Author's Notes: Hello, everyone! Here's the long-awaited Chapter Twelve. Things are now officially starting to move forward. There's a plan in the works for our little band, and I'm going to have a lot of fun writing it.
I'll keep the personal notes short this time around so everyone can get to reading. But suffice it to say, there are some exciting things on the horizon for me. I've been invited for a live audition in London at the end of April/beginning of May. This is a great opportunity! Plus I have a competition I'm preparing for in Seattle, and a few other auditions to boot. Overall things are moving in the proper direction musically, but it's meant I've been up to my eyeballs in work both with that and with the office I'm managing.
Hopefully things are now starting to slow down so I can get back to posting more regularly for all of you.
Thank you so much for all the reviews and messages, it's very much appreciated. Enjoy!
Title: In Search of Eden
Rating: M - Violence, Language, and Sexual Situations
Disclaimer: I don't own Inuyasha. And any similarities to other existing stories is entirely unintentional and coincidental. This story is based originally on an earlier work, titled 'Impossible Dreams', and that work, like this one, belongs to me. Please do not plagiarize.
What little camaraderie Kagome might have felt with Inuyasha after that day in the field was eroded by reality fairly rapidly. And any attempts she might have made to reconcile with the former slaves also were inevitably shoved aside as everyone instead simply banded together to survive.
It took a mere three days to run out of what little food had been recovered from the storehouses and the ruins of the mansion. On the fourth day, Inuyasha and the other demons (whose diamond shards had all been removed by Kagome) went on their first daylong expedition to find food. On the morning of the ninth day they went out again. And on the evening of the fifteenth they returned with very little, barely enough to last another week. The acreage of the Shinto Estate was vast, but it didn't have limitless supplies of game for hunting, and Taro Higurashi had not produced livestock…he'd been a producer of wheat, corn, and other produce. Much of that produce had already been sold for profit, and what few animals he'd possessed had long since been killed and used for food.
What was worse, their news of the outside world so far was grim: there were no wild, untamed places any more, at least not nearby; everything was fenced and gated and 'owned' by various masters, and venturing onto said properties risked discovery. Inuyasha and the others had confirmed this with Kagome, who admitted that on the few trips she'd made to the outside, there had been fences everywhere. Trying to venture onto any of these other lands to get more food put them at risk of discovery, and that was the one thing everyone agreed would be a bad thing.
But that having been said, they couldn't just stay at the ruined Estate indefinitely either, even if there was a miraculously discovered wealth of food and supplies to keep them going. It had been Kagome who pointed this out to the others, even though most of the slaves were disinclined to listen to her or trust anything she said. And unfortunately her words were logical enough they couldn't be ignored forever.
So far it appeared the rest of the world was unaware of what had taken place on the Shinto Estate; not surprising, since Taro Higurashi had been such a quiet, solitary man. He'd had few enemies, certainly, but he'd also kept even fewer friends. Preferring the solitude of his Estate to facing the realities of the rest of the world. But Kagome knew that couldn't last forever. First, her father's new horses were slated to arrive within the month; whoever did the delivering would discover a ruined house and an abandoned estate and easily deduce what had happened. And second (and more important), the Nasaki family had notified all of their acquaintances when they'd sought shelter with the Higurashis. Kagome figured it was a miracle nothing had come for them yet, and that any day letters could arrive, which would leave them with a major dilemma. If they killed the carrier who brought the letters, he would be reported missing within a few days, and everything would eventually be traced back to the estate. If they let him live he'd report what he had seen immediately, on pain of death if he otherwise remained silent.
Either way, it would result in the swift, brutal punishment of the slaves by the soldiers. There was no question what would happen; none would live long enough to regret any of their decisions.
Such a reality left a somber, quiet, reflective atmosphere as people went about their daily chores. Trying to keep a false sense of normalcy even as they were clearly struggling to not panic. Mothers comforting their children, and husbands trying to reassure wives all would be well. Some talked about surrender by the time real hunger started to set in. Desperate for food and willing to do anything to get it, they proposed throwing themselves on the mercy of the system. On the opposite end some of the younger slaves talked about more violence; about taking over neighboring estates and expanding their lands and in the process gaining more food and shelter for their own.
Still, for most of the rational heads in the group, including Kagome, the answer was obvious: they would have to leave. The longer they remained, the more they risked discovery. At least if they were gone by the time the revolt was discovered, they would have a chance of hiding from those who would be dispatched to 'retrieve and punish' them. Still, having tried to voice such an opinion multiple times and then having been ignored by the other slaves, Kagome remained silent on the matter. Recognizing they didn't want anything to do with her, and so instead going about her work and for the most part keeping to herself.
It was clear the others were trying to punish her. Giving her some of the harder menial labor tasks, such as fetching water from the well or chopping and carrying firewood. Tasks that caused her hands to bleed even as the ashes from the fire put gray on her cheeks and mud put dirt on the hem of her dress. Her feet were blistered from the uncomfortable, tough leather of the boots she was now wearing; a far cry from the silk slippers she'd always worn in the mansion. And the dress itself, which had been given to her once it was clear she couldn't work indefinitely in a nightgown, was made of wool, the material scratchy and uncomfortable on her neck and arms. Leaving her red and itchy by the end of each day.
Kagome knew they were testing her. Knew they were waiting for her to break down and cry. And she refused. Stubbornly seeing it for the test it was, and determined to pass. It wasn't about acceptance from them any longer; it was about proving to herself she could do it. It was about making sure she could look each of them in the eye and feel no shame. Inuyasha himself had accused her of being stupid; of not understanding the world for what it truly was. And now every blister…every callous…every ache and pain and mosquito bite was her way of proving them all wrong.
She was determined to succeed, in spite of everyone else.
And there was an upside to working so hard; she quickly discovered that she was so exhausted she couldn't think about any of her grief come day's end. Tired enough she slept through the night without being haunted by dreams. Faces from the past leaving her alone as she simply lived day-to-day and tried to survive. And for that, at least, she was grateful. Not once did she let herself think about the reality that Hojo probably wouldn't recognize her now if he passed her on the street. She didn't contemplate what her father might think if he saw his daughter now with bloody hands and blistered feet. There was no point; and any time such thoughts dared to creep into her subconscious, she firmly slammed the door and refused to let them in.
Not that it was always bad. Sango or Kouga were frequently there trying to help her carry the burden. Kouga in particular, without his diamond shard, could now do far more with his superior demon strength, speed, and agility. Numerous times he'd come upon her carrying water from the well, and had taken the bucket out of her hands. Proceeding to run back and forth between the pots and the well with dizzying speed until all were filled, and having it done in one-tenth the amount of time it would have taken Kagome.
She was always grateful when he played the part of her hero, but naturally he couldn't always be there; he was often away hunting and searching for food. And likewise Sango had her own tasks to do. So Kagome did her best to work without expectation of help from anyone. A humbling experience, to be sure; Kagome learned very quickly that Inuyasha had been right…she knew how to do very little. Even the tasks her mother had taught her to do paled in comparison to what these slaves did every single day, and it was a daily struggle not to feel overwhelmed by shame.
No wonder they'd mocked her for her attempts to help them. She'd truly not understood.
Perhaps in the past there had been paid servants, rather than slaves, doing the washing and the cooking and helping her father with the farming, but there had still been an entire class of people she'd not understood at all. An entire class of people she'd taken for granted. Kagome had done work before, it was true…but it had been a choice. She and her mother could have at any moment chosen not to mend their own clothes. Could have chosen not to get out of bed, and instead delegated their tasks. But those of the servant classes, and then later the greater population of slaves…they'd had no choice. Sick or not, they had to work. Tired or not, they had to work. And Kagome felt that inevitability now on her own shoulders. It was oppressive and stifling in some ways, yet in others she almost found it liberating. Because it meant she had no time to think. She had to work; therefore grief would just have to wait its turn.
Currently she was trying to stoke the fire beneath the pot where she was helping prepare dinner. Trying to milk the last bit of juice and flavor out of the bones of rabbits caught four days ago. There weren't any chunks of meat left; this broth wouldn't do much to assuage hunger. And Kagome dreaded the empty pangs of hunger she'd be feeling come morning. It was a new experience for her; she'd never had to wonder about where her next meal would come from before.
Crouched down as she was, trying to coax the flames a little higher and brighter without having to use more wood (she'd already learned that lesson the hard way when another woman had snapped at her for 'wasting' wood when all she had to do was stoke the fire herself), Kagome felt a muscle give way in her back and moaned softly as she stood up. A sharp pain running up and down her spine and leaving her feeling the effects of over two weeks of hard labor on a body unaccustomed to such work.
Arching backwards, she winced as she tried to work out the kinks in her muscles.
"We don't rest until everyone's fed," one of the older women barked as she came into the room, which was one of the slave huts converted instead into a mass production kitchen. "Stand up, girl, and get back to it."
Kagome had heard this woman speak in such a way to all the others, so she knew it wasn't necessarily a personal attack, but even so she felt tears of frustration threatening in the corners of her eyes as she went back to the pot and stirred. Checking on their pathetic attempt at soup and biting back the retort at the tip of her tongue; desperate to point out to that woman she'd not stopped moving all day long. But it would only start a fight, and she wasn't interested in fighting. She was tired of fighting. So she said nothing.
"Have the hunters returned yet?" She finally dared to ask, careful to keep her eyes on the pot.
The other woman, middle aged, robust, and with a weathered face that showed she'd not been permitted to age very well courtesy of the hard life she'd lived, just sighed. "Yes. And empty-handed, I might add."
Biting her lip, Kagome ignored the way her stomach rumbled as though in protest of that revelation. Mourning the food it wouldn't be having that night. "I see."
The woman, called Noriko, paused in her work and turned to study Kagome intently. "Is that all you have to say?"
Surprised, Kagome looked up. "What else am I supposed to say?"
Shrugging her wide shoulders, Noriko plopped several pieces of laundry into a pot of boiling water and began stirring them with a large wooden paddle. "You're bound to know more about these sorts of things than us, educated as you are about the world as it is today. I just thought you'd have more of an opinion about what should be done."
Biting her lip, Kagome tried to dole out her words carefully. But in the end her response sounded petty, even to her own ears. "People have made it very clear they don't want to hear my opinion. They'd rather I just disappear. So I'm doing my best to oblige them."
Noriko gave an undignified snort at that, dropping the paddle and placing her hands on her hips with a raised eyebrow. "I didn't have you pegged as a girl who'd give up so easily." Kagome blushed but refused to look up. This drew a little laugh from the older woman. "Come on, girl…you had to expect some of them would want to put you through your paces. That shouldn't mean you suddenly have no right to speak though, should it?"
"No, but I…"
"Don't be petty or stubborn. You've been working hard. I've seen it. You have every right to stare them in the face and demand to be heard." Seeming to recall herself, the older woman looked away again and returned to washing clothes in the boiling pot of water before her. Lice had become an issue without proper sanitation, and they were now trying to remedy the problem.
Silence filled the space for a time, other than the sounds of sloshing water, but it wasn't an unpleasant silence. Until finally Noriko spoke again, not looking up this time. Her face reddened by exposure to the steam coming off the surface of the water. "And anyway, you can't take all of this too personally. I speak to you the same way I speak to anyone. I don't have time for small talk, and I don't have time to tiptoe around feelings. I think you'd find most of the others are the same way. It's nothing personal; we just have a lot that needs doing, and no time to waste getting it done." Her voice went quiet. "And…everyone is afraid. No one is at their best when afraid."
It was quite possibly the kindest thing anyone had said to her in weeks, and Kagome felt a little smile flicker over her face as she looked on the older woman with gratitude. "I'll try to keep that in mind," she said at last. "And come to think of it, I do have a few thoughts…" She shot the older woman a meaningful look.
"Oh, and what might that be?" Noriko did an admirable job of pretending she wasn't interested.
"Well…my father had already sold most of his crops for the winter. That means there's an awful lot of money sitting in his bank accounts right now." She spoke slowly, watching Noriko for a response, and seeing the precise moment when the other woman understood what she was saying.
A slow smile spread over the former slave's face. "You do have a few ideas, don't you?"
Kagome returned the smile while wiping her hands on her apron and stepping back to look at the pot with a sigh. "Regardless of that, I'm out of ideas for what to do with this soup. It'll have to do."
Noriko nodded with a grunt. "Yes, I suppose it will. Serve yourself a bowl and go take a break. I'll call the others in to eat."
Grateful for the chance at a bit of solitude, Kagome didn't have to be told twice as she ladled a small helping into a mug and moved away from the pot. Relishing the cool air as she stepped outside and let it hit her face.
Winter was a bad time to be without food or shelter, there was no question…but after stoking fires all afternoon and working over boiling pots of water, Kagome was ready for a chance to cool down. Grabbing a shawl that was hanging off a hook near the door, she wrapped it over her shoulders and took her mug with her as she moved towards the garden. Figuring she'd sit with her parents for a while in silence…but she didn't get that far. Instead she paused as she saw the hunters in a group nearby, and among them a familiar head of silver hair caught her attention.
Whatever pleasant mood she'd been feeling vanished as she saw the man. She'd hardly spoken to him in the weeks since she'd purified his shard, and that wasn't by her own choice. It was more because of him. One fight was all it had taken to drive a wedge between them again. He'd stormed in, angry as an avenging angel at the sight of blisters on her hands, and she'd yelled back that he couldn't save her from a hard day's work. Everyone else had to pull their weight, so she would too.
Suffice it to say, the argument hadn't ended well.
Why couldn't he understand that she had to work? Why couldn't he see that any special treatment she received only ended up causing her pain in the end when the others treated her with mistrust and disrespect? Her best chance at fitting in was putting blisters on her hands and calluses on her feet like everyone else. Yet he'd been upset about it, for reasons that left her baffled. What had she done? Wasn't this what he'd wanted from her? Hadn't he always been insisting she needed to get down in the dirt with the rest of them?
First he'd mocked her for being too clean and pretty and polished…and yet now he was just as upset about her working in the mud. Damned if she could figure the man out.
Unfortunately since that fight he'd been avoiding her, clearly angry…and it broke her heart. Emotionally, fool that she was she was still drawn to the man. She wanted to be closer to him. She wanted to know him…to understand him; hating that she still felt like there was a wall between them, erected by him to keep her out of his life.
In the end, to protect herself she'd been avoiding him lately as a result as well. Not giving him the chance to walk away from her, because she'd walk away first. Petty, perhaps, but it's all she could think of.
She intended to do that again here, figuring she'd just walk by the group and go on her way, but before she could, Kouga spotted her. "Kagome!" He called out her name, and all the hunters turned as one to look at her…including Inuyasha.
She couldn't exactly keep walking now, could she?
His eyes left her feeling naked, as though he could read her every thought and feeling, and she was uncomfortable. Torn as she wanted to rush off and pretend she'd not heard anyone say her name…but instead she paused with a neutral expression on her face as the wolf prince approached. Kouga took in her figure as well, getting that look she now recognized as regret as he noted her dirty face, hands, and muddied wool dress. He didn't look angry like Inuyasha; he just looked sad. But it still left her feeling embarrassed. Aware of the mud and ash and dirt on her face, knowing she'd not had a proper bath in weeks. Feeling the way the material of her dress was practically sticking to her skin; skin that was now almost permanently reddish pink under the abrasive material of the wool. Undoubtedly her hair was a mess too, and she foolishly brought a hand up to check it before dropping it again almost immediately. Recalling herself to the present moment and knowing these weren't times to worry about her hair.
Was she self-conscious?
In the deepest, darkest, secret regions of her heart she was self-conscious and embarrassed that she looked this way. A woman accustomed to fine gowns and daily baths and polished fingernails and soft skin…this was all a bit of a shock for her. A shock…and a source of insecurity. Though she'd never admit to it out loud because it would only draw scorn from others, Kagome could admit to herself that she wanted to feel pretty again. She wanted to look nice. She wanted to feel clean. Yearned to wash the grease out of her hair and watch the dust lift off her skin and fade away.
Momentarily her eyes darted to Inuyasha, and she flushed with embarrassment, recalling how he'd once remarked on the softness of her hands, and she shivered at those memories even as she knew he'd not say so now. Knowing instead he was angry about the blisters. A part of her wanted those hands back as a result. But of course she'd never say such a thing aloud; instead it was one more secret to bury deep within her heart where no one else could find it.
She was acquiring quite a few of those secrets lately.
"Was there something you wanted?" She asked at last, forcing herself to look directly at Kouga again, and refusing to look at the others any more, apart from that initial moment when her eyes had locked with Inuyasha's.
Kouga shook his head as though coming out of his own private thoughts before putting an arm around her waist and pulling her close. Too close, perhaps, to be considered proper…but Kagome allowed it nonetheless. There wasn't anything sexual in the gesture; yes, the man could flirt when he wanted to, but in this moment she knew he was just offering her the comfort of a friend. And she was grateful, taking that comfort and drawing it around her protectively like the lonely woman she was. "I thought you might have a suggestion or two for us," he said at last, his voice confident as he steered her reluctantly towards the others. "Seeing as how we've found no food and clearly need to come up with a different plan."
That was Kouga; all confidence no matter what situation you put him into. Kagome had to admire him for it. She could see, in every inch of his body, that he'd been raised as a prince. He exuded leadership qualities, others drawn to him almost in spite of themselves. And his confidence gave her confidence as she dared to look at the others as she entered their circle. Noting the distrust in some of their eyes, but also noting more of them now seemed open to hearing what she might have to say than they had even a week ago.
They were hungry. And being hungry, they were clearly willing to put aside any grudges they might hold in favor of getting something to eat. Survival came first above everything else.
Still, she was hardly a mind reader. "Um…" Clutching her mug a little tighter in her hands, she felt the blisters on her fingers but ignored the discomfort. "…I'm not sure what I can do to help, unless someone first tells me what you've already talked about."
The demons looked at one another, before finally Inuyasha spoke. Kagome couldn't ignore him any more, and as she looked at him she felt the usual punch to her gut. His eyes seeing right through her, though the anger she saw in his gaze simply left her feeling hollow. She saw how he raked his gaze over her from head to toe, undoubtedly disapproving of what he was seeing.
Finding fault, no doubt.
She did her best to ignore it.
"There is no food left on these lands. And there are too many of us to support all together. The only possible solution we can think of is to split up, but we don't know where to go or what to do. And of course splitting up makes us vulnerable; smaller numbers makes us weaker." His eyes were sharp as he looked at her, seeing more than she really wanted him to, and Kagome was again reminded of what she'd said to Sango all those months ago; that this man was far more intelligent than anyone gave him credit for. He was so quick to get angry that he seemed shallow and temperamental…but beneath all of that was someone with a highly educated mind.
Not for the first time, Kagome wondered about his origins. But she didn't dare ask. The few times she'd tried to casually inquire about him to Miroku, the former monk had clammed up and danced around the issue, making it very clear Inuyasha would keep his secrets until he was ready to tell them.
More mistrust then.
Letting that frustration propel her and give her confidence, Kagome straightened her shoulders and looked Inuyasha square in the face as she finally gave a reply. "Well let's start with the obvious: we can't stay here. I think that's something we can all agree on." The others nodded their heads one by one. "And I think you're right, that trying to move everyone together is a mistake. It would be far too obvious and easy to spot, having a group this big moving down a road." She looked at her hands for a moment, holding the mug of broth, and her eyes drifted briefly to the chord on her left wrist. The chord currently holding the diamond shards she'd purified and removed from all the demons on the estate. Those shards, now a brilliant pink, were a reminder to these men and women now that she had done them a favor, and if nothing else, it seemed to guarantee they'd at least listen to what she had to say.
That and the fact that Kouga was standing so close, and making it clear he supported everything she had to say. Kagome supposed she should have stubbornly insisted on standing alone, but she'd learned in these past several weeks not to turn down any advantage she might be given. So instead she used his support to her full advantage as she stood at his side.
"But I do have a few thoughts, if you're willing to hear them," she finally said. Recalling the encouraging smile Noriko had given her back in the hut and using that to boost her confidence as she prepared to make her case. Knowing it wouldn't necessarily be embraced by everyone.
Finally the others all nodded their heads, and she relaxed slightly. Feeling Kouga's hand come to rest on her shoulder and give her an encouraging squeeze. "Right…" Swallowing, she studied the mug again. Trying to gather her thoughts so she explained everything just right. "We can't move everyone at once. I think the only solution is to break into smaller groups and move at separate times, like you said. If we could find a safe place to go…a safe place to meet…I think that's what we should do. No group bigger than about six traveling at a time, with a set rendezvous point…although I don't know where that place would be." Looking up, she saw a sea of blank, skeptical faces, and plunged ahead. "In the meantime, I…I think I know how I can get food for everyone."
The blank faces lit up with interest, and her heart pounded in her chest as she finally dared to look at Inuyasha again. He was staring at her intently. "My father has bank accounts, with plenty of money. And as of yet no one knows he is…dead…" She struggled over that word, but pushed on and swallowed the lump that suddenly appeared in her throat. Kouga's fingers tightened again briefly on her shoulder, this time in silent support. "I can access his accounts; he made me a cosigner on everything a long time ago." His attempt to make her part of the family business, she added to herself, but she kept that private. It had been a source of many arguments between them. She'd called it blood money. And in a sense it was; money earned through the hard work of slaves. But perhaps now, at least, it might do some good. She could use it to save all of these people. And in a way, just maybe, redeem her father somewhat in her memory as a result.
Unfortunately it wasn't that simple; there was a reason she'd not brought this idea up before. Tension in the group had expanded rapidly, and now Kagome could see several people looking at her with suspicion, practically reading their thoughts. Which meant when one of them finally spoke, she wasn't surprised by what the demon said. "You want us to just allow you to walk into a bank somewhere in a city, and withdraw funds? How do we know you won't reveal what's happened while you're there? Cities are crawling with soldiers, no doubt. How do we know you'd not betray us all?"
Kagome lifted her chin defiantly. "Because I won't. I give you my word."
There were several barks of bitter laughter in response to that vow, and one demon even spat on the ground. "Your word is no better than the word of your father."
"My father is dead," she snapped back. Moving away from Kouga as her temper flared. "You all made sure of that. And in the meantime, I've stayed here when I had no reason to stay. If I wanted to betray you, I would have left a long time ago and done so, and spared my feet and hands the blisters. This is dangerous for me too, in case you haven't thought of that. The authorities will eventually do the math, and realize my father died before I came and got the money. I'll be a marked woman, just like the rest of you. So if that's not proof enough of my loyalty, I don't know what is." She looked at them all without flinching. "And anyway, my father died for your cause. The best way I can make sure he didn't die in vain now is to help you."
Kouga pulled her back abruptly and stepped between her and the others. "Forget it, Kagome, I won't let you do such a thing."
Startled by the interruption, Kagome felt some of her confidence falter. "Don't be ridiculous." Her eyes darted to the wolf prince before looking at the ground. "It's the only way. I can pull out enough money to buy food and supplies, before they discover the truth and freeze all of his accounts. I won't have access to it once they realize I failed to report what happened, or if they think I died in the fire." Her voice was surprisingly calm, showing she had indeed thought about this for several days, although her eyes weren't quite meeting Kouga's as his gaze drilled a hole in the top of her head.
She knew his objections, but was ignoring them, because she'd already thought it through and was willing to take the risk. She would officially throw her lot in with the slaves by doing such a thing, of course; it wouldn't matter what her father had done or how loyally he'd served the new regime. She would be seen as a rebel helping the slaves, and her punishment when she was caught would be no different than any of the others. In some ways, her punishment would possibly be worse.
Traitor was a dangerous, powerful word.
She could see that was Kouga's fear now; could see it in his clear blue eyes as she finally looked up. And so in response she tried to soften her expression as she touched the side of his face with a kind hand. "I'm prepared to take the risk, Kouga. I've made up my mind. The rest of you just find a safe place to go, and I'll bring the food and supplies."
The wolf prince was clearly torn, and she could see the others were equally conflicted…though she suspected their conflict had less to do with her well being than their own.
The only one in the group who didn't seem confused about his feelings was Inuyasha; the man looked about ready to explode. Moving forward abruptly, he caught Kagome by the arm and hauled her close, his grip she had no doubt leaving bruises on her skin. But he wasn't looking at her; instead his gaze was directed at the others. "I'll go with her. I'll make sure she does the job, and then gets out of there. Does that satisfy you?"
"Inuyasha-" He cut her protest off with a vicious squeeze, and she winced and went silent. Though the glare on her face now was equally murderous to his.
The others eventually nodded their heads and disbanded briefly to plan and decide where they would be going from here, leaving Kagome alone with both Kouga and Inuyasha. And she wasted no time blasting them with her anger. "How dare you?" She snatched her arm away from Inuyasha's grip and whirled on him in a fit of rage. "I wasn't asking for your support, and I certainly don't need you checking up on me. Do you not trust me any more than they do? Is that what's going on here?"
With a snarl Inuyasha grabbed her again and pulled her closer. "Do you realize what you're doing, you stupid, brainless woman?" He gripped both her shoulders in his hands and gave her a solid shake. "Do you understand what will happen once they put all the pieces together? Do you know what kind of danger you'll be in? You'll be worse than a slave…you'll be a traitor. They kill traitors, Kagome. They execute them in the town square as an example. I've seen it!"
"I know what they do!" She fired back, her anger allowing her in that moment to be brave. "But what else would you have me do? Sit around and watch everyone starve to death while my small window of opportunity closes?"
For once Kouga seemed to agree with Inuyasha as he moved in close behind her, leaving her feeling downright claustrophobic between the two men. "It would be better if you just wait, and let them think you died with your father. You'll be safer that way."
"Kagome!" Inuyasha gave her another shake, and she felt her teeth rattle. But in that instant, as she looked into his eyes, she understood more than she ever had before.
He genuinely cared for her wellbeing.
This wasn't just him not trusting her; he was afraid for her safety. He was going along with her to keep her safe, and even now was desperately trying to talk her out of doing something he saw as a suicide mission. All the thoughts she'd had, that he didn't like her…that he hated her…vanished in one instant. The pain of the last several weeks melting away as it was instead replaced by an unfamiliar warmth. She dared to hope. "Inuyasha…"
"Don't you dare look at me like that," he snarled as he abruptly let her go and turned away, unable to look at her a second longer. Hating what he saw. Hating what these weeks of hard labor had done to her. Her beautiful ebony hair currently pulled back under a bandana, greasy and unwashed, her skin having lost its glow as it was now covered in ash, mud, and dust. Her hands – so soft and elegant – were covered in blisters, and he saw how she winced any time she went to grip something solid. And she walked with a careful, practiced step that told him her feet were undoubtedly blistered and raw as well; unaccustomed to the hard, unforgiving leather of poorly made boots.
It's what he'd always claimed he wanted; for the masters to fall and work in the trenches just like the slaves. And he would have gladly seen it happen to anyone else…but not Kagome. For some reason, seeing her this way only made his heart ache. He saw how desperately she was trying to work. How desperately she was trying to please everyone and reassure them through her actions that she was a good person and worth keeping alive…and it broke his heart. It reminded him of his mother; the beautiful Izayoi reduced to the same kind of menial labor. But she'd been such a delicate woman in her own way, and in the end she'd not lasted. Kagome was perhaps made of tougher stuff, but that didn't make what he was seeing any easier.
He'd tried shielding her from the worst of the labor in the beginning, but the stubborn wench had insisted on doing her part and looking good for the other slaves, and in the end he'd just withdrawn from her completely as a result. Unable to stand watching her stumble from the well with buckets of water. Barely able to tolerate watching her inexperienced hands try and grip an axe to chop firewood. She was so awkward and slow in everything she did, and many of the others laughed at her behind their hands.
He hated it.
She deserved better. For all his initial resentment of her, it seemed now that she was just like him, all he wanted to do was put her back up on her pedestal. She didn't belong in this world. She was too naïve. Too kind. Too trusting.
And now she had to go and offer yet another harebrained idea, and he felt heartsick over the very thought of it. He'd been at slave auctions in town squares, where he'd witnessed executions. They weren't pretty sights. The idea of Kagome being led to the gallows, of watching the noose put around her neck…
His stomach heaved at the very thought, and he forced himself back to the present moment as he looked at her again. Reminding himself she was very much alive and standing before him, however stupid she might be acting. "Have you thought of the reality that first you have to find your way to a city, without us being discovered?" He was pacing now, clearly agitated and only getting more wound up by the second. "And then you have to look enough like a lady to get into a bank without arousing suspicion. How are you going to do that when you don't have any dresses left? And then of course there's the moment where you're actually speaking to those at the bank. Telling them why it's you, and not your father, coming for the money. You're not a good liar, Kagome Higurashi…how do you plan to keep a straight face through all of this and not get caught?"
He watched as she lifted her chin proudly in the air, and felt something swell within him in response. Heat spreading through his body as he longed to reach out and pull her close and vow nothing would ever get near her again; wanting to protect that ferocious spirit of hers, which was only so strong because nothing had yet had a chance to break it. He'd never known anyone like her. She looked at the world, and genuinely believed she could make it a better place. She wasn't cynical or jaded, the way he was…the way so many of them were. Life hadn't beaten her completely into the ground yet.
But it would.
The real world would eventually break her, and he knew he'd break right along with her when that happened.
Why did he care so much? Miroku had asked him that question multiple times, and thus far Inuyasha hadn't come up with a very good answer. He just knew he wanted to protect her, for as long as he possibly could. Every bruise, cut, scrape, and blister currently on her body felt like a failure to him. A reminder that somehow he was letting her down. And he hated it.
"I'll figure all that out when I get there," Kagome was saying, pulling him back to reality. "You can help me get to the city, then we'll worry about getting a dress. The rest will come to us…eventually."
So confident…and yet with no real plan to speak of. The woman thought it was as simple as that? To just figure it out when she got there? Didn't she understand the high stakes of this gamble? "You're completely mad," he whispered at last before looking at Kouga with a sigh. Both men seeming to understand the reality that they wouldn't be talking Kagome Higurashi out of anything once she'd made up her mind. "Why don't you go and find Sango and Miroku. Perhaps they can be of some help in this crazy idea of hers."
"I'll be coming along too," the wolf prince vowed before turning and running off to find the others.
Inuyasha again looked at Kagome, who was staring at her boots. "I'm not trying to be difficult, Inuyasha…" She whispered, her voice soft.
Hell…the woman turned him inside out and she didn't even realize she was doing it! "Well you are being difficult," he snapped back. Meaning to teach her a lesson. "You honestly thought I'd just let you go wandering off on this mission all by yourself? And now you've drug Kouga into this too. That stupid mutt doesn't know how to be discrete. He'll probably get us all killed in the end."
Continuing to grumble, he paused when he abruptly realized Kagome wasn't looking frightened or ashamed…rather, the infernal woman was smiling! It left him absolutely flabbergasted as he tried to figure out what she would have to smile about. "What's suddenly made you so happy?" The smile only grew. "This isn't funny, woman! You do realize Sango's probably going to insist on coming along too, and that's all we need…another stupid, hardheaded woman. You're putting us all at risk, and for what? Just to prove you can?"
She shook her head and looked away. But the smile was now lighting up her entire face, and damned if Inuyasha didn't feel like almost smiling in response. "I'm sorry…it's just…for the first time in a long time, I feel like…like I have people who care about me. Like things might be okay."
Inuyasha grunted. "You're mad, woman. Completely mad."
Abruptly she touched him, and he felt any light feelings shatter as abruptly he was drowning in the look he saw on her face. She looked up at him, and Inuyasha felt his world shift the way it always seemed to when he was caught up in those cobalt blue eyes of hers. "You're so strong, Inuyasha. I can only hope to be half as strong as you are." No one ever looked at him like that, except for her. And that in spite of the way he'd treated her almost from the first moment they'd met.
With a growl Inuyasha waved her comment away. Stepping away from the feel of her fingers on his face, even though a part of him yearned to do exactly the opposite and lean into it. "Don't say such things." He reached out without thinking and took one of her hands in both of his. Watching as she dropped the mug she'd been holding to the ground even as he lightly brushed his fingers over a particularly nasty blister on the inside of her thumb. Kagome gasped, clearly in pain, and he looked up at her face. "You're the brave one."
Their eyes met and held for a brief moment, and the world stopped turning. In that instant, it was clear they both were remembering the kiss…that stolen kiss behind the barn, that now seemed so long ago and so very far away. A blush stole over her cheeks, visible even with the dirt on her face, and Inuyasha found himself flush in response as his eyes darted down to look at her mouth.
"Inuyasha…" She whispered his name, and he could see that she wanted him to kiss her again. Could feel the answering need in the thrumming of his own heart. She was the first and only woman he'd ever wanted to kiss. Many master's daughters had ordered him to kiss them; some had kissed him without giving him a chance to refuse. But Kagome was the first he'd wanted to kiss all on his own.
Leaning forward, he gently touched the side of her face…only to snap back when he heard footsteps, and turned to see several women walking by and shaking their heads in disgust. Abruptly he felt ashamed of himself for losing so much control, and backed away with a growl. "I'll come find you when we're ready to make our plans," he said at last. Not looking at her, and leaving Kagome utterly confused as she simply nodded silently, hurt clear on her face. He ignored it as he turned and walked away.
It was for the best. He was not a human. Hell, he wasn't even a demon. He was a half-breed. Imagine how much more disgusted those women would have been if they knew that horrible truth.
Kagome was a rare one, indeed, to not care what he was. His mother had of course been that way; she'd fallen in love with a demon, and not cared what others thought of the union. But Inuyasha knew better, and he wouldn't subject her to more scorn than she was already receiving. The slaves already didn't trust her. The last thing she needed to do was get branded as a 'demon lover' on top of all that.
No…there were divisions that ran far deeper than just wealth or class or social status in this rag tag band of theirs. And while they all had one goal in mind when it came to regaining their freedom, at the end of the day Inuyasha knew, deep down, that there were still plenty of prejudices on both sides. He'd experienced it growing up; even as a prince he'd been mocked and teased and scorned by others, and his mother had been left to dry his tears. Never would he put someone else through that.
"You'll thank me in the end," he whispered into the wind, and hoped those words would be enough to make him feel better, because even as he walked away a part of him yearned to turn around; refusing to do so, because if he did, he might not have the willpower to keep walking. Instead, as he spotted Miroku up ahead, he waved to his friend and walked faster.