Hello!

Okay, here's another chapter. T-T I'll do better with scheduling, I promise! There's just so much school going on! Anyway, I've been contacted and there should be some fan art of this story floating around someday soon. Cool, huh? And so without further ado, mega chapter, AWAKEN! (Should I have cut this in half or some such?)

Also, I don't own Inuyasha. You knew that.

Miko- priestess. Hanyou- half-demon. Inu- dog. Ookami- wolf. Neko- cat. Ryu- dragon. Kitsune- fox. Youkai- demon. Youki- demon aura/energy. Daiyoukai- great demon. Moko moko- Sesshomaru's fluffy fluffy tail. Kappa- toad. Dokkaso- Sesshomaru's poison. Hime- princess. Kami- gods. Oni- ogre/troll demons. Hentai- pervert


Chapter IX: Sesshomaru, Too Hot To Handle!

In the grey light of early dawn, just before the sun was to peer over the horizon and bring a new day to the land of the rising sun, a lithe, fleet-footed figure lifted his head to scent the air. From his perch in a deep-rooted sugi tree on the edge of a cliff, his view stretched for miles over the land to the east. The forest at his back was quiet, giving only the ambient rustle and hum of everyday activity. Not even the tree spirits were aware of his presence.

Over twenty miles away, vibrant flashes of youki held his attention. His eyes glowed in the half light, reflecting power on their crystalline surfaces. To these eyes, in this state, the world was composed of closely set nodes of light on a backdrop of dimness and the two founts of demon energy in the distance were easy to see.

Sanjuro, the white-haired dog demon, had been a scout for the House of the Moon for nearly five hundred years. He had much the same appearance of all the Moon dogs, though he was not as polished as the members of the ruling line. He wore his hair short, his clothes tight and without flashy adornment, and he kept his keen yellow eyes open. His life in the field, stalking the shadows of the Western Lands and beyond, was reflected in his slinking, watchful manner. He preferred the title of the Western Lady's First Scout to the moniker of the Lady's Pocket Spy, but in the shadows of the Western castle, he would answer to either.

For all this questionable prestige, Sanjuro was of middling rank among the inu youkai of the Western Lands. Though he held an excellent humanoid form with no bestial appendages lingering, he had no demon marks to speak of. His pedigree goes as follows: his father had served the House as a field scout of little distinction and begat him via a favored handmaid of the Western Lady. His father's father had much the same luck. His father's father's father had served as a foot soldier who managed to mate the eighteenth daughter of a lesser noble. His father's father's father's father, for whom he was named, had been a pack-less drifter who was talented and ballsy enough to steal into the Western holding, past sentries and a garrison full of highly trained soldiers, and capture himself the Captain of the Guard's second daughter for a mate—a millennia-old scandal written into the history of the House and retold by common dogs during fertility festivals. This was the level of stealth and cunning to which Sanjuro aspired. He had little interest in raising his station through mating; it was the pure skill of his predecessor that he chased.

Sanjuro had not reached this level yet, by his own unhappy estimation. Though he was valued highly by his superiors and admired by his peers, he knew his limitations. This was partly why he completed every mission set out before him so proficiently. He was a demon with a very fine understanding of what he could and could not do.

For instance, he knew that he could find his young lord and master, Sesshomaru—given enough time.

Weeks ago, he had been tasked by the Lady of the West with delivering a summons to her son, but it is known that Lord Sesshomaru comes and goes like an earthquake—there was no predicting where he would be and catching up after he had gone did little good. Sanjuro was of the opinion that his elusiveness was meant for his mother, but it served to frustrate him personally. This unpredictability combined with his dragging that mutant dragon around after him made tracking a nightmare. The inu youkai scout snorted. You'd think such an odorous group as one including a kappa and a human would leave a lasting impression, but the dragon's scent degraded over time with the harshness of lye, taking all other scents with it.

Now that he had finally found him, Sanjuro hesitated to fulfill his original instructions. His back to the pre-dawn light, he watched as the elusive Lord of the West tussled in the distance with… something. He could not see the physicality of the thing, but he could see the demon lord's aura, as potent and daunting as ever, flaring again and again in the rhythm of battle and the aura close by matched him, beat for beat. It was unfamiliar—less vibrant, wispier. Off, somehow. Again, he lifted his head to scent it—her. So far and away downwind as he was, only the faintest trace could be detected, but he was fairly certain it was the young bitch he'd caught whiffs of in and around the cold, nearly scentless camps the group left behind. She had such a unique scent.

When he first realized the fifth scent trailed in his lord's wake, he had thought, what little fool has come this way to die? Some empty-headed, misinformed female from another clan that was stepping above her station, he'd assumed. Lord Sesshomaru allowed no one to approach his human pet, not even youkai loyal to his house. Interlopers outside of his rule rarely saw the child and lived. Sanjuro himself was the one to circulate the news that anyone wishing to speak to the lord must wait at a respectful distance lest they risk their necks. Now though, the sight of the stranger's aura left him wondering who exactly had weaseled her way into the Western Lord's immediate circle.

Someone interesting, no doubt. The battle he observed had been going on for far too long, since before he had arrived. This puzzled Sanjuro. A demoness of such average strength should not be able to hold his lord's interest for so long. He would have thought that he was toying with the young bitch, but the youki in the distance did not falter. Was it possible that his lord was testing her? To what end? Was she stronger than she seemed? There was something deceptive about the formation of this one's aura. If he could get close enough to catch a glimpse, it might tell him more—possibly from which clan she came.

Curiosity itched at him. What delicious implication this tale would have among the pure-bred nobles back at the holding. Sanjuro didn't care for gossip himself, but the reward for such information from the young females of the West and the jockeying parents of those females would be lavish. And after one got hold of the information, he would let slip a word here and an insinuation there, rumors would abound and create even more opportunities to solicit bribes and favors. But, to see those high and mighty nobles scrabbling after scrapes would be his most precious reward. Their type, the "great demons" who sat for millennia behind castle walls while feeding their own importance, fell all over themselves to hear news of the truly powerful—the likes of which Lord Sesshomaru stood at the top.

Still, he had to keep his distance. Any closer and he risked alerting the lord to his presence.

At this moment, as the inu youkai scout spectated remotely on this momentous sparring match between Fuko and Sesshomaru and dreamed of the amusement he would gain by spreading word of her existence to the four corners of the West, Sesshomaru reversed Fuko's arm lock and swept her feet out from under her. Sanjuro's focus wavered slightly as the two daiyoukai in the distance fell into tussling. Nobles. The very term made no sense to him. Which among them were honorable, candid, loyal? Which among them had any true power? While he was well aware that their underhanded machinations could kill as surely as a blade, his own skill, as paltry as it was compared to his great-great-grandfather's, kept him from falling to assassination or fatal subterfuge. It was said among the common dogs that the nobles living in the inner court yards were so tied up in posturing and niceties that they might as well be human. From what he had seen, they were worst—less distractible, more likely to remember a slight, and long lived enough to be fatally opportunistic. The sheer pettiness was appalling to the scout. Appalling, but delightfully easy to manipulate.

A subtle shift in the energies of the tussling daiyoukai drew the scout's luminous gaze. To explain the difference in the terms of hearing, the tone and quality of the battle had changed from high-octane clashes to magmatic rumbling, slow and swelling in nature. To explain in terms of touch, the battle shifted from the solid harshness of slate to a smooth, rich fluid, as thick and mysterious as blood. What Sanjuro saw, however, was naked and hot—raw like an exposed nerve and bright enough to burn his eyes. It was Lord Sesshomaru. His nearly overwhelmed the second aura.

Sanjuro had seen many things during his time in this world, had many lovers and done a few things with them that he wouldn't want spread around the barracks, but seeing evidence of his lord's arousal half got him to blush.

On this topic, rumor swung both ways. Certain fair-featured young noblemen and a few of their gruff fathers thought the Western Lord might favor the company of men over women. Sanjuro himself thought this was just wishful thinking or the baseless supposition of those judging only by looks. The soldiers of the garrison were of the opinion that their lord was asexual, moving through life like a force of nature without the needs and concerns that the likes of themselves dealt with. Women, young and old, rich and poor, were somehow convinced that the young lord was a sexual powder keg waiting for a dark corner and a lucky woman to explode on. Sanjuro had been skeptical. Many claimed to have been favored by their lord, but none of the claims had ever come to anything. Not even his lord's scent lingered on the females most likely to be speaking the truth. It had been the dog scout's personal opinion that his young lord and master was some sort of sexual phantom, dallying so discretely that not even his lovers could prove he had been there. (And being phantasmal, what did that really say of your prowess?)

So he paid close attention, despite his burning eyes, when the youki in the distance changed color and shape, coming as close to the passionate roiling of sex as one could get without committing the act—right before suddenly diming to his lord's usual lumen level.

Sanjuro felt a moment of disappointment and then scoffed at himself. When had he become a voyager? He sat up straighter and gave his cheeks a couple of rousing slaps. It wasn't as if he'd never seen lust before, or experienced it himself. Why did it arrest him so? Perhaps it was because witnessing the famously cold Western Lord (sometimes called the ice prince) burn up like a bonfire was like turning around and finding the kami fucking around in the dirt.

Or, something not quite so improbable.

Sanjuro shook his head. He mustn't give in to the hype and the rumor. Every time, on every occasion, the word on the street deviated just so from the truth. The legends about the Lord of the West were just that: legends. The fact was that Lord Sesshomaru was a demon, just like him, just like any other. Untouchably strong, but just as susceptible to hungers of the flesh.

But, still, wasn't it interesting? He looked again to the two auras in the distance as they settled, close but not improperly so. They were conversing, he guessed, and wanted very much to know what they were saying. Who was this strange female who could light up the ice prince like a new star?

The dog scout weighted his options. Curiosity bade him to watch for a while longer, but he worried about being caught. Lord Sesshomaru was not one to be trifled with. In fact, he was a rather cruel one and Sanjuro knew this from his own experience.

Still, in the words of his late great forefather, what was never ventured was never gained.

"Just a demon," Sanjuro muttered to himself. He pushed away his misgivings and his yellow eyes glowed with renewed vigor as he settled in to watch. "I'll be safe enough if I keep my distance. It's not as if he's omnipotent."

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Rin clung to Fuko's back, blinking sleepily, but the wind whipping at her face over the demoness' shoulder stirred her to full wakefulness soon enough.

"Fuko-chan? What…?"

The demoness shouted over the wind, "Breakfast!"

"What? But…" Rin clung tighter to her friend, confused. Just a few second ago, she'd been snuggled in furs, fast asleep. She hadn't even said good morning to Lord Sesshomaru or Master Jaken or Ah-Un yet.

For a long while, the pair moved hurriedly through the forest. As Rin became more and more wakeful, she spotted several berry bushes and patches of mushrooms or field greens. She tried asking the demoness why they weren't stopping, where they were going, but she didn't answer. The little girl was used to having her questions go unanswered, but never by Fuko-chan before. Something must be wrong.

Rin started humming softly and buried her face in Fuko's hair to hide from the wind. Had something happened between her friend and Lord Sesshomaru? She vaguely remembered Fuko pulling her out of her bundle of furs and slinging her onto her back. Just before they took off into the woods, she glimpsed the others. Master Jaken had been slack-jawed, staring at nothing with his eyes bugging all the way out. Rin couldn't remember ever seeing the imp in such a state. Ah-Un had been standing with his four legs spread wide apart, like he just jumped up from his sleep. Ah had been looking at her with big eyes, neck stretched in her direction. Un had been looking the other way, neck out stretched toward Lord Sesshomaru. From her split second's sight of Lord Sesshomaru, she remembered that the daiyoukai had looked… angry. He had been glaring at Fuko-chan, mouth slightly open like he was about to say something, but they had been gone too quickly for her to hear it.

Rin thought of scolding her friend for that—one should always stop to listen to Lord Sesshomaru— but the wind was just too strong and loud. She was getting carried passed all these trees and bushes, Fuko-chan couldn't hear her, and now she needed to pee. Rin sighed heavily, her breath warming Fuko silky hair. What had gone so wrong?

Eventually, Rin felt them slow down and by the time she looked up, they had stopped. Fuko crouched quickly and Rin slid off her back like water off a duck, landing on her bottom with a little "whooph!"

"Rin-chan? Are you okay?"

The little girl squirmed uncomfortably. "I need to pee!"

"Oh!" The demoness leaned away and immediately pointed into the trees. "Go, go, go!

Moments later, after that was taken care of, the two girls reconvened on the same spot.

"Fuko-chan, why'd we leave everybody behind so suddenly? I was still asleep!"

She let out a long sigh and turned away, looking annoyed. Rin worried that she had done something wrong.

"I needed to talk to you, Rin-chan. What we talked about before, about Sesshomaru and I…" Fuko blew a rough breath out of her nose and Rin heard a little bit of a growl. "Let's get some breakfast first."

The demoness turned suddenly and leapt up into the tree they were standing under before Rin could even start to say "Wait!"

She looked up into the branches after Fuko—it was a peach tree. Fuko moved so quickly, flitting from branch to branch, barely disturbing the long, narrow leaves, that Rin could not track her progress. The demoness came down an instant later, arms laden. Her face was pinched: her nose wrinkled slightly, her jaw locked, and her brows drawn low and together. Rin was beginning to feel anxious.

"Here now. Don't these look good to eat?" Fuko plopped down on an exposed root of the tree and picked through the ripe fruit in her arms. She found one with unblemished skin and handed it to Rin. "Sit, sit."

Rin cradled the soft stone fruit in both hands as she eased down. "Fuko-chan? What happened? Is Lord Sesshomaru mad at you?"

"Ah, about that." The demoness brought a large peach to her lips and took a big bite. Juice trickled from the corner of her mouth as she chewed furiously. Within seconds, she held nothing but a pit, which she then tossed away before choosing another fruit.

Confused and concerned, Rin held her fruit a little tighter as she watched Fuko eat. Usually, Fuko didn't eat with Rin. Sometimes she took a bite of something, but she never ate much. Rin had guessed she was just eating to be nice, that she hunted for her food like Lord Sesshomaru did. Watching her devour peach after peach in so little time was a bit unnerving.

Finally, Rin reached out and caught her sleeve. "Fuko-chan, slow down! You'll get sick."

Fuko froze with her fangs locked into the flesh of a peach. All at once, the sweet flavor was repulsive. She realized it the sensation of biting into something that she had craved. What am I doing? I need to calm down. I need to think. Slowly, she bit off the chunk that was already in her mouth and swallowed it without chewing.

As her friend slowly tossed the half-eaten fruit into woods, Rin began picking at her own breakfast, pulling the fuzzy skin away so she could take an uninhibited bite of the soft sweetness.

Fuko cleared her throat. "You should eat the skin. It's good for you."

Rin glanced at her and then away, but didn't stop peeling back the skin. "Are you mad at Lord Sesshomaru?"

Fuko opened and closed her mouth twice before saying, "No. I mean, yes. I'm angry at him." But, why? How had last night been any more or less than expected? Yes, she had lost, but she knew that could happen, would happen eventually…

Rin slumped. Something had definitely gone wrong. "But, you said you were going to make friends."

Fuko answered distractedly, "One of the reasons I'm angry at him is because he makes it impossible to be friends."

Rin dropped the fruit into her lap and bunched the fabric of her kosode in her fists. "Fuko-chan, if you're nice to Lord Sesshomaru then—"

"Rin-chan." Fuko waved a hand, trying to push her odd ruminations away and focus on her friend.

Rin bit her lip and waited.

Fuko regarded her seriously after a moment. "You've known Lord Sesshomaru for much longer than I have. Does he have any friends?"

"I… I haven't met any… but that doesn't mean he doesn't have any."

"I know that." Fuko wiped the juice from her chin and crossed her arms, glancing away again. "Not having friends doesn't mean you can't make friends, far from it. But, I think Sesshomaru doesn't have any because—and this is just what I think— he doesn't know how to have them. He doesn't know how to treat an equal." And that's just what makes this so frustrating, she thought.

Rin shook her head and cried out, "You can be his friend, Fuko-chan! You can teach him, I know you can! You're so nice, and pretty. You tell the best stories, better than Master Jaken. You spar with him, isn't that fun? If you're just nice to him like you're nice to me, I know he'll want to be your friend too."

Fuko grunted. "It's not a matter of me teaching him. I don't think he would want to change."

Rin could feel her face getting warm and her eyes starting to water. She fought it, knowing that Lord Sesshomaru didn't like it when she cried and that he would be able to smell her tears. "You just have to try harder. Please? If you get Lord Sesshomaru to like you, then he'll let you stay with us forever."

Fuko's ears perked up and she looked back at the girl. The sight of her made the demoness softened immediately. She reached out to touch the top of Rin's head. "Oh, Rin-chan, you think…? Why do you think Sesshomaru lets me travel with you guys now?"

The little girl took a few deep breaths and blinked tearfully up at her. "To take you to the Western Castle?"

"Exactly." She stroked Rin's hair. "We made a deal that he would take me there."

"But, after that…?"

"Who knows what his plans are. Me? I need to stay in the West as long as I can." Fuko removed her hand to rub the back of her own neck. She squinted up at the sky. "This is the first time I've dealt with actual inu youkai. Sesshomaru himself is—difficult, but there has to be someone there who'll help me." Someone who isn't such a pain!

Rin sat up and leaned forward, letting her fruit fall on the ground. "Fuko-chan, Lord Sesshomaru is the best!"

Startled, Fuko looked down at her. "What?"

"Lord Sesshomaru is the best! You don't need to go to the castle."

"Ah, Rin-chan—"

"If you need help, he can do it!" The little girl took her sleeve in hand and tugged. "Please?"

"He already said he didn't know anything."

Rin's bottom lip began to tremble. "He'll help you. I know he will."

The two looked at each other for a long moment, Rin desperately trying to impress the essential truth of her statement. Lord Sesshomaru could do anything. If Fuko was looking for something, he could find it. She didn't need to go away somewhere.

Fuko sighed again. "Okay. Okay, Rin-chan, I hear you. Sesshomaru is very… competent. I'm sure he'd be a great ally in my quest. But you know him better than I do. You know he won't help without reason."

"But —but, he's taking you to his castle…"

"The deal we made was only for that. He lost a bet. He's only doing this because he has to. Besides, the question of the hour isn't if he can help me find answers, it's if he can be a friend and I don't think he can." Rin looked about to interrupt, but Fuko stopped her. "Let me finish. I can't be friends with him. I learned that for sure last night. So, in the name of future mutual respect and some measure of admiration, I declared our rivalry." Fuko wrinkled her nose. "And then I lost our first match as such."

Mind all awhirl, Rin threw up her hands. "Rivalry? You lost? What does that even mean?"

"What does it mean?" Fuko stared into the middle distance over Rin's head, remembering figures from her past. Their faces flashed before her eyes, flipping passed like entries on a rolodex. Rivals, all. It almost made her smile. They all had their own specialties, their own little quirks. Each offered his or her own frustrations, and even when the ultimate frustration of time passed and space lost separated her from each of them, she never regretted investing her sweat and blood. It was great fun, knowing a challenge waited every time they met; and, yeah, they got on her nerves or under her skin sometimes. It was the nature of the relationship. In general, Fuko would say that life tasted better when she was pitted against someone.

But this guy, this Sesshomaru… Memories of their interactions flooded in, washing away the many other faces. With him, it was different, she decided. She didn't even know if she could call this fun anymore. In fact, things were feeling pretty serious. And for some reason, the way he defeated her this morning really ticked her off.

Her eyes narrowed as she spoke, trying to remember every detail of their fight. "As rivals, I expect Sesshomaru and I will be forever in contention, pitted against each other in life. The competition will make us stronger as individuals, but there will never be the affection and intimacy of friendship." Something, something was odd about their fight. "That's what I predict, anyway. Some of my best friends started out as rivals, but I just can't see that happening with a guy like Sesshomaru." Her brain itched. She felt as if she were just on the precipice of realizing something. The fight—what had happened? "As for losing, it… well, it sucked. And I don't plan to do it again anytime soon. Rivalries stagnate if one party loses constantly. It becomes a like bad joke." She recalled his inescapable weight and the pressure of his full-body hold and she wrinkled her nose in distaste. Her voice gained an inhuman bass note as she finished, "And losing like that, with his weight on my back… I won't allow it again." A low growl issued from her throat.

Rin's eyes widened. The sound wasn't loud; it was physical. She felt the vibrations in her own chest. Sometimes, it was easier to remember that Fuko was a demon just like her Lord Sesshomaru.

"I won't lose tomorrow, for sure. I'll figure this out and I'll crush him." A strange fiery glint entered her eyes. "I'll make him eat dirt."

"Fuko-chan!"

The demoness cleared her throat, face relaxing into her friendlier visage as her gaze landed on Rin. "Figuratively, of course. Not really. Just, you know, emotionally."

Rin frowned, not so much close to tears now as disappointed and confused. "Being rivals sounds a lot like being enemies."

Fuko frowned, knowing she hadn't explained herself correctly. "It's not like that. Rivals are… Listen, I want to beat him up, sure, but I don't want to kill him. If he wanted to kill me, I think I would know it. And we're traveling together, aren't we? Not happily, but happiness can be boring." Feeling guilty and worried about having frightened the girl, Fuko touched Rin's shoulder. "I know we haven't known each other that long, but please trust me. This is the best thing for now."

Rin began to pick at her fingers, looking down at her soiled peach.

"Rin-chan? Are you disappointed in me?"

"No. I mean… A little. I still think you can be friends. I still think you could convince Lord Sesshomaru to let you stay."

"Rin-chan, I can't…" Fuko bit her lip. Rin was cute and so much fun, but could she really stand to hang around a guy like Sesshomaru for very long? With the way things were going, she almost wanted to get lost on purpose!

Alas, the little human girl looked up at her with big sad eyes and the demoness buckled like a folding chair. "How about this? If it ever seems like Sesshomaru is trying to be friendly, I'll forget about this whole rival business and—and, well, we'll start over."

Rin poked at the raw fruit.

Fuko whined. "I know you love him and he's done so much for you, but he likes you. He's been a real jerk to me in ways you wouldn't understand, and if I just ignore it, if I let him get away with it, he's going to think that sort of thing is okay. I can't be his friend while he treats me this way."

Rin looked up. "What's he done, Fuko-chan? Why wouldn't I understand?"

"Well…" Hesitantly, Fuko loosed a bit of her youki. "I'll try to show you…"

For the next few minutes, Fuko and Rin tried to find just the right magnitude of power that would reach the little girl's level of awareness. As they experimented, Fuko explained about the mechanics of demon energy. As Rin was not a particularly sensitive human, it took a little time and quite a bit of youki, but then again, Fuko had exquisite control over the breadth and weight of her aura.

With the demoness' energy cloaked over her, Rin sat plank straight, feeling as though she was being touched by unseen hands. "Creepy!"

Fuko withdrew. "I know, right?! That's what Sesshomaru has been doing to me for the past few days— only harder! And he picks fights. All the while acting so superior. What a narcissist! 'Whatever dignity I allow you is something to be thankful for!' Just thinking about it makes me want to scream!" She shook her head sharply, as if she were flinging off water, and began to growl and grumble, "Creepy jerk. … show him! Just wait. Driving me crazy—no! He is! Try to smother me, will you? Thinks he's so strong… trying to prove somethin'? …Jerk'll get what's coming to him—"

Rin blinked. "What?"

Fuko sat back and blinked down at her. "Huh?"

"Lord Sesshomaru is doing it to prove something?"

"What? No. Who said that?"

"You did."

"When?"

"Just now."

"Nuh-uh."

Rin's cheeks puffed out. "Yes, you did, Fuko-chan. You were mumbling, but I heard you."

"I'm not responsible for what I say in this state, Rin-chan!" Agitated, the demoness rolled to her feet and began to pace. "I've never been treated this way before. Not for long anyway. Usually a little cerebral recalibration does the trick, but I feel like I could kick this guy's butt from here to Albuquerque and he would still look at me like I didn't know my head from my tail. It's like trying to communicate with a brick wall! If he calls stupid one more time, I'll… He's head got to weight a ton, the sheer arrogance—" Fuko barked in frustration.

It was a demon dog bark; the size and power behind it reflected her true form. Animals, demon and mortal alike, bolted from the immediate area. Peaches whose stems weren't firmly affixed gave up the ghost and fell. Two unfortunate game birds that had been roosting in the upper most branches of the peach tree died of fright and fell as well. Somewhere far removed from this scene, Sesshomaru paused in his thoughts and lifted his head. What had disturbed him? He couldn't tell. His nose itched, but of course he didn't sneeze.

In the silence after the peaches stopped falling, the two girls stared at each other, astonished.

Cheeks reddening, Fuko covered her mouth. I must be losing it. "Excuse me."

"Th-that's okay, Fuko-chan." Rin climbed to her feet a bit shakily, looking wide-eyed at all the peaches on the ground. "I didn't know you could do that."

"I'd sort of forgotten it myself."

"Do you think Lord Sesshomaru can bark like that?"

Fuko rolled her eyes. "I'm sure he can."

With something new to think about, Rin walked over to where the two birds had landed and poked at their feathery bodies. "Are these good to eat?"

"Sure." Fuko took a deep breath, trying to get herself under control. "Let's take them back to camp. Jaken might appreciate a meal."

"Lord Sesshomaru, too?"

The demoness blew out a sigh. "Sure. Why not?"

"I've never cooked for milord before…" Rin looked over her shoulder suddenly. "Fuko-chan, Lord Sesshomaru probably doesn't mean to be creepy."

"He does it quite deliberately, Rin-chan."

The little girl looked down at the birds and shook her head, saying quietly. "He's so strong. Maybe his youki's too big." Not waiting for a response, she scooped up the birds and turned. "Help me cook these, please. They have to taste really good!"

"What…? Okay." Fuko sighed again and began walking back toward camp. "Yeah. Totally. Let's make him some food, serve it up on a golden table with silver chopsticks. Fit for a prince."

"We should take these peaches…" Rin blinked. "How do we get a gold table?"

Fuko glanced at her friend incredulously and then couldn't help but laugh at the earnestness of her expression. "I…I was kidding. Let's just stick to the basics, okay?"

"Okay!"

And so the girls walked back to camp, laden with gifts and cooking up plans—all of which centered on a certain daiyoukai.

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()()()()()()()()(Thirty hours later)()()()()()()()()

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The afternoon sunlight blazed in the sky, glaring down over the land and bringing the first real spike of summer heat to Japan. The bright light glinted off water that stood placidly in a large natural basin in a mountain-side plateau. It had cracked in early spring, giving way to tectonic forces. Water flowed slowly out into an underground cavern, which in turn drained into a narrow cave mouth and a forty-foot drop. The new earthquake-born waterfall was thin but fairly impressive, height wise. The white rushing water traced a jagged cliff face, tumbling down by the hundreds of thousands of gallons toward the bottom. It was in the process of wearing a deep pool into the rock below, but that pool was still years in the making. For now, there was a rocky ledge under all that pounding water and this is where Sesshomaru sat in only his hakama, lotus position, back straight, holding the perfect posture for meditation as the water beat down on his strong shoulders. He embodied the stone around him in solidity and stillness, but in terms of strength he was stronger, for he would roam the earth long after the ledge beneath him was ground into sand.

The mist from the falls rose straight up like steam from an onsen, but the idea of such soothing relaxation was far from Sesshomaru's mind. Meditation, the activity he came here for, was far from his mind. Behind the steady rise and fall of his bare chest, his heart pulsed too quickly, forcing his hot blood round and round a body that felt ready to fly apart. His muscles strained against themselves, flexing minutely under his skin— twitching like the flanks of a primed stallion. His face was expressionless, as smooth and flawless as a mirror, but his closed, vibrantly-colored eyelids flickered and rippled with the power of his waking dream.

It was odd, odd, odd for the Western Lord to be in such a state—all the more unusual when one considered it was an agitation of his own making, mostly. He sat going over and over the contention between Fuko and himself. He picked apart their recent interactions, worrying them like one worries healing skin—which then itches more for all the attention. He didn't realize his trouble started just after their first bout as rivals.

Upon recognizing the opportunity his uninvited guest represented and deciding to take it, his analytic mind had turned toward the problem of bringing her firmly and finally to heel. Her acceptance or rejection had not really occurred to him, as he had already moved past that point. Sesshomaru sought not to convince but to acclimatize. He had assumed that this would be a slow process, despite his humorous imaginings of her collared and leashed, and this did not trouble him over much. He was still fairly young for a demon. There was no rush to beget an heir. He'd begun to methodically plot out their courtship, spinning the thread of expectation and supposition out centuries into the future.

Underneath this logic, though, the more bestial side of him lingered over other aspects of his decision. As a breeding pair, they would pass much of their lives together, less so after the pups grew beyond her care, but they, as dam and sire, would remain connected. He was not happy about this, but he was not dreading it either. Her disposition, while not really proper, was certainly amicable. The flaws of her upbringing or lack thereof could be corrected. And, he found no part of her truly offensive, though her ears were a bit perturbing. She was more than appealing enough to rut on a regular basis. He could recall perfectly her naked body and the feel of her beneath him. Her hips were about two and a half of his hand spans wide— a good size for pups. Her breasts were not large, but he'd never heard of a shortage of milk arising from breast size. They had appeared plump enough to feed one or two, anyway.

Almost immediately after beginning to consider their future, he knew there would be no technical issues with their sexual relationship. But what would it be like?

This question played across the back of his mind, distant from his surface thoughts but still drawing focus. Really, it shouldn't matter. What use was it to wonder about a sensory experience? Besides, he had learned only a half year into his physical maturity that all sex was in some way repetitious.

Still, some instinct had hinted to him, some scent in the air or some touch of her youki had told him that, with her, it would be excellent.

It was strange that he should come to this conclusion. He did not usually rate his lovers, nor did he wish for special distinction among them. All he had ever sought was satisfaction, and females surrendered it to him. A man who let it become more than that exposed a weakness that any fool could take advantage of.

Being overcome by lust—it was the stuff of animals. The concept was as foreign to him as the act was repugnant. He could recall only two females with whom he even had to make an effort to restrain himself, and neither resembled Fuko of the North in any way. One had been his first lover, one of the many house nobles' daughters who had vied for his attention, and he attributed his eagerness to youth. The other had been a yuki-onna with whom he'd spent one winter and then parted with on easy terms. This he accounted for with a long dry spell on his part and the snow demoness' exceptional amount of experience.

He would guess from her attitude that Fuko had little experience and he had taken a demoness only ten years ago—not long ago at all. And yet the more he dwelled on it, the more he was certain that her body would be the prefect vessel for his lust. Something to enjoy, to savor.

Sesshomaru's mouth had watered as he pulled the knot in his obi taut and he had swallowed without really taking note.

All of this, his thoughts and his feelings, were picked apart and compiled again just as he began to lead her back to camp after his victory. His mind was working so quickly. On its surface, Sesshomaru shuffled through the roster of allied daiyoukai from other regions that he would invite to the West for her formal introductions, but intermittently the memory of water droplets rolling down Fuko's bare ribs or the flash of dainty white fang tips as she snarled at him drifted up. He brushed those images aside immediately, annoyed with himself, not taking the time to realize just why they were being drawn up.

Something to savor, he had thought vaguely between taking a mental survey of suitable etiquette tutors and deciding which advisors could be trusted to teach her the political history of the House of the Moon. Something to savor.

The words rose slowly but surely, like a tide coming in. The long walk back to camp had allowed for the idea to marinate, strengthen, and redouble in validity and pervasiveness until he held the Staff of Two Heads in his hands and realized abruptly that, while there was no reason to rush, there was also no reason to wait.

His decision to take her had made their joining an eventuality, something to plan for. With this new realization, time tables began to shift in his mind. Their joining became an inevitability that need suffer no prolonging.

As Sesshomaru turned and gave her the Staff of Two Heads, a spark of undeniable excitement heated his blood. He had repressed it by force of habit, and well he should have. Though he disregarded it, denied its importance out of hand, the matter of Fuko's acceptance or rejection manifested itself shortly thereafter.

Now, as he sat under the pounding waterfall, Sesshomaru recalled vividly the injustices of the past day and a half with the roaring water flooding into his silence.

He had given her the Staff of Two Heads to mark and she had repaid this kindness by calling out a challenge in front of everyone. In his mind's eye, after she dared flash her teeth at him and then turn her back, he darted after her and tackled her to the ground. They struggled with one another, in the same position as before with her soft rump grinding into his groin. He held her easily, letting his hands roam over her plush curves. This time she did him the courtesy of noticing. She squirmed, feeling the powerful contours of his body against her back and gradually realizing that she could not possibly best him. Her childish appearance made it easy to imagine her blushing, pouting, and her eyes glittering with dewy tears. He reveled in holding her there while she quailed and whined to be let up, until she finally exposed her throat and submitted.—

—What had actually happened (a reality that intruded just on the heels of this fantasy) was that she scooped Rin up, slung her across her back, and blithely said over her shoulder that they would be back with breakfast before disappearing into the trees, eyes completely dry and hard with defiance. All this happened before Sesshomaru could say a word in rebuke, and then he'd been too proud to chase after her, knowing he could not catch up on foot. So, the demon lord had to stew in it, the insult and the arousal, for her challenge also aroused him—which had annoyed him.

Jaken had chosen that moment to come out of his stupor. The imp had stomped around the clearing, clearly furious on Sesshomaru's behalf, and he began to spew forth all the censure for the female that he could: How dare she challenge the great Lord Sesshomaru? Such disrespect! Uncouth female! How dare she treat his lord so flippantly? Who did she think she was, carrying Rin off? In what manner had she been raised?

Sesshomaru had watched the lesser demon rant, feeling permissive. This had been tolerated in the past because she was the interloper and it might have been tolerated once more, considering she had just treated him with such disregard, but then Jaken had made the mistake of questioning him.

"Why, Milord? Why would you allow that worthless female undo all my work? Why should she be allowed to mark my weapon?"

He then had to remind his servant, forcefully, that questioning one's betters brought only misfortune. As Jaken squealed in pain under his heel, he had added, "I will no longer allow you to speak of her so offensively. She is by far your superior. Understood?"

"Y-yes, Milord!"

"See that you remember it." Sesshomaru had ground his foot downward as he stepped over the lesser demon. He would never say that he enjoyed punishing Jaken, but it did usually serve to release pent up frustrations. Not this time, it seemed.

Huffing, he had left Jaken to cower with orders that the group be ready to travel by the time he returned. Sesshomaru flew off then toward the north-west, ostensibly to scout, but he had also wanted a repository for his frustration. He'd had to travel far to get out of the female's territory, but even beyond that, the forest demons were deep in hiding. The explosive activity of the last few days had cleared the area.

Thwarted in that mission and finding no threat to his following, the daiyoukai turned back.

As he flew, he had taken the uninterrupted time to consider how his plans had changed from just a day ago. For the most part, they hadn't. Claiming the strange female as a military asset for the West was essentially the same as claiming her for his mate. Once her goals were merged with his, she would fall in line. Not submissively. He was coming to realize that that was against her nature. But with time, she would gain a more appropriate attitude. Defeating her again tonight would further cement in her mind his suitability as a leader and provider, and afterward, she would have every reason to be more open to joining forces—and bodies.

Then, he had thought it might be advantageous to inform her of where they were heading. Bokuseno, his father's old advisor, was rooted in a forest some distance to the north-west. The ancient magnolia tree demon was well informed as a captive audience to the whispering of the earth. The chances were good that he would know something that the female would find helpful.

But Sesshomaru had no thought toward currying favor; it was not in his nature. A second after it occurred to him to share this information, he decided against it. Bokuseno was a great asset and his existence was kept a secret from even the most trusted of the house nobles. He would interrogate the tree himself, gain any information to be had, and then wait for the right moment to implement it. With something more than directions to hold over her, she would be easier to manage.

He had returned to the camp to find that the girls were still gone. Barely paying the groveling imp any attention, Sesshomaru had sat down to wait, brood, and plan.

They took their sweet time returning, and when they did, they carried two large game birds. Rin was excited. They had already agreed to bake them and were talking about spices. Jaken had informed them loudly and obnoxiously that they were late, that they kept everyone waiting, and that the birds would have to be discarded since they would take too long to cook.

Rin had peeked around the female's legs, twisting her hands together pitifully. "Milord? Do we really have to throw the birds away?"

The female had looked to him over Jaken's head, incredulous. "We have to leave right now? We've been here for days. A couple more hours can't make that much difference."

He imagined briefly that when he had flared his aura to assert his dominance, the female had bowed her head in submission and apologized. But, again, this was a fantasy quickly dispelled by the memory of what did happen.

She'd growled in response to his power display and Rin had turned to the demoness, clutching at her kimono. "Is Lord Sesshomaru picking on you again, Fuko-chan? Don't be mad! He can't help that his youki's too big."

Jaken had looked aghast at the child. "Rin!"

Surprise had made him withdraw, but then he had bristled anew and stalked toward her. He'd understood at once that she had somehow alerted Rin to the reality of youkai auras and spun that information to her advantage—and after he'd leniently allowed her to befriend the child. Her youki had bristled in response to his aggression, but at least the female had enough sense to step away from Rin.

"What nonsense have you fed to her?" he'd demanded.

As she paced away from the others, she'd replied, "No nonsense. I explained what she couldn't see."

"I warned you against filling her head with lies."

"Are you kidding me?" She had looked to the little girl who was now behind him. "Rin-chan, tell him what I told you."

He'd stepped into her line of sight. "Do not attempt to involve a child in our conversation."

She then threw her hands up, as if he were the one being unreasonable "What the— how else are you going to know what I said. You're so paranoid! You choose not to believe anything I say, so why not hear it from Rin-chan?"

He'd felt the lightest tug on the sleeve of his kimono; Rin was seeking permission to speak. He stepped forward, pulling the fabric from the girl's grasp. "I will hear it from you. Explain yourself."

They had glared at each other for a full thirty seconds as Fuko's ears slowly flattened to her head in indignation. His heart had begun to pump more keenly. Staring at her like that, feeling her power ripple against his, he had realized it was her defiance that he found so compelling, as if his body was preparing to prove his virility, his right to dominate.

He would have moved toward her at that point, but then she had suddenly disengaged: her youki had snapped back as quickly as her ears flicked upright. Nose lifted disdainfully, she said, "Rin has so much admiration for you that she has trouble understanding why I dislike you. To illustrate a point, I explained that demons have auras, that the size of the aura depended on the strength of the demon, and that these auras were discernible to other demons and humans that are sensitive to such energies. I said to her, 'In my opinion, Rin-chan, your Lord Sesshomaru wields his youki like a blunt instrument. He tries to bully me with it'. She doesn't believe that you are trying to bully me." She glanced toward Rin and her gaze softened. "She defended you. You should be grateful to have such a loyal follower."

There were any number of things he could have said at that point. It had occurred to him to take her to task for her disdainful manner in addressing him. He'd wanted to chastise her for thinking to instruct him on how to treat Rin. He could have challenged her decision to tell Rin such information about demons or her right to share such asinine opinions with an impressionable child. She had put such a warped representation of their dynamic in Rin's head. "Picking on you," the girl had said, as if they were pups nipping at each other in the garden. If the intricacies of inu youkai pack hierarchy were going to be introduced to his ward without his expressed permission, they had best be explained properly.

In retrospect, he wished he had just borne down on her with all the weight of his youki and forced her into a physical confrontation then and there, but what came to the forefront of his mind at that moment was the necessity of correcting this impression she had of him. What she had called bullying was simple discipline, and to do so was not only his right, but his responsibility.

"Rin. You may roast your birds." He then walked toward the female, passing within inches of her to say, "You. Come with me."

She had snorted. "At once, your highness."

He'd ignored that for the moment and carried on towards the trees, and she'd followed despite her insolence.

Rin had called out after them, "Fuko-chan?"

"Don't worry about me. Why don't you have Jaken help you pluck those birds?"

As they walked, he had worked to calm himself. It was not like him to let someone anger him so easily, nor was he accustom to letting insult slide. But, he had counseled himself, one must quell the instinct to show her that her behavior was unacceptable through corporeal punishment. With her, it would lead to a struggle, which would only lead to bloodshed and hard feelings. He preferred that she be at least in a good mindset before he revealed her new position. He did not need her to like him, but if she chose to hate him, that would cause unnecessary drama.

And besides, he could imagine the distrust that would be roused by his change of attitude. He would have to waylay those concerns and show her the obvious advantages to being his before he informed her that she already was.

Remembering how quickly she had shifted from aggression to reserve moments before, he resolved to do just the same. He had reviewed what he would say to her. Though he detested having to explain himself, he knew he had to speak calmly with her about how she over stepped her bounds to avoid such mistakes in the future. Then they would have a calm, cool discussion about her behavior and her reasoning. She was so lacking in maturity. He knew he had to set a firm example.

They had stopped once they were well away from camp. He had turned toward her and began, "We will have a reasonable discussion about this."

"About what?" she interrupted. She was being contrary. He could see her intent behind the bland expression.

She had only been an arm's length away. Sesshomaru imagined that he had caught her throat in his hands at the moment and squeezed, but he could no longer picture violence against her without it logically playing out, and even in his fantasies she broke his hold, or simply drew her weapon.

He had stared for a few seconds before continuing, "You will agree that I am Rin's guardian."

She had looked taken aback. "Yes."

He'd added, "Not you."

"Yes."

"Then you must acknowledge that it is my decision when and if Rin should learn of demonic matters and in what manner she is taught."

Her ears bobbed and then she nodded slowly.

"Then you must recognize that you have over stepped your bounds."

"So I have."

Pleased, he had said, "Then I await your apology,"

The female had regarded him with lifted brows. "Sorry."

Displeased, he spoke with the slightest rumble behind his voice, "Your insincerity is palpable."

Her brows had lifted higher still. "What more is there to say? I told Rin something you weren't ready for her to hear. Sorry." She had cocked her head slightly. "Was that all you wanted? Because I should point something out now, while we're being reasonable."

"Speak."

She had sniffed at his tone, but then had proceeded to say, "I can't read your mind, so it's no use trying to censor myself according to what you may or may not believe Rin needs to know at any given time. But, I promise to try and keep your sensibilities in mind."

After a few moments of deliberation, he had decided that this was logical, if not totally satisfactory. He nodded minutely.

"Great. I'm glad we could chat."

She had turned to leave, but he was not finished. He had reached for her shoulder to stop her, but she was quick. She had turned back and glared at him for a moment before looking pointedly down at the claws of his right hand, which had been hooked tenuously in the hem of her sleeve.

"There is still the matter of your attitude."

That bland expression returned. "What about it?"

He had flexed his fingers, pulling the fabric into his fist as he clenched it. "It is unacceptable."

Her ears had flattened and she had pulled at the stressed fabric. "Don't tear my clothes, Sesshomaru."

A subtle tingling warned him that their auras had begun to clash, but he held firm against her tugging. "Lord Sesshomaru."

"I'll call you Sesshomaru, thanks." She had twisted her arm inside the sleeve and then finally reached for his hand.

He had yanked her forward a step and leaned toward her, speaking nearly against her lips. "You will address this Sesshomaru with respect."

The power of their combined youki had started to whip up the dirt and grass around them. She had tugged back with her whole body, green eyes steady and challenging. "I will address whichever Sesshomaru I please with the amount of respect he has earned."

He had yanked downward, stepping forward into her space so her hands were trapped between them before speaking in low tones. "Watch yourself. Our agreement in no way affords you special rights."

"I don't consider calling you by your name a special right. And why do you think that because I'm near you, it automatically makes me one of your subjects?"

Demonic wind had whipped higher, lifting the lightest ends of their hair. He bared his teeth. "You have the manner of a street urchin. By right of superior breeding, it naturally follows that this one should rule you."

She had stomped the instep of his foot—and with the pain, he disregarded his own counsel of only moments ago and shoved her back a half-step, creating the opening he needed to grab her ear in his free hand and twisted it. She had his ear in hand and was yanking before the action was even complete. The greater pressure he applied to her tender appendage, the greater force she used, dragging his head down until they were both on level and grimacing in pain. Their winds raged, flinging rocks and loose foliage back. They broke apart an instant later amidst snarls.

Even sitting under this waterfall, Sesshomaru could feel the phantom pains. After breaking apart, she had withdrawn her aura from his and left his youki without an opposing force, making the winds dissipate instantly. He'd taken three quick steps after her; she took three back. If he could have laid a hand on her, he would have shaken her. Furious, frustrated, he had said, "You are such a child." His clenched teeth parted now, as if wanting to echo the sentiment.

"Oh, but when you pull my ear—that's not childish."

It was, and it had disturbed him that that had been his first response. Now he wondered whether his position would be different if he had slapped her or dug his claws into the nape of her neck—some more appropriate chastisement.

She had rubbed her ruffled ear and then checked her sleeve. "Ripped. Great." She had glared at him, cradling the torn fabric like a wounded limb. "You! Get over yourself! If your breeding is so superior, why are you even in this situation?"

He had stroked a hand over the fur lying against his shoulder, reigning himself in. Perhaps she had meant 'this situation' as in the juvenile exchange of pinching and pulling that he could barely believe he had just played a part in, but it did apply to his overall situation: obligated to a stranger with no connections, saddled with a task fit for a porter. He had told himself then that if he kept letting his emotions rule him, the situation would last that much longer. He had to focus on turning this farce on its head.

He had narrowed his eyes and lifted his chin. "We shall revisit this once you are prepared to speak intelligently."

She had snorted at that.

He had begun walking toward her, back toward camp, and she had stood her ground. He had passed so close that they nearly brushed and he slid a sidelong look in her direction. Their eyes met. He recalled the moment as being rife with possibility.

But nothing happened. He passed without incident and continued toward camp with her trailing behind. This was not how he had wanted their interaction to play out.

The next hour had passed with his stony silence, but his mood barely glanced across the consciousness' of the females in his company. Rin was all taken up with the preparation of her birds and displayed a sort of manic happiness at picking wild herbs and learning how to build a dirt oven. Fuko disregarded him completely while digging the pit, mounding the grass and soil, and overseeing Rin as the girl banked the embers. Her eyes had skated over him, never lingering. Her ridiculous ears hadn't deigned to flick in his direction, even when he went so far as to sigh. If she would have acknowledged him, there would have been another confrontation. He would have made certain of it. He found that he intensely disliked being ignored.

After a long while of unreciprocated staring, he ceased fidgeting, not that his restrained shifting had been noticed or identified by anyone as such. His pent-up energies had been channeled into his aura instead.

She hadn't reacted as it began lapping along the edges of hers, except to deepen the false shallows of her power. Then youki had brushed so lightly, barely touching. It had been enough to let him feel the electric buzz of their opposed energies. He had refrained from encroaching further, keeping them in a delicate stalemate and smirking, pleased that she could not ignore him.

He began to watch somewhat less doggedly then as the two girls lolled next to the oven. Fuko had laid herself out full length on her back and held a jadeite stone over her head, turning it in her hands. Rin lay perpendicular to her with her head resting against her stomach and she seemed torn between watching the smoke rise from the mound and watching the rock turn.

"Fuko-chan? When will my present be ready?"

"A few more days, maybe."

They were quiet for a moment. Sparrows flew overhead, casting quick shadows over the grass. Ah-Un had stretched, climbed to his feet, and then began to graze.

"Fuko-chan? How much longer must the meat bake?"

"A couple hours."

Jaken, who had made a point of sitting on the edge of the clearing and glaring into the trees, glanced over his shoulder, scowled, and turned back. A breeze had rippled over all of them.

Sesshomaru had stared for a long while at her profile, not so much waiting for her reaction as surveying his new possession. His eyes had traced the plump curve of her cheek and caught the flash of her teeth as she answered Rin's questions. His gaze had sometimes drifted to her hands. The tendons on the inside of her wrists had flexed and pulsed, though by all outward appearances she was not exerting so much force on the stone. It was the same as when they sparred, he had thought. Her loose, almost casual fist dealt out a shockingly disproportionate amount of damage.

Thoughts of battle had filled his mind then, though his eyes lingered on the glinting green stone. He vaguely thought to ask exactly she intended to give to his ward, and then he was imagining the pleasure of holding her slim throat, exposed to him by starlight.

Tonight, he had told himself. She will submit. I'll make sure of it.

Rin asked again, "How much longer till the birds are ready?"

"Still a while longer."

"Oh."

And then, five minutes later, "Is my present close to being done?"

"No, not really."

"Oh."

This refrain was repeated for the next hour, but the only one who grew annoyed was the small, bitter imp. He had the good sense to hold his tongue, however. The daiyoukai had gained a small measure of peace from sitting quietly, testing the edges of her youki and her tolerance as the clouds rolled by.

Under the waterfall, Sesshomaru only recalled this span of time as a prelude to the tumult to come, but at the time, he had been beginning to relax. He had found the turning of her hands, her slim fingers manipulating rock, mesmerizing. They served as an easy point to meditate on and clear his mind.

His eyes had still been focused on Fuko's claw tips as they dragged across the stone surface when life's clock had ticked over onto his next major frustration. As he had watched, he had slowly come to realize he and his pack were being watched as well.

All at once his attention had shifted from the female laid out before him and to the forest beyond. He'd reached out with his aura, methodically searching. His eyes had narrowed, but he didn't turn his head or give any other indication of it, he had simply searched—and found him.

His mother's errand boy.

Magenta-touched eyelids snapped open, but his sight was still clouded by memory. The water coursing through his white-silver hair did nothing to cool his ire. Anger mounted atop renewed frustration and Sesshomaru again cursed his manipulative mother. What possible business could she have, asking for his presence so soon after their last meeting? The last thing he needed was an interruption and dammed if he'd allow interference.

He hadn't realized that he valued the secrecy surrounding his acquiring Fuko until it was compromised and there was no way short of killing the scout to keep him from telling his mother. Sesshomaru had considered killing him. It was just too conspicuous a move to risk.

As it was, his mother would rightfully assume he was invested in his new traveling companion, though she could not know to what extent. He could just imagine what lengths she might go to in order to find out.

Sesshomaru bared his teeth and fisted his hands, eyes narrowing. Let her come and observe, and too any other that wished to test him. He would ensure that none approached. Damned if he'd allow any interference, or interruption, or delays. There would be no more delays.

The daiyoukai struggled to rein himself in. His mother… her errand boy…

This was taken care of—seen to. Even if that rouge Sanjuro persisted in feeding his rumor mill, the lesson imparted to him upon their meeting might as well have been burned into his skin. It nearly was, in fact. The scout now knew how little his life meant to the Lord of the West, and how quickly it could be forfeit. Sesshomaru's eyes slid closed again, their vigil eased by a vicious smirk. His hands unfurled into calm nesting cups and he achieved the perfect lotus position again.

He'd left the camp on foot amidst requests for a swift return from Jaken and Rin, and once he was just out of ear shot, he condensed his youki mightily. He became an orb of energy and traversed the distance between his camp and the scout in mere seconds. The shock on the lesser demon's face was worth the expended energy and the discomfort of compressing himself into such a state.

The meeting had been short and brutal, though he refrained from laying a hand on the scout. He let his displeasure show through the pressure of his aura. Sanjuro, who had been rash enough to spy but sensible enough to admit it outright, had come crashing down from his bower by force of youki alone. Sesshomaru had been especially pleased with the effectiveness of this display. There was a certain satisfaction in it that could not be gained from disciplining Jaken. It proved that the Western Lord was as formidable as ever, not that he needed reassurance. It was just this fool female he had found who didn't know when to be cowed.

As complete as his subjugation of the scout was, Sesshomaru was the one left feeling as though his freedom was being curtailed when the lesser demon fled. The message that had been delivered on his lady mother's behest was short, but oh so obviously worded for great effect. It would please your poor, devoted mother to be gifted with her honorable son's esteemed presence at this coming summer's peak.

He had told the scout that he would not be traveling to the West this season and the lesser demon had had enough dealings with him to know that no other explanation would be forthcoming. It was not as if this was unusual. He had denied many a request to return to the castle.

As soon as he was alone, Sesshomaru had destroyed the message with his dokkaso. The words had been written on lamb skin parchment rather than the usual gampi paper, an allusion to Rin that did not escape Sesshomaru's notice. His mother was not so heavy handed as to use human skin, but the intent was there.

As if he needed to be reminded of his ward's second death. Or the recompense his mother might ask for reviving her.

Whatever that would be, it would not involve a simple visit.

Distracted by this new turn of events and feeling ambivalent about the encounter, he had completed the walk back to camp without attention, so he was not expecting to be tackled in the knees by his little human.

Though he had not really been hindered by her arms wrapped around his legs, he had stopped and looked down at her blankly. The girl was not usually so forward.

Her eyes glittered up at him with excitement. "You came back! You came back just in time, Lord Sesshomaru!"

Jaken was at the girl's side in an instant, trying to pull her off of him. "Rin! Have you lost your wits? Don't grab at Lord Sesshomaru so!"

"Let go of me!" Rin twisted, trying to wiggle away while still clinging to his legs.

He had watched the two struggle before him and it had been on the tip of his tongue to demand an explanation when Fuko appeared and lifted them both by the backs of their clothes. The girl she had tucked against her side and the imp she had held at arm's length as he flailed.

"AH! Milord, help! Unhand me, you- you!"

"Why don't you go take a seat at the table." She had tossed him back toward the center of the clearing. Sesshomaru had noticed then that a round stone chabudai had appeared there, evidently manifested by fox magic. To his surprise, not only the birds were atop it. There had been roasted vegetables and sliced peaches wreathed in wild flowers, and stone cups arranged around a tea pot with steam pouring from the spout. Grass-woven zabuton marked out four seats.

"Lord Sesshomaru!" Rin wiggled in the demoness' grasp. "We waited for you! Please join us!"

His first thought was to decline, but the combined gazes of the two females gave him pause. Rin was obviously excited and her eyes were expectant as she dangled. He could imagine the care she had put into preparing the birds and fixing the spread. He couldn't fathom why. He had told her before that he did not eat human food.

Fuko stood calmly with her arm supporting the child. Her eyes were watchful, ears tipped forward attentively, but her lips were slightly parted as if she would say something. He had expected to be ignored again. He had wondered if she had constructed the table and brewed the tea with him in mind. Would she invite him as well, if only to be amicable? Was this to be in lieu of an apology?

Their eyes had met and held. She had let Rin slide down to her feet.

Rin had come closer again, but refrained from touching. "Please, milord?"

He had continued to look to the female, wondering.

And then she had lifted her arms and crossed them behind her head, her expression shifting to one of annoyance. She had given a disquieted sigh before turning and walking away.

Rin had glanced after her. "Fuko-chan…"

His eyes had narrowed on her back as he watched her prod Jaken with her foot, saying, "Get up, please. Rin worked so hard. Go sit at the table."

He had snorted, thinking that the two scrawny birds would not have been enough apology.

Irritated and so wanting to reject the meal, Sesshomaru had nevertheless focused on Rin's feelings. He touched the child's shoulder, saying simply, "Come, Rin," before leading her toward the table. He had decided that he would accept the meal as Rin's gift. It was only polite, and the girl had earned his politeness.

At the table, it immediately became obvious that the entire scene had been constructed on Rin's initiative. He sat there swallowing feelings of absurdity as Rin played hostess from her seat his left, chattering eagerly about the preparation of the meal, pouring the tea to the best of her ability, and clumsily cutting the meat with a dull stone blade. She mashed more than she cut, but she did so with such a look of determination. He had never been served so inelegantly before and yet he was not moved to object.

Fuko sat across from him, watching with lifted brows as he humored the human child. He'd met her stare stoically as Rin piled meat before him until there was no more room, since he'd declined the roasted roots and the fruit. Jaken sat on his right, grumbling about the wasted time even as he accepted nearly half a bird and that same amount of fruit and vegetables onto his plate.

When she was served, Fuko accepted only a single piece of meat. "I had all those peaches earlier, sorry."

Rin had been poised with another large chunk of steaming white flesh and browned skin. "Are you sure you don't want anymore?"

"No, thank you."

"Okay." The child plopped the piece onto her own plate and quickly scooped up some of the other dishes. "Itadakimasu!"

"Itadakimasu," she had echoed, along with Jaken.

They each ate quickly and silently. Though he had begun eating without delay, it did not escape his notice that Fuko forwent the chopsticks and finished in three bites. She then settled in to watch, sipping her tea with both elbows resting on the table. It had annoyed him to no end that she would so blatantly watch him after ignoring him for hours. The longer he went without looking back, the more he felt her gaze, and finally towards the end of the meal he looked up into her eyes.

"Is there a reason you watch me so closely?"

Her brows lifted, one ear fell to the side and the other pointed straight up. "I didn't think you would eat."

He had let his stone chopsticks click sharply as he placed them beside his plate. Their auras had touched again then, so lightly, only offering the slightest sensation. "And why is that?"

One corner of her lips had tipped upward and she had glanced into her tea. "You don't seem like the type of guy to have a good appetite, is all."

His eyelids flickered and he let out a disdainful hiss, too faint to be heard with the roaring falls. Just what had she been implying with that imprudent observation? He hadn't known then and he didn't know now, but he was as certain as ever that this had been an insult.

At the time, uncertainty about the exact nature of the insult kept him from responding with anything other than a rumbling of his aura, and the moment was lost when Rin suddenly asked the table what they thought of the meal.

Honestly, it was the only saving grace of the whole morning for him. Though he had not been hungry, and though he generally did not eat cooked food, it was surprisingly good. Not as good as freshly-killed meat, but moist and flavorful. It pleased Rin when he told her so.

"I'm so happy you liked it, milord," she said, and then turned to the female. "Fuko-chan. Did you like it?"

"I loved it." She had licked her lips neatly, pink tongue flashing. "Great job, Rin-chan."

The little girl giggled. "And you, Master Jaken?"

The imp's response had been positive, but beyond that Sesshomaru could not recall. Fuko had begun cleaning the fingertips of her right hand with quick little licks. He could imagine how she would have reacted if he had done what he had thought of doing then, though why he should help clean her hands was beyond him.

He had left the table then, frustrated, and stood on the edge of the clearing to wait for the others to decamp.

They had such a late start that they did not make it nearly as far as he wanted before the sun began to set. The sight of the reddening sky had displeased him for this reason, but he had also felt a welling excitement. Soon, he had thought.

Not soon, he thought now with gritted teeth. Not soon at all. Remembering it frustrated him so deeply that a soft growl began to rumble up from his chest. The daiyoukai misremembered himself: the epitome of boyish anticipation, eager, looking to Fuko again and again with lust clear in his eyes. It disgusted him. How could he have allowed himself to pant after her? How could he have allowed such manipulation?

In truth, to all but the dog scout, Sanjuro, Sesshomaru had seemed his usual ill-tempered self. But, under the crashing of the waterfall and with the thundering of his own wild heart, he was convinced that his customary veil of frost had fallen.

She must have been aware of his affliction. How else could she have known to take advantage of it? How else could she have taunted and baited him as she did that night—leading him every step of the way into her trap?

How dare she attempt to break me down? To drive me insane? I won't let her, I'll—!

But his memories flowed on, pulling him into the next moment. He had waited while they set up camp at the base of a cliff and then had gone out to secure the area while Fuko and Jaken took Rin to find food for her evening meal. He had spent the last few hours' travel fantasizing about peace and quiet. Fuko had prodded Rin into a sing along, or so he remembered it. Both girls had clear, high voices, but the songs were… asinine. The female claimed they were well-known songs, classics. "Traveling songs," she had told Rin. But damned if he would ever live through the tedium of listening to them count a thousand bottles of sake taken down from a wall again. He had been too proud to let the female know just how much she was annoying him, but he promised himself, never again.

Sesshomaru had been sure to mark out a smaller area than she had and do it much more inconspicuously, thinking that if he wished to go hunting later, the hapless beasts of the forest would not be so scarce. They were approaching a mountain range that would need crossing before they could reach Bokuseno, so he also took the extra time to scout ahead some nine or ten miles to the base of the pass where he planned to cross. There, he had found only the old tracks of a single horse and rider, and these were so weather-beaten as to have lost their scent.

He had returned, somewhat soothed by the time away but still anticipating the night to come.

Rin lay in her bed, but had jumped up to greet him when he appeared, as did Jaken, who had been tending the fire. While his mind was still consumed with other matters, he had taken the time to address them both, listening to Jaken long enough to ascertain that nothing had happened in his short absence and then bending his ear to Rin, vaguely taking in her account of all that had happened while assessing her health. She was energetic, happy, and smelled passably clean. She had gained a little weight, he had realized. Her color seemed a bit high, though he could attribute that to the warm furs.

He laid his hand on her head and she stopped midsentence to beam up at him. "Hn." He had scratched her scalp lightly. "Bed."

"Yes, milord." She had shuffled over to her pallet and threw herself down, calling goodnight to each of them in turn until he gave the order to sleep.

"Yes, milord," she had said again and slept.

Fuko had crouched over her and whispered under her breath, "She fell asleep just like that? Weird."

Jaken had huffed as he went back to the fireside. "She at least has enough sense to obey Lord Sesshomaru."

"Right." The word had been said on a laugh. She stood then, linking her hands behind her head and turning away from the girl, the fire, and the rest of them. "Well, see you all in the morning."

He had followed her into the trees.

Just a few steps out of camp, she had glanced over her shoulder, frowning at him. Then, a few yards later, she had turned completely and said, "Hello?"

It had been his turn to lift a brow at her.

She had stared at him for a long moment before her arms slid down and crossed in front of her. "Why are you following me?" When he merely lifted his brow higher, she growled. "Don't be a jerk about it, just answer."

"Hmph. You challenged me, did you not?"

"I did, didn't I?"

He had gestured for her to lead on, so eager to fight that he could not imagine why she was delaying. He hadn't understood her intent, had not included himself in her 'you all'.

She had cocked her head. "I told you that I wasn't going to lose tomorrow. And I won't."

They had stared at each other for a few moments. Her had ears twitched minutely.

"Not going to lose tomorrow," she had repeated.

Sesshomaru's fingers had flexed, but he forced them to relax. It was true. That was what she had said. That did not give her the right to look at him as if he were some poor slow child. Rather than accept his mistake (or even really acknowledge it), he had stepped toward her. "We will spar tonight."

"Tomorrow."

Their auras had touched. Spurred on by this contact, he had stepped closer to glare down at her from his greater height. "Tonight."

She had rolled her eyes. "Um, no."

Even remembering, he wanted to strangle her. But when he had lifted his hand, she had rapped his fingers with her knuckles, and then left her hand poised between them, ready to bat his away again. "Hey. Unless you want a repeat of this morning, you keep your hands to yourself."

He had glanced at her cautionary hand, disdainful, and then let his fall as he slid his calculating gaze over her over. "You fear me so greatly that you will not fight me now. What could possibly change in a day?"

The glint of anger in her eyes was exactly what he had wanted to see and the surge of power in her youki exactly what he had wanted to feel. "Ha! You wish I was afraid of you!" But then she had smirked. As many times as he had expected to see it, her gloating expression had surprised him then. "You just wait. Everything can change in a day."

She had darted backward, quicker than his eye could follow. From beyond his sight, her words had drifted back to him. "I'm warning you. Don't follow me. Just prepare yourself!"

And then she had been gone. His hair had been lifted on the gust her movement had created and he had remained stuck in surprise and anger as it slowly settled. He had thought that he could taunt her into a battle, but she had escaped him. For now. She truly thought she could make him wait? "What are you planning?" he had wondered aloud.

Then Jaken approached from behind and he realized that his retainer had heard everything. For once, his voice was quiet. "How dare she? To think that she could plot against you. Milord, do you wish me to follow her?"

He had started forward, intent on tracking her. "This does not concern you."

"But, milord—"

Sesshomaru struck fast, snarling, viciously silencing the imp and knocking him to the ground. Jaken had cowered there, clutching his skull and mewling. It was pathetic.

Disgusted, he had flexed his fingers over the lesser demon and the sound of cracking knuckles was the only warning Jaken had before dokkaso dripped just inches from his face. "Stand or die."

Jaken leapt to his feet, shaking like a craven fool, but standing nonetheless.

Softly, he had asked, "Do you think me weak, Jaken?"

"N-no, milord!"

"So, you must find this one incompetent?"

"Not at all, n-not one bit, milord!"

"Then," he flicked his fingers and acidic droplets landed just shy of Jaken's toes. "why do you seek to interfere in matters that do not concern you?"

Eyes bulging, he had spoken quickly. "I only seek to aid you as I always have in the past, milord. To deal with those that are beneath you, so milord does not have to waste his time."

"It is my time to waste as I so choose, is it not?"

"O-of course! It is most certainly, milord!"

He flicked his fingers again, this time off to the side. "Listen well, Jaken. Your life depends on it." A shudder passed through the kappa, but he remained on his feet. Sesshomaru continued, "I will deal with this female, this Fuko of the North, personally. I need no proxy here. What goes on between us is not for you to question or concern yourself with."

"Y-yes, milord."

"Hn."

As he had turned, his gaze had fallen on the tiny smoking craters his dokkaso left behind. He would not have been moved to such a display if he had not been waiting, holding himself back from Fuko. He would not have reacted so harshly if she had not just denied him the relief he had been promised. Disgusted with himself now, he had continued on into the forest.

And into the mire of deceit and trickery his new object of fixation had left for him.

It had been hours, over half of the night, before he found her, the real her, balanced on a spire of rock at the edge of a clearing filled with tall grass. It was not another ghost with her shape and scent, nor was it another rabbit or toad transmogrified and set loose to confound him. After rooting out false trails and chasing apparitions across the entire range of her homing area, he could tell the difference. Eventually, he had been moved beyond frustration and anger to quiet, steely determination. The deadly calm made it easier to read her intent and break out of the cycling kitsune-esque trickery. So, as he had glided toward her from behind, as cool and stealthy as a shadow, he had not been without reason. He had resisted his first impulse, which was to tackle her down from her perch, and instead watched from a distance.

She had removed her boots, as well as her kimono and her weapon, which left her in the plain cloth kosode she customarily sparred in. All three discarded articles had been left at the foot of the rock pile. At the top, her toes of her left foot had delicately curled and gripped—belying the strength shown in the striking demon marks—supporting the rest of her as she had stood straight backed, right knee and elbows tucked against her body, and fists clenched at the ends of tensed forearms.

His only warning had been the slight flexing of her toes before she had pivoted. He had not attempted to evade, knowing that he would move too late, and instead prepared to leap at her. But, her eyes had been closed and he just managed to restrain himself.

He had prowled forward, coming to a stop just under her feet, near her discarded clothing. She had continued to stand frozen in that position, perhaps meditating or daydreaming, for it had been almost too easy to come up on her unawares.

In reality, she had being doing something much more dangerous, annoying, and insulting than that.

She had pivoted again after some time and then had suddenly leapt down from her perch, flipping extravagantly through the air before landing far afield at the edge of a burned out area of grass. He had ignored the scent of ash and smoke till now, thinking it another spent forest fire, but while he had watched, she relit the blackened grass with foxfire. It had burned indigo and low to the ground, but had then shifted color to violet. Smoke had begun to rise.

With a gesture of her hand, the smoke had coalesced into the figure of a person and Sesshomaru had recognized the type of magic that had had him chasing shadows for the last few hours. He had kept a reign on his annoyance though, and had been glad of it when she called out, "Hey. Will you help me again?"

A will-o-wisp phased out of invisibility, bringing with it the scent of the swamp in which it dwelt. They were odd creatures, quasi-sentient balls of gaseous flames and youki, and this one had bounced about as was usual to their flighty natures.

"Then assume the position, oh wispy one!" she said, and the spirit of the swamp drifted toward the smoke figure.

They had combined into a more substantial form with a certain mass and definition. A familiar mass and definition. Sesshomaru had blinked slowly, feeling the beginnings of an eye twitch and settled in to watch Fuko spar with a ghostly version of himself.

Sesshomaru immediately disassociated himself with the smoke shadow. How could a copy compare with the genuine article, after all? But, for a short time, he had been reluctantly impressed. Putting aside the indignity of having his likeness copied for such a purpose, he had almost been flattered by the exactness of her recreation. Though it was not aesthetically the same, being monotone in color and slightly transparent, when it came to battle it matched him motion for motion. He had watched avidly, tensing when he himself would have moved differently than the smoke doppelganger, but he had found that he could not really object to any one move it made or pinpoint any one attack that was unlike him or unusual to his style.

Watching them had given him a different kind of insight as well. Though he had kept his youki hidden, he had felt her youki flaring and pulsing as it did when they sparred in the past, but it did not burn as it should. The will-o-wisp could not generate enough youki to match her, and so her fighting spirit had no opposing force to spur it on. The dampened power of her aura had called to him, reminding him of how it felt to vie against her.

But they did not use youki when they sparred; or, rather, it was not meant to be a part of the exercise. They both had to work to keep it in background, clashing but with the swelling and flares becoming more touch than attack. It was in the physical realm that they contended. Sesshomaru would focus on the battle, on her body, and work to anticipate her movements, but he would remain very aware of the sensation of their demon energies stirring.

He had been so absorbed by challenge and sensation that he did not realize the intimacy of their matches. He'd had to see it from the outside to realize that, though they were lashing out at one another, a passionate, silent conversation was going on between them. Movement and response, attack and defense were effortlessly synced—quite simply, they were dancing. This was the oldest sort of courtship.

Here it is, he had thought with narrowing eyes. This is the evidence that proves my instinct, and yet I am not being allowed to partake. His lips had curled slightly, barring teeth, and any feelings of being impressed or flattered by the shadow doppelganger evaporated.

And then it had started to lose. She broke its guard and unbalanced it, the bodily dialogue violently interrupted, and Sesshomaru had had to sit and watch himself get beaten down. Then she had stood the doppelganger up and they had gone through the motions of its defeat again. Each time the same combination of blows disabled it. One to the solar plexus, partially blocked by a counter, but that would be ducked and she would be set up for the next: a rapid multi-punch to the left side. It would be staggered, and then she would drop and sweep it off its feet with a low kick.

After the doppelganger's third failure, Sesshomaru had had to struggle to bite back a rebuttal. Did she think him so dense as to be caught out by the same trick again and again? That will-o-wisp might have gotten some idea of his style, but it certainly could not match him for tactical innovation.

And she had seemed to agree. "Freeze! Right here!" She had been about to execute the multi-punch for the fourth time when she stopped and the shadow stopped just as exactly on her command. "See? He would attack again here. You're not so off balance that you can't use your knee."

Exactly, he had thought. She had then reached up to guide his shadow leg in the motion.

At this point, she had been crouched before the smoke doppelganger (an accurate copy of himself), holding and adjusting its leg. Her hands slid high on its thigh as she pressed it up and advised the will-o-wisp on how to move its smoke body. "How does that feel? You should be steady on your foot. Here, let me..."

Sesshomaru had watched his double lean forward, its empty eyes watching her manipulate its thigh. It had seemed to him the doppelganger was smirking and he was so focused on the sight that he had barely noticed how she repositioned its foot. He had begun to feel a bit more annoyed and a bit more than annoyed as well. He had wondered, what gave her the right to deny him and then turn around and satisfy her own needs with his likeness? What could sparring with a mindless swamp light offer that doing so with him could not?

Thinking back on that moment, Sesshomaru realized he had been envious—and rightfully so. She had been stealing from him. His fingers curled, claws slicing the misty air. He would have been willing to help her practice, if only she had asked.

(The daiyoukai was of course not considering the amount of asking—i.e. begging, groveling—that would have been needed to convince him or the additional price he would have asked for this service. Nor was he considering the ultimate futility of practicing a feint with the opponent the feint was designed for.)

He had been just about to show himself and demand recompense when she had stood and leapt back. "Okay, again!"

He had regained a bit of composure the instant Fuko no longer crouched at his double's feet and had resolved to watch this play out. If she mistakenly believed she would surprise him with an unbeatable attack, it would be that much easier to dominate when next they fought. He had been even more convinced of his plan. They communicated so readily with their bodies that there was no doubt that defeating her was the way to convince her of his superiority.

The pair before him had not just skipped through the motions of battle, however. They had started again from the beginning, and Sesshomaru had to wait, watching an unworthy copy of himself pitted against an opponent that was rightfully his.

The match had been progressing in bouts of cautious circling and rapid bursts of motion. During one of the phases of caution, just as the doppelganger had come close with its back presented to him, she had rushed forward and swung. The double had moved to deflect was had turned out to be a feint, but managed to counter the two-fingered strike to the vulnerable point above his hip bone with his knee. She had rolled with that strike, just managing to avoid the following stomp, and grabbed its ankle for leverage as she swung herself up, around its body and up in the air behind its back.

Sesshomaru had seen this acrobatic move before, and he'd fallen prey to it. The skin on the back of his neck prickled in remembered pain. Though he'd resented his double, he had narrowed his eyes in anticipation of her mid-air axe kick. Grab it, he had thought—and the doppelganger reached back, its hand moving into place before she was even in position. An instant later, when she had gone for the kick, her heel landed in its palm. It had latched on despite the shockwave of power the force of her kick must have sent through its hand, pivoting and using that momentum to twist her leg, coming around just in time to catch her other foot when it lashed out, forcing her to land on her hands. A second twist had spun her onto her back.

Yes! he had thought—and the word or some other slight sound of pleasure must have passed his lips.

"Let go!" she had ordered, and just that quickly she'd rolled upward out of its grip, twisted, and came down with another axe kick, this one laced with explosive youki and aimed at his exact location.

The blast had come ripping toward him, tearing up the ground, and, though he was caught by surprise, he easily dodged it. It had met and destroyed the rocks behind him, sending out cloud of pulverized rock and shrapnel that he stood firm against. Then, sensing an attack, he turned and raised his forearms to block a kick aimed for his face from Fuko herself.

Sesshomaru had experienced the shockwave and was forced to leap back under its power.

She rebounded off his block, flipping once before landing a short distance away.

They had regarded each other as the dust had settled, her crouched in the beginning stance of the Ii-Kitsune ryu, he in the first stance of the familial fighting style he'd learned as a boy. Now, he had thought. Imaging her fury at being found out, he had smiled. He would not let her escape, not with victory so close. Their auras had touched with electrifying results and he slid one foot forward, edging toward his opening attack.

Under the earthquake-born waterfall, Sesshomaru bared his teeth at his past self. You arrogant fool.

Slowly, she had smirked and her stance loosened. "Sesshomaru. What time is it?"

His eyes had narrowed, but he ignored the question, instead edging toward her again.

She had stood straighter, almost dropping the stance all together. "I think it should be past midnight." She had glanced up at the sliver of moon and found that its seat had fallen low in the sky, and then laughed, "Yep, tomorrow already." Her self-assurance should have served as a warning.

He'd been a second from lunging when she flapped her hand at him casually. "Why don't you get ready, if you're still so eager to spar? I'm putting my shoes back on."

She had turned and began to walk toward the then canted stone spire, swinging her arms like an excited child.

He had closed his eyes, felt a tremor shake his spine from the force of his suppressed response, and then had walked over to the shattered rocks to store his armor, weapons, and kimono, trying to ignore his opponent as she did stretching excises nearby.

Moments later they met each other from across the burnt out battle field, her crouched in the beginning stance of the Ii-Kitsune ryu and him in the first stance of the familial fighting style.

But the match… had not gone according to plan.

Hours later, the rising sun—the sun that would bring summer's first heat— had found Sesshomaru on his back, blinking dazedly up at the light and wondering like a fool how long he'd been unconscious. As he sat up, he had felt the myriad pains and bruises along his left side and the back of his head intensely, as if they were instantly acquired instead of built up over the course of battle. Jagged pebbles fell out of his hair as he had moved, and he recalled that it had been a kick he caught full on across the chest that sent him head first into the much abused stone spire and ended the match.

That was how he had lost and it was a bitter pill, but why he had lost still confounded him. Why was it that he could not keep her from striking his left side? He had known what she was going to do and how she going to do it, and still he could not defend against it in the heat of battle. All it took was a series of feints and he had been pulled into the same downward spiral as the doppelganger.

Sesshomaru had growled, wiping his bangs out of his face, thinking on his newly realized vulnerabilities, but then her soft laugh had made him look up then and he had found her standing over him, arms akimbo.

Her sweat-slicked skin had been flushed rosy, her narrowed eyes had glittered with satisfaction, and she had been panting, her pink tongue lying out over sharp white teeth. She had bent over at the waist, leaning in close to him. "I won," she said, and there was a low growl behind the words.

His stomach had tightened and his cock had twitched despite his pain.

Blinking slowly, he had lifted his hand and reached for her, toward that little grin. She blinked back, ears flicking downward and eyes nearly crossing in order to track the unhurried progress of his hand. He had wiped the blood from the scape on her cheek with his thumb before she thought to pull away.

"Hey." She had glared at him.

He had stared up at her, inhaling the scent of her blood before touching the thick red droplet to his tongue in order to taste the dust and the sweet metallic tang.

Her eyes had widened, but then she frowned, glaring again. "Quit it! You're just trying to distract me." She had crouched between his legs, glaring into his face. "There's no getting away from this. I won."

He had leaned toward her, thighs tensing.

"It wasn't easy. Not at all. So, I think I deserve a reward, don't you?" She had chuckled softly, the tone lower, almost sinister. "Finally. It's time for your penalty, Sesshomaru." She had lifted a hand and poked his nose. "It's time for you to eat your words."

He had snapped at her finger, his teeth clicking sharply together when she snatched it away.

"None of that!" She had poked him again. "Biting, Lord Sesshomaru? Where's your noble upbringing?"

He'd caught her wrist. "Stop talking."

Her eyes had widened in alarm, but he had already slung his arm around her back. Flexing, Sesshomaru had pulled her close, into his lap, and his hand had cradled the back of her head. He would have nipped her neck, or her lips, but she held them apart with stiff arms and bared teeth. He continued to bring his strength to bear, hooking his claws into her kosode and fully intending to remove it.

But, at the sound of rending fibers, she had snarled, wedged a knee between them, and then her foot had been planted in his stomach. Her legs were strong. When he moved to shift his hold on her, she twisted away like an eel. She had landed back on her bottom, he had shifted toward her onto his knees, but she dug her foot in against his gut, forcing him back. "What are you doing!? Admit your defeat and accept your penalty, Jerk-face!"

It was as if he only half heard the words. He had grabbed her by the ankle and yanked it to the side, intending to drag her to him again, but her other foot drilled into his crotch, just shy of his still roused member. Even missing, a jolt of pain shot through him. Disgusted by this turn of events and slightly daunted at the thought of a more damaging kick, he'd swept both feet to the side and snapped, "Just what is it that you want from me?"

She had withdrawn her feet, crossed her legs as well as her arms, and answered, "Even if you disbelieve it in the deepest cockles of your hypothetical heart, you are going to treat me as an equal. That means no more trying to crush me with your youki." She lifted a finger, ticking off every point and growing angrier as her list ran down. "No more grabbing at me like some sort of Neanderthal who can't use his words. No more ordering me around—if you need me to do something, try asking! And how 'bout this, just as a bonus, if you feel like you're going to say something derogatory, just don't say anything at all! I liked you better when you didn't talk!"

That he had let her finish this little tirade was baffling to him. He recalled only annoyance and frustration, he had wanted to swat her words away like flies. At least her accusations woke him enough from his lustful revere for his guttural response, "Ridiculous. It is your behavior that is improper, not mine."

She sneered. "You lost, buddy. This is the price you pay. If you weren't so full of yourself, maybe you could have lucked out and I'd be in your place."

"I do not rely on luck," he had said, easing forward.

"It certainly wasn't your skill that put you here."

He had lunged at her, but she leapt backward, leaving him crouched where she once sat and her just out of his reach.

"Use your words!"

"Be still!" He had lunged at her again, and came very close. Close enough to tear the hem of her kosode.

And in the next instance she was glaring at him from the edge of the clearing with her kimono and spear in her arms. "That's it! You asked for this!" And then she was gone.

Sesshomaru's eyes opened and he glared out over the magnificent view from his ledge under the waterfall. This, this was memory was the most bitter. She had been looming over him in triumph, in domination, jabbing at his nose and chiding him like a delinquent pup, and he had been so consumed with his lust that it was all he could act on. Sesshomaru did not understand himself in that state.

After escaping and leaving him there in the clearing, she had returned to camp and told Jaken that he was injured. He had been interrupted in his destruction of the forest around him by Jaken's rescue effort. The daiyoukai had still been sweaty and bruised from battle, though all his small cuts had healed, and the imp was so beside himself at the bizarre sight of his disheveled lord that his started wailing. Sesshomaru had had to knock him out to stop his caterwauling.

He'd stormed in to camp to find her polishing the blades of her spear intently and demanded an explanation. She had ignored him and he'd attempted asserting his dominance with youki once again. She rebuffed him with such force and swiftness that there was a blast of wind and an audible electric crackle. He'd answered with a reflexive surge of his own power, and the misty nature of her aura coalesced with his into a hurricane.

Their youki collided so forcefully that it jolted Rin into wakefulness. "What's happening!?" she had cried over the whipping winds of the unnatural storm.

Fuko had shouted an answer without looking up from her polishing, "We're having a disagreement!"

He had stepped threateningly toward her, ignoring Rin's anxious whining. "You will answer me when I ask you a question."

She hadn't even looked at him. Instead, she had rolled to her feet and twirled her spear. He'd laid a hand on his own weapon, questioning whether or not she would really attack, but then there was a flash of light and a clap of thunder, and their combined energy had dissipated. She had tapped the tip of one blade on the ground—casting a spell, as he'd soon realized.

Her youki was thereafter locked behind a barrier.

"What is the meaning of this?" he'd demanded. His attempts to touch her with his power caused nothing but an arc of energy to fizzle against a suspended spherical surface. He felt nothing but what one feels when they touch a wall.

"It's a barrier. To keep your aura away from mine."

"Remove it."

"No."

Sparks had flown, his youki bouncing off her barrier and lighting up the early morning grey. She had smirked at him.

At first, the change was merely annoying. He could not feel her to attempt it from afar, so he was forced to trail after the girls as they foraged in order to attack the barrier. He had been so certain he could force it open.

At first, Rin had pleaded with the demoness to take it down, but then the child had noticed the shifting colors of the sparks. Fuko had distracted her with tales of fireworks as they walked and that was the end of that. Rin had giggled and clapped at his every attempt to penetrate the sphere.

Jaken eventually returned from his sprawl in the woods and found Rin eating grilled fish and berries under a shower of sparks. He questioned the light show and Rin had replied, "Lord Sesshomaru is making fireworks!"

The imp's eyes had bugged, but then he sputtered, "Of course. They're beautiful, milord!"

He stopped then, aware that the barrier would not fall to youki attacks and irritated that his running failure was being applauded. He had reached for Bakusaiga, but restrained himself after a second's more of thought. When night came again, when they were alone, she would pay for this. In a moment more, he had resolved to continue his course of action and travel toward Bokuseno.

Once they were on the move, Fuko had come up to walk beside him, which immediately gained his wary interest. Then she had asked him how much longer it would be before they reached the Western lands, barely waiting for a reply (which he had not been planning to give) before asking if he knew the area that they were traveling through well. She had asked if there were villages nearby, and she had asked what time of year it was. She had asked about festivals, harvests, regional dishes, and the human daimyo roaming the lands. She had asked about the demon tribes in the area and how they were fairing through these "troubled times." She remembered that she had met a ghoulish youkai many years ago that fed peacefully on the dead of the battlefield, and then had asked if he knew this demon. She had described him, in minutia, down to the exact scent of the creature's ragged haori.

—In short, she had talked, and not only did she talk but she talked to him, saying his name before and after every other sentence, occasionally saying it twice, as in: "Sesshomaru, Sesshomaru, do you know this demon with the rotting skin and the oil-black eyes?"

Not wanting to walk alone, Rin had taken her hand and walked between them, nearly on his heels, and occasionally chimed in on the incessant chatter ("Lord Sesshomaru likes to keep where we are going a secret, Fuko-chan," "This demon sounds gross, Fuko-chan.") Jaken, of course, would not be left behind and followed much more closely than Sesshomaru liked, speaking in nearly incomprehensible grumbles about how annoying the demoness was being. For some reason, Ah-Un also chose to walk close and trod no more than three paces from his back, puffing his moist breath on the daiyoukai's hair with every step. Sesshomaru's skin had begun to crawl.

Finally, he had stopped, causing both Rin and Jaken to collide with his legs, and spun. "Silence."

Sparks had flown off the barrier as she regarded him with affected surprise. Then, she had smiled and said, "Your name is too long. I'm going to call you 'Shomaru."

She had dodged his reaching hand and regarded him smugly for a moment from just beyond his reach before turning and continuing down the deer trail they followed. More useless sparks flew before he'd regained the lead. His violent aura afforded him a few more feet's space from his followers—but not her, and so not Rin. The female had strutted fearlessly at his elbow and he had cursed her with his every step.

Next, he'd had to listen to an hour long conversation about himself, through which she continued to refer to him as "'Shomaru". Of course, Jaken had made odd, hacking sounds the entire time, overtly choking on his withheld words.

Rin had suggested that they be quiet so as not to annoy her lord, but Fuko had revealed readily that it was her goal. "I annoy so that he'll be forced to reconsider his own attitude towards me." On this point, the girls argued viability and semantics, both coming up with myriad reasonings to suit their cases.

Fuko: "The situation is this: he annoys me, and I can do nothing to easily stop him. This is what keeps us from being friends. I would guess that 'Shomaru is in general an annoying person, and this keeps him from having friends. But, I must say, you are the 'Shomaru expert here. In any case, my experience is that he does not respond to polite requests or light censure. So far, merely defending myself only seems to reinforce the idea that it is okay to annoy me. Beating him up is a long, arduous process and I believe that aggression only leads to more aggression. I submit to you, Rin-chan, that my only course of action is to be as annoying as possible, for the future peace and prosperity of us all, so that 'Shomaru can learn by example how it feels to be treated the way he treats people. Your counter argument?"

Rin: "Um. I don't think Lord Sesshomaru is an annoying person! And I am the Lord Sesshomaru expert! So— um. I think Lord Sesshomaru is the type of person who likes to be the leader. He is very good at being the leader. Leaders need everyone to listen to them and help them. I think if Fuko-chan would treat Lord Sesshomaru the way he likes to be treated, like a leader, he could learn by example how nice Fuko-chan is. And then he would be nice as well, because Fuko-chan is so nice. In this way, they could become friends. Um, your counter argument?"

Fuko: "Ah, Rin-chan! You make a good point. But, I must disagree nonetheless. Your tactics would work if I were you, or maybe Jaken, but I am me, or rather, I am not a follower. Now, I understand the confusion, but I am following 'Shomaru. I am not his follower. To put it another way, he is your leader, but he is my escort. What's more, he is my rival. The two tiles, leader and rival, do not overlap."

It had gone on in that strain. Rin's devotion came as no surprise, but the exact nature of Fuko's opinion had him grimly revising his plans for their courtship. She detailed exactly how she saw him—a tyrant unable to function among peers, closed off and prideful. She apparently had no fear of letting him know all this, besides. And she spelled out the current dynamic so accurately that he at least had agree on this point: "We've come to an impasse, Rin-chan. By his own word, there will be no negotiations or compromises. Without bloodshed, we both have no way to make the other do anything. So, until the status-quo changes again, this is what it's going to be."

In any case, he did not enjoy having his personality and motives dissected by a child and a female he could not discipline, so, for a while, he tuned them out. He told himself that they would reach the tree demon soon enough and he would get his revenge.

Then they had come to the pass.

"Watch, Rin-chan!"

Fuko was scaling the sheer mountain side to the right in an instant, completely ignoring the gently sloping path his had taken so much care in choosing. The female had bounded up and over a cliff and then leapt across to the other side, landing without stirring a rock or a plume of dust. As the mountains stretched higher and higher on either side, so did her feats of acrobatics become more enthusiastic. Rin had been at first concerned and then giddily entertained by the demoness' display, thrilled and shrieking at her every feinted misstep. She clapped and giggled from her perch on Ah-Un's back.

After only a few minutes, the cheers and shrieks became too much—far too much to be tolerated—and he'd turned and drove his fist into the mountain side. His strength, awesome and precise, cracked the solid stone but did not shatter it, sending a fission shooting upward to upset the rock ledge that the female ran along.

His violent action drew a gasp from Rin, but Fuko only skirted the new gap before nimbly bounding down the fifty-foot drop in two strides.

"What's the matter, Your Highness?" she asked as she alighted before the dragon beast. "Did the mountain forget to bow to you?"

Sparks had flown before he caught himself. Growling, he had squared off against her. "How can you revel in such idiotic behavior? Does it not bother you at all that you act like a wanton child?"

The barrier between her power and his shivered as she snarled, "I'd rather be a child than a psychopath!"

The ground had shaken with his rage as he'd stridden toward her. "What did you call me?"

She stuck out her tongue. "A psychopath! Crazy! One of the insanely anti-social!"

Damn, but how he had wanted to bite that offending little tongue. "You call me insane and still dare to taunt me?" He drew so near that the youki flowing off his skin threw sparks on her still-quaking barrier.

Little idiot. She had stood her ground while his rage shook the earth, face inches from his, well within his reach—and still she cocked her head, bared one fang at him, and let out a disdainful tsk.

He had pursued her through the corridors of the mountain then. Anger had swirled in his vision, fairly blinding him to anything else, except that he distinctly recalled sending Ah-Un the order to move on, down the pass and away from the spectacle he was making of himself.

The memory was more sensation than anything, but either she had leapt and he gave chase or else he had lashed out and made her leap. Whatever began it, she took the opportunity to taunt him. Her barrier had fallen immediately and the storm of their contentious youki broke over the mountain range just as quickly. She kept ahead of him, calling taunts and insults that spurned him on. They darted up and down the sheer cliffs, youki splintering the rock under their feet, their power thundering across the sky. Even as the mountain fell to shambles around them, she continued to dance on the edge of his reach, and even daring to take swipes at him when he passed too close. He had been snarling, this he knew from muscle memory, but she, she had been laughing, and the boisterous pealing reverberated over his half-memory.

But then, clear as crystal, he recalled catching her. Of course such a risky game would eventually turn against her. A falling bolder crashed into the rock face she was about to rebound off of, forcing her to cut her leapt short midair. The split second's slowing as she changed direction was enough and he barreled into her full force, tackling her into canyon wall, crumbling it on impact. In the end, he had her pinned to the deepest curvature of a crater bored into the side of the beleaguered mountain. She had thrashed in his arms, squealing, turning until they were pressed together font to font. He had buried his face in against her neck and she had shrieked, her claws dragging at his clothes as she tried to find perches with which to climb over him, "No, don't! Don't bite me, I was just playin', don't, don't, don't!"

He bit her once, smartingly, behind her jaw, but then soothed the skin with a swipe of his tongue and proceeded to nip and suck at her neck, raising welts in a trail down toward the collar of her kimono. It had been about all he could manage as she continued to struggle against him, kicking, clawing, squealing, though her screams had gained a new, hysterical edge—"No, no, no! That tickles, quit it! Sesshomaru! Quit!"

With the taste of her on his tongue, the next event he could recall with any clarity was the crumbling of the mountain pass in on itself. The shallow cave, if the crater could be called a cave, had started to collapse, the rock under their feet giving way, and she writhed right out of his arms the second her back was no longer up against a wall. He wondered sardonically if he would have kept at her tender flesh as they were buried alive, but that was neither here nor there.

The earth-splitting noise of so much stone torn asunder had drawn him out of his wild thrall. By some concert of bodily communication, they both bolted from the cave and through the hail of boulders, ricocheting back and forth among the crags as she followed him down into the valley where the rest of the group had gone.

They had stopped at the foot of the mountain and looked back at the sheer slope of rubble, piled hundreds of yards deep and thick. They had blocked the pass with their little escapade—and altered the face of the mountain.

Shocked, he had looked upon the scene of desolation and envisioned the shameful future of having his name attached to this mess. He had turned to her, just about to rebuke her for part in it, when she laughed again with the same exuberant laughter writ across the memory of the chase.

Braking form, Sesshomaru passed a wet hand over his face, wanting to wipe this memory away. The water falling against his back did nothing to ground him in the here and now

He had looked on her, with her flushed skin, bright eyes, becoming grin, her ridiculous ears flatted to her head, and her inexplicable mirth—and a chuckle escaped him. Her laughter had stopped short and she stared at him aghast, and still, laughter broke out of him. All he had been able to do was turn his back and raise a hand to stifle himself. He did not understand himself in that moment. Rage at her behavior, lust for her body, triumph from her capture, confusion because of her mirth, embarrassment at his own actions, these concepts he could understand, but he did not see anything that should have had him laughing. It had just been a feeling welling up from his muddled gut. In that moment of high, strained emotion, he had laughed long and hard, so deeply that it shook his chest.

She hadn't the sense to leave him to this new insanity. She had come around his back to look him in the face with those prying green eyes, tug at his sleeve, and ask, "Are you really laughing? Really, for real? You can laugh?" He had gripped her shoulder and firmly thrust her away from him, but she persisted, tugging more and more firmly at his sleeve. "Let me see. I want to see."

The more he swatted her hands away, the more she reached, until he caught both of her impetuous, questing hands in his, gasping, "Stop, enough!"

Her eyes were incredibly wide at she looked up at him. "Oh! Wow. That's… pretty good!"

He had shaken his head, trying to think, trying to breathe without laughing.

She had taken that as some sort of response. "Your smile. Is that even a smile? Whatever, it looks good on you!"

It was such an odd compliment, so clumsy. It was unworthy of his reflection; it shouldn't have affected him, but it had. There had been that odd wrenching in his gut that unsettled him more than his still spasming chest. He had slid his hand down her arm, keeping contact until he had her shoulder in hand again. He knew how easily she could squirm away.

"Yeah, you should totally smile more often, 'Shomaru," she had continued. "You might actually become a likable person. Really, wow. Look at you, playing and laughing all in a one hour period! Not glaring at all! Doesn't this feel better than being a jerk-face all the time? This could be a whole new beginning for you. What a bright future ahead—urk!"

"Stop talking." He had choked her with one hand, thumb over her windpipe, pleased to find that her throat was slender enough for this to be possible. A smile still curled his lips as he had whispered to her, "You are trying to drive me insane. I won't let you. I won't kill you, but oh, there are better revenges than murder."

One hand trapped, the other instinctively trying to loosen his vice grip on her neck, she gasped out, "You're crazy!"

He had dragged her closer, off of her feet, and ignoring her painful kicks he continued in the same quiet tone, "There are consequences to your actions, girl. The power you think you have over me, it will be turned against you. It is you who needs to prepare yourself now." He dropped her. "Tonight. Tonight, I will humble you."

As he had walked away from her, he heard her hiss, "Absolutely crazy!"

That was hours ago. Since then, they had rejoined the rest of the party and travelled in relative peace and quiet. He had kept his eyes trained ahead of him, ready to ignore whatever new annoyances she threw his way, but she chose to hang back and have a whispered conversation with Rin. He ignored that as well, even when she drew Jaken into it.

When they had come to the river, he left them to search for a place of meditation, this place—where the water could pound the tension from his shoulders and cool his hot head.

But that hadn't worked. Images of her, of their battles both somatic and locutionary, of the conflict inside him between the self-possessed daiyoukai he knew he was and the unfamiliar maniac that he was becoming. A maniac who could not help but snap, snarl, and salivate at this impetuous little female. His barely-suppressed youki heated the water around him to the point where the steam out competed the mist.

A laugh, her laugh, rang out, immediately catching his ear and all of his attention. He dropped his hand, opened his eyes, and saw from his great vantage point that, about a mile downstream, Fuko was accompanying Rin in yet another bath.

"She's doing this to taunt me," he said, watching as she scooped the nude child up and flung her into the river amidst jubilant shrieks. The demoness leapt in after her, bare from her ridiculous ears to her claw-tipped toes.

Steam roll off of him in greater waves as he watched them frolic, but he was not mindless in his agitation. He knew, distantly, that she was not aware that he was watching and so could not be provoking him purposefully, but that hardly seemed to matter in the face of all she had done before.

Losing all pretense of meditation, the daiyoukai leaned forward indolently on his unturned knee and long silver bangs washed down over his right eye. He traced with covetous eyes the curves that the female so thoughtlessly put on display. He could taste her skin on his tongue again, and regretted that the welts he left on her neck had healed so quickly. Even from this distance, his keen eyes would have been able to pick them out. But, there would be more welts, and in more interesting places than her neck.

It was another hour before they finished with their playful splashing and got down to the business of cleaning themselves, and then they spent another hour after that wearing their kosode loosely around them and grooming each other on the pebbled shore. During that time, the steam billowing from his skin lessened and lessened, belaying his increasing hunger. Though thoughts of pleasure still swam through his mind, his need for dominance and revenge started to assert itself and so his thoughts began to achieve a certain diabolical order. By the time the girls stood, stretched, and began to follow the ever faithful Ah-Un back to where Jaken waited, Sesshomaru was dry, dressed, and his amber eyes shone with molten resolution.

It was nightfall when he came for her and the sky was pitch black. His movements were smooth and languid, and a certain amount of frost laced his gesture as he signaled her from the shadow of the trees and touched her aura lightly with his. She was on the edge of camp waiting, or at least keeping watch, and she complied with his summons in wary silence. Rin and Jaken slept, the first in her bed roll, the second huddled around his staff by the fire. Only Ah-Un saw them go and the dragon was left knowing that he was to watch out for the others.

They reached the small glade he had scouted out ahead of time shortly, since it was nearby. When he stopped at is center, she stopped at its edge.

"Isn't this a little close to camp?"

Sesshomaru turned. It seemed that she had just been asking for the sake of it. Her weapon was leaned against a tree and she had already undone the bow of her obi. He watched as she folded the long strip of clothe over her arm. She glanced up and lifted her brows at him, silently questioning his failure to go to the other side of the clearing and disarm himself. Instead, he moved back toward her. She paused in the act of removing her kimono to eye him quizzically as he rested his swords next to her spear, and then went through the motions of removing his armor. Though he gave the appearance of paying her no attention, his senses were trained on her and he heard her near-silent uncertain hum before she took her eyes off him, turned away slightly, and slipped out of her kimono. He picked up the twitch of her ears at the rustle of his silk and furrow of her brow. In a second, she made that small uncertain noise as she crouched to remove her boots. Sesshomaru smirked as pulled off his socks, pleased to find that all he had had to do was remove his boots to get her to take off hers.

Because of the array of buckles and fasteners securing her boots, by the time she looked up again, he had shed multiple layers and stood bare-chested above her.

Her uncertain hum became somewhat articulate at the sight, "Um?"

But he remained aloof and walked back to the center of the glade without addressing her concern. He took the sensation of her gaze on his back as proof that he was affecting her. Even after she approached a moment later, he did not turn or acknowledge her.

Finally, the silence got to her. "Tsk, what's this all about, then? Are we going to spar or not?"

He turned. She was several steps away, much too far for what he had planned. This did not daunt him. She was fast, but his predatory past had taught him that a thing which could not be chased down could be trapped instead.

The annoyance in her eyes was completely phased out by confusion when he put out his hand, palm up. She stared at it for a second, then flicked her eyes back up to his. "What?" She huffed. "Change your mind about 'humbling' me?"

He suppressed his smile and quirked his fingers, inviting her to find out.

Eventually, she began to drift closer, side-stepping, sideling, making him turn to follow her movements, until finally she reached out and touched his palm with her fingertips. Her youki brushed his curiously, but he kept himself tightly in check. He had withheld himself from her since the mountain pass incident. His patience was not so spent that he would waste his efforts and snatch at her now, so he waited until she put her hand in his properly before he wrapped his long fingers around hers and drew her closer.

She had no reason to let him pull her nearly flush against him, but Sesshomaru did not question that she allowed it. Instead, he dared more, slowly taking her other hand, and when she only put up a token resistance, spoke low, modulated tones so as to put her at ease, "Shall we sit?"

"I'd rather not." And yet, she allowed herself to be pulled down as he folded his legs underneath him. "Ah, Sesshomaru," She fidgeted on her knees, only vaguely approaching the proper seiza position in her agitation, "what is this? I thought you were mad? Don't you want to, you know, fight? He-ey! Are you petting me? Don't… I don't like you, cause you're rude, so stop. Listen, if we're not going to spar, then I should—"

"You talk too much."

Her eyes narrowed in anger immediately, but with the hand that had crept up her arm to rest on the back of her neck, he swept her up into a kiss.

Everything he had been withholding since the first time she challenged him poured forth, as hot and uncontrollable as a volcanic eruption. The world and his plans for it fell away completely, swallowed up by sensation and excitement. Her probing tongue and the muffled sounds coming from her throat didn't reach beyond the roaring in his ears. He could almost believe he was still sitting under that damnable waterfall, but she tasted and felt far too good to be mere fantasy. The satin softness of her mouth combined with pulse and pull of their youki intoxicated him, and he was only vaguely aware that he was pressing her backwards.

Sesshomaru tumbled Fuko onto her back with a hand fisted in her hair to keep her mouth locked to his and a knee wedged between her thighs. The kiss only fueled his hunger for more. He slid the other hand around her waist, smoothing the cloth over her skin before running his touch to the front, where her kosode was tied closed. He loosened the belt gradually as he took from her, consuming her mouth, taking her squirming, her muffled groans, her pressing hands and the sting of her claws in his shoulders as tribute.

Just as he was beginning to grow lightheaded, Fuko yanked her head to the side and gasped for air. He drew back slightly and was surprised to find himself breathing heavily. He glanced down at his partner to be sure his eagerness hadn't thrown off his intent and saw that her eyes were closed as if in a dream. The sight of her flushed and panting underneath him sent another surge of arousal through him, but it swelled his ego just as well as other parts. Languorously, he buried his nose in the crook of her neck and took in her scent on a long inhale. He was not at all surprised at the delicious musk of arousal. Hints of it had been spurring him on through that breath-taking kiss. A growl of pleasure rumbled out of him on his exhale.

Under his fingertips, he felt her velvety ears twitch and jerk at the sound. "Wh-what?" She sounded so bewildered, so nervous. He had known that she would be less experienced, but this was remarkable. A throaty chuckle welled up from his chest; it was cute. But then her arms began to tense again, putting an unwanted pressure on his shoulders. Not cute. If she thought he was finished, she was sorely mistaken. He would not be satisfied until she was begging for it.

His first impulse was to distract her with another kiss, but he needed to keep his wits about him. Instead, he gave a final tug to the ties of her kosode and slipped his hand inside the loosened folds. She gasped and tried to wiggle away when he touched her stomach. "Be still," he commanded, and then nipped her neck in reprimand. There was a quickening in her aura that he recognized as annoyance and her claws dug hard into his shoulders, but whatever retort was on her tongue came out garbled. He'd cupped her sex just as she began to speak.

What's this? Sesshomaru frowned against her temple, trying to identify the swath of thin fabric under his hand. He could feel her dampness through it, but the edges clung so tightly to her skin that he hesitated to try and catch them with his claws. The wet heat of her under his fingers was too tempting. He took the most expedient route, hooking his claws in and giving a firm tug.

The strange cloth shredded like tissue paper, and the female under him howled as if wounded, "My panties!"

A struggle ensued, or at least began again in earnest. She lunged up, half way out of his arms, and though he tried to adjust his grip, he only caught fistfuls of her clothes. He yanked her down by them, and her kosode slipped off her shoulders and effectively snared her arms behind her back. He was momentarily distracted by the sight of her breasts bound in another strange garment and she brought one knee up between them. In a second, he was at an arm's length, with only his grip on her clothes keeping them together and only her foot planted on his chest keeping them apart.

"My panties! They're ruined! What's the big idea, why would you do this?!"

He was still fairly distracted. "Why have you bound your breasts?"

"Bound my—let go of me! Hentai! S-stop looking!" Her other foot came up and kicked him in the jaw, turning his head away.

Her panic dominated her aura, battering his senses like a psychic scream. Stunned by her behavior, he tried to rein her in with his mokomoko, but the second it slithered up her torso, she snarled and snapped at it.

"Damn it, stop your squirming! Calm yourself!"

"Hentai! Get off! Get OFF!"

They strained against each other and it was her clothing that stared to give. At the sound of rending fabric, she shrieked, "My clothes! Hentai! Let go of me!"

"Stop fighting this! You want me, I can smell it—"

"Let go!"

The fabric gave and she was gone in a second, leaving him with tatters of cloth, the sting of rejection, and an abiding confusion as to what exactly had just happened.

()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()()

In the next instant, Fuko was back at camp, though she hardly realized she had traveled there. She froze before the low embers of the fire, clutching her kimono, spear and boots like a security blanket, and then darted past the slumped and sleeping Jaken to where Rin rested against the warm, inert mass of Ah-Un. She stared down at the girl for a second, trying to think through the panic. What was she here to do? Was she going to wake Rin up? To do what? Tell her what happened? Demand an explanation?

How could this little girl have known her guardian was a pervert?

Fuko gave her head a furious shake, hoping that the memory of his slick tongue and groping hands would fall out of her ears. No such luck. She could still feel them.

She began pin-balling, pacing back and forth, diagonally, across, and at half-lengths. If one could see the rushing form, they would know this display was one-hundred percent panic. Even without seeing, Ah-Un got the sense of it and grew increasingly concerned at this sudden activity.

Her face was lined with anxiety, nose wrinkled and brows low. What could she do? Where could she go to escape? He was her guide. She was so close to her answers, her ever-lengthening quest nearing a critical turning point or even a point of completion. Could she abandon this path and start looking for another?

She shivered, spine first. Sesshomaru (that pervert!) would be here any minute. Fuko saw his face flash before her eyes and flinched away from the burning intensity. Lust. It was decidedly predatory, completely unforgiving. What could he possibly want from her? Why? They disliked each other, didn't they?! How could he want that!?

And the way he had touched her, it made her feel strange, think strange things. She didn't want that, did she?

Fuko prayed. It wasn't really a conscious decision, but then, so little was. At that moment, she prayed very hard for a way out.

And like manna from the heavens, a shard of her own youki returned to her from on high and slid into place like a dagger into flesh. The pain was immediate and paralyzing. She stumbled over her own feet and then caught herself, now clear-headed and filled with purpose. Shippo the young kitsune was in mortal danger.

Her youki exploded outward, indigo-tinged winds rushing up like a cyclone. She was breaking herself down, coalescing again into her true form, but even as her face elongated, her bones cracked, and her spine popped and lengthened, she was able to reach into the tattered sleeve of her disintegrating kosode.

Jaken and Ah-Un were slammed with the force of her change, one jolted from dream to nightmare and then gradually into consciousness, the other purely shocked and frightened by what he'd witnessed. The ryu beast leapt up, pawing at the air in his fright. Rin was rudely awakened, which tends to happen when one's pillow suddenly flies away. Jaken flopped to his side and then rolled to his feet. Eyes still closed, he brandished his staff and yelled.

When they opened their eyes, Fuko was gone. Though they didn't see it in the low light, shards of jadeite littered the ground where she once stood.


To be continued…

Chapter X: Inuyasha, the Wounded Boy