Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in this harmless bit of ficcage… especially for the staff curmudgeon. A nod of recognition is bent towards Rumiko Takahashi for her creative prowess.

A Debt of Gratitude: A twinkle and wink are sent to mine beta, the illustrious Fenikkusuken, who is kind enough to coo over mine cuteness. Thank you for the encouragement, m'dear.

This oneshot was originally posted to Live Journal on October 16, 2007.


Every Year

Kagome strode down the exact center of the wide hallway, eyes forward, face set. She took great satisfaction in the noisy clatter her heels made as she marched over the gleaming terrazzo. The echoing cacophony was helping her let off a little steam. I shouldn't be surprised. There's at least one every year. She hated this part of the job, though confrontations came with the territory; and she'd learned a thing or two about diplomacy during her stint as vice principal at an elementary school across town. This time it was a disgruntled parent. In recent weeks, Mr. Davison had proven to be self-important, pushy, and to Kagome's way of thinking, more interested in forwarding his personal agenda than his son's education. He's angling for an appointment to the school board. The man was annoyingly persistent, and the latest nuisance was a series of increasingly snippy emails, ending in a demand for a face-to-face discussion. Reluctantly, she'd scheduled the meeting for later that week. I'd better make sure Vice Principal Murray is available to sit in…

"Really, Principal Higurashi. Could you take it easy, please?" scolded a voice just behind her. "We just waxed this hall last week," Shippo teased as he hurried his steps to catch up.

"What? Oh." Startled out of her thoughts, Kagome gave the janitor a tight, polite smile. "Good afternoon, Shippo."

Unused to having his little jokes fall so flat, the redhead gave her a long look out of the corner of his eye. She was tense, and he wondered in which direction the source of her stress lay. Is she dreading her destination, or running away from something unpleasant? "Where you headed?" he pried casually.

"Nowhere in particular," she admitted crisply, then sighed and adopted a slightly more conversational tone. "I just needed to get away from my desk for a bit," she added with an apologetic glance.

"Come with me, then," he invited with a smile as he displayed a roll of masking tape he was carrying. "Your presence would lend an official touch to this afternoon's proceedings."

Kagome's brow furrowed in confusion, but when Shippo turned at the next juncture in the hallway, she turned with him. "What's going on?"

"An annual tradition," the janitor pronounced with solemnity.

Pursing her lips, she shook her head. "There was nothing on my calendar for today," Kagome replied, baffled. The janitor's eyes were dancing with ill-concealed amusement, and she knew he was somehow teasing her. "What are you up to?"

Shippo tossed the roll of tape into the air, caught it, and held it out towards her—all without breaking his stride. "We're nearly out of masking tape, so I had to run back to the office for another roll."

"Tape," Kagome echoed, staring at the brand new roll, unenlightened. "Okay, then. Why do you need tape?"

"The morning classes just about used up the last roll," the red-haired janitor announced patiently, grinning at the principal's flat look. He'd achieved his end, for she was completely distracted from whatever had been eating at her a little while ago. "We were running out, so Inuyasha sent me for more."

This is like a game of twenty questions. Amused by the circular nature of his responses, Kagome tightened the focus of her question. "That's all well and good, but what are you using the tape for?" she prodded.

"Come and see?" Shippo urged, pausing outside the doors to the cafeteria, then opening one with a bow and flourish.

They stepped into the multi-purpose facility, which did double-duty as the school's gymnasium and cafeteria. It was largely utilitarian, with a long lunch counter to one side, tables that folded away into the walls, basketball hoops that could be lowered to accommodate young players, and an impressive two-story bank of windows letting in the daylight on the exterior wall. Kagome paused just beyond the threshold and scanned the busy scene. There were kindergartners everywhere—all three classroom's worth by the look of things. Several of the lunch tables had been left down, and the teachers and their aides were trying to keep busy little hands out of mischief as they worked on a craft. "This is the official function?" she murmured in an aside to the redhead.

"Sure is," he grinned down at her. "They've been hunting leaves all week for homework. Why don't you go over and grab some cider from Gert. I've got to give Inuyasha a hand." Shippo gave her arm a quick pat before waving the masking tape for his partner to see and hustling across the floor to join him. Kagome looked over towards the brightly-lit aperture into the stainless steel world where the lunch ladies held sway. Though they'd usually battened down the hatches with sliding metal screens by this time of day, the lunch window and kitchen doors stood wide open. All three women who handled food service were watching over the proceedings with good humor, and sure enough, a couple of them were busily filling paper cups with juice for the kids.

Kagome meandered in their general direction, stopping to take a closer look at the pint-sized assembly line that was in process. After a few minutes, she realized what they were doing—pressed leaves, wax paper, crayon shavings, and ironing boards. Classic. Dozens of leaf collages were in various stages of construction, and the completed works of art were being stapled into construction paper frames—red, orange, yellow, and brown. To show off the workmanship to best advantage, the pieces were being taped up against the glass of the second tier of windows, where they could catch the sunlight. To put it more accurately, Inuyasha was putting them up. She watched as the janitor backed down his stepladder and faced the long line-up of children waiting their turn to hand him their leaf-art. His behavior towards the youngsters amused her. He made no move to lower himself to little girl's level, unlike Shippo who was down on his knees with one of the teachers, helping the kids make little rolls of masking tape on the backs of their frames. Inuyasha stood straight, arms folded over his chest, as if challenging an opponent. He's just as brusque with them as he was with me, she realized. I wonder if that means he treats them like little adults… or if he treated me like a child.

"Principal Higurashi," welcomed one of the kindergarten teachers as she hurried over. "How are you? Would you like some cider—or maybe some coffee?" Miss Burke offered sweetly.

Kagome hesitated, but gave into the part of her that longed to join in, allowing herself to be led towards the kitchen and the smell of coffee. "That would be nice, thanks." Taking possession of a steaming cup, she turned back to the hub of activity. Inuyasha had just moved the ladder a little further along and turned his attention to the next child in line with a look of exaggerated boredom. Unfazed by his manner, the girl beamed up at him, holding out her picture and chattering happily. To Kagome's surprise, she then extended her other hand, which was balled into a fist. Slowly, the dark-haired man extended his hand, and the girl dropped something small into his palm. Keeping his face neutral, the janitor pocketed the item, then inspected this latest version of crayon confetti. Nodding once, he offered a few words that Kagome was too far away to catch. The child bounced her excitement, and Inuyasha jogged up the ladder to add it to the growing collection.

Miss Burke strolled back to Kagome's side and stood in companionable silence while they watched the decorations go up. It is rather festive, Kagome admitted to herself. She smiled over the childish antics as the kids milled about in their untidy line, waiting for their turn. Judging by the expressions on the faces of those closest to the front of the line, many of them were just as eager to talk to Inuyasha as they were to see their artwork go on display. I wonder how someone so prickly managed to win over so many little admirers? As a young boy gestured broadly in an enthusiastic monologue directed towards the grey-clad man, Kagome leaned towards Miss Burke. "They like him, don't they?"

The kindergarten teacher laughed cheerfully. "Inuyasha? Oh, yes. All the students here are very fond of him."

Kagome's eyebrows went up. "Isn't that odd—for a janitor I mean? I wouldn't think he'd have much contact with the kids."

Miss Burke's smile just brightened a notch, and she shook her head emphatically. "Oh, no! Every year, during the first week of school, we make sure that all our new children are introduced to the different members of the staff." She waved towards the two maintenance men. "The students always seem to latch onto those two right off the bat. You came through on the first day of school, remember?"

"Yes, of course," Kagome assured her. "I just hadn't realized the extent to which introductions were being made." She cast a glance towards Shippo and Inuyasha again, and found the dark-haired janitor's eyes fixed on her.

"Oh, sure," bubbled the teacher. "I'm on the school safety committee, and the whole thing was practically his idea. I mean, think about it! These little ones come to us, and they've been told all their lives they're not supposed to talk to strangers. It's part of our job to let them know which adults here can be trusted, so they know who to run to if they're ever in trouble."

"That's a sensible precaution," the principal murmured, glad that Inuyasha's attention had returned to the next munchkin in line.

Miss Burke chattered on. "We make sure they know the school nurses, lunch ladies, and even the other teachers on their hallway."

"And you say this was his idea?" Kagome asked, pointing towards the janitor with her coffee cup.

"Yep!" chirped the kindergarten teacher. "He and Shippo brought it up a few years back, and we've been doing it ever since. That's why practically every kid in the school knows him."

Kagome watched another couple of children take their turn in front of the grey-clad janitor, eyes bright. It was easy to see that they adored the curmudgeon, but it was difficult to understand why. "He just doesn't seem like the type to get along with kids," she mused aloud.

Miss Burke giggled. "He isn't," she assured the principal, "Though I think he's all bark and no bite. Kids can tell stuff like that, don't you think?" She leaned closer and dropped her voice conspiratorially. "He actually takes his breaks on the playground during recesses."

Eyes widening slightly in disbelief, Kagome couldn't keep the incredulity out of her tone. "He actually plays with the children?"

"No, no, no," laughed the perky woman. "It's nothing like that. He just keeps an eye on things. He seems to be very safety conscious—protective." The kindergarten teacher nodded towards the janitor under discussion. "As much as the kids would love it, they're rarely able to coax him down."

Miss Burke's choice of wording mystified Kagome until she followed her gaze. Inuyasha had finished taping up the last of the little masterpieces and was casually poised on the very top of his stepladder. Below, a sea of upturned faces and outstretched hands pled with him to come play, but he simply hooked a foot around one of the rungs and contemplated the ceiling. Shippo stood guard at the bottom of the ladder, amiably discouraging would-be adventurous types from attempting pursuit. "Go on, now," the red-haired janitor urged with a shooing motion. "Your teachers have a nice snack all ready for you. Just make sure you save me some!" he wheedled shamelessly.

The teacher's aides managed to shepherd the kids towards their cider and doughnuts, and Kagome watched the reluctant exodus with amusement. When all the kids were finally redirected, she checked to see if the janitor would take this opportunity to make his escape. Inuyasha hadn't moved from his lofty perch, and he met her eyes with the same challenging intensity he'd turned on the kindergartners. Deciding to take a page from their book, she fearlessly held his gaze and offered him what she hoped was an approving smile. One dark eyebrow lifted sardonically, and Kagome countered by arching her own brows questioningly. Inuyasha's expression flickered briefly between surprise and speculation before settling into a vaguely defensive frown. From his station at the foot of the ladder, Shippo followed the nonverbal exchange with keen interest. Well, well, well…

End Note: This oneshot was written for the Live Journal community iyfic(underscore)contest's theme for Week 116—Homework. 2,103 words.