Disclaimer: Inuyasha and any of its characters do not belong to me.
She slinked along the thick branch, black paws padding silently across the rough bark. Moonlight danced across her glowing ice blue eyes, sent a shimmer rippling the length of her smooth midnight fur. Feline body sleek and agile, she jumped down and weaved a path towards the fresh water.
The Western Lands were richer than she had expected. Strong, ancient trees and fertile ground. Fresh springs and miles of land untouched by humans. Traveling through and soaking in what she'd always harbored a secret fascination for had piqued her curiosity concerning the demon lord who ruled these territories.
Rumor had it that he was ruthless, unyielding in his rule and absolute in his power. A terribly beautiful being who exhibited as much natural grace and calculation during youkai politics as he did killing his enemies.
But she was never one for rumors, even if they did hold a grain of truth to them. She preferred to judge with her own eyes, her own heart.
She eagerly lapped up the water, letting the cool clear liquid quench her thirst. The quick sprint through the thick forestry had been just what she needed. The adrenaline pumping through her veins was slowing but her heart still beat a healthy, pounding rhythm. Long black tail gently swaying, she drew her ears slightly forward, listening carefully for any signs of unwanted guests.
After several moments of rigid stillness and silence, she finally deemed it safe enough and shifted.
Her back arched as the silky black fur slowly disappeared. Her two front legs morphed into sleek, toned arms and hands, nails permanently dipped in near ebony. Her hind legs elongated, leaving nothing but smooth sun kissed thigh and calf in its wake. She straightened and stretched, heard a few bones pop as she ran her tongue over her shortened canines. Long black hair fell in waves down her back, obscuring the natural ebony spots climbing from her lower back and delicately weaving upward to her hairline. Side swept bangs partially covered her crystal blue eyes that still retained a sliver of her more primal, feline side.
She stepped into the water, wading further and deeper until she was almost fully submerged. Animal she may be but hell, it didn't mean she had to smell like one. Whenever she could, she always enjoyed a bath to cleanse her body of all the grime and sweat she accumulated during her travels.
But soon after her head emerged from the depths of the clear sparkling water, she knew something wasn't right.
A dead twig snapped and she pivoted to her left, body lowering even further into the water until only her eyes were visible. Another few snaps, some shuffling and she finally saw them emerge from the shadows.
Youkai. Armed and dangerous youkai.
There were two of them, both dressed in some soldier looking garb and carrying their choice of weapons. She couldn't tell exactly what type of demons they were, but they were certainly built tall and huge and mighty intimidating.
Damn it! She was only about a day from the border too. She had been extremely careful, she thought. Traveling mostly by night when she could hardly be detected as she became part of the shadows. She mostly observed during the day, slinking around the treetops dusted with sunlight, quiet and curious.
She started to move a little but their suddenly raised weapons and climbing demonic auras made her pause.
"Come peacefully and you won't be harmed."
Her eyes fell on the one who just spoke, long black hair in a tight braid, a blue marking on his forehead.
"You're scaring her."
"Shut up, Jak."
She bolted then, was out of the water in a heartbeat and shifting into her panther form the next. If anything, she could try losing them with her speed and agility as she blended with the dark surroundings, but even that was a long shot. They were youkai and much more powerful. She wasn't stupid enough to assume she'd get out of this unscathed.
Without a backward glance, she flew like the wind through the dense forest, weaving around trees and leaping across small boulders and wild bushes. Her ears picked up the sound of lightening quick movements in front of her and she skidded to a stop, sharp claws digging into the mossy earth as she pivoted on her hind legs. She took off to the right and narrowly avoided a sharp spear as it landed where she just was.
Heart pounding and blood rushing, her glowing blue eyes looked around her as she ran with all she had. Taking a sharp left, she deftly scampered up a large tree and followed the line of its sturdy branch. Just as she was about to make the leap to another, one of the soldiers tackled her and they went careening off, landing hard on the forest floor.
Her razor sharp claws instinctively swiped outward and caught him across the shoulder. He hissed, breaking away and she padded back, crouched in defense with bright, wild feline eyes. She growled, sharp canines bared as she spotted the other youkai approach from behind. She quickly swung around, ready to bolt once more but pain suddenly flared white hot across her back and she staggered on all fours.
Ban notched another mildly poisoned arrow, ready to let it fly and take the stubborn feline down but Jak stopped him. His younger brother held his bloody shoulder and tentatively approached the cornered panther.
She let loose another fierce growl at his slow approach, cowering against a tree as pain wracked her body. She tried to make another attempt at escape, knowing in her heart of hearts that she didn't stand a chance but damn it, she wasn't going to give in so easily.
She didn't get very far before dizziness made her vision blurry and her front legs gave out. She went down with a jarring impact, heavy pants leaving her mouth as she struggled to get up. Feeling them approach, she lifted her head, her tail swishing along the ground in agitation. She growled in warning, exposing her sharp canines and ready to rip off any body part should they dare come any closer.
"Calm down and we promise not to hurt you further." Jak said in what he hoped was a placating voice.
All he got was another warning growl, another deadly glare from those penetrating, disarming eyes of hers.
"Apparently she doesn't like us."
"You think?" Jakotsu drawled sarcastically, glancing down at his already healing injury. "You were the one who shot her with an arrow, not me."
"I had to in order to bring her down. You saw how fast she was."
"Was it poisoned?"
"Mildly. Just enough to sedate her for a while."
Jak glanced at the black panther a couple feet away. The arrow wasn't in too deep, but they would still need to take it out and look at the wound.
"We'll wait until she's unconscious. I'm quite fond of all my limbs." Ban said, sparing the shifter a slightly wary glance.
"We can't. We're due back in three hours in case you've forgotten, aniki. It'll take us two and a half just to get there."
"So what the hell do we do?"
Jak once again approached her, his steps slow but measured. "I'm sorry, but you'll have to let us help you."
If she was in her humanoid form, she would've scoffed and threw them a nasty glare. They were the reason she was in this mess! Instead, she flashed her sharp teeth and attempted to get up. She managed to get her hind legs steady but that was as much as she could manage before once again collapsing in a painful heap of dark bloody fur.
"Look," Jak said more firmly before he boldly crouched down before her and looked into her bleary blue eyes. "You were trespassing on Western Territory. Normally, if it's just harmless humans we let them go. But you…you're a goddamn shifter. We haven't seen your kind in ages and as is our duty, we have to bring you back to our Lord. Preferably alive. Now, will you let me help you or do you really want to die out here?"
She hesitated. He was right of course. She had been trespassing. But usually when she did she never got caught. She inwardly swore, cursed herself to hell and back because she'd been too lax, too careless tonight. It was all her fault really. God, she was going to be on lockdown because of this, assuming she survived of course.
She lowered her head then, as a small sign of acquiescence. He smelled sincere enough and she knew a thing or two about duty. She shirked it often enough as it was.
Jak breathed a sigh of relief. "Good. Once I remove the arrow, would you be willing to shift into your humanoid form? It makes taking care of your wound and carrying you easier."
She could feel her limbs grow numb as the poison took effect. Her mind grew fuzzier with each passing moment as her breathing slowed.
"Hey beautiful, still with me?" He ventured a soft stroke along her muzzle and Ban, who stood only a few feet away waited for it to get ripped off.
He was surprised when it didn't and beyond shocked when she licked his brother's hand instead.
"I'll take that as a yes." Jak nodded towards his brother and instantly felt her stiffen, saw her ears perk and heard the small growl. "Easy, he's not gonna harm you…again anyway." He shot Ban an evil glare.
"I'm sorry." He murmured, if only to appease his annoying brother. "Come on, let's get this over with quick. We're losing time as it is."
In her foggy state of mind, she felt the nicer, gentler one hold her firmly down as the bastard who shot her got poised to pull the arrow out. This was going to hurt like hell. And she wasn't wrong as she snapped her powerful jaws, sharp claws digging deep into the earth the moment they cleanly tore it out. Blacking out seemed very tempting right about now. They could haul her black furry ass back if they really wanted to. Hell, the pain was so damn intense right now they could leave her here to die and she wouldn't know any better.
But she was too considerate for her own good and once her word, or in this case lick, was given she wouldn't renege on it. Seriously, it was going to get her killed. Throwing caution and all sense of propriety in front of strangers to the four winds, she shifted and then promptly passed out.
Ban released a shuddering breath. "Holy shit…" He earned a smack from his equally awed yet more composed younger brother. Back at the small lake, they hadn't been able to get a good look at her so it was quite a sight to behold her change.
"Stop gawking and help me." He quickly shed his slightly torn outer kimono and draped it over the lower half of her naked body, noticing the beautiful array of black spots weaving a path up her spine. Damn if it wasn't sexy as hell.
They spent the next half hour cleaning and bandaging her shoulder wound, doing the best they could with only the bright moon as their source of light. They couldn't afford to lure bigger, nastier predators with a fire. However, they thought, her blood scent certainly would if they continued to linger.
Quickly they secured the large outer kimono around her, tying it around her waist with a piece of rope. And for a moment, they both just stared at her, illuminated by moonlight and an inner radiance all her own. She was beautiful, almost unearthly so with all her smooth soft contours and long inky black hair. And her eyes…when Jak had looked into them earlier he could've sworn he nearly drowned. Flecked with silver around the vertically elongated pupils, her clear blue eyes had been something else entirely.
"It's time to head back." Ban whispered, bending over her unconscious form and scooping her up into his strong arms.
Jak nodded, running a hand through his disheveled locks. The pain had receded from where she'd struck him and it no longer bled. By morning, it would probably be mostly, if not completely, healed.
A bemused smirk crossed his lips. "Some scouting trip this turned out to be, huh?"
Ban shook his head, the corners of his lips lifting in a faint smile. "Yeah."
She awoke to a blinding darkness, disorientated and with her head pounding a harsh unsteady rhythm— no doubt the aftermath of the poison they'd arrowed into her system. Slowly, she rose on all fours, realizing that somehow, she must've shifted back into her more primal form as a means to heal faster.
The last thing she remembered was the gut wrenching pain as they tore the arrow from her shoulder. Everything after that was either fuzzy or incredibly dark. However, all that remained of the injury she'd sustained was a dull ache that would recede in maybe one or two days.
Kagome blinked those icy blues of hers, her vision immediately adjusting to the dark and was finally able to make out her surroundings.
It was musty in here, the smell of decay and soiled earth only adding to her nausea. Padding forward and ignoring how queasy she was getting, she suddenly growled, whether out of frustration or anger she wasn't sure.
With her emotions mounting, Kagome snarled and swiped at the iron bars keeping freedom just out of her reach. Those youkai bastards had thrown her in a damn prison cell to rot! So much for trying to be civil! She should've bitten their hands off when she had the chance to in the forest. Another fierce growl escaped as she tried to calm her heated blood. Stalking back and forth in her cell, agitation growing and black tail swishing from side to side, Kagome wondered if she'd ever see the sky again.
The next time she woke up, torchlight flickered outside her miserable cell. She didn't bother to get up though. Instead, she quietly lounged in the dark corner where the shadows danced and played, feline eyes sky bright and more than a little wary of her familiar looking visitor.
Jakotsu placed the burning torch in its stand on the wall and unlocked the iron prison door, cautiously stepping inside but making sure to keep ample space between him and the female shifter. He carried with him a tray heavy with drink and food. A pathetic offering of peace Kagome surmised before promptly closing her eyes, intent on getting more sleep and pondering ways to get out of this mess she was in.
"Hungry?" His voice was quiet, nice almost.
But she wouldn't be fooled again. They had probably poisoned it.
"It's not poisoned in case you were wondering. If we wanted you dead, we would've killed you in the forest."
They should've. At least then she would've been free, not confined to such a small, disgusting space that wreaked hell on her senses. Kagome moved, turned her head away and ignored the soldier.
"I'm sorry. Since Lord Sesshoumaru isn't in the fortress and won't be until a few days from now, we had no choice but to put you in here." Jak explained.
She was hard pressed to believe him though and so, continued to blatantly ignore everything about him. She didn't need to fall deeper into this than she already had. First, it'd be a general acceptance then she'd get comfortable. Before Kagome knew it, she'd never want to leave because of some sort of ridiculous unspoken trust that had developed, some sort of special bond that had unexpectedly bloomed in the wake of her imprisonment that would have ultimately ceased to remain as such, which is how this type of situation, more often than not, played out.
Or she'd die alone in this prisoner's cell with the darkness as her companion and neglect her grim reaper because from the looks of things, she wasn't getting out of here anytime soon. Not with who knows how many youkai between her and freedom.
"It's been two days. Won't you eat something? Please?" He murmured, pushing the tray of food closer.
She didn't bother to respond. Surviving without food for long stretches of time was nothing new to her. Though eventually she knew she'd have to eat something. But eventually wasn't today. It wasn't right now so it could wait.
Kagome heard the sigh of resignation leave his lips and then the iron door open and close. She was once again bathed in silence, the food untouched and the torchlight bright and flickering and slowly, slowly dying.
Sleep was hard to come by in here. The time of day was near impossible to decipher and this false darkness was making her edgy and sick. She was used to the sounds of night, to the crickets chirping, the owls hooting and swooping down to catch their unsuspecting prey. And she was used to the blanket of neon stars above, the bright luminescent moon that lit up the black velvet sky as she lazily lounged in the treetops.
The sound of approaching footsteps and the light of another torch stirred her from her musings and she wondered who it was. It had only been a few hours since the soldier's departure. Maybe they had come to finally kill her. It would be a welcome relief from this miserable hellhole. But she would take one of them with her at least. She wasn't going to die a quiet, obedient death that was for sure.
They stopped in front of her cell and Jak quickly unlocked it. Ban stood nearby, gazing intently at the luminous blue eyes on the other side. He hoped his brother knew what the hell he was doing because despite their captive being a female, she was still a dangerous, unknown enigma. Hell, they hadn't even spoken one word to each other!
Jakotsu entered as Kagome, despite her stubborn nature, curiously regarded him. Just what were they up to? She didn't have to wait long to discover their intentions however.
"Would you like to bathe?"
Were they politely telling her she smelled? Kagome wanted to laugh. Well, what did they expect locking her in this dank cell for a couple days? That she'd come out smelling like a field of wild flowers? Her incredulity must've shown in her eyes because she caught his smile.
"It's not so much the current state of your hygiene as it is my guilty conscience." He offered. "Will you accept?"
"Just leave her." Ban cut in irritably. "It's obvious she'd rather sit in here and rot."
Kagome glared pointedly at him and morbidly entertained the thought of ripping his throat out with her powerful jaws. She growled at him before slowly getting up and stalking towards Jakotsu, her movements still liquid smooth and sleek despite being confined to such a small space.
Ban smirked as they made their way out. His guard however, was up and he was more than ready to fight for his limbs should she decide to latch onto any of them. He hadn't missed that scary glint in her eyes when she looked at him earlier. So while Jak may be fooled by her compliance and mild temperament, he certainly wasn't.
The fresh night air was heavenly and she took a precious moment to take it all in. God, how she had missed it! For something she'd taken for granted, she now had a new appreciation for it. But thoughts of being locked away again stung her heart and no matter how hard she tried, it didn't quell the burgeoning ache in her chest.
As they traveled what she assumed to be the Western Lord's home, she couldn't help but be awed by its magnificence. From what little she knew about these lands and from what she'd heard from the beings she'd observed, this had to be the shinden-zukuri so often acclaimed as breathtaking and revered by all who saw it.
Long wide connecting corridors, a breathtaking main building, pavilions, and near perfect landscaping gave it an almost surreal atmosphere. Shoji screen doors and tatami mats for privacy and seating. The soft rush of running water for peaceful calm. An ideal paradise for those who didn't know how to seek it directly from nature itself.
As Kagome silently padded along behind the bastard who shot her, she admitted to herself that this was indeed a beautiful home. She also noted they were keeping close to the shadows, almost as if trying to blend in…she realized then that they were trying to hide her from the other guards surrounding the shinden-zukuri. Granted, a black panther nearly six feet in length would undoubtedly garner attention, but did they really have to throw her in some damn prison cell just to keep her a secret until this Western Lord decided to show?
Kagome liked to think she was a reasonable woman. That is until someone decides to shoot her with an arrow and throw her in a cold, dank space the size of a closet. She wasn't so reasonable and likable then. But she was open minded and not averse to compromise. She wasn't a goddamn saint but she could be very forgiving, provided sincere apologies were made and of course, the nature of the offense. All she really asked for was for others to be real around her. Flaws and all.
They stepped onto a narrow gravel path shrouded with trees and for a moment, Kagome entertained the thought of fleeing. But common sense snuck in and told her she wouldn't get very far, seeing how she had no knowledge of the layout of this place and that there were youkai guards roaming around, probably itching for some action.
And that small part of her, the part that others always said was a weakness and would one day get her killed, whispered soft words of not wanting to break whatever tenuous trust had developed between her and the nice soldier. Even if it was only to ease his guilt, Kagome was nonetheless thankful for this small consideration.
She could smell the onsen as they approached an open grassy area, the narrow path widening before them. And even though she shouldn't be this thrilled about it, she was. Her black tail began to twitch excitedly and her soft padding sped up, betraying her eagerness to finally be clean. Not caring about the bastard in front of her, she dashed past him and towards the steaming onsen in the middle of the small clearing.
Jakotsu couldn't repress the smile as he watched her circle the hot spring, blue eyes sky bright and dare he say practically in love.
"You'd think she's never seen an onsen before." Ban muttered as he leaned against a nearby tree, dark eyes alert.
Jak shrugged as he sat down and reclined next to his older brother. "Maybe she just likes to be clean."
Ban snorted. "You realize we know nothing about her right? Where she comes from, why she was even on the Western Lands. We don't even know her name."
"Is it even our business to know?"
"Of course it is!"
"Then you try getting that information out of her because I haven't had much luck."
Kagome of course could hear their conversation but really didn't give it a second thought. The nice soldier was right. It wasn't their business to know unless she decided to tell them. Not that there was much to tell anyway. She was just innocently passing through with an observant eye.
Stepping onto the stones that led to the body of hot water, she dipped a paw in and practically purred. A second later, she was diving in, hardly making a splash. Kagome shifted into her humanoid form under the rippling water before emerging with a content sigh, reveling in the feeling of being free even though she technically wasn't. Glancing up at the midnight sky, she saw the stars and the moon, longing to be home and with her own kind. Not for the first time, she cursed her carelessness because ultimately, this was all her fault.
With a heavy heart, Kagome began to scrub away all the dirt and grime on her skin, ducking once again beneath the hot water to wash it all away.
When she didn't come up for air, Ban and Jak started to get a little worried.
"She wouldn't…" They immediately sprang into action and just as they were about to plunge into the hot spring, Kagome surfaced.
She blinked, confusion coloring her eyes a darker shade of blue as she raised a brow upon seeing the two soldiers up close and personal with their arms halfway submerged in the hot water. She lowered her body until only her head was visible and moved back. Narrowing her eyes suspiciously, Kagome waited for them to break the tense and somewhat awkward atmosphere.
They quickly pulled their arms out of the water and coughed. Ban looked away, his cheeks dusted with rose as he composed himself. Jak on the other hand couldn't help the sheepish smile and he scratched the back of his head, an apology already forming on his tongue.
"Sorry about that. We thought, well, that you…you know…"
It finally dawned on her. They thought she had actually tried to drown herself? Even that was a little extreme for her tastes. A small laugh escaped before she could stop it. Kagome bit her lip to quell her amusement, but it clearly danced across her ever expressive eyes.
Both Ban and Jak quickly turned their heads in her direction, quite stunned to hear her laughter because the most they had elicited from her were angry glares, blank looks, and growls. But they once again quickly looked away because it was indecent to look upon a woman bathing, captive or not.
Before Ban could fall under her spell again—because he was now convinced she was bewitching them, what with her beautiful blue eyes and coy smile and the way her skin seemed as smooth as the finest silk—he abruptly walked away, muttering under his breath about shape shifting women and how damn mysterious they were, even though she was the first he had ever met.
Jakotsu frowned at his brother's back before casting an apologetic look on Kagome. Resting against the smooth dark rock, she tilted her head and stared at him with inquisitive eyes.
"Aniki isn't normally this rude. It's just that—"
"He does not trust me." She finished. "Nor does he like me very much it seems."
Was she actually talking to him? He forced himself to pick his gaping jaw off the ground. "Yeah."
"The feelings are mutual." Kagome said before closing her eyes. She felt tired all of a sudden, a hazy lethargy taking over her body.
"I'm Jak by the way and that's my brother, Ban." He wondered if he'd be able to get her to talk a little more.
"I'm…" She trailed off uncertainly. Names weren't an inconsequential matter. There were red ties in names, power and weaknesses in names. She hoped she wouldn't regret this later. "Kagome."
"Kagome…" Jakotsu tested the name on his tongue and smiled. "And what lands are you from?"
"Not these." She wasn't nearly lethargic enough to fall so easily into his questioning though. "What kind of youkai are you?" She asked, changing the subject.
"I'm an Earth elemental." He replied, hiding his disappointment.
"You can...manipulate the earth?" Kagome ventured, not bothering to hide her curiosity. It wasn't often she was handed the opportunity to converse with a demon.
"Not so much manipulate it. We draw from it its natural energy and use it as our own."
It dawned on her then, the reason why they were able to escape her sweeping detection. "You become one with it then, which was why I wasn't able to discern your presence at the lake."
Jakotsu nodded. "My brother and I are ideal for land patrol."
"When did you know I was here, in the Western lands?"
"We only picked up on your scent that night." He frowned then. "Why? Have you been here longer?"
She had been here a little over a week in fact, so it was nice to know she could still go undetected—when she wasn't being so careless. Kagome didn't answer him though and she could tell her lack of detailed responses was beginning to frustrate him.
She ducked beneath the water.
And when her head emerged from the rippling hot water, she felt a strange sort of current hum through the air, making the small hairs on the back of her spotted neck stand on end. Kagome turned towards Jakotsu and then glanced at his brother. Both stood erect, unmoving as they turned to the night sky.
Feeling somehow vulnerable and not understanding in the least what this approaching crackling aura was all about, she quickly jumped out of the hot spring, shifting into her feline form as she landed on all fours.
…to be continued…
A/N: So indulge me as I go on yet another little adventure.