I do not own InuYasha or any of the characters created by Rumiko Takahashi

Chapter 99

Kinjiro watched his father leave the office. "Finally," he said, and stood up "It's time to get busy." As Aki's eyes grew wide with terror, he watched the farmer walk towards him.

"What . . . what?" Aki said. "What are you going to do?"

"Wipe your nose, boy," Kinjiro said. "We've got work to do." He began to untie the rope from the post that had kept the boy from running. "We're going to go to the shed and get some tools. Then we're going to go up the hill. And then you're going to start earning your keep."

After releasing the knot, he gave the rope a jerk, pulling Aki to his feet. "And you don't want to fight me on this. Who knows? Your grandfather might yet send you to Odawara."

Aki looked at his grandfather, who glared at him and gave a curt nod, reinforcing Kinjiro's point. "Do it, boy. Don't bring any more shame on me or your grandmother today. Do as you're told."

The boy sighed and dropped his head as Kinjiro led him out.

"Well, that's done," Daitaro said.

"Not for you, friend," Toshiro said. "You still have to go home and tell your wife. I'd be getting ready for trouble in a few days if I were you. You don't turn a brat around in five days."

Tsuneo gave a deep sigh. "I...I need a breath of air," he muttered, his voice thick. "I'll be outside waiting for Tameo."

Susumu started to get up. Daitaro grabbed his sleeve. "Let him be for a moment, man. This is his grandson. It hurts. And he still has more to do until he has at least some of his honor back. He needs to breathe. You didn't see your father when it was your turn to be in Aki's position, but I saw. And remember."

The guard settled back down and nodded. "You're right. I don't know what I'd do if I was in his place and watching Mitsuo being led off."

"Like your father did. What he had to do," Toshiro said.

"And knowing you and how you were at Aki's age," Daitaro said, "I suspect you'll be in the same place some day."

Susumu's face fell at the thought. "Uh . . . "

InuYasha's ear twitched. "At least he has someone who cares what happens to him," he muttered.

"That is true," Toshiro said, looking at the hanyou thoughtfully. "If he can learn from this, he will make a whole group of people very happy. And probably end up with a much better life."

The conversation stilled. Miroku, playing with his tea cup, suddenly looked up and grinned. "Daitaro, you sly devil."

The old farmer looked at the monk curiously. "And what do you mean by that, Houshi-sama?"

Miroku grinned. "I was just wondering if you learned this from handling that bull of yours. Letting Kinjiro lead that boy around for days. He's probably going to be worn out and tired by the time he gets to your house. By the time you get him, he's going to be glad to get away and be some place else besides doing what Kinjiro tells him to. He makes me tired watching him sometimes."

Susumu laughed hard at that, soon followed by the other men. "You noticed that about Kinjiro, did you?"

"Chichi-ue always said that a man can learn a lot by studying his animals, and that they could teach you a lot about men," Daitaro said. "Chichi-ue was a smart man."

"He must have been, to get you to behave," Susumu said.

"You don't know the half of it," Toshiro replied. "Come by my place. I'll tell you some stories."

At Tameo's house, Emi sat near the fire pit cooking while Kagome held Aomi, Emi's youngest. The girl was fast asleep, her head resting on Kagome's shoulder. It was surprisingly silent - no children playing in the yard disturbing the peace. In fact the only sound that filtered in from outside was the squawk of a chicken and the voice of a man who was yelling at it.

"It's nice to have a quiet minute," Kagome said. "It's been such a strange couple of days."

"Yes it has," Emi said, agreeably while she poked at the fire underneath a big black kettle hanging from the main fire pit hook. Bending forward, she skillfully knocked the coals away so it would cook slower.

"You don't have to keep holding Aomi-chan, you know," Emi said, lifting up the pot's lid. A delicious smell of fish and onion lifted into the air with the steam. "I know how heavy she gets. Lay her down on the mat."

"She's such a pretty child," Kagome said, running her hand gently over the toddler's head. "But then, all of your daughters are."

"I wished they all acted as pretty as they look," Emi said, laughing softly. "I'm glad Aomi got the chance to nap. You have a way with her. I'd been trying to get her to sleep for an hour, and you come in, sing a little song, and there she goes. I'm glad. The others will be back from the river soon enough, and it'll get very noisy, very quickly. Nothing like a room of hungry children to make noise. That will probably be the end of her nap."

Kagome, nodded and gently laid the sleeping child down on the mat beside her. The girl didn't wake up, but shifted a bit to get more comfortable. Aomi had just settled down when Hisa slid the door to the back room open and stepped inside.

"Your stew smells wonderful," Hisa said, closing the door behind her. "I think I'm getting hungry."

"It ought to," Emi said, putting her stirring stick down and smiling at her mother-in-law. "It's your recipe. I hope it tastes as good as it does when you make it."

Hisa walked over to the cabinet and took down her sewing basket. "I have no doubts, daughter."

Kagome looked up at the older woman."How is he?"

"Asleep, like he ought to be. If it had been up to me, he wouldn't have come to the meeting at all. I suspect Kinjiro slipped him more sake than he ought to have, hoping it'd make him drowsy enough to rest. He's like that," Hisa said. "Doesn't really matter what I tell him. He'll use the quickest and best way he can think of to get things done. Funny thing is, he's usually right. The heavens know that boy needed to rest."

"He's really had a hard time," Kagome said, nodding.

"He has, hasn't he?" Emi said. "He's a brave little man. I hope we get to help him get to be a brave big man."

"He seems a lot different than Aki," Kagome said. "How did he ever get dragged along in all this trouble?"

Hisa walked over to join the two women. "It's the usual story. They're cousins, live near each other and were raised as almost brothers. They've done everything together since they were quite small. Did you have any brothers or sisters?"

"One brother," Kagome said. For a moment a shadow crossed her face, but then her smile brightened. "He's younger than me."

"Ah, so you don't know what it's like to be dragged into something?" Emi asked. She recovered the pot. "My sister and cousin were always getting me into things when I was small."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that. I had these three friends." Kagome smiled. "We grew apart after the year I spent here on the quest, but when we were younger . . . "

"Well, that's how it was with Aki-kun and Isao-kun," Emi said. " I've gotten the impression lately that Aki was bullying him and a few other boys. It's hard for young ones to say no and mean it."

Kagome nodded. "Oh, I know how that is. My friends, they were always trying to get me to so things I didn't want to, and they weren't even trying to bully me." She sighed a little, remembering. "There was this boy they wanted to court me . . . " Her voice dropped off, but then she looked up and gave Hisa a small smile. The older woman nodded knowingly. "So now what happens?"

"I suspect," Hisa said, opening her sewing basket and taking out a length of fabric, "that they will make Isao-kun Susumu's apprentice. He will live here, and Susumu will teach him what he knows about farming and fighting. I know that's what my son wants. He's taken to the boy."

"He was talking to me about that last night," Emi said, nodding. "I wonder how Mitsuo's going to react to not being the only boy in the family."

"He's going to be both jealous and happy," Hisa predicted. "I bet he'll be pestering poor Isao to play all the time." She threaded her needle and began to sew.

"I hope he likes horses," Emi said. "Mitsuo will be galloping all over him with his toy horse. "

The women chuckled softly.

While they were still laughing, the front door slid open. "It smells good in here. Fish stew?" Tameo said as he walked in.

Hisa smiled. "Yes it is. You took another break? How much longer, do you think?"

"Not too much," the headman said, sitting down on the edge of the raised wooden platform to slip off his shoes. "We've decided some things. Isao will be staying here as Susumu's charge."

"Good," Hisa said. She shifted the fabric she was sewing in her lap and started a new seam. "Poor boy. Between his father running off and Aki, he hasn't had a lot of good luck."

"I thought you'd like that part," Tameo said. "Not so sure about the rest."

Hisa looked up, raising an eyebrow in curiosity.

"We decided on Aki, finally. Tsuneo's always been easy to work with without Haname trying to play games." Tameo shook his head. "Sad that all this has fallen on his shoulders, though. Now we just need to finish up giving the man a chance to save some face by making reparations to InuYasha and Kagome-chan."

"Is that where InuYasha is now?" Kagome said, looking toward the door, which remained obstinately closed.

"I suspect so. Nobody followed me over here." Tameo stood up on the platform, and walked across the room towards the water barrel.

"What did you decide?" Hisa asked. Coming to the end of the thread she was sewing with, she deftly secured it in place.

"Daitaro wants to take him in," Tameo said, lifting up a dipper of water. He looked in the barrel. "The children haven't filled up the water up yet? It's getting low."

"They should be on their way back," Emi said, as she moved to the kitchen work counter. She fished out a piece of pickle out of its bucket and rinsed it off in a basin.

"Daitaro does?" Hisa laid her work in her lap and reached for her thread. "Somehow that doesn't surprise me."

"Really? He was willing to do that?" Kagome asked. "And he was telling me this morning that whoever took the boy in was really going to have his work cut out for him."

Tameo chuckled."I believe that. But my cousin enjoys a challenge. He was the most wronged in this case and everybody would agree to his right to have the boy work for him as compensation, but really, it's just his way. He probably thinks it's like getting that bull of his to behave."

This caused Emi and Hisa to laugh. He used that moment to take a long drink from his dipper. "But it's not quite so simple this time. Daitaro doesn't want to take him in yet, not until after his son's wedding."

"Who's going to deal with him until then?" Hisa asked, picking up her sewing basket. She lifted its lid and took out her scissors.

Tameo dropped the ladle back into the water bucket. "Kinjiro."

This was followed by the sound of scissors hitting the wood of the floor. "Kinjiro?" Hisa said, looking up rather shocked. "How . . . "

The headman tried to hide his amused look as his wife picked up her scissors and cut a length of thread. "He volunteered. Says he wants to put Aki to work cleaning up the mess he made." Tameo scratched his chin. "What's the most secure place we can have that boy sleep? Kinjiro, being Kinjiro, thought we ought to put him in the lockup at night."

"The lockup? He would," Hisa said, and sighed. "This is what I was telling you about, Kagome-chan. He always thinks of the simplest solutions, and tries to do them, even if it would shock everybody else. That room is made for violent men, not a wayward boy. I'll have to think."

Frowning, she rethreaded her needle, tucked it into the fabric, and put the whole thing back into the sewing basket. "There's that shed on the other side of Kinjiro's house. I'm sure it's dirty, but the door can be secured. The guest house would be out of question. Or maybe your uncle's old hut. The roof's sound, but we'd probably have to leave him chained to a post, unless you're sure he won't run." She stood up. "I better get busy looking."

"I'll leave that to you," Tameo said. "You're the wise one about things like this." He turned to the young miko. "Meanwhile, Kagome-chan, we need you back at the office. One last thing, and then you'll be free to go. Or stay to lunch. You might want to do that. The fish stew . . . that's one good thing to look forward to today."

"I hope Kinjiro knows what he's in for," Hisa said, putting her sewing basket back on the shelf.

"I doubt it," Tameo said. "But he'll learn fast."

Outside, a girl yelled, "Mitsuo-chan, stop that!"

"And the children are back, it sounds like," Emi said, looking at her sleeping daughter with a sigh. She got up to intercept them before they spilled into the house.

"Come on, Kagome-chan," Tameo said, walking back to the edge of the platform. "Let's get back to the office. Things are going to get a little crazy here in a few minutes."

Hisa, tying back her sleeves, gave him a knowing look. "You mean they aren't already?"

Kagome, not knowing what to say to that, followed the headman out of the house.