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Earning Her Stripes by The Hatter Theory

Chapter 1

Earning Her Stripes

By: The Hatter Theory

This is for Managarm. Happy anniversary Neshomah.

Disclaimer: I don't own Inu Yasha or it's characters.

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Her life had been utterly, completely, thoroughly disrupted by the well's decision to throw her into the past. Some might have said her life was destroyed by it. As it was, they did say her teenage illnesses destroyed, if not her life, any chances at having a normal one. Despite her best attempts -which included night time prep schools and going without sleep for two or three days at a time- she had, quite simply, missed too much school to make it up.

In the end, she had been designated the family heir. Miko did not need to have a formal education, so long as they knew the rites and understood their meaning. It had been a blow to her ego, spirit, and heart. That day the future had stretched before her, a bleak gray expanse of nothingness.

In her depression over her lost future, friends, and life in general, she had turned to art. After all, she had few pictures of her time in the feudal era -a place she missed missed more and more as time went by- and drawing pictures of it became her outlet. Proving an aptitude, she took classes with what money she earned at the temple. Her mother encouraged her first in simple sketching, and then presented her with paints.

The world of the past came alive beneath her fingertips. Never was she without her sketchpad, and even her grandfather gave up on her future as a miko. Her mother continued to encourage her art, and soon the house was decorated in paintings and sketches, big and small, of the past and the people within it. Enemies, friends, loved ones, battles and moments of sorrow. Far from immersing herself in grief, she found a sort of relief in getting the images out of her head and on a canvas.

It was not long before her mother urged her to show her portfolio to a local gallery. The gallery owner in turn was impressed with her realism, and being one of the strange art elite, was also impressed with her unflinching honesty. There was heartbreak and blood, joy and fury, even bitter pride. That she painted the same people over and over in most of her pictures didn't bother him, and he agreed to do a small showing for her.

First he accepted three of her finest pieces, and they sold within days for the full asking price. After that, he agreed to give her a whole room for a week, to see how she did. The overwhelming approval of her art was a shock, each piece being bought on the night of the showing.

She didn't notice that she was suddenly making money, not really. When several people spoke to her of her painting's hidden meanings, she nodded politely, but said little. The crowd drawn was a mixture of old money and new wave bohemians. The old money didn't speak with her much, and the new wave bohemians were a little absurd, at least to her.

“Have you ever considered getting something tattooed on you?” A voice asked. It was the first time she had heard such a question, and it was so different from the constant psychobabble or art critiquing that she was pulled from her quiet apathy, almost dropping the glass of wine in her hands.

“Tattoo?” She asked, looking up at the stranger with wide eyes.

“Many of your recurring characters feature markings, like tattoos. I find them striking, beautiful. Have you ever considered taking something of them for yourself?” He asked, dark eyes shining in the carefully chosen lighting.

“I suppose not,” She admitted, noticing that he did have tattoos, simple jagged lines like lightning bolts on his neck, reaching around to the front and almost meeting in the circle of his shirt like a necklace. He pulled a card from the back of his pocket.

“I only do tebori, the old way,” He told her as she accepted the card. “But I would be delighted to do yours for free.”

“Why?” She asked, confused by his offer. It was definitely a first. People had offered to take her to dinner, to gallery shows, and some had been presumptuous enough to invite her on private getaways. No one had offered to give her something relating to her art, indeed, anything that might last longer than a moment in the grand scheme of things.

“Your art moves me,” He admitted. “It hurts to look at it, but I can't ignore it or look away.”

Since she had often felt the same way about the paintings and sketches on the walls around them, she nodded in understanding. His offer given, she assumed his goal was complete when he walked away, melting into the crowd of people around them. Looking down at the card, she saw his name printed in solid black lines.

“Jun Tashinaka, Horishi,” She said aloud. Below it was a phone number, no address. Slipping the card into her pocket when another art critic (and they were all critics, even if they weren't) assaulted her, inflicting their vision of her past on her. If she was absentminded as they spoke to her, they wrote it off to 'creative genius', if they even noticed it at all. From time to time her fingers would slip into her pocket and finger the card, finding a reassurance in the solidity of it.

_______________________________________________

He answered the door with a kind smile, his long hair pulled into a low pony tail. Unlike before, he was wearing a simple man's black tanktop, exposing the lines of his arms. On them were blue lightning bolts similar to on his neck, a long blue splash of color running down the side of each arm, contrasting vividly with his tanned skin. He welcomed her into his apartment, a posh affair with hardwood floors and simple furniture.

“I have a few designs drawn up,” He offered. “Since you didn't seem to know what you wanted.”

She followed him into his dining room and sat, looking at the plethora of sketches laying on the table. Each one was neatly aligned, and there were easily over a dozen of them, all of them of a whole woman's naked body, front and back, decorated either sparingly with simple lines and slashes, or covered with whorls and patterns.

“Something simple,” She told him. “I like simplicity.”

“It is somehow more elegant, isn't it?” He asked as he began looking over the table. Quickly the more elaborate designs were discarded, and she gave a small sigh of relief, glad she hadn't offended him in some way. When he was done, eight designs remained.

“Do you have color preferences?”

“Not really.”

“Would you like some tea?” She nodded her assent, murmuring a small thank you. He left her alone with the sketches, and she poured over them, eyes devouring the pictures greedily now that she was alone. Some of the designs were not to her taste, easily mimicking the paintings she had done of the band of seven or other enemies. Some were too colorful, clashing garishly.

One caught her attention in it's utter simplicity, although she would never have guessed it would. Taking the sketch in her hands and looking down at it with sad blue eyes, she considered the simple curving stripes that ended in tapered points. Magenta lines started on the back of the shoulders and dipped over them, tapering to points just under the sketched female's collarbones. Two of them were mimicked on the wrists, one on each side of the hips, two on the thighs and ankles. A prussian blue crescent moon was suspended between the collarbones, the bottom curve of it resting just above where her cleavage would start.

“I like that one too,” A voice said, startling her from her reverie.

“I never imagined Sesshoumaru's markings like this,” She admitted.

“Is that his name?” Jun asked her as he sat a cup of tea in front of her.

“Yes.”

“Do they all have names?”

“Yes,” She admitted after a moment's hesitation.

“You care about them.”

“I do, very much.”

He contemplated her quietly for several minutes, his eyes unreadable as she stared back.

“Is that the design you like, or would you like me to draw up some more?”

Feeling reckless and strange, she handed him the sketch. Adrenaline pumped through her for the first time since her return, and she nodded once.

“This one is the one I want.”

“I can start today. If you can handle the pain, I can probably finish it today too.”

“We'll finish it today,” She told him, slightly breathless. After all, she had endured much worse before, surely tattooing wouldn't be so bad.

As it happened, the worst part of the experience came first. He showed her to a small room in the back, one void of any decorations or windows. In it was a simple futon in the center of the room, and a large wooden box. He asked her to undress, and with some trepidation she removed her clothing while he turned to the wooden chest and opened it.

“Everything?” She asked.

“Everything,” He told her. “Don't worry, I won't eat you,” He chuckled.

Still nervous, she unhooked her bra and slid her panties down before laying face down on the pallet, surprised by it's softness.

“Are you ready?” He finally asked.

She wasn't sure, but she nodded anyway. After all, it was a link to the past. Even if they mimicked his marks, he had been the closest to the party to have any, besides Inu Yasha, and the memory of the hanyou's markings emerging only brought a sour taste to her mouth.

The needles were sharp, and the spot punched over her shoulder blade tingled through the whole area.

“Breathe,” He told her in a gentle voice. Afraid to nod, she settled for following his advice quietly, breathing in measured counts.

“In three, hold three, out three, hold three,” He instructed in a soft cadence. Following his instructions, she found she began to feel a little lightheaded. The needle puncturing into her skin echoed strangely through her body, becoming a strange tapping. She-sha-sha-sha. It thrummed and vibrated through her pleasantly. Each time her skin was punctured, the waves of sensation rippled through her with their own sound in her head. The needles pushed into her in their own rhythm, which wove into the sound of his voice and her breathing.

Time lost meaning as she fell beneath the surface of water only she could feel. The world was on the other side, seemingly separated by a sheet of ice forming over the water itself, the images becoming static lines that wavered and rippled. With each puncture of her skin, the ice grew thicker until she was completely separate from the other side, held gently in stasis. The water was warm, and she floated calmly.

When he told her to get on her back, she did so without a shred of self consciousness, lost in that euphoric daze. Even the pain of the needles had faded into nothing more than an echo of pressure. As he spread her legs and bent them up, she felt no fear or shame, only a kind of wonder as the lines appeared on her skin beneath his hand and the needles. When he wiped blood and excess ink away, she could only stare at the solid lines striping her legs in awe.

While he worked on her ankles, she was sure she was floating two inches above the futon, the whole room around her warm and bright.

After he finished, he looked up to her, looking tired but triumphant.

“You have a strong constitution, Kagome.”

“They're beautiful,” She murmured dazedly, her throat strangely thick and the words coming out slightly slurred.

“They are at that. You are beautiful,” He told her. “They complete you. Would you like to see?”

She nodded and stood, completely unashamed in her nudity, and he took her hand gently in his large callused one. Led like a child, she felt like she was still floating as he walked her into the main hall of his apartment, where a set of sliding doors to a closet were covered by giant mirrors. A light came on, not overly bright, and she marveled at the picture she made.

“I look so different.”

“You do. You look like a youkai now,” He murmured. She didn't look up at his reflection in the mirror, still too caught up in the stranger staring back at her. Before she had looked quiet, tame. Now she looked wilder, the glow in her eyes betraying her euphoric state. With a strange surge of satisfaction she realized that he was right, she did look more like a youkai, a primitive spirit from one of her own paintings.

“You have earned them,” He told her in a quiet voice. The statement barely filtered through the ice between them, muffled and strange. It shouldn't have made sense coming from him, but lost in the high, she nodded, feeling that she had understood his meaning.

“I have a spare room. Stay tonight,” He told her. She nodded, following his lead back into the depths of his apartment. Like a parent putting a child to bed, he helped her beneath the covers and tucked her in. When he kissed her forehead like a father would, she smiled up at him, feeling not the least bit silly for how he treated her.

“Thank you so much for this,” She sighed.

“As I said, you have more than earned them.”

He stayed with her as she drifted off to sleep, which was not long in coming.

_______________________________________________

A year had passed since the day she had gone beneath Jun's needles, and she was standing next to the horishi, listening to the animated chatter of the crowd around her as they took in a new series of her paintings. Jun made a point of coming to all of her openings, just as he made a point of dropping in on her every few days to see how she was doing.

“I've found my own place,” She told him once the small crowd had drifted off to take advantage of the free wine and champagne. “I move in next week.”

“Good for you,” He told her, genuinely pleased to hear the news. “I have a friend coming in from business overseas. I think he'll be a buyer.”

“Can he afford my agent's prices?” She asked with a laugh. Since acquiring the agent, she had enjoyed even greater success, becoming a well known name in the art world. Though she still found the critiques of her art's content to be hilarious -some of the pseudo psychological profiles they gave were beyond ridiculous- and the crowds didn't appeal, she did enjoy painting, and if she were completely honest, the money. Getting her own place was what she felt she needed, especially since her own home didn't have the kind of space she needed for a studio, and her late hours had begun to bother her family.

“I don't think it will be a problem,” He chuckled.

As many people that came and looked at her paintings looked at her tattoos with gleeful curiosity. For the first few months she had hidden the healing scars with long sleeves, but as soon as the healing process was finished, she had taken to wearing shirts and dresses that showed as much of them as possible. While the ones on her thighs and hips stayed hidden, she found no shame in the ones that showed, no matter how other people stared at her. Her own mother had clucked her tongue and shaken her head, but accepted them, and her brother had begged to get his own. Her grandfather had -as expected- offered to try and purify them away.

Jun had approved of her choice in clothing, and only told her she had more than earned the right to wear the stripes and crescent moon. While his comment made no sense to her at all, she had supposed he meant because of her art. After all, if he had known the truth -that is, if he could be persuaded to believe she wasn't crazy- he would have laughed. As it was, she found his quiet friendship a comfort.

They had grown close in the past year, and though she had briefly considered the idea of trying for more, the thought had died a quick, painless death. It was enough to have a friend that seemed to understand her need for peace and quiet. Like her, he was an artist, and he seemed to know when to push and when to leave her alone, and when she just needed someone to listen.

“You were right,” A voice intoned from behind them. Kagome turned and looked at the newcomer, having to tilt her head back to look fully into his face.

“Kenbu, it's good to see you,” Jun said in a genial tone. “This is Higurashi, Kagome, the wonderful woman that painted these,” Jun introduced. “Kagome, this is Morito Kenbu. He is one of my friends.”

“It's wonderful to meet one of Jun's friends,” Kagome said warmly, extending her hand in greeting. However the man seemed caught by the sight of her chest. Having grown used to such ogling, not because of any ample amount of cleavage, which she didn't posses, but because of the tattoos, she smiled.

“Jun was kind enough to gift me with my tattoos,” She explained.

“I believe she earned them,” Jun said, his voice strange. Kenbu nodded once, eyes grazing over her shoulders. Finally his hand came up to clasp hers. It was large and warm, encompassing her own dainty hand completely in it's subtle strength. She fought back a blush when she realized she hadn't let go after the proper amount of time and dropped the appendage as if it burned. His head tilted to the side, and she noticed a long ponytail sliding across the back of his shoulder, and had a vision of him modeling for her.

As if sensing her thoughts, his lips, full and firm, tilted up into a small smile.

“Do you have more than what is here?” Kenbu asked, eyes finally leaving her and scanning the room.

“I do, although they're a bit disorganized.”

“I would like to come by your studio and see them.”

“I need to move into it first,” She admitted with a laugh. “I'll be done by the end of next week.”

“Here is my card,” He said, sliding out a small cardholder and opening it. A smooth business card was offered, and she plucked it from his fingers, looking at the name printed on it. Below was the title 'antiquities', as well as a phone number. As with Jun's card, there was no address.

“I will be in town for the rest of the month,” He informed her.

“I'll call you as soon as everything is moved,” She promised. And she knew, that unlike the others that constantly asked to see her work and gave her cards and phone numbers, that she would call him back.

“I knew you'd enjoy her art,” Jun said with a small smile. “Kenbu deals in old things, but sometimes he can be forced to look at something new,” The horishi added with a conspiratorial wink, earning a light laugh from Kagome.

“These are not new,” Kenbu murmured, looking at a painting across from them. Kagome turned and saw he stared at one of Inu Yasha in a feral moment, when the seal on his blood had shattered. Blood spattered his clothing and hair, and a young woman -her, though her face was buried in his white kimono- embraced him, face hidden from view. It made for a tragic and fearsome image, and she hoped briefly that he didn't want it, as someone had already purchased it.

“I have painted all of these in the last year,” She told him.

“But they are not new. You paint old gods and spirits as they were,” He replied almost absently, his eyes still on the painting.

Warmed by his words, perhaps one of the most profound critiques she had ever received, she nodded with a sad smile.

“I'd like to think I do,” She answered quietly.

“You succeed,” He replied, his gaze swinging back to her.

“If you'll excuse me, I need to find another glass of wine,” Jun said. “Would you like a glass?”

“I would,” Kenbu told him, eyes still fixed on her. Jun left them alone and she found herself pinned beneath his intent curiosity, as if he didn't quite know what to make of her.

“What does your art mean to you?” He finally asked.

“It is everything beautiful and terrible that I have seen,” She answered honestly. “Everything I have ever loved.”

“Seen?”

Realizing too late what her choice of words had been and berating herself for such a slip up, she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.

“In my dreams,” She added. “In my dreams, they are still here, still alive and breathing.”

“Most women do not dream of such.”

“I have never been most women,” She sighed, thinking of who and what she had been once upon a time.

“I suppose not,” He admitted, the topic closed when Jun came back with a glass of wine in each hand. The conversation stayed light, on her art and Jun's, as well as Kenbu's recent business. From time to time Kenbu and Jun would exchange meaningful glances, and she began to wonder if they were lovers. She'd never asked Jun about his orientation, had never thought to.

Resigning herself to the thought that all beautiful, attractive men were gay, she smiled softly and decided that if nothing else, Kenbu could become a good friend.

_______________________________________________

The first few nights in her own place had been difficult. There was no Buyo to make noises as he walked the halls, or the creaking of the fourth stair to remind her of home. No familiar smells of her mother cooking and sounds of her brother playing his stereo. The condo itself, as nice as Jun's, was simplicity defined. Her own belongings, sparse at best, had been easy to put away. Furniture she had ordered with Jun's help had arrived the day before she moved in, simple stuffed couches and wooden tables. A sense of emptiness echoed through the whole of it, reinforcing the loneliness of living by herself.

Deciding to get a new pet, she visited the local humane society and picked out a grown tomcat that had appealed to her. The white cat's torn ear had initially provoked sympathy, but his imperious gold eyes had demanded nothing less than the respect due his species. Half in love, she was delighted when he curled up in her arms and purred like an engine.

With Yasha -as he'd allowed himself to be called- around, she no longer felt so lonely as she began arranging furniture to her liking. In turn he watched, curled up on the window seat that had been the second deciding factor in the purchase of her lease.

When the main rooms were done, she walked into her studio and looked at the multitude of boxes and wooden crates.

“I'd better get to it,” She told the cat at her feet, who looked at her with the apathy only cats could muster.

Her three easels were unpacked, then her boxes of paints were stored lovingly in the chest of drawers she had found and painted herself. Canvases and frames were put on one wall, and her finished paintings stayed in their wooden crates, protected from light and dust. It took her over three hours, but she finished as darkness fell.

“I'll call him tomorrow,” She yawned, stretching her arms over her head. Her new bed called, and with the company of Yasha, she found it easier to fall asleep.

_______________________________________________

He looked strange, standing in her apartment. An anomaly, or aberration. His well tailored suit struck her as fitting better with sleek glass and steel furniture, modern and chic. Her condo was comfortable and warm, with soft couches and pillows, the wood furniture echoing her own light tastes in blonde woods and light stains. Every set of curtains were pulled open to let in the afternoon light, making the whole place seem even more light and airy.

“My studio is this way,” She told him as she walked through the kitchen and to the biggest room in the condo. He followed quietly, padding silently in his socks. Yasha wound around her feet, almost tripping her.

When she opened the door, the smell of paints and turpentine and canvas wafted out. He followed her in and she gestured to the wooden crates, their sides open to reveal the slots where her paintings rested.

One by one he examined them, eyes carefully blank as she presented him with each image. Worried he found her subjects repetitive, she tried not to fidget when he nodded, a silent signal for her to put another away.

“Your detail is astounding,” He told her as she slid the last back into the crate and closed it carefully.

“Thank you.”

“Is this your newest?” He asked her, walking over to an easel where a painting sat drying.

“It is.”

“Jun said you name those depicted therein.”

Understanding the question for what it was, she smiled warmly.

“This is Sesshoumaru, a daiyoukai,” She told him. The painting itself was of the daiyoukai surrounded by a sea of monsters, his youki swirling around him in a maelstrom of light. His left sleeve was nothing but tatters, exposing an arm that held a frightening sword still crackling with blue lightning. His head the was thrown back in a howl of triumph. Though he had never done such a thing, she had imagined he felt like it at least, that it is what he would have done if there had been no audience.

“Your tattoos mimic his.”

“They do,” She admitted.

“I would like to purchase this one when it is ready.”

“Would you like to choose a frame for it?”

“If you give me the dimensions, I will have one made.”

Her canvases were as much of her own making as her paintings, and she measured the painting carefully, jotting down the dimensions on a scrap piece of paper with one of her thick pencils.

“What is your inspiration?” He asked as he accepted the paper and slipped it into his blazer.

“Perhaps dreams of a former life,” She hedged.

His gaze was as considering as the one Jun had given her a year before, and he nodded quietly after several minutes of quiet contemplation.

“Would you join me for dinner?”

The idea appealed, and she nodded her assent, staying quiet so that the excited cheer that was trying to escape her throat wouldn't pierce the air.

“I will be back at seven to pick you up,” He informed her with a quiet authority. Far from annoying her, she found it attractive. He was as unlike the flashy, chattering crowds at the galleries as anyone could be, and his subtle strength relaxed something in her.

“How should I dress?” It had become a common question. Never sure if she was going to be taken somewhere nice or to a bar, she had chosen to be blunt, even if the question seemed indelicate.

“Something nice. That shows your tattoos,” He added. She nodded happily. She didn't own much that covered them, so at least that wouldn't be a problem.

_______________________________________________

Dinner was a quiet affair, and if the host seating them found her tattoos startling, he hid his reaction quickly. The restaurant was nice, it's atmosphere almost romantic. Wondering if she was on a date or just eating with another customer -and there had been no shortage of people wanting to be seen eating somewhere with her- she allowed him to order their wine and food, even if it was rude of him to do so without asking her.

“Your card says antiquities,” She observed, making small talk.

“I collect and deal in them, mostly weapons,” He told her.

“Is that why you're so drawn to Sesshoumaru?” She asked, thinking of the painting he had been so interested in.

“In part,” He answered. “The portrait, it reminds me of something.”

“What?” She asked.

“Perhaps a former life,” He replied enigmatically, as she had earlier in the day.

When the server came with wine, he poured their glasses and handed one to her. She inhaled deeply, enjoying the smoky scent rising from the glass.

“Jun said he presented you with many different designs,” He observed as he sat his glass down.

“He did. All of them were beautiful, but the sketch of these-” She stopped, unable to find words. There had been no logical reason for her choice, and though she looked at herself every day and took pride in the markings contrasting sharply with her flesh, she still could not explain why she had chosen as she did.

“You were partial?” He asked.

“They felt right,” She answered, realizing it to be the truth. “The simplicity and colors, they flowed, I guess. It's difficult to explain.”

“I think I understand,” He told her before taking another sip of wine.

“How do you know Jun?” She asked him. “It's not often a businessman and a horishi travel in the same circles.”

“Those who appreciate the old ways sometimes cross paths. I have no doubt you have met several of us and will continue to do so. You art draws those with a passion for a bygone era.”

The idea warmed her even as it caused a flicker of sadness. They would appreciate the old ways, would have studied them and loved them, but they would not know them, not really. It was a bygone era, one that only she could understand and know.

“I have upset you,” He observed.

“No,” She told him, smiling softly. “It was a passing thought.”

They spoke of her paintings, his antiques, and the world outside of Japan. She professed an interest in seeing some of his collection, even sketching some of the objects for her paintings, and he had answered that such would please him. She savored her meal and the red wine, both mixing perfectly, and didn't begrudge him for ordering for her. After all, it was a sensual delight when combined with the gentle cadence of his words, and her own modulated tone mixed as well with it as the wine did with the food.

He admitted one of his goals was to reclaim weapons taken after the second great war, and told her of his latest venture in Europe, where a tycoon had bought his samurai obsessed son a two million dollar sword to play with. His tone reflected his disgust, and she couldn't help but empathize. The boy had let go of it only because he had offered a newer one -of infinitely lesser value, but better quality- as well as the aforementioned buying price. His confession didn't shock her, but she did venture to say that she supposed that the boy and his father both deserved to have the sword taken away.

She admitted she didn't like going to her own gallery openings, because the people there bothered her while they tried to pick apart her art. He listened while she told him about the silliness of most of the critics, and when she chastised herself for bemoaning her fate. He had then agreed that critics were generally fools, but that she did deserve recognition for her talents. Again he complimented her vision and the energy of her work, it's realism, and she blushed, unsure if it was the wine making her warm or his intent stare.

They continued on in that manner for hours, wine flowing slowly, and she took her time with her dessert, hoping to stave off the inevitable end of the evening.

By the end of dinner, she found herself charmed and thought that perhaps he did as well. Any assumptions about his sexual orientation had died, and she decided very firmly that whether or not he liked men, he liked women as well.

When he drove her home, he walked her to her door and leaned to down kiss her chastely before pulling back. For a moment his eyes reflected the light strangely, and she was sure it was a trick of the light.

“When will you be free?” He asked her, hand pushing her unbound hair behind her ear.

“I don't have anything scheduled for the next week, except for painting. I can't promise my dreams will follow a schedule,” She replied with a breathless laugh, cheeks flush with pleasure.

“I will call before I retrieve you,” He promised. She nodded and stepped into her apartment, closing the door behind her quietly and then leaning against it.

Not since before she had been forced from the feudal era had she felt so strangely elated. Wondering if the old hurts had finally healed, she slipped off her high heels and walked through her apartment back to her room. The simple white sheath of a dress unzipped and fell to the floor in a whisper of silk. Yasha curled around her bare legs and meowed plaintively.

“I do believe I'm developing feelings for him,” She admitted as she bent over and picked up the tom. His fur was soft against her skin and his purr vibrated against her chest as he butted his head beneath her chin.

“You think so huh?”

A meow answered, sounding pleased.

“Well, we'll see. He could just be interested in the art.”

Another meow answered her, one that sounded reassuring.

“I hope so.”

_______________________________________________

When he picked her up, she still had remnants of paint on her fingertips despite her best attempts to shed them. The night before had been spent painting the disturbing scenes of being inside of Naraku, which that had spilled out like a nightmare purging itself from her memory. It would be the first time she had painted anything from that day, and even now she felt withdrawn, too lost in the past to make conversation. For his part, Kenbu seemed more than willing to enjoy the silence.

The drive was long, and had she paid attention to the scenery, she would have noticed that they left the city behind and then the suburbs. Trapped in the images still itching to flow from her fingertips, she pulled her sketchbook from behind her seat and her pencils from her bag, not even paying attention to him or considering that what she was doing might have been rude.

They left in the early morning and arrived in the afternoon. When he stopped, she was still sketching furiously, her hands smudged with graphite.

“We are here,” He told her in a quiet voice, startling her from her reverie. The pencil jerked wildly across the page, leaving a long streak through the sketch itself, bisecting the piece with a jagged bolt of black lightning.

“I've startled you,” He observed, a hint of apology in his tone. Shaking her head, she closed the sketch pad and put her pencil back in it's case.

“My fault for getting so wrapped up in the work. I'm sorry I haven't been much company,” She sighed, feeling badly for ignoring him. Only days before she had been excited, and until the memories had hit the day before, she had been anticipating spending time with him again.

“Your dreams seem to have run away with you.”

It was an excuse that she allowed because he seemed to understand. Grabbing her other sketchpads from the backseat, she got out and followed him up the path from the driveway and over a light marked by large, round stones that were smooth and seemed to glow in the sunlight. The house itself was very traditional, and she wondered if he was a fanatic for the older eras of japan. The building was rather large, a mansion by her standards. He was quiet as he led her to it and stepped up the wooden stairs on light feet.

Doors slid open and she followed him down a hallway that felt long enough to qualify as a corridor. Unsure where in the house they actually were, she was grateful when he paused and gestured to the door in front of them.

“I have brought up several items and displayed them. Do not be afraid to touch them should you need to move them. There is a window that should provide natural light, and artificial lights as well.”

“Thank you for this opportunity,” She mumbled, thrown slightly off kilter by his dismissal. Instantly she reprimanded herself for not talking to him on the ride up, and began trying to figure out how to apologize.

“Are you hungry?”

She was going to tell him she was fine, but her stomach chose that moment to make itself and it's wants known. She had ignored it the night before and the whole of the morning in her frenzy to sketch and paint, and she was paying for it now.

“I will bring some food and tea.”

“Thank you,” She whimpered, mortified. He nodded once and she could swear he looked amused as he walked away. Taking a deep breath, she turned back to the door and slid it open, pleased by the amount of light filtering into the open windows. Stepping in and closing the door behind her, she looked to the wall on her right and almost dropped her pads and bag.

On an iko, hanging innocently, was a familiar red kimono. Her breath caught in her throat as she stepped forward, and she tried to tell herself it was not the fire rat robe, that it couldn't have belonged to Inu Yasha. But the sword sitting on it's stand next to it killed any doubt, any hope of clinging to ignorance and disbelief, both of which would have been safe. Tessaiga hung suspended between two wooden rungs, resting peacefully. On a smaller stand the rosary hung heavy, draping into two thick strands of beads.

Needing to look away, to see anything but that reminder of her past, she turned around, only to face another iko, this one draped with a familiar white kimono that she had never, ever thought she would see again. Red chrysanthemums decorated the edges, the hexagonal pattern around each small flower print perfectly dyed, each line still crisp, as if it had been made only yesterday. Draped artfully over the top of the iko and down it's sides was he blue and yellow sash she remembered, had painted a hundred times.

Next to the iko was the armor Sesshoumaru had worn on another stand, displayed proudly.

Two swords lay suspended on rungs, and she stepped forward, her sketchpads falling from nerveless fingers. Seconds later she followed, her knees striking the wooden surface echoed through the room. Tears burned on the surface of her eyes, and her heart stumbled and stopped, then began beating again.

The thought of the people who owned that armor not needing it, not needing anything anymore, burned through her. The realization that her past had been reduced to a collector's curiosity hurt her, stabbing painfully into her heart. The people she had fought with, been friends with, had loved were nothing, insubstantial spirits that could no longer fill the kimono or hold their swords.

The door slid open, and Kenbu stopped at the entry, tray in hand.

“Where did you get these?” She whispered, not caring that her voice wobbled dangerously as she stared the kimono down, wishing for the youkai that had worn it to appear and pull it on. Out of all them, she had been sure he at least, would live on. How angry would he be if he knew that his prized possessions were owned by a collector, even if the collector was an especially appreciative person?

“Those have always been mine,” He replied quietly after several minutes of tense silence. Turning to him, seeing if he was playing a cruel joke, she was stunned to see the visage of the human male melting away as he stepped from the shadowed hallway and into the light of the room. Black hair dimmed into white, and tan skin bled into alabaster marked with magenta stripes. A perfect, prussian blue crescent moon hung suspended on his brow.

“Sesshoumaru?” She whispered, blue eyes widening. For a second the image wavered, and she wondered if she had finally snapped and given in to the memories she had immersed herself in daily.

“Miko,” He answered, his voice deepening just a notch, sounding much more like himself. It was that word that snapped her from her doubts, although it did nothing to quiet the strange throbbing beat in her ears.

“How-you-” She stuttered, her mind trying to comprehend that the daiyoukai was standing in front of her.

“My race is long lived,” He told her quietly. “Jun saw your paintings and recognized them for what they are. Many of us do.”

“You mean-” Kagome faltered.

“That many of your admirers are youkai? Yes, I suppose that is true. Your paintings capture what we were. What we really are,” He amended, gaze thoughtful.

“Why did you, I mean-” Funny, she reflected, none of her words were coming out right.

“Just as you earned the right to wear the markings you chose from Shion's designs, you have earned the right to see these again.”

“The right?” She asked, remembering Jun- “Shion?” She gasped, remembering the half starved little hanyou that had walked away after her adventure on Horai Island.

“Hnn, a hanyou, which is why he has aged so quickly.”

Shion looked like he was thirty after centuries. She was afraid to think of what Sesshoumaru would say of his own aging.

“And,” She paused, flicking her gaze at the red robe hanging on the iko and the sword at it's feet.

“He is-” Here Sesshoumaru paused, making her wonder if she was about to hear of her friend's death. “He does not know if you wish to see him.”

“Why wouldn't I want to see him?” She gasped, incredulity making her tone almost angry.

“He took a mate a century after your disappearance, and has children. When he found out that you were the same woman that he traveled with, he was hesitant to come forward.”

She had given up on the hanyou sometime between the moment she had been tattooed and moving into her apartment, and the news didn't hurt, although she realized most women would feel a flicker of regret. But she could only be happy for the person she had cared for, and smiled warmly as she got to her feet. That he was alive, that he had lived happily after her and opened up to someone enough to mate them calmed her fear that he had returned to his former emotional isolation.

“I'm glad,” She told the daiyoukai honestly. “Did anyone else, I mean-”

“The kit moved to Europe some time ago. Inu Yasha asked me to wait before contacting him, to make sure that you were you before getting his hopes up.”

“So,” She sighed, looking at the rosary and the sword. “He was finally able to get the rosary off.”

“The old woman removed it after you failed to return.”

“The well didn't work anymore,” She answered. “I tried, but it wouldn't let me come back.”

“Such magics are fickle.”

“Hnn,” She said, aping the word she remembered him using the most. She turned to him, eying him speculatively. “You said I had earned the right to these marks.” It was a statement as much as it was a question.

“We were allies, for a time. And you fought with courage.”

“Did Shion know?” She asked.

“He did, otherwise he would never have offered such a design. Those who remember you are drawn to one another, despite the time that has passed.”

“How strange,” She admitted, walking over to his kimono. “Centuries passed, and people still remember me.”

“It is difficult to forget. Rin and the kit named their first daughter for you.”

“Rin and Shippou-” She gasped, turning to him with a smile so wide it hurt her cheeks. “They-”

“Mated, yes. The kit, fearing losing her, found some way to age himself, although the specifics are still beyond my knowledge. He cared enough for her to sacrifice years of his life. The means matter not.”

“That's romantic,” She sighed, feeling her heart swell with the knowledge that Shippou, the kit she had considered her in her heart of hearts had found a love worth such a sacrifice, and managed to achieve it.

“Hnn. Inu Yasha mated another hanyou, Shiori.”

“The half bat demon girl,” She observed.

“Yes.”

“And Jaken?”

“Imps such as he do not have such long lives, he died a century after Naraku's defeat.”

“Ah Un?”

“Before that.”

She was silent for several minutes, choosing to look at the kimono once again. She knew Sango and Miroku would be gone, and perhaps Kirara. That the humans would be gone was something she had accepted. The daiyoukai's quiet statements soothed and closed the last of her old wounds, quieting the remaining few whispers of sadness that had clung to her adventure.

“Life is strange,” She finally declared, breaking the silence.

“It is.”

Her stomach rumbled, and he sat the tray down and folded his legs beneath him. She sat across from him and accepted the plate and cup of tea with a murmured thanks. Still unused to the sight of the daiyoukai in everyday modern clothing, she tried to find a topic of conversation, something relevant or important.

“I've been working on the end lately. Like I have to get it out.”

“The end?”

“Inside Naraku, when we all fought together. It's difficult.”

“Hnn.”

“There are parts I was never able to hear about, maybe you could tell me?”

As she ate he obliged her with stories not only of Naraku's demise from his own perspective, but with stories of the times after. Despite her memories of him as a close mouthed, taciturn youkai with very little patience, he was a wonderful story teller. His voice was calm and even, and his words wove together, bringing the past to life for her. Despite the changes in appearance, he didn't suddenly revert to the daiyoukai she remembered, instead his demeanor was much more in keeping with Kenbu, and she wondered what had changed him.

After she finished her sandwich and tea, she didn't stop him, but shifted onto her stomach, propping her head on her hands and listening avidly. When the light from outside began to cast long shadows on the room, neither of them noticed. In fact, it wasn't until the room was becoming soft outlines that he stopped and put the plates and cups back on the tray.

“It is late,” He observed as she stood.

“I'm sorry, I didn't realize. Perhaps I can come back and sketch everything another time?” She held out hope that he might allow her to come back, might even venture into a friendship with her. Even if having a crush on Sesshoumaru was silly, and she wasn't sure that it had died when he had revealed his true form to her, she could at least hope for friendship with the new, different daiyoukai.

“If it is alright, you may stay the night and view them tomorrow. I have spare rooms and there are clothes here from Rin visiting that should fit you,” He offered. She thought for a moment. Yasha's food bowl was an automatic feeder, as well as his water, so there were no worries there. He would be lonely, but cats were cats, and she figured he would understand, if he even noticed her absence at all.

“That would be fine.”

She followed him through the house, soaking in everything she had learned. Sometimes she had dreamed about seeing everyone again, had wished for it in the deepest parts of her heart as she painted them. What she had imagined though, was so far removed from reality that she still wasn't quite sure how to feel. That it was Sesshoumaru to contact her first was more than surprising, it was mind numbingly strange.

He put the plates and cups in the sink and gestured for her to follow him. They walked outside into the cool air, the world tinted red from the setting sun.

“The painting I chose,” He began, then stopped.

“It's strange,” She admitted when he did not continue. “I can't imagine why you would want something I painted of you.”

“When Bakusaiga was born, I felt such strength and pride that words still cannot describe the moment. When I saw your painting, it was seeing everything I felt then given form.”

“Thank you,” She murmured, flushing beneath his praise.

“Thank you,” He rebutted, his tone baldly honest. “Perhaps I cannot imagine anyone seeing me in such a way.”

“It's a gift.”

“It is, that you can-”

“No, I mean, you haven't paid for it, and I don't want you to. Consider it a gift, as a friend.”

“After the countless attacks I made against you?” He asked with a raised brow.

“Most of the people I became friends with tried to kill me or hurt me or steal from me at first. Why should you be any different?” She asked with a chuckle, relaxing. Perhaps it was the reminder that she had never made friends with youkai the easy way that allowed her to relax and accept the strangeness.

“It is too great a gift, I cannot-”

“You will, for me. If you can allow me to wear these,” She said, tracing a wrist with her finger. “Then I can allow you to have it.”

“Shion showed me the design before you received them. They suit you.”

“It was strange, the first time he showed me,” She admitted. “I felt like I was floating above the ground, and he took me to a mirror. He told me I looked like a youkai.”

“We youkai are born with such marks. I have rarely heard of humans taking such.”

“Can I draw them?” She asked, not realizing she had asked. Seconds later she understood what had slipped out and blushed, understanding the implications of her request.

“If it is your wish.”

“If you don't want to,” She began.

“It is alright,” He chuckled, a deep, rich sound that struck a cord in her, which in turn told her that no, her feelings for Kenbu had not changed now that he was Sesshoumaru. If anything, the afternoon had strengthened those feelings, and that in itself made her want to sit down in front of a mirror for a long conversation about inu youkai, the concept of leagues, and what was out of hers.

“It is a strange request, although not so strange considering what you have painted before,” He added, shattering her mental reprimand and bringing her back to the present.

“Oh, I-” She stopped, unsure if she should say 'thank you' or back out of the idea. When he stepped back inside and led her back to the room where his treasures were displayed, she followed, curious and afraid.

Lights turned on, and she fiddled with the two lamps he had provided, arranging them around the iko displaying his kimono until she was satisfied. The sound of cloth falling to the floor made goosebumps erupt all over her skin, and when the first hint of his white hair came into view she turned away and made for her sketchbooks and bag.

“Is there any way you would like me to sit?” He asked, and she would swear he was smirking. His voice sounded like he was smirking, not that she would look up from her pad to check.

“In front of the iko, legs crossed, and the swords across your lap,” She mumbled, picturing it in her head. There was the sound of him sitting and the swords clicking against one another as he arranged them. When he finished, she looked up, and immediately wished she had never suggested drawing him.

Somehow, by divine luck or some form of youkai magic -she refused to think anyone could be that beautiful on accident-, he was arranged just as she had imagined it, only he was perfect. Even his hair fell around his body perfectly, thick locks draped over his shoulder and behind, scattered in a way that made him look natural instead of posed. His hands were resting on the swords lightly, and the swords themselves juxtaposed perfectly, just as she had hoped.

“Is this what you had in mind?” He asked.

“Perfect,” She breathed, drinking in the sight of him. Clearing her throat, she looked down at the sketchpad and opened her pencil box.

“How does Inu Yasha control his blood, if Tessaiga is here?” She asked as she sketched his outline.

“It is no longer practical to carry a sword. Totosai forged a pendant from fangs taken from both Inu Yasha and myself. All of his children wear similar ones constructed from just my own.”

“How many children are there?” She asked, desperate not to focus too hard on his body, desperate for a distraction from his nakedness, and desperate not to embarrass herself.

“Inu Yasha and Shiori have four, Rin and Shippou have two.”

“Must be a handful,” She commented, hoping he would start talking about the children. He didn't, of course.

“They are,” Was all he said.

Several minutes passed in tense silence, and she wanted to get closer, but was afraid to. As if reading her mind, he tilted his head, expression one of inquisitive amusement.

“You are anxious.”

“I'm fine,” She lied. “So do you have any children?”

“I have not yet taken a mate.”

“Why not?” She asked, then stopped and pinched the bridge of her nose, coming to the end of her own patience with her nervous chatter. “I'm sorry, you're right, I'm anxious and I'm babbling, and that was incredibly rude. Ignore that.”

“Why are you anxious?” He asked, ignoring her apology.

“It's been centuries for you, but six years for me. And now I'm sitting teen feet away from you, and you're naked,” She stated baldly. “And I want to get closer to get your profile, but the idea's a little daunting.”

“I had not considered that,” He admitted. “I will not harm you,” He offered at last, his voice laced with the same quiet command that had attracted her to him in the first place.

That was not what she was afraid of. If anything, she was terrified her own hand would reach out to trace the stripes that her tattoos mimicked almost perfectly. However, admitting that to herself was completely different from admitting it to the daiyoukai, and if she didn't move now, she knew her lack of action would be just as much of an admission.

Scooting forward, she came closer to him and moved to the left of him, getting a side view. Only six feet away, she considered the light and deemed it perfect.

“What happened to that fluffy thing?” She asked as she flipped to a new page.

The 'fluffy thing' appeared out of nowhere, blinking into existence.

“My tail,” He replied as she gaped. It twitched once and she covered her mouth with her hand, knowing she would look ten times sillier than she currently did if she let him see her whole face.

“Tail?” She squeaked from behind her hand, eyes still fastened on the length of fur. Of course, it did make a strange sort of sense, but still, a tail?

“It is necessary to transform into my natural state.”

The tail wrapped around the base of him, curling around his legs in such a way that it reminded her of a cat's tail wrapping around it's body.

“Was not the purpose of this to draw?” He asked, and she saw him smirking this time.

“Y-yeah,” She muttered, lowering her hand and going back to her sketchbook. This time she didn't try to say anything, didn't attempt to fill the silence as she sketched his body out. His back was straight, but his head tilted down as she drew a rough draft of him. Within minutes she was refining it, adding shapes and features. After that, she lost track of time, losing herself in her own interpretation of him. Rough lines smoothed and shading created realism. The drawing changed from a one dimensional object to a portrait of a beautiful youkai reflecting on the swords in his lap.

He said nothing when she turned the page and scooted to sit in front of him, only a few feet away. She on the other hand, wouldn't have noticed if a train had run through the room, so long as it did not disturb the scene in front of her. Liking the new sketch more than the last, she spent longer refining the details and shading in the shadows of his face and the brightness of his gold eyes. As she did, she came closer to him, looking at the angle of his own markings and the curves of his clawed fingertips.

Last of all she moved behind him, and found that the stripes began much as her own did, and unthinking, she pushed his hair out of the way to see them better. His skin was hot beneath her fingertips, and she jerked the digits back, wondering if she'd made him angry.

“It is alright,” He said softly, his voice barely audible. Reaching forward again, she moved more hair out of the way and leaned back, making a quick sketch of his back in the corner of the page.

“They're like mine,” She admitted in a small voice after she had finished. He turned to her, eyes strangely warm.

“May I see?” He asked. She tilted her sketchbook toward him, but stopped when he shook his head. “Your marks.”

His tone was earnest, and his gaze sincere and gentle.

“I-” She mumbled, blushing deeply and cursing that she had worn a shirt with long sleeves and pants.

“I'm sorry, that was improper,” He began, pulling back.

“No,” She stuttered, still blushing. “It's alright. I mean, I've seen you naked, it's not a big deal,” She said with a forced laugh as she stood and walked over to her sketchpads and bag. Sitting her pad down, she turned to him and was surprised to see him staring intently, although she supposed he would want to see the marks, his marks, gracing someone else's skin. After all, they were almost exactly like his own, and she knew in his place she would want to see.

Decision made, she began removing her clothing slowly. Her socks went first, each one slipped off with her toes, and inhaling deeply, she pulled her shirt over her head. Her pants followed after a moment's hesitation, leaving her in her underwear. Gold eyes were pinned to her blue ones, nothing reflected in the bright amber depths but a strange blankness. Feeling the same recklessness and adrenaline she had when she chose the design, she removed her bra and then her panties, baring her whole body to his gaze.

Minutes ticked by, and each second that passed with his gold eyes lingering on her form served to deepen a quickly spiraling anxiety.

“You are afraid.”

“I am,” She admitted in a shaky voice. His gaze was much different than Shion's had been, and unsure how it was different, she was afraid. Terrified, in fact.

He stood fluidly, his tail moving to drape over his shoulders. Unable -or unwilling- to look below his waist, she kept her eyes firmly glued to his face. When he stopped mere inches from her, she dropped her gaze to his chest, scared of the neutrality of his expression.

“Why are you afraid?” He asked. “You have never shown fear of me before.”

“You're looking at me strangely, not like Shion did.”

“Shion appreciated what his art did to you,” He told her in a calm voice. “How it suited you.”

“Do you not like them?” She asked, afraid he had changed his mind about her earning them. Suddenly the idea of that, of wearing marks she hadn't earned and knowing he didn't approve, made her want to cry.

“I do. But I do not see as he does.”

“What do you see?” She choked out, still teetering on an emotional knife edge.

“I see a beautiful, honorable woman wearing my marks.”

She looked up to his face and swayed, lightheaded from relief.

“You approve?” She asked, his compliment going straight over her head as her anxiety washed away.

“I approved before I saw them,” He rumbled. “You have earned the right to claim a position in my pack. But seeing them, seeing you” He paused, bringing a claw up to the crescent moon that curved beneath the space where her collarbones met. “You are stunning.”

His claw traced the moon lightly, sending a shiver running down her spine even as his words sunk in. His touch was warm, and his eyes were filled with awe, reinforcing his statement.

“You are too,” She murmured shyly as she brought up a graphite stained fingertip to trace the line of a stripe that curved up from just below his collar bone and up to his shoulder.

She wasn't sure how long they did that, tracing the marks that almost mirrored one another's. She didn't know when the touches had been joined with kissing, or how it had happened. When he laid her down on the floor and kissed and licked and nipped over the tattooed lines she forgot everything outside of their small world. As his mouth made contact with the apex of her thighs she didn't think about him being Inu Yasha's brother, when she kissed a trail over his markings she forgot that she had ever been afraid of facing him, and when he slid into her, completed her, she wasn't thinking at all.

_______________________________________________

She stretched lazily and hopped off of her stool. Paint smeared the front of her smock and her hands. Walking over to the sink, she washed it off, scrubbing diligently. The soft morning light shone into the room and warmed her. Pulling her smock off, she hung it on a hook and walked over to the sliding door leading to the garden outside and stepped out. Yasha followed, weaving around her legs and purring loudly.

Knowing where she would find him, she followed the path to the center of the garden where a circle of stones enclosed an expanse of sand. Feeling abnormally impish, she slowed her gait and added a little extra swing to her hips while she pulled her hair from it's ponytail, allowing the thick mass to fall down her back.

The minute he spotted her, she knew it because he stopped going through the kata and stared at her as she approached. The ground beneath her feet was warm, the grass soft as she padded over to him on light feet. A sense of purely female satisfaction overtook her, and when she finally closed the distance between them completely, she was delighted that her words came out as a sultry purr while her arms circled his neck and her body was pressed against his naked chest.

“Good morning, mate.”

His answer was a long, thorough kiss.

“If you continue to interrupt my training, the hanyou will have an advantage.”

“It's your fault for demanding I be naked at all times,” She teased as he began kissing a path down her neck.

“You are too beautiful to hide behind clothes,” He rebutted, not mentioning that she had made a similar demand for him to be at least shirtless at all times. Of course, these concessions did not apply while guests stayed in their home, but she delighted in seeing him naked, the sight of him never failing to inspire awe and a healthy dose of lust. Even after a decade together their nudity hadn't become routine or boring.

“Your son is hungry,” She told him as his mouth began to move lower. Her declaration made him look into her eyes, and then down at her swollen stomach. She watched as he battled his own lust back, almost feeling sorry for him. Her ever growing stomach seemed to be as much of an attraction as her tattoos had been, not that she could complain.

“My son has horrible timing,” He growled.

“Best get used to it now,” She laughed as he picked her up, mouth already back on her neck.

_______________________________________________

A/N: I used to pierce and the stupidity that I've seen in parlors is unequaled. I'll say this now; getting someone's name tattooed on you is the sweater curse of our generation. However, western thought and eastern thought on ink are both very different. In Japan, they focus on flowing art. Pieces should come together beautifully and move with the canvas. In the west, we tend to focus more on meaning (usually). I went with a more western perspective (obviously).

I believe Kagome very definitely earned her stripes. And I think even Sesshoumaru couldn't say otherwise. I can also see him being utterly struck by the sight of them.

Here's to three amazing, fantabulous, phenomenal, ridiculous adventure filled years Neshoma.  

 

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