Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in this seasonal continuation... especially for the one who's about to be courted. A nod of recognition is bent towards Rumiko Takahashi for her creative prowess.
Author's Note: When I wrote Counting the Hours, I knew it was just the start. My plan has always been to continue the tale. Perhaps we'll make it an annual tradition. ::twinkle::
A Note of Gratitude: Many thanks to Jupe, who kindly offered to beta this for me.
Counting the Days
Once he was a block from the station, Inuyasha checked both ways. What with the holiday and the change in weather, the street was practically empty. Heedless of the gathering snow, the hanyou hopped up onto a nearby wall and rid himself of shoes and socks. Knotting laces together, he slung them over his shoulder, where they bounced against the sword case that rode between his shoulder blades. He impatiently tugged his thick, waist-length silver hair loose, then took off up the street at a swift trot. As he ran, he berated himself for putting 'his' family at risk.
He still couldn't believe his half-brother would stoop so low as to inflict himself upon the only people in the world he cared about. I never shoulda let him anywhere near the Higurashis. Pouring on the speed, he trained his golden eyes on the red torii gate just up the street. Why is that bastard still there? I swear, if he's giving any of them a hard time, I'll knock him into next year.
Taking the steps five at a time, he skidded to a stop in the hushed courtyard of the Sunset Shrine. He didn't smell fear, blood, or poison, so his haywire imagination settled down. More realistically, but just as reassuring, he wasn't picking up any signs of purification. If Kagome hadn't felt the need to fry him, maybe his brother was behaving himself. Once singed, twice shy. The tang of spiritual power left behind in his apartment had sent Inuyasha diving for the phone to check on her. Kagome had sounded like her same old self, but it had been a shocker to learn that Sesshoumaru hadn't ditched her as soon as the sun set. Maybe Mrs. Higurashi is torturing the bastard with kindness and cookies. Yeah... that's probably it. With a crooked smile, the hanyou hunched his shoulders and trudged towards the house at the far end of the compound.
Letting himself in, he dropped his shoes and propped his sword case in the corner before calling a greeting. Mrs. Higurashi appeared first, wearing an apron and wiping her hands on a dish towel. "Welcome, Inuyasha," she said warmly. "Merry Christmas!"
"Thanks," he replied offering the woman a bashful smile. "Sorry about the bas– ...uhh, my brother's intrusion."
"Nonsense!" she replied. "We couldn't be happier! I'm so glad you introduced the two of them!"
"What?" Inuyasha asked blankly.
She leaned closer and said, "They are so cute together!"
Something was very wrong here. Silver dog ears drooped in confusion, and he ventured, "Did you just call Sesshoumaru... cute?"
Mrs. Higurashi put her hand on his arm and lowered her voice conspiratorially. "You've always been a part of the family, but it looks as though it'll soon be official!"
Inuyasha could only shake his head in complete and utter bewilderment. What in the hell is going on here?
Ignoring his growing sense of dread, the hanyou stalked into the next room, only to find Sesshoumaru sitting calm as you please at the table, sharing a newspaper with Kagome's grandfather. The inu-youkai glanced up and impassively met his brother's gaze, then returned to his reading without comment. So far, so normal.
"Inu-no-niichan, you came!" Souta exclaimed, hurrying over to throw his arms around the hanyou's waist.
"Yeah, kid," he replied, giving the boy's hair a quick ruffle.
Kagome also rose to greet him. "Come, sit," she urged with a bright smile, taking his hand and tugging him towards the table. "Did you eat?"
"Nothing since the airport," he admitted, stealing glances at his brother, who was now watching them closely. "I could eat," the hanyou admitted distractedly. Something definitely happened. But the only thing that made sense made no sense at all. Turning his attention to Kagome, Inuyasha tightened his grip around her hand for a moment and breathed deeply. His eyes widened as he realized that her own scent was subtly overlaid with that of his brother. That was only possible if they'd been in physical contact. Searching his memories—few and scattered as they were—he couldn't recall ever seeing Sesshoumaru touch another person. The bastard's whole aura screams 'Back off!'
"You okay?" she asked softly.
Dark brows drew together, and he gruffly returned, "You okay?"
Of all things, she blushed, and an inexplicable fear pooled like ice water in his gut. Damn it all! There's no way she could have... he would have...! More than a little confused, he let go of Kagome's hand and sank to a cushion at the opposite end of the table from Sesshoumaru. The sudden collision of the family who had adopted him and the family who had rejected him left him off balance. Unsure what else to do with himself, Inuyasha reached over and hauled Souta into his lap for a quick tickle and tussle, and the sheer normalcy of playing with the kid soothed him a little.
"Enough, boys," Mrs. Higurashi scolded as she swished into the room a few minutes later.
He turned Souta loose as a tray of food was placed before him. Muttering a sheepish, "Thanks," he checked to make sure she'd heard him before he dug in. Inuyasha ate slowly, feeling awkward and angry, which killed his appetite. Kagome brought a fresh pot of tea, then took her usual seat, which just happened to be across from his... but next to the bastard's.
"I was thinking," Mrs. Higurashi began, looking expectantly at him. "Do you have any pressing business this week?"
"Nope," he admitted.
"Then, why don't you stay," she invited.
The hanyou cut a glance towards Kagome, whose expression was reassuringly hopeful. "You mean... all week?" he asked, a little surprised, for he knew how busy the shrine was around New Year's. Though no one—not even Kagome's grandfather—had ever alluded it, he was well aware than some people believed that people like him were a bad omen. He usually kept to himself until after all the holiday fuss died down.
Kagome jumped in, saying, "You keep enough of your things here, so why not?"
Inuyasha cast a sidelong glance at his brother, who was wearing one of his yukata. Sesshoumaru cocked a brow at him, as if challenging him to remark on the loan. Resisting the urge to roll his eyes at the idiot, he turned back to Mrs. Higurashi and said, "Yeah... sure. I'll stick around."
To his dismay, she next turned to his brother and inquired, "And what about you, Mr. Taishou?"
Inuyasha stifled his snort, for he knew his brother wouldn't be caught dead...
"I would be honored."
Inuyasha choked on his soup, then swung wide, watering eyes towards his brother. "You're staying?" he asked, voice cracking. Mrs. Higurashi pressed his tea cup towards his hand, and he obediently took a swig.
"Indeed," Sesshoumaru answered.
The inu-youkai merely lifted a shoulder and returned to his paper.
Next, the hanyou looked to Kagome, still trying to fathom the bizarre change she seemed to have wrought in his brother. She was studying her tea cup with unnecessary intensity, so he poked her under the table with his foot. When she raised her eyes, he urgently met her gaze, silently begging her to answer all the questions he couldn't blurt out in front of everyone. What the hell did you do?
Her smile was pure Kagome, and the fondness in it hadn't dimmed a bit... so that was okay. Inuyasha relaxed a little, but not all the way. Not with the bastard's incomprehensible encroachment. The hanyou had a feeling this week was going to be all kinds of bizarre.
Throughout the course of the evening, Inuyasha kept a close eye on his brother, but the demon was just as difficult to read as always. More accustomed to repeating himself three times at increasing decibels in order to garner so much as a glance, he was floored by Sesshoumaru's capacity for courtesy. He wasn't taking part in the conversation; he didn't even seem interested by what was said, but his steady gaze settled on each speaker in turn. The bastard's nose is working overtime, but why would he want to memorize them? The hanyou shifted nervously, and his brother glanced his way. "What?" Inuyasha muttered, on edge. Sesshoumaru merely quirked a brow and went back to listening to Mrs. Higurashi's excited description of some new recipe she wanted to test on them.
Though he watched for a chance to talk to Kagome alone, the hour grew late and bedtime arrived. It only took a few moments to discuss sleeping arrangements. "Inuyasha usually shares with Souta," Mrs. Higurashi said as she tapped a finger against her chin. "Would you like to join them, Mr. Taishou, or will that be too crowded?"
"I do not require sleep," Sesshoumaru calmly replied.
"Oh... well, make yourself comfortable?" their hostess ventured.
"I will," he replied with a solemn nod.
Still slightly agog at the rampant politeness, Inuyasha allowed Souta to lead the way to his room, where they quickly changed into pajamas. The boy sprawled on his bed and watched as the hanyou tossed a futon on the floor and shoved it into place with his foot. "It's so cool that you got to come for Christmas!" Souta enthused.
"Yeah... that's how it worked out this year," he acknowledged distractedly.
"And you get to stay all week!"
"Looks that way." Giving the boy a crooked smile, he added, "We'll have time for plenty of games."
"You bet," Souta agreed with satisfaction. "Especially since you can help with stuff."
Kagome's little brother wriggled under his blankets as the hanyou turned out the lights. "Yup. Now that Christmas is done, Mama will be getting ready for New Year's."
Before the boy could expound, Inuyasha hushed him, saying, "Oi... what's he doing?"
"My brother's on the move," the hanyou announced, tiptoeing towards the door. Souta bounced out of bed and padded after him, and they both peered into the darkened hallway. Sesshoumaru stood at the top of the stairs, gazing intently at Kagome's bedroom door. What in the hell is he doing? If he bugs her, I swear I'll...! However, the taiyoukai didn't attempt to enter her room. With a flip of his lengthy hair, he silently settled on the floor, leaning into the door frame as he propped the end of his sword case against his shoulder. Closing his eyes, Sesshoumaru pointedly ignored his two wide-eyed observers. "Well, damn," Inuyasha muttered, then recollected small ears. "Whoops... sorry, kid."
"Is Inu-no-niisama standing guard?" Souta whispered.
"Keh." That's exactly what it looked like, and Inuyasha was pretty sure he knew what it meant. Tugging the door shut, he herded Souta back into bed, then plunked down on the floor beside it. "Okay, kid. I want you to tell me everything that happened with 'Inu-no-niisama' today."
Before any of the Higurashi family stirred the following morning, Sesshoumaru slipped outside. He had obeyed the instinct to watch over Kagome while she slept, but something told him the young woman wouldn't thank him for his trouble. She hardly needs protecting from her family... and Inuyasha cannot be considered a threat either. Unaccustomed to explaining himself, he simply withdrew.
Although it was early, traffic noise drifted up through the woods that surrounded the hilltop shrine. Grimacing slightly at the unpleasant city smells, he turned his attention to the various buildings that stood within the courtyard, but it was the enormous god tree that drew his gaze. Hello, old one, he offered in silent greeting. It was rare to find another who had weathered as many centuries as he. Have you been watching over the one I have chosen? I shall return the favor once you are under my protection. With that, Sesshoumaru began a meticulous survey of the property, pacing off the boundaries and scrutinizing the surrounding buildings.
The crunch of snow heralded Inuyasha's appearance, and the taiyoukai spared him a brief glance, assessing his mood. I am surprised he did not accost me as soon as he arrived last night. His brother's expressive face was pinched with unhappiness, and his fists were clenched; however, bodily assault did not appear to be forthcoming. Sesshoumaru merely returned to his inspection of the forested slope that could be approached from the street.
"Oi! What's going on?"
"Familiarization," he replied.
"Well, you can stop," Inuyasha declared brusquely. "I usually take care of this."
Sesshoumaru paused and gave his brother a piercing look. "This?"
"Yeah. I had the old man show me where the lines are," the hanyou said, gesturing towards the base of the hill.
Inuyasha's golden eyes blinked in surprise, but then his expression closed. With a shrug, he muttered, "It's what our old man used to do. I remember that much."
When Sesshoumaru resumed his circuit, Inuyasha trailed after him. "Do you owe her or something?"
"Kagome. That's the only thing I could think of," the hanyou explained. Though his voice was casual, his gaze was keen. "Why else would you be here?"
"I was invited, the same as you."
"Keh... it's not the same."
Sesshoumaru arched a brow at his brother, who prodded a patch of snow with one bare foot. I will never understand his aversion to shoes. Since silence usually worked to loosen Inuyasha's tongue, the taiyoukai bided his time.
Growling in frustration, the hanyou snapped, "These people are mine, Sesshoumaru. Why are you here? What are you planning?"
"My plans are not your concern," he replied dismissively.
Inuyasha grabbed his arm and stubbornly demanded, "Just promise me you won't hurt them."
Sesshoumaru marveled at his brother's stupidity. If I was looking for leverage, you just handed it to me. Shrugging off his brother's hand, he walked on, asking, "How long have they been your pack?"
"You were unaware?" he inquired patronizingly. For a hanyou, Inuyasha was strong, and muddled though they were by human emotions, his instincts often ruled his actions.
"I don't have a pack anymore," Inuyasha muttered. "These people are human, not youkai."
"Hnn." Though he was loath to admit it, there wasn't much difference.
"So anyhow... I don't want you messing with Kagome," the hanyou warned.
Sesshoumaru smiled to himself, recognizing the emptiness of his brother's underlying threat. "Did she complain to you?" his inquired softly.
"How could she? She's sleeping," Inuyasha pointed out sourly.
"She will wake soon. You may speak with her then."
The hanyou huffed. "I don't need your permission to talk to my best friend!"
Inuyasha's anger simmered ever-nearer the surface, and Sesshoumaru couldn't resist stoking it. "Yet you have it."
"Bastard," he muttered, turning back towards the house.
At breakfast, Sesshoumaru looked on as Inuyasha tried to figure out how to act. It was intriguing, really, watching as the hanyou attempted to reconcile impulses he only half-understood with fears he couldn't quite hide from his sharp-nosed sibling. I am a threat, but I am an honored guest. The Higurashis might has well have tied his hands with rope. Sesshoumaru met Inuyasha's half-hearted glares with a faint smirk and hoped it never occurred to his brother that he was similarly strapped.
Kagome arrived late to the table and reached for an orange from the bowl at its center. Her mother immediately drew her into conversation, making plans for the day, but the young woman's gaze strayed to the others at the table. Inuyasha warranted a warm smile, and eventually, she sent Sesshoumaru a shy one as well. For just a moment, he allowed his expression to soften.
Twice. He'd kissed her twice the day before; however when he'd asked for permission to court her, she hadn't answered him properly. Maybe was not yes, and until Kagome accepted him fully, Sesshoumaru intended to tread carefully. She knew more than the average person about demons because of her training, but where humans were concerned, knowing something and welcoming it were often different. Thanks to his brother, she was familiar with many inu-youkai idiosyncrasies, but that same brother would undoubtedly be the first and loudest to oppose the taiyoukai's suit. Silencing him is not an option, and intimidation has never worked before. He's too stubborn, though skittishness makes him surprisingly docile. The change was quite refreshing.
Once the meal was cleared away, Kagome carried a tray of materials to the table and settled down to do some writing. Her hair had been gathered up in a high ponytail, and Sesshoumaru's gaze idly traced the line of her neck while she settled into her task.
Inuyasha edged closer on the young woman's other side and asked, "Whatcha doing?"
"These are New Year's greetings," she replied, handing him one of the cards from the pile of finished postcards.
"Oh, sure. You send me one every year." Eying the sizable stack, he dryly added, "Nice to know I'm special."
Kagome laughed.."These go to all our family and friends, but yours is always extra special. Promise!"
"Keh," he said with a crooked little smile. "Looks like a big job. You want some help?"
"It's nice of you to offer," Kagome replied diplomatically. "I can handle this, but I do know something you could do."
"Your brother has something to show you," she replied, glancing towards Sesshoumaru to include him in the conversation. "Isn't that right?"
The taiyoukai reluctantly inclined his head, and several emotions flitted across the hanyou's face. "Me?" Inuyasha asked skeptically.
"Mm-hmm," Kagome replied pleasantly. "If anyone can appreciate Sesshoumaru's achievement, it's you."
As his younger brother's gaze swung his way, Sesshoumaru stifled a sigh and reached for the long case that rested beside his seat cushion. When he placed it on the table, Inuyasha's ears pricked forward. "You brought a sword?"
"I brought my sword," Sesshoumaru acknowledged with subtle emphasis.
The hanyou caught on. "Yours... as in you made it?"
The taiyoukai brushed the sword case with his fingertips, an action that was at once possessive and respectful. "I did."
Leaning towards Sesshoumaru, Kagome teasingly confided, "Inuyasha has a thing for swords."
"Oi... not just any swords," grumbled the hanyou. His eyes were still zeroed in on the case, as if he was trying to see right through the it, and Sesshoumaru's hand tightened protectively around it. "You've never brought a sword before."
As if I would bring anything less than the best before the one who bears Father's fang. Not that he would ever admit it.
His brother's ears lowered slowly, a sign that he was thinking hard, but then they snapped back to attention. "That ain't just any sword, is it," he said, making it a statement. "Myouga told me you were learning how to make ones like Tetsusaiga. It's why you left."
Kagome gave the hanyou's arm a pat, then smiled hopefully at Sesshoumaru. "May we see?"
Slowly, he undid the various buckles and clasps that had secured the sword for travel, then lifted the case's lid. The familiar sheath gleamed darkly against a silk lining; taking it up, he withdrew the blade with a small flourish.
"Oh!" gasped Kagome as the demon-forged blade pulsed a greeting.
Its youki was like his own, yet unique. Totosai likened the similarity to a child's resemblance to their parent. Sesshoumaru grasped the hilt more firmly and flared his own youki in answer. You are too confident for one who has yet to be tried, he mentally chided. With another impertinent pulse, the sword quieted and its master nodded approvingly.
"It's as cocky as you are!" Inuyasha snorted.
Arching a brow at his brother's perceptiveness, Sesshoumaru said, "This is Bakusaiga."
"How beautiful," Kagome breathed, admiring the pattern etched along the length of the blade.
"Keh... I guess it's pretty enough," his brother conceded, his golden eyes taking on a gleam. "But is it strong?"
Sesshoumaru smirked. "It is."
"Wanna test it out?" Inuyasha asked eagerly.
Kagome laughed softly as the brothers rose as one and moved towards the foyer. "Don't tear up the courtyard," she called after them.
As a hush fell over the house late that night, Sesshoumaru once more settled down in the upstairs hallway. Though he had been able to prove Bakusaiga's worth, Kagome had not come outside to watch the brothers spar. It would seem that New Year's post cards are of greater importance than ascertaining a potential mate's prowess. Human priorities baffled him.
Even worse, there were too many obstacles to the intimacy they had enjoyed the previous day. He longed to speak with her, to touch her, to taste her anew, but the day had passed without ever presenting an opportunity. Only his honor prevented him from entering Kagome's bedroom uninvited.
Suddenly, a soft sound emanated from within the young woman's room, and her guard dog's back stiffened. A second tap. The swish of a curtain. The slide of her window. A low murmur. Sesshoumaru's eyes widened, then narrowed in fury. He dares...?
Then, Kagome giggled, and Sesshoumaru heard her inquire, "Are you giving me the what-are-your-intentions-towards-my-sibling speech, now?"
"I was just worried," grumbled Inuyasha.
"About your brother? How sweet!"
"Geez, Kagome... be serious! I'm worried about you," the hanyou protested. "I don't give a damn about that bastard."
Though it was soft as a sigh, Sesshoumaru's keen ears caught her reply. "Liar."
At the table the next morning, Mrs. Higurashi was all smiles. "The time has come to get ready for a new year!" she announced, placing a small notepad on the table beside her tea cup. Tapping it with the tip of her pen, she continued, "Grandpa and I went over everything yesterday, and the list is ready!"
The elderly man gave their two guests a shrewd once-over. "There's better uses for all that excess strength and energy than jumping around the courtyard like a couple of kids. Earn your keep," he harrumphed.
Inuyasha's ears drooped. "Sure, old man. What's on your list?"
"Oh, the usual things," Mrs. Higurashi interjected brightly. "The whole place needs a good going-over, from top to bottom!"
"Keh... it won't take long to do a little housekeeping," the hanyou said gamely.
Souta gave the hanyou a pitying look. "It's not just the house, inu-no-niichan."
"We're shrine-keepers," Grandpa said, a glint in his eyes.
"Okay... so... we're gonna do a little shrinekeeping," Inuyasha amended, glancing Kagome's way for verification. Her knowing smile let him know just how far off base he was.
Elbowing the hanyou, Souta muttered, "There's nothing little about New Year's cleaning."
Nodding pleasantly, Mrs. Higurashi began flipping through the pages on her notepad, each filled with her neat writing. "Inuyasha, dear... I'll ask you to start with the gutters. Souta, can you show him which ones have been clogged?"
"Sure!" the boy eagerly agreed. Sesshoumaru could hear them talking in the foyer while Kagome's little brother donned his jacket. "Will you give me a piggyback ride?"
Meanwhile, Mrs. Higurashi continued to hand down orders. Grandpa was entrusted with mailing the finished stack of postcards. The woman next turned to Sesshoumaru, and the taiyoukai resigned himself to a few days of menial labor. "Mr. Taishou, you will escort my daughter to the store. I need several things, so she'll be needing your strong arms."
"I will accompany her," he agreed solemnly.
"Good! You two run along!"
Kagome, who was being uncharacteristically quiet, simply said, "I'll get my coat."
Sesshoumaru waited outside, bemusedly watching his younger brother and Souta jump along the rooftops 'like a couple of kids.' Apparently, humans place greater value on clean of gutters than in skilled swordsmanship. It was mystifying, really.
"Ready?" Kagome inquired when she stepped out the door.
Though the question was unnecessary, he answered, "I am."
She led the way towards the bright red torii gate, then down the long stairs to street level. Wanting to be well out of Inuyasha's earshot before he spoke his mind, Sesshoumaru followed the young woman in impatient silence. His own clothes had been returned to him by now, so he walked along the sidewalk with his hands tucked into the sleeves of his kosode, the fabric of his hakama swishing with each step. As city smells thickened around them, he eased closer to her, seeking solace in his newfound familiarity with her scent. However, its pleasant brightness was edged with fear. Or is it doubt? Either was wholly unacceptable, and he reached out to catch her elbow. "We need to talk."
"We need to shop," she countered breezily. "I have the list to prove it."
Sesshoumaru frowned at the faint tremor in her tone. She is trying too hard to smile, but it is not my fault this time. Determined to get to the bottom of the matter, the taiyoukai glanced both ways, then scooped Kagome up and leapt onto the roof of the local okonomiyaki restaurant.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, her eyes sparking dangerously. Purity shimmered at the edges of his aura, adding new bite to the chill December air.
"Something is amiss," he replied. Kagome lowered her gaze, which was as good as an admission. With a small huff, he demanded, "Tell me."
She looked off towards the shrine, whose rooftops were clearly visible from their vantage point. "Do you hate Inuyasha?"
"Not particularly," he carelessly replied.
The young woman folded her arms over her chest. "He's been my best friend since middle school, you know."
A faint frown marred Sesshoumaru's face. "You have mentioned it."
"He thinks you might be getting close to me in order to annoy him."
"Do you believe him?"
"Well... I trust him, and you do seem to enjoy making him uncomfortable." Kagome gave the inu-youkai a considering look. "Is he right?"
The troubled expression didn't leave her face. Drawing a deep breath, she declared, "I won't come between you."
"Would it not make more sense to say that he is trying to come between us?"
Ignoring his logic, Kagome vehemently continued, "I will not become an excuse for hatred on either side."
"Inuyasha needs no excuse," Sesshoumaru smoothly replied. "He has always hated me."
"He doesn't hate you," she countered. "Inuyasha just doesn't trust you."
"That matters little."
"It matters to me," she retorted, her voice hardening with determination. "I'm not giving up my best friend for anyone... even you. If you're not willing to to accept that, then you're not worth accepting."
Sesshoumaru considered her words for several long moments, half-hoping she would retract them. She did not. Leaning closer, he softly inquired, "What would you have me do?"
Her chin came up, and Kagome replied, "Prove to me that you're serious. Earn his trust."
"Thereby earning yours?"
"Something like that," she replied with a brisk nod.
I have always been under the impression that females would be easier to woo. Sesshoumaru didn't particularly like the condition she had placed on him, but he did like a challenge. "If I do this, will you accept me?"
"Maybe," she allowed.
There it was again. Sesshoumaru was beginning to hate maybes.
It had been centuries since Sesshoumaru had done anything resembling domestic cleaning. That's what retainers were for, yet here he was with his sleeves tied back, up to his elbows in the oily lather. There is a certain novelty to the experience, he decided as he wrung out his rag and returned to the paneled walls. He'd never been asked to do such things by Totosai, but the old swordsmith's workspace probably would have defied the attempt. The grime is probably as fossilized as the ancient bones that surround his forge.
Sesshoumaru had been assigned to the interior of the main shrine, a distinct honor according to Kagome's grandfather. The elderly man had left him with lengthy instructions, a step ladder, and a parting admonition not to scratch the gilding. Under any other circumstances, the taiyoukai would have been offended by the merest suggestion that he stoop to conquer cobwebs, but he'd accepted the shrine-keeper's direction in respectful silence. Compliance was nothing more than a means to his ends.
It would be simplest to give her up, walk away and never look back. Everything could return to the way it had been, with he and his brother enduring a single day in each other's presence. That had always been a necessary evil; this voluntary abasement was a hassle... an indignity... and quite possibly a farce. Yet he chose to submit. When have I ever chosen the easiest course?
With delicate precision, Sesshoumaru attacked a section of complicated lattice, quietly admiring the craftsmanship as only another craftsman could. The job would have been time-consuming for a human, but he possessed a demon's speed... and a deft touch. Within moments, he returned to the pail and idly swished the rag through sudsy water.
From overhead, he could hear the scrape and rattle that marked his brother's progress across the roof. Inuyasha was busy patching holes and replacing damaged tiles, a task he deemed preferable to working indoors. Sesshoumaru was much more accustomed to the sharp smell of smoke and the chill clarity of mountain air than the heady undertones of incense that lingered in the hushed building. However, this is much better than the unnatural stench of this city, he decided, breathing slow and deep.
As he worked, he pondered the task Kagome had set him. Gain Inuyasha's trust. It was an interesting condition, and one in keeping with what he understood of the young woman. Family was important to her, and in her mind, Inuyasha was family. Her loyalty was admirable, but it annoyed Sesshoumaru that his half-brother held the greater portion of her affection. I will supplant him.
The taiyoukai paused as several random observations slid neatly into place. Hnn... that is what he fears. Ever since he'd arrived, Inuyasha had been struggling to hide an underlying nervousness, which was odd. Usually, his little brother came at him full-force and full-voice, heedless of the consequences. His behavior hinges upon his instincts... whether he realizes it or not. Pack dynamics were second nature to inu-youkai, so it wasn't surprising that Inuyasha's nature was getting the better of him despite the human part of his heritage. My brother didn't establish himself over this pack; he found a place within it and is acting accordingly.
As he banished dust from several hard-to-reach niches, Sesshoumaru's mind neatly sorted through the family structure. The senior Higurashi male might not have been as strong as Inuyasha, but the hanyou deferred to him with a very human respect for an elder, making the old man their alpha. Mrs. Higurashi probably reminds him of his own mother, and he seeks her approval. By default, that makes Kagome and Souta his younger siblings, packmates he looks out for.
On some level, the hanyou perceived Sesshoumaru as a threat. Kagome's grandfather cannot defend this small pack against me, and Mrs. Higurashi's dictate prevents Inuyasha from driving me off by his own hand. From his perspective, I am poised to displace him, for if I were to wrest leadership of this family from the old man's hands, it would be within my rights to throw my brother out. Fortunately for the hanyou, he wasn't truly a rival. Indeed, he wasn't even an obstacle. He is the key, and I will turn him.
As the afternoon wore on, Sesshoumaru entertained himself by adding a personal touch to his nearly-completed task. Just as he would have done with a blade upon the anvil, he imbued his efforts with his youki. His hands lingered upon every inch of the shrine's interior, leaving behind both his scent and an unmistakable tang of youki. Lips quirking in satisfaction, he admired the effect... only to be interrupted by a soft huff.
Kagome stood in the door, swathed in an enormous apron, her hair tied up in a cloth. There was a dark smudge across the bridge of her nose, and amusement sparkled in her eyes. "You know, if Grandpa could see this, he'd have a fit," she announced lightly.
"I have removed the dust," he replied archly.
"Oh, yes," she agreed. "You've done an admirable job with that, but you've also made more work for me."
That said, her spiritual energy welled up and outward, rolling through the shrine and undoing all his mischief. Purity dazzled his eyes and sent a tingle over his skin as every trace of his youki was purged from the room, leaving him unharmed... but not quite untouched. His eyelids lowered as he concentrated on the nuances of scent and sensation. Exhilarating.
With an impish smile, Kagome declared, "This is my territory, not yours. More dusting, less marking."
She sashayed back the way she'd come, and he gazed after her. Oh, yes... she is worthy of pursuit.
Inuyasha's back went up when he saw his older brother stroll over to Goshinboku and leap upwards. Damn it all, that's my tree! He scowled fiercely as Sesshoumaru prowled through the bare branches... and was only partially mollified when the taiyoukai didn't sit in his usual spot. The niche his sibling chose was on the opposite side of the tree and slightly higher. Once settled, Sesshoumaru caught his gaze and arched a brow in silent challenge. Fists clenching almost as tightly as his stomach, Inuyasha trudged over. The bastard had better answer me straight, or... aw, hell... I dunno what. This is so messed up! Springing lightly onto his favorite limb, Inuyasha claimed his rightful place and slouched down, folding his arms over his chest. "Oi, Sesshoumaru...?"
"What are you doing?"
"I am doing what you asked me to do."
The hanyou frowned in confusion. "That's funny... I'm pretty sure our arrangement involved you skulking around my apartment for a day, then disappearing until I have to drag myself up your mountain next year."
"You asked me to humor Kagome," Sesshoumaru calmly reminded.
"Huh? Oh... well, yeah," Inuyasha conceded. "Which I appreciate and all, but why are you still doing it?"
"It pleases me to do so."
His ears quivered, trying to catch every nuance of his older brother's tone. Taking a deep breath, he plunged ahead. "Isn't it more like she pleases you?" Inuyasha held his breath, not that doing so had ever helped pry answers out of Sesshoumaru before.
For once, the bastard cooperated. "Indeed."
Not what I wanted to hear. Kagome had tried to tell him, but this didn't make sense at all. It ain't like she can't take care of herself, but the bastard is just... such a bastard! Worrying at the tree's rough bark with the tip of one claw, Inuyasha ventured, "Are you really going to court her?"
"But you only met her a couple days ago! I can't believe she'd agree to something like that."
"Why not?" Sesshoumaru inquired, still maintaining a neutral tone. "Has she never acted impulsively before?"
"I guess she has. Kagome can be pretty confusing, but she's a girl." Hunching his shoulders, he muttered, "Most of the time, she listens to me, and I warned her about you."
"She does value your judgment," his brother announced. "Indeed, I must bow to it."
The hanyou craned his neck, trying to catch a glimpse of Sesshoumaru's face. "What're you talking about?"
"I cannot proceed without your blessing."
Quick as a wink, Inuyasha darted higher into the branches, then dropped down in front of his brother, needing to look him in they eye. "You mean she didn't agree to the whole courtship thing?"
"Not outright," Sesshoumaru replied.
"Why are you telling me this?" he asked suspiciously.
"Because it is the truth."
Inuyasha knew he was missing something important and demanded, "What the hell kind of condition did she set?"
"You mean... you and me?" he ventured. When his brother inclined his head, for just a moment, gratitude for Kagome fluttered in Inuyasha's chest. But Sesshoumaru's impassive face was a cold dash of reality. "You're being nice to me so you can get Kagome."
Inuyasha curled his lip, angry with himself as much as with his older brother. "She won't be fooled any more than I am," he snapped. "If you wanted to trick her, you shouldn't have told me."
Sesshoumaru cocked his head to one side and said, "Exactly."
He blinked. Damn him and his tight-lipped ways. How am I supposed to understand what he's saying if he isn't talking? To his amazement, his brother volunteered more.
"You know where I stand," Sesshoumaru explained evenly. "If you were to learn of my motives later, you would suspect them."
"So, all I have to do is tell her you're bad news, and she'll toss you out?"
"Do you believe that is what she wishes?"
Inuyasha opened his mouth to deliver a scathing reply, but anything he might have said probably wasn't the truth... or at least not the whole truth. "Why Kagome?" he asked desperately. "I mean... she's human."
"I am aware of her species."
He worried his lip with a fang and pointed out, "Your kids would be like me."
Sesshoumaru haughtily replied, "My child would be mine."
For some reason, that was comforting, but he wasn't ready to believe any of it. "Why do you want her?" he asked, embarrassed by the soft whine that accompanied the question.
Without a trace of mockery, Sesshoumaru replied, "You warned me that she could take me, and you were correct. She had the opportunity to kill me."
The hanyou snorted. "Kagome never would have."
"But she could have."
Incredulously, Inuyasha asked, "And that's a good thing?"
This time, the only answer he received was a faint smirk. Instead, Sesshoumaru announced, "Since I require your acceptance before I can obtain Kagome's acceptance, my path is clear. In order to court her, I must first woo you."
Silver dog ears laid flat. "You're joking."
"I am not."
First thing the next morning, Kagome was searching through the laundry room cupboards to see if they needed to add shampoo to the last minute shopping list. They went through the stuff at an impressive rate whenever Inuyasha was visiting, but with Sesshoumaru in the house, too... Mama was worried that they might be out, so she'd sent her daughter to investigate. If we're going to keep that swishy hair squeaky clean, we'd better stock up!
A gentle brush of youki teased at the edges of her awareness, and she glanced over her shoulder in surprise. Sesshoumaru leaned casually against the door frame, yet she had no idea how long he'd been there. The churning of the washing machine had covered any noise he might have made, but she knew how much control it must take to harness all the power he commanded. Oooh, he's good. Scary good... but in a good way. Amused by her own redundancy, she topped her assessment off with a friendly, "Good morning."
The taiyoukai inclined his head, then inquired, "May I join you?
"Erm... sure?" she agreed. Sesshoumaru stepped into the small room, which immediately felt even smaller, and slid the door shut behind him. The first floor laundry room was little more than a pass-through to the house's bathroom, where a large bathtub held pride of place. With both doors closed, the two of them were basically closeted together, and when he took a step closer, she was backed up against the merrily chugging washer.
With so much proximity, it was impossible not to notice that the usually-fastidious demon was rather disheveled. His sleeves were still tied back, dirt smudged his clothes, and there appeared to be cobwebs caught in his hair. "So... did Grandpa already put you to work?" she asked breathlessly. "You got an early start!"
"I did not begin early," he smoothly countered. "I worked through the night."
"Not especially." Sesshoumaru leaned closer, sending her heart softly fluttering. "Your grandfather decided that since I do not require sleep, I required a task. The storehouse he closed me into cannot have been touched in decades."
Kagome's laugh held a hint of tension. "You should have told him no."
The inu-youkai shrugged a shoulder, and for a moment, she thought he was going to kiss her, but his cheek merely grazed hers as he whispered in her ear. "It was a long night, and I wish to be reminded that my efforts are not in vain."
"Hnn," he acknowledged, nuzzling the tendrils of hair just in front of her ear.
"And just what do you think you're doing?" she inquired archly.
"Waging war on two fronts," Sesshoumaru replied calmly.
She pulled back, eyes crossing slightly as she tried to meet his gaze. "Since when are we at war?"
With a short huff of amusement, he explained, "Two tasks lay before me. I must gain my brother's trust, but I am also seeking your favor. Him, I must endure. You, I must entice."
"Aren't you getting ahead of yourself?" Kagome asked, desperately hoping her cheeks weren't as red as they felt. "Inuyasha's out there somewhere, and he's the one you're supposed to be getting closer to."
"On the contrary," Sesshoumaru murmured. "In order to allay his fears, I will show him that you have already accepted me."
His hand flowed through her hair, then stroked along her back, and she knew he was reinforcing his scent. "Isn't that cheating," she asked distractedly.
"You did not specify a course of action, only the end result," he countered. "I intend to succeed."
His nose bumped hers, and she whispered, "What happened to those boundaries we established?"
Golden eyes warmed, revealing traces of amusement and perhaps even affection. "I promised to respect your boundaries, but that does not mean I can never cross them." He drew her into a loose embrace and asked, "Do you wish to protest?"
Any grievance she might have aired lost its merit the moment his lips found hers. Kagome still thought this was an incredibly backwards way for Sesshoumaru to gain Inuyasha's trust. The taiyoukai was getting exactly what he wanted in order to give her what she wished. Still... if everyone's happy in the end, does it really matter?
Inuyasha was not hiding behind Kagome; he was just keeping a safe distance from Sesshoumaru. If there's one thing I know about the bastard, it's that he doesn't screw around. When his brother said he was going to do something, he got it done, so if Sesshoumaru was planning to 'woo' him, he'd make good on the threat. Damn it all, I don't even know what that means! The hanyou wracked his brains, trying to dredge up what little he knew about inu-youkai instincts. It's not like I've studied the subject, and the old man didn't exactly sit me down and explain why he did what he did. Back then, it was just... normal.
After his parents died, he'd mostly lived as a human... partly out of necessity, since demons didn't want anything to do with him, and partly out of sheer dumb luck, since Kagome had taken a liking to him even though most humans looked askance at half-breeds. The Higurashis had fit him into their family, giving him a sense of belonging that meant the world to him. And now my idiot brother is trying to horn in on my happy place, he thought sourly, keeping a wary eye on the serene-faced taiyoukai.
Sesshoumaru's vague plan scared the hell out of him, mostly because he had no idea what to expect. How's he supposed to make me trust him? That's stupid. Inuyasha would have loved to spoil whatever big plans his brother had by telling Kagome to ditch the bastard, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it. Especially not after this morning. The young woman had just about floated into the kitchen on a cloud of happiness, covered in Sesshoumaru's scent.
Even now, hours later, it was impossible to miss that she was in a good mood. He stole a glance at her face and his expression softened. I thought you were smarter than this, Kagome. What are you thinking, falling for the one person I hate most in the world? His ears slowly drooped at the thought. I don't want to lose you to him.
He was seriously considering offering Tetsusaiga to Sesshoumaru in order to get him to back off when he realized that Mrs. Higurashi was talking to him. "...won't that be fun, dear?"
"Huh?" he asked, blinking.
The woman gave him a look of fond exasperation, but Sesshoumaru butted in. "I am familiar with the process," he assured. "I will take responsibility."
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Taishou!" she exclaimed.
"You've done this before?" Kagome asked curiously.
"My mother liked sweets," Sesshoumaru stated matter-of-factly, accepting a large bowl of prepared rice from Mrs. Higurashi. Without another word of explanation, he moved towards the door, saying, "Come along, Inuyasha."
"You'll need this, dear," the older woman said, pressing a bowl of water into the hanyou's hands.
"If you say so," he replied dubiously, then trailed after his older brother, who smelled of shampoo and smugness. Souta joined them several moments later, buttoned into a warm jacket, wearing a hat and gloves, and carrying a large wooden mallet. The boy stood next to him while Sesshoumaru carefully inspected a large stone basin on a thick pedestal that looked sort of like a clunky bird bath. "What's with the new lawn ornament?" Inuyasha asked in an aside.
"Gramps had inu-no-niisama carry it out of the storeroom," Souta replied. "It's really heavy."
"What's it for?"
"Mochi," the boy replied simply.
"Surely you are familiar with something so basic," Sesshoumaru drawled.
"Of course I know what mochi is," Inuyasha grumbled. "It's just that they usually don't make it in the back yard." Looking to Souta for back-up, he said, "Your mom uses that little gizmo for mashing, and there's a lot of fan-waving involved."
"Mama said we haven't used this since Dad died, so I don't really remember doing it this way," the boy offered candidly.
Sesshoumaru dumped rice into the basin, then indicated that Inuyasha should take the mallet. "This process takes two people. You will use the mallet, and I will work the grains, monitoring the moisture content." Inuyasha frowned, then stepped up, hefting the big wooden hammer. "Temper your strength so you do not crack the stone," Sesshoumaru cautioned.
"Yeah, yeah... I know how to hold back." With care, he brought the mallet down on the heap of rice with a dull thud.
"Good," Sesshoumaru remarked, and as soon as Inuyasha drew it back for another blow, his hand darted into the basin, drawing the rice together. The mallet dropped, and again the taiyoukai pulled the pile back to the center. It didn't take long for the rhythm to be established.
"If you're too slow, do I get to break your fingers?" Inuyasha jibed.
Smirking faintly, his brother replied, "You may try... so long as the food does not suffer for the attempt."
With a glint in his eye, the hanyou picked up the pace. If he couldn't beat the crap out of his brother, at least he could beat the crap out of the rice. Setting his bare feet more comfortably on the snow-dusted paving stones, he put his back into it, systematically pulverizing the sweet rice until it formed a sticky glob. Sesshoumaru kept up with him, tugging the gummy substance away from the edges of the bowl and occasionally adding a splash of water with his fingertips. He seemed to know the consistency that was required, and for a time, that was all he watched.
However, somewhere along the way, the taiyoukai's golden eyes strayed, and with a start, Inuyasha realized that he was watching him with the strangest expression on his face. "Oi!" he snapped, pulling back when he actually came close to nailing Sesshoumaru's hand. Propping the mallet on his shoulder, he scowled and asked, "Is getting injured so Kagome can nurse your wounds a part of your evil plan, or are you actually spacing out?"
"Hnn," Sesshoumaru replied distractedly. He almost seemed surprised when he added, "Your form is nearly correct."
The taiyoukai's frowned and said, "You have the necessary confidence, and your strikes are consistent; however, your stance is off."
Inuyasha snorted. "Well excuse me. I didn't know there was a proper form for mochi-making."
Sesshoumaru's head tipped to one side, and there was an odd intensity in his eyes. "Not for making mochi, little brother... for crafting swords."
Kagome was dutifully chopping vegetables when her mother beckoned urgently to her. "Dear, come here... you have to see this."
"Are they...?" she began, then her gut tightened. "Oh, they're not fighting, are they?"
"Not at all," Mrs. Higurashi assured, her gaze fixed on something outside. "Now get over here!"
Wiping her hands on her apron, Kagome hurried over to peek out the window. "Erm... wow," she managed, eyes widening at the sight of two shirtless males. Heedless of mid-winter's bite, Sesshoumaru had freed his arms from his sleeves so that his kosode hung from his waist, baring his broad chest. Inuyasha's shirt had also been tossed aside, leaving the hanyou in jeans.
"He's a blacksmith?" Mrs. Higurashi inquired as Sesshoumaru's muscular arms flexed every time the mallet connected with the lump of rice that had formed in the basin.
"Swordsmith," Kagome corrected, fascinated beyond words by the twin magenta stripes that curved up over the taiyoukai's hip. Sesshoumaru handed off the mallet to Inuyasha, whose face showed grim determination. The hanyou brought the hammer down a couple of times, but then his brother interrupted him, jabbing a finger into his shoulder before making some kind of remark. Instead of blowing up, Inuyasha simply corrected his position and resumed. Giving a curt nod, Sesshoumaru turned his attention back to the mochi, giving the sticky mound inside the basin a quick turn before they established a rhythm.
"I think I'll start more rice," Mrs. Higurashi murmured.
"Do we need more mochi?" Kagome asked skeptically.
"Not really," her mother cheerfully admitted. "But that is something I want to encourage."
"Half-naked male bonding?"
As Souta streaked past the window without his shirt, too, Mrs. Higurashi chuckled. "It's nice to see them cooperating for a change."
Discretely ogling her would-be suitor, Kagome murmured, "Yes... very nice."
Sesshoumaru sat at the dining room table and stared at the newspaper without actually seeing any of the words. In spite of his assertions to the contrary, he was rather surprised with how well Inuyasha was responding to his overtures. Though the hanyou still scowled as much as always, his attitude had shifted from outspoken anger to cautious silence. There was no denying that this was progress, and Sesshoumaru knew how to be patient... but... Kagome is human. I do not have the luxury of decades for him to adjust.
Past experience gave him little to work with, for Sesshoumaru was more accustomed to tearing down opponents than building trust. One thing has become clear though. It is easier to gain the trust of someone who wants to believe. It was strange to think that Inuyasha might have been hoping for reconciliation all along. His brother wasn't someone you could push, though. For today, I will wait and see. It would be best if he came to me.
Just then, Inuyasha strolled into the room. For a moment, Sesshoumaru thought that his brother had actually sought him out, but then it became clear that the hanyou was simply carrying something for Kagome's mother. Mrs. Higurashi graced him with a pleasant smile, then set about changing the centerpiece on the table.
There were two cakes of the mochi he and Inuyasha had produced the day before, one slightly larger than the other. These were placed one on top of the other, with greenery tucked in around them. After some fussing, she added paper streamers, then topped the whole thing with a single, perfect orange. Once she was satisfied with arrangement, she quietly excused herself to the kitchen, leaving the brothers alone together.
"Oi... I've got a question," Inuyasha announced in a low voice. Sesshoumaru's brow arched inquiringly, and the hanyou blurted, "If Kagome was crazy enough to accept you... what would it do to her?"
"Yeah, you know," he muttered uncomfortably. "Would she live?"
Sesshoumaru's eyes widened in understanding, and he couldn't believe he'd overlooked such an obvious incentive. If Inuyasha dug in his heels, he could keep the Higurashis to himself for a handful of decades, but time would take its toll... and he would be alone again. However, if he allowed his brother to take his best friend for his mate, she would enjoy a youkai's lifespan. Inclining his head, Sesshoumaru replied, "It will be the same for her as it was for your mother."
The hanyou mulled that over for a few moments, his expression flickering through several emotions before settling on annoyance. "Damn it all... it's no good."
Surprised again, Sesshoumaru asked, "In what sense?"
"On the one hand, you're a bastard, and you don't deserve someone like Kagome," he said bluntly. Eying his brother, he continued, "On the other hand, it hurts like hell to think of losing her one day, but what kind of friend would I be if I saddled her with you for eternity."
"I am a fate worse than death?" Sesshoumaru asked lightly.
Inuyasha took the question seriously. "You're a selfish bastard, acting on your own interests," he accused. "Myouga goes on and on about your honor, an honorable son pursuing an honorable trade, but I just don't see it. You abandoned everything because you found something you wanted more. You're a piss poor excuse for an alpha, so you're better off alone."
He expected me to assume Father's role?
Growling softly to himself, the hanyou bitterly demanded, "How do I know you won't abandon Kagome one day... like you did me?"
He did. Sesshoumaru fought a grimace as he realized just how many disappointed expectations his brother must be harboring. How inconvenient.
"Which is why this whole damned mess is no good," Inuyasha said, bringing the conversation full circle. "If I keep looking at what I want instead of what Kagome wants, I'll just end up being a selfish bastard like you."
His assertion was a slap in the face that sent Sesshoumaru back to square one. Inuyasha was willing to bend to Kagome's wishes in an act of selflessness... which worked in his favor, but the hanyou clearly didn't trust him... which could destroy all his plans.
With great care, Sesshoumaru curbed his anger. I can do nothing about the past, but what I do now will shape the future. Folding his hands together over the unread newspaper, he chose his words with care. "I see. You do not think me capable of keeping an oath."
Sesshoumaru lifted his chin, then quietly inquired, "What promise did I break?"
He held his brother's gaze and kept his tone neutral. "It is true that I did not live up to your expectations," he conceded. "However, you cannot hold me accountable for the promises you wished me to make."
Inuyasha opened and closed his mouth, then growled, "That's just an excuse, and you damned well know it."
Sesshoumaru went so far as to incline his head. Blood carried its own obligations, no matter what was left unsaid. "Then I shall make you a promise."
"What kind of promise?" Inuyasha asked, his ears sloping forward.
"I give you my word that I will never abandon Kagome."
"Sounds more like a threat," his brother muttered sullenly.
Smirking faintly, Sesshoumaru agreed, "It is indeed an ominous pledge to make."
"How do you figure?"
"The keeping of it will likely mean that I am saddled with you for eternity."
Later that afternoon, after Inuyasha and Sesshoumaru lugged two impressive arrangements of bamboo and pine into position on either side of the front door, everything was declared ready for the big day. Grandpa Higurashi was in high spirits, for Kagome's two guests had made it possible to do a more thorough cleaning than the shrine had seen in at least two decades. Clapping his hands together, the old man announced that they would celebrate with a year-forgetting party. "We'll put the past where it belongs and give the coming year a fresh start!"
Mrs. Higurashi just smiled and nodded, but Kagome laughed and accused, "You just want an excuse to break out that big bottle of saké!"
The old man harrumphed, but he didn't deny it.
As far as parties went, theirs was pretty tame. The Higurashis had few worries and even fewer regrets, so they mostly rehearsed highlights from the past year and laughed over embarrassing moments. Souta brought out some of the games they always played at this time of year, and before long, there was a stiff competition underway between brothers. Kagome ferried plates of snacks from the kitchen at odd intervals, and Mrs. Higurashi kept the saké cups topped off.
When bedtime was finally declared, Kagome dropped onto her mattress with a contented sigh. Everyone was having fun... even Inuyasha. I know he'd make amends for my sake, but it would be better if he made amends for his own sake. As she began to doze, she rethought her thought, wondering which brother it applied to more. Too close to call, she decided before drifting off.
The barely-discernible click of her bedroom door closing woke her. As a gentle wash of youki identified her visitor, she smiled and murmured, "I thought there was a guard posted outside my door to prevent intruders from disrupting my sleep."
"Hnn," Sesshoumaru replied, managing to sound chagrined. In the dark, she felt him kneel beside her bed, and she turned her head towards the sound of his voice. "I was thinking of your strange human tradition. If you have forgotten all of the events of this past year, it is my duty to remind you of a few of them."
Kagome's brows drew together. "Is this about our year-forgetting party?"
A soft hum acknowledged her question, and then he quietly announced, "My name is Sesshoumaru."
With a soft giggle, she retorted, "I may have had a little saké, but I'm not so tipsy that I've forgotten your name."
Ignoring her protestation, he continued with impressive formality. "This Sesshoumaru wishes to court you."
"I know that as well," she said with a huff.
He drew close enough that she could feel his warmth. "I am still awaiting your answer."
"I remember that, too... along with the condition I set."
Lips grazed her temple, and he inquired, "Will you truly reject me if I cannot meet it?"
"Yes," she whispered. A soft sigh gave her the impression of frustration, so she tried to give him a little encouragement. "He's a nice guy, you know. Not the easiest person to understand, but I'm beginning to think he gets that from his father's side of the family."
"You do not understand me?" he inquired incredulously. "I made my intentions clear."
Kagome giggled softly. I don't think he's used to being teased. Reaching for him, her fingertips brushed through a curtain of hair before finding his face. Laying her hand against his cheek, she answered, "Your intentions, yes. Your reasons for those intentions, not so much."
"Hnn," he hummed, sounding thoughtful this time.
Pulling back her hand, she said, "I'm sure you can find a way to make a fresh start with your brother. After all, you have more in common than blood."
That gave him pause, but he finally murmured, "Sleep now." Punctuating his command with a brief kiss, he withdrew with an almost imperceptible rustle of cloth and hair; when he next spoke, he was already by her door. "I will not forget what you have said," he promised, and the door clicked shut.
In the wee hours of the last day of the year, Inuyasha jolted out of a restless sleep when a vague sense of danger spurred him from his dreams. Wha...? He looked around wildly, ears swiveling as he took stock of his surroundings. Souta was sprawled on his back, one foot sticking out of his covers, but that certainly wasn't cause for alarm. Distractedly pulling the boy's blankets back into place, he narrowed his eyes at the door, concentrating hard. Slowly, his eyebrows lifted, and he crept forward. Sliding the panel open, he gawked at the demon posted outside. He's sitting outside the wrong bedroom! Sidling past Sesshoumaru, he slid Souta's door shut before demanding, "What in the hell are you doing out here?"
His older brother blinked placidly before answering, "Keeping watch."
Dark brows furrowed. "I don't need watching."
"You need training," Sesshoumaru countered.
Inuyasha dropped to a crouch in front of the taiyoukai. Keeping his voice low, he retorted, "I can hold my own against you, and you know it!"
Sesshoumaru shook his head and corrected the course of the conversation. "I spoke to Kagome. She suggests building a future on something other than brotherhood. Her words have merit."
Silvery ears pricked forward. "Isn't that kind of dumb? I mean, the only reason we ever see each other at all is because we're brothers. It's part of our old man's will."
The taiyoukai watched him closely as he announced, "I have attained my mastery, which means it is within my rights to take on an apprentice."
Surprise slowly turned to anger, and Inuyasha scowled at his brother. "You can't bribe me!"
"Bribery is not my intent," Sesshoumaru replied calmly. "This is an entirely separate matter."
"Keh... like I'm supposed to believe that."
Sesshoumaru leaned forward, nearly causing his brother to lose his balance. "Even if she refused me, I would still train you."
"Why?" Inuyasha asked skeptically. "From what I've heard, you can't just pull a demon sword out of your ass. You need power."
"You need finesse," Sesshoumaru corrected. "Most youkai are deaf to the things you hear."
"I'm not hearing things," he muttered grumpily, mostly just to argue.
"You listen to your blade, which is as it should be," his brother pointed out. "You hear mine, which is uncanny. With training, you could call other swords into being."
"Hnn... blades with a clear voice and a fierce will. I am sure they will be as annoying as you are."
"Oi," Inuyasha protested, albeit halfheartedly. Silence lengthened between them, and he finally said, "Lemme think about it."
Sesshoumaru nodded once, then remarked, "If you refuse to learn from me, then go to Totosai."
More than anything, that assured the hanyou that his brother was serious. Inuyasha darted back into Souta's room as quickly as he could, wanting to get away before the taiyoukai caught a whiff of the giddy excitement that had his gut doing backflips. Judging by the small huff of amusement that reached Inuyasha's ears just as the door clicked shut, the bastard knew.
As soon as the sun was up, Grandpa was out the door and in his glory. The old man loved all the hubbub that New Year's generated, and he took pleasure in making sure that every little detail was ready for the thousands of people who would be visiting the Sunset Shrine over the next few days. Since many people made a point to celebrate the turning of the year at a shrine, they would be lining up a couple hours before midnight.
Normally, Kagome would be right there with her family, but she'd been excused from her usual spot on the duty roster. "Are you sure, Mama?" she asked worriedly. "There are always so many little things to take care of!"
"We have plenty of extra help lined up, and they'll be here soon," Mrs. Higurashi assured. "It's more important for you to see to our guests. The day is bound to be a long one for them, so keep them company."
With a small sigh, Kagome nodded her consent. At breakfast that morning, her mother had politely requested that the taiyoukai and hanyou confine themselves to the house for the time being. Demons were rare enough to be mysterious, and while most people held them in awe, there were those who would see their presence at the shrine as an ill omen. There was no denying that human tradition included ceremonies for driving them out.
"Yeah, yeah," Inuyasha had said, waving off the apologies. "I know the drill, and I'll lay low for a while. Don't worry; I'm used to it."
"You shouldn't have to be," Kagome had argued... but they all knew it wouldn't change anything. There were too many superstitions and too few youkai.
Thankfully, Gramps doesn't do the 'Demon, be gone!' thing any more, and I'll certainly never ward the shrine against youkai. Shaking herself to keep from dwelling on an old frustration, Kagome studied the tea leaves lingering at the bottom of her teacup. I know I wouldn't mind if the first thing I saw on New Year's morning was a demon. Actually, she'd begun hoping she could enjoy that sort of thing all year round.
When the extra workers started gathering out front, Mrs. Higurashi excused herself, taking Souta along as errand boy... and leaving Kagome alone with two bored-looking males. Inuyasha was stationed beside the window, keeping a covert eye on the sudden influx of strangers in the courtyard. "I always feel more cooped up when I know I can't get outside," he remarked.
"Let's play a game to pass the time," Kagome suggested.
"What kind?" Inuyasha asked, glancing skeptically at his older brother, who still sat at the table. Sesshoumaru looked up from his reading and suggested, "Shogi?"
Kagome wrinkled her nose. "Too much strategy. Old Maid?"
The taiyoukai shook his head firmly. "Too much chance."
With a mischievous smile, she coyly asked, "Tag?"
Inuyasha did a double-take when he realized his brother was actually considering it.
As afternoon lengthened towards evening, Kagome brought a tray of tea to the dining room. Sesshoumaru had finished the newspaper and was idly flipping through a magazine. She sat down next to him, and Inuyasha wandered over and grabbed the seat across from her. Though she tried to think of something to talk about that would interest both of them, so was coming up empty. The past is a touchy subject, and so's the future. What's left?
Inuyasha interrupted the conversational limbo by pushing a folded sheet of paper across the table and cocking a brow at her. Giving him a puzzled look, she unfolded the note and read the message. 'Talk to me. On paper.'
Amused, she waved for him to hand her his pen. They hadn't passed notes since school days, but it had always been a great way to make it through a boring lecture. 'Low tech texting?' she wrote back.
Inuyasha read the message, smirked, then started writing. The note he passed back said, 'The bastard's got hella sensitive ears, so it's not like I can get a private word otherwise!'
Kagome giggled and glanced at Sesshoumaru, whose golden eyes slanted her way. It was almost as good as passing notes right under a teacher's nose. Okay, this is kind of fun! Offering the taiyoukai a cherubic smile, she responded to Inuyasha's message. 'You just want to tease your brother!'
'Hell yeah!' he replied in bold letters. 'So... why him?'
'That's a very personal question.'
'Duh. That's why I'm asking it in a way he can't overhear!'
Kagome shook her head and jotted, 'Wonderful. Passing notes. You're adding a touch of middle school drama to my love life.'
'Stop whining and answer me. Are you stringing him along?'
Rolling her eyes dramatically, she responded, 'Oh, sure. I toy with the hearts of men.'
'Watch it, girl. That's the heart of a demon you're messing with. Which is kind of an oxymoron. Still, the bastard doesn't play around.'
Kagome reread the note a few times, then answered, 'Give me some credit, Inuyasha. I wouldn't string him along any more than you did me.'
The hanyou's expression clouded, and he gave her a sheepish look over the top of the paper. When it was pushed back, his answer was in very small letters. 'You got over it. Thank goodness. No offense.'
Kagome's high school crush on Inuyasha was something they'd never really talked about. It had taken her a long time to get used to the idea that he loved her more than anyone... but not in the way she'd hoped. To be perfectly honest, she'd still harbored a few faint hopes in her heart. With a sad smile, she let him off the hook. 'I suppose it was puppy love. Must have been the ears.'
He scanned her message, then waggled his ears at her, making her laugh. Sesshoumaru was openly staring now, and the two friends ducked their heads like a couple of naughty children. 'Be serious!' he scrawled.
'I am!' she defended, and in tiny text, she added, 'You may have noticed, my tastes haven't changed much.'
The hanyou blinked at the note, snuck a look at his brother, then muttered a small, "Keh."
Sesshoumaru had returned to assiduously ignoring them, but he didn't seem angry. Not wanting the taiyoukai to be entirely left out of the fun, Kagome pushed a tiny burst of spiritual energy his way. He neither batted an eye nor returned the favor, but while Inuyasha was busy composing his next message, the taiyoukai shifted so that his leg rested against hers.
Kagome had to turn the sheet of paper sideways to find the words Inuyasha squeezed in. 'Aren't you kinda rushing things?'
Folding over the sheet, she started writing on the back. 'He's only asking to court me. Surely that means we'll have time to get to know each other.'
'He's a bastard. What else do you need to know?'
'Everything,' she countered, smiling serenely.
Her best friend huffed. 'There's several centuries of everything... and not all of it's pretty.'
'But he's pretty.'
With a grimace, Inuyasha responded, 'Okay... now you're just messing with me!'
'Of course!' she acknowledged, eyes sparkling.
Inuyasha's eyes brightened, and he excitedly wrote a few lines. 'So if you loved me first... does that mean the bastard's getting my leftovers?'
Kagome's eyebrow twitched, and she layered just enough power into her one-word response to zing the hanyou's fingertips. 'Leftovers?'
He muttered a few choice words under his breath as he penned a retort. 'Oi... if you can come up with a better bright side to this, I'm listening.'
She tapped the pen against her chin as she considered a response. Inuyasha waited with his arms smugly folded over his chest. Searching his face, she realized something... and jotted down her answer. 'You're happy.'
He stared at the words for several moments, then shot her a look of incredible vulnerability. She met it with a gentle smile, and he fidgeted before dropping his gaze. Denial never came, and with great care, Inuyasha folded the paper once more and jammed it into his pocket for safekeeping.
They slurped extra-long soba noodles at dinnertime, and Mrs. Higurashi brought out beautifully arranged boxes of traditional delicacies. When she and Grandpa returned to their posts, Souta stayed back and flipped on the television to the annual New Year's Eve broadcast. Just like every year, Kagome cheered for the red team and Souta cheered for the white team during the epic singing competition.
While the Higurashi siblings enjoyed the show, their guests quietly exchanged a few words. "Have you reached a decision?" Sesshoumaru inquired.
Inuyasha sighed and said, "How about you do whatever the hell you want, and I'll do whatever the hell I want. Same as always."
"And what do you want?" the taiyoukai asked evenly.
Dropping all signs of bluster, Inuyasha scratched an ear before cautiously admitting, "I was kinda thinking I might like to look around that forge where you were trained." When Sesshoumaru inclined his head, the hanyou relaxed somewhat. "Maybe you could introduce me to the old coot who made Tetsusaiga... and you could show me some stuff."
"That can be arranged."
"I'm not making any promises," Inuyasha hastily announced. "But... yeah."
Sesshoumaru merely nodded again before letting his gaze drift towards Kagome. "Then you approve?"
The hanyou's ears laid back, but he grudgingly allowed, "I don't disapprove."
At midnight the bells began to toll, and by three in the morning, Souta was nodding off. Inuyasha carried the sleepily protesting boy upstairs to tuck him in. Stifling a yawn, Kagome moved to turn on the tea kettle, but Sesshoumaru caught her hand. "Put on something warmer," he commanded. "We are going outside."
"But... you need to stay out of sight."
"No one will see us."
The gleam in his eyes stirred her heart, driving away all vestiges of tiredness. "Give me a few minutes," she replied, then hurried upstairs.
While she rummaged in her closet, Inuyasha poked his head into the room and knowingly asked, "Going somewhere?"
"Erm... yeah." Kagome gave him a flustered glance and begged, "Will you keep an eye on Souta?"
"Keh... of course," he replied gruffly. "I promised to wake him in time to see the sunrise."
"Oh, good." Smiling shakily, she whispered, "How do I look?"
Giving her scarf a tug and her head a pat, he smirked faintly and said, "Happy."
After slipping out the back door, Sesshoumaru gently gathered Kagome into his arms and darted along the edge of the property, well beyond the reach of all the extra lights that greeted those making their annual pilgrimage. Voices carried in the chill night air—chatting neighbors, laughing friends, chanted prayers. Periodically, Kagome could hear the ringing of the bell in front of the shrine, along with the clapping of hands. When Sesshoumaru slipped around the corner of the main shrine, she even caught the jingle of coins as they clattered through the grate over the offering box.
In one breathtaking swoop, the taiyoukai carried her up the stairs of one of the outbuildings, raised the catch, and slid the door open far enough to whisk her over the threshold. By the time Kagome had her bearings and realized which building they must be in, Sesshoumaru closed the door and carried her partway down the steps. "The well house?" she asked dubiously.
"An apt description," he remarked, settling her on one of the steps before continuing down. She could hear the soft scuff of his sandals on the dirt floor below as he circled the low wooden structure. "There is nothing else of interest in the building. It is not even used for storage, and yet I was asked to clean it."
"Oh! Erm... sorry about that. Grandpa went a little overboard this year." From her perch she glanced around, but it was useless. Even with her eyes adjusting, she couldn't make out anything. "I'm sure you did a great job."
"Can you see?" he asked blandly, his voice coming from a different corner than the last time.
Kagome blinked and corrected the direction she'd been looking. "Not really," she admitted. A little light leaked through the seams between boards on the wall facing the main courtyard, but the well house was tucked off in the corner. "Dawn won't reach in here, either," she said ruefully.
"I will take you to where you can see the sun in time to witness its rising."
A gentle surge of youki blossomed before her, rising around Sesshoumaru in eddies of illumination. "What a good idea," she gasped.
"Hnn." He paced off the perimeter once more, but his solemn gaze never left her face. Finally, he declared. "Inuyasha does not disapprove of my intentions towards you."
Clasping her hands together in her lap, she asked, "He trusts you?"
"Not unreservedly," Sesshoumaru admitted. "However, he believes I will keep the promises I make... including any I make to you."
"Good," she offered shyly. "I'm glad for both of you."
The taiyoukai's chin lifted and he inquired, "You acknowledge my success?"
There was a sharpness to his tone, and she knew that her answer would dictate whatever happened next. "Yes," she agreed softly. "I'm pleased with your success."
With fluid grace, Sesshoumaru approached the old wooden stairs and planted his hands on the board on which her feet rested. Leaning forward, he held her gaze. "I have fulfilled your requirement."
"Mm-hmm," Kagome managed. Words escaped her as he prowled upwards, pressing her backwards so the edges of steps above her prodded her in uncomfortable places. He did not stop until he was stretched over her, not quite touching, but unmistakably poised. Even through her coat, she could feel his heat, and her spiritual powers stirred in response to the impressive aura overshadowing hers. She braced her hands on his chest... and immediately experienced a sense of déjà vu from the first time he'd encountered her innate purity. Although she kept a tight hold on those simmering energies now, Kagome knew he'd felt them buck in protest. Thankfully, he wasn't offended; if anything, he seemed pleased.
Sesshoumaru's lids drooped, showing off the bold slashes of color that marked them. "So I will ask you again," he said, his voice rich with confidence. "Will you accept a youkai suitor?"
An instinctual surge of pride burst through the inu-youkai's chest as the female he'd chosen whispered her acceptance. Her power was strong enough to have earned his respect. Her loyalty was stubborn enough to have bent his will. Her trust was complete enough to accept the ardor of a predator. I must bind her to my side.
Sesshoumaru claimed his first kiss of the new year, delighting in the heady combination of bright purity and dusky passion. Kagome's arms wound around his neck, and she sighed softly against his mouth. He paused and sought her gaze, only to find it hazy with pleasure. Yes, mine.
With a deep rumble of approval, he pulled her tightly against his body, then reversed their positions so that she straddled his lap. Yes, more. Winding the fingers of one hand into her hair, he drew her lips back to his, smiling into another languid kiss. Already, a plan was forming. Their courtship would be perfect in every particular, acknowledging every inu-youkai tradition. That was only right and proper for one of his nobility; however, he would accomplish it all in a fraction of the time frittered upon lesser females. Yes, swiftly.
Today, he would court Kagome. One day is all I need; by day's end, she will be mine.
~ Happy New Year ~
End Note: Posted on December 31, 2010. 13,106 words.