
"We got problems, Sess," the eagle informed him, all play and mirth stripped from his voice. "An' when I say 'we', I mean you."
The bird was stalling, and Sesshomaru didn't miss the anger that had hardened his voice. "Get to the point."
"I'sa gots four guards holding down on a cat dat t'inks she has da right to cross into dese lands."
"So Toron has arrived."
Sesshomaru's dismissive comment only fueled Tagwin's anger. His sharp eyes narrowed fiercely on his friend. "I hate to t'ink, Sess, dat you knew anyt'ing about dis."
"Knew?" Sesshomaru scoffed. "I was the one that sent for her."
"You did WHAT??" Tagwin's feathers bristled in outrage. "What in Kami's name be you t'inking, Sesshomaru?!"
"This is no time for your eccentricies, Tagwin," Sesshomaru replied flatly. "We are going to war. We need allies for the battle, and Toron agreed with the terms fifty years ago. It is time that it be made official."
"You can't be serious, Sess! 'Dat filthy cat gonna turn on you de second she gets da chance!"
There was challenge threatening the eagle's stiff posture, but Sesshomaru turned away from it, and from him. "Her chance shall not come until after the battles have been fought. By then, it will be too late."
"But…But, Sess?" Tagwin was at a loss. He knew better than anyone how cold Sesshomaru could be, but this had even him baffled. "What about da li'll miss?"
Sesshomaru stopped walking, looking over his shoulder sharply. "What about her?"
He was so cold, so dismissive, and it was infuriating. "You can't do dis to her, Sess! She'sa needs you!"
"She has her hanyou, her family, her friends, and she will want for nothing as a Lady of my house. There is nothing more I can give her."
For Sesshomaru, that was the end of the conversation. He continued walking.
But Tagwin would not let him walk away from this, away from her. He called after Sesshomaru.
"And what about your daughter, Sess? She'sa gonna need you too."
Sesshomaru's steps slowed.
A child born of his father power, graced by its mother beauty, with his blood running through its veins: A daughter…
But the decision had already been made. It had been made fifty years ago when the war with the Panther tribe had ended. The casualties had been massive on both sides, so much so that the threat of an attack from another territory or clan became very real. As a condition to her defeat, Toron, the last standing commander of Oyakata's army, had been bound under Sesshomaru's command. Though it was only under the condition that her forces be used to augment his own if such a situation warranted it, in the eyes of all the youkai community, she was seen as Sesshomaru's mate.
Toron, as determined as she was to see the West won by her army of felines, was just as determined not to see it held by any other creature. She would not stand against him in this, not so long as he did not give her a reason to. And he had no intentions of doing so.
Not so much as looking back at his long-time friend, Sesshomaru continued walking.
"Lord Sesshomaru." The guard bowed low at his approach. "We have held the feline as Tagwin ordered."
"You are dismissed, Kintaka" Sesshomaru told the other curtly. "Take this patrol to the east. Word from the skies tells of a group of mortals approaching that must be cleared of potential threat."
"Of course, Lord Sesshomaru." The guard bowed again, then turned and signaled the other members of his guard unit to follow.
Sesshomaru spared them no more heed. The air had grown cold around him, and he turned to meet with the mistress of Ice, his soon to be mate.
His greeting was as cold as she was, but she wasn't bothered by it. "I was told you had turned your back on the old ways, Sesshomaru. Imagine my surprise when I received your summons." She began moving towards him, her steps fluid and sleek: a cat on the prowl. "Though I can not say I am displeased." She purred as her hand lifted to slide down the fitted contours of his armor, her claws digging into the grooves as they passed. "I always did want to see what you kept under this armor."
"And you shall remain wanting," Sesshomaru informed her as he brushed her hand away from his person.
Toron hissed at the dismissal, the icy blues of her eyes glazing with winter snows. "Neither me or my clan will fight for your House without the upholding of your end of the treaty, Sesshomaru. I have overlooked your sudden lenience towards mortal filth knowing that it is for your father's honor you protect that child the miko carries. But I will not overlook this. If you seek my support in this war, the only way you shall get it is by taking me for your mate."
"This Sesshomaru has not forgotten his part of the arrangement, cat." His voice was flat, devoid of emotion as to not give away the repulsion that brewed within him at the very idea of taking a feline to mate. "However, unlike some, we Inu attend to our females when they are carrying. No pup of my pack shall be neglected for another female's litter. The consummation of this arrangement shall be postponed until after the miko has delivered."
"And you expect me to take you at your word?" Toron spit in disgust. "The word of a dog. Meaningless."
"If so meaningless, then why have you come, Toron?" He took a step closer, his full height above her a clear display of his dominance. "Alone." He emphasized the word, letting her know that her life could be his should he choose to take it and there would be no help to come for her. But the question was not asked to be answered. He knew why she had come. "Or do you truly think me such a fool that you would believe I do not know the only reason you seek a place as my mate is to secure yourself and your rabble of followers a place in the future I would create."
"Do not forget, Sesshomaru," Toron bit out in cold fury, "It is you that have sought out my aid, and that of my 'rabble', as you put it."
"Perhaps, but it was you, Toron, who comes here to give yourself so eagerly."
The panther demon hissed at the insult, her lips lifting over the protruding length of her fangs. "You know as well as I do that my tribe will not fight until the mating has been made official."
"They will fight." His tone left no room for dispute. "Just as you will. Or you shall be watching the battle from your graves."
This was one threat Toron knew Sesshomaru would carry though on, and she was quick to back down from it. "If that is you wish, my Lord," her words were sugar-coated and far too sweet. "Then shall we go to inform your new troops of our agreement?"
He knew what she was doing. Break his word to her, and it was one voice easily silenced. But break it when so many were witness to it, and his image would be lost along with his honor.
But his decision had already been made. This was only a temporary inconvenience. So, giving a short gesture for the feline to take the lead, Sesshomaru followed her back to her tribe to finalize the treaty made years ago and add to the ranks of his ever-growing army.
The group of armed men and women were stopped in their march when a guard unit of youkai soldiers spread out in their path. There were four of them, two Inu, a falcon, and a bear. It was the bird that had addressed them, stepping forward from the others to speak.
"You march on guarded ground, mortals. Identify yourselves."
It was a woman that came forward to speak for the group, she, like the others, wearing the bone-plated armor so often seen on her kind. Demon slayers; any youkai would know the tell-tale signs of one in a heartbeat.
But the woman did not raise her weapons. In fact, she gestured sharply to those of the group that made motions to do so and put a stop to it.
"I am Sango, Taijiya of this village" he voice rang clearly and with solid conviction. "I have brought reinforcements to join Sesshomaru-sama's army."
Titling his head slightly to regard the woman, the falcon weighed the truth of her words. He had been told of a Taijiya, but would not be responsible for allowing an entire contingent of them to enter the village grounds without further confirmation.
"What proof do you have to support you claims, slayer?"
"Proof?" Sango was growing agitated, her building anger carrying in her voice. "Since when do I need proof of anything to be granted access to my own village?"
Tensions were rising on both sides of the stand. Someone needed to put a stop to it before it could escalate, and it was Shaeda that took it upon herself to dispel the looming fight. With a leap graced by feline agility, she dropped down from her comfortable resting place on Sango's shoulder. She set herself between the slayer and the silly chick that had not recognized her presence, and proceeded to throw off the concealment of the feline's borrowed form.
From within the red burn of the cat's power arose a dark light that spread out in a consuming wave. It overtook the fires, leaving behind only a shifting mist of shadow and winds. From the small, demure form, a dark silhouette lifted away from the ground, the mists within weaving around each other as they tightened and molded to a chosen form.
She heard the angry accusation come from one of the demon slayers behind her, but the voice was silenced abruptly by Tane's command that his men hold their ground. So, shaking away the last traces of her magic, Shaeda set her sights on the youkai guard.
"Is this proof enough, Kintaka?" she asked sweetly, though the lilt in her voice gave away her laughter.
"Shaeda." The falcon immediately relaxed his stance. "Apologies. I did not realize it was you."
"But of course," she chimed merrily. "I would not be a very good chameleon if I could not fool a predator or two. But speaking of which, where is your brother? Surely my Tagwin did not recruit you without Takaishi as well."
"He flies on the winds, my Lady. It was he that informed Lord Sesshomaru of your approach."
"Oh!" Shaeda's dark eyes lit up with glee. "Sesshomaru has returned? How wonderful that we are all together again!"
"As you say, my Lady," Kintaka replied, though not nearly with the enthusiasm of the shade. He never had understood what his cousin from across the great divide had seen in this shadow of shapeless form. "If that is all, my men and I should return to our patrols."
"Yes, fine, fine," Shaeda dismissed the guard absently, her attention being turned elsewhere. She smiled when her focus finally settled on Sango. "Shall we then? I am quite curious as to what news has come in the past few days. And perhaps we will find our young accomplices there as well."
Sango nodded in agreement. Though she wouldn't say it aloud, she had been quite worried for her two young apprentices. They had been missing for over two days now with no news aside from a report from one of Tane's men that suggested a pair similar to them riding in this direction. She could only hope that they had found their way.
Unfortunately, such discoveries would have to wait. Sango turned to the leader of the demon slayers that had escorted her and Shaeda back to the village. "I am certain you and your men will be welcomed in the village, Tane. I will speak with Kagome and Lord Sesshomaru for you to have an audience with them as soon as time permits."
"There is no rush, miss Sango," Tane assured her. "My men and I are content to wait until you have settled your business. It has been a long march, sunset is nearly upon us, and I believe we could all use a good night's rest."
Glancing at the reddening sky, Sango took a moment to count how long it had been since she had actually slept. Far too long, it seemed. "Yes, you're right," she relented, offering Tane an apologetic smile. "Tomorrow, then. But for now, let us continue on to the village."
Motioning her ahead of him, Tane followed the girl Taijiya's lead, his men trailing closely behind.
"I must say, miko Kagome, that I had many doubts as to the true agenda behind this rising army." Ungai spoke in hushed tones for privacy sake as he and Kagome strolled leisurely through the shrine grounds and the passing villagers and youkai messengers; but his voice remained steady and sure. "But in speaking with you, and seeing with my own eyes the interactions between these youkai and the humans of your settlement, and I am beginning to think that perhaps the words of the monk were true as he claimed them to be."
"Miroku…" His name in a whisper as it left her lips, hushed by the heaviness that gripped her heart to know of his fate. "Ungai-sama," she beseeched the old priest, "Could you tell me how he died?"
As the old priest recounted the events that had brought about the death of her comrade, friend, and teacher; Kagome could feel the building pressure behind her eyes that threatened her with tears of mourning so long overdue. But she forced them away, blinked past the heaviness that wanted to steal over her. She had to be strong, now more than ever.
"A noble death," she said with reverence when the elder had completed his telling, "For a remarkable man."
Despite her best efforts, a lone tear escaped her eyes to run down her cheek in a glistening line. She brushed it away quickly, but Ungai had seen it, been witness to mourning of this young priestess for a death he believed as noble as she had said. That such a man would go to the lengths the young monk had taken, surely his faith and belief in his cause could not have been stronger. But to see that he left behind not only allies in the growing army that was preparing to go to war with the land, but friends as well, friends so dear they would weep for his loss even as they praised him for his sacrifice: such bonds were more telling than words could ever be.
"Forgive me, Ungai-sama." Breathing deeply to shake away her heavy sentiment, Kagome smiled apologetically at the old priest.
But he shook his head in understanding. "No apologies are necessary, miko Kagome. Such a man should be mourned, just as he should be remembered by those to whom he gave his life."
If only it could be as easy as that. But Kagome knew that there was still another painful and difficult task ahead of her. She had received the report twenty minutes ago of the group of Demon Slayers approaching the village. They would be arriving any minute now, and it would be left to her to break the news of Miroku's death to his beloved Sango. How was she ever going to find the words to tell her?
Before she could even think about such things though, she had to see to her guests. "You and your followers are more than welcome to share in what our village has to offer, Ungai-sama," she told the old priest. "Eat and rest awhile, and perhaps come next time we speak you will have come to your decision."
"Your hospitality is much appreciated, miko Kagome," he replied. "However, though I can not say I speak for all the priests, may you know that I have already come to my decision."
It was something to smile for, and in this time that seemed so dark with painful shadows, Kagome couldn't have been more grateful for it.
"I thank you, Ungai-sama; for myself, my allies, and for the people of this land that will prosper by our coming victory."
Well, at least it's a start. I felt like I was starting all over again with this story. For so long it has been sitting just on the edge of my inspirations, but always blocked away from letting me see any of the events clearly. This chapter, and the next, are part of an idea that I have been turning over for the past while. But since it seems that's all I'm going to get out of this story for the time being, I thought I should go ahead and put it into words.
Besides, I had a good reason to break this out, now didn't I? Sins of the Father was nominated in four separate categories in the Single Spark Awards, so I thought it was about time that it got a new chapter added to its books. And I can think of no better thank you to my wonderful readers that have supported this story and my others than new chapters to feed the addiction that we all love :)
So, with a great big Thank You being sent out, I hope that you have all enjoyed Shadow's double feature.