~A Purity Oneshot~
“There you are!” Inutaisho Coral called as seven year-old Mamoruzen filed out of the elementary school building. He seemed to be walking a little slowly, almost hesitantly, but he lifted his chin and altered his path, heading toward his eldest sister who was already waiting with Cassidy and the twins, Chelsea and Charity. Mikio, their cousin, sat on a bench absently fingering his left ear. Morio, another cousin, leaned over, whispering something to Mikio who nodded slowly as Mamoruzen approached. Izayoi Isabelle let go of her younger sister’s hand and shot him an anxious glance before tugging on Coral’s sleeve, and Mamoruzen stifled a low growl when his sister bent down to listen to whatever Isabelle had to say.
‘Let her talk,’ he thought angrily. He didn’t care. Really, he didn’t . . .
Coral straightened her back, her amber gaze narrowing into a thoughtful scowl as Mamoruzen approached the gathering, and he braced himself mentally, grimly anticipating the interrogation that he knew was coming.
She didn’t say anything, though, which was strange. Sparing a moment to let her eyes pass over him from head to foot and then back again, she pressed her lips together into a thin line before nodding curtly. “Okay, let’s go,” she said, turning on her heel and leading them toward the sidewalk and down the street.
Isabelle hung back as her younger sister, Lexi skipped ahead, slipping her hand into Cassidy’s and singing a song that she’d learned in music class. Morio and Mikio followed the group of girls, leaving Mamoruzen behind to bring up the rear. Gnawing on her bottom lip as the crisp spring breeze whipped her bronze hair into her face, Isabelle waited for Mamoruzen but said nothing as she fell into step beside him.
Kicking a rock that lay harmlessly on the side of the path, Mamoruzen refused to acknowledge her presence with an almost perverse resolve.
“Does it hurt much?” she finally asked, her soft voice lowered even more, as though she didn’t want anyone to overhear her question.
“Does what hurt?” he countered belligerently, adjusting the straps of his backpack in a blatant show of bravado.
She winced, her teeth scraping over her bottom lip, bleaching the skin a sickly shade of grayish pink before blood flooded back into her lip once more, darkening the light pink color to an angry shade of crimson time and again. “Your eye . . .” she murmured as the anxiety in her aura spiked.
Mamoruzen shrugged offhandedly and tossed his head, lifting his chin as though he were daring the world to gainsay him. “Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he stated in a dull, flat tone.
“Oi, Mamoruzen, why don’t you come over and practice with me?” Morio called over his shoulder without breaking his stride.
He didn’t respond to that, either. He didn’t want to. ‘Stupid Kazuo,’ he thought, gritting his teeth together so hard that his jaw ached. ‘He started it, running his mouth about . . . about . . .’
“Kazuo-kun didn’t have a right to say that about you,” Isabelle said suddenly, as though she could read his mind.
Mamoruzen scuffed his shoes against the pavement and shrugged again. “I don’t care,” he lied, a bitter surge of rage boiling inside him—rage that he had been reduced to lying; rage that it was a lie in the first place.
“You could come home with me,” she offered suddenly, her golden eyes brightening with the sudden spark of inspiration. “Papa will be home soon, and he could take a look at that.”
“I don’t need Uncle to look at it,” he bit out, his voice lowering to as fierce a growl as he could muster. “I told you, didn’t I? It doesn’t hurt, not one bit.”
“Mamoruzen!” Cassidy called as she ran back to meet him. Digging a small plastic pouch out of her bag, she frowned as she fiddled with the contents of the packet, and he made a face. “Here,” she said, carefully smashing the packet between her nimble fingers. But she offered him a wan smile, pausing for a moment to ruffle his hair, to tweak the little black triangles that were his hanyou ears. “Put this on your eye, ne? It’ll help with the swelling until Mama can make a poultice for it.”
If it had been anyone other than Cassidy, he would have growled at her, insisting that he was fine. Cassidy, though, was too much of a little mama for him to do that, and he grudgingly took the ice pack and pressed it against his face. It took every ounce of willpower that he possessed to keep from whining in pain. Cassidy didn’t look completely pacified, but she rewarded him with a genuine smile before handing both him and Isabelle a piece of candy and darting away to walk beside Coral once more.
Mikio stopped for a moment, glancing over his shoulder with a solemn sort of expression. Idly fingering his left ear, he couldn’t mask the sympathy that lingered in the depths of his gaze. Mamoruzen bristled inwardly. He hated that more than anything; couldn’t tolerate it when people felt sorry for him. Morio muttered something to Mikio, and the two started walking once more, and for reasons that Mamoruzen didn’t quite understand, he couldn’t staunch the hot color that flooded his skin, either.
“You look like it’s hurting,” Isabelle said as they passed the small candy store where they sometimes stopped after school. “You . . . you want me to carry your bag?”
“Why? Because of this?” he scoffed, yanking the ice pack away from his face and hurling it into an alley with more bravado than he was actually feeling. “I told you, Izzy, I’m fine.” Scuffing his shoes against the graying pavement, he snorted loudly and hitched his shoulders. “I’m not a baby,” he grumbled, more to himself than to her.
She flinched, her golden eyes suspiciously bright, and she forced herself to nod, saying nothing more as they trudged along behind the rest of the group. He could feel her eyes on him, though, and he lifted his chin in a show of defiance as something black, ugly roiled deep inside . . .
It seemed to take forever to reach the crossroad where the group would disburse. The Inutaisho children always took the northern route toward their home while the others headed south toward InuYasha’s Forest. Mamoruzen mumbled something that sounded like ‘see you later’ to his cousins, thankful to be rid of Isabelle’s concerned gaze.
The twins heard him sigh and slowed down to wait for him. Only about a year and a half older than he was, their kind of concern wasn’t welcomed, either, and when Chelsea on the right side and Charity on the left reached up to tweak his ears, he flicked them back and bared his fangs at them in a warning meant to send them away. It didn’t work. It never worked . . .
“Don’t let it bother you,” Charity said with a falsely bright smile.
“Yeah,” Chelsea agreed, patiently chasing his ear with her fingers despite his resolve not to allow her to get her hands on it. “Don’t worry, either. You won’t get into too much trouble for fighting.”
Scowling as best as he could at his sister, he couldn’t contain the slight wince as his throbbing eye protested the exertion. “I don’t care,” he gritted out, shoving Chelsea away with a shrug of his shoulder. “It wasn’t my fault.”
The girls exchanged looks behind his back, and Mamoruzen increased his step to get away from them. “Izzy wanted me to come over,” he said suddenly, raising his voice so that Coral would hear him. “Tell Papa I’ll be home later!”
“Mamoruzen, wait!” Coral called, whipping around on her heel and planting a hand on her hip.
It was too late. He was already gone.
“Father says that it’s not possible! He’s a hanyou, for kami’s sake! A hanyou can’t be tai-youkai. A hanyou is just a hanyou.”
The dull, rhythmic pounding of his feet on the asphalt synchronized with the blunted throbbing behind his eye as Mamoruzen ran along the seemingly endless sidewalk. Anger roiled through him at the memory of those hateful words. Odd how he’d never truly considered the differences between himself and his father before . . .
“Hanyou’s are weaker than youkai. Hanyous are inferior. What’s the matter, Mamoruzen? Are you going to cry? Cry, cry, cry . . .”
No, he wasn’t going to cry, was he? Of course he wasn’t going to cry. That’d be stupid, and furthermore, it would give Kazuo the satisfaction of knowing that he’d succeeded in getting to him.
“Oh, so sorry . . . Did you almost fall, Prince Mamoruzen?”
Gritting his teeth at the idiotic nickname that Kazuo refused to let go, Mamoruzen pushed himself faster, veering to the right as he dashed down the narrow alley between rows of apartment houses. Since the first day he’d met Kazuo, it seemed to Mamoruzen that he’d gone out of his way to pick on everything about him. Kazuo had tried to trip him during martial arts training class, and for once, Mamoruzen hadn’t been able to brush him off . . .
“Shut up, and stop calling me that,” Mamoruzen said quietly.
Kazuo grinned as his vile little cohorts laughed unpleasantly. “That’s how it is, isn’t it?” he challenged, his tiny, rat-like teeth glinting in the harsh fluorescent lights overhead as he purposefully stepped into Mamoruzen’s path.
“Get out of my way,” he warned without taking his eyes off Kazuo.
“Are you going to go tell your father? Better yet, are you going to run off to tell your uncle?”
Clenching and unclenching his fists by turns, Mamoruzen told himself that Kazuo was just trying to start a fight and that he should ignore him. “I don’t need to tell Uncle Yasha any such thing,” Mamoruzen gritted out.
“Your family’s a joke,” Kazuo went on with a wave of his hand, his black eyes glowing with a malicious sort of light. “My father says that the only reason your grandfather is Inu no Taisho is because your great-grandfather betrayed our kind. Gave us up to the humans, didn’t he?”
“If he’s so tough, then why doesn’t your father challenge my grandfather?” he taunted.
The first slight flare of anger erupted behind Kazuo’s gaze, and he narrowed his eyes. “He could,” he insisted. “My father’s stronger than anyone, and if he wanted to, he could.”
“He’s not strong,” Mamoruzen shot back. “Only cowards talk big but never do anything about it.”
“Take that back,” Kazuo growled, advancing slowly on Mamoruzen.
Mamoruzen refused to be cowed. “No.”
“Take it back, Inutaisho,” Kazuo hissed again, dealing Mamoruzen a warning shove.
Mamoruzen’s shoulder snapped back though he didn’t move otherwise. “No.”
“The only reason my father hasn’t challenged your grandfather is because he doesn’t want to be tai-youkai,” he went on hostilely. “He doesn’t need to flaunt his power, and he doesn’t need to tell lies to get attention, either.”
“Who are you calling a liar?” Mamoruzen demanded, his anger igniting in a shocking tide.
Kazuo shoved him again. “Your whole family,” he asserted. “The lot of them!”
Mamoruzen held onto his stance. “And just what are they lying about?” he countered.
Kazuo rolled his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest in an entirely smug sort of way. “Traveling through time?” he scoffed. “It’s not possible! And Naraku? My father says that there never was a Naraku and that your uncle is mad . . .” Leaning toward Mamoruzen, he shot him a particularly nasty smile. “They say all hanyous are mad, you know.”
“My family does not lie,” Mamoruzen gnashed out. “And if you think that Uncle Yasha is lying about all that, I dare you to go tell him so.”
“Oh? And I suppose you believe in fairies and all that, too?” Kazuo sneered.
“No, but I believe your father’s a damn liar,” Mamoruzen stated flatly.
Kazuo’s eyes flared wide—so wide that Mamoruzen could discern the whites of them all the way around his irises. “My father isn’t a liar! He doesn’t have to lie.”
“You’re right,” Mamoruzen shot back evenly. “He isn’t a liar. He’s just stupid, kind of like you.”
He couldn’t really say that he’d seen the hit coming. Telling himself that arguing with a baka like Kazuo wouldn’t do any good, he’d started to brush past him when the felt the harsh jab of Kazuo’s fist. Resorting to the coward’s way, he’d waited to take advantage of Mamoruzen’s inattention, and that was the only way he’d managed to land it, in the first place.
Too bad the teacher had arrived just then. Mamoruzen had stubbornly refused to admit what happened when Hanai-sensei had questioned him because the very last thing that he’d wanted was to have to fess up to Uncle Yasha that Kazuo had called him a liar. Uncle wasn’t exactly known for his patience, and while a small part of Mamoruzen did think that Kazuo might deserve whatever punishment his uncle, as the main administrator at the school, might dole out, Mamoruzen also felt that he should be capable enough to deal with Kazuo in his own way.
Unfortunately, Isabelle had nearly burst into tears when she’d seen Mamoruzen’s eye. Unfortunately, too, she knew well enough that Kazuo had a thing for picking at Mamoruzen, and she didn’t have to be brilliant to figure out that something had happened between them. By lunch time a few hours later, Morio and Mikio knew, as well, and Mikio had even suggested that Mamoruzen tell InuYasha about the altercation despite Mamoruzen’s insistence that he was fine.
Blinking suddenly as stopped and stared at the forest surrounding him, Mamoruzen frowned. He hadn’t actually intended to venture into InuYasha’s Forest. No, the idea had been simply to get away from the prying eyes of his family. That was the trouble with girls, he figured. They tended to become entirely too upset over something as stupid as an insignificant scuffle.
And it was insignificant, wasn’t it? Scowling when an unexpected moisture washed into his gaze, Mamoruzen couldn’t help the little growl that slipped from him as he dashed the back of his hand over his eyes, nor the tiny yelp—bit off before it could rightfully manifest itself—at the pain that erupted behind the injured one.
Whimpering quietly as a myriad of memories shot to the fore, Mamoruzen stomped angrily as he pushed his way deeper into the forest. He’d tried to forget about them, telling himself that they meant absolutely nothing to him. From the first day he’d walked into a classroom away from the protection of his family, he’d started to realize that some of the things that he’d always been so proud of were nothing but reminders that he wasn’t what he should have been.
There was more to it than he’d understood. His mother always smiled at him, didn’t she? Loved to laugh and ruffle his hair, to rub the ears that she’d maintained were too cute to resist. When he was younger, he’d loved them, hadn’t he? And his father had always said that he wished he had ears like that, too . . .
Wandering aimlessly, meandering through the maze of trees, he couldn’t help but hear in a detached sort of way as voices that he’d tried to forget whispered to him.
“He’s a hanyou . . . the future tai-youkai is a hanyou . . .?”
“But he can’t be tai-youkai if he’s not youkai, can he?”
“My papa says he can if he’s strong enough.”
“How can a hanyou be stronger than a youkai?”
Whispers that he wasn’t supposed to have heard, maybe . . . whispers that were little more than foreshadowing of things that he’d heard a million times since that day; hateful words that he’d only started to comprehend back then . . .
Maybe it’d be different if he went to a school where he was just another face. Even then, he’d still bear the stigma of belonging to one of the wealthiest families in Japan, and that would be challenging enough. As it was, he really didn’t consider anyone else his friends. Mikio, Morio, and Isabelle—they were his friends. Everyone else was either too frightened of his family to be anything but falsely friendly—overly so—disgustingly so—and those who weren’t tended to go out of their way to mock him, to challenge him: if not out in the open, with their catty words and constant assertions that he wasn’t good enough; that he’d never be good enough.
He hid it, though: all of it. Unwilling to let anyone see just how badly their words bothered him, he hadn’t told anyone about it. Sure, they, Isabelle especially since she tended to be in his class, knew about parts of it since different ones had witnessed different incidents, but as far as Mamoruzen could tell, no one else knew the extent of it, and that’s how he wanted it to stay.
Anger rose inside him, thick, hot, and contemptible. His grandfather would be disgusted with him, wouldn’t he? Disgusted that Mamoruzen wasn’t strong enough to discount the taunts. He’d think that Mamoruzen was weak, wouldn’t he? He’d be disappointed, and that, in Mamoruzen’s estimation, was far, far worse than anything that the other children might say.
Inutaisho Sesshoumaru was just too daunting, too frightening, and entirely too formidable. To let him down really would be a fate worse than death. To show weakness before a man who had none of his own was unacceptable, and his father?
Dropping to his knees beside the clean and peaceful stream that both soothed and unsettled him all at the same time, Mamoruzen shook his head. He couldn’t tell his father, either, though for entirely different reasons.
He’d been proud, hadn’t he? From the time when he was old enough to understand the differences, Mamoruzen had been inordinately proud to share the same sort of heritage as his uncle, InuYasha. Inutaisho Toga had always said that InuYasha was stronger because of what he was—both human as well as youkai—the best of both, or so Toga had asserted. Because of it, InuYasha could understand human feelings, and yet he could also ascertain the plight of the youkai in this day and age. Compassionate yet strong enough to take care of those he considered his own . . . Toga had said that it would be one of Mamoruzen’s greatest assets one day, too, and while he couldn’t quite bring himself to call his father a liar, he knew now that those words were exactly that: words with a hollow meaning meant to cushion the barest of truths: that Mamoruzen, as a hanyou, was unperfected. The youkai that he was supposed to lead would never truly accept him, would they? And yet, he wasn’t human, either.
‘It’s isn’t fair!’ he thought suddenly, his golden gaze taking on an icy glow that belied his age—an expression that he never should have known, not at the age of seven years old. To be one or the other—it was black and white, wasn’t it? To be the future tai-youkai, would he have to make a choice between his humanity and his youkai side? Was that even possible? And if it were, what about his mother? Did that mean that he needed to be ashamed of her; of the part of her that lived in him?
Yet even as the idea took form in his head, he grimaced. His mother, with her kind smile and her soft laughter, the one who always smiled and told him that it was okay to play and to be a child . . . the mother he adored because she adored him . . .
When had he come to understand that what he was—this abomination caught between two beings who never should have crossed paths—wasn’t something that he could reconcile so easily?
The wince shifted into a dejected little whine as his ears flattened, as he buried his face against his raised knees. The sense of absolute guilt surged over him: guilt that he could even consider that his mother—who she was; what she was—was any sort of liability to him: the one person who loved him no matter what, and he knew it.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” he whispered brokenly, wishing for one crazy moment that she was there to hold him, to tell him that he was never too big to be hugged or told that she loved him . . .
Isabelle sat, staring out the window beside her desk. She’d said that she had homework to finish, but to be honest, she’d yet to crack a book open. She sighed and bit her lower lip. She simply couldn’t stop worrying about Mamoruzen.
She knew, didn’t she? The things that he never would say, the anger and the pain that he felt so keenly at the unfairness of being criticized for something that he couldn’t control. She’d wanted to tell her aunt and uncle what others were saying to him, but she couldn’t. He’d be angry, and worse: he’d think that she’d betrayed him. Still, hearing those things never failed to leave her feeling sickish, disgusted, and if she’d heard it so often, how many times had it been said to him?
‘I should’ve marched right over to Kazuo and punched him in the nose,’ she thought with a decisive snort as she shoved the untouched textbook away. ‘Mamoruzen didn’t deserve it . . .’
But she hadn’t done that, either. Knowing without asking that he would be even more furious if she’d interfered, she had kept her opinion quiet, slipping out of the classroom as quickly as she could after the final bell had sounded to find Coral and to tell her what had happened so that he wouldn’t have to.
With a sigh, she leaned down, dug her cell phone out of her book bag, and dialed Mamoruzen’s number. He didn’t answer.
Pushing herself to her feet, she stuffed the phone into the pocket of her sweater and slipped out of her bedroom.
“Baby? Is that you?” Izayoi Bellaniece called from the kitchen as she hurried toward the front door.
“Yes, Mama,” Isabelle called back. “I’m going for a walk!”
“Hmm, okay. Don’t go too far. Your father’ll be home soon, and supper’s almost ready . . . Do you have your phone?”
“Yes, Mama,” she called again as she tugged her shoes on. “I won’t go far.”
Pulling the door closed behind her, Isabelle let out a deep breath. She wasn’t sure why she was feeling so restless. She supposed that it had something to do with the impotent anger that had been impossible to ignore: outrage that Kazuo and his flunkies would go out of their way to harass Mamoruzen when, in her opinion, it all stemmed from stupid and petty jealousy.
She wandered into the forest, following the sounds of chirping birds. It was warm for this time of year, she supposed . . .
With a heavy sigh, she plopped down on a rotting tree stump, scrunching up her shoulders as she lifted her gaze to the surrounding forest as she dug the toes of her shoes into the soft earth covered by decaying leaves. She wanted to tell someone. She wanted to tell someone because it simply wasn’t fair. Mamoruzen didn’t deserve that. In her estimation, he was a better person than any of those bullies were. He rarely showed when their stupid opinions bothered him, but she knew. It was there in the depths of his eyes, if you looked hard enough. Emotion that only showed for an insular moment before he hid it away . . .
The trouble was, to tell would be to betray him, wouldn’t it? Even if that weren’t the case, she had a feeling that he would just deny it if anyone questioned him.
Shaking her head, she stood. It didn’t matter, not really. Mamoruzen wanted to deal with this alone, didn’t he? There wasn’t a thing that she could do for him; not really . . .
“Uncle? It’s Toga. I was wondering . . . have you seen Mamoruzen?”
Izayoi InuYasha frowned as he stood and paced the length of the loft. “No, should I have?”
Toga sighed. “I thought . . . no, I suppose not.”
“No . . . yes . . . I don’t know . . .”
“Keh!” InuYasha snorted indelicately. “Makes a lot of sense, Toga.”
Again, Toga sighed. “The girls said that he was going to Isabelle’s house, but Belle said that he wasn’t there.”
“Didn’t you give him a cell phone?”
“Sure. He’s got it switched off or something. Just . . . if you see him, would you send him home? Coral said . . . Coral said that he was in a fight or something at school today.”
InuYasha’s eyes flared wide just before he shook his head. “I didn’t hear nothin’ about it.”
“I gathered from what she said that he didn’t tell anyone about it, either.”
“You want me to go look for him?”
“Yeah,” Toga agreed. “I’ll be there shortly, too.”
InuYasha grunted in reply and clicked off the phone. Evening was starting to fall over the forest, and while he wasn’t particularly worried about the pup’s safety, he couldn’t help but scowl, anyway.
“Wench, I’m going out,” he called as he ran down the steps into the living room.
“Dinner’s almost ready,” Kagome replied from the kitchen. “Can it wait?”
“It ain’t a big deal,” he assured her as he strode over to the fireplace and yanked down the legendary sword, Tetsusaiga. “I’ll be back in awhile.”
“Okay,” she said though he didn’t miss the hint of confusion in her tone. “Call me if you’re going to be gone longer than you think.”
The birds stopped chirping for a moment as he stepped outside only to resume their chatter. It didn’t sit well with him. Mamoruzen tended to be more responsible than a pup his age ought to be . . .
An unsettling sense of unease crept up his spine as he loped toward the trees, heading in the direction of his son’s house. He’d known for awhile that Mamoruzen was having a tough time with some pups at school—ones who didn’t think that he should have the right to be the future tai-youkai—ones whose parents didn’t believe that he had that right. Thing was, InuYasha hadn’t wanted to interfere. That was the way of it, wasn’t it: allow the pup to figure things out for himself, even if it was a little painful, and while part of him wanted to protect the boy from the cruel things that others would say, he knew damn well that the only way to prove that it wasn’t true was to deal with it head-on. It was the only way that he’d grow up to be a man worth the air he breathed.
Still, the question was, where should the line be drawn? Should a seven year old be forced to deal with that sort of thing alone? InuYasha had always thought that Mamoruzen would ask for help if he got to the point where it was just too much for him, but he was starting to wonder if he should have intervened in the beginning.
He knew from personal experience that the path ahead of Mamoruzen wasn’t going to be an easy one. On the basest of levels, he had to prove himself worthy while existing in the looming shadows of his father and grandfather—no easy task, InuYasha knew. Hadn’t his father been the great Inu no Taisho? And he had to prove that he was worthy, too. Times had been different, of course. Mamoruzen didn’t face the same kind of alienation that InuYasha had, and for that reason, InuYasha had stood aside, letting the pup feel things out for himself. InuYasha had grown up alone, alienated from his mother’s people and shunned by the youkai, too. Mamoruzen had a host of people who cared for him, both human and youkai, and that should have made a world of difference.
But did it? Did it really?
Catching the faint hint of the boy’s scent on the wind, InuYasha veered to the side, darting through the forest as the scent grew stronger, as the underlying sense that maybe InuYasha had been wrong after all grew stronger, too . . .
The wind was rising.
Mamoruzen didn’t really notice it as more than a passing thought; barely a conscious understanding. More of a fleeting idea that went hand in hand with the inevitability of the falling evening, he knew with the same instinct that he ought to go home, and yet . . .
He couldn’t, could he? Going home meant answering questions, and those questions weren’t really something that he wanted to face; not now. Pretending that it was all inconsequential was beyond him, and the harder he tried to put everything to the back of his mind, the harder it became to staunch it. His father would see right through the front that he hid behind, wouldn’t he? He’d see it, and he’d know that his son wasn’t nearly as strong as he tried to be—as he wanted to be. Things that Kazuo and his cronies said—they shouldn’t bother Mamoruzen, should they? What did it matter when Mamoruzen knew that he was what he was, and there wasn’t a thing he could do to change it?
And still the feeling was there, growing stronger by the minute: the consuming knowledge that he was somehow inferior to those around him; even those in his own family. He’d known for a long time that he was expected to be different. He’d realized that he was expected to excel, to be bigger, stronger, better. Not so much a spoken thing, no—his parents had never tried to force him to do anything, and yet it was still there.
He hadn’t really understood what it would mean to be tai-youkai one day; hadn’t understood when his father would tell him from time to time that theirs was a destiny that few others could comprehend. Whenever he’d talked about such things, there had always been a measure of sadness in Toga’s gaze—sadness that Mamoruzen was only beginning to discern and recognize, and while he still couldn’t exactly put his thoughts into words, the underlying knowledge was there, nonetheless.
He was beginning to realize now. To be tai-youkai was to be strong: stronger than any other because that was how it had to be, like his grandfather, who rarely spoke what was on his mind but left little doubt as to what he thought or believed. Sesshoumaru had never doubted himself, had he? He’d never been questioned because of who or what he was, and why?
Had Toga ever been questioned in such a manner? Had he ever been called a half-breed or been told that he didn’t deserve to be the next tai-youkai because he wasn’t a true youkai? He hadn’t; of course not. Toga was full youkai, just like Sesshoumaru, and Mamoruzen . . . he wasn’t.
‘It’s not fair!’ Mamoruzen thought suddenly, a bitter froth of rage shooting to the fore. He hadn’t asked to be born in the line of the tai-youkai. He hadn’t expected to be treated differently solely because of who or what he would one day be.
A voice in the back of his mind whispered accusingly, telling him that he was acting like a baby ranting about fair and unfair, and still it made no sense. Grimacing as his gaze fell on the rippling, distorted reflection in the water beside him, Mamoruzen slammed his fist down in the water to disburse the hateful image.
If he looked like his father, he wouldn’t be ridiculed, would he? If he didn’t have the all-too-obvious reminders of his mixed heritage, then the others would forget. After all, no one said a thing to his cousin, Bas, who was to the be future tai-youkai of North America, did they? No, they didn’t, because her ears looked like her mother’s ears despite the fact that he, too, was hanyou. Bas’ mother was hanyou; his father, youkai, and technically, Bas was hanyou, too, even if he didn’t look like one in the least. Only Mamoruzen did . . . It was his ears, wasn’t it? They were the constant reminder that he was different, that he wasn’t full youkai like the others. Those ears that his mother had told him made him special were the very things that held him apart—a weakness that simply wouldn’t go away.
A thousand moments flashed through his head in the space of a few seconds: his sisters tweaking his ears . . . his mother laughing when his ears drooped when she’d told him that he couldn’t eat cookies before dinner . . . his father smiling as he watched Mamoruzen’s ears turn to catch noise . . . his grandmother assuring him that no one could ever be angry at one with ears such as his . . . and then the more hurtful memories: having his ears flicked as the taunting echoed in his head . . . the time that Kazuo had purposefully closed one of them in the door when Mamoruzen had stood in the hall talking to his cousins during lunch . . . the whispers that he’d overheard about his ‘odd ears’ . . .
‘If I didn’t have them, I’d be just like everyone else!’ he fumed, scowling at his reflection once more. No one could make fun of them or tease him because of them: no one could hurt him if they weren’t there . . .
“He’s weaker than youkai . . .”
“Weak . . .”
“Weak . . .”
“Weak . . .”
Squeezing his eyes closed to block out the sounds of those awful voices, forgetting for the time being that the voices were already embedded deep in his brain, he shook his head as though to refute them only to realize a moment too late that he couldn’t.
‘If I didn’t have them . . . if they were gone . . .’
It was more of a wisp of a thought than a conscious decision. Blinding pain erupted deep within his head—pain as sharp and repugnant as the ache created by the echo of too many hateful words—as he sank his claws into the velvety soft flesh of his ears and yanked with all his might . . .
Breaking through the trees, he stopped short on the far side of the clearing, the sound of his approach disguised under the constant flow of the creek, his scent carried downwind, away from the diminutive form of a young boy hunkered down beside the water’s edge. Two smells assailed InuYasha, and with a sickened feeling, he winced and retreated a step.
‘Blood . . .’ he thought as rage warred with a strange sense of sadness fought for dominance, ‘and . . . tears . . .’
Sitting beside the creek, the boy stared down at his hands, and while InuYasha couldn’t see his face, he knew damn well that the blood was Mamoruzen’s.
A soft sob caught his attention, and InuYasha blinked. He hadn’t realized that anyone else was there. So caught up in what Mamoruzen had done, he’d missed the presence that he knew well enough. Huddled behind a thick tree trunk not far away sat his granddaughter, Isabelle. Face buried in her raised knees, shoulders racked by sobs that could barely be discerned, she cried.
“Oi, pup,” he said, his voice thick, harsher than he’d intended as he jammed Tetsusaiga into the soft ground and knelt beside her. “What are you doing out here?”
Choking on a sob, she slowly raised her little face as she shook her head miserably. “Why’d he do that, Grandpa?” she whispered.
InuYasha didn’t answer as he drew the child into his arms. “Don’t worry about him, you hear? I’ll take care of him. You . . . you go on home.”
“Do as I say, Isabelle,” he commanded a little more gruffly than he’d intended.
Her bottom lip quivered precariously, but she dashed her hand over her eyes and nodded. “You won’t leave him, Grandpa?”
InuYasha shook his head; gave his promise.
“Why?” she asked again, her eyes telling him that she just didn’t understand.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her. “He’ll be fine.”
She didn’t look as though she believed him, but she nodded.
“Straight home. Do as I say.”
She nodded again and sniffled, but she stood up, brushing off her skirt, and trudged away, disappearing in the trees again in the direction of her home.
Staring at Mamoruzen for several minutes, InuYasha shook his head and dug the cell phone out of his pocket. Toga answered after the first ring. “Uncle? I’m on my way,” he said in lieu of greeting.
“Your pup’s gonna stay with me tonight,” InuYasha interrupted. “Don’t worry about him.”
“You found him.”
Frowning at the obvious relief in Toga’s voice, InuYasha grunted. “Yeah.”
Toga sighed. “I don’t know, Uncle. I think I should—”
“He’s fine,” InuYasha broke in. “He’s strong. I’ll send him home in the morning.”
There was a very long pause on the other end, as though Toga were trying to figure out if there was something that InuYasha hadn’t said. “Is he okay?” Toga asked, unable to keep the shadow of suspicion out of his tone.
“Keh!” InuYasha snorted. “I told you he’s fine, didn’t I?”
“You did . . .” Toga allowed slowly. “A-all right,” he agreed though he didn’t sound like he wanted to let it go that easily. In the end, though, he trusted InuYasha. “I’ll tell Sierra that he’s with you.”
He hung up then called home, assuring her that he’d be home as soon as he could and that everything was fine. After dropping the phone into his pocket, InuYasha grabbed his sword and hopped into the branches of the tree.
It wouldn’t do any good to let Toga see what had happened. Though he hadn’t seen the actual doing, InuYasha knew well enough that the injuries to the pup’s ears were his own doing. From his vantage point, he could discern the darkened blood staining the rough lacerations, could smell the blood drying on Mamoruzen’s hands. Toga didn’t need to see it. Adding guilt to the situation . . . what was the point?
There were some things that just couldn’t be explained. The reality of the situation was that, as much as Toga cared about his pups, feeling guilty about something that wasn’t really his fault just wasn’t worth it. No, no one could fix this for Mamoruzen, and while InuYasha wished it were otherwise, he knew that the only person who could help the boy was the boy, himself. Somewhere deep inside himself, Mamoruzen needed to understand that his worth and value weren’t going to be determined by what he wasn’t or couldn’t be, but by what he was, and what he would one day become. It was a hard lesson to reconcile, and InuYasha . . . well, he knew that better than anyone. Toga would feel bad, and he’d blame himself on some level, believing that he should have done more to prepare the pup for the unkind things that people could say, but in the end, that still wouldn’t have helped Mamoruzen, and maybe, just maybe, it might have made things worse.
Repressing the urge to drop from the trees and confront the boy about what he’d done, InuYasha wrapped his arms around his sword and leaned back against the trunk. As much as he’d like to fix things, he wouldn’t be doing the pup any favors that way. Besides, he wasn’t that damn good with words, was he?
The sudden memory of another face and another time flitted through his mind, and he frowned. How long had it been since he’d thought of Shiori, the little girl, half human, half bat-youkai—the keeper of the barrier that he’d had to break in order to strengthen Tetsusaiga so long ago. She’d suffered too, hadn’t she, and even then he’d realized that talk was cheap; that the only thing he could teach her at that time had to be done by example: to show her that she would be whatever she wanted to be so long as she fought hard enough to accomplish it. That was his way. It was the only way for a hanyou, and while times were different, and hanyous weren’t reviled as they had been when he was a pup, there were still those who wouldn’t accept them, no matter who they were or what they did.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a damn thing that InuYasha could do for Mamoruzen, either. The harshest truth was that the only person who could ultimately determine Mamoruzen’s worth as a person was Mamoruzen, himself, and this one moment was an important one—one that would make or break him. With a sigh and a shake of the head, InuYasha settled more comfortably in the boughs of the tree.
Sometimes the hardest lessons in life were ones that had to be learned alone . . .
His eyes burned hot and dry, and while he could feel the sting of tears somewhere behind his eyes, they never came.
Staring at his blood-stained claws in abject horror, Mamoruzen wanted to look away but couldn’t. The vehemence of his own actions frightened him—terrified him. The rage he’d felt just before he’d torn his ears was still fresh in his mind—a looming shadow that he couldn’t quite reconcile as having been thoughts of his own. All he could think at the time was that if he didn’t have those ears, he wouldn’t have been targeted, and yet . . . and yet that wasn’t true, was it?
“Never be ashamed of what you are, Mamoruzen. You are your father’s son—my grandson—and you will be strong because it is in your nature to be.”
Wincing at the memory of those words spoken by his grandfather, the great and powerful Sesshoumaru, Mamoruzen blinked as he stared at his hands. ‘Strong . . .?’ he thought as he slowly shook his head. ‘What is . . . strength . . .?’
The whisper of the wind in the trees was his only reply, and Mamoruzen lifted his chin, squinting at the sun as it descended below the horizon of green.
‘Strength is . . . power,’ he reasoned. ‘Power to protect . . . that’s what Uncle Yasha said . . . Strength is . . . control. Control your emotions . . . that’s what Grandfather said . . . It’s understanding to understand what you have to protect and why it’s important . . . that’s what Papa said . . . but Mama said . . . Mama said that strength is all those things . . .’ Frown deepening as he tugged on tender blades of spring grass, he sighed. ‘But how can one thing be all those other things, too?’
It didn’t make sense, did it?
Uttering a sharp whine that he quickly bit off as he reached up to rub his aching ears, Mamoruzen grimaced at the fresh smears of blood on his fingers when he pulled his hands away. His head pounded with a vicious tenacity, and he was beginning to feel the cold bite of the wind. Drawing his knees up, he huddled into himself for warmth, but he never considered that he ought to get up and go home.
Mamoruzen didn’t know how long he sat there beside the creek as the evening shadows lengthened then flowed into one another, creating a pitch dark blanket of night that encompassed the forest and the earth. Hour after hour, he sat and he pondered, struggling to make sense of the things he couldn’t comprehend. He’d asked his father questions before, and sometimes, Toga would smile and ruffle his hair and tell Mamoruzen that he would understand one day. Those answers had never made sense to him, either, and he’d started to think that it was just something that parents said when they didn’t particularly want to take the time to explain.
And he knew that the question that he was pondering now would have garnered the same answer from his father. This time, though, he had a feeling that he kind of understood why his father said that sort of thing. It wasn’t so much that Toga didn’t want to answer, but maybe . . .
Maybe he didn’t have a real answer.
Or maybe . . .
Maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t have a real answer. Maybe it was just that the same question could have more than one answer, depending on who he asked, and maybe that had been what Toga had been telling him all along.
But if that were the case, then it meant that Mamoruzen would have to figure out for himself what ‘strength’ was. If everyone in his family had a different definition, then maybe it’d be all right for Mamoruzen to have one of his own, too . . .
‘Strength,’ he thought again as a heavy sigh escaped him. ‘Being strong is just not being weak, isn’t it? It’s . . . it’s not letting anyone know that you have a weakness, right?’
It sounded right. It was the first thing that truly sounded right all day. In order to be strong . . .
“Never let anyone see my weakness,” he whispered, his eyes flaring wide as the first grayish haze of dawn crept over the darkened earth.
A strange sense of understanding seemed to crystallize, and even as he struggled to come to terms with the knowledge, it grew clearer in his mind. That’s what Kazuo and his friends had always preyed upon, wasn’t it? He’d been so proud of his hanyou ears before, hadn’t he? He’d believed that they were special because everyone had always told him that they were. Somehow Kazuo and his clique had managed to find the one thing that would bother Mamoruzen—his weakness—and slowly over time, they’d chipped away at it until . . .
Unable to repress the disgusted growl that slipped from him, Mamoruzen ground his teeth together, ignoring the dull pain that erupted in his ears as he forced them to stand up straight. He couldn’t change what he was, and even if he could, why should he? Inutaisho Sierra was someone he ought to be proud of, human or otherwise, and as her son, he should be proud of that, too.
Looking around with a start, he couldn’t repress the bitter stab of guilt that ripped through him when he realized that he’d somehow managed to stay out all night, knowing deep down that his mother and father were probably worried sick.
Scooting over to the water’s edge, he carefully scrubbed his hands with a handful of mud to loosen the dried blood that had crusted over his claws. He’d probably be grounded for a year or more, and he couldn’t rightfully say that he didn’t deserve that, either . . .
He didn’t hear InuYasha drop out of the tree, but he couldn’t miss the flash of red—InuYasha’s shirt—across the stream. The hanyou didn’t say a word as he stared hard at Mamoruzen. As though he were trying to decide something, he simply stood, and slowly Mamoruzen rose to his feet, too. It registered in his mind his uncle had likely been there all night, and while he wondered why he hadn’t made his presence known sooner, he couldn’t help but feel grateful that InuYasha had left him alone.
After what felt like an eternity, InuYasha nodded once and motioned for Mamoruzen to join him. It didn’t take much for him to jump over the stream and walk to InuYasha’s side.
“You need to get cleaned up before your mama sees you,” he said in his normal gruff tone.
Mamoruzen frowned at his hands. They looked clean, didn’t they?
“I meant your ears,” InuYasha stated as Mamoruzen sniffed his claws.
“Oh,” he muttered. He could tell that they were almost healed, and the pain around his eye was gone, too.
“Come on, Mamoruzen,” InuYasha went on as he started toward the line of trees. “Kagome’s probably already got breakfast ready.”
Stopping abruptly, the boy lifted his chin to meet InuYasha with a steady gaze. “Gunnar,” he said.
InuYasha stopped and blinked. “Gunnar?” he repeated.
Gunnar nodded. “Mama . . . Mama likes it better. She says Mamoruzen’s too hard to pronounce.”
InuYasha stared at him for a long moment, his eyes brightening as though he understood what Gunnar hadn’t said. “If that’s what you want,” he finally allowed. “Gunnar, huh?”
“Yeah,” Gunnar said, hurrying to catch up when InuYasha increased his pace.
“All right, Gunnar,” he agreed slowly but grimaced since that name wasn’t exactly easy for him to pronounce. “She thinks that’s easier?” he grouched then sighed. “Think you can beat me back to the house?”
He opened his mouth to protest then shook his head. “I know I can!”
“Not if you don’t get movin’.” InuYasha smiled slightly as the pup took off at a dead sprint. Normally he hated to lose, but he figured that maybe he could make an exception this once. To be honest, he hadn’t been completely sure exactly what kind of conclusions the pup had come to, but he should have known. Mamoruzen—Gunnar—had more inner strength than just about anyone, didn’t he?
‘Guess he’ll be fine,’ InuYasha thought as he darted after the boy.
Besides, InuYasha was looking forward to seeing the expression on Sesshoumaru’s face when the pup told him that he wanted to be called ‘Gunnar’ . . .
Coral age 14 years.
Cassidy age 12 years.
Twins age 9.5 years.
Mikio age 9 years.
Mamoruzen, Morio, Isabelle age 7 years.
== == == == == == == == == ==
Final Thought from InuYasha:
‘Gunnar’, eh …
Blanket disclaimer for The Lesson: I do not claim any rights to InuYasha or the characters associated with the anime/manga. Those rights belong to Rumiko Takahashi, et al. I do offer my thanks to her for creating such vivid characters for me to terrorize.