CHAPTER ONE

"Run."

Sesshoumaru stood in front of his little brother with his fists raised, and his trademark cold glare on his face. Three boys, his age and older, stood facing him. It was always this way. Each new foster home, each new 'group care establishment', there was always the confrontation. The older residents picked on the newer ones to establish their pecking order, to find out who could be victimized.

"But Sessh!" Inuyasha whined. "What about you?"

"I said run." Sesshoumaru ordered harshly, harsh enough to make Inuyasha jump.

This time his brother obeyed, and took off around the building. At age seven, Inuyasha was too young to fight high schoolers. Protecting him was Sesshoumaru's job.

One of the older boys smiled wolfishly and took off after Inuyasha. Sesshoumaru pounced. Grabbing the boy by his shirt collar, he planted his foot in the ground and twisted. Using the kid's momentum, he swung him around, bashing him into the Hispanic kid who was rushing to attack Sesshoumaru from behind. Both assailants fell to the ground in a tangle of legs, arms, and curses.

The remaining kid, a stocky senior with blonde curly hair and the tank-like body of a linebacker, snarled. "That's it, pretty boy. You're going down."

Sesshoumaru merely narrowed his eyes and attacked. The fight was on. By the time Inuyasha got back dragging a harried administrator with him, the fight was nearly over. Even though Sesshoumaru now sported a bruised cheek and a limp where a lucky kick connected with his kneecap, he knew the drill. His eyes flicked to Inuyasha, who dropped the man's hand and came over to stand beside his brother.

"I tripped," he told the administrator.

"Uh huh." Responded the older man skeptically.

Swinging around, he stared at the three boys who'd attacked Sesshoumaru. The blonde one now had a split lip and was breathing hard. The other two cradled swollen hands. Sesshoumaru had learned that it was near impossible to keep punching with broken knuckles, so he'd stomped on their hands as they'd rolled around on the ground trying to disentangle themselves so they could get up and corner him. In the foster care system it was a dog eat dog world. You learned to fight if you wanted to survive, and with their cursed white blonde hair and slight builds, Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha looked like easy targets.

"I supposed you guys tripped too?" The administrator asked, raising his eyebrows.

"Yeah," the blonde kid said, wiping the blood off his lip with the back of his hand. "We tripped." He glared at the administrator, daring him to make something of it.

Wrong tactic. Sesshoumaru saw the administrator bristle.

"Fine, then you're all turning in right after supper. No TV, no socializing. Now get to the infirmary."

Defeated in more ways than one, the blonde kid hitched his shoulder in a signal to his two cronies and lurched past the older man, cronies in tow. As he passed by he shot a look of rage at Sesshoumaru, causing Inuyasha to reach for his brother's hand.

The administrator spoke again. "That goes for the both of you, too."

"But that's not fair!" protested Inuyasha. "They started it, they…"

He trailed off as Sesshoumaru squeezed his hand warningly. Inuyasha always spoke before he thought. That impulsiveness caused problems in the past. Sometimes Sesshoumaru despaired that the brat would never learn to think of anything beyond the moment.

The older man stared hard at the pair. He hadn't wanted them. There were barely enough resources as it was. He'd had to order a new set of bunkbeds and cram them in at the end of the older boys' dorm. Technically Inuyasha should have gone into the younger boys' room, but the notation in their file warned not to separate them, and besides, the younger boys' dormitory was completely full.

"As you wish," said the taller boy, his eyes carefully devoid of any emotion.

Unlike that blonde ruffian, Blake, this kid knew how to act respectfully.

Sesshoumaru.

Weird name.

The younger one was Inuyasha, also weird. Evidently their mother liked Japanese names. The man knew from the file that she'd abandoned the boys when Sesshoumaru was ten and Inuyasha was two. There'd been some sort of adoption planned which fell through at the last minute when the adoptive couple was killed in a car wreck. The mother, an alcoholic, took off when she got the news, abandoning the boys and making any other adoption practically impossible since she wasn't around to sign any new adoption papers.

The man held their gazes a while longer to make his point. Sesshoumaru met his eyes calmly, as still as a statue, while the younger kid fidgeted and looked worried.

"Get inside," he told them finally.

He didn't envy them their lot. Blake was a bully, the type of kid who'd end up in jail if he didn't find a way to take all that anger and need to dominate and find a productive outlet for it. Encouraging him to try out for the football team may have meant one less pair of hands to help with the chores each afternoon, but frankly the place ran a lot smoother while he was gone. Making a mental note to keep an eye on the new kids, he followed them past the barn and into the main building. Maybe he'd see if Gelson, the old coot who owned the ranch next door, needed some weekend help. That Sesshoumaru kid might be skinny, but that lankiness of his must conceal some kind of strength if he'd managed to land a punch on Blake. Pleased with his plan to keep the two combatants separated, he ambled on to his office while the boys slipped into the empty dining hall.

Sesshoumaru sat down at a bench at one of the coral colored formica cafeteria tables, sitting with his back to the ugly bit of furniture. He supposed someone in the past thought the garish orange was a cheerful color. All it did was make the cream colored walls look dingy in comparison.

Inuyasha thumped down next to his brother and stared at the floor. Sesshoumaru let the silence drag on, the pain in his knee and face a dull and constant ache.

"Sessh…"

Sesshoumaru concealed a smile. Inuyasha never could stand the silent treatment. His little brother might be an idiot, but he was all Sesshoumaru had. It was his responsibility to teach him to survive.

"My name is Sesshoumaru," he corrected coldly. "Say it."

Inuyasha blushed scarlet, realizing he'd been calling his brother by the pet name he'd used when he was a toddler. He hadn't done that in months. Switching to the new group home must have brought up old insecurities. Sesshoumaru would have to toughen his baby brother up.

"Sesshoumaru," Inuyasha repeated grudgingly. He shot a look at his older brother from beneath his bangs. They were shaggy and unkempt as usual. Sesshoumaru resisted an urge to take out his comb.

"I know I wasn't supposed to go get an adult, but I was worried about you," he confided glumly.

This was where Sesshoumaru was supposed to melt, give Inuyasha a big brotherly hug, and thank him for his concern. In a different place, in a home that was a true home, that might have happened, but this was the real world.

"Do you know why you don't go to the adults?"

It was a rhetorical question. Sesshoumaru had drummed the answer into his little brother years ago after their stint in the foster home where the foster dad was the one meting out the blows, not their fellow foster kids.

"Because you can't trust them?" Inuyasha whispered to his feet, eyes cast downward.

"And?" Sesshoumaru prompted.

"And if you can't solve the problem yourself then you're not much of a person to begin with?"

Sesshoumaru stretched his legs out in front of him and closed his eyes. His injured knee protested, but he ignored it. There was time enough later to get an icepack from the infirmary.

"The fight wasn't over," he explained tiredly. "Until I beat Blake, he'll just keep coming at me, thinking he can win. Because we were interrupted, this is just going to drag on longer."

"I'm sorry, Sesshoumaru."

Inuyasha was such a baby. His voice still trembled when he was upset. Sesshoumaru cracked an eye open and saw his brother's shoulders slump. Inuyasha was a child, an annoying, foolish lump of a kid, and he was Sesshoumaru's to protect. Not for the first time, Sesshoumaru cursed their mother who'd so callously left them to the system. He remembered clearly the day she'd left.

He was ten years old, only three years older than Inuyasha was now. At first he'd been so happy that mama was being nicer to them than usual. She'd been drinking less. She even took them out for ice cream and got Sesshoumaru his favorite flavor, chocolate toffee crunch ice cream. They were going to a lawyer's office to meet some nice people, mama said.

When they got to the office, after a long elevator ride, they'd sat in a posh waiting room, mama taking the magazines out of Inuyasha's baby fingers as he single-mindedly tried to tear them to shreds or put them in his mouth. At least she wasn't yelling at him. At ten, Sesshoumaru could've told her yelling didn't work with Inuyasha. It just made him cry.

A man came out to greet them, a grey haired lady by his side. Their faces were serious. Sesshoumaru looked at mama and saw that she'd noticed it too.

"What is it?" she'd asked. "Where are the Johnsons? I'm ready to sign the papers."

"There's been an accident," the man said. "I'm afraid they didn't make it."

"Accident?"

Mama acted like she didn't know what the word meant. Sesshoumaru wanted to tell her, but mama always said children shouldn't interrupt grown ups' conversations.

The lady came and sat by mama, and put a hand on her shoulder. Inuyasha took the opportunity to squirm down off her lap to be closer to the shiny magazines on the table in front of him.

"The Johnson's car was hit by a truck. They were killed instantly. We just got the phone call," she told mama sympathetically.

"What?" Mama stood up and glared around wildly. "Do you know how long it took me to get ready for this? To give my babies away? I've been sober for the past three days just so I wouldn't screw this up, and now you tell me it's for nothing?!?"

The lady stood up slowly. "We'll find you another couple. You know this is for the best," she said patiently. "We've been over this."

"No!" Mama said. "I'm done. I'm leaving. I can't deal with this anymore."

Terrified, Sesshoumaru wrapped his arms around his mother's waist.

"Mama? Don't leave us," he begged.

Mama didn't even look at him. She just grabbed his arms and thrust him away from her. She brushed past the protesting lady and ran out the office door.

That was the last Sesshoumaru saw of his mother. Now all the family he had left was sitting dejectedly on the bench next to him.

Sesshoumaru clenched his hands into fists and stared at the floor. He would not put his arms around his brother. He would not allow his brother to rely on human touch for comfort. Instead he would protect him by his actions, and teach him to be strong too so no one would ever hurt him the way their mom had hurt them. Until Inuyasha was strong enough to defend himself, Sesshoumaru would be there to protect him.

"Come," he said, standing and holding out his hand to his brother. "We're going to the infirmary."

Inuyasha grabbed his hand. "Do you think the nurse will be nice?" he asked, his mood changing from dejection to cheerfulness in the blink of an eye. "The nurse at our last school was nice. She was pretty too."

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Sesshoumaru led his brother out of the room. He still had Blake to deal with, but as long as he had Inuyasha, he had someone to fight for.