This Mess We're In

Chapter 10: The Sin

Disclaimers: I don't own.

Rating: This version of the story is R. See MMorg for an NC17 version.

Summary: Kagome's back in the present, and she's about to meet a guy named Sesshou. What happened in Sengoku Jidai? Neither of them know yet, either. 2 stories in 1, present and past. Kag/Sess.

Chapter Summary: Let's get serious! Some chunks of plot fall from the sky. Bad things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Then, good things happen to good people, but confusion ensues.

Spoilers: I've been hopelessly AU-ed at this point. This is a diverge/future from around episode 90 or so. Anything up to that point, be warned for spoilers to be safe, since I can't actually remember when stuff happens.

Soundtrack (tracks available on my website):

(see cue marks)

Pedro the Lion - Indian Summer

Nightwish - Lagoon

Radiohead – Street Spirit

My Bloody Valentine - Sometimes


--- Sengoku Jidai ---


A storm was gathering.

Kikyou stilled and looked up at the sky. The warmth of the sun on her face belied a truth that she felt to her very bones.

Intuition solidified to certainty inside her, and she urged the soul stealers that carried her to quicken their pace. Their flight path, usually languid and convoluted, became blindingly quick and direct. They sensed death, and rushed to feed on it.

A massive and sinister energy was converging with speed at some point south of her. The lure of the youki drew the soul-stealers, but something different was drawing Kikyou. Something tugged at her like an unbreakable thread.

The further south she traveled, the less hollow Kikyou felt. The crackle of life she had felt before was stronger now. It animated and moved her. Kikyou felt like she was waking up from a long, dark sleep.

She would go south.

It was a simple coincidence that others were headed in the same direction.


[cue Indian Summer]

That morning, Kagome woke up to the usual symphonic clang of pot-abuse. Like most mornings before, Kagome's initial reaction was to shove her head beneath her unzipped sleeping bag in an attempt to hold off the inevitable. It was amazing how one could learn to sleep through an aural apocalypse, she thought hazily.

Something, however, was different on this occasion. The pot wasn't being assaulted with the usual maniacal fervor. The change was enough to make Kagome's eyes blink open in curiosity.

"Get up, get up," Seiji called with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Kagome squinted at him in momentary confusion, trying to figure out why he was slumped in the doorway, occasionally yawning as he listlessly thwacked the pot. His was a poor imitation of Aya's operatic ode to morning. He sounded half-asleep himself, in fact. At her groggy, inquiring look, he shrugged. "Mother sent me to wake you up. She is busy stealing all the food. Get up if you want some; you have to go on a long errand today." He looked at the pot he held with distaste, shaking his head. "She made me bring this."

Kagome rubbed her eyes. "Morning," she mumbled. "I'll be a second." Then, her eyes snapped wide. "Oh no! I've got to get going early today!"

Seiji watched in confusion as she suddenly sprang upright in a flurry of blankets and pink flannel, and started rummaging through her bag. Clothing and strange items were flung left and right. Seiji ducked abruptly to avoid an airborne shampoo bottle, snapping into a more alert state at the threat posed by futuristic projectiles. Wishing to preserve his current lack of head-injury, he returned to the common area with a vague feeling of accomplishment.

"Finally woke her up?" Aya asked with a smirk as Seiji sat down beside her and returned the pot to his father's possessive clutches. "I told you you'd need that."

Seiji only glared. "Only because your usual racket has deafened her to anything else," he returned.

Kazuo looked the returned pot over carefully, and heaved a relieved sigh. "Thank the gods, no new dents," he muttered, looking at his wife in exasperation.

She blinked back at him innocently. "What?" she defended. She filched yet another rice-ball from the dish before him, and munched on it with a look of satisfaction. "Such measures are necessary. Some sacrifices have to be made. These girls from the future are notorious for their laggardly ways."

Kazuo merely rolled his eyes. "Oh of course," he commented evenly. "I cannot recall how many times I have been warned about them." He shook his head as he ran a finger over the pot's considerably scarred and dented surface. "You just like having an excuse to run about and hit things."

Aya's eyes narrowed into slits as Seiji unconsciously replicated his father's disapproving head-shake. "It is truly barbaric," the boy noted with maddening calm. "I, for one, am deeply ashamed."

It occurred to Aya that this sort of blatant mutiny called for disciplinary action. She shoved the rest of the substantial rice-ball into her mouth and rubbed her hands together, casting a beady eye towards her irritatingly smug offspring.

"I'll show you barbaric," she threatened almost unintelligibly through a mouthful of rice. With that, she grabbed Seiji from behind, locked an immobilizing arm around his neck, and began to ruthlessly tickle him into submission.

Kazuo closed his eyes in defeat, horrified by both his wife's ridiculous behavior and his son's loud pleas for mercy. "Is it too much to ask that members of this family maintain a certain amount of dignity?" he asked no one in particular.

The only response he received was a rather girlish squeal. Kazuo fervently hoped that the sound had come from his wife, and not his son.

He cleared his throat. "Ignore her, Seiji. She will go away eventually," he advised in a louder voice. "Like many wild animals, your mother is only further excited by motion and noise. After the first year of marriage, I discovered that remaining still and silent confuses her long enough to escape."

At Kazuo's instructive comment, Aya released Seiji, who clutched his side in relief at the sudden reprieve. He smiled gratefully at his father for his intervention, though it seemed that his mother was gearing up for another assault.

Kazuo met Aya's cunning look with his own even stare. "Do not even contemplate it," he warned as he rolled another rice ball, "unless you would like to cook tonight."

With that, Aya's offensive plans were preemptively and completely defused. "Foolish, suicidal man," she grumbled as she sullenly snatched another rice- ball. "Masochistic, vindictive, barbaric. . ."

Seiji started to laugh at the sight of his mother's grudging capitulation. He was also greatly relieved that she was not going to call his father's bluff.

"What was that?" Kazuo queried innocently as he removed the dish of rice- balls from his wife's reach. "You wanted to make a stew tonight?"

Aya fell silent, much to a suddenly-pale Seiji's relief. "No one in this household has even the slightest appreciation for me," she remarked in a disgruntled tone.

At that moment, Kagome emerged, fully dressed. She and looked with dismay at the platter of rice-balls, which had become considerably barer after Aya's depredations. Silently offering her the dish, Kazuo set to work making more. "That's not true," Kagome commented with her mouth full. "I appreciate you sometimes. But then you usually work me into exhaustion, and the feeling fades."

Aya fell back onto the mats with a groan. "I should just leave one day! What would you three do without me? You would cry!" she announced peevishly from her prone position. "I know you would."

Seiji nodded solemnly. "It is true," he commented. "After a few years, I am sure we would begin to miss you." Then, he was forced to duck to avoid the half-eaten rice-ball that was pelted at his head.

Kazuo was starting to look distinctly irritated. "Do not waste food!" he warned slowly. "Unless, of course, you want to eat your own cooking."

Once again, Aya froze. "You know," she gritted through her clenched teeth, "one of these days I will learn to cook marvelously, and you will have no threat to hold over me."

Her husband only sniffed. "I worried the first time you said that, but after fifteen years passed, I began to doubt your resolve. Now, be quiet and eat your rice-ball."

Aya's eyes flashed, but she had learned to choose her battles. She abruptly turned to Kagome. "Are you ready to go?" she asked. "If you leave now, you should be able to return by evening, and we can work on barriers tomorrow morning."

Kagome nodded vigorously. "Yeah, I'll be ready in a sec. So I have to stop by Azuma's to pick up your new weapon?"

Aya nodded. A sneaky twinkle took up residence in her eyes.

Kazuo looked up from his task to add, "Also, if you could get the scrolls that I lent to Jirou, it would be a help to me. Azuma can tell you where to find him."

"Okay," Kagome affirmed. She took another rice-ball for the road, and hefted her full pack onto her back. "Do I really have to bring all my stuff with me every time I go somewhere?" she wheedled. "It's heavy!"

Aya raised an eyebrow. "When you are hunting the shards, will you be carrying all your things?"

Kagome grumbled. "Well yeah, but. . ."

"There is your answer," Aya concluded.

"Fine, fine," Kagome replied with a sigh. "I'll be as quick as I can. See you later!"

"Hurry back," Kagome heard Aya call out the door as she got on her bicycle. "We have lots of work to do!"


"Hurry!" Inuyasha's yell was almost lost in the wind that rushed past Sango's ears. Kirara's pace was slowing with fatigue, the taijiya noted.

Both Sango and Miroku rode on the fire-cat's back. They had been following the youkai swarm for hours.

"We can't go any faster!" Miroku called after the flash of red that preceded them.

Though they were moving too quickly to truly hear, neither Sango nor Miroku had any trouble picking up Inuyasha's snort of derision. "Keh! Try, damn it!" he yelled over his shoulder. Shippou, having anchored himself firmly to Inuyasha's back, looked back at them with worried impatience.

Inuyasha once again leapt forward, but even he was tiring. The youkai they were following were covering ground incredibly quickly, spurred by bloodlust and greed.

The swarm at large had a destination in mind, but there were some youkai whose determination waned when presented with the temptation of an easy kill. Any and all villages in the path of the swarm were fair game for attack. The group had been forced to stop frequently, driving the straggling youkai away from human settlements. Inuyasha and company were, as a result, far slower than the mass that they followed.

They were now tracking the swarm using the fading trail of youki that the horde of youkai left behind. The mass of demons before them had long disappeared from sight.

"Come on!" Shippou yelled. "They are going to Kagome! We have to get there before something happens to her!" The young youkai's voice was high with strain, aware of the growing futility of their chase.

Sango's lips tightened into a firm line as she bent forward. "Please, Kirara," she murmured.

The fire-cat collected her strength, and surged forward with a snarl. They all knew that her strength would not hold indefinitely.


Standing next to her bike, Kagome looked up into the late-afternoon sky. It was clear and blue, but for some reason, she had a really bad feeling. Shivers crept over her skin, though she couldn't figure out why.

Something inside her told her to she had to go back, and go back now.

Kagome toed her kickstand down and went to peek in the door of the hut. She'd been waiting for ten minutes outside, but when she looked in, Jirou's grizzled head suddenly poked out.

"Here it is!" the portly gentleman crowed, emerging from his home with a scroll in hand. "Please thank Hayashi for the loan," he added with a bow, "and let him know that I will come to visit him next week."

"Thank you, I will," Kagome replied with a quick smile. The man grinned toothily in response. "When Kazuo wasn't looking, Aya asked me to thank you for the pickles you brought her."

The old man slapped his knee and hooted. "HAH!" he exclaimed in triumph. "Kazuo just cannot accept the fact that mine are better than his!" He leaned toward Kagome conspiratorially, and shook a finger in the air. "I use my family's secret recipe, and let me tell you, Hayashi is just itching to steal it from me. Be sure to inform him that he will have it over my dead body!"

Kagome couldn't help but laugh at the old man's utter seriousness. "They are very fine pickles," she added with a nod, "but I really should go back."

Jirou nodded and made a shooing gesture. "Oh, of course, I will not detain you further. Do stop by again soon! It is rare that this old man has the opportunity to speak to young ladies," he replied with a mournful sigh.

Kagome smiled again, but it took a bit of effort. She really couldn't shake the feeling of apprehension that had overtaken her.

Something was very wrong.

She tucked the scroll into a pocket of her pack, made sure the long, cloth- wrapped package from the weapons shop was secure, and got back onto her bike. "I'll try. Thank you!" she called, as Jirou waved from the doorway of his home.

Once the man disappeared from sight, Kagome squinted up at the sky. The sun beat down impartially, but that sick feeling wasn't going away. If anything, it was intensifying. She felt oppressed by the heat, and the very air seemed heavy and stifling. Shaking herself, Kagome kicked off, put all her weight on the pedals, and powered herself up the sloping road that would lead her back to Aya's village.

When she reached the top of the hill, she caught her breath and froze. The downhill coasting of her bike only added to the sinking of her stomach. The sweat on her skin took on an icy chill at the sight before her.

The sky over Aya's village had gone black.

"No," Kagome whispered. "No, no, no. . ."

Her knuckles went white from her grip on the handlebars. Not even feeling the burning in her muscles, Kagome coaxed her bike into flight.


Sesshoumaru's yellow eyes flew open.

Many years of keeping vigilance over the territory of his ancestors had taught him to pay attention to fluctuations in youki. Power was a fragile thing. Though he was now well-established and seldom contested, it was unwise to abandon the habits he had developed. They had served him well after Inutaisho's death, helping him to solidify his position through many years of instability and constant attack.

He had been young and new to power then. Strong youkai had thought that the new lord would be easily defeated. Discounting the strength of Sesshoumaru's father's blood – and even more stupidly, his mother's - challengers had come in droves, hoping to usurp him.

After a few close victories, Sesshoumaru had trained his senses to detect movements of youki. Over time, he became able to scan over a wider area than was strictly necessary. He had attuned himself to the call of demon blood in the distance. Today, something was disrupting the balance he had become familiar with.

Sesshoumaru closed his eyes again, and made an attempt to locate the activity.

It was. . . yes, the youki was powerful. Many youkai, most of them relatively weak, were moving at speed towards a common goal. Separately, they would have been unworthy of notice, but so many in a state of bloodlust constituted a substantial threat.

Normally, Sesshoumaru would have ignored such a thing. The swarm was not heading towards him or his territory. His position remained secure. In normal circumstances, he would have used the resources at his disposal to ascertain the source, and then evaluated the impact on his holdings at a later date.

This time, however, he could intuit the source.

Low-level youkai would be difficult to muster into a unified force. They were unfocused animals, unable to plan, and motivated solely by the promise of immediate reward. No strong youkai that he knew of would bother to gather such a degenerate army. However, only a master of the manipulative arts could control so many.

Only one who was desperate would even make the attempt.


Shikon shards and the promise of a massacre were very motivating for youkai with basic appetites, and strength insufficient to feed those appetites.

Sesshoumaru became aware of his uncommon agitation, but was unwilling to examine the cause of it.

Naraku was desperate, and acting quickly to regain the power he had lost. A logical place to look for shards would be at the home of the southern miko, who had been challenged by so many youkai in the past, and was bound to have acquired a few shards along the way. And Kagome. . . Kagome was there.

Sesshoumaru buckled his armor, retrieved his two blades, and left the room.


Rin felt the keen desire to leave, but Jaken was watching her with a gimlet eye.

"But. . . I don't want to!" Her young voice was filled with horror.

Jaken scowled. "You found more, Rin. That means that you won the game." He spoke slowly, disgruntled by the fact that Rin's feeble human mind was incapable of understanding such a simple thing. "Your reward is to eat them all."

Rin surveyed the beetles crawling between them with trepidation. She crouched, and mercifully flipped one that struggled on its back. Landing on its many legs, it scuttled away, only to freeze at the thump of Jaken's staff on the ground an inch ahead of it.

"Finding them was fun, but I don't think these would taste very good," Rin explained. "Also, they're wiggly!"

Jaken emitted a huff of injured pride. "Rin!" he said in a voice that echoed with authority. "You asked me to teach you a different game. You were bored, you said." He folded his skinny arms over his chest in disgust at the girl's obstinacy. "I played this as a child. It is the best game I know. If you refuse to abide by the rules, stubborn girl, you can see if I ever teach you another fun game ever again!" Jaken's voice had degenerated into a piqued croak, and he was blinking very quickly.

Rin was taken aback by his demeanor. Jaken's eyes were all bulgy, and his lower beak was quivering. In fact, he seemed. . . well, Jaken looked hurt.

"But Jaken," she ventured in a pleading voice, "humans don't eat bugs." She bit her lip thoughtfully. "At least, I don't think we do."

Jaken thumped his staff again, but had lost some of his ire.

It was true, he conceded grudgingly. Humans were completely beyond his comprehension. For one thing, Jaken mused, they leaked for no reason. Perhaps, being a rather simple form of life, they were also unable to grasp the finer points of culinary appreciation as well.

"There are rules to this game, Rin," Jaken repeated, though he was losing steam. "I am sure that if you ate just one, you would see your error."

Rin eyed the beetles with doubt. She was tempted to tell Jaken that some of them were escaping, but thought better of it - if Jaken had his way, she would be eating them.

Rin was looking a little green, Jaken noted. While this was a sign of health among his kind, it wasn't very becoming on a human child. Jaken pursed his beak in consideration.

What if Rin were to become ill, he wondered to himself with growing worry. Sesshoumaru-sama would surely be displeased if that were to be the case. The wrinkled green youkai was also certain that, in such an event, the blame would be unjustly laid on his charming, green head.

"However," he continued, "I suppose that I will not force you." He frowned, torn. "Although it IS a rule," he muttered.

Rin straightened slightly when she saw the glum look on Jaken's face.

"Jaken," she began, "maybe we could change the rules of this game then, since I am a human, and do not think I can eat bugs."

Jaken eyed her with suspicion, but didn't shake the staff at her. Rin interpreted that a favorable sign.

She clasped her hands behind her back and tilted her head in thought. "Maybe you can eat the bugs when you win, and if I win, we can let them all go."

Jaken looked horrified. "Let them go! But Rin, that is a waste! To have collected so many delicious beetles, and then to let them go? The very idea is. . ." Jaken's mouth opened and closed as he struggled to find the words. "The very idea is preposterous!" he squawked indignantly.

Rin raised her small hands in a placating gesture. "All right. If I win, then I can give them to you as a gift, and then you may eat them."

Jaken crossed his spindly arms, tucking the staff into the crook of his elbow. "I suppose that may work," he grumbled, despite his sense of fair play. "However, it still does not seem to be quite right. What would motivate me to win the game then? I do not feel that this is a workable solution, but it will do for now." With that, Jaken picked one of the beetles up, blew some of the dust from it, and popped it into his mouth with a crunch.

Yes, he mused when he saw Rin's face. These humans were certainly strange. They leaked. They refused to eat delicious, delicious beetles. And, Jaken noticed with no small amount of puzzlement, Rin was once again turning a sickly shade of green.


Both their heads popped up at Sesshoumaru's cool, commanding voice.

Jaken swallowed his prize with a gulp, before he scampered towards his master, fairly prostrating himself before Sesshoumaru's tall form. "Yes, Sesshoumaru-sama?"

Rin rolled her eyes.

"I am leaving for a while." Sesshoumaru had armed himself with Toukijin and Tenseiga, and appeared to be prepared for battle, Jaken observed with interest.

Surely, if Sesshoumaru was to go on an important errand, he would need assistance, Jaken reasoned. "Sesshoumaru-sama, shall I-"

"Stay here with Rin. Keep this place secured."

Jaken blinked rapidly, and remembered the beetles that were rapidly escaping. They were so wiggly and crunchy, he thought happily. If he stayed, he could eat as many as he liked.

However, what sort of service could he render his liege here? Jaken's brow wrinkled even more than usual at the thought. Even if he had many delicious beetles to eat, it would certainly be remiss of him to remain behind. "Of course, Sesshoumaru-sama, but-"

But Sesshoumaru was already gone.

Jaken turned to see that Rin was busy shooing the fleeing beetles towards a nearby bush, a shrewd look in her eye. He gasped in horror. "RIN!" he croaked. "What do you think you are doing, you foolish girl!"

Rin tilted her head to the side, clasped her hands behind her back, and smiled innocently at her toad-like guardian. "Nothing?" she replied hopefully. When she noticed Jaken's cheeks puffing out in preparation to deliver one of his dearly-loved tirades, she hastened to distract him. "Where do you think Sesshoumaru-sama is going?" she asked quickly.

Jaken's eyes gleamed suspiciously, but he shelved his lecture for a later time. "I am sure it is unimportant, if he did not tell Jaken," he croaked adamantly, crossing his skinny arms over his chest with a nod.

Rin sighed, shook her head, and looked at Jaken with weary affection. "Yes, Jaken," she said in a mollifying tone. Then, she bit her lip, curious. "Though, he rarely seems so rushed," she added under her breath, as Jaken stalked towards the bush with a beady look in his eye.


Kagome pedaled harder and harder as she neared the village. Her skin crawled and her lungs burned, but all she could see was the darkness that had turned the sky into a black and purple bruise. Then, with a loud crackle, the clouds burst apart like a lanced wound, and the air was filled with the sound of a hundred voices raised in one unholy roar.

Kagome squinted, making out a stream of writhing bodies that flowed into the village with bloodthirsty eagerness. It looked like a hurricane had hit, funneling into the small settlement, and tearing it apart.

A split-second later, Kagome heard the first of the screams in the distance.

Ignoring the protests of her body, she pressed on. It seemed like an eternity had passed by the time she arrived in the outskirts of the village. Quickly, she abandoned her bicycle and took cover behind one of the homes that still stood. Kagome stared up into the sky in frozen horror. There were so many youkai that she couldn't make out a sliver of blue. The black and red aura of their bloodlust hung thickly in the blisteringly hot air. Kagome closed her watering eyes against the acrid, poisonous smoke. Her ears rang with human screams and lower, inhuman cries.

Then, the very earth seemed to heave in protest beneath Kagome. As she looked up, trying to regain her bearings, she saw the people she had lived among for months. The very air was infused with their terror. They were running for cover. Many were already wounded, falling as they tried to escape.

Kagome looked around rapidly, trying to take stock of the situation through the thick haze of smoke and youkai that obscured everything in darkness and chaos. Her stomach clenched into a tight knot, eyes widening in shock. Not twenty feet away from her, she saw Ichirou, a friend of Seiji's. One of his arms had been torn off, and his eyes stared glassily out of his slack, blood-covered face.

"Oh, gods," she moaned, feeling bile rise in her throat. She pulled her pack onto her back, and rushed towards his fallen body, trying not to quail at the pool of his blood that thickened around him. She pressed trembling fingers to his neck, held her palm above his nose, but there was no breath or heartbeat.

It was no use.

Kagome stood over his body, steeling herself. This was no time to lose it. Before she could finish the thought, she found herself doubling over, and barely managed to stagger away from Ichirou's corpse before she vomited violently into the dirt. When she straightened, her throat burned, and tears streamed down her cheeks.

Kagome's hands clenched into fists, and her head bowed as she squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them, she blinked at the sight of her boots, now covered in Ichirou's blood, and she fought the nausea that threatened to overtake her once more. She had no time for hiding and trembling. Only minutes had passed since the onset of the attack, and there was no telling how many people were dead already.

She had seen these villagers daily, seen how happy they were to have Aya and her family among them. They had welcomed Kagome as well.

Impatiently, she wiped her wet eyes with the heel of her hand. This was what she had been training for. She was scared, but Kagome knew that she wasn't alone. The villagers would have sent someone to get Aya. The other miko would be fighting somewhere nearby, and Kagome had no intention of letting everyone down when they needed her most.

She felt the fire of resolve unfurling in her veins. Steel stiffened her spine, and the muscles in her body tensed in readiness.

The ground shook again, and the roaring overhead intensified. There was less screaming now, and Kagome tried not to think about what that meant, or what the smell of burning meat signified. She reached behind her for her bow and arrow, and was brought up short when she heard something metallic strike into the ground behind her. She whirled blindly, arrow notched.

In the dirt before her, a weapon quivered. It had come loose from its wrapping and fallen from her pack, spearing point-first into the ground. Aya must have gotten it for her as a surprise, Kagome realized. The older woman had mentioned something about finding a better close-range weapon for Kagome, since the staff she had been using in training was in such poor condition. . .

Before she had a chance to examine the staff, Kagome heard another voice raised in an agonized scream. The sound galvanized her, jolting her into mental clarity. She reached forward and wrenched the staff from the earth, shoving it securely between her backpack and her body with a single, lithe movement. Her spine stiffened as the house behind her exploded in a shower of debris.

Kagome heard a child shrieking, and turned. Above her, a seven-headed dragon leered downward, bringing its red, armored tail around to lash at her. She raised her arm to shield her body, now pulsing with violet fire, and heard its hissing shriek of pain as her energy burned through its flesh. She flexed her fingers into a fist, and brought her arm down sharply, feeling her gorge rise. Her forearm scorched its way through scale, flesh, and bone.

The beast above her snarled in pain and flung itself away from her to regroup. Its eyes glowed a bright, clouded crimson. Then, it extended a clawed hand, and lunged downward trailing smoke, its body uncoiling in the air like a striking serpent.

Kagome's eyes darted rapidly as she attempted to gauge the speed and trajectory of its descent. Her mouth set in a firm line as she tried to calculate her chances, fingers tightening on the smooth wood of her bow.

The beast was a little slow due to its sheer size. Its movements were off balance after the wound she had dealt to its tail.

She could do this.

Bracing her body, Kagome raised her chin, and let her arrow fly.


As Kikyou released her arrow, a ripple of power went through her borrowed body. She could feel the pull of the familiar energy drawing her to the village. Her clay heart seemed to beat faster, and the breath issuing from her cool lips felt warmer than usual.

Kikyou didn't quite feel alive, but this was the closest she had come since the day she had been revived. At least, like this, she could remember what it had been like. She could feel the way it eluded her grasp. Suddenly and painfully aware of her emptiness, Kikyou yearned.

The pale light of her arrow blasted through the badger youkai that had been blundering towards her, causing it to fall in a howling heap. Its corpse pinned several other youkai beneath its massive weight.

Kikyou was not quite sure where she was going, but the nearby town was under attack, and she was being led there. To reach the village, Kikyou would have to get through this knot of enraged demons. The soul stealers hovered behind her, almost frenzied in their excitement. Somewhere nearby, many were dying.

Naraku's taint was all over this slaughter. Naraku's greed shone, reflected, in the glittering, mad eyes of the youkai before her. Kikyou scanned the crowd, taking in their drooling jaws, the bloody flash of their fangs. They had been glutting themselves. Some of them had shreds of bloody clothing hanging from their claws. Others flicked pieces of bloody flesh from their fingers.

Faced with the wall of evil slouching toward her, Kikyou felt a glimmer of uncertainty for the first time in recent memory. It took a moment for her to identify the emotions that tightened her throat and made her eyes burn.

She was furious and afraid, angered by the evidence of innocent lives lost. She feared for her existence, such as it was. However, beneath all the grief and rage, something inside her was beginning to grow. Suddenly, she had something to hope for, even if she was not quite sure what it was. Her eyes grew large and dark with confusion.

However, at that moment, there were other matters to attend to.

Running her fingers over her forehead , Kikyou was surprised to find her brow damp. Ignoring it for the moment, she squinted, and as always, she did what she had to do.

Kikyou pulled another arrow from her quiver with a steady hand, and fired.


Kagome watched yet another youkai fall to the ground with a sickening impact. It dissolved into a broken mass of muscle and bone in the reddened dirt, with her arrow protruding from what was left of its skull.

There were so many, she thought dully. Too many. She had stopped counting, but every time one fell, another was there to take its place.

She turned and raced through the town, wondering where all the youkai had gone. It was suddenly and eerily quiet. Her arms and legs ached from fighting, and she was vaguely aware of several cuts and bruises that she would have to tend to later. Luckily, the rush of adrenaline was still raging through her, and none of her injuries felt terribly serious.

Blinking tears from her eyes, Kagome scanned the wreckage of buildings, and the scorched and ruined fields beyond. She looked at the ground only as often as she had to in order to avoid debris. It was hard to blind herself to the corpses that littered the once-bustling village.

Later. Later, she would have to deal with this. Just now, she didn't have time. She had run out of arrows. She would have been in a lot of trouble if the youkai hadn't suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.

Kagome's relief at her unexpected reprieve faded, and a hard ball of fear congealed in her belly.

Where had they gone?


The voice was rough and filled with anticipation. Kagome whirled to see two compact, reptilian youkai advancing on her. She tossed her bow aside, narrowed her eyes, and reached back to pull the staff free from the pack that she had forgotten that she carried. She wrapped her hands firmly around the dark, almost petrified wood, and swung it experimentally, only half-noticing the near-perfect balance of it before one of the youkai charged her with blinding speed.

Kagome leapt back into a defensive crouch, staff held protectively in front of her, and flared with purple light, trying to push her energy outward and make a shield. Aya had tried to show her how to do this, but Kagome's attempts were usually less than successful. At this point, Kagome no longer had any other choice; her opponent was too fast, and her muscles were already burning from the strain of battle. She couldn't even see where her foe had gone.

To her left, Kagome saw a sudden flash of its glowing red eyes. It was bearing down on her fast. Kagome did all she could to evenly distribute energy through her barrier, and then braced for impact, though she was sure that the youkai would be able rip out her throat with its large jaws before she even felt it.

However, before it reached her, she heard it emit an injured howl. The youkai lay in front of her, repelled by her shield, but only mildly stunned from its brief contact with her purifying energy. She would have to take advantage of its momentary confusion, or she would be a goner.

Leaping back to her feet with almost inhuman speed, Kagome ran forward, and speared the glowing staff through its midsection with all her strength, preventing it from recovering for another attack. Then, as it hissed at her, grasping for her with narrowed, slit eyes, she yanked the staff free of its ribcage, seized one end of her weapon's shaft, and whipped the other end downward.

The smooth wood of her weapon bit through the creature's neck before it could roll free. She closed her eyes as she felt her staff crunch through bone, severing the youkai's head.

The other youkai backed away slightly. "Miko," it repeated in a flat, sibilant voice.

Kagome slowly straightened to face it, quivering with anger. "Why?" she asked quietly. She took a step forward. "Where did the rest go?"

A slow smile cracked the youkai's wide, leathery face. It clenched and unclenched its clawed hands, and then coiled in preparation to spring. "Miko," it repeated stupidly. "Find the Miko, and I will give you power."

"What?" Kagome whispered. "What are you. . ."

"The village beyond the border," it hissed. It almost seemed as though. . . it was repeating its orders, Kagome realized. They had been sent here. They had all been sent.

"Shikon no Tama." Kagome's face froze into a mask of revulsion as the words spilled from the creature's cracked lips in measured, robotic syllables. "I will feed you. I will make you sss-strong." The lizard-like, slit eyes blinked slowly. "Kill them all."

Kagome's eyes widened in horror, even as she kicked the youkai backwards and then cut cleanly through its scaly body with her staff.

"But. . . I have the shards. . ." she whispered to herself, only distantly registering the dull sound of the youkai's body hitting the dirt. She pressed a hand to the pack on her back. Kagome always made a point of keeping the shards with her, but. . . the youkai were obviously not after her. In fact, it seemed that she had just disposed of the last that lingered in the village.

Kagome doubted that anyone outside the village even knew she had been living in the area. The Hayashi family had tried to minimize the risk of Naraku discovering her location while she trained. They seldom received visitors, and it was easy to avoid questions, since the house was some distance from the village. The villagers Kagome had met had all been told that she was a relation from a far away land.

Aya, however, was a very well known miko.

Aya, who lived a short distance away in order to shield the villagers from youkai who came to challenge her. Aya, whom Kagome been unable to find anywhere, and who should have arrived in the village soon after the siege had begun. Aya, whom Naraku would no doubt have heard about if he were trying to find those who were likely to hold Shikon shards.

"Aya," Kagome murmured to herself in dawning realization. "Aya, and Seiji, and Kazuo. . ."

For what seemed like the hundredth time that day, Kagome started to run.

"No," she whispered. The sound was carried away by the wind, and faded into silence.


Inuyasha kept running.

Even his strength gave out sometime, and he wasn't sure how much longer he could keep the pace up. Already, his legs weren't propelling him as quickly as they should. He felt like he'd been running forever. "Shit," he ground out under his breath. Shippou clung fearfully to his hair, and Inuyasha could feel the small body on his back trembling with fatigue and strain.

Miroku, Sango, and Kirara had long since fallen behind, and the trail of youki was cold. He was now relying only on his sense of smell and the destruction that the swarm left in its wake to find where it had gone.

"Shit!" he growled again, continuing only through the force of will alone. If Kagome had. . . if Kagome wasn't. . .

"She's been training. She'll be okay," Shippou repeated in a strange, brittle tone for what seemed like the thousandth time.

At that, Inuyasha's temper came to a head. "Maybe, if she didn't go and do something stupid!" he snapped fiercely. "You know how she gets. Sometimes she's all guts and no sense! By now, she's probably. . ."

Inuyasha trailed off when he felt Shippou seize one of his ears in a death- grip. "Kagome will be fine!" Shippou screamed near-hysterically, further abusing Inuyasha's sensitive ear. The hanyou felt a wave of anger overtake him, but it quickly dissipated as anxiety returned. He didn't even have the heart to thump Shippou on the head.

Inuyasha wanted to believe him, despite all indications to the contrary.

He was actually a little impressed that Shippou hadn't turned into a fountain of tears by now, given the fact that Kagome was in danger. Earlier, Inuyasha had heard Shippou crying quietly into his hair, but the little fox was really keeping it together, considering the circumstances.

"Yeah," Inuyasha agreed with little conviction. "She's too damned infuriating to die," he added.

"She's with that strong miko, so she'll be okay," Shippou agreed, with hollow cheer. "She's smarter than you think. Kagome's not an idiot, she's just. . . brave. She didn't scream and run away when she saw your face, did she?"

Inuyasha scowled. He was pretty sure that Shippou wouldn't have said that if he hadn't had a death-grip on Inuyasha's sensitive ear.

"I'm going to hit you when we stop, you know."

"Hmph." Inuyasha could practically see Shippou stick his little nose in the air, and the mental image was causing Inuyasha to make a fist in pure reflex. "She'll be okay, you'll see," Shippou continued. He was sounding a little better, Inuyasha noted.

"Hold on," the hanyou ordered gruffly. Shippou's grip tightened, and Inuyasha cried out in pain. "Not to my ear, damn it!"

"Sorry," Shippou apologized wearily. He released Inuyasha from his hold, and dug his tiny fingers into the fire-rat fur.

Inuyasha was quiet for a moment. "You okay back there?" he asked gruffly. "I'm not going to stop if you fall off," he added in the most irritated tone he could manage. Inuyasha didn't want Shippou to get the misguided notion that he cared about his welfare - which he didn't, obviously. The kit was an immense pain in the ass.

"Yeah. Just keep going. It's gonna be dark soon," Shippou replied, voice tight.

"Hang on then," Inuyasha ordered, his silhouette bounding past the setting sun.


[cue Lagoon]

Kagome threw her head back and raised her hoarse voice in a battle-cry, as daylight slowly died.

It took everything in her to prevent her body from slumping in fatigue.

She couldn't even count how many youkai she had killed, how many heads she had severed. Her body and clothes were steeped in their reeking blood, and now, she could only lash out furiously with what strength she had left. Her store of spiritual energy wasn't going to last much longer before giving out, she knew. Kagome despaired to think that she would fail now, when the place she had called home was in sight. . .

Kagome desperately summoned her strength and fought on, through the straggling remains of the youkai that kept her from the Hayashi home. Many had left, finding that Kagome was not easy prey, but some still lingered to challenge her.

They were still hungry.

Kagome knew that she wouldn't be able to fight much longer. She was too tired, and her movements had become heavier, slower, sloppier. However, one by one, the youkai around her fell under her blows. She grew accustomed to the moist impact of staff through muscle, to the horrible stink of youkai flesh as it burned against her skin, until finally, there were none left.

Kagome's lungs burned by the time she staggered through the door of the house. Strangely, it stood mostly intact, though part of the roof had been destroyed. She entered, stumbling drunkenly, and blinked into the darkness. "Aya!" she called raggedly. "Seiji! Kazuo!"

It was very quiet inside, and Kagome inwardly rejoiced. They weren't there anymore. Of course, they would have escaped, she thought feverishly. There was the passage, a trap-door that Aya had shown her before that covered an underground passage for use in an attack. Surely, they had escaped. After all, if she had been in the house, Aya would have heard Kagome fighting outside and come out to boss her around. . .

Then, the smell hit Kagome.

She gagged slightly, and stood with streaming eyes, forcefully quelling her urge to throw up once again. Her hand went to cover her nose and mouth, and she found herself walking further into the house, compelled to press on despite the fear that wrenched her guts. She couldn't see anything, she thought through her mounting panic. Why couldn't she see. . .

Kagome stared blindly into the room, and then saw the glint of light reflecting off blood. Her hand fell back to her side as she took a small step closer.

"Aya?" she asked in a small, uncertain voice. She stared at the human shape that lay unnaturally on the ground, surrounded by pieces of youkai. No, it was too tall to be Aya, Kagome registered. Then, she was clamping her hand back over her mouth in the horror of recognition.

It was Seiji. His body lay twisted and ripped open from the belly to the throat. One of his legs had been torn off at the knee. His gray eyes stared vacantly at the ceiling.

Kagome stepped towards his corpse with an inarticulate cry, and tripped over something soft, heavy and cold. When she rolled to get back to her feet, she looked down to see what was tangled in her legs, and tasted bile. She reached a hand out, and then lay frozen in horror, as her fingers curled violently against the sticky mat.

"Oh, gods," she choked, forcing her eyes closed and turning away, though the sight remained burned into her eyelids. If she hadn't seen what Kazuo had been wearing that day, she might not have recognized him. He had been mauled. . .

Kagome jumped back to her feet, every cell of her body commanding her to escape, but for some reason, she couldn't see properly. Everything in her field of vision had gone wobbly and gray, and someone was making gasping, choking sounds.

Kagome wondered, woodenly, who it could be. It took a while for her to realize that she was making those wounded, animal noises. She stumbled to her knees again. The sounds were getting louder, Kagome noted distantly. A fog was seeping over her vision.

She was going to pass out. . .


Kagome's head shot up at the weak voice. She rubbed the heel of her hand over her eyes, trying to clear her vision. "Aya?" she asked raggedly, getting back to her feet, trying to ignore the telltale, sticky residue of death as it clung to her skin. "Where?"

"Here. Corner." The words sounded thin and labored, and came from near the door through which Kagome entered. She had passed Aya on her way inside.

Kagome ran to Aya's sprawled form, tried to make out her condition in the dark. The smaller woman's swords had fallen a few feet away, and she wasn't moving. She simply lay curled on her side, staring in the direction of the corpses, one arm pressing awkwardly against her stomach as though she was trying to protect herself. "Aya? Y-you're going to be okay. I have some things in my pack, I'll patch you up-"

Aya laughed. It sounded bitter and tired, and for the first time, Kagome could really believe that Aya was as old as she said she was. "Did you see Kazuo. . . and my baby?" Aya coughed wetly. "I told them to go. I was all right, but-" Aya's voice was flat. "Then more came."

Kagome heard a strange gurgling sound from Aya's throat, and she reached out to touch her face. The skin was strangely cold, but the tears were warm as Aya struggled to continue. "Seiji, he always has to help. He turned back, and they smelled them. . . I couldn't move after I saw. What they did to them. Stupid. . ." Aya fell silent at that, and then her body seemed to convulse, whether from the memory or from her injuries, Kagome couldn't tell. The younger woman reached out to hold her teacher still. She didn't want Aya to aggravate any of her injuries.

"Aya, don't. . . Aya!" Kagome cried out as her eyes adjusted enough to see the large, dark pool the woman had been lying in. Kagome braced herself against the floor, and felt it, thick and cool against her fingertips. Kagome couldn't bring herself to ask how long Aya had been lying here like this. Too long, she registered, if she was already so cold. . .

Kagome swallowed. "We have to stop the bleeding. . ."

The rusty, choked laugh shook Aya's body, and it seemed like the coldness of Aya's body was seeping over Kagome's skin. "Already bled out," Aya murmured. "No recovery this time."

Kagome took hold of Aya's shoulder, gently rolling her to her back though Aya's face remained stubbornly turned to the side. Kagome gasped. Aya had a huge, messy hole in her abdomen. It looked like a youkai had stabbed its claws into her back and punched through to the other side. She was soaked in her own blood. Kagome pressed her shaking fingers to Aya's throat.

There was a rapid pulse, but it was almost too faint to be real. Kagome wondered if she was just imagining it. She pulled her hand back as Aya started to cough. At least one of Aya's lungs had to be punctured, Kagome concluded as her mind raced. Her ribcage was partially smashed, and there were strange sucking noises when Aya tried to breathe. . .

"My body doesn't know when to stop," Aya gasped brokenly. It was then that Kagome saw the faint green glow around Aya's body - the energy that bound Aya to life. "Could be weeks. . . before I go."

Kagome felt more moisture running down her own face and another sob rising in her throat. "Stop. . . crying on me," Aya admonished hoarsely, before her voice cracked. Aya was making an effort to turn her head, and Kagome remembered that Kazuo and Seiji were lying behind her. Kagome, wondering how long she had lain there, watching over them, gently turned Aya's head to face the ceiling. After a moment, the wounded woman's lips parted again. "Naraku?" she asked.

"Yes," Kagome replied dully. "I should have realized. . ."

"Make sure he fails," Aya whispered. "Make sure."

"I will," Kagome nodded, trying to stop crying. She was so sick of crying, but she couldn't seem to stop.

"Could be weeks. Please. . . This does not. . . feel so good. . . as much as I like to talk to you. . ."

Kagome could feel the tears running down her face all over again as she looked at the way Aya lay, so tiny now, crumpled before her. She couldn't be asking her to. . .

"No!" Kagome insisted, reaching for Aya's icy fingers and clinging to a scrap of hope.

Aya couldn't die, Kagome thought frantically. She didn't want to be the only survivor - to be left in the dark, sitting alone in this wrecked home, while those she had lived and laughed with lay slaughtered around her.

She didn't want to end Aya's life.

"No! If there's a chance, then-"

"No chance," Aya interrupted wearily. "And. . ." her tone became faraway and wistful. "Promised I would follow him. Kazuo followed me. . . for so long. I will, into. . . the next life." Her eyes drifted closed. "Seiji will, too."

Silence lengthened between them.

Kagome looked down at her mentor and her friend, now trapped in a broken body, and knew that she could not leave her like this.

"What do you-" Kagome searched for words, biting her lip. "H-how should I?" Kagome asked hoarsely, fingers tightening around Aya's.

Aya's bottle green eyes blinked open. "I think. . . could you. . . break my neck?"

Kagome swallowed audibly, but nodded, unable to speak.

"Do you like my gift?" Aya asked.

Kagome blinked in confusion, unable to interpret Aya's words, before her eyes widened. She reached behind her to feel the slim length of the new staff behind her. "Yes, it's perfect. Thanks." Kagome could feel the tears returning with a vengeance, but Aya didn't want her to cry on her. . .

"I am glad. It is from. . . an old tree, I was told," Aya advised in a tired voice. "Like we both are. . . from a very old tree." She closed her eyes once more, and drew a ragged breath. "Ready?"

Kagome swallowed. "Yes," she hesitated. "A-any last words?"

Aya's lip twitched, and the younger girl could almost believe that the tears streaking the older woman's cheeks were all Kagome's. "I have already been. . . talkative, considering," Aya remarked with a hint of her usual irreverence. Then, her eyes grew serious. She looked up at Kagome, who could see every bit of Aya's age in her eyes.

"Do not let this ruin you," she said quietly. "You will want to remove yourself, like I did for so long, but we need ties to the world," Aya murmured. "Important people. Otherwise, you become a killer, and that. . . would be a shame," she continued haltingly. "You have been a friend. I did not have many." Her breathing was shallower now, and Kagome winced at the liquid sound of each inhalation. Aya was drowning. "Do not linger here, afterwards. He might find you."

Kagome wanted to say so much, but she couldn't seem to get any words out. "I won't," Kagome choked, hoping feverishly that Aya would somehow understand all the things left unsaid. "Are you - are you ready?"

"Yes." A faint curve touched Aya's lips. She furrowed her brow in concentration, and her fingers tightened slightly around Kagome's. "I was good, was I not?" she whispered with a hint of pride.

Kagome thought back to the first time she had seen Aya burst out of the woods with a cocky grin and a smart-ass remark. She had seemed so indestructible then - that energetic girl standing on the remains of a youkai twice her size, arms akimbo, moaning about her indigestion.

Laughing despite herself, Kagome nodded tearfully. "Yeah. You're amazing."

Slowly, Kagome brought her hands to hold Aya's head firmly. She bent and pressed her forehead to the older woman's and tried very hard not to cry on her anymore. "Thanks. I - I'm going to miss you so much," Kagome whispered.

"I know," Aya rejoined shakily, face taut with pain. "Told you. . . you would. And thanks. . . for the pajamas." Kagome didn't have to look to see Aya's smile. "It is time now," the woman whispered.

Kagome nodded, and kissed Aya's cold cheek before pulling back. "I won't let this be for nothing," she pledged. "I. . ." Kagome's head bent. She tried not to cry, but the tears just seemed to keep coming. "Goodbye."

"Kagome, do it. . ."

Taking a shaky breath, Kagome squeezed her own eyes shut, tightened her grip, and did.


Inside Kikyou, something seemed to break.

If she had been asked to, she was not sure she would have been able to describe the sudden and terrifying freedom she felt. It seemed to Kikyou that she had been staring at a window for years, unaware that it was merely an artfully painted wall. Now, suddenly, the smooth barrier had shattered in a blaze of unearthly light, revealing a world that she did not recognize.

It was a world that had passed her by, but one that she loved, nonetheless. Once, she had spent her life protecting it, and trying to heal its wounds. She was surprised at the emotion that rose in her chest, tightening her throat.

At the unexpected sensation, Kikyou faltered momentarily in her pursuit of the fleeing youkai. Before, her main objective had been to find the source of this feeling. Then, somewhere along the way, reaching her goal had become secondary.

Kikyou's main priority had shifted. The swarm had disintegrated at some sort of signal, but the danger was not over. Unsatisfied with the small amount of blood that had been spilled, the youkai were still seething with dark energy, and searching for other prey.

Kikyou had a job to do, and though she remained curious about the sudden changes that had overtaken her, she had to set her own concerns aside. She had managed to salvage several quivers of arrows from the outskirts of the village that had been attacked. Now, she gave chase, aided in her hunt by the eerily silent soul-stealers that carried her.

She sent another burning arrow into the fleeing swarm, noting the falling bodies. Disregarding the fatigue in her body, Kikyou notched another arrow to her bow.


"We're only human," Miroku said in a weary voice.

At present, he and Sango were going on foot, Inuyasha having long since faded from view. Kirara had been overwhelmed with fatigue some time ago. Now, transformed into her smaller form, she was curled on Sango's shoulder in a restorative and well-earned sleep.

"We have to keep on," Sango said almost to herself in a low, steely voice. Miroku's fingers clenched briefly on the staff he carried as he looked at Kirara with concern.

They were all exhausted. He understood that circumstances were dire, but Sango looked ready to fall apart, and he wasn't in much better condition. It was evident to Miroku that Sango was taking this attack of Naraku's very personally. He could sympathize, given the destruction of her village in a similar fashion. However, there was only so much the human body could withstand. They had been going nonstop for almost twenty-four hours, and he thought he might be starting to hallucinate due to sleep deprivation.

Miroku winced as he stubbed his toe on yet another tree-root and stumbled, extending his hand for balance, and flexed it. It was constantly there - the familiar weight of the beads that bound the kazaana. The stone beads pressed into his palm, inexorable, inescapable.

He stared blankly at his hand long after he had regained his bearings. "We're only human. We're tired. We can't keep going like this," he said almost inaudibly, unsure of whether he was speaking to himself or to Sango.

He was surprised when her slumped posture suddenly straightened, and she turned on him, eyes blazing.

"So, we are tired. I know it's difficult, but I refuse to lose anyone else!" she said with stony determination. "There's only so much I can take. If there is any way for us to help Kagome, then we are going to reach her if I have to crawl all the way, dragging you behind me," Sango asserted grimly as she planted one hand on one of her deliciously curvaceous hips.

Miroku blinked and raised his hands in a placating gesture. Turning on her heel, Sango continued to plod on with weary steps.

"I'm worried about Kagome," Miroku interjected in his smooth voice, "but she has always been oddly immune to harm. If she's been training, I trust her to keep herself safe." He blinked blearily at the ground. It was hard to be the upbeat member of the party, but the job fell to him. If he gave in to his pessimistic thoughts, they might as well begin to dig their own graves. As it was, he wasn't sure how well either of them would hold up, if they happened to find any youkai bent on a fight.

At the rate things were going, he thought wryly, they would collapse unconscious as soon as they found Kagome anyway, and she would be the one defending them.

He shrugged his shoulders in discomfort. Miroku could have sworn that Hiraikotsu was getting heavier and heavier.

"You, on the other hand. . ." he began tentatively. "Sango, you're going to run yourself into the ground. I'm not going to let you," Miroku added.

Sango stopped a few steps before him, and he felt a little surprised that he hadn't even been bothering to leer at the very attractive rear-view. Well, not much, anyway. Either he was truly worn out, or Shippou's so- called 'training' had been paying off, he thought with no small sense of awe.

Her shoulders slumped forward slightly. "I know we won't get there in time," Sango acknowledged quietly. "We. . . well, look at us," she said a little wryly, indicating their almost pathetically ragged appearance. "But even so, I won't be able to stand it if we give up now." She looked at Miroku with a look as close to pleading as he thought he would probably ever get from her. "Don't ask me to."

Miroku sighed, unable to argue with that look, and nodded.

He fervently prayed that Kirara would recover soon. He didn't even want to think about how many more stupid tree-roots were waiting in the dark to trip his numb feet.


Kagome was numb to the shocks of repeated impact that filtered up her staff.

Strike to the neck, strike to the head. Movement to the left. Turn and defend.

In Kagome's mind, Aya quirked her lips upwards in a small grin. "Fight dirty," the apparition advised, one hand resting on her cocked hip. "Aim to disable."

Kagome aimed to kill.

She pushed off into a spin-kick, combining it with a hard swing of the staff that caused three of the dark shapes to fall. Three unearthly voices merged into a dull roar.

Though her body struck with deadly accuracy, Kagome had no idea how long she'd been fighting. She was barely registering her foes. They were only dark shapes blending into the night, existing only as meat for the slaughter.

She was hunting.

Kagome wasn't even aware that the blazing purple light that enveloped her had expanded to illuminate the forest around her. All she knew was that she felt strong. Her power was no longer something she had to coax forth like a timid animal. It burst from her like fire in flower, moving her body in blind instinct.

It simply was, and Kagome was glad.

When she pushed herself until her muscles strained at their limits, she couldn't quite see Aya's dulled eyes. She didn't see the way Aya's tear- streaked face had finally lain atop her neck at an unnatural angle as the pale green glow around her body slowly faded into darkness. . .

Swiftly, Kagome ducked, dealing a death-blow to the youkai that had charged her with a snarl. She barely took a second to shake the blood from her weapon before she turned toward the next nameless opponent.

She closed her eyes for a moment, and quickly snapped them open again when she saw Seiji behind her eyelids, his face bleached of his usual quick blush, lying in pieces, looking so lost. And Kazuo. . . Kazuo had become a smear on the mats he cleaned so carefully. . .

Kagome cried out and blazed more brightly. No matter how much she fought, her mental sight eclipsed the information that her other senses offered her.

With an inhuman leap, Kagome kicked off the thick trunk of a tree, launching herself headfirst at the striking shadow nearest to her, staff held before her in two clenched fists. Only the stupidest and most foolhardy of the youkai had remained behind. She was following the herd as it scattered.

Maybe she hadn't gotten there when it mattered, but now, Kagome was going to do as Aya taught her. When she kept moving, the images were held at bay.

One, dark blob shrieked as Kagome struck, and spewed forth some sort of poison. Without a thought, Kagome pulled her energy around herself. She froze for a moment, reminded of the time when she'd forgotten to shield herself, and had collapsed in the woods. Sesshoumaru had brought her home that night, and she'd woken up in the Hayashi house, surrounded with concerned faces and the smells of home.

No longer.

Kagome shut her eyes against the memories, and jerked her staff free of the corpse, letting it fall. She could close her eyes, but she couldn't help but recall the smell that had replaced the scent of Kazuo's cooking.

No one ever talked about that smell. It wasn't just the smell of blood, but of guts and excrement. It was the violent odor of abdomens torn open. It was the sacrilege that took place when the secrets of the body's workings were laid naked to the cruelty of air. . .

In the periphery, Kagome sensed movement. She reflexively swung her staff in a wide arc, only vaguely registering the impact that jarred her arm yet again. Striking the end of the staff into the earth, she pivoted on it, and sent both her feet flying into the midsection of another indistinct shape that approached her from behind, holding her breath to avoid inhaling the odor of searing flesh.

There were more, she knew. Her body thrummed with energy and the drive to fight. She would do better this time, Kagome thought feverishly through the fog of grief. This time, she wouldn't fail.

Suddenly, Kagome became aware of some disturbance beyond the cluster she pursued. Her eyes continued to scan her striking range, searching mechanically for her next opponent.

Then, suddenly, they were obscured, and a deep growl shook the air, vibrating through the soil under Kagome's feet.

A massive form seethed in the darkness above, descending from the sky in a liquid movement of powerful muscle. Then, in a whirl of illumination, its tremendous shape seemed to melt away, leaving a tall figure in a trail of murky smoke.

Kagome spun the staff in her hands into a guarding position. Through the haze in her vision and the sweat stinging her eyes, Kagome could barely make out what was happening. The shadows were falling, one by one, sliced in half. Acid green light lashed forth, knocking bodies back. Then, a blade gleamed in the blackness, and a wave of blue lightning blasted the horde away from her, immolating the youkai as it flung them backwards in the wake of the attack. The silhouettes blasted apart into cinders, burning away into nothing.

Straightening, Kagome braced to attack, trying to blink away the horrifying images that filled her head. She would block the grief out, replace it with the focused, mechanical drive to fight that had carried her this far. Aya's teachings had shaped her muscles and her instincts, and Kagome would obey.

There was one left. He would be more difficult than the others.

The indistinct, pale form moved towards her at a truly alarming speed. Kagome crouched into defensive position, and as it neared, she lashed out in a vicious kick, putting all the strength and speed she could muster behind the blow.

It was blocked by the youkai's forearm, and then he gripped her ankle tightly in his other hand in an attempt to freeze her in position. The youkai seemed to be speaking to her, but Kagome heard only a dull roar in her ears. She froze in shock. She had to be burning his hand, but that didn't seem to be enough to deter him. Kagome felt a glimmer of fear, and then whipped her staff upwards, trying to surprise her opponent into loosening his grip.

She succeeded.

"Kagome," he said evenly as he knocked her staff away with the hilt of his sword. The blow was so strong that her wrist failed under the impact. Her staff went flying, and it landed, quivering, in the mossy ground quite a distance away. Kagome looked behind her in shock.

Aya's present to her. . .

"How dare you," she whispered as tears further clouded her vision. She put some hurried distance between herself and her opponent. Then, slowly, she circled his still form as she searched for an opening. He mirrored her slow, measured movements.

In the back of her mind, Kagome heard a low voice telling her never to cast her weapon away. She had trusted that voice against all reason. . . Kagome squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, not wanting to see where the thread of thought would lead her. It didn't matter; she didn't want to see anymore.

This time, she was the weapon, and she wasn't going to fail. . .

"Do you intend to fight until you drop dead? Foolish wench."

Kagome's brow furrowed at the disgusted tone in that very familiar voice. Something about the wording gave her pause. . . but then she saw it.

An opening.

"Stop this," he commanded quietly, but Kagome had already planted her feet and was bursting forward.

It was too late by the time Kagome recognized that the opening she had seen was a false one, created to fool her into attacking. She wouldn't have enough time to defend herself when he retaliated.

Aya would disapprove, she thought distantly. The grief rushed back, and Kagome aimed a blow at her target, heavy with the weight of despair. It was blocked, and she was confused when he made no offensive move. Wrenching free, she stared at him with blind eyes, collected her strength for another attack, and then blinked when she couldn't see him anymore.

Suddenly, she spotted a flash of white out of the corner of her eye. He was inside her guard. Shit, shit, shit, she thought despairingly. He was so fast - but maybe, if she made some sacrifices, she could still win this. . .

"Sleep, wench." The voice held a weird note of exasperated affection. Kagome paused slightly, and blinked in confusion. Suddenly, she felt a sharp blow to the back of her head.

After that, she felt nothing.


When Sesshoumaru looked at the small shape slumping into his arms, he felt something unidentifiable.

He had arrived in the area fairly quickly due to his incredible speed, but once he had arrived, all had been in chaos. He had been searching for her for a very long time. His senses, already confused by the strong scent of the swarm, was later overwhelmed by the sick, muddy smell of blood from so many sources.

When Sesshoumaru had arrived at the house and seen the corpses, he had been momentarily immobilized, frozen by the scent of human death that lay heavy in the air. Then, he had recognized the bodies as the family that had taken Kagome in. They had been cold for hours; even Tenseiga could not have helped them.

Sesshoumaru had been surprised when his first instinct had been to reach for his father's sword. When he realized he was too late, a strange urgency had gripped him though he could not find the scent of Kagome's blood.

Transforming himself in order to take advantage of the sharper senses of his youkai form, he had determined to track Kagome. If even her teacher had fallen. . . Sesshoumaru had forcibly stopped himself from thinking about the implications of that fact, and welcomed the sudden influx of distracting sensory information that opened to him.

In the end, he hadn't even needed to find her scent. The woods had been lit with the fire of her power, visible even from afar. Relief had battled with apprehension within him.

She was alive, but if Naraku were to return and see her, she wouldn't be for long. Sesshoumaru would rather relish seeing Naraku at that moment, but Kagome was in no condition for such a confrontation. She had incredible power, but it had been fueled by madness.

Such strength was brittle and unpredictable. Naraku would be quick to take advantage of that.

Sesshoumaru lifted Kagome's limp body into his arms, disregarding the burns on his own skin, and appraised her for injury. Most of the blood that flaked off her was not her own. Lighter streaks tracked through the dirt on her face.

He didn't need to smell the other miko's blood on her clothing to know that Kagome had found the bodies.

Naraku would be sure to arrive once he was confident that his swarm had removed any threat to him, and Sesshoumaru would ensure that Kagome was not there to be found.

Sesshoumaru's grip tightened around her suddenly, though he was not aware of the movement. She was alive, even if her skin felt strangely cold. She would recover.

Carefully, Sesshoumaru gathered her up, and flew.


[cue Street Spirit]

Suspended in the dark, Kagome fought the tug towards consciousness. She didn't question her certainty that she didn't want to awake. A mysterious chill unfurled inside her, but the edges were eaten away by warmth that seemed to reach around her.

It would be better to sleep, she thought hazily. There was something waiting for her when she woke up. Something unavoidable coiled around her mind, ready to strike.

Something she couldn't yet see.

Aware of her mounting panic, Kagome shifted restlessly, trying to escape whatever knowledge was hidden from her. The warmth tightened around her, and her eyes fluttered open in surprise, meeting a pair of golden irises that were glowing, just inches away, in the muddy black.

Sesshoumaru. Kagome's heart leaped into her throat. She felt the sensations of happiness and irritation war within her. They always seemed to recur on those nights when she dreamed of him - the nights when she was too tired to care how much of a pompous ass he could be, and just missed him for some reason.

Then, the chill of the damp air reached her through her drowsiness. "I'm dreaming we're in a cave," she muttered to herself sleepily as she looked around. "A slimy cave. Gross," she noted with drowsy disgust, "but at least it's not the gas station again."

The look he gave her was, however, not one she was used to seeing in her dreams. Kagome blinked. Sesshoumaru looked strangely grim, even for him. Kagome laid her fingers on his cheek, and was surprised to feel it solid beneath her fingertips.

She blinked, and poked his cheek, prompting him to glare at her with affronted dignity. "Sesshoumaru?" she began. "Why are you. . ."

Her voice died when she got a closer look at her fingers against his pale skin. Some rusty, flaking substance had dried on her hand, black under her fingernails. It caked in the creases of her knuckles.


Kagome's throat tightened as the images came flooding back. She didn't even notice the way she knocked Sesshoumaru's arms away from her body; didn't feel the impact as she propelled herself backwards, falling to the ground.

The villagers. Aya, Seiji, Kazuo. She hadn't been able to save them. She hadn't been fast enough, or good enough. She hadn't been there when it mattered.

Suddenly, Kagome couldn't fight the cold that seeped through her, the ball of ice in her chest, the chill of the dirt beneath her body. She shivered violently, curling onto her side with a moan of grief.

Then, the warmth returned. Arms surrounded her, lifting her carefully into Sesshoumaru's lap. Her shoulder butted against his smooth armor as he paused, seeming unsure, before he drew her closer and pressed her cheek into soft fur.

"Sesshoumaru," she murmured. He was real, she told herself desperately. She wasn't alone. He had come to find her. Kagome glanced down at the strong forearm that anchored her, and froze at the sight, trembling. His pale skin was reddened and raw. "It was you," she whispered in realization. "I'm sorry, I didn't know-"

"I heal quickly," his curt voice replied. "It does not matter."

Kagome ducked her head in shame. "What? Of course it matters!" Kagome replied, an edge of hysteria creeping into her voice. Her fingers curled desperately over the edge of the armour he wore. "You. . . I could have-"

"You couldn't have," he interrupted matter-of-factly. "You have improved, but you wouldn't have defeated me."

Kagome stopped short, and breathed deeply as she forced her panic down. At his confident words, she felt a heated knot of irritation appear in her stomach, and for some reason, the familiarity of it made her feel better.

Some things would never change, no matter what happened. There were cliff faces, and then there was Sesshoumaru. Kagome doubted that he was even half as vulnerable to the forces of erosion.

"I dunno," she muttered darkly into the pelt as she regained her bearings. "I was really on a roll, you know. One lucky shot, and I might've-"

"Oh, be quiet," Sesshoumaru grunted. When Kagome peeked upwards, he seemed to be looking off into the distance, but something about the set of his mouth indicated faint amusement. "It will never happen," he continued quietly, with a rather challenging glint in his eye. "I'm not like those simple creatures you took down so easily."

Kagome felt the urge to groan, but settled for leaning back against him and closing her eyes, instead. "No, you're not. You're one complicated bastard," she observed wearily. "I'm sorry for even implying that you could be associated with such inferior beings, oh glorious one," she added with a tiny smile in her voice. She'd forgotten how much she liked bickering with him. Sure, he was infuriating sometimes, but something about him just made her crazy, and it felt good to argue with him. Especially now, when the world suddenly felt so frightening and unfamiliar. . .

She'd expected him to snark back at her, and was a little surprised when he maintained his silence. The darkness filled with the sound of their breathing.

"Why are you. . . wherever we are, anyway?" she asked hesitantly, after a few moments.

"I sensed the swarm," he replied flatly. "It seemed that you might get yourself killed," he replied after a pause, "a feat that you seemed about to accomplish when I found you."

Kagome's spine stiffened. "Oh, really," she shot back. "I was-"

He cut her off. "You were fighting blind. You did not even see me." Sesshoumaru's voice was chilled and low with controlled anger. He met her eyes, and Kagome couldn't help but flinch. "You were trying to kill yourself."

Shocked, Kagome was unable to put together a reply. "I wasn't. I just need to. . ." Furious, she wrenched herself free of his grip, and scooted backwards, glaring, even as she felt the ice seeping back into her body. "I was. . . oh gods," she whispered, voice cracking. "They. . . Aya's family. . . I couldn't just. . ."

Keen yellow eyes watched her. "I saw them," he said dispassionately. "You were running away. You would not have cared if you were wounded. You would have continued until you were too injured to move, and then you would have died." Kagome shrank from his cold regard. It was true, perhaps, but that didn't explain why he seemed so angry.

Pressing the heel of her hands to her eyes, Kagome felt herself starting to hyperventilate, unable to bear the combination of her memories and the accusation blazing from his ruthless countenance. "They were just-" her voice broke. "Now they're just pieces of meat," she hissed through her teeth. "I couldn't. . ."

Sesshoumaru watched as she continued to speak, more to herself than to anyone else.

"They're gone. They just weren't themselves anymore, just dead things, and Aya was lying there for I don't know how long, broken and crying. I had to. . ." Kagome pressed her face against her knees, trying to stop herself from shaking, but it seemed that using her energy so much during the fight had its after-effects.

She was so cold.

"I don't understand." Her fingers twisted together as she trembled. "It's just so he can become stronger, and what does that matter? I'm stronger now than I was before, but I feel worse. . . I feel so responsible. . ." Her voice died to a rasp before she composed herself enough to continue, and then the words seemed to burst from her. "I knew the things he'd done. I saw some of it happen. Sango, Miroku, Inuyasha. . . they all knew, and suffered so much because of him, and I thought I could sympathize." Kagome shook her head in mute denial, forehead pressed to her knees, before raised her head and looked straight ahead.

Sesshoumaru's breath caught in his throat. The dull look in Kagome's eyes was transforming, growing hard and dark. "But how could I? I didn't understand at all," she said with disturbing calm. "I've never hated anyone until now. Not really."

The dead look she'd had before was slipping away, but Sesshoumaru didn't like what replaced it. Kagome was making no move to warm herself. Her lips were turning blue, and her face was setting into blank, cool lines.

Sesshoumaru had always thought hatred to be beneath him. He was familiar with contempt, anger, and even rage when he felt his domain was encroached upon, but hatred was different. To hate was to give power to someone else. Even when Naraku had attempted to absorb Sesshoumaru into his carefully built body, Sesshoumaru had just seen it as an act of an aberration. He would never lower himself to hate a creature so low.

Hate took control, and drove people to willingly seek their own slavery.

But now, Sesshoumaru felt his insides twist, and something dormant flickered to life. Because of Naraku, Kagome was changed. Even if she healed, she would never be able to regain what she'd lost.

The way she had looked at him before had confused him. He hadn't noticed the warmth in her eyes, or the grumpy affection she seemed to hold him in until now, when she stared at him blindly.

A few feet from Sesshoumaru, Kagome curled inward, and locked herself far, far away from him. She did not see him. He couldn't stand it, but he wasn't sure what to do. He was rather accustomed to comforting Rin, but that had required no effort on his part. The first time he had woken her from a nightmare, she had immediately attached herself to his arm with rather surprising strength, starved for any sort of contact whatsoever. It was a simple thing, just to be there.

However, Kagome was turning inside herself. She was so overwhelmed by fear and grief that she was shutting herself behind dark, impassable walls.

When Sesshoumaru moved to unhook his spiked armour, she gave no notice. When he set Tenseiga and Toukijin aside, she remained staring at the wall of the cave, looking both horribly resolved and broken beyond mending.

When he knelt in front of her huddled form, her eyes didn't even flicker in his direction. However, when he sat down and hesitantly pulled her back to him, she flinched, folded into his warmth, and started to cry.

Sesshoumaru said nothing. He satisfied himself with the awkward task of pulling her slack limbs more firmly against him, ignoring the reek of burned flesh and blood that rose from her skin as he warmed her with his body. It was strange to him that someone who seemed to have such a large presence would feel so small and fragile.

The only heat he felt from her was in the slow bleed of tears through the silk of his clothing. Irrationally, he wondered if she would be dead once they stopped. The thought that only providence had kept her away from the miko's family at the time of the attack caused his arms to tighten, and the discomfiture he had felt before started to fade. Involuntarily, he rubbed his nose against her temple and inhaled her living scent.

"You will not be reckless with your life," he ordered gruffly. "I have gone to too much trouble for you."

She blinked, and he felt the flicker of her lashes against his throat. "Sesshoumaru?" she asked timidly through her tears. He felt relief ripple through him as she spoke his name.

"Hn," he acknowledged. Kagome tugged her arms free from his hold, and he prepared to release her. Then, she sniffled, and Sesshoumaru was surprised when she wrapped her arms around his waist in a fierce grip. She tucked her face against his neck, still crying raggedly.

After a moment of stillness, Sesshoumaru rested his chin on her hair, and simply offered her his warmth.

Kagome's gasping sobs continued to wrack her body. Sesshoumaru stiffened slightly, wondering if he had done something wrong, but at his movement, she wrapped her arms around his neck and held on tightly.

"No, don't. Sorry about this," Kagome said shakily. "I'm getting your clothes all dirty."

Sesshoumaru simply held on.

"He won't stop, will he?" she whispered when her tears abated enough for her to speak. "People mean nothing to him. If he can avoid a fight by ending one hundred lives, he will."

Sesshoumaru made a sound of agreement, and wondered why Kagome suddenly froze in his arms.

"I. . . could we go somewhere?" she asked in a firm, strong voice suddenly free of tears. "Would you help me do something?"

Sesshoumaru blinked curiously. "What?" he asked.

Kagome pressed her face against his throat, seeming to gather her strength, and then pushed away suddenly. She wouldn't meet his eyes, and though he saw pain on her face, the icy mask was gone. It had been replaced with a ferocity that made him feel strange inside.

"The well. We have to go to it." Before Kagome finished her sentence, she was back on her feet. She checked her pack, shrugged it onto her shoulders, and retrieved her staff in cool, efficient movements.

Sesshoumaru's stomach clenched, and he felt a sudden weight in his belly, as though lead were settling there. "You are going back?" he inquired coolly. "I had not thought your resolve so easily broken."

Quick as a flash, Kagome raised her head and glared. "No," she replied, voice curt. "I'm not running. Not anymore."

An intense feeling of relief overcame Sesshoumaru, and he wasn't at all inclined to figure out why.


Dawn's blue light filtered into the wreckage of the house.

Inuyasha and Shippou stood inside, willing the light away. Inuyasha's hands were dark with grave-dirt. Shippou's face was tight with unshed tears.

"She lived here," the young fox whispered. His fingers clenched spasmodically over the bottle of shampoo he had found in the debris. He didn't dare raise his voice, knowing it would break. He didn't want to. . . there was still a hope, however slim. "Where is she?"

Inuyasha remained damningly silent. They had found corpses and buried them, ashamed of the joy they had felt when they saw that Kagome wasn't among the dead.

Now, though, that relief was fading fast.

If she wasn't here, then where was she?

"Inuyasha!" a feminine voice called from outside. He and Shippou immediately ran to see who approached, hoping against hope.

Their faces fell.

It was Sango. Miroku followed, bringing something with him. His dark head was bent, and he looked defeated.

"We found this outside the village," he said in a pained voice as they neared.

It wasn't pink like the one Kagome had ridden before, but there was no mistaking that it was a bicycle. It had to be hers.

"I'm. . . I'm sorry," Miroku said wearily. He closed his eyes briefly. "We. . . we will have to go back to the village. There are so many dead. It will be hot today, and it will be best to bury them soon."

Inuyasha turned his head at the sound of a choked cry. Shippou's face had gone completely white. He stared at the bicycle with wild, tear-filled eyes.

Sango dropped Hiraikotsu, and snatched the little fox into her arms as he rushed towards her.

"We didn't see her, Shippou," she murmured. "But. . . we didn't just find human corpses. There were youkai too, killed by a miko's arrow." She carefully omitted the fact that some of them had been brutally ripped apart. Surely, Sango thought, Kagome couldn't have been the one who had done that, but. . . "She could be fine." Sango's words fell like lead, too leached of life to be convincing. "We're not going to give up," she said.

Shippou nodded slowly. He couldn't meet her eyes, and stroked Kirara's head with a tiny, trembling hand.

Inuyasha stared down at his own hands, and distantly noted that they shook as well. He felt helpless, and there was nothing he hated more.

"Where the hell did she go?!" he exploded savagely, more out of desperation than genuine anger. "That the hell was she thinking? If she'd just stayed where we could find her, I could have been-"

"Stop it." Miroku's voice was cold and flat with exhaustion. "Just. . . stop it. You're not helping."

Inuyasha fell silent as abruptly as he had begun.

"We have to go back," Sango murmured against Shippou's hair. "To. . . to bury the dead."

After a moment of strained silence, the four of them turned slowly and started back towards the village.

Unfortunately, someone was blocking their path. They all lurched to a halt, arrested by the sight that greeted them.

"Inuyasha." Kikyou's calm voice broke the stillness. She stood before them, bearing herself with the same straight-backed assurance that she always had.

"Kikyou," Inuyasha growled wearily. He was, for once, not particularly pleased to see her. He didn't have the energy for any of her games, especially now that the one that resembled her so closely was nowhere to be found, and most likely dead.

But then, Inuyasha looked again. He saw something different in her this time. Though she held herself proudly, there was an odd expression on her face. She seemed ashamed and hesitant.

Even more strangely, there was no sign of the soul-stealers that usually shadowed her every step. In the morning's warm light, Kikyou almost looked. . .

"Inuyasha," she repeated, stepping forwards with a wince of anticipated rejection. "I. . ."

"Kikyou?" he asked in disbelief, eyes narrowed in suspicion. Something weird was going on, he thought to himself. Something was not right.

She took another shaky step forward, reaching her hands towards him, and then. . .

Kikyou's eyes rolled back in her head. As if in slow motion, her body slumped forward, and then she fell face-first into the grass at his feet with a resounding thud.

Inuyasha and company merely stared down at her for several stunned seconds. Then, recovering herself, Sango leaned down to brush Kikyou's hair away from her cheek.

"She's. . . she's warm!" Sango whispered. "Is she usually warm?"

Inuyasha bent to touch Kikyou's neck.

Then, they all heard it. A loud rumble broke the stillness - the unmistakable sound of a stomach loudly protesting its own emptiness.

"Shit!" Inuyasha exclaimed in disbelief.

"I suppose souls aren't as filling as they used to be," Miroku suggested dryly. Sango's lips twitched slightly upwards.

Inuyasha froze as his fingers made contact with the skin at Kikyou's throat. It was true, the skin was warm, but beneath it, he could feel. . .

His head shot up suddenly, golden eyes clouding with shock and confusion.

"She's. . . alive," he observed incredulously. "Well, maybe not alive, but there's a pulse! That's just. . . weird."

Inuyasha, Sango, and Miroku gaped at one another in turns, too stunned to act.

"Um. . ." Shippou's voice broke the silence. "Maybe we should turn her over?" Three heads swiveled towards him in unison. "Or we could just let her suffocate in the grass," he remarked with a shadow of sarcasm.

"SHIT!" Inuyasha barked, springing into action. "I guess we should find some food."

Miroku rolled his eyes in vague amusement. "You're never in that kind of hurry when I say I'm hungry," he groused.

"Keh," Inuyasha rebutted with some of his usual aplomb. "That's because you just head for the nearest house when you're hungry, lying through your teeth about evil omens. Damned degenerate."

With another discreet eye-roll, Miroku mumbled something about how he at least did not knowingly consort with actual, undead, evil omens. Sango, at Inuyasha's killer glare, was prompted to conceal her sudden attack of mirth with a rather artificial-sounding series of coughs.

After muttering something involving the words "Keh!" and "Pervert monk," Inuyasha set out to find something edible.


Kagome barely tasted the granola bar that was currently settling like lead in her stomach. The beauty of the fields beneath her, glowing brightly in the light of day, was lost on her.

She and Sesshoumaru sped silently towards the well, side by side on a strange cloud that traveled at an incredible speed.

If her stomach weren't twisting uneasily, Kagome may have enjoyed her breakfast more. As it was, she was still reeling from her sudden panic. It wouldn't even have occurred to her to eat, if Sesshoumaru hadn't refused to bring her before she fed herself.

Kagome flicked the last of the crumbs from her fingers and then tightened her grip on Sesshoumaru's arm. She could still feel the weight of death on her mind and heart, but her sudden epiphany had pushed her to act immediately.

Her family.

It had never been clear to Kagome what precisely made it possible for someone to travel through the well, but she would take no chances. If anyone could find a way, she didn't doubt that Naraku could. She wouldn't let him use them against her. She wouldn't allow it, even if that meant that she might never go home again.

It had been pure luck that Naraku had never discovered the truth of her origins. It had always been plainly obvious that she was not a typical teenaged girl from the feudal era, but Naraku had simply chosen to ignore that fact until now.

However, Kagome had no idea what might happen when desperation took hold of him. He liked to strike at people through their loved ones, and Kagome hadn't been at all discreet. It was only a matter of time before he discovered her secret, and if he saw her newfound strength, he would try to find a way to weaken her.

He had proved in the past that he wasn't above taking hostages. Nothing was beneath him. He would go to any lengths to create an advantage for himself, no matter how small. . .

Kagome had no intention of letting him. Now that she had experienced the look, smell, and taste of death first-hand, she would do whatever she had to in order to prevent it from happening to any more of her loved ones. She had no idea how Sango, Miroku, Inuyasha and Shippou managed to endure the pain of losing their families, but she did not want to test herself. At least, on the feudal side of the well, she knew that her friends were able to defend themselves.

Her family, on the other hand, had no such experience, beyond the stories her grandfather told. If Kagome wanted to be able to fight, she had to know for a fact that Mama, Grandpa, and Souta were going to be okay. She wouldn't be able to take another loss. Even now, the image of how she had found the Hayashi family would never leave her. The dull, dead eyes. . .

Kagome's fingers curled with unconscious strength on Sesshoumaru's arm. She turned to look at his calm, unreadable profile.

She still didn't quite understand why he had gone to find her. Actually, Kagome had half-expected Sesshoumaru to refuse to bring her to the well.

But he hadn't refused. Instead, he was standing here beside her. His mere presence seemed enough to steady her nerves. Of course, she knew how strong he was, and that helped her to feel safe. But also. . . he had to care, at least a little. And suddenly, Kagome found that the air of unassailable confidence that he naturally exuded was reassuring, rather than aggravating.

Maybe he liked her the way she liked him - completely against his will, but in a manner that was impossible to ignore. Maybe he liked her in a way that niggled and bugged at him until he couldn't help but acknowledge it.

During his absence, Kagome had found that she couldn't help but think of him when she tripped over her own feet in sparring. Once, she'd landed flat on her back, and the sensation of having the breath knocked out of her had reminded her of how it felt when he kissed her.

And, later, when she was half-asleep, she couldn't seem to keep herself from thinking about how it felt when they had done. . . other things.

It all made very little sense, but after everything that had happened, Kagome was starting to feel like it really didn't need to make sense. And. . . he'd allowed her to cry all over him, and hugged her in an awkward way that had felt amazingly good, nonetheless. He hadn't even seemed to care that her hands left bloodstains on his clothing, or that she had most likely cut off the circulation to his legs.

Kagome suddenly wished she could tell what he was thinking.

However, before she had time to ruminate on the matter in any more detail, they had begun a swift descent into the clearing.

"We're here," Kagome remarked in a tight voice as all her shadowy, unformed anxieties came flooding back.

"I would have known if we were followed." Sesshoumaru's words were calm and measured, and Kagome squeezed his arm in silent thanks for answering the question she had been about to ask.

The mist that had carried them evaporated from beneath their feet, and they settled into the soft cushion of grass.

With slow steps, Kagome approached the familiar well, and then hesitated, turning to Sesshoumaru. "I. . . I want to go back one more time. Just once."

He inclined his head in the slightest of nods, and looked at the well with a shadow of interest in his eyes.

Kagome shifted uncomfortably under the weight of her pack, and looked down at her shoes for a second, before she looked up and met his gaze again.

"Wanna come?"

It was difficult to read Sesshoumaru's expression as he slowly walked towards her.

"It's. . . well, I don't know exactly how it works," she babbled, uncertain of why she was so nervous. "But maybe if you take some of the shards, you can come with me. And that would probably be a good idea, because you'd get bored waiting for me, and. . . and. . ."

"You might not want to return," he said flatly.

Kagome laughed hollowly in acknowledgement. "If I. . . it will be hard to just say goodbye and come back. . ."

Sesshoumaru came to a stop beside Kagome. "I will come," he said quietly. They both climbed to the lip of the well, and Kagome pressed a shard into his palm.

"I'm warning you," she added as an afterthought, offering him a tense smile. "Inuyasha always goes on and on about how bad it smells over there."

Sesshoumaru merely shrugged, and took hold of Kagome's hand, before they both stepped into nothingness.


Sesshoumaru stood in the center of the Higurashi shrine-complex, and looked up into a foreign sky.

It wasn't blue as he was used to. Instead, the blue of the heavens was obscured and greenish, thick with whatever unclean haze spewed out of the sprawling structures in the distance.

Kagome had simply looked around upon their arrival, and emitted a soft, relieved sigh. Then, the two of them had gone towards a large house, and Kagome had found a gleaming metal key hidden beneath a loose stone, using it to open the door and enter.

Inside, Sesshoumaru had been taken aback by the unfamiliar objects and materials surrounding him. Kagome had tossed her pack to the floor and ran about, searching for her family members, as though she had done it a thousand times before. . . which she had, of course. Despite the many months she had spent in the feudal era, her scent lingered. It mingled like a faint shadow with the stronger smells of her family.

Sesshoumaru had chosen to go back outside, disturbed for amorphous, unnamable reasons.

He had known that Kagome would not lie about her home. He had known that her world would be vastly different from his. However, acknowledging that fact intellectually had not in any way prepared him for the almost visceral onslaught that greeted him on this side of the well. The trees, the green patchwork of the world he knew, had been buried - submerged in a sea of dull gray stone.

He had looked out over what Kagome called "Tokyo," somewhat shocked to see the height of the stone buildings, immense human-built monuments that reached towards the clouds.

She had been right to warn him; the air was thick with conflicting scents. The smell of humanity was everywhere, due to the apparent density of the population. Though the humans of this time bathed more often than did the ones of his era, it was still overwhelming. The new sights that greeted him in this era were accompanied by a bustling mish-mash of unidentifiable sounds and scents. Perhaps Inuyasha had not had very much trouble with the overload of stimuli, but he was hanyou, and possessed dulled senses in comparison to Sesshoumaru's. The full-blooded inuyoukai, even while forcibly keeping his reactions in check, was almost reeling from the smell of a thousand banked, oily fires, and the constant hum of wheels in motion.

An alien noise from above grew steadily in volume, and made Sesshoumaru's muscles tense as he looked upwards in anticipation of attack. When he saw the source of the din, he relaxed slightly. It was another of those strange machines; this time a deafening metallic bird. Sesshoumaru felt a twinge of unease at this indication that humans had even overtaken the heavens.

"No one's here." Kagome interrupted quietly as she emerged from the house, locking the door behind her. "I mean, I knew Souta would probably be at school still, but Mama and Grandpa are usually home at this time. Though," she added in sad realization, "I guess things probably have changed. . . since I've been away." Kagome looked down at her hands for a moment. Then, she adjusted the straps of her backpack with practiced movements, and turned her steps back to the well-house.

She stopped when Sesshoumaru didn't follow, and looked back in silent inquiry.

"We could wait," he said almost against his will.

Kagome shook her head, refusing to meet his eyes. "No, it's okay. I shouldn't have come back at all," she murmured almost to herself. "This is just making it harder. . . and if I see them, it will be even worse. No," she whispered to herself. "It's time to go back."

They walked back to the well-house, blinking in the sudden darkness. Seeming to fortify herself, Kagome paused on the lip of the chasm as she stared into the black depths. Then, without a backward look, Kagome's hands curled into fists, and she jumped down into the well's depths for the last time.

Though he meant to follow, Sesshoumaru couldn't prevent himself from turning to take one last look at this strange era that Kagome called home. He had, of course, known that few things were impossible, but being confronted with the distant future was jarring.

Sesshoumaru wondered if, in another five hundred years, he would see this come to pass. On the youkai timescale, he was quite young - but if nothing cataclysmic had happened, why could he find no traces of other youkai? As hard as he tried, his senses were unable to detect a single being.

Perturbed by the lack, Sesshoumaru closed his eyes and extended his senses, hunting for even the slightest hint of demonic energy. He felt anxiety creep through his body at the idea of his kind's extinction. Sesshoumaru had never before had any reason to doubt that his life would span thousands of years. He had always believed that the world would remain mostly unchanged. He had believed that his hold over his territory would last until his progeny continued the line of rule.

Now, that certainty had been undermined, shaken to its foundations.

At least some things remained, Sesshoumaru thought to himself, feeling slightly reassured as he looked to the old, scarred god-tree. His own world might fade into obscurity. The existence of youkai might become a secret, hidden history. Some things, though, remained over the centuries. Some things were left to murmur their stories into this unfamiliar world.

Just when Sesshoumaru was about to dismiss his search for other youkai as a futile exercise, he felt it. Amber eyes, clouded with doubt, opened slowly.

Close by - very close by, there was another.

It was nearly impossible to detect. The youki was oddly muffled in a way Sesshoumaru had never before encountered. It seemed as though the youki had been suppressed for years, but it was unmistakable.

As he focused his attention on it, Sesshoumaru's eyes widened in shock and suspicion.

It wasn't an exact match, but the power he sensed in the distance was disconcertingly like his own. . .

Before Sesshoumaru had fully absorbed his discovery, an odd noise caught his attention. He turned to see a small human boy watching him with his mouth agape. A black and white ball bounced once before slowly rolling away, having slipped from the child's slack fingers.


Souta gulped as the tall, regal stranger stared at him from where he stood outside the open door of the well-house.

With those clothes, the swords, that armor - and the big furry thing - he had to have come through the well, Souta thought numbly.

The youngest Higurashi had made a habit of going by the well-house after he returned home from school, but he had long since given up on the idea that he would find anyone there - let alone a stony-faced, important-looking stranger.

A stranger with pointy claws, Souta registered dimly. Youkai. Like Inuyasha. . .

"Where's Kagome?" Souta asked loudly. He was dismayed to hear his voice crack. Puberty was really embarrassing, he thought sheepishly.

The stranger winced slightly at the squeak in Souta's voice.

Souta took a step back as one of the pointy-clawed hands tightened, and bit his lip in worry. The youkai did not reply, but his yellow eyes were narrowed in a decidedly unfriendly manner.

Sure, Kagome seemed to make friends with some very strange people, Souta thought, but this guy was just. . . scary, in a quiet, watchful way. What if. . . what if Kagome didn't know this guy, Souta asked himself in horror. What if he'd just come over to wreak havoc, and kill boys who lived at various shrines in the Tokyo area? What if he was. . .

Souta groaned internally as his thoughts ran wild, cursing under his breath. He took another instinctive step backward, wracking his brain for the name of Kagome's enemy.

"You. . . are you. . . Na-Nakaru?" Souta stammered. At the continued lack of response, The dark-haired boy started retreating as subtly as possible, keeping his eyes trained on the swords at the stranger's waist as he got ready to break into a run.

It was too bad that Souta had forgotten the soccer-ball lying so innocently behind him.

Souta hit the ground with a muffled whump and an "oof!" of discomfort. He was so focused on his own frenzied scramble to escape that he missed Sesshoumaru's look of recognition and surprised amusement.

No way, Souta groaned to himself as he rolled from his back onto his hands and knees. He was starting to crawl away as quickly as possible, when the creature deigned to address him.

"You sister has returned through the well," a low, cold voice began, interrupting Souta's undignified flight. "And I am not. . . Naraku."

Souta quailed at the disdain in the stranger's gelid tone. Arrested mid- crawl, he looked back over his shoulder to see the youkai's annoyed expression.

"D-do you. . . know Inuyasha, then?" Souta inquired innocently. "He hasn't been by lately, not since Kagome went back, a-and. . . well. . ."

Souta watched the visitor almost twitch at the sound of Inuyasha's name. "I know him," he replied curtly, looking as though he had stepped in something nasty.

Souta sprang to his feet and approached, albeit cautiously. "Well, you have a bit of a resemblance, you know. To Inuyasha, I mean, with the eyes and the hair, a-and. . . but you don't have the fuzzy ears," Souta added, unable to conceal his disappointment.

Before Sesshoumaru could reply to Souta's criticism, the dark-haired boy tipped his head to the side in consideration. "You must be one of Kagome's friends, right? What's your name?"

Sesshoumaru crossed his arms over his chest, looking slightly irritated at the small human's interrogation. "Sesshoumaru," he stated with a note of finality that was calculated to discourage further questioning.

"Oh. I'm Souta." Dark eyes grew round as the frazzled boy put two and two together. "Hey, you tried to kill Kagome a bunch of times!" he suddenly accused, evidently forgetting his earlier intimidation.

Sesshoumaru merely raised one graceful eyebrow and flexed one hand slowly.

Souta backpedaled as quickly as he could. "Though, I guess, if she brought you over with her, you must be okay," he added quickly. His brown eyes inspected Sesshoumaru, before Souta planted his hands on his hips with an unexpectedly knowing look. "Hunh," Souta muttered, making the syllable as loaded as possible. "She always likes the weird ones," he breathed, only to see by the narrowing of Sesshoumaru's eyes that he had been heard.

"I am going back," Sesshoumaru interjected with a look of dismissal, turning with a flick of the pelt.

Souta bit his lip as he watched Sesshoumaru walk away.

"Hey!" he called after him.

Sesshoumaru paused, and then Souta forgot what he'd been about to say.

"Um. . . errr. . ." Souta began haltingly. His hands fisted at his sides as he examined the scuffed toes of his sneakers. "Tell Kagome. . . tell her I'll be really mad if she isn't back for my next birthday. And. . . and. . . hey! Hey, wait a second!"

Sesshoumaru, who had started to walk again, stopped and turned to regard Souta with impatience.

Still staring at his shoes, Souta struggled for words. "If you. . . well, I may be little right now, but if something happens to her and you make me go through that well, you're gonna regret it." He looked up, meeting Sesshoumaru's amber eyes with surprising resolve. "I'm from a shrine family, you know," he said firmly.

A silence fell, and Souta couldn't keep the eye contact for long under such intense scrutiny, and returned his gaze to his footwear. After some time, Souta felt sure that the youkai had left. He almost jumped when he heard Sesshoumaru speak.

"If I wanted her dead, she would be," The youkai stated calmly.

The words were harsh, but something in Sesshoumaru's voice was oddly reassuring to Souta. When the dark-haired boy pulled himself together enough to look up, Sesshoumaru was already gone.


"Where on earth did she go?" Inuyasha repeated for the umpteenth time.

The group, a still-unconscious Kikyou included, had congregated around a smoking fire. Three fowl sizzled over it as Sango slowly turned the spit.

Miroku was sitting against the trunk of a nearby tree, eyes closed as he tried to nap above the noise that Inuyasha made. Shippou, obviously immune to the noise-levels, snored quietly in the monk's lap.

None of them seemed to be making much of a fuss over Kikyou's seemingly revived state. After his initial shock, even Inuyasha had started to view the matter as cause for suspicion. Kagome was nowhere to be found. Kikyou seemed shockingly lively. The whole thing seemed a bit too coincidental to be chance.

If anything, Kikyou's apparent return to the land of the living made them all worry even more about Kagome.

Sango stayed silent, focusing on her task with an almost frightening intensity.

"I don't get it," Inuyasha repeated dispiritedly. "What the hell happened?"

"Inuyasha," Sango interrupted firmly as he caught his breath for another outburst. "I know it's. . . difficult." She swallowed audibly, before continuing. "But. . . I think we should at least consider the possibility that Kagome. . ."

"What?" Inuyasha muttered.

Sango blinked rapidly, and it was hard to tell if it was due to the smoke from the cook-fire, or if it was from another, more internal source. "The possibility that Kagome might be. . ."

"Don't even say it," Inuyasha growled. "Until we find some evidence-"

Miroku's steel-grey eyes blinked open as he gave up on his plan to nap. He covered Shippou's ears carefully with his hands. "We found her bike," he then offered, in a voice devoid of any emotion. "The dead girl is blushing and stammering. Call me crazy, but I would say that the situation does not look good."

"She wasn't on the bike," Inuyasha retorted. "And we have no idea what is going on with Kikyou. For all we know, Kagome's hiding somewhere safe."

"And when have we known Kagome to 'hide somewhere safe'?" Miroku rebutted, in his calm 'thinking' voice. "It isn't in her nature to do that." Miroku looked down at Shippou with weary eyes, glad to see that the kit at least was getting some rest. "We have to start thinking about what we are going to do, if. . . if she's dead. We'll have to start planning."

The somber silence that settled over them after Miroku's statement was broken by an unexpected voice.

"She is not dead." Kikyou pulled herself up into a sitting position, looking rumpled, with parts of her hair sticking up and dirt smudged on her chin. The very incongruity of the sight was oddly mesmerizing, and Sango, Miroku, and Inuyasha looked at her with unease.

"What?" she asked self-consciously, using her sleeve to scrub the dirt from her face as she looked around at Inuyasha's companions in consternation.

The stares she received from the rest of the group only intensified. Kikyou gazed at her knees and raised a hand to her head, wincing as she found some dried leaves in her hair. "What is it?" she repeated, a little annoyed this time. Her stomach rumbled again, loudly, at the smell of roasting meat.

"Oh gods, I am hungry," she muttered, looking longingly towards the roasting fowl, only to see Sango's eyes widen. Then, Sango seemed to collect her wits. The taijiya cut a chunk off the roasting bird, and tossed it towards Kikyou.

Not even bothering to conceal her eagerness, Kikyou caught it, took a bite, and made a strange yelping sound at the blistering temperature. She was so absorbed in the food that she didn't even notice as Sango walked over to her and stood, hands braced at her sides in determination.

"Explain," she commanded firmly. "What do you know about this?"

"I. . . "Kikyou looked away for a moment, before meeting Sango's shrewd gaze with her own. "I just know she is alive," she replied defensively.

Inuyasha's eyes narrowed in confusion when Kikyou just stood there, looking off to the side with a look of discomfort on her face.

She had always done that when trying to avoid a confrontation, he recalled. At least, she had back when she had been alive.

After a certain period of time had elapsed with Inuyasha merely staring at Kikyou with a particularly strange expression on his face, Miroku and Sango gave up on getting any information. Hoping that Inuyasha would have more luck alone, they tactfully removed themselves, Shippou, and Kirara from the scene, and hid just barely beyond earshot.

"Kikyou," he mumbled in confusion. He ran a hand over his face. Of course, he was happy to see her the way she had been before she had been remolded out of clay, but. . .

It was painful, too. After everything that had happened, this felt to Inuyasha like another trick. He worried that an axe was waiting, poised to fall as soon as he made one wrong move.

Kikyou had always been his great weakness. In life, she had embodied all his hopes of belonging somewhere. But now, after the massacre, Inuyasha was no longer willing to take foolish risks. His own life was one thing, but his friends were affected by his actions. He had to be cautious - even with Kikyou, who had been his best friend in two incarnations.

Now, when he looked at her, Inuyasha saw Kagome's face, and his gnawing fear for Kagome's safety sank its teeth deeply into him.

His deductive skills may not have been the best in the world, but even he could see a link between Kagome's disappearance and Kikyou's sudden renewal. He suspected that the connection was one that he would not like at all.

Despite all that, Inuyasha couldn't help but be glad to see Kikyou. He got up to his feet with an awkwardness that felt alien to him, and then grabbed her into a sudden and uncomfortable embrace.

She was definitely warm, he registered, blinking in wonder. Not only that, but the cool smell of earth had been joined by the slightly sweaty scent of human exertion. After a few moments of stunned silence, he felt her free hand hesitantly settle itself on his back, returning the pressure.

When Inuyasha pulled away, he saw that Kikyou was smiling. Tears were running down her face. She raised one hand to touch her cheek, and a look of surprise crossed her face as she stared at the shining moisture on her fingers.

"I . . . I forgot how it felt," she murmured, half to herself. Then, a grin of exultation curved her mouth. That expression, Inuyasha thought in shock, was entirely new.

"I forgot. . . I missed you," she said haltingly.

Overwhelmed, Inuyasha abruptly sat back down in the grass, crossing his legs and frowning as he tucked his hands into his sleeves. "It's good to see you again," he replied after a pause. "Really see you, I mean. But. . . what the hell is going on?"

He heard a rustle of fabric as Kikyou seated herself next to him. When she spoke, her mouth was full.

"I do not know, exactly," she replied as she chewed. "I was drawn here. It seemed like the closer I came to this village, the more I could move on my own." She swallowed, and took another large bite from the chicken leg she held, munching on it with obvious relish. "I think it must have to do with the girl. Your friend."

Inuyasha stilled, and a pensive silence fell over the two of them. "How?" he asked guardedly.

Kikyou frowned at his reticence, but shrugged in acceptance before meeting his eyes earnestly. "I am not sure, exactly. Last night. . . there was a moment. A flash of power, and then, I was back. It felt a little like. . . when Urasue took her soul to feed me. But it was different."

"She was training here," he supplied after some time. "Learning to use that miko power you two have."

"She cannot be dead," Kikyou pronounced with finality, indicating herself with a gesture of the chicken leg. "I would know. If she had died, I would not be here. We are connected."

Inuyasha's forehead creased slightly in thought. "You were weird the last few times we saw you," he muttered. "I figured something was up. You didn't seem interested in messing with us as usual."

Kikyou's head bowed slightly as she went over the memories of her past actions. The memories were hers, but at the same time, that hadn't been her, she thought to herself. Not in any true sense, anyway.

"I am sorry, for before," she murmured. "I. . . I started wanting to help, and I did not know how, or why. . ." she trailed off, at a loss.

"Kagome's alive," Inuyasha breathed. He felt a crushing weight lift from his heart, and he sprang to his feet, shouting in the direction that his nosy friends were likely hidden, spying on them. "Kagome's all right!"

Kikyou watched warily as Inuyasha's friends returned, skepticism writ large on their faces. They did not trust her, and she could not fault them for that. Straightening her shoulders, Kikyou tried to conceal her nervousness in the face of their suspicion.

Then, Inuyasha was giving them an abbreviated explanation of what Kikyou had told him. The news seemed to sink in as they approached, and they suddenly looked so. . . so much younger, she noted. The worry lines faded gradually from their faces. Looking liberated, the monk broke into a laugh, and the taijiya squeezed the small fox in her arms as the dullness faded from their features.

Kikyou quickly hid the stab of pain that struck her heart.

When she had been alive, there hadn't been many who worried about her, or shared in her happiness. She had only had Inuyasha and Kaede, really. Her parents had passed on in her early teens. After that, she'd had to raise Kaede, and her sister had been so much younger that their bond had been one of respect and parental duty rather than friendship.

All the villagers had maintained a slight distance. They had been grateful for her skills and strength, and kind, but Kikyou had always felt slightly removed from them.

The shrine-maiden. Not quite human.

Inuyasha had been her first true friend, the first person Kikyou had felt could understand how she felt. They had both dwelt outside the circle of warmth and community, excluded from the easy friendship that came so easily to others.

But Kagome - the girl whose soul Kikyou shared - seemed able to form bonds so quickly, despite the fact that she was only a visitor to this era. Kagome's friends were smiling and laughing, in transports over the mere knowledge that she was alive. Kikyou could not help but envy Kagome that, though she knew it was petty.

Kikyou set her lips in a firm line. She had never been the type to linger over her unhappiness, and now, there was too much to do in any case.

Naraku, who had done so much harm over the years, had committed an unforgivable transgression in his casual massacre of this village, Kikyou thought seriously as the others shared in celebration and relief.

Ironically, he was not even aware of what he'd done. He did not know their strength. He did not know that, as Kikyou and Kagome were now, they would be very dangerous to him. He did not know the fury that these people would feel, now that he had inadvertently struck at their hearts.

Vengefulness was one thing that Naraku had always been able to understand and manipulate, but he would never be able to grasp the pain he had caused these people. He was simply incapable of imagining it.

Kikyou's lips turned up slightly. Naraku would be surprised to find that human strength was forged in suffering, like a blade in fire.

Naraku's mistakes were going to come back to him, and Kikyou would be there to see it through to the end.


[cue Sometimes]

Kagome watched with burning eyes as Sesshoumaru used his poison claw to melt the stones they had piled into the well.

He had assured her that, once dry, the dissolved rock would be as hard and impenetrable as the concrete in her time.

Kagome had already destroyed the well's aged, wooden frame, and hauled the wreckage away. With any luck, the surrounding grass would soon grow over the flat square in the meadow, concealing the smooth scar that remained where the well once had been.

Kagome had gone to see Kaede, looking for tools. The older woman had mentioned that Kagome's friends were searching for her, and that they had been collecting the shards as they had before. Soon, Kagome would join them.

She was fully committed to the quest, removed from both her family and her teacher. She was alone, dedicated, and. . . and terrified.

At the age of eighteen, when Kagome had thought she would be in college and worrying about her grades, it seemed a bit unfair that her worries were so much more fatal. Confronted with the reality of loss and death, she felt herself waver.

Kagome looked down at her hands, now callused and strong. It was true that the previous months had made her into a tougher opponent, but when she thought about the fact that she would be going up against an enemy that had defeated people wiser and stronger than she was, it was difficult to feel reassured.

A battle for survival loomed in her future. Kagome felt completely unprepared for the responsibilities and choices would inevitably come. She was still trying to deal with the fact that those who had nurtured her in the past months were dead.

Ultimately, the fate of the Hayashi family had been caused by her, however indirectly. She was not ready for more loss. She didn't think she could take it, and the thought of engaging Naraku in that future, final battle made her guts twist inside her.

But. . .

Intellectually, she knew that she wasn't completely unprepared. Her mother had raised her, and Aya had taught her to fight. Kagome had been engaged in the beginning skirmishes of a war almost every weekend of her teenage years. She couldn't even remember what had occupied her free time before she had first been dragged through the well.

And, though it all seemed overwhelming, Inuyasha, Miroku, Sango, and Shippou would be with her once they found each other again. . .

Kagome nodded firmly, and drew her legs up in front of her, resting her cheek on her knee, trying to ignore the smell of blood that clung to her clothing.

Perhaps Naraku had destroyed people stronger than herself in the past, but he hadn't yet destroyed her, she thought fiercely. Despite the pain in Kagome's heart and the fear that lurked in her mind, she felt a tendril of optimism blooming within her.

"He's not going to beat me," Kagome murmured to herself between clenched teeth. "He's not going to beat US. We may take some losses - but we won't lose." Her weapon-roughened hands flexed unconsciously, and she felt her own strength. "Before this is over, he'll wish the fall off that cliff had killed him."

Though she sounded strong, Kagome heard the brittle edge beneath her words, and closed her eyes against the tears that fought to fall. She. . . she had never felt so lost.

Kagome squeezed her eyes shut, unable to hide from the truth any longer. She felt a raw, soul-deep pain at the thought of the Hayashi family. They had cared for her, supporting her even though they had had little reason to take her in and teach her.

But. . . it wasn't as simple as that. There was another side to it – a side that made her cringe in shame.

Though Kagome didn't want to admit it, behind all the grief she felt at their deaths, she was glad it hadn't been her. She was glad to be alive, even though Aya, Seiji and Kazuo had died so horribly. Though she wished she had been there to fight, to help protect them, another part of her was overjoyed that she hadn't been there. Another, cowardly part of her was elated that she hadn't faced that test.

Despite it all, Kagome was fiercely glad to be alive, and she felt like the lowest of creatures because of it. If anyone should have been killed as a result of Naraku's machinations, it should have been her. She had known what she was getting into. Aya's family hadn't really had a stake in the fight.

A rustle sounded, and Kagome raised her head to find that Sesshoumaru was standing in front of her, backlit by the orange blaze of the setting sun.

"It is done," he said simply.

The warm light of the day's end lit the planes of his face as he turned slightly, and held his hand outstretched to help her up. At that moment, looking at him, Kagome came to a painful realization.

They might win, but that didn't mean that she'd live through it. She could die. She might never return to her time. She had no idea how to get back, even if she lived long enough for that to become an issue.

While the thought saddened Kagome, it was strangely liberating as well.

Kagome was tired of denying herself. She was tired of putting things off in the hopes that a better time would come. Maybe better times would come, but she couldn't bank on the fact that she would be there to see them. She. . . she had cheated death many times already, and she knew that if it had found her – if she had been in the hut when the red sky had come tumbling down – she would have regretted fighting this.

She would have regretted putting Sesshoumaru off, even though she was scared of whatever it was between them.

Things would probably get complicated, she acknowledged. Things might get messy, but those factors seemed to carry less weight now. Her life had already become tangled lately, what with the nonstop trauma of the past two of days. If anything, she thought a little bitterly, it might be good to dive in before she accumulated any more crippling emotional baggage.

Maybe it didn't matter that a certain party was smug and entirely too sure of himself. That was just the way he was. If she was to be completely honest, Kagome had to admit to herself that she happened to like him like that. It was sort of comforting to be with someone who had no doubts about his worth, even if it made him prone to being tactless and bossy.

At least, she thought, he was honest. Maybe it was time she was more honest, too. Death was at her heels, and the odds weren't good that her luck would hold.

Kagome closed her eyes and felt the spring of healthy grass beneath her, and the cool brush of the clean breeze over her skin.

She wanted to live - to take whatever life had to offer her, while she still had the option. Aya had told her to find things to fight for, and Kagome thought that maybe this strange but persistent desire, these new and overwhelming feelings – maybe they were something she shouldn't turn away from. Not when, in just one horrible moment, lives ended for no apparent reason.

Kagome blinked at the thought, and then looked at Sesshoumaru - really looked at him, for what seemed like the first time since he had found her the previous night in the woods.

He was still offering his hand to help her up, though he looked a bit irritated at her delay. But still, there was no uncertainty on his face. He had no doubt that she would take his hand eventually, so he just stood there in the red glow of deepening dusk, patiently waiting for her to come to her senses.

Kagome met Sesshoumaru's look with the first real smile she had worn since her life had been upended in a storm of fire and blood.

He was waiting for her to catch up to him, she thought to herself. He was waiting for her to accept him.

Another sun was setting, and time would stop for no one.

Without further hesitation, Kagome took Sesshoumaru's waiting hand in hers, and pulled herself to her feet. And when he got that look in his eyes – the one that usually preceded some obliquely derisive comment - Kagome raised herself on her tiptoes, tugged his face down to hers, and kissed him.


Sesshoumaru stilled as Kagome wrapped her arms around him and pressed her lips to his in desperate welcome. His body reacted to her almost immediately as she opened her mouth under his. The sensations of arousal rushing through Sesshoumaru were immediately joined by the blazing satisfaction of conquest, and something infinitely sweeter.

The tip of his tongue rasped against the skin at her neck, tasting the tang of blood that wasn't hers. He should have been repulsed by her human flavour and the foul taste of old blood, but the effect on him seemed to be the opposite. The dark, animal urges that were the source of his demonic strength strained at the bonds of his reason, and responded violently. He reveled in the evidence of her strength, and in the traces that her kills left on her body.

Even that was different this time, he thought distantly. Sesshoumaru had never felt desire like this for any of the youkai females that sought him out. Their bodies held a strength that could rival his, but their avaricious eyes turned down in submission and fear when he expressed even the slightest displeasure.

This, however, was Kagome. It was her mouth that opened to him, her hands that trembled on his shoulders. She had fought him, argued with him, and challenged him at every turn. Occasionally, she displayed large lapses in common sense. For some reason, the warmth of her body against his made him feel lightheaded, as though he were propelled by a dark, driving hunger.

His unprecedented eagerness was enough to give him pause.

Before, he had intended to lie with her, secure in the knowledge that she would go back to her world when all was over. With a little discretion, all evidence of their brief association would disappear with her. It would have been simple.

Now, she was to stay indefinitely. Though that made the situation quite different, Sesshoumaru through the heavy haze of lust that enveloped him, he still wanted her. Had to have her, actually, he registered with mild surprise as he yanked his bulky armor free of his body.

She moaned into his mouth as his fingers slipped beneath the hem of her shirt, meeting the bare skin of her back.

Miko. Human.

It would be a blight on his name.

Sesshoumaru's eyes closed in pleasure as Kagome bit into his lower lip and pressed impatiently against him. The image of the world beyond the well flashed beneath his eyelids.

Five centuries was not a very long time, Sesshoumaru thought dimly. If the world of youkai were to fall. . . if his dominion were to cease to be. . .

Sesshoumaru slowly sank to his knees in the grass, bringing Kagome's slight weight with him, and kissed her deeply. He could taste her desire for him in her mouth, and saw a shadow of uncertainty in her eyes.

If his world would wink out of existence so quickly, Sesshoumaru thought, then he would indulge himself. Just this once, with Kagome, because he had the suspicion that he had no real choice in the matter.

She sucked his tongue between her lips with an almost desperate fervor, and he noted the way her fingers dug into his arms, the way she shook against him. And he wondered, with all that had happened, what had made her so much more amenable to what he wanted.

Kagome looked confused as he pulled away from her and stilled her hands with his. When she leaned forward, he stopped her, pinning her with a sharp, amber stare.

"What is it?" she asked breathlessly, trying to calm her pulse, trying to hide the sadness in her eyes.

Sesshoumaru seemed to search her face. "I will not be used," he stated firmly, settling his hands on her waist. Hesitantly, as though she was afraid he would pull away again, Kagome leaned forward until her temple rested against his shoulder.

"I. . . what?" Kagome mumbled, still sort of fuzzy-headed.

"You want to forget; I will not be used that way," he explained. His voice sounded low and taut to Kagome's ears, as though he was keeping something firmly in check.

At that, Kagome's head jerked up, and she glared. "I. . . I wouldn't do that. I don't want to forget. I just. . ."

Kagome's mouth snapped shut. She wasn't really inclined to have this sort of conversation at this particular point in time. Nestling her head against his shoulder, she tried to avoid his unnerving gaze. "I. . . I guess it's weird, but I can't imagine. . . you know. . . with anyone else," she explained shakily. "and I don't want to wait anymore, not when. . ."

Sesshoumaru continued to sit there, completely unmoving.

Kagome pressed her face more tightly against his chest. "I. . . I don't want to pretend I don't want you anymore. And if you're just going to sit there like a rock for more than thirty more seconds, could you please kill me? Because this is completely unbearable," she muttered into the muffling fabric.

Thankfully, that seemed to be good enough for him, because he suddenly dragged her into his lap and shrugged his shoulders rather gracelessly out of the heavy silk that kept him from her. And, when Kagome made a soft noise in her throat at the sight of him, leaning forward to run her tongue over his collarbone, Sesshoumaru's heart pounded in a new, wholly alien way.

The dark and irrational something that lived deep within him seemed to stretch itself, reveling in its sudden freedom after being suppressed for too long.

Kagome's eyes moved slowly down Sesshoumaru's body as he shut his eyes, locking his feral growl tightly in his throat.

He was so. . . so perfect, Kagome thought in admiration - so strong and alive. The pale, golden skin of his chest seemed to glow faintly in the warm evening light, and he arched slowly beneath her as she ran her hands firmly over the broad expanse. The defined muscle of his stomach rippled with the slow movement, only to freeze as she raked her fingernails teasingly over his nipples.

A thrill ran through her at the thought of all his strength and power lying barely leashed between her spread thighs. The silk folds of his clothing fell to either side of his torso in disarray as she shoved the obstructing material unceremoniously aside. Her fingers curled tightly into fabric that still held the memory of his body heat.

Bracing her weight on her hands, she leaned forward, and ran her teeth teasingly over the firm line of his clenched jaw, before shifting upwards to cover his pleasure-parted mouth with her own. Her tongue slid into his mouth, exploring the hot satin of his cheek, the rough texture of his tongue, and the sharp tips of his fangs.

Sesshoumaru made a soft sound in his throat as he reciprocated, meshing their mouths together more firmly. Then, his palms found her still-clothed breasts, and she was suddenly moaning helplessly under the squeezing caress. Kagome made a sound of protest as his warm hands left her, only to close her eyes in approval as he jerked the hem of her shirt up and out of his way. She distantly praised the lack of tricky fasteners on her sports bra as his tongue dove feverishly into her mouth.

Before she had time to register what he intended, Sesshoumaru gripped her waist and pulled her up and away from his kiss. She shivered as his mouth moved lazily over the pink line on her ribs where elastic had bit into her skin, and then higher.

A deep, burning pleasure seemed to blaze through Kagome's body. It felt as though all her nerve endings had decided to pack up and move to where he touched her. Her fingers clenched into the softness of his hair as her breath caught in a moan. Then, Sesshoumaru's strong hands guided her hips downward until the very core of her rested against his belly.

Kagome gasped quietly at the evidence that a whole lot of nerve endings had stayed right where they ought to be. She felt hungry and restless as she shifted her body against his, searching for more.

The click of claws against the button of her fly distracted Kagome slightly. With clumsy motions, she managed to reach down and undo the fastening, barely even hearing the dull sound of her zipper over the roar of blood in her ears. Sesshoumaru made a quiet sound of satisfaction as he rolled her to her back and then rose onto his knees. He yanked her pants and panties off her legs with one hard tug, and then sat back, looking at her with such desire in his eyes that Kagome's embarrassment at her nudity faded even before it was fully formed. As quickly as she could manage, Kagome pulled her top off, and flushed deeply with want as Sesshoumaru advanced on her, a faint flush spreading over his cheekbones, each movement filled with aroused, predatory grace.

Kagome reached up to him and tugged him down, gasping at the sensation of his clothed hips against the tender skin of her inner thighs. The warm blades of grass beneath her back caressed her skin like a thousand feathery fingers. It was her turn to fumble at his waistband with eager fingers. Kagome's brow furrowed in frustration as she yanked on the sash and the fabric ties that held his clothing on his hips. The whole assembly seemed to be tied in a series of completely unintuitive, youkai-strength knots.

Sesshoumaru almost smiled at the look of irritation on Kagome's face, but then she stopped battling with the fabric, choosing instead to stroke her fingers curiously over him.

Suddenly, Sesshoumaru found the whole matter of his clothing less amusing. He undid the knots with a blend of swift efficiency and brute strength, before casting his garments aside, almost tearing the material in the process.

Then, they were both naked. Kagome stared down the length of his body with wide eyes, drinking in the sight. He lowered himself onto her, caressing the whole surface of her skin with his own. The sensation was so stunning that she gasped something vaguely resembling his name.

Sesshoumaru pulled back slightly and sat back, causing Kagome to blink in confusion. Then, he lifted her, pulling her close until she straddled his thighs.

He leaned forward, losing himself in the smell of her, and then subjected her earlobe to teasing suction. She liked that, he thought.

"Touch me," he murmured.

Kagome slowly ran her fingers through his long hair, lightly tracing the delicate edge of an ear before drawing her palms over the smooth skin of his chest. There, unsure of how to proceed, Kagome hesitated. Sesshoumaru's fingers circled the wrist that rested on his shoulder. Slowly, he brought her palm to his mouth and moistened the sensitive skin there with his tongue. The velvet, electric heat of his mouth lingered over the lines on her skin, the whorls on her fingertips, and the delicate web where her fingers joined. Then, he guided her fingers down between their bodies.

Kagome's wide dark eyes met his in shock and curiosity as her hand curled reflexively around him, intrigued at the pulse she could feel against her fingertips. Still guiding her, Sesshoumaru began a leisurely motion, head falling back as she started to take the initiative.

Kagome was hypnotized by the helpless working of his exposed throat. The way he looked at her beneath drooping eyelids, the way his breathing roughened, the way he twisted his hips as she adjusted her grip – it all made her feel powerful, and her body answered his arousal with its own.

Sesshoumaru eyes opened as he felt her pull her hand from him, and a protest hung on his lips.

"Uhm," she murmured as the hue of her cheeks deepened to a rather fetching shade of plum, "sorry?"

Sesshoumaru didn't quite hear her.

"Don't stop," he commanded hoarsely. After about half a second of nigh- unbearable waiting, Sesshoumaru unceremoniously tipped her back onto the grass. In one swift motion, he tugged her thighs over his shoulders, and pressed one hand to her stomach.

"Gwaah!" he heard her yell faintly through the silky thighs that muffled his ears. He might have smiled, but at that particular moment, he had far better things to do with his mouth.

"Gweh!" Kagome's cry sounded more plaintive this time, Sesshoumaru noted distantly. The taste of her sent shocks through his entire body, causing warmth to throb through him. She was finally unfolding under his mouth like he had wanted for so long. He couldn't stop. He groaned as she tightened, and imagined how those slick, hot muscles would feel around -

"Mrrrrrh," Kagome mumbled weakly as her vision went grey for one whirling moment. Her fingers clenched in Sesshoumaru's soft hair as he. . . well, she had no real clue what precisely he was up to down there, but it was all rated fifteen out of ten on the 'ohmigod' meter. She couldn't think properly, and oh god. She felt ready to jump out of her skin. The strong hand braced against her belly kept her mostly still, but then he tipped his head to the side, and she could feel the shift of his jaw as he did something that was rated twenty out of ten. Kagome's body awarded him a little gold star, leaping like a live wire as it shook off the bonds of her control.

When Kagome finally managed to stop flopping around, she pushed herself up a little and looked down, blushing. She couldn't help but feel a little embarrassed, but that feeling quickly faded at the sight of his flushed cheeks and closed eyes as he buried his mouth against her. He looked perfectly happy to be down there, blowing her mind, Kagome thought hazily.

Then, when Sesshoumaru pulled his mouth away from her and looked at her, Kagome felt a smidgen of fear.

He looked positively starved.

She shivered when he bent his head again, and his warm breath washed over her aching flesh, and then he was doing that swirly thing again, and then. . .

Kagome crushed her hands into the grass, pulling green blades up by the handful as all the pleasure in her body seemed to slam together at the point where he sucked her delicately into his mouth. Then, she couldn't stop shaking in the extremity of her pleasure. She felt her entire being lock in a cycle of spasm and release, as though Sesshoumaru was teaching her body a rhythm that she had been waiting all her life to dance to. All the while, he continued to pant against her, lapping at her slowly like a happy cat.

After a little while of lying there like a noodle, Kagome suddenly felt cold. Her vision cleared, and she saw that Sesshoumaru had gotten to his feet, and had gone some distance away. "Hey," she mumbled weakly at his retreating backside - and quite a riveting backside it was. Where was he going? What was he doing?

He was. . . he was crouched over her pack, going through her stuff? Kagome's numb brain worked slowly, and came to some very strange conclusions.

He'd incapacitated her with his evil mouth, and now he was going to steal her things, she thought indignantly. That sexy, thieving, muscular, morally bankrupt, beautiful, totally ruthless. . . mmm. Ruthless. . .

Kagome shook herself.

"What. . . hey, that's really rude!" she accused in pathetic tones, too depleted to defend her belongings from his apparent looting.

But he soon returned, bearing her sleeping bag, much to her confusion. He shook it out over the grass next to her, before nudging Kagome in its direction. When she proved too slow to move, he snorted, picked her up bodily, and tossed her onto it with what she thought was a distinct shortage of gentlemanly decorum.

"Ooof!" Kagome huffed as she landed on her back. She made a feeble attempt to rise, but gave up when she realized that her limbs were still too noodle- like for comfort. They weren't even firm, like udon - they were more along the lines of soggy instant ramen left in hot water for twenty minutes.

At any rate, Kagome had very little time to go any further with her in- depth noodle comparisons. The hungry look on Sesshoumaru's face was intensifying to a truly alarming degree as he slowly crawled up her prone body. The sleepy, hazy feeling of well-being that Kagome had been enjoying - despite her tooth-rattling landing on the sleeping bag - swiftly faded.

Belatedly, she came to the realization that they were lying completely naked in the middle of the grassy clearing. It wasn't even dark yet.

Kagome inched backwards slightly as Sesshoumaru braced himself on his forearms above her, and her renewing desire for him started to war with long-delayed embarrassment at her apparent lack of shame.

"Um," she piped up, even as her shaky fingers reached down of their own will to trace the muscles of his stomach. Sesshoumaru made a soft sound of anticipation, moving his hips so her fingers brushed the part of him that ached the most for her touch.

That, he thought in disgruntlement as she pulled startled hand away from him, was not nearly enough.

"Anyone could walk by. . ." Despite her sudden bashfulness, Kagome couldn't stop her wide-eyed stare from moving over his wet mouth, down to the rippling muscles of his chest and stomach, and lower.

Sesshoumaru was less than pleased with the way Kagome was inching away from him. He lifted his head and tilted it slightly to the side, trying to hear over the thundering of his heart.

"No one is approaching," he concluded thickly. In fact, he couldn't be sure over the roaring in his ears. In any case, the point was moot; if he had his way, anyone taking an evening stroll in their direction was sure to meet a quick and silent end.

And he always had his way. In fact, he was about to have his way, he thought with satisfaction, as his hand moved to tug Kagome's knee upwards, and then paused to stroke her thigh.

She made an audible gulping noise at the warmth of his palm on her skin. "But. . ." she breathed, "someone might-"

"There is no movement for some distance," Sesshoumaru said, defusing her line of argument. Before she could come up with some other silly reason to stop, he ducked his head to nuzzle her neck, tongue flicking against her pulse-point in a way that was carefully engineered to remind her of the pleasure he could offer her.

Kagome exhaled. "Oh," she murmured. Perhaps there was acceptance in the word, but Sesshoumaru was not inclined to wait around in case there wasn't.

Kagome's dark eyes rounded as Sesshoumaru parted her legs further so that he could lie between them. "Hi," she said feebly in response, staring wide- eyed into Sesshoumaru's predatory yellow irises. A momentary look of perplexity crossed his features, but he soon remembered that it was best to ignore such things. Sometimes, Kagome's train of thought was just too convoluted for any sane person to follow.

With a minute shrug of his shoulders, Sesshoumaru lowered his face slowly to Kagome's, and ran his tongue over the seam of her slightly parted lips before covering them with his.

Kagome's arms slowly rose to embrace him, settling on the back of his neck and the small of his back. She welcomed his mouth with hers, making a quiet 'mm' sound as she realized that he tasted different. . .

He tasted of her.

Sesshoumaru rocked his hips against Kagome's in approval of her renewed participation. She was still sensitive, and the shock of the contact made her fingers curl desperately into his skin.

The hungry emptiness in her belly started to build again, deeper this time around. She pressed herself up against the warm body that covered hers, seeking more of that smooth, sweet pressure. Kagome's head fell back with a rustle against the weatherproof fabric of her sleeping bag.

Sesshoumaru watched with overwhelming desire as Kagome's hair spread like a black sunburst behind her. She bared her neck to his mouth as her thighs fell wide to welcome him.

She was beautiful, he thought wildly in the back of his mind. The sight of her made his mouth dry.

Blinking at his sudden inability to organize his thoughts, Sesshoumaru bent his mouth to her neck, taking the skin lightly between his teeth as he rocked firmly against her. He almost cried out at the sensation of her gliding against him.

Sesshoumaru didn't think he could wait anymore. He saw, with some shock, that his arms were quaking with tension.

He raised his silver head, lifted his hand, and touched the swell of her lips with unsteady fingers. Then, lowering his face to hers in an almost- kiss, he murmured almost soundlessly into her trembling mouth. "Let me in," he commanded in a voice thick with promise.

He pressed against her, and Kagome swallowed audibly, eyes squeezed shut, thighs tensing briefly at either side of Sesshoumaru's body. Then, her arms tightened around him, and lifted herself up, tongue soft against his.

"I will go slowly," he murmured as he pulled away, lungs reaching for air.

Kagome's eyes opened and she met his gaze levelly, nodding. Her bangs brushed Sesshoumaru's cheek, and even that shadow of a touch made his breath catch. "Okay," she whispered, moving her hands to rest on his hips. Sesshoumaru swallowed at the look of frank desire on her flushed face. "Just. . . I need you."

Sesshoumaru stopped his teasing motions and then started to press forward, slow and sure.

She bit her lip. It burned. It wasn't excruciating, but the sensation of her body stretching for him was almost too intense.

Then, she looked up into his face, and started to forget about the discomfort, because he looked. . . he looked positively feral, trembling as he rocked against her.

His eyes had narrowed to ambers slits, gleaming and inhuman in his flushed face, and his lips had pulled back to bare the gleaming points of fangs that were normally hidden. The strain of holding back for her pulled his features taut, and the way he was looking at her made her feel like he wanted to devour her whole.

All that desire was for her, Kagome thought. A fierce feeling of pride overtook her.

She had done that to him, she thought hazily. The thought that Sesshoumaru, so beautiful and self-assured, could want her so much sent fire racing through her body. Slowly, the dull pain that accompanied his slow, careful penetration was joined by a growing pleasure. She had thought about him – his hands, his mouth, his body – so many times. And this time, he was here with her. She wasn't alone in the dark anymore, body burning for him, wondering. . .

Kagome's arms encircled Sesshoumaru's neck and she tugged him closer, shivering at the whisper of his silky hair on her skin, and the damp warmth of his laboured breathing on her cheek. The slow, hot stroke of his entry went dark and sharp with pleasure as he glided against the part of her that he'd found with his tongue before.

Kagome started to think that she was beginning to understand the big deal people made about this, because it was starting to feel incredible, and she wanted more.

Sesshoumaru adjusted the angle of his hips, and Kagome's breath hitched. She made a sound that she was shocked to hear from her own lips - shuddering and needy.

Arms aching from the tension, Sesshoumaru started to lose the fight against the imperatives of lust. His eyes narrowed at the sounds Kagome made, and the way her fingers curled into his nape as her lips brushed his earlobe. At some point, she had hooked her leg over one of his, and she was beginning to press up to meet him, breathing in shallow pants.

Sesshoumaru realized that he was about to lose the control he had been clinging to. Incredulous, he pushed himself up slightly to look at her, groaning at the way she pushed up against him, every muscle tensed.

At the slight movement, Kagome's eyes opened to stare into his. She looked drugged, he thought with growing desperation as he watched her tremble, skin shimmering with perspiration. Then, her hands left his neck and settled on his hips. All of her body seemed to pull him closer – the circle of her arms, the leg twining with his– and he couldn't overrule the demands of his flesh.

Sesshoumaru bit back a cry as her heat tightened in a creamy caress that made his vision blur. Then, he heard a guttural sound rip from his throat as he moved instinctively, answering her silent command.

"Ow!" Kagome grunted. His eyelids had clamped down, and when they lifted again, he looked as stunned as she was.

Kagome was suddenly afraid.

The pain was quickly fading, and what was left was a completely new sensation that was a hundred times more intense. Kagome felt completely exposed, naked in a way that she knew had nothing to do with nudity. It made her want to pull away and run, because this couldn't be normal. This had to be a different act from the one that people were so casual about. . .

But then, Sesshoumaru was bending his head to hers, lapping at the tears she hadn't even noticed on her cheeks. Kagome pressed up into the touch, and was reassured when she felt the way his arms shook.

And she started to think that maybe he felt it too.

Sesshoumaru crushed her mouth almost violently under his, growling into her parted lips. He felt a surge of animal satisfaction at the thought that, no matter what happened, Kagome would forever remember him as the first.

As he started to rock himself against her, feeling her response to his movements, Sesshoumaru resolved in the primitive depths of his mind that she would find anyone else lacking in comparison. He would make her remember him in the way he was certain he would remember her.

She was Kagome, whom he had thought of so often; Kagome, for whom he had waited so long, despite the strength of his lust for her.

As Sesshoumaru sank back inside her, he was reminded of her delicacy. Kagome winced. He pulled back slightly, feeling her teeth sink into his lower lip in protest. Then, keeping her sealed against him, he drew her knees up beside his hips, and then turned them both over so she straddled him. He exhaled at even that small shift of skin on skin, shocked at the pleasure it gave him.

"Move on me," he muttered impatiently into her ear as he sat up, warm thumbs ghosting over her skin. Kagome's eyes drifted closed as he bent to her, and she braced her hands on his shoulders, beginning a slow, gliding rhythm.

The thrill of being in control combined with the knowledge that he was being careful not to hurt her washed over Kagome in a wave of fierce tenderness. Her body demanded more.

From the way his hands grasped her hips, mouth opening against her skin in a silent moan, he liked it too.

Sesshoumaru was unable to tear his eyes from her. He eased one smooth knuckle over the spot that burned for him. She fell forward and pressed her mouth against his neck, shaking with her ragged breathing, muscles escaping her control as she teetered on the edge she had been running towards.

Swiftly, Sesshoumaru turned her onto her back, patience exhausted. His mouth found Kagome's earlobe blindly, nipping at the tender flesh. He ran his hands hastily up over the sweat-slick skin of her sides, before he found her wrists and pressed them firmly to the grass above where they lay.

Dark tendrils of hair clung wetly to her temples and shoulders, and her lips were wet and from his. She lay panting and radiant beneath him, hips still rolling slightly as she instinctively tried to find their earlier rhythm. The sight of her abandonment, of the hunger that matched his, slammed through Sesshoumaru's body like a wave of liquid lightning.

He snarled. When he moved, it was all animal, stripped of grace by the force of the lust that was distilling in his veins. His need began to climb more quickly than ever before.

"Oh gods," Kagome exclaimed huskily.

Sesshoumaru hissed her name between his teeth as she angled her hips up towards him, her body arching like a bow. Kagome's wrists strained beneath his grip as she pressed herself up against him, emitted a choked cry at the heat that seemed to blaze through her entire body. "Do that again," she demanded raggedly. "Please," she prodded with an edge of desperation, squirming against him.

Unable to contain the sounds that fought to escape him, Sesshoumaru began, voicing his approval with inarticulate noises. Kagome met each movement with her own. It was too good, Sesshoumaru thought distantly with a vague sense of alarm.

The sounds and smells of their union filled Sesshoumaru's head. The rush of stimuli so overwhelmed him that Kagome's shaky voice barely brushed his ears, echoing as they were with the thundering of their hearts, and the harsh rasp of lungs gasping for breath. She was finally allowing him to learn every inch of her internal topography. . .

It wasn't until she yanked particularly hard at his hands that he realized he was still pinning her down. "Please," she moaned, moving against him in a near-crisis of desire. "Let me. . . touch you. . . please?"

Sesshoumaru released her, bracing himself up on his forearms. Then, he felt the firm pressure of her hands sliding over his overheated, damp skin. She ran her fingers down his back, as he rolled against the cradle of her body. He leaned down to catch a bead of perspiration on the tip of his tongue as it slid slowly down her temple.

Never had Kagome ever imagined anything like this. A twinge of the panic from before penetrated her fever. She hadn't been prepared for this. Nothing could have prepared her for this. It was too much, and it would change everything. She hadn't realized that she would feel this raw closeness. The smell of the grass, the rustle of the fabric beneath them, the way he scorched her both inside and out, the way his hair fell around them, settling so cool and soft on her overheating skin. . . it was all too much.

However, when Kagome tipped her head back and watched him with startled, pleasure-hooded eyes, she saw something in him that made that aching feeling in her chest return.

He looked just as abandoned, and breathed just as raggedly. His molten, golden eyes fixed on her with an expression that was unguarded and filled with need. The look on his flushed face mirrored what she was certain was on hers.

Wonderingly, she touched his cheek. Her fingers traced the now-ragged edges of his vivid markings. Kagome inhaled softly as he turned his face into her hand, pressing an openmouthed kiss in her palm before raking the sensitive skin with his teeth.

And the fear went away. Over the roaring demands of her flesh, and the shuddering impact of his body against hers, Kagome registered that it should have felt at least a little wrong to be doing this - especially with him, especially now.

But it didn't. Instead, it felt like. . .

Her thoughts were driven from her mind as he snarled into her ear, and she turned to find his mouth with hers.

Instead, it felt like some miracle of balance was taking place: male and female, youkai and miko, past and present. Kagome never wanted it to end, but she could already feel that tension pooling. . . that tension that made her whole body tighten in anticipation, the waves of freezing heat that shot through her. . .

Sesshoumaru kissed her neck, raking her skin with his teeth and nuzzling at her throat as their movements grew more impatient. Then, he was reaching between them to touch her, and the feathery caress was enough to make her arch like a bow and cry out into the pale strands of his hair as the first tremors took her.

Kagome's arms and legs locked around him, drawing him closer as her body pressed fiercely against his. Tears gathered in her eyes at the desperate shuddering that gripped her.

Their eyes met, locking in a union even more powerful than the mating of their bodies. As though from a distance, Sesshoumaru heard himself whimper her name as his clawed fingers curled into the grass. He jerked, and then a relentless, almost painful pleasure coursed through him.

Sesshoumaru made a low, bestial noise as he pressed his face against hers, too lost in sensation to do anything more than cover her open mouth with his in a primitive approximation of a kiss.

They lay still for a while as the spasms died. As Sesshoumaru's pulse and breathing slowed to normal levels, he felt a growing sense of unease.

He felt. . . strange, he realized.

More minutes crawled by in silence, and Sesshoumaru started to wonder a little. It was unlike Kagome to be quiet for long.

Gradually, he became aware of the fact that he was still lying on top of Kagome's smaller form. Youkai strength was due in part to the high density of bone and muscle tissue, and Sesshoumaru was far stronger than most. Carefully, he turned onto his back and tugged her to lie on top of him.

"Kagome," he murmured against the top of her head.

The only response he received was a quiet, snuffling noise. Kagome bent her head slightly, as though trying to avoid the sound of his voice.

At the lack of reply, he started to question Kagome's sudden, unexpected acquiescence. Sesshoumaru was unaware of the way his arms tightened around her waist at the thought that she might regret it, after all.

"Kagome," he repeated.

The silence deepened until the sound of her slowing breath was deafening to his ears. It wasn't until Sesshoumaru inhaled to say something scathing that he noticed the telltale laxness in her limbs, and the warm line of moisture on his shoulder.

He looked down in disbelief, only to find his suspicions confirmed. Kagome was drooling on him, having fallen asleep. At least, Sesshoumaru mused, she had best be asleep, if he were to suffer such an insult to his person.

Tilting his head to a truly uncomfortable angle, he saw that she was indeed unconscious. Dark eyelashes lay like fans on her cheeks. Her mouth hung slightly open.

Sesshoumaru raised his hand to tip her chin up, closing jaw with a click. It was a futile gesture; as soon as his supporting fingers pulled away, her mouth slowly began to fall back open.

Sighing wearily, Sesshoumaru lay his head back down against the blanket, and resigned himself to his fate. Moving slowly so as to avoid disturbing Kagome, he managed to pull the material enough to the side so that he could fold it over them, creating a barrier between the cold air and still-damp skin.

And, he thought indignantly as he peeked down at Kagome's dark hair, his skin was only getting damper. But she looked so satisfied and peaceful that he couldn't bring himself to wake her. He remembered that she hadn't had any rest since he had found her, and that she had to be completely exhausted by now.

Sesshoumaru simply lay back and watched the sky darken. He started to become a little bored as he waited for Kagome to wake, so he listened closely for any hint of threat. Finding none, he allowed his eyes to fall shut, as Kagome's warmth and the lulling sound of her breathing washed over him.


Kaede trudged slowly up the path, adjusting her grip on the basket she carried with a sigh.

Lately, it had become more difficult for her to act as the miko of the village. The place had an unfortunate tendency to attract trouble, and it was a sad fact that she simply wasn't as spry as she had once been. Also, the woman mused, her problems with depth perception certainly didn't help; it was a miracle that she was able to hit anything with an arrow.

It was a pity that Kikyou-oneesama had perished so young, Kaede thought sadly. There were few local girls who had any interest in their line of work. Of those who did, even fewer had even a fraction of the gift that Kikyou had been born with.

Kagome, however, had power in spades. Even though Kaede had only seen her for a few moments earlier that evening, she had sensed the energy that radiated from the girl who so resembled her sister. Kaede had been stunned at the sight of Kagome, battle-worn and covered in drying blood. The girl had looked so different from the happy child of before – shoulders bent with sadness, and determination shining from hardened eyes.

More than that, though, Kaede had been intrigued by the fact that Kagome's power now felt so different from Kikyou's. Kikyou's energy had always been steady, focused, and controlled. Kagome, on the other hand, seemed to blaze like an unpredictable star. Kaede was not sure whether the difference was a function of being trained later in life, but she was starting to wonder if Kagome was, in fact, Kikyou's reincarnation after all.

It was starting to seem as though Kagome's strength could put Kikyou- oneesama's to shame, Kaede realized with some apprehension. She hefted the basket and quickened her pace. Nevertheless, the old miko thought brusquely, a girl still needed to eat no matter how powerful she became. Kaede had expected Kagome to return to the village for supper, but hours had passed since then.

Kaede stepped out of the trees surrounding the clearing, and blinked several times in rapid succession.

"Oh. Oh, my," she sputtered. The basket slipped from her fingers. Well, Kaede thought through her surprise. If Kagome and Kikyou-oneesama had one thing in common, it was definitely their abominable taste in men.

Crossing her arms over her sturdy frame, Kaede looked around with stunned amusement at the haphazard scattering of clothing, weapons, and armor surrounding what had once been the bone-eater's well. Kagome's pack lay on its side, spilling its contents over the grass. Two swords - one humble in appearance, and the other radiating leashed youki – lay flung carelessly aside next to Kagome's footwear. A very familiar set of armor had fallen a small distance away on a bed of fur, and a scrap of cloth that Kaede could only assume was an undergarment of some kind dangled off one of the spikes.

In the midst of the chaos, a familiar dark head poked out from the folds of a sleeping bag. Kagome stirred slightly from where she lay - on the broad chest belonging to the mussed, sleeping taiyoukai of the West.

Kaede had suspected some connection between the two. Now that her suspicions had been confirmed, she wasn't sure whether she should start laughing hysterically, or wish for blindness in her good eye.

Blindness it was, Kaede concluded abruptly. A slight, hand-sized lump beneath the blanket had begun to move, and halted its exodus only once it had come to rest on the mound of Kagome's posterior.

Paralyzed by horror, Kaede was rendered unable to close her eye against the frightening images. The old woman suddenly, irrationally started to reproach herself for not bringing her spare eye-patch. Before she could will her frozen feet into motion, a rustling sound caught Kaede's attention.

Kagome had awoken, and lay staring wide-eyed at Kaede. Her face flushed in mortification, even as she raised her hand to rub her eyes.

"Gods. Kaede!" she whispered in shock. The girl bit her lip in shock, tripping over the words. "It's not what it looks like!" Kagome shifted her body upwards to better address the older woman, and let out a startled squeal for reasons Kaede tried incredibly hard not to infer.

Then, Kaede couldn't help but infer, because Sesshoumaru let out a groan, and another hand-shaped mound came to rest near the first, clearly adjusting Kagome's position. The girl turned slightly purple and made a strange, shivery sound.

"A-and," Kagome went on, trying feebly to extricate herself from Sesshoumaru's grip, "it's not what it sounds like either! I mean, we were. . . and then, there was a youkai. . . and then. . . a fight. . . and the clothes. . . a-and strip-twister. . ." Kagome's head tilted forward as she realized how ridiculous she sounded. "Oh, gods," she mumbled in humiliation.

At the pathetic excuse, Kaede snorted despite herself, still rooted to the spot. "I do see the youkai," she grunted in disbelief. Then, she hastily turned her head aside, because if that blanket fell any lower, she was going to see more of the youkai than she'd ever wanted to see. She had to leave, Kaede thought distantly - if only her feet would move. . .

Sesshoumaru seemed to agree with Kaede's conclusion, because the youkai in question opened one sleepy eye and, after yawning slightly, joined in the conversation. "Quiet, wench," he commanded in a remarkably irritated tone. He turned a glare on Kaede and snapped, "And you. Begone."

Kaede couldn't even muster up any offense at the dismissal, since she was simply itching to make her escape. Turning, she remembered why she'd come to find them in the first place. "Food," she informed them curtly, pointing at the basket that lay on the ground as she kept her head firmly turned aside.

"Noted," Sesshoumaru replied coolly. "Now, leave."

"Oh gods," Kaede heard Kagome mumble behind her. "Don't call me wench. And. . . oh, gods, that's really Kaede isn't it? Kill me now."

"Also noted," Sesshoumaru replied. His tone lay somewhere between irritation and amusement. "You drooled on me."

Kaede, becoming more traumatized with each passing second, made her escape with an alacrity that was impressive in a woman of her advanced age.


"Shouldn't you have heard her coming?" Kagome demanded, once she had recovered enough to speak. "I thought you didn't need sleep!"

Sesshoumaru stretched slightly and closed his eyes again. "I do not need sleep, I enjoy it," he retorted coolly. "You stayed at my house briefly. Why on earth did you think I retired to my rooms at night and emerged in the morning?"

"For all I knew, you were playing card-games in there, or just thinking at length about how much better than everyone else you are," Kagome said, propping herself up on her hands so she could glare at him. "Inuyasha doesn't sleep much. I just figured that you didn't, either."

At that, Sesshoumaru opened his eyes and subjected Kagome to a quelling stare. "The fact that the dumb hanyou enjoys sitting and staring at trees all night does not mean I find enjoyment in similar non-activities."

Kagome frowned at that. Now that she thought about it, it really was rather strange that Inuyasha could just sit still for hours and do nothing. Where was the fun in that?

Sesshoumaru sniffed. "I like to sleep." Then, his eyes narrowed. "You drooled on me," he repeated.

He sounded so put-out that Kagome sighed, mopping the tiny puddle in the hollow of Sesshoumaru's collarbone with a corner of her sleeping bag. Satisfied that she had restored him to a suitable state of dryness, she made sure her mouth was firmly closed, lay back down against him, and dragged the covers up over her head.

Kagome was eager to ignore the fact that she had recently lost her virginity to a grumpy demon, drooled all over him, and been caught in the after-drool by Kaede. More than anything, however, she wanted to forget her sad attempt to pass the whole thing off as a violent game of strip-twister.

All in all, the whole fiasco was certainly a far cry from any morning-after she had ever envisioned in her girlhood. In most of those fantasies, her faceless paramour had awakened her with pancakes, and they had stared meaningfully into one another's eyes as a random guy with a violin played somewhere nearby.

Of course, that scenario seemed a little weird now, Kagome thought. It still saddened her, though, to think that the gulf between her pubescent dreams and her reality was so large. It was probably for the best, she brooded. If some guy did start playing a violin nearby, she was sure that he'd end up in bite-sized pieces, even before he could get through the first four measures of 'Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing.'

"You're not going to make me pancakes, are you?" she murmured despite herself.

Sesshoumaru shifted slightly when he heard the wistful note in her voice. "No," he replied. "What are they?" He frowned. Obviously, Kagome was referring to some daft human custom from the future.

"Never mind," Kagome muttered sadly. "You probably just present girls with the still-beating hearts of their foes."

"I am not in the habit of giving gifts," Sesshoumaru answered, deadpan. "But if I were, heads would be simpler," he continued as his arms settled more securely around her waist. "Breaking through a ribcage can be so messy."

Kagome made a faint wailing sound as all her existing notions of romance died a quick and painful death. Sesshoumaru's lips curved a bit as he squeezed her. He was actually feeling quite cheerful, he realized. Obviously, he mused, sexual frustration had been taking its toll on him.

"Kaede's going to think I'm a hussy," Kagome then said with a note of dawning realization.

Sesshoumaru rolled his eyes at the strange progression of Kagome's thoughts. It was a wonder that she managed to get anything done, given the bizarre way her mind seemed to skip from subject to subject.

Sesshoumaru's opinion was only further reinforced when, completely out of the blue, she added, "I'm sleepy."

He snorted softly. "You often fall asleep on me," Sesshoumaru observed. "Also, you drooled."

Kagome glared. "Okay, I fell asleep. I'm sorry that my saliva touched your precious, precious skin. Those other times were completely your fault though," she huffed. "Like when you just let me get slimed in the woods. And earlier." Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open. "Hey! You hit me!" Kagome's head fell onto Sesshoumaru's chest with a muffled thump. "Oh no," she muttered. "I'm in an abusive relationship."

Sesshoumaru merely grunted at that observation. "I knocked you unconscious after you kicked and burned my precious, precious skin," he mimicked dryly. "You were obviously not in your right mind."

"We've begun an unstoppable cycle of violence," Kagome continued, morose. "There aren't any crisis hotlines for me to call. There aren't any phones, period. And every time it happens, you'll just bring me a severed head, and I'll take you right back." She sighed mournfully. "It's sad."

Sesshoumaru merely patted Kagome's bottom in a way that was meant to be reassuring, but made her want to laugh. He felt her smile against his aforementioned precious skin. "I'm totally beat," she murmured with a yawn, as she snuggled closer, eyes drifting shut. "Aya always wakes me up so early, and. . ."

Just as quickly as it had appeared, he felt her smile fade. The fine-boned hand resting on his chest curled into a fist.

"I. . . I can't believe I forgot," Kagome said to herself.

Sesshoumaru's hand rose to rest on the back of her neck. "Brooding over the dead is a fruitless thing," he murmured as sympathetically as he could.

"You say that as if there's a choice," Kagome mused quietly. "I just. . . I can't stand to think about what happened, but it would be even worse to just forget. I owe it to them, to remember."

Sesshoumaru pressed his nose against the top of Kagome's head. "There is always a choice. Everything fades, over time."

Shakily, Kagome exhaled and tried to relax. "Well, tell me about something then," she whispered.

"About what?"

"I don't know." She tucked her head under Sesshoumaru's chin and just listened to his breathing. The even sounds comforted her. "I don't know very much about you. Well, you like Tetsusaiga, you dislike Inuyasha. So just choose something I don't know about. Please?"

Sesshoumaru allowed his eyes to drift closed again. "I detest that sword." He was a little surprised to hear himself say it, but once he had, he found that he didn't mind very much.

Kagome peeked up. "Really? Well pardon me for jumping to conclusions," she commented archly. "It must have been your endless attempts to take it that threw me off."

Sesshoumaru's hand tightened warningly on Kagome's hip. "You know little about the matter, and I do not feel inclined to explain at the moment."

He felt her sigh. "Okay, a different subject then. Just. . . just tell me anything you want. Then, I'll tell you something."

Sesshoumaru felt his lips curve slightly. "The trade is not to my benefit," he countered, looking up at the stars. "You offer more than enough information as it is."

He waited for a reaction, and didn't have to wait long before Kagome pinched his waist and made a sound of disgust. "Gods," she mumbled. "It's like getting water from a stone." She paused, and Sesshoumaru could feel her thinking. "Okay, you were saying. . . about, you know. Dwelling on things." Her voice grew quieter. "What were you talking about? Because I just can't stop thinking about how unfair it is, that. . ."

A warm drop of liquid fell on Sesshoumaru's shoulder, and he knew that this time, it wasn't drool.

"I guess," Kagome said thickly, "it just seems like I should have been there. They didn't deserve that, and yet, I'm so happy that I'm alive. It seems. . . wrong of me."

Sesshoumaru was silent for a while, and Kagome thought that he intended to ignore her. But it was enough, just to be held close, and hear his heartbeat beneath her cheek.

His heart beat more slowly than a human's, but it sounded strong, Kagome thought as her eyes closed. A youkai heart, built to last centuries. . .

"All things fade. Death is not reasonable, but few things are just," Sesshoumaru surprised her by saying, long after she had stopped waiting for a response. "Those who should have died often flourish. It is not for one to say. It is simply the way of things." His voice was quiet and even. "The weight of it becomes easier to bear."

Unsure of how to respond, Kagome kissed his throat and simply asked, "Who? What happened?"

Sesshoumaru stroked her hair. "The youkai who bore me," he said after a while. "She was killed by my father." Then, he seemed to catch himself. "She allowed him to kill her."

"Oh," Kagome breathed. "But. . . why?" The question on her lips died when he shook his head slightly, obviously unwilling to say any more.

"You said you would tell me something in return," he challenged. "How did you come to be in this era?"

Taking a deep breath, Kagome thought about where to begin. "Well, you saw the shrine complex where I live. I've always lived there," she murmured, knowing he would have no trouble hearing her. "My grandpa was always talking about a legendary jewel, the Shikon no Tama, but he talked about a lot of stuff, and I never thought much about it." She exhaled and shook her head slightly. "Little did I know, Grandpa really knew his stuff. One day, before I went to school, I was looking for our cat, Buyo. . ."


"After this, we have to go looking for Kagome."

"I will be able to find her," Kikyou informed Inuyasha in a low voice as she placed a flower on one of the fresh burial mounds.

Inuyasha, Miroku, and Sango looked up from the rows of newly dug graves at the certainty in her voice. Dusting the soil off his palms, Inuyasha gave a brief nod. "Then we go tomorrow."

"Why not now!" Shippou interjected, leaping onto Inuyasha's shoulder, only to be dislodged with a flick of the hanyou's wrist.

"Keh! Easy for you to say! You don't even have to do anything," Inuyasha grumbled as Shippou rubbed his head. "You just sit on someone and watch the scenery go by." Inuyasha crossed his arms, tucked his hands into his sleeves, and frowned. "I'm only accepting input from those of us who have to expend energy."

"Prrr," Kirara contributed. None of the humans could understand her, but the way she tucked her nose under her tail and went back to sleep spoke more loudly than words.

Miroku wiped a hand over his haggard face. "I need to rest, too," he supplied.

"I agree," Sango chimed in, as she sent a little smile in Miroku's direction. He'd been right earlier, she realized. They could hardly see straight, and would be in big trouble if they had to fight in this state.

"So it's unanimous, except for Shippou," Inuyasha concluded with a righteous look in the pissed-off kit's direction.

"I still think we should-"

"Shut up, Shippou!" Inuyasha barked. "We're going to sleep early, recover a little, and set off early tomorrow. No more whining!"

Miroku heaved a huge, relieved sigh. Usually, it was Inuyasha setting a relentless pace and harassing them into to overextending themselves. "Praise Buddha," the monk intoned, resting his wrapped palm lightly on the top of Shippou's head. "Some of us don't have youkai stamina, Shippou." Then, Miroku dropped the shovel he'd been using, and collapsed dramatically against Sango's shoulder with another, happier sigh. "Oh," he murmured smoothly. "All the strength seems to have left my body. . ."

Sango's eyes widened as Miroku's hands began searching for purchase. He hadn't been up to his old tricks as much lately, and Sango realized that she had been a bit worried about him.

Inexplicably relieved, Sango quickly sidestepped as his fingers neared her posterior. Having lost his support, Miroku fell to the ground in an undignified heap. Shippou snickered as Miroku just continued to lie there, flexing one hand as a stupid smile spread across his face.

"Annngo," he murmured blissfully, rolling onto his back. Then, without further ado, he started to snore.

Sango sighed, shaking her head ruefully as she looked down in disbelief at the Miroku-shaped pile. "That's just. . ."

Inuyasha smirked. "That's just sad," he observed, plunking himself down. Shippou, suddenly more tired than he'd thought, rested his head on the hanyou's knee and closed his eyes. Inuyasha grumbled a bit, but didn't kick the little youkai away, which seemed to be progress.

Watching the interplay, Kikyou felt her heart contract. Turning to place more flowers on the graves, she smiled.

It looked like, after all this time, Inuyasha had finally found a place where he belonged. It didn't hurt as much as she'd thought it would to find that his place wasn't with her.

Kikyou pressed her fingers gently into the newly turned earth, bestowing a silent benediction on those who lay there.

She felt more comfortable among the dead than she did with Inuyasha and his friends. They had a shared history of pain and happiness, in which she had only figured as an antagonist.

It would take time, but she would try to find her own place in this familiar, alien world. She would help them.

She would try.


"And that's when I first met Inuyasha." Kagome murmured, voice a little rough from speaking. "You know, he tried to kill me right off, too. It must be one of those weird family traits you two share."

It was too dark for Kagome to see much, but she could practically feel Sesshoumaru's eyebrow rise the way it always did when he was deciding whether to be offended or not. "And precisely what other traits do you think we have in common?" he inquired, hackles obviously rising.

"Well. . . "Kagome bit her lip thoughtfully. "You both have really cute ears."


"Well, it's true." She thought about it a little more, and then added, "You also have this thing about swords."

"Oh, really." Kagome smiled. It was really hard to take his murderous tone seriously, when his voice rumbled out of his chest and vibrated against her ear in an almost-ticklish way, Kagome thought.

"As if you can deny it," she muttered, squeezing his shoulder.

"You have a fondness for my idiot brother," Sesshoumaru observed, tensing slightly. He felt jealousy rising in his blood, despite his better instincts. It was ridiculous.

Kagome blinked. "Hey, he's not an idiot."

Sesshoumaru tensed even more at that.

"He was really abrasive at first, but. . . I think he's probably my best friend, despite all the problems we've had. He looked out for me when he didn't have to, and I looked out for him. I guess I developed these feelings for him, but. . . I was sort of selfish about it. I was unrealistic, and too demanding. I wanted to be in love. And I wanted. . . I guess I wanted to prove I was just as good as she was, and he didn't want to give up on the possibility of a relationship. It was just a bad scene, for both of us."

"What do you mean?" Sesshoumaru inquired.

Kagome's eyes closed. "I always got so angry. He'd compare me to Kikyou all the time."

Sesshoumaru paused. "The one that sealed him?"

"Yeah," Kagome grumbled. "Ugh. I look like her, and they say I'm her reincarnation, which made me feel really inadequate - like I was some Gucci knockoff or something. She always seemed so competent, you know? Especially when she was trying to kill us, or otherwise torment us. And there I was: the bumbling weirdo from the future."

Smiling a little, Sesshoumaru squeezed Kagome tighter and kissed her temple. "You are still strange, but less bumbling now."

"Gee, that's really sweet of you to say," Kagome replied, only slightly sarcastic. She nuzzled his collarbone in silent thanks. "You always know how to make me feel better," she mused. "It's odd isn't it? I feel so comfortable with you."

At that, Sesshoumaru felt reassured, because he knew it was true. Whatever they had, it felt true and real.

Before he had opportunity to think about it any more, she grew serious again, and exhaled. "I just wanted him to forget about her and see me. I didn't really think. I guess now I understand him a bit better. He couldn't let go of what happened between them." Kagome shifted uncomfortably. "For Inuyasha, it wasn't a tragic story that happened fifty years in the past. Losing people you love. . . it's still a raw wound for him. One day, Kikyou was trying to kill him, and the next, there I was." Kagome sighed again and wrapped a lock of Sesshoumaru's hair around her index finger. "No wonder he has issues," she observed sympathetically.

At that, Sesshoumaru scoffed slightly. "You are too generous," he said. "Inuyasha has always had many. . . issues, as you say."

"He's a good person," Kagome countered. "Under all the yelling and aggression, he's very sweet. Just. . . insecure, I think."

Sesshoumaru shrugged. "He has always been a brat with little sense, and no sense of responsibility."

Kagome hugged Sesshoumaru. "You talk like an old man." Then, her eyes widened, and Sesshoumaru could practically hear wheels turning in her mind. "You are old. I mean, really, really old."

Sesshoumaru made a funny sound in his throat. "I am not an old man," he argued. "In youkai terms, I have only recently reached adulthood," he informed her in a haughty voice.

At the ramifications of that statement, Kagome tilted her head slightly. "You know. . . that explains a few things."


"Oh, nothing," Kagome replied innocently.

Sesshoumaru frowned. "It certainly could explain why I am lying in a field with an overly loquacious, disrespectful human girl," he grunted. "Obviously, this is something I will look back on and regret in my old age."

Kagome chose to ignore that. "Says the guy who can't make pancakes," she parried in an arch tone. "Don't talk to me about regrets, mister 'heads make great gifts.'" Then, a thought struck her. "Hey. Speaking of adolescence, did you ever have an awkward stage? I've been wondering about that."

Sesshoumaru peered down at the top of Kagome's head in exasperation. "No."

"Would you tell me if you did?"


"Oh," Kagome said, disappointed at Sesshoumaru's curt replies. "I was wondering if there was anything like, you know, youkai acne."

Sesshoumaru's eyebrow twitched. "What is acne?"

"I hate the fact that you never had to know," Kagome said in pained tones. "God. My forehead at the age of thirteen. . . such a disaster. . ."

"Cease your yammering, woman."

"Were you ever really, really skinny and tall?" she persisted.


Kagome paused, and Sesshoumaru hoped that she had fallen asleep. Unfortunately, she hadn't.

"If I think about it really hard, I can see it," she continued sleepily after a few sweet moments of silence. "You, all pointy-elbowed and gangly, with a strangely large Adam's apple. . ."


Lost in speculation, Kagome completely disregarded Sesshoumaru's dangerous tone. She sighed. "You must have been so cu-"

Then, Kagome was abruptly silenced, because Sesshoumaru had rolled her onto her back, bent on kissing the life out of her. She became suddenly and acutely aware of the fact that they were both still very naked, and that Sesshoumaru was really, really sexy.

When he pulled back for air, Kagome could have sworn that a lone canary was circling her head and chirping.

Sesshoumaru waited patiently for Kagome to recover from her shell-shocked state. It took a few moments before her eyes focused once more. She blinked, trying to clear her head. After a protracted period of lying there in a stunned, silent state, she seemed to recover.

"What the hell was that?" she demanded in confusion. She felt tingly all over, she mused. "Did you knock me out again?"

Though it was pitch-black, Kagome could tell that Sesshoumaru was wearing a variation of his amused, 'are you stupid' face.

It made her mad. Since he was so conveniently located, Kagome decided that it was payback time.

With the elevated ideals of equal exchange in mind, Kagome yanked Sesshoumaru's mouth back to hers, and did an outstanding job of returning his opening salvo. Sesshoumaru closed his eyes and groaned.

Of course, the sneaky actions of her hand beneath the blanket also may have had something to do with that. When Kagome pulled back, gasping for air, it seemed like Sesshoumaru was seeing the same chirping bird that had been bugging her such a short time before.

"Take that," she breathed triumphantly as she stroked his chest.

Then, Kagome's hands wandered a little lower, and Sesshoumaru - not to be outdone - found his lips wandering down her neck as he pressed closer. If the little sounds escaping Kagome's mouth were any indication, she was finally up to continuing their earlier activities, Sesshoumaru noted with intense interest.

She shifted beneath him and settled her hands on his hips, seeking closer contact.

"Hurry up," she panted impatiently.

He was happy to oblige her.


Quite a while later, after some rather strenuous activity, Kagome was struggling to breathe properly.

He was damned good at that, she thought feebly, sinking her nails into his warm, sweaty skin as another set of shocks rocked her helpless body. Sesshoumaru kissed her ear, pressed deeper, and collapsed on top of her with a muffled 'mrrm' sound.

It was another few minutes before Kagome recovered enough of her mental faculties to detach her mouth from his shoulder, and remove his hair from her face.

Then, she had to try very hard not to think about how much practice at this he'd had. Because he had definitely acquired certain impressive. . . aptitudes, and Kagome was starting to suspect that she must seem disappointingly amateurish.

"Sesshoumaru?" she whispered. She was briefly distracted from her growing insecurity by the adorable way his ear stirred slightly against her cheek.

"Sesshoumaru?" she repeated, slightly thrown by the lack of response. She tipped her head to the side so she could look at him, and saw something that was wildly reassuring. This time, she thought smugly, it had been Sesshoumaru's turn to pass out. Kagome wouldn't have minded at all if he weren't so heavy.

She brushed the bangs from his sleeping face with gentle fingers.

"As I was saying before," she whispered, "you must have been so cute." As if in confirmation, his ear twitched again. Then, with a sigh, she kissed his cheek, and began the tricky process of worming her way out from under him.

Tomorrow, she'd begin her search for her friends, Kagome thought drowsily. She wrapped her arm around Sesshoumaru's waist. Snuggling close against his side, she dragged the blankets back over them, and let his heat warm her all the way through.

Maybe next time, she could try and get him to pass out drooling, Kagome thought to herself. Then, she smiled a tired, one-hundred-percent-evil smile, and followed Sesshoumaru into slumber.


When they woke up, Kikyou was nowhere to be found.

Shippou, finding himself too excited to sleep, had been the first to rise. Consequently, he was the first to discover the miko's absence.

Not one to be hasty, he exited the hut and searched the vicinity for about two seconds, before running back inside. His awful discovery forced Shippou to discard his considerate plan to wait until sunrise before rousing the others.

"KYAAAAAA!" The ear-splitting cry caused Inuyasha, Sango, and Miroku to leap to attention.

More accurately, Inuyasha and Sango sprang to their feet in readiness for battle. Miroku, on the other hand, merely rolled over and continued to sleep - but not before grunting, "Go back to bed. Its bite is not lethal. We will cure you in the morning."

"She's gone!" Shippou exclaimed as he lurched to a halt in the doorway. He glared briefly in Miroku's direction, but then decided that the big, watery eyes would be more effective. "She's gooone!" he wailed. "We need her to find Kagomeeee!"

Inuyasha's eyes darted around the hut they had chosen to sleep in, and his gaze settled on the empty space on the floor where Kikyou had retired for the night. "Damn it," he muttered, coming to the worst of all possible conclusions. He turned to Shippou, suddenly all business. "When did you notice that she was missing?"

"Just now!" Shippou reported, crossing his arms over his chest and nodding. He began to pace back and forth. "I knew we should have tied her up," he announced grimly. "We should also have had someone keep watch over her. And instead of feeding her, we could have made her find me candy, and. . ."

"Ahem." The feminine voice from the door made Shippou turn and start wailing anew, this time in relief.

The others were also greatly relieved at her appearance - largely because they hadn't realized how disturbed Shippou truly was. They were happy that Kikyou's timely return had prevented any more insight into his bizarre internal life.

The kit in question launched himself at Kikyou on sight, wrapped his arms around her neck, and announced, "I knew you wouldn't leave us!"

When Kikyou replied, her voice was calm, albeit muffled by Shippou's tail. "You wanted to tie me up and guard me."

"For your protection," he qualified meekly.

"Starving me, and making me find you candy would be for my protection?" Kikyou was twitching, Shippou noted, and that was not a good sign. His eyes rounded. Perhaps the conclusions he had drawn had been a teeny, tiny bit precipitous. . .

"Ummm. . . well, you haven't been eating for a long time, so it might make you sick, you know. And candy is good," Shippou defended. "You would like it." His eyes started to shine as he thought more about the subject. "There are these great things, called lollipops," he explained in a dreamy tone, "and some of them turn by themselves, so you don't even have to lick them. . ."

Kikyou twitched again, and then shocked everyone when she snickered. Soon, she degenerated into loud guffaws. Shippou immediately released her. He landed on the ground a few feet away, looking slightly alarmed.

"Well, where'd you go?" Inuyasha demanded in a surly tone, when it became evident that Kikyou wasn't going to be able to calm down anytime soon. He peered outside. The sun still slept beneath the horizon.

"Sorry," she gasped. "Went out. . . meditate. . . oh gods," she whimpered, pressing a hand to her stomach.

Sango exhaled, finally relaxing her guard, and stopped to look down at Miroku. After all the excitement, he was still just lying there like a log, apparently dead to the world. "So, were you able to decide which direction we should move in?" she asked carefully. She'd been so tired, but being jolted from sleep in such an abrupt fashion had a way of waking a person up. Except, in Miroku's case, Sango grumbled internally.

Finally, Kikyou's attack of mirth died down. "Well," she sighed, hand still pressed to her stomach. "I know which direction we should take. She has gone back to see Kaede."

Shippou paused at that bit of information. "But. . . that's so far!" he exploded, clearly miffed that it would take so long to reach Kagome.

Inuyasha nodded, and then prodded Miroku with one bare foot. "Oy. Miroku."

The monk displayed no sign of life.

"Keh! Miroku!" Inuyasha repeated, giving him another, more sadistic poke. "Get up!"

Finally, Inuyasha thought as Miroku opened his eyes a crack.

"Go away. It is still dark." With that, Miroku simply closed his eyes again.

"We're all up now, lazy-ass!" Inuyasha argued. "If we leave right awa-"

Inuyasha was then suddenly and literally struck silent. He rubbed the red mark that Miroku's staff left on his face, and poked at his smarting nose experimentally, wincing. Why on earth did Miroku sleep with that staff anyway, Inuyasha wondered grumpily.

Miroku, having rolled over slightly, tucked said staff back beneath his arm with a jingling noise. "If you don't give me one more hour, I will exorcise you. Go play outside or something," he suggested, somehow managing to sound charming even in his half-conscious, apparently murderous state.

"But-" Inuyasha sputtered. Then, he fell silent, having heard an odd rustling sound. Golden eyes widened as Miroku's hand emerged from his sleeve, holding a sealing ofuda between two fingers.

"Don't make me use this," he murmured, eyes still closed. "Go. Enjoy the utter absence of daylight." With that pronouncement, Miroku curled back up into the insensate lump he had been before, and immediately started to emit some rather theatrical snoring sounds.

"Whoa," Shippou breathed into the surprised silence that followed. "Miroku's scary!"

Sango merely shook her head and grabbed Inuyasha's sleeve, tugging the gaping hanyou towards the door. Finally recovering his wits, Inuyasha scowled, and then followed the others outside. They merely looked at one another, at a complete loss.

"So. . ." Kikyou began hesitantly. "Who wants breakfast?"


"Ow," Kagome grunted as she dealt a snap-kick to the shard-carrying bear youkai they had finally caught up with. The impact of the blow bounced right off its massive form, and Kagome couldn't help but think that that particular move had hurt herself more than it had hurt her opponent.

Sesshoumaru watched from a short distance away, looking completely disinterested in the proceedings.

Kagome scowled. He had caused the soreness in the first place. It seemed only fair that he should have to help her. Kagome seethed, caught up in the injustice of it all. It was also completely unfair, she growled inwardly. Her hair, still damp from their morning bath in the icy river-water, kept smacking her in the face when she pivoted. Sesshoumaru's was already dry. Probably because of some freakish hair-drying youkai powers, she thought darkly.

The frustration coursing through her found an outlet in the swipe she aimed towards the youkai's knee. Fighting the really huge ones really sucked, Kagome noted absently. Then, her thoughts returned to the topic of her irksome companion.

It sure was funny how much nicer he'd seemed when they were both naked, she thought to herself grumpily. How had she forgotten how insufferable he was?

Kagome paused briefly in her assault, brooding further on her own stupidity. When she snapped back to attention, she only barely managed to avoid the large, lethal claws whistling through the air towards her.

"Dammit!" she cursed under her breath as she snatched up her fallen staff and retreated out of the youkai's reach. She narrowed her eyes, forcing herself to focus and search for an opening.

It was huge, but not too bright, she thought to herself as it simply stood there, slobbering. She wondered, briefly, why the Shikon shards made some youkai foam at the mouth like that. Perhaps it was some kind of side effect. . .

"This is pitiful," Sesshoumaru observed with his characteristic blandness. "What are you doing?"

At that, Kagome wished for the umpteenth time that she hadn't run out of arrows. "You're not helping, you know!" she called in response, before launching herself towards the youkai in another failed attack.

She couldn't reach the shard in its neck, and she'd run out of arrows. The outlook was not good, especially since Sesshoumaru was being such a paragon of helpfulness. That meant she'd have to chop it down first, Kagome thought with a slight shudder of disgust.

The problem with that plan was that, every time she tried to get close enough to do some damage, those damned claws came flying at her head. She just couldn't reach inside its guard with the way she was currently going.

"I really, really wish I had more arrows," Kagome muttered under her breath as the creature batted her staff away with a howl. She was forced, once again, to tuck and roll away. "Ow," she added in a pained tone as the impact sent a shock through her sore muscles.

Arrows, she thought once more. If only she had. . . Kagome blinked suddenly, looking at the rocky ground in front of her.

Snatching up a fist-sized rock, Kagome sprang to her feet from her crouched position. She silently thanked Souta for his baseball obsession, as well as his puppy-eyed insistence that she play catch with him.

Kagome planted her feet, wound up, thought pure thoughts, and then let it fly with everything she had.

"Graaaagh!" the youkai roared as her glowing projectile burned its way through its enormous, meaty chest.

"Oh, yeah," Kagome congratulated herself as she launched herself forward to attack before it could recover. With an efficient swipe of her staff, she sliced straight through the beast's thick neck as it crashed to the ground. "Striiiiike!" she crowed, catching the glimmering shard in her palm.

She turned to Sesshoumaru to show off her prize, but was brought up short when she saw him sigh and roll his eyes at her outburst. "That took far too long," he commented.

"What?" Kagome sputtered as he walked towards her. "I can't believe you! You're no help at all! I can't move properly because of you, and all you did was stand there shaking your head the whole time! It's completely mmrfurm-"

Kagome tried not to respond to that kiss. She really did. He was such an ass, but. . .

"You did well," Sesshoumaru replied after he set her back on her feet. He turned and continued in the direction they had chosen.

Kagome followed. "You can't just do that every time you want me to be quiet," she informed him through clenched teeth. "You just stood there looking bored while I kept bouncing off a youkai fifty times my size!"

Sesshoumaru turned back to face her, crossing his arms. "I think it is best if I do not help you," he said firmly. "You will, after all, be traveling with a crew of incompetents. How else will you learn?" Having dispensed his nugget of wisdom, Sesshoumaru turned and started walking again.

"Your teaching methods suck," Kagome replied, hurt colouring her voice. "You're not my mentor, thank you very much." Kagome swallowed, remembering who had been, and then forcibly quelled the ache in her ribs. "And we're not incompetent." She looked down at her feet and tucked her staff between her back and the pack she carried. She heard Sesshoumaru sigh, and then he tipped her chin up, forcing her to look at him.

"I would not have let anything happen to you," he said in a tone one might use when trying to explain something to a three-year-old.

"Whatever," she replied quietly, before turning away and closing her eyes. When she looked back at Sesshoumaru, he was surprised by the knowledge in them.

"You're not going to stay with us, are you?" she asked, though she obviously already knew the answer.

"No," he replied quietly. "You should join them. I will not travel with you."

Kagome looked up and met his eyes, obviously angry. "I. . . well, I guess I didn't think you would, but. . . who are you to tell me what I should do? And. . . and what's so wrong with coming with us?" She bit her lip. "Oh. I forgot that we're a 'crew of incompetents." she said, as she looked down at her feet.

Every line of her body spoke of the pain of rejection, and Sesshoumaru found that he could not bear to see her that way.

"It may be to our advantage later on if Naraku remains unaware of our association," Sesshoumaru informed her, tipping her chin up. "Look at me," he said quietly, as Kagome stubbornly kept her eyes turned away.

"You told me you didn't want to be used," Kagome said in a strange, quiet voice. "Well, you know what? I don't like it much, either."

At that, Sesshoumaru frowned and took hold of Kagome's chin, forcing her to meet his eyes. "You misunderstand me," he explained. "I will not travel with you. I did not say I would not help you."

Kagome's eyes widened, and she suddenly shoved away from Sesshoumaru's hold. "You think that's what I'm mad about?" she exclaimed in frustration, "I couldn't care less whether you're going to help me or not! I didn't sleep with you because I wanted your help, you moron! I. . . I care about you, though I have no idea why! You're the most insensitive. . ."

Feeling a surge of warmth at Kagome's angry confession, Sesshoumaru grabbed her around the waist and pressed his face against her damp, sweet-smelling hair.

"I'm trying to yell at you! You're not allowed to hug me in these situations!" she went on without missing a beat.

Sesshoumaru smiled a little at that, and ignored the fact that Kagome was once again trying to escape his embrace. He noticed that her struggle lacked enthusiasm, despite her protestations.

"I will come to see you often," he said decisively. "I think it is best, however, to keep my loyalties uncertain." He paused, and squarely met Kagome's stare as she pulled away slightly. "Naraku has come to me in the past to suggest an alliance. It seems unlikely that he should do so again, but it is possible that he will make a mistake."

Kagome still looked unhappy, but seemed to see his point. "Well, fine," she replied glumly. "But. . ." she trailed off, looking at her hands.

"But what?" Sesshoumaru was a little surprised when Kagome stepped forward again, eyes filled with something he'd never seen before.

Sighing, Kagome snuggled a little closer, obviously avoiding whatever issue was on her mind. Her eyes widened when she heard a strange crinkling sound coming from his arm. "Hey, what's that?" she asked, tipping her head back in curiosity.

"Nothing," Sesshoumaru replied curtly.

Refusing to accept his answer, Kagome grabbed onto Sesshoumaru's arm, and slipped a hand into the folds of his sleeve. Her fingers closed around the very familiar object secreted there. Shocked, Kagome stood immobilized, and blinked down at the cellophane-wrapped candy.

"You. . . you keep this with you?" Kagome murmured, looking at the lollipop she'd given Sesshoumaru months ago. She turned to him, watching him with a strange intensity. "They get gummy and weird after a while, you know," she informed him in a shaky voice. "You should have eaten it before."

Sesshoumaru shrugged under her gaze. At the lack of response, Kagome tucked the lollipop back into his sleeve. Then, she pushed herself up to kiss him. When she pulled away, Sesshoumaru wondered why she was smiling at him so brilliantly.

"Okay," she acquiesced. "But you had better visit me a lot, or I'll be mad," she warned.

At that, Sesshoumaru looked heavenward, perplexed at yet another example of Kagome's bizarre mood-swings.

"All right," she said cheerfully, placing her hands on her hips and then looking off into the distance. "I sense a bunch of shards that way. It has to be them." Her brows furrowed. "There's another shard on the way, so I might as well get it now."


"I'm tired," Shippou whispered to himself as he trotted along slightly behind the group. He'd been hanging on to Sango earlier, but then Miroku had given a look that made it very clear a couple of minutes ago that the two were to be left alone. The privacy hadn't done the monk much good, Shippou noted. Sango seemed tired as well, and not particularly in the mood for conversation.

Miroku could be surprisingly intimidating, though.

Shippou knew it wouldn't be good to let his hanyou companion hear him complaining of exhaustion. Inuyasha would probably just say something mean about how Shippou should have let them all sleep longer, or something dumb like that.

Shippou looked off towards where Miroku was plodding along. The monk looked sort of grumpy and dangerous still, though hours had passed since Shippou's pre-dawn wake-up call. The small youkai was suddenly even happier that he hadn't voiced his fatigue.

It was mid-morning, and they had all been following Kikyou's direction in their quest to find Kagome. The miko walked with them, but it was quite plain that she wasn't part of their group. The atmosphere was rather tense, since none of them were quite sure how far they could trust her. Oddly enough, Inuyasha seemed the most inclined to just ignore her, only speaking to her when he was asking where they should be going, and how far away Kagome was.

Kikyou did seem a lot different from the other times Shippou had seen her. Unfortunately, during the long days of hunting shards, it had been made plain to all of them that 'different' wasn't always a good thing.

In fact, 'different' often tended to bite one in the ass, Shippou thought glumly.

At that moment, Kirara woke up and transformed, in order to give the sleepy Sango a break. At the fire-cat's nod towards him, Shippou heaved a sigh of relief. He leapt on to hitch a ride, glad that someone at least hadn't forgotten that his legs were much shorter than everyone else's.

Ahead of them, Kikyou paused and looked from side to side.

"What's going on?" Inuyasha demanded. "Why are we stopping?" Then, he sniffed, tipped his head back, and listened intently to noises no one else could hear. "Oh, damn it," he groused. He turned to the rest of the group. "There are some really smelly bandits off that way. I smell smoke. They're probably in some village, stealing and pillaging as usual."

At that, Miroku's mood seemed to lighten. "Ooooh!" he exclaimed.

Sango glared at him, shifting Hiraikotsu meaningfully on her shoulder, which caused some rather hurried backpedaling on Miroku's part.

"Not that I want to rescue helpless village girls and gain their lifelong gratitude and/or monetary compensation, or anything," he amended quickly. Sango rolled her eyes, but the look of glowing chivalry on his face persisted, unabated.

"Shit," Inuyasha groaned, gesturing towards Miroku impatiently. "Between the monk and the kit, I feel like we're collecting women instead of shards."

Shippou's eyes bugged out. "Whaaat?!" he protested. "What do I have to do with anything?"

"Usually nothing," Inuyasha retorted with a condescending look. "But every time we meet a girl that's less than 3 times your height, you follow her around and then moon about her for a month."

"Whaaat?!" Shippou repeated. "That's. . ." he trailed off, frowning, much to Kikyou and Sango's amusement. "That's only for the pretty ones," Shippou concluded finally, crossing his little arms over his chest and nodding.

"Exactly!" Miroku chimed in with a smile of camaraderie. "That's-" catching another of Sango's looks, he quickly revised the statement he was about to make, and pasted a solemn look on his face. "That's so shallow, Shippou."

"Traitor," Shippou replied, stung. "Just see if I give you any more advice about that slapping problem you have."

At that, Inuyasha snickered, and Miroku looked mildly chastened.

Sango sighed heavily at the apparently short attention spans of the men in the group. "I think you have lost sight of the issue at hand," she prompted impatiently.

Kikyou nodded. "Your friend is close," she remarked, "and she actually seems to be coming this way. It won't hurt to take care of the trouble."

With surprisingly little protest, Inuyasha followed the two women as they headed towards the disturbance. Both Kikyou and Sango, noticing his lack of comment, looked back at him in surprise.

"What?" he asked, piqued at their scrutiny.

Sango shrugged, before continuing onward. "Usually, you argue a bit more about going to save humans," she said. "Especially when there aren't any shards involved."

Inuyasha snorted in response. "Keh! I'm really in the mood to pound some heads right now," he explained with a backward look at Miroku and Shippou, who were apparently bickering as they trailed behind. "Let's go."


"I am so gonna kick your ass," Kagome muttered at the shard-carrying frog youkai who'd just spit at her foot. She looked down, regarding her rapidly dissolving shoelace with sad eyes. "Damn it, how am I going to tie that now?"

Both of the demons who were privy to her complaint seemed unsympathetic to her future plight. Sesshoumaru looked like he was mentally balancing his checkbook. Contestant number two, who was responsible for her shoelace problem in the first place, stood in front of her unrepentantly.

Kagome glared, but it didn't even seem to notice. It cracked its jaw open, letting a gooey string of spittle drop slowly to the ground.

Great, Kagome thought as she adjusted her grip on her weapon. Another mouth- foamer was just what her day had been missing.

Quickly, she stepped out of range and waited for the youkai to attack again. They were on the rocky bank of a river, and the sound of the rushing water was loud in her ears. She hadn't had to fight on this sort of terrain before, and wasn't sure how well she'd be able to move on it.

The youkai she was up against looked like an amphibious type, Kagome thought with a shudder. Its green, wrinkly skin reminded her a bit of Jaken, but this one was disgustingly moist-looking. Its large, frog-like body was bloated with the shard's power. All in all, Kagome concluded, Jaken could totally win the Miss Froggie Youkai beauty pageant. All the other toad-like creatures she had come across were completely cast in the shade by Jaken's relative beauty.

Even worse, the youkai that faced her started to waddle to the side, looking like it was getting ready to jump. To avoid being hit by its considerable mass, Kagome pivoted, deflecting its charge with a glancing blow from her staff.

"Brragghbbaght," the youkai croaked as it landed with an earth-shaking thud. A large, raw-looking welt was etched across its belly as a result of Kagome's blow.

Kagome braced herself for another charge as the creature's powerful legs tensed in preparation for another spring. Unfortunately, she wasn't prepared for the long, muscular tongue that shot out of the creature's mouth like a telescopic baton.

"Aaagh!" Kagome cried. She leapt backwards and to the side, eyes fixed on the greenish-black, snakelike appendage that was aimed at her throat. Having failed to remember the hazards of the terrain, Kagome landed on the slippery slope of a boulder and lost her footing. She was forced to drop her staff in order to catch herself from her fall.

With a slick, grating noise, the youkai drew its tongue back into its mouth, having gained the advantage due to Kagome's misstep. Struggling to right herself, she scrambled to her feet, hoping to leap away in time, but her bad landing had wrenched her ankle, and she found herself staring in horror as the creature's tongue shot out again, this time at her abdomen. It was too fast, she thought in horror. She wouldn't be able to erect a barrier in time. . .

Just as Kagome expected to feel the pain of a puncture wound, something fuzzy wrapped around her and jerked her out of harm's way. At the same time, a bright lash cracked in front of the youkai, driving it back.

"Fanks." Kagome's voice emerged, muffled by the cocoon of fur that enveloped her. "Just in the nick of time."

"Hurry and kill it so we can move on," Sesshoumaru commanded, smirking.

Kagome wormed one arm free of the pelt, and then shoved the part covering her face up over her forehead. Then she smiled, having become inured to his condescending manner. It usually seemed aimed to get a rise out of her anyway, she thought.

"I will, when you let me out," she replied, wiggling slightly. "This is sort of hampering my movement, you know."

With a flick of the wrist, Sesshoumaru released Kagome, and draped the pelt over his shoulder once more.

"How do you do that?" Kagome murmured in awe.

Sesshoumaru pointed over her shoulder at the youkai she'd been fighting. It had apparently been stunned into immobility by Sesshoumaru's sudden attack. "Weren't you in the middle of something," the pale-haired youkai prompted in a dry voice.

"Oh, right." Kagome turned back and saw that the frog-youkai was drooling once more. This time, it wore an incongruously thoughtful expression on its wide, pock-marked face.

Kagome assumed a fighting stance, and her opponent seemed to come to a decision. It gathered itself up and then made a huge leap, quickly vanishing out of sight.

It took a few moments for Kagome to recover from her surprise. Once she had, she scrambled up over the rocks, and reacquired her staff from where it had fallen. "Damn," she murmured. "I guess that foaming mouth thing doesn't necessarily mean that a youkai's completely stupid." With that, she ran back to Sesshoumaru's side, and grabbed his arm.

"That way," she directed him, pointing to the woods beyond the river. "Let's go!"

The look that Sesshoumaru sent her was filled with disbelief. "In case you did not notice, I am not a beast of burden," he observed with a smidgen of sarcasm. "Since when did I become your transportation?"

Kagome grinned and wrapped her arms around his waist. "Um. . . since I lost my bike?" she supplied helpfully. "Anyway," she added, "do you really want to wait around while I try to find a narrow place to cross the river? Because I'm going to walk really, really, really slowly. . ."

Sesshoumaru looked down, and noticed with mild disgust that Kagome was batting her eyelashes at him with a pleading look on her face. She was completely ridiculous, he thought to himself with a sigh. "Stop that."

"Please?" She wasn't going to stop it until he capitulated, he realized in consternation; humans truly could devise horrible, horrible punishments. However, he did like hearing her say please. And he liked it far more in other contexts as well. . .

"You have to stop doing. . . whatever that is, first," he said in a tone that brooked no argument.

"Okay," Kagome said, promptly ending Sesshoumaru's torture. She looked off into the woods. "We're really close now," she observed more seriously. "They aren't far away. But first, let's find that froggy thing."


"Ugh, they were too easy. And why do bandits always stink so bad?" Inuyasha complained. "I can't smell anything now. Keh!"

Kikyou smiled slightly. Obviously, the thieves had not given Inuyasha a satisfactory fight. Once he'd realized that all the bandits were either incapacitated or had run away, the expression of disappointment on his face had been almost comical.

Kikyou shook her head and realized once again how much she had missed Inuyasha and his curmudgeonly ways. It was too bad that he didn't seem to want to talk to her very much. In fact, Kikyou thought, since their conversation after he had demanded that she explain what was going on, he had seemed bent on avoiding her.

None of the group really seemed comfortable with her presence, and she understood why. She contented herself with her enjoyment of the way they all interacted with one another. While she did wish she could join in, she simply did not know how.

After all, they were all friends with her reincarnation. Kagome seemed very different from Kikyou, though. The girl was more personable, and more sure of herself in social situations. Sometimes, Kikyou couldn't help but feel like she had been replaced by a better, brighter version of herself.

Kikyou had missed Inuyasha, but he was unsure of how to treat her, given her behavior after Urasue had resurrected her. She also suspected that he wasn't sure how to classify their relationship, since their brief romantic entanglement before her death had ended in such spectacular failure.

But. . . he had been her best friend. Kikyou would give him some time, as she needed it as well. Eventually, though, she knew that they would have to broach the subject.

Closing her eyes, Kikyou tried to get a sense of where Kagome was. Her eyes blinked open in shock at what she found.

A shard-carrier was approaching at a great speed, and another sped behind it. When Kikyou tried to pinpoint Kagome's location, she opened her mouth to call a warning to her companions. However, before she could make a sound, all hell broke loose.

Some enormous, green youkai landed in the clearing before them with an earth-shaking crash. Everyone in their group started coughing suddenly. A cloud of dry soil flew into the air upon the impact, obscuring whatever was going on in a disordered haze.

Inuyasha's nose twitched helplessly as he tried to find out what was going on, but the combination of the particles in the air and the lingering stench of the thieves from before confused him. He could, however, hear the sounds of combat very clearly. Some poor fool had taken on that huge youkai, and the fight was close - too close for comfort.

"Shit! Get back into the woods, everyone!" he yelled, as he leapt high into the air and perched in a tree, trying to get a better idea of what was happening. As the dust thinned, Inuyasha became aware of a strange, violet glow lighting the air around some quick-moving, shadowy figure. A shadowy figure that suddenly stilled, he noticed with interest.

"Inuyasha?" a familiar female voice asked hopefully from inside the miniature dust storm.

The hanyou's ears twitched, and his eyes widened into circles.

It was. . . it couldn't be. . .

"Oooof! Gods, that hurt," the voice exclaimed, sounding winded and irritated. "That does it! You're going down, froggy-boy!" Another set of blows seemed to follow the peculiar battle-cry.

There was no mistaking it, Inuyasha thought incredulously. "Kagome!" he shouted. He made a move to leap back down to assist her, but a strong hand clamped down on his shoulder to restrain him.

"Do not interfere," Sesshoumaru commanded coolly from beside him. "She is easily distracted." Too stunned to do anything else, Inuyasha stared at his half-brother dumbly as Sesshoumaru turned towards the glowing nebula and addressed it. "Focus on what you are doing, wench!"

Inuyasha heard a disgusted snort and some unintelligible muttering, and then the fighting seemed to become even more violent. The hanyou stared in disbelief at what he could see of the battle. It was impossible, he thought to himself as his irises darted to follow the movement in the cloud. It was impossible that that was Kagome. Whoever was in there was moving way faster than any human he'd ever seen.

"Gyaaah!" the Kagome-like voice yelled. The cry was accompanied by a bright blaze of light, and some rather sickening squishing noises. "Got it!"

"Now you may bother her, halfwit," Sesshoumaru informed Inuyasha blandly before stepping off the limb and materializing in the dust-cloud.

"That was better," Inuyasha overheard Sesshoumaru say through the haze. "You did not take so unbearably long this time."

"You make me so mad," Inuyasha heard Kagome growl. Then, the Kagome-shaped figure sneezed, and started to walk out of the mist, waving a hand in front of her face. "I missed you guys!" she called out. "Where are you? Is everyone. . . is everyone okay?"

One by one, all the members of Inuyasha's company emerged from the surrounding trees, staring wide-eyed at both Kagome, and at the rather gory mess she had left of the frog-youkai.

"Kagomeeeeee! We thought you might be deaaaaad!" Kagome looked down to see Shippou standing stock-still a small distance away, with tears streaming down his face. She ran over to him, and snatched him up into a fierce hug, also crying. "I'm fine, Shippou," she murmured. "Don't worry, I'm back now."

"You are a little stronger than you were when we last saw you, Kagome," Miroku piped up as he approached.

Sango, recovering from her shock, ran up to her friend and smiled widely, eyes shining with tears. "I'm so glad that you are all right," she professed, hugging Kagome warmly. "We were so worried. . . we went to find you, when we saw the swarm. . ." The taijiya noticed the way Kagome trembled when she mentioned it, and guessed that Kagome knew what had happened to the people she had lived with. Kagome sniffled down at Kirara, who pressed her face against her hand, purring in welcome.

When Sango pulled back, Kagome was returning her look of concern. "I. . . are you okay?" she asked. "I'm sorry, about what happened to Kohaku. You must be so-"

Sango's smile was strained. "It is hard," she admitted with difficulty, "but I have been coping. It is easier than. . . than always hoping, like before."

Miroku rested his hand on Sango's back, and then turned to Kagome with a relieved smile. "Do I not receive a hug like everyone else?" he inquired innocently.

Kagome embraced him as well, but not before giving him a warning look. "How's the hand?" she asked.

"Roaming, as always," he replied with a wicked smile, prompting Kagome to step back before he could match his actions to his words.

She had to laugh a bit at that, and then saw Inuyasha lingering some distance away, trying not to look at her.

"Inuyasha!" she called. He approached, looking wary, and not a little guilty.

"Msor," Kagome heard him mutter under his breath. Her forehead wrinkled as she tried to decipher his statement.


"I'm sorry," he hissed, hoping the others couldn't hear. "I'm sorry, about before."

"What?" Kagome asked again, before she finally seemed to clue in. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "I forgot about that, actually." Then, her face grew a little more somber. "It doesn't seem to matter anymore, and I know why you were mad, it's just. . . you didn't even listen to me." Then, she looked up, and grabbed Inuyasha into a hug. "But I missed you so much! I missed all of you, and you have no idea how good it feels to be back with you guys. How did you find me? I felt the shards you have, and I knew you were heading straight for me. . ."

During the reunions, Sesshoumaru had taken it upon himself to remain as unobtrusive as possible. When he noticed Kikyou lingering some distance away, he walked to stand next to Kagome, and made a gesture towards the figure half-hidden in the trees.

"Kikyou helped us find you," Inuyasha explained gruffly, as Kagome's eyes narrowed. "She's. . . she's different, since that night of the swarm. It's like-"

"Kikyou?" Kagome interrupted, feeling a sinking sensation in her stomach. Kikyou's appearance never led to good things, in her experience. "What?"

Looking nervous, Kikyou emerged from the trees to meet Kagome's wary eyes with her own. "Hello," she said boldly. "I am glad that you are well."

"Hi," Kagome replied, unable to keep the suspicion out of her voice. However, when she came closer, Kagome did feel something different. . . Kikyou was different.

Kagome's eyes widened, and she searched the woman's face. It was more like her own than ever, she realized. It was like looking at herself, but older, with more scars and defenses.

And more loneliness, Kagome realized.

Inuyasha shifted uneasily between the two as the silence grew longer. He was reminded of too many occasions where being between the two women had led to much pain and suffering for him.

Finally, Kagome exhaled, and nodded. "Hi, Kikyou," she replied, extending her hand in greeting. Feeling a wave of relief wash over her, Kikyou smiled.

Inuyasha looked at Sesshoumaru, who was watching the proceedings with an impassive eye. The hanyou cleared his throat meaningfully, and waited for Kagome to look at him.

"What exactly is that bastard doing here?" he asked.

Said bastard flicked his amber gaze towards his brother, and then made a quiet sound of derision. Kagome turned to Inuyasha and crossed her arms over her chest. "Excuse me, but Sesshoumaru is my friend."

"Keh! He's not your friend!" Inuyasha retorted. "He's tried to kill you! He's tried to kill us all!"

At that, Kagome heaved a sigh. "Yeah, Inuyasha. In case you haven't noticed, we all seem to have a weird way of making friends," she reasoned. "Some people have common interests. We just met through attempted murder," she said firmly. "That necklace you're wearing isn't just a fashion statement."

Sango looked a bit worried at the idea of Kagome being friends with such a dangerous youkai, but since he didn't seem to intend any harm at the moment, she threw her two cents in. "Um, technically, I was trying to kill you when we met, Inuyasha."

Then, Miroku stepped up as well, and turned to the glowering hanyou. "And if I remember correctly, you tried to kill me when we first met."

Shippou decided to contribute as well. "I didn't try to kill anyone," he offered, "but I tried to take stuff from you guys."

Inuyasha plopped himself down and huffed in disgruntlement. "I still hate you," he seethed at Sesshoumaru. "Don't even fucking think about taking my sword or anything. We all know that's what you're really after." Then, Inuyasha's eyes widened. "Oh. Oh, no WAY." He turned to Kagome with wide eyes. "There is no way he's coming with us."

"I no longer want that sword," Sesshoumaru replied, finally sick of being referred to as though absent. "Why on earth would I want to travel with you, idiot?" he continued. "You embody all the worst qualities of youkai and human: no self-control, and a deeply offensive personal odor."

At that, Inuyasha leapt to his feet, and drew Tetsusaiga. "Oh that does it, I'm gonna fucking smear you all over this forest."

Sesshoumaru drew Toukijin with an insulting laziness. "Fine, try," he murmured. "Wake me up when you have finished." The two brothers faced each other, one coldly disdainful, the other with an almost palpable aura of righteous anger.

"Stop it!" Kagome bellowed, completely fed up. "I'm so sick of this ridiculous urge you two have to whip your swords out all the time!" She planted her hands on her hips, and glared at them alternately. "Fine. They're equally impressive! Inuyasha's is pathetic at first, but grows really big. And Sesshoumaru's brings people to life. Now stick them back in your waistbands, and shut the hell up!" she raged.

Kagome was puzzled by the sudden silence that descended in the clearing. Inuyasha looked completely stunned, and stared at her with some unidentifiable expression on his face.

Sesshoumaru, on the other hand, looked bemused. The stunned silence following Kagome's unintentional double-entendres only lengthened.

"And you," Kagome mumbled, turning to Sesshoumaru. "Why are you laughing at me? What's so damn funny?"

Suddenly, the stillness was compounded by everyone else's confusion. They all wondered how Sesshoumaru's blank expression could possibly be interpreted as laughter.

"What is it?" she demanded wearily of no one in particular. Then she noticed that Miroku was bent double, clutching his stomach in suppressed laughter. Sango was blushing. Next to her, Shippou was shaking his head. "What?" she repeated.

Kikyou looked puzzled. "Um," she began haltingly, "have I missed. . ." Then, her dark eyes widened, and she pressed a hand to her mouth. "Oh, I s- see." Then, to Kagome's chagrin, Kikyou emitted what sounded disconcertingly like a snicker.

As she watched their reactions, Kagome went back over what she'd said. Sesshoumaru saw the second she caught it, because her blush spread rapidly over her cheeks, and her eyes bugged out.

Kagome started walking away, limbs stiff with embarrassment. "I'm just going to go over here," she murmured numbly, gesturing towards a thick grove of trees in the distance that would hide her from their laughing eyes. "Call me when we have to kill some stuff." They all watched Kagome walk off into the trees. Sango nudged Miroku in the ribs with her foot as he collapsed on the ground, gasping.

"Mine isn't pathetic!" Inuyasha suddenly yelled, stunning everyone in the clearing. He blinked. "I mean, Tetsusaiga is a good sword!"

That set Miroku off again, and prompted a long-suffering look from Shippou. When Miroku finally recovered himself, he got back to his feet and nudged Sango with his elbow. "Swords may be impressive, but they certainly cannot compare with the length of my staff," he remarked with a wiggle of his eyebrows.

The monk's vulgar comments were sadly cut short, however, when he ducked to avoid Sango's enormous Flying Bone.


"Kagome." Sesshoumaru walked through the dense growth of trees and then came to a stop in front of her, waiting for her to respond.

"Go away," Kagome muttered darkly from where she leaned, hidden, against a tree trunk. "I've never been so embarrassed."

"I will be leaving soon," Sesshoumaru interrupted, apparently willing to disregard her complete humiliation. Kagome looked up, and then patted the grass next to her. When he sat down, he was a little surprised that Kagome leaned in against him as though it were a completely natural thing for her to do. He was even more surprised at how right it felt. Sesshoumaru wrapped an arm around Kagome, pulling her closer.

"Okay," she replied quietly. "So. . . when will I see you again?"

Sesshoumaru thought about it for a little while. "In a week or so," he murmured. "It will be the new moon, and Inuyasha will be even more useless than usual."

Kagome regarded him in surprise. "You know about that?"

"Of course," Sesshoumaru snorted. "We shared a father. How could I not know?"

"Oh. Well, okay. That's not too long at all." Suddenly, Sesshoumaru found Kagome was in his lap, and sucking on his lower lip. He drew her close and kissed her as though they had all the time in the world. When they separated, she blinked at him uncertainly. "You. . . you're not going to go kissing anyone else, are you?"

Sesshoumaru looked at her. "Not if you don't."

"I won't," Kagome confirmed quickly, wrapping her arms around him and settling against him with a sigh. "So don't you dare."


"Something's up with those two," Inuyasha mumbled to himself, glaring in the direction in which Sesshoumaru had followed Kagome. They were out of sight, and Inuyasha had the suspicion that Sesshoumaru might be trying to kill her. That bastard. "He's acting completely weird. Since when does he interact with humans?"

The corner of Sango's mouth quirked upward slightly. "He sometimes has that little girl with him. Who knows?" she replied matter-of-factly. Nearby, Shippou and Miroku were having some sort of conversation that ceased abruptly whenever she came within hearing range. Kikyou had gone off somewhere to meditate, leaving Inuyasha and Sango to wait for Kagome's return.

"Keh! It's completely bizarre," Inuyasha grunted impatiently. "Why the hell is Sesshoumaru willing to help her? And he doesn't seem to want to kill me as much as usual. It's giving me the creeps." The hanyou shook his head, completely confused by the lack of maiming that usually accompanied his encounters with Sesshoumaru. "Something tells me that Kagome's got a lot of explaining to do."

Sango looked speculatively in the direction where Sesshoumaru and Kagome had disappeared, and smiled a small, puzzled smile.


Author's Note:

Thanks for your patience! I finally have gotten this out. Whew. So long! I'm sorry if I this chapter wasn't what you were expecting, but I hope it was okay anyway. Hello to plot advancement.

Anyway, I want to thank Tsukitani, Miara, Wombat, Kii, Ookami-chan, Crash, and all the nice people who have left reviews.

I will be getting fixed up versions of chapter 8 and 9 up soon.

Post date: March 16, 2004.

Edited March 21, 2004 for clarity and sneaky errors. Thanks sashlea and Indygodusk for pointing some things out that I took for granted!