Summary: AU. Christmas is supposed to be spent with dear ones, but when Inuyasha calls in a favor, Kagome sacrifices her holiday in order to help him fulfill an annual familial obligation. Missed flights, misunderstandings, and mistletoe conspire to bring two strangers together. SK.

Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in this bit of holiday cheer... especially for the one who's in a pinch. A nod of recognition is bent towards Rumiko Takahashi for her creative prowess.

A Note of Explanation: Many thanks to MomoDesu, who instigated this story simply by hosting the Second Annual Dokuga Holiday Exchange. Various authors and artists in the Dokuga community signed up for this exchange last autumn, with their offerings due at Christmas. Counting the Hours is a gift!fic for MontiK, whose name I drew. I hope you enjoy it, m'dear!

Counting the Hours

Kagome's cell phone warbled urgently, and she juggled her armload of last minute Christmas purchases in order to fish it from her purse. She frowned briefly at the display, then answered. "Inuyasha... what's wrong? You never call in the middle of the afternoon!"

"Hey," her best friend replied gruffly. "Kagome... I'm in a pinch."

The desperate edge to his tone worried the young woman, and she replied, "Where are you?"

"Stranded," he groaned.

"On a desert island?" she inquired.

The hanyou snorted and said, "Okay, so it could be worse, but not by much. My flight's delayed, and I won't make it home tonight. Damn, I never shoulda cut it this close." He paused, and she could hear the sound of a speaker system over the background din. "Look, Kagome, I have a huge, huge favor to ask."

"What's going on?"

"There's this thing... it's kinda a family thing. I've mentioned my brother to you, right?"

"Sure... the one you affectionately refer to as 'that bastard'."

"That's not affection; Sesshoumaru is a bastard!" Inuyasha protested.

Kagome laughed and urged, "Go on... what about him?"

"My old man always wanted us to get along better than we do, so he put a line in his will about the two of us keeping in touch. We've gotta spend at least one day a year together."

"How awful," she cheerfully commiserated.

"Oi... stop laughing!" he ordered, a smile lurking behind his grumpiness. "Not everybody's family is as nice as yours."

"Too right," she agreed, giving the scarf she'd picked out for her own brother a satisfied pat.

"Anyhow... this annual male bonding is a necessary evil. If either of us ditches, the other brother can claim both shares of our inheritance... and tomorrow is the big day."

"Oh, no..." Kagome murmured sympathetically. "Can't you just postpone the visit?"

"Nope. I tried to call... and Jaken, the little pain in the ass he employs, says Sesshoumaru already left. I'm supposed to meet his flight tonight, and if I'm not there, he'll screw me over for sure. He'd be thrilled to get his hands on my stuff... especially my sword."

"What are you planning to do?" she asked.

"There's a loophole... sorta. A few years ago, Sesshoumaru asked if he could send a stand-in... and I was fine with that since it meant not seeing the bastard for another year."

"That was nice of you."

"Keh... he sent Jaken in his place, and I had to spend the entire day listening to him yammer on and on about how wonderful my brother is." Kagome could hear Inuyasha's scowl. "It was a one-time thing, but Sesshoumaru owes me for it, so I have the option to appoint a representative."

"Is this where that 'huge, huge favor' comes in?"

"Yeah," he sighed. "Please, Kagome, would you be my stand-in?"

Her grip tightened on her phone, and she finally managed, "But... tomorrow's Christmas."

"I know," he replied quietly. "I'm sorry; I wouldn't have asked, but... damn it all, I'm desperate!"

"If you guys don't get along, why in the world would you want to spend Christmas together?" she demanded, putting off her answer.

"It was Sesshoumaru's idea," Inuyasha sighed. "Since the old man wasn't specific, we interpret the required 'day' to be from sunrise to sunset... and mid-winter has the shortest days of the year."

"Unbelievable," she said, shaking her head.

"I know it's asking a lot, but hopefully you won't have to spend the whole day with the bastard. You just need to stay until I can get there," he wheedled.

Kagome caved. "All right... for you, I'll do it."

"You're a life-saver!"

"You're just worried about your precious sword!" she scolded.

"Hell, yeah!" he retorted, and they both laughed.

"Okay... I need details," Kagome prompted. Inuyasha dictated flight number and time table, and she fumbled for a pen to jot the information down. Then she asked,"He's your older brother... how much older?"

"Oh... uhh... about 300 years older, I think."


"He's actually my half-brother, and he's a full demon."

"Oh, wow... you don't see many of them around anymore," she murmured. "Will you tell him about the change in plans?"

"Can't. I have no way to get a hold of him," Inuyasha explained. "He's not the kind of guy to carry a cell phone."

"Well then, how will I recognize him?"

"Uhh... other than the full demon thing, silver hair runs in the family. He's hard to miss." A moment later, he suggested, "The easiest thing would be to swing by my place first and grab something of mine... anything with my scent on it. Believe me, he'll find you."

"So you both inherited 'the nose'? Any other traits I should be aware of?"

"I'm only a half-demon, and to hear him tell it, anything I can do, he can do better," Inuyasha replied. "There's no denying he's strong... maybe one of the most powerful youkai alive."

"You're right, then... he'll be hard to miss," she agreed.

"You have a key to my apartment. Pick him up at the airport, bring him over there, then sit tight. I'll call you when I find out when I can get back. With any luck, you can still spend most of Christmas with your family."

"Is this why you always turned me down when I invited you to join us?" she asked.

"Yeah... pretty much."

"So... what will Sesshoumaru be expecting?"

"What do ya mean?"

"What do the two of you usually do?"

Inuyasha chuckled wryly. "Oh, the usual... glaring, scowling, trading insults."

"Well, that doesn't sound like much fun," she pouted.

"Kagome, this is a legal obligation we endure because we have to. Trust me, there's nothing fun about it... or him."

"Wonderful... I can't wait to meet him."

The hanyou ignored her sarcasm, saying, "You remember where I keep cash, right? Take what you need for food and stuff, and make yourself at home. Oh... and even if it costs an arm and a leg, take a taxi from the airport; Sesshoumaru doesn't do trains."

"I'll have to explain to Mama first, but I'll call you when I get across town."

"Thanks, Kagome," Inuyasha said earnestly.

She smiled and replied, "What are friends for?"

Kagome navigated her way without mishap from the crowded train station to the side street where Inuyasha's apartment building stood... despite the fact that she was weighed down by a bulging yellow backpack and two shopping bags. The hanyou lived on the top floor, and she groaned before trudging up the seemingly endless flights of stairs. Where's a friendly piggy-back ride when I need it most?

Since Inuyasha's place was only a few blocks from the temple where she'd done much of her training, this was practically her home away from home. He said that he picked the apartment for its balcony, which jutted out into a tree-filled courtyard, but while he did spend a lot of time lounging amidst the treetops, Kagome was half-sure he'd secured it because it was close to the temple. It's a family conspiracy... I don't know who's more protective—Inuyasha or Gramps. Though she wasn't a full-time student any longer, whenever she came back for additional sessions, specialty courses, or lectures, he'd still put her up for the night.

"Finally," she gasped as she let herself in and dropped her burden. The apartment wasn't much—a single, high-ceilinged room with a small loft over the kitchen and bath that was just big enough for a futon. It was on the corner of the building, so while the balcony faced the courtyard, a wide window with a deep windowseat overlooked the street. Inuyasha had been gone for a week, so she opened the sliders to freshen the air. Shedding coat and scarf, she dialed his cell. "I made it!"

"You're plenty early," he remarked.

"I wanted time to tidy up and do a little decorating," she smugly replied.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa... you don't have to do anything special for the bastard."

"It's mostly for me," she assured, moving towards one of her bags and poking through the contents. "Mama wouldn't let me go without a few things to keep my spirits up until you get back."

Inuyasha's smirk carried loud and clear across the miles. "Please tell me you're going to torture my brother by making him watch sappy Christmas movies."

"Nope, I'll save those for you," she teased. "I did bring a tree, though."

"You're joking!"

Kagome pinned the phone between her shoulder and ear as she lifted a tiny, two-foot potted pine from one of her bags. "I kid you not! I'm even going to put lights on it!"

"Keh... knock yourself out," he said with gruff affection.

"Erm... speaking of decorating, did you do some redecorating before you left?"


"All your furniture's pushed to one side."

"Oh... that," he replied, sounding sheepish. "You can put it back if you want."

"Okay... I should get busy, then."

"Yeah, sure." Concern tinged his tone as he added, "Hopefully, he'll be polite... but don't expect him to appreciate the efforts you're making. He's not much for compliments... or conversation, for that matter."

"I'm sure we'll be fine! I'll save you some of the cookies we bake!" she glibly promised.

He was still spluttering when she hung up.

Kagome hovered on the edges of the crowd that churned through the airport; even though it was late, there was more than enough hustle and bustle to make it difficult to see. According to the ever-changing display of arrivals and departures, Sesshoumaru's flight had just landed, so she stood on tiptoe and craned her neck, hoping for a glimpse of silver hair. For scent recognition, she'd chosen something from the floor of Inuyasha's closet. Even her lesser human senses could detect the faint odor of masculinity lingering on the unwashed sweater, and as an added perk, it was a delightful, Christmassy red. So far, it hasn't done a very good job of netting me a youkai. Come on, Inuyasha's bastard-of-an-older-brother... impress me by sniffing it out!

As it happened, spotting Sesshoumaru wasn't a problem. Well, Inuyasha, you were right... he's hard to miss. The youkai stood head and shoulders above the crowds that parted in their haste to get out of his way. Foot traffic ground to a stop as gawkers turned to watch the demon, who was dressed in flowing kosode and hakama. Kagome shook her head as she inwardly scolded her best friend. 'Silver hair runs in the family'... but you fail to mention that it practically hits the floor? She tilted her head as she scrutinized the shimmering length. Swishy.

Further random assessments ceased when Kagome realized that Sesshoumaru was bearing down on her. He can to a halt before her, and she was arrested by a pair of golden eyes with the eerie slitted pupils that were a sure sign of demonic heritage. They narrowed slightly, and he softly demanded, "Where is Inuyasha?"

"Hi, I'm Kagome Higurashi," she said with an apologetic smile. "Your brother couldn't make it, so I'm filling in."

Nothing. The youkai simply stared at her, his expression completely unreadable. While she waited for Sesshoumaru to process the information, she perused the unusual markings that decorated his face. Definitely a taiyoukai... quite possibly poisonous... and blessed with that almost ethereal beauty that's the hallmark of his race. He carried a small satchel, and the strap for a long, narrow case was looped over one shoulder. Still waiting for some kind of response, she offered her hand. "It's nice to meet you."

His gaze flicked to her hand, which he chose to ignore. "I see. Is there a car?"

"We'll take a cab back to Inuyasha's," she explained. Without another word, Sesshoumaru stalked off, moving towards the exit. Nonplussed, Kagome hurried after him. "So... do you come here every year?"

"We alternate."

"Oh! Do you like Tokyo?" she inquired.


"Oh... that's too bad," she murmured. "Where are you from?" Those eyes briefly slanted her way, but Sesshoumaru remained tight-lipped. "I guess since your flight was from Hokkaido, you must live near Sapporo?" she ventured.


"Where, then?"

"Someplace with privacy," he replied in clipped tones.

Kagome was beginning to understand why Inuyasha had settled on 'bastard' for his older brother. He certainly doesn't go out of his way to be charming. Well, fine... suit yourself, she thought with an inward shrug, lapsing into silence. Inuyasha did warn me.

Sesshoumaru remained stiff and silent throughout the ride back to the apartment, while Kagome gazed out the window, lost in memories of Christmases past.

Back at Inuyasha's, she opened the apartment door for him, and he strode through, then cautiously circled the low table that stood in front of the sofa. "What is this?"

"It's a Christmas tree," Kagome answered, smiling at her handiwork. Multi-colored lights and wee baubles glistened in the as-yet unlit apartment.

"How... garish."

She wrinkled her nose at him. "I prefer 'festive'," she countered. "Inuyasha said I could make myself at home, and it's nearly Christmas." She glanced at her watch and smiled. "Actually... it is. Merry Christmas, Sesshoumaru."

"Hnn," he murmured, placing his luggage on the table... at a safe distance from the twinkling tree. "Now, explain yourself."

She didn't appreciate the trace of accusation in his tone, but she bit her tongue while removing her coat and switching on the lamps. "Are you hungry...thirsty?" she politely asked.

He drew himself up, then slowly inclined his head. "Water... please."

Kagome slipped into the kitchen and returned with a glass. When she offered it up, she calmly said, "Inuyasha has been out of town all week, and his return was unexpectedly delayed. I'm here in his place... at least until he can get back."

"You are aware of our arrangement?"

"He gave me the basics over the phone," she acknowledged. Another lull stretched, and Kagome sighed. "I'm going to get some sleep. Do you want the bed, or can I take it?"

"Be my guest," he replied flatly.

She moved to the narrow steps that led to the loft, and as she climbed, she said, "Make yourself comfortable." There was no reply, but a few minutes after she slipped under the covers of Inuyasha's bed, she heard the door to the bathroom close... and the shower turn on. Kagome wondered fleetingly if Sesshoumaru was attempting to express his displeasure by driving up his brother's water bill. She fell asleep to the sound of rushing water.

Sesshoumaru sat in the corner of the long window seat, one arm draped across an upraised knee as he stared down on the empty street, his forehead resting against the glass. Not for the first time, he cursed the laws that restricted the movements of youkai, even those who were capable of flight. It had taken nearly an hour to wash the memory of travel from his person so he felt comfortable in his own skin again. I hate travel... this city... the smells. His gaze shifted accusingly towards the clouds that smeared the sky, and he willed them to release their burden of snow. I doubt anything could cleanse the taint of pollution from the air, but even a dusting would make the stench more bearable.

Long, clawed fingers ran through the length of damp, silver hair as he glanced towards the slim carrying case that lay on the table. He'd been dreading the trip... but somewhat looking forward to the annual clash with his brother. The turn of events was irritating. A woman... when did Inuyasha make inroads with a female? The very idea of dealing with her was unnerving; he hated strangers, with their invasive curiosity, impertinent questions, and whispered speculations. At least Inuyasha was a familiar annoyance, one he knew how to deal with. Now, his brother had betrayed his expectations and saddled him with a human woman.

He took a deep breath, releasing it in a weary sigh... then sniffed. Though it was a far cry from the forests surrounding his hermitage, the woman's Christmas tree reminded him of home. Focusing on the soothing scent of pine, he let his eyes slide shut.

In the grey predawn light, Sesshoumaru peered down at the slumbering female, long-lashed and pink-cheeked. "Woman, wake up," he demanded quietly. Soft, shallow breaths continued without fluctuation, so he raised his voice a notch. "Woman... wake up." When she still didn't respond, he resorted to prodding what he hoped was a shoulder.

"Mmm..." she moaned, her brows drawing together. "Too early, Souta... even for Christmas." She turned her back on him and pulled the blankets up over her head, curling into a tight ball under the covers.

"Woman, are you awake?" he pressed.

"The name's Kagome... and no," she mumbled.

He gave the mattress an insistent jostle, and she rolled onto her back, covering her eyes with the back of her arm. "Sesshoumaru, what are you doing up here?"

"The sun is about to rise." She pushed tousled hair out of her face and blinked sleepily up at him. Kagome looked quite at home in the hanyou's bed... radiating interrupted comfort and contentment. Irked by the intimacy of the setting... yet curious about Inuyasha's claim, Sesshoumaru crouched closer, inhaling deeply. "Are you under some obligation to my half-brother?"

It took some moments for her to untangle the implications of his question, but when she did, she smiled. "Are you giving me the what-are-your-intentions-towards-my-sibling speech?" she inquired sweetly.

"He has never mentioned you."

"Frankly, you don't come up much either! But then... Inuyasha rarely talks about his past." She covered a yawn, then sat up, looking much more alert. "To answer your question, we're friends. Now... would you please answer mine?"

"For one day—sunrise to sunset—we must be 'together'. A certain amount of proximity is required."

"How much proximity?" she asked warily.

"In the same room."

"Sesshoumaru, this is a one-room apartment," she pointed out. "We would still be in the same room if you went back down there."

"You were asleep."

Kagome propped her chin on her hand. "I take it neither of you is allowed to sleep through your day-long ordeal?"


"Fine... I'm awake now. Just let me... erm... hang on," she interrupted herself. "What about the bathroom?"

"Privacy is permitted... within reason."

"Good," she smiled. "I want a shower, but I promise I won't take all day."


Kagome tilted her head and regarded him seriously. "Is this normal for you... or special for me?" Slowly, he canted his head, unconsciously mirroring her action. She laughed softly and said, "Nevermind."

Sesshoumaru moved towards the stairs just as the east-facing windows brightened. Christmas morning had arrived.

Normally, Kagome loved Christmas morning, but while Tiny the Tree winked and blinked at her, he wasn't harboring any gifts from Santa... and that was kind of sad. Her family hadn't borrowed all the traditions surrounding the holiday, but several had been adopted... or adapted. Last night, they would have decorated a tree with origami ornaments and homemade paper snowflakes. Mama promised to put the cat ornament I made for Buyo in a good spot for me. This morning, her and Souta's filled stockings would be hanging from the knobs of their bedroom doors, and they'd carry them downstairs and prolong the opening of their presents as much as possible, snugly tucked under the kotatsu. For the holiday, Mama always prepared a Western-style breakfast. This year, we chose blueberry pancakes... and I'm missing out!

Kagome's regret eased as she carefully lifted two blueberry muffins from a white bakery bag. She'd purchased them yesterday at the little market around the corner—along with fresh milk and eggs—after a peek and poke through the pantry confirmed that Inuyasha still subsisted on little more than ramen. I'm not half the cook Mama is, but I can manage an omelette.

She arranged breakfast on two plates and carried them to the low table in the sitting area, tugging a couple of cushions into place. Returning to the kitchen for the teapot, she finished her simple preparations, then approached her guest. He's not much like his brother, but maybe they're more alike than I expected. Sesshoumaru had taken refuge on the balcony and was sitting on its floor, staring up into the overcast sky. Kagome slid the door open and lightly asked, "What happened to staying in the same room?"

His dull gaze shifted to her face, then back to the sky. A one-shouldered shrug was his only other response.

"Aren't you cold?"


She took a deep breath of the sharp, winter air, then asked, "Will it snow?"


"Breakfast is ready," she invited. When he didn't give any signs of budging, she commented, "It'll help pass the time... and ensure proper levels of closeness."

That did the trick. Kagome stepped back as the demon rose gracefully, dusted himself off, and ducked through the door. She didn't mean to ogle, but it was impossible to ignore the way his silver hair brushed her arm as he entered. My goodness... here I thought Inuyasha had a lot of hair. Sesshoumaru's is longer than I am tall! It pooled on the floor behind him as he took a place at the table. Giving her own waist-length black hair a self-conscious flip, she joined him.

Sesshoumaru ate without comment, and Kagome ended up pushing her food around on her plate. She'd come prepared, bringing a few simple, fun things to do, but she wasn't sure if her courage was up to the task. She could almost hear Inuyasha's, 'I told you so'. Saying I'm going to bake cookies with your big brother and actually inviting him to bake cookies with me... two very different things. The demon's reserve was like a wall, and as far as she could see, there wasn't a door.

"I was planning to walk to the market later," Kagome ventured. "We can choose something special for lunch."

"Unnecessary," he replied. "I do not require anything further."

"But... I do," she quietly countered.

He arched a brow at her, but she didn't back down. There is no way I'm having instant noodles for Christmas. A tense silence stretched between them, only to be interrupted by the ring of her cell phone. She dove for it, relieved for a reason to look away from those flat, uncaring eyes.

She was never so glad to see her best friend's name on the display. "Inuyasha! Merry Christmas!"

On the other end of the line, the hanyou chuckled and said, "Actually, it has been one of my better years. No bastard... and there's a ramen place in the airport's food court."

"Any news?"

"It's still snowing, but they're saying we can get out of here later this morning," he reported. "If that's the case, you might be able to get home early."

"They promised to wait for me," she said in a small voice.

"Keh... of course they will," he assured gruffly. "So... how's it going?"

"I'm not really sure."

The hanyou growled softly and said, "Sounds normal. Let me talk to the bastard."

Kagome glanced uncertainly at the demon. "Are you sure you want to?" she asked in a low voice.

"Keh... don't bother whispering. He can hear everything we're saying," Inuyasha reminded. "Just in case he hangs up on me, I'll say goodbye now."

"Oh... okay," she managed, meeting Sesshoumaru's unconcerned gaze.

"And Kagome... stick to your plan. Do whatever crazy stuff you were going to do, no matter what."

"You think?"

"Oh, I insist!" Inuyasha adamantly replied. "Now, hand him the phone."

"He wants to talk to you," Kagome announced unnecessarily.

Sesshoumaru was nearly as reluctant to accept the cell phone as the young woman was to relinquish it, but he extended his hand and she placed the device on his palm. Does she fear for her phone... or for her friend, he wondered wryly as he held it to his ear. "Well?"

"Oi... be nice to Kagome," Inuyasha growled.

"Are you accusing me of something, little brother?"

"She's got that quaver in her voice... the one that means she's trying too hard to smile. If you're the one who put it there, I'll shove my fist down your gullet to remove the stick you keep up your..."

Sesshoumaru cut across the rant. "Idle threats and baseless accusations? Do not waste my time, Inuyasha."

"Oi! Don't hang up! I have something else to say!"

The demon watched idly as Kagome cleared the plates and disappeared into the tiny galley kitchen. "I'm listening."

"I know we don't get along, but that's us. Don't make Kagome's day miserable just because I'm not there to take your crap." Sesshoumaru hummed to indicate he was listening, and his brother continued, "She has something we don't—a family. They're good people, close and stuff; Christmas is a big deal for them. She's sacrificing a lot to take my place... and I don't want you screwing up her day any more than I already have."

Sesshoumaru slowly drummed his fingers on the table. I don't recall Inuyasha ever being this articulate.

"Is there a point to your diatribe?"

"Look... even I took Jaken out for real ramen when you saddled me with him."

"So you say."

"Ask him!" Inuyasha retorted, frustration shading his tones. "Just... be decent to her. It wouldn't kill you to humor her a little."

The scent of soap and clink of dishes emanated from the kitchen. "And why would I do that?"

"Aw, hell... I dunno... maybe because it would be the honorable thing to do?" his brother tried.


"Fine... whatever," Inuyasha snapped. "A word of advice, though."


"Don't piss her off," the hanyou warned. "She could take you."

With a soft click, he hung up, leaving Sesshoumaru to ponder his words. When Kagome reappeared, he lifted the small, pink phone between thumb and forefinger. "Will you make a call for me?"

"Oh... of course!" she quickly agreed. "Feel free to use it."

"You will place the call," he instructed, withdrawing a small case from his bag and extracting a business card. "Here is the number."

Kagome accepted the card, recognizing the name on it from her previous day's conversation with Inuyasha. "Is he your friend?"

"Retainer... or employee, if you prefer."

She punched in the number, and after the first ring, someone picked up. "Am I speaking to Jaken?" she inquired politely.

"This is Jaken," he answered, his voice heavy with suspicion. "Who is this?"

"My name's Kagome, and Sesshoumaru asked me to call..."

"Sesshoumaru-sama! Oh, thank goodness!" the retainer exclaimed. "I've been beside myself. Inuyasha usually calls to confirm milord's safe arrival, but there's been no word!"

"Really? That's very thoughtful," she replied, meeting Sesshoumaru's gaze and pointing to the phone. Arching her brows, she mouthed, 'Do you want to talk to him?'

The demon shook his head and said, "Ask him if Inuyasha fed him ramen."

Kagome blinked, then cleared her throat to interrupt Jaken's monologue, which was liberally sprinkled with praise for his employer. "Excuse me, Jaken? Sesshoumaru wants to know if Inuyasha fed you ramen. Do you know what he's talking about?"

"Yes... yes, indeed!" he eagerly replied. "When I had the extreme honor of representing milord for their annual meeting, Inuyasha showed me around the city... and we ate at his favorite ramen stand. Ah, that was a grand time! I will cherish Sesshoumaru-sama forever for providing his humble servant with such an opportunity!"

"Maybe you should come back for a visit sometime," Kagome suggested.

"If that is Sesshoumaru-sama's wish, it would be this Jaken's pleasure!" effused the retainer.

When Kagome glances his way, the youkai waved a hand dismissively. "That is all."

She nodded and said, "Thank you, Jaken. I guess that's all Sesshoumaru needed."

"Say... who is this?" demanded the voice over the phone.

"I'm a friend of Inuyasha's," Kagome replied with the hint of a smile. "It is my 'extreme honor' to represent him today."

"A female?" he asked dubiously.


"A human female?" he asked warily.

"Yes," she repeated.

"How troublesome for Sesshoumaru-sama," Jaken muttered. "See that you don't infringe upon his unsullied magnificence!"

"I'll definitely avoid that," she assured, quirking her brow at the youkai in question. Jaken huffed before hanging up on her, and she unsuccessfully smothered a giggle. "Is he always like that?" she inquired.

"Always," Sesshoumaru confirmed.

"You must be a very patient person," she chuckled, then headed for the kitchen, saying, "I hope you like cookies!"

He frowned slightly as she left. There was a bounce in her step and a sparkle in her eyes, and he knew without a doubt that it was his brother's words that had put them there. Inuyasha... It would seem that I am under a certain amount of obligation to reciprocate his hospitality towards Jaken. Sesshoumaru tracked the sounds coming from the kitchen—the scrape of drawers, the clink of glass, the clang of metal, the snap of dials, and the odd sucking sound of the refrigerator opening. His brother's 'friend' was making good on her threat, and duty dictated that he endure a day's worth of what his brother had termed 'crazy stuff'.

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Sesshoumaru searched for patience... and the kind of manners one didn't need in the middle of nowhere. Dusting off courtesies that hadn't seen much use in the last couple centuries, he collected his wits and was ready when she returned, humming softly to herself. Rising to his full height, he unclenched his jaw and calmly inquired, "What are your plans for this day?"

"Mama sent some of her cookie dough along, and I just put a pan in the oven. Later, I need to go to the market... but in the meantime," she paused, then shrugged. "I brought a game. Would you like to play?"

Without thinking, Sesshoumaru replied, "I do not play games." Her face fell, and his eyes slammed shut. Jaken's bowl of ramen is costing me dearly. With excruciating politeness, he amended, "...very often. You will explain the rules."

Torture. Mind-numbing, soul-stealing, pride-battering torture. Sesshoumaru glowered at his cards with well-concealed truculence, waiting for his companion to choose one of them. The only games he'd ever known were games of strategy, and in that venue, he excelled. This is madness! How can I assert my superiority in a game that relies entirely on chance? He'd quickly ascertained that the only way to win was by sheer luck, and as Kagome's hand hovered between the two cards remaining in his hand, it became apparent fortune favored her.

"I win!" she exulted, laying aside a matched set of cards. "And you're the old maid!"

"What is the point of this?" he inquired quietly as she reshuffled the deck.

"Point?" she asked. "It's just a simple children's game; the point is to have fun."

"I see." Flicking a dour glance at her relaxed countenance, he remarked, "Something's burning."

Kagome's eyes flew wide, and with a squawk of dismay she scrambled to rescue her cookies. After a short reprieve, she returned and prepared to deal... but hesitated. "You're not having fun," she sighed.


"Don't you like games?" she asked.

As talking prevented the dealing of another hand, he shook his head and repeated, "I do not play games."

"Well... what about when Inuyasha is here?" Kagome pressed. "What do you usually do with him?"

"We fight."

"You guys spend the whole day arguing?"

Sesshoumaru gestured towards the weapons that decorated the far wall. "We spar."

"Oh... that sounds kind of dangerous," she commented. He was about to agree when she stood and planted her hands on her hips. "I'll do my best."

He looked her up and down; she was no match for him, even if he held back. "You are ill-equipped," he remarked.

"Then equip me!" she urged, moving towards the Inuyasha's small collection and eying the scruffy blade that held pride of place. "Will this one do?"

She cannot be serious... With an inward groan, he realized she was, and quick as a wink, he was by her side, gently restraining her reach. "I doubt you could lift Tetsusaiga." With his other hand, he withdrew a pair of battered-looking wooden training swords from their bracket. "These are more appropriate for indoors." Offering her one, he shouldered the other, then moved to push the couch aside, clearing some floor space. This promises to be a fiasco, but it is preferable to Old Maid.

"Ohhh... that's why Inuyasha's stuff was shoved against the wall when I got here!" Kagome exclaimed. She scooted the table with her little Christmas tree towards safety, then remarked, "That's kind of sweet; he must have been looking forward to sparring with you."

Sesshoumaru huffed. When a suitable area had been cleared, she gamely faced him, and he heaved a longsuffering sigh. "You pose no threat."

"No?" she retorted, a challenging light in her eyes. "Don't underestimate me!"

He watched intently as she tested the bokuto's weight, then gripped it tightly... and incorrectly. "You know nothing of swords," he drawled.

"Nope... not a thing," she grinned.

"Then why are you doing this?"

"Because you obviously like swords, and you looked bored."A brow arched at this assessment, but she continued, "I have a brother, too; I know how to play rough. Let's spar!"

Females had tried to draw him in before, but this was the first time one had asked him to draw his sword. At least... literally. Sesshoumaru wasn't sure what to make of this woman's invitation. "Come at me," he commanded, lazily bringing up his bokuto.

"Right!" she acknowledged... and did.

It was the first time in his life that an opponent added a skip to their charge. Sesshoumaru's lips quirked upwards in amusement. She attacked with graceless enthusiasm, swatting at him with the flat of her blade. "This is ridiculous," he informed her.

"Nope... this is fun!" she countered. After a few more moments of ineffectual battering, she added, "...and therapeutic."


Kagome feinted, then redirected her next blow, but he raised his wooden sword in time to block. Though he effortlessly met every strike, she continued her frontal assault. Between lunges, she explained, "You're too good... so I can't even get close... which means you won't get hurt... if I take out my frustrations... with all of my might."

"Are you frustrated?"

"Not anymore," she panted. "You know, this is an unfair match."

"You are just realizing this?"

"That's not what I mean!" Kagome retorted. "You're not playing along!"

"I do not play games." Maybe if I say it often enough, she will accept the truth.

"At least take me more seriously!" she countered.

He frowned slightly. "No. You could not withstand an attack."

She rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on... if you're so superior, prove it!" she challenged.

Sesshoumaru lowered his sword. So few humans understood how fragile they were; no matter how much she baited him, he would not strike her, even in play. I wonder how sensitive she is... perhaps I can dissuade her in another way. The second he unleashed some of his youki, Kagome hesitated. In and of itself, this didn't surprise him. Many humans could sense an unfettered demonic aura, but most who could found it frightening. Sesshoumaru's grunt mingled relief and disappointment as he curtailed his warning flare. It won't do to send her cowering into the corner.

A hand appeared on his arm. "No... wait," Kagome begged. Startled, Sesshoumaru looked into her upturned face. "Inuyasha said you were powerful... that was just a little of your youki, wasn't it?"

Inuyasha said...? Now, that was a surprise. "Hnn," he answered.

"No wonder you're so cocky!" she added, her eyes sparkling with admiration.

"Cocky?" he echoed disbelievingly.

"Confident?" she offered by way of a compromise.

He tested the air; thanks to her exertions, her scent hung thickly around him—heady in its underlying femininity... and something more. There was no fear, though, and that was puzzling. "Are you not scared of me, woman?"

"Not really," Kagome shrugged. "We're just playing... but I could take you if I had to."

Her boast closely echoed his brother's warning, and Sesshoumaru wondered at the similarity. What is it about this female...? Before he had more time to contemplate her own unreasonable confidence, Kagome lunged, and he stepped smoothly to one side in order to evade the tip of her bokuto. When she spun, he circled in the opposite direction, forcing her to twist around to keep him in view. As soon as she was off balance, he took the advantage, caging her between his arms and carefully laying his blunt blade across her throat. "It's hopeless."

"Not entirely," she argued. Dropping her sword, she boldly poked his shoulder and announced, "You're it," before wriggling free and darting across the tiny apartment.

She cannot compete... so she does not even try? Sesshoumaru bent to retrieve her cast-off weapon, then crossed the room to replace both bokuto in their bracket. He took great care to make sure they were exactly as Inuyasha had left them, then slanted a look towards Kagome. She'd positioned herself near the front door... giving herself two avenues of escape. He took his time turning, considering, calculating... then initiated his pursuit with measured steps. To his surprise, the young woman's face brightened, and she shifted her weight from foot to foot, poised for action. As he loomed nearer, she didn't shrink away; she bit her lip to contain a giggle. "You are amused?" he inquired.

"Very," she smiled. "You're so serious!"

"Hnn," he agreed. "You would do well to bear that in mind." As he came within reach, she bolted to the right, scrambling over the end of the couch and making for the windowseat. He arched a brow at her antics, but reserved comment. Infusing the room with just enough youki to give an air of menace, he gave chase.

If he'd truly been serious, Kagome Higurashi would have been dead—or at least caught—a hundred times over, but he was in no hurry to end the diversion. Mostly, Sesshoumaru walked, giving his quarry time to react. She clambered over a chair, took a shortcut under the kitchen table, and thumped up the stairs to the loft in her efforts to avoid him. Judging by her enthusiasm, she was enjoying her escapades, and he had to admit that it was interesting to see what she would do next.

As the game evolved, rules developed. After tagging, the new prey was allowed a five second head start. Touching hair didn't count as tagging. Climbing over furniture was acceptable, but reaching across furniture was not. Gradually, their speed increased, though Sesshoumaru wasn't even close to exerting himself. Whenever Kagome was 'it', he evaded her just long enough to establish the fact that she had no hope of catching him... and then he'd allow himself to be cornered. Hunting is preferable to being hunted.

Sesshoumaru faced Kagome as she bobbed back and forth on the other side of an end table so small he could have simply stretched out a hand to tap her. Her heart was racing, she was panting softly, and every time he reached for her, she exploded into breathless laughter. This is foolishness. The size of the room, the inequity of skills, the lack of purpose—it should have annoyed him more. Instead, Sesshoumaru found himself distracted by the way Kagome's polite smile and uncertainty had been replaced by a confident gleam and a penchant for daring-do. She is comfortable here... and with this sort of child's play. Is this usual for humans? His gaze lingered on the long lines and soft curves of her figure. She is certainly grown.

They went round and round, retracing steps and crisscrossing previous paths; he left her an opening, and she seized the opportunity. In centuries past, he had wreaked enough havoc to earn his reputation as the Killing Perfection. He wondered what his erstwhile foes would have thought if they could see him permitting a human female to lay a hand on him. Few dared to meet his gaze in fear for their lives, let alone invade his personal space. Yet, she makes free to variously poke, prod, and plague me. As if to prove his point, Kagome cheerfully punched his arm in passing. Normally, such an act would end in bloodshed. This disrespect would bring vengeance down upon her head. Perhaps it's time to encourage a higher level of respect.

Turning on his heel, he smoothly dropped into a crouch, his hair sweeping the floor as he fixed Kagome with a predator's gaze. She froze. Good. A slow smile crept into place upon his lips, and his satisfaction grew when her breath caught and her heart fluttered to a quicker pace. Not fear... but awareness... anticipation. Very good. He allowed her just enough time to realize that he was coming before he pounced.

In one fluid movement, he crossed the room, scooped her up, and leapt ceiling-ward. The only noise she managed was a strangled squeak as she curled into a tight ball, eyes sealed shut as she tensed for a fall that never came. He watched with considerable amusement as one eye pried open, then the other; she blinked uncertainly at the skylight under which they hovered. "We're... up?" she managed.


"You can fly?" she gasped.

In truth, he was buoyed by a cloud of his own youki, but her surmise was close enough to count. He inclined his head, then remarked, "You cannot." And he dropped her.

Her yelp was the first sign of real fear she'd shown in his presence, but she needn't have bothered. After a short fall, Kagome landed with a muffled thump onto the futon that took up most of the loft. His next move had to be timed carefully. Sesshoumaru watched intently as her expression of utter shock morphed into realization, then melted into one of relief. Once she was lulled by a false sense of security, he dropped on top of her.

She yipped, then held her breath as his larger frame easily caged hers. Now what? His only thought had been the establishment of his superiority, but belatedly, he became conscious that this position could be misconstrued as compromising. With chagrin, he backtracked through his strategy, trying to determine what his goal had been. After a moment, he realized that Kagome still wasn't breathing, and he shifted his attention to her face. Her slightly glazed look didn't bode well, so he leaned closer, sniffing.

Too late, he registered the change in her attitude and expression. She muttered a fierce, "No!" and placed her hands against his chest. Suddenly, he was drowning in light, only to be swallowed by darkness.

Scents were the first thing to filter through the haze, and they were enough to prevent Sesshoumaru from using the claws that flexed, then buried into something soft. A blanket? I smell a woman... a nervous woman... and Inuyasha...? Why is my brother's scent so strong? Cold hands gently patted his cheeks, pressing against his forehead, then tentatively stroking the stripes on one side of his face. A voice resolved itself into words... which rambled.

"...pretty sure he'd be upset with me if I killed his brother. Well, maybe not... since it was self-defense, but I'd be upset if I killed his brother. Sure, you're too quiet and too formal, but lots of people are too quiet and too formal. And you were just starting to unbend a little, which made the game more interesting. I think you were actually starting to have fun... but..." She trailed off, and a moment later, Sesshoumaru felt a slight weight on his chest; she was listening for his heartbeat. "Maybe I overreacted? Purify first... ask questions later... but I can't ask questions if you don't wake up."

The quaver is back; Inuyasha will be annoyed.

"You're not supposed to sleep today, Sesshoumaru," she chided.

She is correct. He opened his eyes and blinked solemnly at the skylight overhead. Still morning.

Almost immediately, his view was blocked by Kagome's worried face. "Sesshoumaru, are you okay?"


"What did you think you were doing?" she demanded, quickly shifting into indignation.

The demon considered that for a time, then calmly replied, "Humoring you."

She groaned and covered her face with her hands, and his gaze drifted back towards the window as he cataloged the after-effects of what had to have been a partial purification. Though he was healing, there was a lingering numbness... some tingling... and a ringing in his ears. So this is what Inuyasha meant. Many humans possessed some level of spiritual perceptivity, but few had the strength or focus to pose a threat. This woman has been trained... and she is strong enough to be a match for a taiyoukai. The very idea intrigued him... enticed him. Sesshoumaru lifted a hand and wrapped long fingers around her forearm. "You are a priestess," he stated.

Kagome acknowledged it with a short nod, then gave him a crooked little smile. "Are you not scared of me, demon?"

He was surprised to have his own words thrown back in his face, but the reversal seemed appropriate somehow. Smirking faintly, Sesshoumaru smoothly replied, "On the contrary."

To Kagome's relief, Sesshoumaru didn't balk when she again brought up her plan to walk to the market. Since the two of them had to remain in the same room for the day, a solo trip was out of the question, and he agreed to accompany her. While she donned her jacket and reached for her purse, he shouldered the long, narrow carrying case she'd first noticed at the airport. "What's inside?" she inquired.

"A sword."

"I doubt you'll need it," Kagome ventured. He made no move to relinquish the case, so she shrugged and let the matter drop. Since their game of tag, there had been a subtle shift in the demon's regard. If I'd known it would put us on more amicable terms, I would have zapped him sooner. It was still almost impossible to tell if Sesshoumaru was thinking, but she seemed to have gone up a few notches, from 'beneath notice' to... hmm... to what? Kagome had to admit she didn't have a clue. Is it wishful thinking to read his behavior as respect?

Out the door, down the stairs, and up the block—he trailed after her, silent as a shadow.

"Erm... are you hungry for anything in particular?" she inquired.


She paused and half-turned to ask, "Are you hungry at all?"


"What would you eat if you were hungry?" she persisted.

"If I am hungry, I hunt."

Kagome blinked, then smiled and said, "Well... when I'm hungry, I shop. The market's just one block over." They turned at the corner, and the store soon came into view, its windows plastered with colorful advertisements of weekly specials. "Last chance to declare yourself. Any requests?"

"Not ramen."

"Not a problem," she chuckled.

Sesshoumaru stayed close as Kagome poked around, considering her options. The market was small, with narrow aisles and crowded shelves, yet the tall demon managed to navigate the maze without upset. He looks like a bull in a china shop, but he moves so gracefully. It's too bad he doesn't take more interest in things. Or... maybe he just doesn't show it? She considered his imposing profile. He's so reserved, but I've seen flickers of emotion—impatience, annoyance, surprise, satisfaction, amusement. When we were playing tag, I'm sure he was having fun. Kagome's mind replayed the moment when Sesshoumaru had rounded on her, coiling to pounce, his eyes lit with a predatory light. At the very least, he wasn't bored.

In the produce section, she exclaimed, "Oh, look!" and pointed to packages of fragrant shiitake. "These are my grandfather's favorite; we always have mushroom soup as part of our Christmas Eve dinner. I missed it last night," she noted. Her mood dampened, but she shook her head and smiled determinedly. "Do you like them?"

"They are edible," he allowed.

In one of the refrigerator cases, Kagome found dumplings made from fish, shrimp, and vegetables. "Souta loves these... but Mama's homemade ones would be better. She's the best cook, and she always pulls out all the stops for Christmas. I usually do the chopping and some of the mixing."

He peered dutifully at the package, but his only remark was a soft, "Hnn."

And so it went. Everywhere she turned, Kagome ran across something that reminded her of home. Feeling nostalgic, she pointed them out and sang the praises of her home, her family, and Christmas. Sesshoumaru listened... or she thought he was listening. He must be 'humoring' me again. I need to stop rambling before I sound any more pathetic than I already do.

"I thought you were hungry," Sesshoumaru finally remarked.

"I am!"

"You extol the food, but your hands are empty."

"I'm... keeping my options open," she archly replied. They rounded a tight corner, and Kagome hummed enthusiastically. "Mmm... maybe cocoa!" She hugged a small, metal canister to her chest and said, "The cookies I baked earlier would be perfect dipped in hot chocolate, don't you think?"

"To soften them?"

He was right, but it annoyed her that he put it so bluntly. Casting about for something else, she spied boxes of seasonal candies and baking. "Mama's cookies are always perfect. Oh! Candy canes!"

"You are fond of this holiday," Sesshoumaru noted dryly.

"I love Christmas!"


"Well... it's a time for family and fun," she explained.

"You are apart from them otherwise?"

Kagome fidgeted. "Nooo... actually, I still live at home."

"You do not have fun at any other time of year?"

"Of course not! It's just that Christmas is... special," she insisted.

Sesshoumaru nodded once, the tilted his head as he studied her face. "Inuyasha asked you to give up something precious."

"I haven't given up my Christmas," she corrected. "I'm just spending part of it with you." At that moment, Kagome's cell phone chose to ring. "Pardon me... oh, it's Inuyasha," she announced after a quick glance at the display. "Hello!"

"Hey, Kagome... you okay?" asked the hanyou.

"I'm fine," she quickly assured. "What about you?"

"They boarded us, but we're still sitting on the runway," he relayed. "From what I can hear, it'll take a while to clear up whatever's the matter."

"More delays," Kagome sighed.

"Yeah. Can you hold out until sunset?" he asked, his voice thick with apology.

"Sure, sure," she managed, trying to keep the disappointment from showing. "Your brother and I can manage. Don't worry about us... just come home safe." After he hung up, she closed the phone slowly and dropped it into her purse. "Erm... where were we?" she mumbled, looking blankly at the tin of cocoa still in her hand.

Clawed fingers gently extracted it from her grasp and replaced it on the shelf. "You are my brother's stand-in," Sesshoumaru quietly declared. "However, the location is not requisite."

Kagome stared at him. What does that mean? Oh... wait... can he be offering...?

As soon as comprehension dawned, the youkai looked away, gazing into the middle distance as he offered, "I will escort you to your home."

"You would do that?" she gasped, hope kindling in her heart.

"Hnn... do you need anything from Inuyasha's apartment?"

"N-no, I suppose not."

"Then, we will go from here."

She hesitated, then cautioned, "We'll have to take the train."

A brow arched. "And?"

"Inuyasha said you don't do trains."

"Then I shall defy his expectations," Sesshoumaru smoothly declared.

When Kagome returned from the bank of ticket machines, Sesshoumaru was waiting in the corner where she's left him, gazing stolidly over the heads of two young women who were trying to engage him in conversation. When he registered her presence, his stoic mask slipped just enough for her to clearly read his unspoken demand—Get rid of them, or I will.

Smiling brightly, Kagome insinuated herself between Sesshoumaru and his admirers, making polite apologies as she drew him away. "That was a fine impression of a statue," she teased once they were at a safe distance. "What did they want?" The demon merely shrugged a shoulder, so Kagome moved on. "We have twenty minutes before our train comes through. Do you need anyth–"

"Kagome! Yoo-hoo, Kagome! Over here!"

She easily spotted the three young women who were waving furiously and beckoning for her to join them. "Just a sec, okay?" she begged Sesshoumaru. "They're some of my friends from the temple; we trained together." He inclined his head, and she hurried over. "Ayumi! Eri! Yuka! Merry Christmas, you guys!"

Eri and Yuka each grabbed an arm and pulled Kagome into a huddle. "You were always a little strange for a priestess, but this is too much!" Ayumi announced in shocked tones.

"Eh? What do you mean?" Kagome replied, looking from face to face.

"Your best friend is a hanyou... and now you're spending Christmas with a demon!" Eri exclaimed in a hoarse whisper.

They pulled her along, and their voices dropped lower as the gossip grew more personal. "You actually have a boyfriend?" Yuka gasped.

"Took you long enough!" Eri scolded.

"That hanyou of hers is always scaring away her prospects," offered Ayumi sympathetically. "Although... I can't believe you're dating a youkai!"

"Shouldn't that be forbidden for a priestess?" whispered Eri, eyes wide.

Kagome picked her jaw up off the floor and tried to get a word in edgewise. "Now, wait just a min–"

"I dunno... we should ask Kaede-sama," Ayumi suggested.

"Well, I wouldn't purify him," Yuka declared, peeping at Sesshoumaru over the top of their huddle. "He's too handsome! And that hair—guh!"

"Look at that crescent moon," swooned Eri. "Is he from one of the old ruling families?"

Stumped, Kagome replied, "Erm... I'm not really..."

"He could be the heir to a great house," Ayumi sighed. "Oh, how romantic!"

"Wait! No!" Kagome interjected, holding up both hands. "Sesshoumaru's not my boyfriend. He's Inuyasha's brother, and he's just visiting. I'm just showing him around town... sort of."

All three of her friends looked at her with disappointment. "Is that all?" Yuka grumbled.

"Still no boyfriend, then," Eri pouted.

"Kagome's just a late bloomer," intervened Ayumi. "Too bad... but it's probably for the best. I mean... a demon?"

"Why would you even assume he and I were together?" Kagome asked.

The trio shrugged, and Yuka replied, "It's Christmas."

"A day you spend with someone special!" Eri frankly stated.

"What about you guys?" Kagome accused.

"We're on our way to meet our boyfriends now!" Yuka declared smugly.

"Group date," added Ayumi with a sympathetic smile.

"I see," Kagome said bravely. "I'm on my way home... to spend Christmas with my family."

Glances were exchanged, and Eri patted her shoulder. "That's nice, Kagome."

It was impossible to miss the pity in their eyes, but before she could defend herself, a burst of youki ripped through the lobby; they turned to stare at the silver-haired epicenter. In the few minutes that Kagome had been preoccupied with her friends, Sesshoumaru had attracted quite a bit of attention. Gawkers formed a loose circle around him, and a few people seemed to be trying to introduce themselves. One woman had sidled in closer than the rest, and it was obvious that she wanted more than the demon's attention. "Oh my gosh, I think she's flirting with him!" squeaked Yuka.

"That's pretty bold," muttered Eri. "What a bimbo!"

"He's not happy about it," giggled Yuka.

"She's pretty dense... can't she feel the youki he's putting out?" Eri scoffed. "It's so obvious he's warning her off!"

Ayumi hummed thoughtfully, "If she's 'blind', she wouldn't realize. You can't tell anything by his expression; he looks so calm!"

"I think he looks stuck-up," sniffed Yuka.

Eri smirked. "She's hoping he's just playing hard-to-get."

"What are you going to do, Kagome?" prodded Yuka. "She's poaching your non-boyfriend... oops! Here he comes!"

Sesshoumaru strode purposefully towards her, and her friends stepped back to clear the way. Without a word, he took her arm, and stalked towards the platform. Kagome craned her neck and waved at her friends. "Bye... I'll call you next week!"

"Okay! Talk to you later!" they called back.

Kagome hurried her steps to keep up with Sesshoumaru's long strides... and to see past the billows of silk and hair that joined her in his wake. They queued up at the loading point, but right about the time when the demon's aura had simmered down to normal, she felt him tense up. Glancing in the direction he was glaring, she spotted the same woman from the lobby. "You've acquired an admirer?" she asked sweetly.

Sesshoumaru's mouth thinned.

"Maybe you should make it clear that you're not interested in her," she suggested. "A few words would be enough."

His lips turned down in distaste.

"Even my friends commented... your expressions are very... subtle," Kagome explained. "She's probably the kind to overlook what she doesn't want to see, so non-verbal stuff is out."


"Now, that's what I'm talking about," Kagome sighed. "I know what you mean, but most people can't interpret inu-grunts. Your brother favors 'keh', but the principle is the same." Golden eyes slanted her way, then back towards his stalker. "She's coming this way; now's your ch–"

And suddenly... warm lips covered hers.

After an initial tension, the woman relaxed, submitting to his touch. Dark lashes fluttered shut, and he took advantage of her quiescence to delve deeper, testing... tasting. There was a brightness to her flavor that pleased him, so Sesshoumaru lingered, bringing a hand up to cup her jaw, encouraging her to tilt her head. His original intentions faded into the background, along with the hum of the crowd.

Hands braced against his chest; Kagome didn't push him away, but their presence immediately brought to mind his recent encounter with her formidable purification abilities. What am I doing? Although the priestess's heart fluttered like a bird's, she had not responding one whit. I do not believe that bodes well. Slowly, perhaps even regretfully, he withdrew and gazed into her face, which was flushed with embarrassment. What will she do?

She lowered her eyes and quietly asked, "Is she gone?"

Who...? Oh. Sesshoumaru scanned their surroundings. Several people were watching them out of the corners of their eyes—or staring outright—but the persistent woman from earlier had disappeared. "She is gone," he confirmed. Almost immediately, anger spiked through her scent.

Kagome lifted her gaze and met his squarely. "You're lucky Inuyasha is a very good friend."

He considered the implications of her statement. "You permitted this for my brother's sake?"

"Why else would I?" she quietly snapped. "The only times I've ever been kissed, it was to ward off some other woman."

"Inuyasha has kissed you?"

"Yes... and he never meant it either," she replied coolly. "If you hadn't been so panicked, I'd have purified you right down to your unmentionables."

A single brow arched. "Panicked?"

"Desperate, even," she confirmed, giving him a too-sweet smile. "Inuyasha has the same problem, and you're even prettier than he is."

"Pretty?" he echoed dubiously.

"Mm-hmm... definitely," she goaded. "You're a lot like your brother."

In what respects? Sesshoumaru unobtrusively ran his tongue over the point of a fang, but there was no way he would stoop to ask. "He is a close friend?"

"We've known each other since middle school, and we've been watching each others' backs since then," she explained. "Yes, I'm a close friend, but not the kind that comes with benefits. If you try anything like that again, you're ash."

He would have found her boldness more amusing if he hadn't just used her as a shield. "Understood."

With a rumble, their train hove into view, and Kagome sighed and said, "If there are any other problems along the way, hand-holding should be enough to fool most people into thinking you're attached. The kiss was overkill."

"I wished to be thorough."

"And I wish to be clear."

He held her unwavering gaze. She poses enough of a threat to be a rival, which means she has enough of my respect to be acknowledged as an equal. Only four others had ever gained such status, and she was the first human to accomplish the feat. In a privately monumental gesture, Sesshoumaru bowed to her wishes. "I will respect your boundaries."

The train came alongside the platform, sending his long hair into a swirl around her. She searched his face and replied, "Thank you." Then, she offered her hand and asked, "Ready?"

He took her hand into his own, and they boarded the closest car and fought their way to a defensible corner. Though there were open seats nearby, he chose to stand, and Kagome stayed with him. His demeanor bought them some breathing room, but it was all still too much. The crowds, the echoes, the smells—he closed his eyes and grit his teeth, wondering why he'd agreed to endure this sensory nightmare.

"You hate this, don't you?" Kagome asked softly.


"Inuyasha, too," she murmured softly, then pressed closer to his side, practically tucking herself under his arm. "Try focusing on me... it'll help some."

He turned his face towards her and inhaled shallowly. Kagome smelled much the way she tasted—clean, bright, sweet. It was a relief to give his full attention to the subtler undertones of her scent. As the train lurched into motion, he wrapped one arm around her and lowered his head until his nose was burrowed into her bangs.

She hummed a soft noise of concern, and he was shocked when a gentle pulse of spiritual power emanated from her, purifying his youki from the space around them... and leaving a sharp tingle in the air. His aura rose up in response, but he reined it in as soon as he realized that her little burst had cleared the air. His sigh of relief ruffled her hair, and she giggled softly. "How?" he murmured.

"It's a little trick Inuyasha and I came up with," she explained. "The effects are temporary, but he swears it's effective."


"So... what do you do?"


When she shifted, he opened his eyes and peered into her upturned face. "We should talk; it'll distract you," she offered. "Do you have a job... or something?"

Sesshoumaru huffed quietly, and flicked a wary glance around the car before resuming his position, half-curled around the priestess. He allowed the length of his hair to fall forward, curtaining them from view, before answering her question. "I am an apprentice."

"What kind of apprentice?" she prompted.

"A sword-maker's apprentice."

"Does Inuyasha know?"

I've certainly never mentioned it. Sesshoumaru considered their family's version of the grapevine. Jaken brags, Myouga lives to gossip, and Totosai assumes everyone knows everything he does and drops bombshells at inopportune moments. "Probably... yes."

"Is it hard... making swords?"

"It is not easy."

"How long have you been an apprentice?" she quizzed.

"Two and a half centuries."

"Does forging really take that long to master, or are you just a very slow learner?" she inquired lightly.

"Totosai is a true craftsman, and in many respects, he is a difficult taskmaster." Sesshoumaru paused thoughtfully. "He is not very forthcoming, and during those times I reached an impasse in my training, he insisted that I find my own way."

"So... he isn't a good teacher?"

The train slowed to a standstill, and the doors slid open to admit more passengers while a few others exited. When they lurched back into motion, Kagome re-purified the vicinity, and Sesshoumaru answered her question. "Totosai says that some things cannot be taught... they must be discovered for oneself. Knowing that there are secrets is the first step to unraveling them."

"So the master is proof of what's possible," she surmised. He nodded, and she ventured, "Why two hundred and some-odd years? Humans can become swordsmiths without centuries of training."

"These are not commonplace blades," he replied.

Kagome was silent for a time, but then she gasped. "You make swords like Tetsusaiga?"

He hummed an affirmative, and with great satisfaction, he replied, "I do." She peered up at him, admiration shining in her eyes, and he gave in to the impulse to share his secret. "I attained my mastery this year." He reached up to tap the case strapped to his back, adding, "...with this."

"Youkai weapons are really rare," she remarked.

"It is considered a lost art."

"You brought your sword to show Inuyasha?"

He hesitated, then grimaced slightly. "There is no one else to tell," he reluctantly acknowledged.

Kagome beamed at him and said, "I'm glad you told me. This is something else we can celebrate tonight!" He considered protesting, but she was already on another tangent. "If you're a master now, why did you say you're an apprentice?"

"I will be known as Totosai's apprentice for as long as he lives. His title will pass to me one day."

"But you've sort of graduated?"

"Yes. I could set up my own forge... take on an apprentice... accept commissions."

"Is that what you're planning to do next?" she asked.

Is it? Sesshoumaru could only shrug.

"We can walk from here," Kagome announced once they escaped the crowded train station. "It's not that far, and the fresh air will do you some good." She gave the demon's hand a tug, excitedly pulling him in the direction of home.

"This is not fresh air," he stated flatly.

"Well, it's as good as it gets in the city," she cheerfully replied. "You must live out in the country somewhere?"

"On a mountain."

Kagome peeked up at him from the corner of her eye. "With your family?"

"Inuyasha is my only family," replied Sesshoumaru.

"I live with mine—my mother, my little brother, and my grandfather." Kagome pointed out a few landmarks—the best okonomiyaki restaurant, their usual market, the tea shop with the tastiest cakes. Her role as neighborhood tour guide earned the occasional hum, and they covered several blocks without much of anything being said. The sun was just past its peak when home came into view. "That's it... up there," Kagome directed, pointing to a steep, evergreen-covered slope and a long flight of stairs bracketed by torii.

Sesshoumaru came to a full stop. "A shrine?"

Although his expression was unreadable, Kagome was sure he was surprised. "My family's been here for generations. Welcome to the Sunset Shrine!" She gave his hand a quick squeeze, saying, "Don't worry; it's not warded against youkai." When they reached the bottom of the hill, she waved to the old man loitering under the vivid red arch at the top. "Gramps... I'm home!" she called, relinquishing her hold on Sesshoumaru to jog up the steps.

"Welcome back," he responded, though his quick, dark eyes were fixed on a point over her shoulder. "Who's he?"

"This is Sesshoumaru; he's a friend," Kagome replied, emphasizing the term lest the old man take it into his head to confront the demon.

"Is that so?" he muttered sourly, his eyebrow ticking.

As the head of the Higurashi family led the way towards the house at the far end of the shrine compound, Kagome caught Sesshoumaru's eye and whispered, "You should be grateful to Inuyasha." Sesshoumaru's brows lifted quizzically, and she explained, "Back when your brother first started hanging out with me, my grandfather was always trying to exterminate him—purification salt, sutras, chants." Kagome tapped her nose wisely. "The incense was the worst, but Gramps finally got used to the idea of having a half-demon around the house... which means you should be safe."

In the entryway to the Higurashi home, they were greeted by Kagome's mother. "Welcome home, dear! And you must be Inuyasha's brother?"

"Sesshoumaru," the youkai acknowledged with a polite nod.

Grandpa Higurashi grunted and grumbled, "This is what comes from letting the girl consort with a hanyou. Now, she's brought home an actual demon."

"And he's most welcome," Mrs. Higurashi smoothly interjected.

Their guest was issued into the living room just as footsteps pounded down the stairs. "Hey, Sis!" hollered Souta before stumbling to a stop in front of Sesshoumaru and looking way, way up. "Whoa...

you're even taller than Inu-no-niichan!"

The demon glanced Kagome's way and inquired, "Dog brother?"

She shrugged and said, "It's what Souta's always called Inuyasha."

The boy cocked his head to one side and remarked, "Your ears are different."

A slim brow arched and Kagome quickly interceded. "Technically, Inuyasha's ears are different because he's a hanyou. Sesshoumaru is full youkai, and his ears are normal for a demon."

"I know," Souta mumbled, still staring boldly at the tall youkai. "Inu-no-niichan never comes for Christmas, even when we ask him to... 'cause he doesn't want to intrude. But, you came." The boy's eyes darted speculatively between Sesshoumaru and Kagome before he added, "Inu-no-niisama."

Sesshoumaru blinked at the new handle, and Kagome giggled and whispered, "Respected dog brother... Inuyasha will be jealous."

Mrs. Higurashi placed a hand on Souta's shoulder to forestall further comment, then addressed the demon. "If there's anything we can do to make you more comfortable, don't hesitate to ask."

"A bath," Sesshoumaru immediately replied.

His hostess didn't miss a beat. "Of course! It will only take a few minutes. Kagome, why don't you offer our guest some refreshment while I get things ready?"

Kagome agreed and beckoned for Sesshoumaru to follow her to the kitchen. "I'm sorry about that," she said sheepishly. "My family seems to have gotten the wrong impression somehow."

"You did not explain the circumstances?"

"Well... I didn't want to be too specific. Your arrangement with Inuyasha seemed to be a private thing, so I left out a lot."

"I appreciate your discretion."

"Don't worry," Kagome assured him. "I'll find a way to set Mama straight before she starts going on about puppy-eared grandchildren." She opened the cupboard and reached for a couple of glasses... so she missed the way Sesshoumaru's eyes widened ever-so slightly... then hooded.

Sesshoumaru turned off the shower and flipped his drenched hair over a shoulder as he approached the steaming tub. With a soft groan, he stepped into the hot water; taking a deep breath, he slid beneath the surface. His brother's apartment was woefully lacking in basic necessities, and the simple luxury of a long soak almost made up for having to take a train across town. This... and the priestess's 'little trick'. As strands of silver hair swayed in the water and brushed lightly against his skin, Sesshoumaru tried to recapture the sensation her purification made when it collided with his youki. The very recollection sent an instinctual thrill through his core—one that amounted to anticipation.

Surfacing, the demon inhaled deeply. No traces of the day's travels remained, but conversely, all signs of Kagome's scent had also disappeared. Displeasure spiked due to the lack, giving Sesshoumaru pause. So soon? He'd spent the last few hours in close contact with the woman, long enough to establish a certain sense of familiarity, but that didn't explain this surge of possessiveness. I want... but what do I want?

Turning over the unrefined desire, he considered his motives. I cannot have Tetsusaiga... so I am taking something else from my brother? Sesshoumaru snorted at the ridiculousness of the notion. The woman is not someone who can simply be taken. And, as Inuyasha had already pointed out, she could take him. Sesshoumaru avoided society, and the few people he met rarely earned any portion of his respect. Today marked the first time a female had established herself in his regard, and Sesshoumaru recognized the need to squarely face reality. I cannot dismiss her without first considering her.

But... a human mate? He closed his eyes and leaned back in the deep tub. It was done, certainly; Inuyasha was proof that the two races were compatible. A priestess? Unbidden memories surged to the fore—her scent, her spark, her flavor. Sesshoumaru found himself hoping for another taste and licked his lips. Yes... in spite of the disparity, it is a possibility.

Kagome appealed him with her beauty, power, vitality... and her intoxicating purity. If what she says is true, and she and my brother are simply friends... why has Inuyasha neglected the opportunity to secure the affections of such a desirable female? Sesshoumaru slowly combed his fingers through his hair, idly teasing it back into order. Finally, he shook his head. I will never understand my brother, but I am beginning to understand Father.

The yukata Mrs. Higurashi left for Sesshoumaru to change into was clean, but it smelled very faintly of hanyou and was shorter than he liked. Feeling somewhat self-conscious about appearing before strangers with damp hair and bared ankles, he once again shouldered his sword and followed his nose towards the priestess in whose presence he needed to remain for a few more hours.

A Christmas tree stood in the corner of the dining area, a taller version of the evergreen that twinkled alone in his brother's apartment, and he crossed to inspect the origami ornaments, which had been executed with varying degrees of precision. Eventually, he turned to face the room's only other occupant. Kagome sat at the low table, nibbling a cookie and perusing his feet. Catching her gaze, he quirked a brow, and she sheepishly murmured, "Stripes," nodding towards the markings peeping below the yukata's hem. "Join me?"

Sesshoumaru allowed her inviting smile to draw him forward until he knelt on the cushion beside hers. A plate of cookies and a bowl of oranges sat on the table, and Kagome had both a cup of cocoa and a steaming bowl of mushroom soup before her. "Better?" he inquired.

"Much!" she beamed. "You?"


Mrs. Higurashi bustled out of the kitchen with a tray. "I wasn't sure if you'd like something sweet or savory, so I included a little of each," she explained as she set a variety of small plates before him, then poured a cup of tea. Addressing her daughter, the woman added, "Why don't you wash up too, dear? And put on something festive!"

"Okay, sure," Kagome agreed. On her way out, she nearly bumped into her little brother, coming and going. Instead of simply side-stepping him, she pulled Souta into a quick, one-armed hug and dropped a kiss on top of his head. "Caught ya, fair and square!" she laughed, tousling his hair before continuing from the room.

To Sesshoumaru's surprise, the boy scowled up at the ceiling. "Aw, geez... figures she'd notice right away." Souta snatched a couple oranges from the bowl, saying, "For me and Gramps." When he darted back out, he took care to avoid passing under the sprig of greenery, ribbon, and white berries.

What mischief is this? He flared his nostrils, but didn't find anything untoward about the small bundle... other than the fact that it wasn't edible.

"It's a fun little western tradition for Christmastime," Mrs. Higurashi offered with a soft chuckle. "When two people meet under the mistletoe, they kiss!"


"I'm glad to see Kagome settle on someone," she remarked pleasantly. "Her grandfather has been worried that she would become an old maid... and started talking about marriage meetings earlier this fall." Sesshoumaru's brows lowered, and Mrs. Higurashi caught onto his incomprehension. "An arranged marriage."

"I see," he replied, though to be honest, he didn't.

"She's a strong-willed woman who's always been sure of what she wants," Mama continued. "Many young men are intimidated by such things, but I can see that you're just what she needs."

Sesshoumaru blinked. Ah... the 'wrong impression' has not been corrected. Curious as to what the woman might wish to say to a prospective suitor, he avoided comment by sampling his soup.

"Don't let her grandfather's blustering worry you," she said with a conspiratorial wink. "All we've ever wanted is for her to be happy, and if that happiness is to be found in the arms of a youkai... she will have our support."

He confirmed nothing, denied nothing, and tasted the seafood custard. The woman rambled on, and in a matter of minutes, Sesshoumaru was in possession of several new insights into the Higurashi family in general... and Kagome in particular. They were proud of their shrine and clung to tradition, but at the same time, they were very accepting of new things—like Christmas celebrations, a hanyou friend, and a youkai suitor. What's more, he learned that Kagome had always been very clumsy... something of a chatterbox... and quick-tempered, though she never held grudges.

Once his food was gone, Sesshoumaru had no choice but to respond. Gathering his thoughts, he drew himself up and intoned, "Your daughter is an admirable woman."

Mrs. Higurashi's smile blossomed into radiance, and she moved to gather his empty dishes. "You would be more comfortable if you set that aside," she remarked, nodding towards the sword-case angled across his back. "If you like, I can put it somewhere safe."

He raised a clawed hand to rest possessively over the strap. "Do not trouble yourself."

She pursed her lips thoughtfully, then smiled brightly. "You remind me of your brother... keeping precious things close. I will not insist, but the first room at the top of the stairs is Kagome's. Please feel free to put your things there."

"I will... thank you."

"Good," she replied. "And then, if you would allow me to trouble you... my father-in-law is teaching Souta how to play shogi in the next room. Are you familiar with the game?"

"I am."

"Perhaps you could lend my son a hand... and provide his grandfather with a challenge?"

Sesshoumaru graciously inclined his head. "I can."

When Kagome put in an appearance three-quarters of an hour later, a battle of wits and wills was fully engaged. "I thought you didn't like games," she accused as she peered over Sesshoumaru's shoulder at the board.

"This isn't one of your kiddie games," scoffed Grandpa Higurashi.

"It is strategy," agreed Sesshoumaru.

Souta grinned up at his sister. "Inu-no-niisama's good at strategy!"

As the youkai made a decisive move that sent her grandfather into grumbles, she giggled softly. "It does seem to suit you better than Old Maid."

Sesshoumaru turned slightly and slanted a look at the young woman. Her cheeks were still flushed from the bath, and she'd changed into a yukata; her smile turned bashful when she noted his appreciative scrutiny. "Indeed," he murmured.

"I want to help Mama in the kitchen for a little while... if that's okay?" she whispered.

"I have no protest," he answered... then watched intently as she took her leave. If he'd been displeased earlier to find her scent washed from his skin, it was nothing compared to his annoyance at finding his scent washed from hers. This may prove troublesome.

Many people tried to gloss over the differences between mankind and demonkind in the interest of promoting harmony between the species, but ignoring the distinctions didn't erase them. Human instincts are weak, only surfacing in times of crisis, but youkai live by them. Sesshoumaru had long since mastered his impulses, but he still felt them. At the moment, he was struggling with an almost overwhelming compulsion to follow Kagome... and re-apply his scent. Unfortunately, he couldn't conceive of a socially-acceptable way to do that, short of initiating another game of tag.

"Inu-no-niisama?" Souta called, tugging on Sesshoumaru's sleeve.


"It's our turn!"

"So it is." He took the time to explain their next move to the boy, and play resumed. However, no matter how ruthlessly he focused on his shogi tactics, Sesshoumaru was constantly aware of Kagome's movements in the other room. It was frustrating that she was out of sight, but he could hear her peeling and chopping vegetables... and laughing and talking with her mother. The things she was missing earlier.

A short time later, she came back out to replenish their teapot—her sleeves tied back, swathed in an apron, and wreathed in smiles. Her overwhelming aura of contentment soothed some of his twitchiness, and though the experience was unprecedented, Sesshoumaru knew what it meant. She is suitable.

Another couple hours saw Grandpa Higurashi's staggering loss, and then the whole family gathered in the dining room for some quiet occupation in front of the Christmas tree. The ladies had finished their dinner preparations and carried tea and more snacks to the table. The old man took up his newspaper after generously offering a few sections to Sesshoumaru. Souta flopped down beside the housecat with a manga, and mother and daughter took seats across from one another and busied themselves with New Years postcards.

Sesshoumaru flipped through the paper without paying heed to the columns, lost in thought. Inuyasha said that she has something neither of us do—a family. Yet she has freely shared her family with my brother... and now with me. Perhaps this inclusion must be what Inuyasha craves most. The demon restlessly tapped his clawtips against the spread newsprint. Inuyasha has done nothing because he wants nothing to change. That is where we are different. He wants to remain a part of this family, but what I want... is her.

Everything made sense; he'd reasoned through his instinctual responses and determined the most logical resolution to the feelings they inspired. Human or not, Kagome pleased him. Any of his earlier reluctance due to species was replaced by the conviction that she was worthy of pursuit. True, she warned me off once, but the only true obstacle to my plans is her ignorance of them. There is nothing else for it. I cannot leave this place without reaching some kind of understanding with her.

At that moment, Kagome glanced up in surprise, and Sesshoumaru's first thought was that she'd somehow overheard his thoughts. Impossible. However, he quickly realized what had happened; without a conscious effort, in his moment of distraction, his frustrated instincts had reached for the woman. Naturally, she noticed the swell of youki. Amusement flickered through Kagome's expression, and then she called up her abilities. He knew it was coming, but Sesshoumaru still wasn't wholly prepared for his response to the purification that washed across his youki and gently buffeted his skin, sending shivers along his spine.

His eyes slid shut as he savored the sensation, and when he opened them again, Kagome was watching him with concern. He blinked placidly, graced her with a faint smirk for reassurance, then pushed out more youki in a tacit request. Do it again.

"Have you given thought as to what it would mean for you to date a demon?" Mrs. Higurashi asked when she was alone in the kitchen with her daughter. Dinner was an hour away, and the room was filled with fragrant steam.

"Eh? No! I told you... Sesshoumaru and I aren't..."

"Sweetheart, your grandfather saw you," her mother interrupted. "You were holding hands when you arrived."

Kagome gaped, then forced a laugh. "Oh... that! That was nothing. We were only holding hands to ward off all the women at the station."

"I see," Mrs. Higurashi returned, her voice heavy with sarcasm. "And did these many women follow you and your demon all the way here? Your grandfather didn't mention the crowd."

"Mama... he's Inuyasha's brother!"

"And you spent the last half hour playing footsie with your auras," she countered. As her daughter spluttered, Mrs. Higurashi shook her head. "I may not be half the priestess you are, but even Souta could feel the push and pull of spiritual energy out there!"

"B-b-but... that was just... playing around!"

"Oh, it was play all right." Mama chuckled while color suffused Kagome's face, and she calmly said, "No more of that in front of Souta... hmm?"

"He's not interested in someone like..." Kagome furiously whispered.

"He is," her mother firmly corrected. "Trust your mother's instincts... and think about it. Otherwise, you'll just be stringing him along."

Kagome wandered slowly back out to the table with a plate of crackers and fruit. Is Mama seeing things... or am I blind? With a touch of dread curling in the pit of her stomach, she met Sesshoumaru's gaze. Relaxed... that's normal. Composed... as per usual. Expectant...? Hang on... what's he waiting for? The youkai's brows lifted a fraction, and she followed suit... and then it dawned on her. Oh... oh, damn! He heard Mama!

Before she could gather any of her scattered wits, the warble of her cell phone gave her a perfectly legitimate reason to turn tail and run. She rummaged the pink phone our of her purse. "Hello?" she answered, a little breathlessly, her heart hammering.

"Hey! I found the cookies you guys left, but I'm not sure you did me any favors. The trees kinda cute though."

"Oh," Kagome said with a tight laugh. "Erm... glad you like it?"

"So... no piles of steaming goo... no coating of purified demon-ash. You didn't kill each other!" the hanyou congratulated. "That's a good sign!"

"Did you think we would?"

"Nah, not really. You did zap him, though... right? I can smell it."

"Maybe a little bit..."

Inuyasha growled low and fierce. "What did the bastard try to pull? I swear, I will hunt him down and..."

"No! No need... please! It was an accident, a misunderstanding. We got past it."

"Yeah?" Inuyasha replied suspiciously. "Keh, if you say so. Anyway, I'll bet you're glad to be rid of him!"

"Oh, no... he's still here."

"He's... what?" the hanyou exclaimed. "Where are you?"

"Home, at the shrine," she replied. "Since Mama wasn't expecting me until later, dinner isn't for a while yet. There's plenty of time... we could wait for you!"

"Whoa... back up," demanded Inuyasha. "Are you telling me that my bastard of a brother is still there?"

"Yes," Kagome replied patiently. "What's the big deal?"

He snorted and said, "Do you have a window handy?"


"Look out the window and tell me what you see," Inuyasha directed.

"Not much... it's too dark."

The hanyou huffed. "Exactly!"

"Erm... what?"

"The sun's set, Kagome... 'the day' was over an hour and a half ago."

"Oh... you're right," she mumbled. "Well... Mama invited him for dinner, and I think he's planning to stay. You should come over, too."

"Keh... I'm on my way."

She closed the phone and smiled to herself, then nearly jumped out of her slippers when she turned and found herself nose-to-chest with Sesshoumaru. Gasping softly, she tried to back up, but a hand on her arm prevented her. "You invited him?" he asked.

"Yes," she smiled. "That way you can show him your sword."

Something flickered behind his eyes. "You invited him for my sake?"

She nodded slowly, and said, "If anybody can really appreciate what you've accomplished, it'll be Inuyasha. He's always loved swords."

The demon's eyes drifted out of focus, and he began absentmindedly rubbing Kagome's arm. "Perhaps," he murmured.

Suddenly, there was a hand at her back, and he was ushering her towards the front door, guiding her out into the night. Flurries filled the darkness, catching the light from the twinkling garland was strung over the entrance. "Snow!" she sighed happily. "It's a white Christmas!"

Sesshoumaru tilted his face towards the sky and breathed deeply, exhaling on a soft hum. "Kagome," he said, enunciating her name with care. "Why has Inuyasha never claimed you?"

"I'm not entirely sure," she replied. Folding her arms across her chest, she offered him a wistful smile. "It just never happened. He's been in my heart since I was fifteen... but I think he sees me as a sister."

The youkai stepped closer and peered down at her seriously. "Earlier today, I took something from you."

"Took...?" she echoed, shaking her head in confusion.

He extended his other hand, and when his long, clawed fingers unfurled, a bundle of mistletoe lay on his palm. "You place importance on Christmas traditions like this?" he inquired.

"W-what are you planning to do with that?" she stammered.

"I swore to respect your boundaries, but this greenery offers a pathway," Sesshoumaru explained. "I wish to rectify a disservice."

"Excuse me?"

"A kiss for its own sake," he announced. "You said your only kisses were never intended for you."

She stared at him in complete disbelief, and then her expression closed. "Sesshoumaru," she warned. "I don't like this kind of game."

He leaned nearer and held her gaze. "I have told you numerous times, woman... I do not play games."

Her breath hitched, but she wasn't ready to believe him. "You want a kiss?" she asked warily.



"I took a kiss; I wish to give one instead."

"An apology?" she prodded.

"No... as I said, a kiss for its own sake."

Kagome was flattered... and somewhat irritated. Why does it feel like we're negotiating? "Are you saying you want to kiss me... because you want to kiss me?"

His hum of approval ended in an emphatic, "Yes."

"Is that all you want?"

Sesshoumaru's golden eyes slowly warmed until she could not ignore the heat in his gaze. "No... I want more."

Kagome reached out to take the mistletoe from his hand, and she shook it gently. "Since it's a tradition... one kiss," she agreed.

The moment the words were out of her mouth, Sesshoumaru's arms were around her... as if he'd been holding himself back. He pulled her close, rested his chin on top of her head, and smoothed his hands slowly over every inch of her back, then her shoulders. She relaxed under his surprisingly gentle ministrations, though her heart thudded when his fingers slid up her throat and tipped her chin up so he could give his kiss.

Warm hands cradled her face, cool hair brushed her skin, and she allowed him to deepen his caress, but as before, she held back. He did not press, and when he pulled back, his open countenance easily communicated concern, confusion... and disappointment. Kagome was so relieved by the vulnerability in his expression, she had to close her eyes. He really is too pretty. With a barely-heard sigh, the demon tried to step back, but this time, she held on. Blinking against the falling snow, she peered into his face. "You have this all figured out... like a shogi strategy?"

"No... I am taking a chance and hoping the fates will favor me," he replied with a trace of gruffness. "There are too many variables, so my plans cannot be set until I know your answer."

She laughed softly. "And what was the question, Sesshoumaru?"

"Would you accept a youkai suitor?" He hesitated before clarifying with a firm, "Me."

With a smile that did wonders for the demon's temporarily flagging confidence, Kagome replied, "I might... but only if he understood something very important."

"Tell me."

Slipping her arms up around Sesshoumaru's neck so that she was pressed tightly against him, Kagome whispered, "A kiss isn't something you should give or take; it's something two people should share."

He nodded gravely, then whispered back, "Show me."

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

End Note: Posted on December 24, 2009. 16,069 words.