Author's Notes: Ahh… at last. Finished! Once again, thank you to all the reviewers and for the lack of death threats… sort of. ^__^ Anyway, as you can guess this is the last chapter so there will be no more Life Exchange *sniff* However, I will be posting the story analysis after this epilogue – written by Midoriko-sama in an effort to shift the writer's block – it worked by the way! I plan to post it because it seems such a shame for me to be the only one who gets to read it… plus, it really makes Life Exchange sound more intelligent and deep than I ever hope to fathom. So, enjoy the epilogue and put away those tissues!
Fast, Free and Happy
"Ooh… pretty!" Fushi spun as a gust of butterflies swept around him. Multicoloured wings flickered in the light and his young eyes were mesmerised. Haplessly, he ran after the fluttering insects.
"Fushi!" Sango called as she chased after her daft son. "Don't you dare go falling down the canyon, young man!"
Miroku hefted his youngest daughter on his hip and glanced over at Inuyasha who was, as usual, either brooding or sulking. It was hard to tell what the hanyou felt these days. Inuyasha's mother walked on his other side, carrying Miroku and Sango's middle daughter. She was generally gasping and applauding the beautiful sights and shrubs that guided their way to the canyon edge. It was probably all the woman could do to keep from following Fushi and chasing off after random butterfly encounters.
"It's a nice day." the monk commented warmly as his little girl drooled babyishly on his shoulder. "A good day to pay our respects."
"I can't believe in all my years that I never came this far out of the palace." Lady Inu said as she picked the odd flower protruding onto the beaten-down path through the forest. "It used to be too dangerous, but I reckon just a glimpse of this beauty was enough to risk being killed by northern soldiers."
"That's because you live on the edge, Ma." Inuyasha said absently as he glanced over his shoulder. "Where's Shippo?"
"Collecting flowers the last time I saw him." Miroku responded, following the hanyou's gaze.
"Don't worry, he'll catch up." Lady Inu said dismissively, spotting Sango and Fushi standing at the canyon edge not far ahead. "How's the view?" she called to them.
"Lovely!" Sango called back cheerfully. "Come and have a look!"
The other members of the group arrived at the edge and took in the spectacular view. Sango kept a firm hold on the back of Fushi's shirt, lest he follow the butterflies over the cliff-edge.
It really was a beautiful sight, and it began to relax Inuyasha as he looked out over what had been the worst scene of his life. The reservoir had swelled, covering the entire floor of the canyon, and feeding the vast growths of plants and trees that climbed the canyon walls. Everything seemed much more lush that year… the damage that had been dealt to the canyon the previous year had healed by nature.
The saying 'time heals all wounds' applied to them all. The canyon barely held any resemblance to the crater-filled, torn up battlefield that had etched its way into Inuyasha's memory. It was unrecognisable, and anyone looking down at it would never know of the deaths that had occurred at its base.
Just as anyone looking at Inuyasha, or the people he was closest to, would never know of the heartbreak they'd all suffered barely a year before.
"Hey guys!" Shippo popped out of the bushes behind them. "I found a really pretty clearing with all these red flowers we can throw over the edge!"
"I must see the flowers that impress a child so much." Lady Inu disappeared into the bushes after the kitsune. Fushi followed, leaving Sango to trail after them helplessly to keep an eye on her son.
Now alone with only one ten month old baby to eavesdrop, Miroku glanced across at Inuyasha. "You ok?"
The hanyou nodded slowly, distantly in his thoughts. "Yeah…"
The last time he'd visited the canyon was when they'd scattered her ashes over the edge. The wind had swallowed them up with a fair gulp on that dark, dismal day and the canyon had advertised nothing but scarred rocks and craters.
Inuyasha hadn't been able to stay for more than a few minutes before he'd had to leave… the memory had been too much.
But now, it seemed that even in death she had the power to make things flourish and grow.
He missed her.
He missed her sweet smile. Her eyes that were always loving and kind. Her gentle scent and her beautiful face.
At first, all he'd been able to see her as was the dead girl in the canyon. Pale, bloody… lifeless. But little by little he'd been able to move past that moment and remember all the good memories he'd shared with her…
They hadn't had near as many good times as they should have had together… life was cruel, and theirs had been cut short.
But as long as he could remember her as she used to be…
As long as I do nothing but remember, I'll only end up an old man with nothing but his memories. Inuyasha smirked to himself and brushed his hair back from his face. He looked over at his friend. "Miroku. Do me a favour?"
"Jump off this cliff, perhaps?" It wouldn't have been the first time Inuyasha had requested that favour of him.
"No." Inuyasha sighed and rolled his head to the side as he regarded the butterflies. "Whatever you do… don't waste life."
"I don't plan to."
"Well, I did." Inuyasha lowered his gaze. "I had three years with her and I wasted them. I could have loved her… I could have realised that I loved her sooner rather than keep doubting myself and doubting her…"
"You didn't doubt her." Miroku told him softly.
"Yeah, but I wasted my chance. She was taken from me before I really understood what she meant to me…" Inuyasha stared off into space, a frown furrowing his brow as his thoughts went to distant places again.
Miroku watched him. "What did she mean to you?"
"Everything." Inuyasha whispered, closing his eyes. "She told me that love is the same… no matter how you look at it. I just kept looking at it and denying it… I didn't understand. I spent so long trying to understand how I felt and what it meant, but in the end I missed out… and I'm going to pay for the rest of my life." He shrugged loosely. "With loneliness."
"I doubt she would want that." Miroku told him seriously.
"Yeah… I know." He nodded. "She just lived and loved without a doubt or a question about her feelings. She was living it to the fullest while I hung back… wasted my chance." Inuyasha inhaled sharply and turned to Miroku. "Apparently, you only get one shot at life. It's no time for rehearsals… and the longer I stay here, the longer my chances slip by."
Miroku stared at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Inuyasha shrugged. "I wanna leave."
Miroku's gaze darted around. "What…? Now?"
The hanyou nodded, only a slight smile gracing his face.
For a moment, Miroku didn't know what to say. He stared at Inuyasha in confusion and bemusement… but it faded and for a second he reckoned he understood. "You've been thinking about this for a while, haven't you?"
Inuyasha smirked. "What's left for me here? The north and the south are practically one and the same again. Mikato is already proving himself to be a better king in the north than I could ever be down here… why not let him take over completely and cut me some slack?"
Miroku's daughter gurgled slightly as her father frowned. "You're sure?"
"Of course." Inuyasha flashed a grin. "This isn't the first time I've tried to escape this hell hole, you know!"
"I know." Miroku laughed a little. "But what will you do once you leave?"
"Dunno…" With a sigh and a shrug, he kicked his foot against the ground. "Maybe I'll do a Sesshomaru and just piss about for a while with no aim, pick up a chick and drag her around with me… but as long as I have fun, who cares?"
"Don't tell her I said anything about a chick." Inuyasha shook his head vaguely. "She'll get visions of grandchildren again."
"And if she does get grandchildren, you must bring them back to show them to her." Miroku warned him.
"Not happening." Inuyasha's smile faded slightly. "I don't think I want to so much as look at another woman as long as I live."
"You say that now…" Miroku raised an eyebrow. "And you said that after Kikyo died too."
"Well… maybe I will. But I'm trying to mean it this time. I think I've gone off women."
Miroku's smile faded. "Jakotsu hasn't… poisoned your mind, has he?" said a rather uncomfortable looking monk.
Inuyasha glared at him and folded his arms.
The smile returned on the monk's face. "Well, I must say I'm relieved – wait – where are you going?"
Inuyasha was walking away, but he turned long enough to give Miroku an exasperated look. "I'm leaving!"
"What about saying goodbye to everyone?" Miroku frowned at his retreating form.
"You can do that for me." Inuyasha decided. "Goodbyes are already fucked up enough as it is. I'd rather not bother, myself."
Miroku watched in mild astonishment as Inuyasha turned back the way he was walking and headed back down the path they'd come down. His arms were still folded, a gruff, closed kind of body language… no one would be able to guess that it was the last time Miroku would ever see him.
The monk let out a soft sigh of amusement and raised his daughter up a little. "Say goodbye to the idiot, Kagome."
An enormous weight had been lifted off his shoulders and he could almost measure how much easier it felt to breathe.
The guards snapped to attention of sorts as he passed through the gates of the palace, entering the courtyard. Inwardly, Inuyasha smirked. They wouldn't be doing that for him much longer… not if Miroku passed on his message to Mikato as requested.
Inuyasha didn't mention a word of his plans to anyone he met along his way. He headed straight for his rooms first, changing his clothes to better suit his purposes. A gift of fire-rat fur armour from his deceased father was his choice… perhaps he looked more like a rugged commoner than ever, but as soon as he left the palace he would be about as royal as the average piglet in a mud puddle.
"You look like you're leaving for a trip, Inuyasha-sama." the stable-hand guessed as Inuyasha carefully selected his horse.
"Oh." The boy blinked in surprise. "When will you be back?"
"Probably before you know it." Inuyasha was poised to reach out and take the halter of the white stallion he usually preferred. Fast and reliable and a good choice as a long-term companion…
An angry horse kicked against the timber post it was tied to. Inuyasha slid his gaze incredulously over to the source of the surly snort and glared at the brown gelding.
He was her horse… he had no rider anymore.
Narrowing his eyes slightly, Inuyasha left the white stallion and approached the brown horse dubiously. For once it didn't try and kick him when he got close, but gave him a rather horse-like look that Inuyasha could have sworn was a fisheye glare. "What?"
The gelding's ears flicked.
"If I take you, you'll never get to come back here again." Inuyasha told it quietly, entertaining the idea that it understood.
But then again, if I leave you, no one's ever going to bother saddling you up again, you stupid excuse for a mule…
With an overdramatic sigh, Inuyasha unlashed the rope attaching the gelding's halter to the post and beckoned the stable-hand. "Gear him up."
"But…" The boy looked hesitant. "He's really bad tempered these days."
"So am I." Inuyasha gave the kid a pointed look. "Gear. Him. Up."
"Ok." he piped and disappeared to get the saddle normally fitted for the gelding. Inuyasha watched as the boy began bringing it out, before changing his mind and ducking back inside the stables.
Perhaps the gelding's normal saddle was a bit too small and feminine for Inuyasha?
With yet another sigh, Inuyasha leant against the post beside him and stroked a clawed hand over the beast's nose. He remember the first day he'd met the gelding… not long before he'd met her. He hadn't been particularly kind to either of them at that point…
So why had he been so surprised when they'd banded together to make his life miserable?
"I can't even remember what she called you…" Inuyasha frowned.
"Gelding." the stable boy chirped as he returned.
"What?" Inuyasha gave the boy a vaguely irritated look.
"Gelding. She called him Gelding."
She'd always been a bit short of imagination…
"Yeah, whatever." Inuyasha rolled his eyes as the boy got to work saddling up the horse. After a moment though, Inuyasha got bored with watching him and shooed him away. "It's ok, I'll do it."
The boy didn't offer much protest as he backed away and went back to other business around the stable.
Inuyasha tightened the strap around the gelding's belly. "From what I remember, you had stamina and strength… but not a lot of speed." He moved around to hold the horse by the halter and stare him in the eyes. "If you fail me on speed then I'll trade you in for anything, got that?"
The brown gelding snorted in either understanding or contempt.
Well, Inuyasha could stay and write a dictionary of horse language, or he could get going.
It was surprisingly easy to get into the saddle and ride out through the palace gates knowing that he'd probably never be back. He had no attachment to the place. Some people considered the place they grew up to be the other side of the soul – that they would always be incomplete without it.
Inuyasha didn't care so much for nostalgic childhood memories.
There had been a hole in his soul ever since she had died and there was no way to fill it. Hangovers, long walks off cliffs, nothing seemed to complete him the way she had.
There had been no warning. He'd never known what's he'd had till it was gone… slipped from between his fingers as easily as water. Snuffed out in a moment's stupidity.
Inuyasha had blamed himself for the tragedy… in a way, he still did. If he'd been that much faster… that little bit stronger… would he have been able to save her? Would she still be with him today? Would he still be overlooking his love and hurting her?
What had hurt him most was that she had died thinking he didn't love her… only recently he had come to realised that she had known… even though he hadn't.
The sand barrier that connected the main land to the island had been destroyed exactly one year ago… but strangely enough, the tides had brought the sand back and piled it in the same way it had been before. The bridge that connected the island to the mainland was back… though these days it was low and only appeared on the night of the new moon.
Inuyasha had timed himself. He'd decided to leave almost two months ago… and now he was finally doing it.
He only had to wait a couple of hours on the beach for the tide to lower. While he waited he sat on a craggy outcrop of rocks, letting the gelding graze the grassy verge behind him, mulling over his thoughts.
He doubted that Miroku would have informed the others that he was leaving yet… if he had, they would have already come to drag him back by the ears by now. The monk would tell them in the morning – and by that time Inuyasha would be far, far away…
He didn't know where he would go but he knew that he had to live. The island wasn't big enough for him anymore. Before, he'd never understood Sesshomaru's urge to drop his title and kingdom to go wandering, but now, as Inuyasha found himself following in his footsteps he began to understand…
His life was limited and defined in the palace… he would go nowhere and do nothing new for the rest of his life… but if he escaped now?
The tide was peeling back quickly, leaving the unerringly smooth path of sand that stretched out from the beach. Inuyasha caught hold of the Gelding and pulled himself up into the saddle. He kicked it into a full out gallop and shot off the beach onto the sand belt, kicking up spray and sand in their wake.
He needed to live.
Kagome had given her life for him and he'd be damned if he wasted it.
If there was anything that his short time with Kagome had taught him – that was to take advantage of any and every opportunity that came his way. From then on he would stop questioning, stop hesitating and doubting and just live the way that she had. He couldn't be afraid of the unknown – she hadn't been when she'd stumbled onto the island with her mission to kill him. He would stop mistrusting and being unforgiving… the way Kagome had forgiven him for his lack of understanding… her patience had been unending and that was how he wanted to be.
The wind whipped around him, salty and sharp. It refreshed him. The further he got from the island, the more he unwound… the more his inner injuries began to close over.
The hole in his heart remained. But he doubted that would ever leave him. It would be a constant reminder of what he'd lost.
Yet while his heart would remain a half, his life would be full from that moment. He wanted to live fast and free and happy and then die. That was what life was about. Responsibility and work could go hang themselves. This was his life and he'd wasted enough as it was. He'd wasted hers as well… but this was where it ended.
A new world was opening up to him and he would get lost inside it. No looking back.
But no forgetting..
And no more regrets…
Naraku could see her outline ahead of him. He mentally rolled his eyes… the girl just didn't know when to give up, did she?
"Why are you still here?" he asked testily as he stopped behind her on the road where all destinations met.
"Why are you still here?" she replied.
"Why do you always answer a question with another question?"
"Because I didn't ask enough of them when I was alive." she replied breezily. "I always took everything at face value… never questioned. Maybe I should have? Then maybe I wouldn't have been fooled as many times as I was…"
"Yeah, whatever." Naraku waved his hand flippantly. "What I want to know is why you're still here. Why haven't you moved on?"
She shrugged lightly and smiled. "I'm waiting for him…" she told him quietly.
"Time is not linear here." he reminded her. "If he was coming, he would have arrived by now."
"I have faith." she countered. "I'll wait for him… even if he doesn't come for me."
"Bear in mind he may have found someone else in your wake. Maybe he fell in love with someone new… who says it will be you he seeks in the afterlife?"
She was quiet for a moment and Naraku wondered if he'd cast a shadow of doubt over her willing mind. But then she turned, looked at him and smiled. She was beautiful and healthy…
She was still in love…
"I'll wait for him. As long as there's a chance he will remember me, then I won't fail him again." she told him, certain of herself.
Stupid girl. Naraku rolled his eyes and continued on his way down the road. "I think it's him who should be worrying about doing the failing…" he rolled his shoulders. "I'm going to hell now, Baby. I think I've hung around this place long enough and they're pretty eager to get their claws on me… I don't plan on disappointing them."
"With your character, Naraku, you'll be ruling that place before the end of the day."
"I plan to be." He glanced back at her one last time. "Don't wait up for me."
"I won't be joining you."
"You say that now…" He left the comment hanging in the air as he turned back to the path ahead and the dark light at the end of it. The underworld had better be prepared for him…
She didn't pay him any more mind the second he was gone from her sight. Instead she went back to waiting… hoping… praying.
She remembered it all like it was yesterday. She remembered his promise that he'd never forger her – and she planned to hold him to it.
If he was coming, he would have arrived by now.
"I have faith…" she whispered to herself.
She would wait. She didn't care if she had to wait for the rest of eternity… she would not move on without her soul mate.
However long it took…
A rustle of movement drew her from her thoughts.
She turned slowly and smiled, already feeling the tears spill down her cheeks. "You came…"
AN: Hurray! *completely ruins the moment with a volley of party popper, whistles and confetti* Who says I never finish my fics?! (Let's not talk abut "Where no man has gone before"…) ^__^ I hope you enjoyed the ending (or not) But strangely… that's probably the saddest ending I've managed so far…curse my need for sappy endings…