AN: For the long wait you've had to go through waiting for this next chapter, I must apologize. I seem to be doing that a lot, don't I?

But many thanks to by betas Claudia and Asako (who was kind enough to fill in after I seemed to have lost my other betas again) and everyone else for the wonderful comments via reviewing, email, or IM – I welcome them all and I've tried to respond to everyone who questioned me and whose email addresses I could actually find. So if I missed anyone, then I apologize again because I didn't mean to but life can get busy and I'm cursed with a disease called forgetfulness.

Oh, and for those who participated in the poll, it's been decided – Hiten & Kagome will be the next series fic I work on for the Inuyasha series! As for the others...well, I sense new oneshots will be in the making. Heh.

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CHAPTER 7: Embracing the Dark

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It was annoying when someone else had the last word.

And Sesshoumaru was highly annoyed.

What was even more frustrating was that the object of his annoyance was unconscious and fully unable to bear the brunt of his dissatisfaction as she rightly should. Instead, she was slumbering without a care in the world, lips still curled in a slight smile, body laid out and twisted upon the ground in what looked to be a somewhat uncomfortable position.

Not that he cared, of course.

She sighed softly, a sweet sound, mumbling something unintelligible beneath her breath, and he found that annoyed him as well, stoking his ire to even higher heights. He was tempted to kick her awake and partly relieve his frustration, but he refrained. After all, it would be a childish gesture and he was beyond that.

Also, it would require him to actually be able to move.

His muscles trembled with the effort it took to even remain upright in the kneeling position he'd dropped down to after the power had receded from the enclosed space. He could count on one claw the number of times he'd ever felt this weak since he'd reached adulthood – and he had killed each one that had caused it. But, even then, he'd been more physically exhausted after the rigors of a fast-paced battle, not drained as he was now.

He held out a claw – and it trembled.

No, he did not like this at all.

Still...

His gaze turned back to the human, studying her harmless features with a detached gaze. He couldn't believe this little slip of a girl had unleashed an aura powerful enough to battle with his own with near equal power. It was unconceivable that someone, much less a human, could push him this far into feeling physical exertion when there had been no battling of flesh involved. She was a mystery, a mass of contradictions, and he found himself intrigued despite his disdain for humans.

But it was a dangerous intrigue.

Eyes flickered in displeasure at the thought. It brought too much to mind events of the past and he had no desire to tread upon the same path his father had traveled.

No, he would use the human and then he would discard her.

It was as simple as that.

A motion drew his attention and his gaze snagged on the white furry appendage that was undulating lazily, one end entwined around the sleeping girl while –

The other end was latched around his arm.

Perhaps things would not be so simple, after all.

His kaminohogo was acting strangely in a way it had never acted before, defying him and showing blatant favoritism towards someone else that was barely more than a complete stranger. It had even gone so far as to take the initiative just at the point when one or both of them would have broken under the strain of their silent struggle by latching on to the two of them and shifting their energies, deliberately draining their anger before true harm may have befallen them. And that, above all, gave him grave foreboding that his life was only going to become even more complicated from this point on. It was not something he desired and, if he could, he would deposit the human back with that lowborn hanyou.

But he didn't have that luxury.

Even now, he could feel the urgency of the situation pressing upon him, time dwindling down more and more into nothingness as the end of everything drew ever nearer. And it was not something he could stand idly by and tolerate.

So be it.

If being with the girl threatened to overturn his life, he would take the chance.

The other option was unacceptable.

Feeling he finally had enough strength to support himself, he stood, swayed unsteadily with a gracelessness that felt distinctly out of place for him. He could only be grateful that there was no one else to see this ignoble situation in which he found himself immersed.

A tug drew his gaze downwards only to find his kaminohogo straining, struggling in its own way to draw the objects within its opposite ends closer together. Unfortunately for it, as weak as Sesshoumaru may have been at that moment, he still proved immobile to his possession's attempts and did not budge from his spot. However, the same did not hold true of the unconscious girl.

Strain, tug –

Slide.

Strain, tug –

Slide.

Strain, tug –

"Cease now!"

He inwardly cursed as he barked the order and all motion immediately stilled. Having had enough of watching his wayward possession drag the girl's lax body across the earthen floor with every straining tug, he could not stand the ridiculousness of the situation any longer.

It was with extreme irritation that he regarded both the girl and his kaminohogo. However, despite his dislike with the entire course of events, he was no fool and knew the value of what needed to be done. And with those thoughts uppermost in his mind, he bent down, muscles trembling with the effort, and wrapped his arm around her waist and rose with her left dangling precariously in his hold.

She never woke.

As soon as he touched her, his kaminohogo went into action, lessening its slackness by sliding and coiling like a serpent until it was wrapped more securely around both the peaceful slumbering female and its lord. Though that, too, did nothing to decrease Sesshoumaru's dark mood, he refrained from any reaction other than to steadily continue his way deeper into the cave, and only when he could go no further did he stop.

He shifted the body in his arm and settled down until he was resting against the rocky wall and she was beside him, the slight weight of her frame leaning against his, white fur wrapped around them both. In this newest position, ever the warrior and strategist, his golden gaze took another cursory perusal of their surroundings. He examined with scrutinizing eyes every part of their temporary residence, making certain there was nothing threatening in sight and that he had the best vantage point of the entrance in the unlikely event that an enemy might stumble upon them.

Though the chances of such a thing happening were not great, for contact with his kaminohogo should mask both of their presences and the power of the Shikon shards from hunting predators, he ensured that he would be prepared nonetheless. And only when he was certain that all aspects of their safety were ensured to the best of his abilities did he finally allow his fatigued body to rest.

However, just as he was about to succumb and follow his new companion into slumber, a vague thought drifted across his mind just before sleep claimed him.

'It was a horrid name...'

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He awoke at once, as was his way.

There was no morning grogginess, no period of adjustment needed for sleep to fade away and full consciousness to return in the manner that most lower beings were possessed with. Such a thing was not for the great Sesshoumaru. No, his mind was awake and alert as soon as his eyes opened.

And that was why he abruptly tensed and went absolutely still in shock the moment it registered that –

The human was hugging him!

One fragile arm wrapped around his waist and the other tossed over his shoulder and around his neck, she was entwined about him like a lover! Even as he watched with disbelieving eyes, she snuggled closer, cheeks nestling deeper into the white fur that crisscrossed over his chest and around her slender frame.

And the decisive Sesshoumaru suddenly didn't know what to do.

He'd never been in such a situation before and it caught him off guard; it was a puzzle as to how the girl had managed to wind her way around him so thoroughly without waking him up. He was a light sleeper, decades of battle training had made him so, and even the slightest motion she made should have sent him rushing back to full consciousness.

But it hadn't.

Obviously, his senses had somehow become disordered.

No doubt, something had happened during the intense conflict in which their auras had battled, twisted against each other in the struggle. And whatever that something was, it had allowed the human to shift about him without setting off his naturally reflexive self-protective instincts. He was undecided as to whether this was a good or bad thing but...

He was leaning towards bad.

On the other hand, it would have ruined everything if his usual instincts had been aggravated and caused him to accidentally kill her. His survival instinct was keen and one of the main lessons he'd been taught from an early age and was ingrained into the very fiber of his being was to eradicate any perceived danger immediately and worry about the inconsequential details after the threat was taken care of. And it would not do if he had 'taken care' of the human before he even had time to concern himself with those details.

There were moments when acting first and asking questions later could prove disadvantageous.

The thought that he might have killed her...troubled him oddly. He had killed many – humans, youkai – but he had never given them another thought, had never been bothered by their deaths. But that just the mere idea that he might have added her to the tally of his slays did not hold well with him was proof that her presence was affecting him somehow. His reaction to the thought of her death, the normally controlled emotions that she unwittingly was able to draw from him, the actions of his kaminohogo...

He did not know what to make of it all but was wise enough to realize that the combination of such occurrences hinted to but a prelude of what was to come. As for where it was all to lead, that future was uncertain but he had a feeling that he would not like it and instinct told him to get as far away from what was brewing around him as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, he had no other choice.

All of it centered around the girl and to get away meant leaving her. Much as he relished the idea of abandoning her and the turmoil she was bringing to him, promises and oaths bound him, made him unable to leave that which he despised and would under other circumstances avoid or simply kill.

There was no way out; he was damned either way and the realization turned his mood black.

"S'okay..."

The soft mumble drew his gaze to the source, only to find the girl still obviously asleep with a slight frown creasing her brow. Her dark hair shifted over him as she rubbed her cheek soothingly over the fur crossing his chest while her arms tightened around him slightly in a gentle squeeze as a layer of peace that did not come from him nudged at dark mood. With disbelieving bemusement and wariness, he realized that she had somehow picked up on his emotions in her sleeping state and was unconsciously trying to comfort him!

'What in God's name is going on?!'

Not only was the notion of someone trying to comfort him unsettling, but he did not relish at all the idea that anyone would be able read his moods so easily, especially not a human. It was a threat that had him tensing, an invasion into the privacy of his own heart, his mind.

And if he'd had the slightest indication that she was able to actually read his thoughts word for word, he would have killed her without hesitation and the consequences bedamned! No one was allowed to get as close as that, his self-protective instincts were too honed to open himself to such personal danger. Only his keen sense of self that assured him that no attempt was made to pry into the inner workings of his mind kept him from killing the girl before she had time to even wake.

As he watched, she gave a small distressed whimper, the frown furrowing her brows deepening as her arms again squeezed gently and came with that same sense of peace that slid on the fringes of his inner turmoil. And despite it all, the even sounds of her breathing told him that she still slept, unaware of what she was doing and perhaps even of what she was feeling.

With resignation he subsided, allowing his tense body to relax and his mind to calm. The girl could not help it after all, was unaware of what was happening. And, besides, it was he that had dragged her into this mess for he had heard the truth in her words when she had claimed lack of magical knowledge which meant that any mystical occurrences that their association was causing was very new to her. In other words...

She had no idea of how she was affecting him.

It was, he supposed, a good thing.

Mind having reached a more sedate plateau, he allowed himself to study her curiously. Never had he been in such a state of rest before with anyone, much less a human. And considering that he'd be spending a good deal of time in her company, a reasonable voice inside of him whispered that it was only right that he familiarize himself with his newest companion and examine her at his leisure.

Besides, no one else was around and she was asleep – so who would know?

The oddity of her clothes and mannerisms he dismissed. They were strange and marked her as a stranger to the area and were items he could examine at a later date once she was awake and could be questioned. And at the moment, his questions were concentrated on other matters about her person that he would not take this chance to pass up while she was unconscious and at his mercy.

He slowly shifted, moving the arm she was laying against until one clawed hand could rise. Almost hesitantly, attracted by the dark tresses that lay fanned over him, he cautiously touched a straggling tendril.

It was...different.

To his senses, it felt coarser than his own locks, but then there were very few that could compare to the fineness of his own hair. Still, the texture of hers was silkier than he expected, smooth and cool to the touch and imbued with the faint scent of something exotic and mysterious that he could not quite put a name to. But it was the color more than anything that held his attention. It was so very different from his own pale hair that held only one shade. He was fascinated with the play of light from the faint glow left by the dying embers of the fire, casting shades of dark that looked almost blue in the black of her hair streaked with glints of brown.

Enjoying the feel of her hair sifting between his fingers, he turned his gaze to regard her features critically. The first thing he noted was her skin. It was darker than his own, but then he vaguely recalled rumors that the sun had a tendency to cause color changes in humans who were exposed in it too long. He did not know about other humans, but in this one he found the tone of her skin an interesting golden peach that seemed rich and warm, the texture looking smooth and almost inviting the touch.

And so he did.

With some reluctance, he left the play with her hair, his arm wrapping around her body in a near embrace as he reached for her face. He touched her and his first thought was –

She felt so warm.

Logically, he knew that the temperature of her body wasn't that much higher than his. But with the layers of cloth and fur that separated him, this was the first he had been given the time to actually examine and register that difference with direct flesh to flesh contact. He could feel the heat of her soaking into his palm as he slid it across the line of her jaw, felt skin that was surprising soft and smooth to the touch.

Curious, he noted that her skin seemed thinner that his, more fragile and translucent and...easier to destroy. He placed the tip of one pointed nail upon the fleshy cushion of her cheek and slowly pressed, fascinated by the indentation that deepened with increased pressure. The give and tensile strength was more that he had originally imagined for all that the skin provided seemingly little in the way of any sort of a protective barrier. He continued pushing against the soft flesh, testing and examining, and stopped just short when he sensed he was on the verge of breaking through skin and drawing blood.

It wouldn't do to make her bleed, after all.

Not yet.

For all that the kaminohogo could shield their essence, the same could not be said for the scent of blood. They did not need the trouble that such a lure would bring, attracting the unwanted attentions of lesser youkai that hungered for prey, for a fight, for blood. Besides, he had no doubt that their association would be one touched by danger and battles.

She was sure to bleed at some point.

He could wait.

Refraining himself from satisfying his curiosity concerning her blood, he withdrew for the moment, studying intently the way her flesh immediately bounced back and resumed it's former shape as if it had never been touched by claw. As his hand went back to sifting through the inky darkness of her hair, his gaze continued to study the other features that lay open to his perusal.

He began with her eyes, accented by the dark brows that arched above them, the color and spirited fire contained within her luminous orbs hidden by closed lids as she continued to slumber. The delicate flesh of those covering lids were tipped by fine hairs as long lashes fanned out, creating dark crescents that lay on the paler ocean of flesh on which they crowned. The stark contrast on the light peach toned skin on which they rested as they curled downwards drew his gaze in the same direction as it sojourned over the delicate fine-boned structure of her nose and further until they settled on her lips.

A deep pink, reminiscent of a dusky rose, he observed, touched those lips. Slightly parted as she breathed, they appeared softer and fuller than those of most other females he'd been in contact with. It was not what he was used to but the longer he stared, the more he came to the conclusion that they were the right shape that was perfectly proportionate to the other features of her face.

Frowning inwardly when found his perusal lingering on those lips for longer than comfort allowed, he tore his gaze away to stare into the depths of the surrounding cave. An unsettled restlessness lay within but slowly calmed, the sifting motion of his fingers through her hair soothing his inner turmoil, as did the odd sense of peace that seemed to emanate from her into him.

Then he realized what was happening and became unsettled all over again.

Displeased, he eyed his kaminohogo in dissatisfaction. Though it lay in innocent motionless, he was not deceived. He knew that it had something to do with the strange emotional connection that seemed to plague him and the human but he did not know exactly what or why.

If only it could speak, if only it did not mean what it did to him...if only...

Then Sesshoumaru would have had no qualms about torturing the information from it.

His increased darkening mood was nudged aside once more when the human shifted, snuggling into him further as white calm lapped at the blackness until it subsided. It drew his attention back to her and he observed the pout that pursed her lips as if silently castigating him for the disturbance his internal upset was causing her peaceful slumber.

A thread of humor curled within him as he wondered what her reaction would be when she woke for despite the manner in which she dressed, she did not seem the type who was used to waking in the arms of a male. He didn't have long to wonder as suddenly, with a low muffled yawn, she shifted upon him and lazily opened bleary eyes.

Then she stiffened and froze.