Ryouga stared at the barrier intently, blush fading as he concentrated on the problem before him and forgot his embarrassment. It looked almost like the surface of a soap bubble, a thin, shimmering film stretched across the middle of the cave... though soap bubbles didn't usually spit sparks at people who tried to touch them.
Sucking thoughtfully on one scorched finger, Ryouga took a closer look at where the barrier touched the walls. "O-fuda... right," he muttered, seeing the paper rectangles stuck to the rock at intervals. "This is way too obvious to be likely to work, but it's worth a try." Picking at the corner of one paper strip, he muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath as it stayed firmly stuck to the stone, refusing to rip, fray, or peel off.
"That didn't work five hundred years ago, either," Sesshoumaru said quietly, having recovered what seemed to be his normal emotionless lack of expression. "Rin... my servant tried to peel the o-fuda off, after she started coming here by herself and the monks weren't here to stop her. They also won't burn," he added, seeing Ryouga aim a speculative glance at his lantern, "and the ink doesn't run if they get wet."
"I guess I was hoping they'd weakened over time," Ryouga shrugged, cracking his knuckles. "Ah well. When in doubt, apply physical violence and see what happens!" Reaching out with one finger, he tapped negligently at a spot on the wall, six inches away from an o-fuda.
A split second later, a large chunk of the wall exploded.
"Damn," he said mildly, ignoring the rock shrapnel except to brush off a couple of pieces that caught on his clothes. "I really thought that might work." The explosion had created an almost perfect hemispherical hole in the wall... almost perfect, that is, because it simply stopped at a ruler-straight line running parallel to the o-fuda and the barrier they projected.
"...What was that?" Sesshoumaru enquired, keeping his voice steady with an effort. He'd heard the explosions as Ryouga blasted his way through the tunnel walls on his way towards their meeting -- he would have had to be deaf to not hear them! -- but he hadn't imagined that it could be done with so little effort.
And by a human, at that.
"Hm? Oh... that's just the bakusai ten-ketsu," Ryouga explained absently, peering at the new surface exposed by the blast. "You just find a breaking point and hit it. A tiny amount of force at the right stress junction'll disrupt things a lot. It only works on rocks and things like that, though..." His voice trailed off as he squinted at the rock, leaning closer. "And there aren't any breaking points in the rock next to the barrier," he muttered to himself. "Weird."
"The monk that sealed me in," Sesshoumaru said quietly, "was thorough."
"I'm beginning to get the idea," Ryouga signed ruefully, scratching his head. "This is going to take longer than I thought..."
Several hours later, Ryouga had exhausted all the immediately available options. He'd managed to do quite a bit of damage to the cave, making the rock walls next to the barrier look surprisingly similar to the clawed and shattered ones on Sesshoumaru's side, but the o-fuda had successfully resisted being punched, burned, scraped at with shards of rock, and even (in a moment of extreme frustration) headbutted. He'd run down the list of advice for getting stuck things unstuck that his mother and her letters had given him through the years, trying oil, lemon juice, a can of WD-40 that he'd found in a side pocket of his pack, and (remembering something about rust stains) soaking one of the o-fuda in milk. More 'occult' remedies, encountered at odd moments in his wanderings, had included throwing salt at the barrier, pretending his pocket knife was a consecrated blade and 'cutting' it, and muttering something tongue-twisting that a Mongol shaman had sworn would break any curse. He'd considered a low-powered Shishi Hokodan, too, but one glance at the unstable-looking ceiling had changed his mind.
Nothing had produced even a momentary flicker in the kekkai.
"...are you sure that last one was a real spell?" Sesshoumaru asked eventually, looking rather dubious.
Ryouga grinned sheepishly, picking up his sleeping roll and shaking the accumulated rock chips and dust off. "Actually, I have no idea," he admitted, "but the shaman did have a lot of regular customers, so he must have been doing something to keep them happy. It didn't work on my Ju-- err... it didn't work when I tried it on something else, though, so I wasn't really expecting anything from it." Dropping the sleeping roll, which promptly got dusty all over again as a cloud of powdered rock puffed up around it, he dug into his pack and pulled out a large, square bundle tied up in a cloth.
The mingled scents as he carefully unwrapped the multi-layered bento box and peered inside made Sesshoumaru's jaw ache. Human food was still food, after all, something he hadn't had for over four hundred years if Ryouga was right about how long he'd been trapped down here, and his stomach didn't care whether it was cooked or not.
"Oh, good... nothing got messed up when I landed," Ryouga sighed, relieved. He quickly disassembled the bento box into four separate trays, dug a pair of chopsticks out of his pack...
...and pushed two of the trays through to Sesshoumaru's side of the barrier, along with a second pair of chopsticks.
"I hope you like chicken," he said cheerfully, picking up one of the remaining trays and balancing it on his lap. "Itadakimasu!"
Sesshoumaru felt a strange lurching feeling somewhere in the vicinity of his heart, disbelief and pathetic gratitude and shame all at once. His mouth watered as he looked down at the neatly arranged meat, rice and pickled vegetables, and he swallowed hard, blinking. *He just... without thinking... as if it ware the most natural thing in the world to do...*
*...why is he being so unreasonably nice?!*
"Hm?" Ryouga looked up enquiringly at the quiet, bewildered sound, chopsticks pausing halfway to his mouth.
Sesshoumaru snapped his mouth shut, looking away. "I don't need it," he growled, ignoring a sudden accusing cramp from his gut, and waited for the argument.
There wasn't one. "Oh. Okay," Ryouga shrugged, put the bit of chicken back uneaten, and began to pack his meal up again.
"What are you doing?" the demon blurted out, startled. "I thought--"
"I can't eat in front of you if you're not eating, Sesshoumaru-san," Ryouga said matter-of-factly. "It wouldn't be polite."
Sesshoumaru stared at the human's calm expression for a moment, remembering a different face. Smaller, with black eyes instead of green...
*"...they said I couldn't come to see you, so I said I wouldn't eat anything until they let me, and they didn't believe me but I showed them! And here I am. I brought food, here..."*
He looked down, away from Ryouga's steady gaze, and picked up the chopsticks.
Sesshoumaru discovered very quickly that he would have to eat slowly, with frequent pauses, if he wanted to keep anything down; the hunger pains and cramps only got worse as his stomach struggled to cope after so long without anything to digest, and he had to stop several times, pressing the back of his hand to his mouth as he fought back a wave of nausea. Thankfully, the human -- *Ryouga,* he reminded himself, *his name is Ryouga.* -- didn't seem to want any mealtime conversation, eating with his head down and all his attention fixed on his own food.
*An unexpected level of tact,* Sesshoumaru thought wryly as he finally laid his chopsticks down, feeling uncomfortably full and unwell, yet somehow better. *But then, I haven't expected anything he's done!*
"I guess I'm going to have to go find a temple or something, and research more ways to break barriers," Ryouga said abruptly, pausing as he unpacked his small kettle. "That... uh... brings up a bit of a problem, though."
"What problem?" Mild indigestion was joined by a surge of panic, and Sesshoumaru kept his voice level with an effort. *Don't leave-- he has to leave-- he won't come back, I know it-- stop that!*
Oblivious to the reaction his comment had caused, the teenager concentrated fixedly on the kettle, hunching his shoulders defensively as he fiddled with the spout. "I... get lost," he admitted in an embarrassed mutter. "A lot. It runs in my family and I've done it all my life, so I'm used to it, but it might take a while for me to find my way back here... I always do get to where I want to go eventually," he added hastily, accidentally wrenching the spout around to a new angle and then (luckily) letting go before he could pull it off completely, "it just takes a while, that's all. I, uh, I just don't want you to think I'm not coming back if I'm gone for a long time, okay?"
"...You get lost," Sesshoumaru said flatly, not quite as a question. *He gets that lost?!*
"Yeah," Ryouga mumbled, shoulders hunching a little more. "It's stupid, I know."
"Your whole family does this."
"Uh-huh. Haven't seen my parents in years. We never find home at the same time... prob'ly why I don't have any siblings," Ryouga added under his breath, barely audible even to sharp youkai ears. "'M surprised they managed to have me."
"Is it a curse?" Sesshoumaru asked, faint curiosity creeping into his voice.
Ryouga blinked and looked up, distracted from his impending fit of depression (and possibly an accidental Shishi Hokodan). "It could be, I guess," he said doubtfully, scratching his head as he thought. "If it is, though, it would have to come from both sides of the family, and my parents never mentioned it."
"Perhaps they simply never had a chance to mention it," Sesshoumaru pointed out dryly, slightly exasperated amusement slowly taking the place of his first panicked reaction. "If you don't see each other very often, they may not have had time for long discussions of your family history."
"Yeah, well, considering that I'm not even sure what Dad does for a living," *and Ranma once managed to fool me into believing he was my little sister that I'd never met or even heard of,* "that's probably the right explanation. I'll leave them a note or something, next time I make it home, and ask... Do you want a cup of tea before I go? The sooner I leave, the sooner I can get back here."
As it turned out, Ryouga thought of one more thing that needed doing before he left. About to pick up his backpack (now quite a bit lighter, since he'd used the excuse that he wanted to 'travel light' to justify leaving his camp lantern and most of his food with Sesshoumaru), he frowned and paused, twisting around to squint at the faintly shimmering barrier once more.
"Now there's a thought... Sesshoumaru-san? What does the kekkai feel like to you? I mean, I know it sparks, but does it seem solid or, uh, springy?"
"Solid," the youkai replied, suppressing a wince as he remembered how many times he'd thrown himself against it when he was first sealed in. "Very much so. Why?"
"Well, obviously you can't get through, but things go through just fine," Ryouga began, waving at the food and lantern he'd passed through the barrier and the narrow trickle of water flowing out, "and when I fell against it it felt like I was sinking into it a little, so--"
"So perhaps it has weakened over time!" Sesshoumaru interrupted eagerly, leaning forwards to push his good hand against the kekkai. Ryouga yelped and scrambled backwards as sparks shot out in all directions, crackling waves of energy crawling across the barrier's surface as Sesshoumaru gritted his teeth and shoved harder, stubbornly ignoring the pain.
"Wait! That's not what I meant! Sesshoumaru-san, stop it!" Ryouga yelled frantically, squinting against the glare. "You're just going to burn yourself! SESSHOUMARU!"
The fireworks display cut off abruptly as Sesshoumaru pulled his hand back, flexing it as it hissed and smoked slightly. The barrier spat out a few final sparks, as if in warning, then stopped.
"...It hasn't weakened, has it?" Ryouga asked uncertainly, edging forward again.
"No." It had felt just as rock-hard and unyielding as before --harder than rock, actually, considering the amount of damage Sesshoumaru had done to mere stone in the past.
"What I meant was, uh... it was designed to keep you in. I don't think it puts as much power into keeping me out, so... maybe, if I try hard enough, I can get through it."
That got a bitter half-laugh, half-snort in response. "Why would you want to?"
"It might be useful later!" Ryouga insisted. "You never know, I might find a method for breaking barriers that only works from the inside or something. Anyway, I'm going to try."
"Now you're going to burn yourself," the youkai muttered sourly, flexing his aching hand again.
"Yeah, well, it doesn't zap me as hard as you, so maybe not. Even if I do get burnt, that's my choice and my problem, isn't it?" And without waiting for any reply that might have been forthcoming, Ryouga set his feet, planted one hand on the barrier and heaved.
The kekkai's reaction wasn't nearly as violent as it had been to Sesshoumaru's attempt, he had to admit. He could see Ryouga's hand through the sparks, and it did seem to be slowly sinking in... up to a point. Beyond that point, though, not even Ryouga's strongest efforts could get a hairsbreadth more progress.
"I was getting somewhere," he grinned, breathing a little harder as he straightened up. "Did you see? If my feet hadn't started to slip, I might have got further..."
"I saw," Sesshoumaru admitted, eyeing Ryouga's hand. There was a definite smell of burnt flesh in the air, and he was fairly sure not all of it was from him. "It's still keeping you out, though."
"That was just the first try, to make sure I wasn't imagining things," Ryouga said dismissively, making a fist and settling his feet again. "I hadn't focussed my ki or anything. Let's see how far I get this time!"
Sesshoumaru's eyes widened as Ryouga closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and started to glow. *That is not an ordinary human!* he thought incredulously, watching in disbelief as pale green light seemed to seep out of Ryouga's skin, concentrating around his clenched fists. *I've seen only three humans who could raise their ki high enough to make it visible, and one was the monk who trapped me in here -- what is this boy?! And he said he wasn't 'anybody special'!*
A faint popping sound distracted him, and he glanced away from Ryouga just in time to see a scattering of tiny sparks spit out of the kekkai, followed a moment later by a second, stronger flurry. *I'm not doing anything, so it's reacting to him-- this is not good!* Eyes widening further, he leaned backwards, automatically, hand lifting to shield his eyes in what was probably a futile gesture as Ryouga lunged forwards in a textbook-perfect focussed strike. "Wait--!"
It took Sesshoumaru a few moments to decide that the humming in his ears was mostly just that, not genuine echoes from the blast, and a few more moments before the shimmering green blobs in front of his eyes faded to the point where he could see the glowing lantern, miraculously still upright and unharmed. *I think that was a mostly non-physical explosion, at least,* he mused, a trifle dazed, as he sat up with an effort. A few small chips of rock clattered to the floor around him, and he nearly sneezed on the thick clouds of dust that were drifting into his small warded corner of the cave...
...coming mostly from the new pile of fallen rock against the far wall. The one that had Ryouga's legs sticking out from under it.
Anyone from Nerima could have told him that a little thing like a few square meters of rubble wasn't going to do 'Rock-headed Ryouga' any serious harm, of course, but this was Sesshoumaru's first exposure to the phenomenon; it was just beginning to sink in that his potential saviour was probably dead when there was a faint, aggrieved groan and Ryouga sat up, pushing rocks away and clutching at his head.
"Nngh," Ryouga replied fuzzily, wincing as he felt at the back of his head. "That thing punches like Ranma on a good day. I--" The rest of his complaint was cut off by a series of rib-straining sneezes, and he sputtered helplessly, one hand clamped over his mouth and nose while the other waved uselessly at the dust.
"Ryouga, are you all right?!" Sesshoumaru asked sharply, not sure whether he should be worried or relieved. The human nodded vigorously, but since he was still coughing and sneezing, tears streaming helplessly down his face, Sesshoumaru couldn't tell how seriously he should take the reassurance.
"'m fine!" Ryouga wheezed finally, beginning to scramble to his feet. "Jus' need t' get outta th' dust--" He teetered on the rubble for a moment, arms flailing, until one last stone dropped from the ceiling and met his skull with a dull thud, sending him sprawling again.
*...I should probably give up worrying about him,* Sesshoumaru decided eventually, watching in a sort of dazed calm as Ryouga crawled out of the rubble and wobbled towards him, rubbing his head. *I'll just drive myself insane, otherwise... He's caused me more mood swings in one encounter than Rin did in her whole life!*
"Well, that's obviously not the way to do it," the object of his attention sighed, flopping down in front of the kekkai and staring at it morosely. There were a few new tears in his clothes, and a definite smell of scorched hair wafting from him, but no trace of bloodsmell, at least.
"Apparently not," Sesshoumaru replied quietly. *Perhaps he actually is as tough as he seems to think?*
Lost in thought, Ryouga glowered at the faint shimmer in front of him, chin in hand. *This is useless,* he told himself, spirits plummeting. *Fists and ki-blasts aren't going to break this thing, and they're all I'm good at. It's going to take a really strong monk or nun or someone like that to take this barrier down, and how am I supposed to find one? And even if I do, what do I say? 'Hey, I need you to break a holy ward and let a really dangerous youkai out, so if you wouldn't mind following me around for a few weeks until I can find my way back there--' Yeah, right. I'm sure they'd take that well. I could probably get Gosunkugi to agree, if he thought it was something to do with a plot against Ranma, but his spells never work...*
A single spark popped out of the kekkai, zapping Ryouga sharply on the nose, and he abruptly realised that he was starting to unconsciously gather his ki again. *Shit, not a good idea,* he thought nervously, shooting a worried glance at the barrier, then up at the ceiling, as he hastily suppressed the rising energy before he started glowing again. *If I let off an accidental Shishi Hokodan because I'm depressed, it'll be a big one! Even if I manage to drop my ki and emotions far enough so that the blast doesn't affect me, having the whole roof fall in on me'd be a lot worse than just that little bit earlier--*
*...wait a minute...*
He ducked his head and scrubbed both hands roughly through his hair, eyes squeezing shut as -- for once -- he tried to think his way through a problem instead of just charging head-on, instincts and temper leading the way.
*The Shishi Hokodan is a ki energy attack. The kekkai is some sort of energy, too.*
*If someone has their own ki raised when the Shishi Hokodan hits them, it hurts them more than if they don't... and if I have my ki raised when I hit the barrier, it throws me into the wall instead of just zapping me.*
*If someone completely releases their ki and suppresses their emotions before the Shishi Hokodan hits them, though, it goes straight through them. Doesn't damage them at all.*
*So if I do that, and then try touching the barrier...*
Sesshoumaru watched in some consternation as Ryouga settled into a cross-legged position and closed his eyes, breathing slowly and deeply. *Now what is he doing? He looked depressed, and then like he was having some sort of attack, and now he's... meditating?! I'm glad I didn't waste any time trying to understand humans before; if he's typical, I'd say it would be pointless--*
The faint sense of Ryouga's 'presence' that he could feel through the barrier just... vanished.
Ryouga's expression slowly relaxed, smoothing away his near-constant baffled scowl, and Sesshoumaru revised his mental estimate of the human's age down a few more years. Nothing else seemed to change for a few breaths; then he opened his eyes and raised a hand, reaching towards the barrier.
"I thought we'd established that that was futile," Sesshoumaru snapped, losing patience. *He's trying again?! How many times does he have to get burned before he admits this isn't going to work and goes to find something that will?*
Without seeming to hear him, Ryouga flattened his hand on the barrier and slowly pushed it through. A few half-hearted sparks popped out, singing hairs on his wrist, but compared to the kekkai's earlier reactions to him it was nothing.
"How..." Sesshoumaru swallowed, bringing his voice down to its normal pitch. "How are you doing that?!"
Ryouga didn't answer, gazing at his hand with blank, unseeing eyes.
"Hm?" The human boy blinked, then seemed to focus. A slow grin spread across his face. "Hey, cool! It wor--"
"Mental note," Ryouga muttered eventually. "Just 'cause it's working doesn't mean I should get excited about it..."
end Chapter 2
to be continued...
 O-fuda - spells (usually seals or exorcisms) written on pieces
of paper and either thrown at or stuck to things.
 Bakusai ten-ketsu - 'breaking point strike'
 Shishi Hokodan - 'roaring lion bullet', Ryouga's most
impressive ki attack; powered by his near-constant state of
On to Part 3
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