What can I say about the long delay again? I've had some other stuff to deal with, lost something very, very important to me, life just generally being sad and evil.

This chapter isn't finished with being proofread yet…but I just got a bit sick and tired of staring at the thing (come on, it's been like eight months!). The earlier chapters are being fixed as well…I go back to the beginning sometimes and can't believe what a rush job I did! So think of this as a test run with getting back into the swing of things! I know it's annoying to have things constantly revised and updated, but come on…I'm a fanfic writer not an AUTHOR like so many others out there! And no, I don't just say stuff like that so people can tell me otherwise. I'm in the C/B- stage of storytelling!

Thank you to Notoes (you ARE a great friend!), Jane, and Mmoirai for volunteering your time to find my glaring mistakes.

I've also jumped on the bandwagon (late as usual) with the Deviant Art account and am slowly starting to put up these drawings I've been working on. Will put the edited story up there, too! Just take out the spaces: wicked-oni. deviantart. com

Kakko Kara no Kioku – Memories of the Past

She had not seen her Master for three days --- three days seemed to stretch on for a thousand years.

Lost in her memories, Rin stumbled through the dead, wintry garden of the shiro, her face nothing more than a blank mask. She stared up at the bleached, fortified walls, and recalled how she had played freely within this high circle of stones during the carefree days of her childhood. Her carefree childhood, her carefree youth, those countless days of high adventure that were now nothing more than a few scattered images in her mind ---

She had felt so protected then.

Now, it seemed to her that her whole life was as barren and unfeeling as the snow all around her. She felt trampled, beaten into submission, stripped bare. Vulnerable and alone, just like the stunted grey trees that lined the dunes, all bent and withered under winter's fierce power. The young woman paused and dragged a finger against the crust of frost trimming one of the lanterns that flanked the long walkway.

She felt --- cold. Empty. Dead.

Rin watched dispassionately as the ice crystals melted away under her touch.

On impulse, she decided that she simply needed to forget. But as swiftly as that one practical piece of advice came into her mind, bright images of the past coursed into her thoughts to replace it. Against her will, she made a small noise, a clipped combination of a sigh coupled with a sob.

When was it that she surrendered her pride? she wondered, angry at herself for her momentary slip. When was it that she lost such sight of her own self, her own sense of self-worth? And --- gods --- when did she become this sniveling and pathetic! Rubbing her knuckles against her damp, reddened eyes, she fought a quick inward battle to silence herself once again.

Forget everything. Yes, that would be best.

Once again, she counseled herself, she just needed to let go of the past. When her mother and father and older brother were killed, she had been forced to move on. Back then, her very survival itself had depended on letting go. When the villagers had begun their campaign of abuse, she had learned not to question their motives and most certainly not to linger in their presence --- she simply learned to find new means to take what she needed and to get out of their way as quickly as possible. And --- and when she had first found herself abandoned by --- HIM --- she had been slowly teaching herself to do the same.

Apparently, NOW the act of letting go was just going to take a little more time.

The girl let out a defeated groan.

She just needed to forget all the lazy summer nights she had spent in this sheltered garden, chasing fireflies and crickets, and watching the long-whiskered koi glide through the still waters of the ornamental pond ---

She just needed to forget all those seemingly endless hours spent wandering through the woodland trails, studying the habits of the wild creatures, from the little birds and the graceful deer, to the nervous squirrels and painted butterflies ---

She needed to forget the countless hours of picking arm-load after arm-load of brilliant flowers. All those soft crimson roses, curling white lilies, and blushing peonies --- no blossom used to escape her notice or her grasping fingers! She would find excuses to squash even the straggliest and most stubborn of weeds into her colorful bouquets! Rin balled her hand into a tight fist and spit out an unfeminine curse. Why was her mind so unfocused? Why was she ranting on and on about butterflies and flowers! She wrinkled her nose in disgust, annoyed with how quickly she had become distracted again. Truly, she was an over-sentimental idiot.

Shaking her head, she tried to hurry along the winding stone trail, only seeking to return to the house and escape from the harsh winter wind. But as she limped past the great yanagi (weeping willow) tree near the main doors, she suddenly found herself pausing, wishing that spring would hurry along so she could see it green and growing once more. At that moment she was poignantly reminded of all the times she had hidden beneath the cool screen of all those trailing leaves, just a grubby little girl with skinned knees, filthy hands, and no cares. Even now, she could remember blissfully ignoring Jaken's rude scoldings --- as she silently watched ---


The distant crash of the ocean seemed to sound in time with the flood of emotions that rushed through her mind. In that moment, there was no more pretending. There was no letting go of the past, no denying the betrayal in her present and, worst of all, no avoiding the heartache and separation that seemed to be destined as part of her future ---

He did not love her. He could not love her. He was --- he was --- meant for another. A woman whose name she did not know, a woman whose face she could not see, a woman who she already despised. Rin shook her head quickly, trying to push away the pain and the truth she had already begun to accept.

After all, perhaps --- perhaps she already did know the name and face or that woman very well.


Beautiful spirited Kagura.

Beautiful spirited Kagura who had stolen her once and then saved her once on a mere whim, proving that she, Rin, was nothing more than an insignificant human, a helpless pawn --- youkai's plaything. Beautiful, spirited Kagura who commanded the very wind and caused the dead to dance, a ruthless warrior with powers every bit as mysterious and formidable as Sesshoumaru-sama's. All the demoness needed to do was to break the chain tethering her to Naraku before she was free to finally join with the Lord of the Western Lands ---


And, Rin realized mournfully, SHE might find herself doomed to watch the two of them together forever. Trapped by the strange connection forged by the Tenseiga that now ruled all of her borrowed days, imprisoned by unrequited love and the mystical tie that kept the length of her life bound to that of Sesshoumaru's --- for all time.

Rin gritted her teeth and collapsed to the cold steps. There, she wept until her heart and soul seemed even more empty and dry, and just as frozen then the world around her.

Watching from the veiled window of his room --- the room he had briefly shared with her --- Sesshoumaru turned away from the sight of her shivering form.

All those nights ago, Rin had been correct about one thing, he thought bitterly. He could not help her now ---

Not when he felt more like a forgotten ghost, a fading shadow, than a living thing.

But this terrible feeling would fade soon, of that he was sure. And TONIGHT, the taiyoukai planned, forcing himself to turn away from the window, tonight he would stay away from the girl yet again. He strode out of his rooms and into the silent halls, knowing full well that in making that vow he was lying to himself.

He knew he needed to confront her.

Sesshoumaru raked impatient fingers through his long bangs as he reached the back doorway. These wretched thoughts, these wretched thoughts that still weakened him --- they had to be an effect of that damn connection caused by the utterly useless Tenseiga! Rin was somehow in his soul just as surely as a piece of himself was trapped in hers. Perhaps that was why he was having such --- difficulty --- in resisting her. She held him fast, drawing him in with some invisible force that seemed to be just as strong as whatever mysterious power pulled the tides back unto the beach each day.

No, that wasn't it. This had nothing to do with the worthless sword.

This was all love's fault again, he mused sourly, an acid scowl twisting his features. Only love would explain why he had allowed her to show him such disrespect. After all, no one dared to refuse him. If they did, they met with such a furious wrath and a terrible vengeance that they ---- and --- and wait, no one was supposed to speak to him the way she had that night!

Gods, he cursed inwardly, digging his sharp claws into the fine-grained magnolia door frame, it HAD to be love. He decided he loathed, hated and detested everything about the word, its meaning and ALL the awful feelings it inspired.

Sesshoumaru stepped out of the house, hunching his shoulders in the fierce wind as he debated just how to waste the long, boring hours of the afternoon. He marched down the shallow-planked stairs, his boot heels echoing hollowly behind him. Without wasting a second thought, he immediately veered away from the front gardens. Though he already knew he would have to confront Rin again, he found he was in no mood to deal so closely with her grief right now. He didn't need this new, ever-present, and cursedly annoying burden of --- damn, was this --- could this be --- guilt?

No matter, he just needed to stretch his legs and think.

And so the taiyoukai paced. He paced and considered and then paced some more.


Maybe this wasn't love's fault after all, he reasoned. After all, even though he could not bring himself to admit his feelings TO the girl, he had at least admitted them to himself. Truly, he loved her, but --- but why should he have to lower himself to speak the words! He would not allow his need for the girl to surpass his own sense of dignity, his adherence to the code of honor and pride that all demons shared. Well, the code of honor and dignity that most demons shared, he revised, trying to brush away images of his Father and half-brother. What more was Rin searching for? Was this just yet another example of the idiosyncrasies of the human heart? Surely --- surely this could not be entirely his fault! He should not feel this out of sorts, should he?

He shuddered. Was it time to end this foolishness? Should he forsake this woman he loved --- again?

The woman he loved! He halted at that plain admission. Why did he have to fall in love NOW? It suddenly occurred to him that he'd never sought the emotion before in any of his many, many dalliances with other demon women. But though he had never sought it, he had never really tried to avoid it either. In truth, he simply hadn't wasted the time to think about the possibility of love. After all, there were far more important pursuits to engage in --- killing, revenge, building his own mighty empire. But --- but look what had happened! When he hadn't been paying attention the most unlikely of women had stolen unawares into his heart! That thought filled him with new wonder and, quite unbidden, countless memories of the girl came pooling into mind. Behind his troubled eyes he saw Rin as a tiny child rolling in flower fields, singing songs and inventing games. He saw her as a gangly adolescent, climbing down through the tree boughs, the harsh rise of bee-stings marking her thin arms, her grin toothy and triumphant, and her fists sticky with wild honey she'd plundered from some hive. He saw Rin squealing with delight as she dragged fresh fish out of the mountain streams, her kimono hiked well past her scraped knees, her ponytail crooked as ever and plaited with trailing ribbons of ivy. He saw her as she had matured, growing bold and beautiful, thriving under his care and protection. He now recalled the obstinate young teenager, furious, blotchy and red-faced, standing on the tips of her toes to bellow down at Jaken ---

And then, of course, there was the woman she had finally become. The lovely young woman who shared his bed and surrendered the precious gift of her own virginity. He couldn't help but picture Rin as she had been on that night, laying naked and slick with sweat beneath him, so trusting, so devoted, so ready and ---

That particular memory suddenly disappeared, replaced by the vision of the girl in the very instant he had told her she would never be his bride, that she would never bear his children ---

He didn't want to picture her anymore.

Gods, it seemed Rin had been with him forever. She always seemed to love the thought of belonging to him! How passionately she had always responded to him! And now how passionately she denied his very possession! Not speaking, moving back to her own chambers, wandering aimlessly through the gardens and --- and avoiding him! The demon lord was suddenly reminded of the circumstances at the center of their problems, the things she wished for, the things she hoped for ---

And --- and how she had initially interfered in his battle with Naraku, how she had presumed to be his equal, how she had been prepared to trade her life for his own safety, how she had made him helpless --- how she humbled him. He allowed his confusion and despair to turn to blackest fury. Well, he decided, the girl would never, ever humble him again. Not ever.

Never again.

At that childish statement, some small, whining part of his mind spoke up in sudden protest, fighting to defend Rin. It pleaded with him to listen to reason, logically arguing that the girl would never truly wish to see him ashamed and dishonored. Well, not purposefully anyway ---

Love, the taiyoukai thought bitterly. There was no doubt about it. It truly was the cruelest form of disease.

Sesshoumaru paced several steps forward, thinking the matter was quite close to being resolved, quite certain that some conclusion would be forthcoming. But, strangely, no new ideas came to him and he found the ONLY thing occupying his mind was that ONE weak declaration he couldn't imagine saying aloud, those three little words that revealed the true depth of his feelings ---.

By all the cursed and endless levels of hell --- maybe he should just march up to Rin and say it!

Maybe the words weren't a sigh of weakness. Maybe --- judging by the way he was dreading it so --- maybe saying them might be his bravest victory, his proudest accomplishment? The demon lord straightened impulsively, surprised to find that his hands had been shaking, and quickly came back to his senses. What the hell was happening to him? His will was fading under a veil of longing, his pride crumbling under the weight of indecision, his self-confidence caving-in under an avalanche of soppy, romantic drivel. Soon he would be no better than Inuyasha himself. How very repulsive.

As he thought, his long strides continued to lead him first to one end of the courtyard and then back to the other, but in every instant his impatient pacing was cut short sooner than he would have liked.

The iron gates and defensive walls enclosing the shiro rose up before him, the whole damn thing just looming in his way --- as if purposefully mocking him. The stones were so jagged and jumbled, and for an instant, all those sharp angles reminded him of Ryukossei's ugly yellow teeth.

Of course, he suddenly reminded himself, that strange nightmare brought on by the miko's spell. Those shades of the past he had been forced to confront --- they were the real reason he was so damn shaken and upset. Those memories, those images that should have stayed long buried and forgotten --- THEY had to have been the real reason he had allowed that last encounter with Rin to spin so wildly out of control.

One corner of his mouth twitched in what seemed to be the start of a small smile of relief. That smile never had the chance to grow any wider. With animal ease, the taiyoukai turned and vaulted over a tall section of the outer wall, heading towards the familiar cliff trail, welcoming the growing shadows of night and the anonymity they would bring. A shifting white haze obscured his form, setting his long hair flowing about his face and his great power built, swirling comfortably about him. A shudder of pride rippled down his spine. As always, the familiar force of his own power caused the void inside him to feel less empty, and banished a few of his more pressing doubts.

This feeling --- this was all he needed. This was all he wanted, he told himself over and over ---

In the end, the only thing that mattered was power. The power to take whatever he desired, the power to destroy whatever he deemed unworthy. The power to make enemies throw down their swords and cower in terror at the mere mention of his name.

The power to keep what was his.

He decided then that he would most definitely wait a little longer before dealing with Rin. He would let her come to realize her own folly. After all, just as Hahaue had wisely instructed long ago, in declaring any of his true feelings, he would surrender too much of his own control.

That settled, Sesshoumaru stepped into the air, intent on filling his time by exploring the moonlit dunes, instead of stalking the stranger that was currently weeping in his garden --- the stranger that was masquerading as his Rin.

Not much farther now, Inuyasha thought as he raced along the familiar banks of a twisting river. If he hurried faster and forced the others to increase their pace, then he and his companions could all be back in the village in less than a quarter of an hour.

Well, not all of his companions, he reminded himself.

Several hours ago, Sango and Miroku had split off from their group with a quiet farewell. There had been no need to ask them where they were going. They were speeding towards Mushin's temple, needing to see with their own eyes that no harm had come to their daughter. But Inuyasha knew they wouldn't be gone long. Shippou had already assured the couple that Kaisei was alright, so they had only asked for one night alone to comfort the little girl, one night alone to feel like an ordinary family, with the promise to double back and rejoin their friends at dawn.

The hanyou ducked agilely under a low branch and then leapt over the frozen creek-bed, still lost in his own thoughts. Long ago, he knew he would have pitched a healthy, barking tantrum at a delay such as this. But time had changed him and gone was the half-breed boy who was always trying to prove himself to a world of demons, always trying to find himself in a world of humans.

Of course, the monk and the taijiya would be back soon --- after all, they felt the same sense of urgency now, they all faced the same fears. Miroku and Sango NEEDED to return quickly, especially considering that the demon slayer was once again faced with the grim responsibility of hunting down her younger brother. In a desperate moment of self-doubt, the hanyou only wished he could reward the unspoken trust his friends were placing upon him; he hoped he could pick-up Kohaku's trail for their sakes. It shouldn't be too damn difficult of a task, he reminded himself, trying to boost his own lagging confidence. After all, now there were three youkai in their party. Surely, if he couldn't find Kohaku's scent, maybe Shippou or Kouga could. He scowled and fervently prayed it wasn't Kouga. Damn, he would never hear the end of that one.

The forests grew thinner, and Inuyasha felt Kagome shiver in his arms. He wrapped her tighter in his embrace, pressing her red, wind-burned cheeks against his chest for warmth. But he knew it wasn't really the cold that set her to trembling. He couldn't help but notice that her shivers had been growing more and more violent the closer they got to their destination. He understood her reactions perfectly, though --- after all, Kagome still had questions about what secrets Naraku might have uncovered during his latest, unexpected call. And the poor girl was obviously terrified about what the answers to those questions would be.

They finally reached the shabby, scattered farms that framed the outskirts of the village and still they kept running. Soon, they were streaking through the deep-rutted track that was the main square. Villagers were forced to scurry out of their way, fleeing before them, leaping this way and that, dropping their goods and crying out in surprise. Dimly, Inuyasha heard Kaede's startled shout as they shot past her hut, crunching the old woman's winter garden underfoot in their haste. But still they did not stop, continuing the last mile of their breakneck flight towards the Bone Eater's Well ---

They could not pause now.

There was still that first, pressing discovery to make, that unknown possibility that was causing Kagome to cling to him so desperately, peering out over his arm with the eyes of a child left alone on a dark night ---

After all, there might not even be a well anymore.

What if Naraku had ventured within and discovered its purpose?

Inuyasha could feel a cold film of sweat break out along his spine. Over all these years, they had never truly managed to unravel the well's mystery --- so what if that evil monster somehow did? Or what if that damn thing could be broken? What if it simply didn't want to work anymore? Then what? How did one find another hole in time? He tightened his grip about Kagome's shoulders, already offering her comfort should they come to realize one of their worst fears.

Up ahead Inuyasha could see even more breaks in the frozen tree-line and the brightness shining from the clearing beyond and then --- finally --- the oppressive shadow of the Goshinboko. That cold sweat gilding his back seemed to expand upwards, blooming along his neck and face, and he felt sick just looking up at the gnarled, old tree, the place that had been his prison for fifty long years. But he remained in control and kept his feelings hidden. Those feelings were quickly overtaken anyway, erased by a dizzying final rush of adrenaline and a patch of orange fluff ---

What the --- ! An orange patch of fluff! Inuyasha started in surprise as the orange fluff gave way to a shifting blue comet, a comet that trailed sparks and steam and all the whistling noise of a spent firework.

Fucking kitsune-bi.

It was Shippou, of course, darting forward to his left, circling outwards to disappear back into the woods. The young fox was charging out to flank any enemies that might be laying in ambush, just like he'd taught him over all the years. Clever kid, Inuyasha thought with grudging pride. Guess the little brat had been paying attention to him all along!

Okay, so one ally was in position, but where the hell was the other one? Out of the corner of his eye, Inuyasha quickly caught sight of a glowing green whirlwind. A glowing green whirlwind that was advancing menacingly upon him, churning up the snow drifts and snapping the boughs from the tree-tops and showing absolutely NO signs of slowing. Cursing angrily, he wound his arms tighter about Kagome's shaking form and prepared to dodge out of the way. Though it wounded him to yield to the wolf, he would not put his mate or his child into jeopardy over something as pointless as his own pride. Just as he was about to spring, and only at the LAST possible second before impact, did the vortex finally fade, scattering to the four winds. In the next instant, the ookami prince spun free, spiraling easily down to his side. Kouga's fists were raised, his knuckles clenched, his deadly claws flexed and held ready. His expression was positively feral, with a wolf's leer set so strangely in a man's face. The youkai was snarling, ready to take on anything they might encounter ---

It was worse than Inuyasha imagined.

Like the pages of a scroll, the little clearing told its tale, painted not in ink but in blood and shouki. The blackened patch of charred earth around the Goshinboko spoke of torture, swift, merciless and terrible. Whole sections of its bark had been peeled away, striped bare by the slash of steel or the touch of poisonous miasma. The dry, yellow grass straining up under the snow trembled in the breeze much as Kagome had trembled in his arms, and wore a garish crimson stain that could only be blood.

Inuyasha brought his fist up to his nose, still revolted by that rusty odor and the smell of lingering terror and pain that always accompanied it. He hated the foul taste of human blood on the air, ever so much more when it was like this --- when it was the blood of a friend and ally. The stink seemed to coat his tongue and sink into his pores and get trapped in the tendrils of his long hair, making him want to fall to his knees and retch. But he remained composed --- he had to.

The hanyou eased to a slow jog before coming to a halt, his ego returning a bit to force him to hold his breath and keep from panting (or, ten thousand times more humiliating, to keep from vomiting) in front of Kouga. The wolf drew to a stop alongside him. "Damn," Kouga gasped, leaning over and bracing his hands on his knees. Despite the situation, Inuyasha fought to contain his sudden glee. It appeared Kouga was just as winded as he himself was. And apparently just as unsuccessful at trying to hide it! The wolf's eyes were clamped into tight black lines, and his nostrils were flaring rapidly to pull in any breath, when it was quite obvious he just wished to open his big mouth and suck in great gulps of air. It was also quite clear, judging by the look of disgust that was plastered on his face, that the ookami was also not having much luck in disguising the fact that his senses were overwhelmed by the carnage, too.

At that moment, Kouga noticed the half-demon's keen gaze and turned his head, trying to conceal his flushed face behind the jet of dark hair cascading from his long ponytail. As the wolf fought to recover both his breath and his lurching stomach, his frosty eyes came to focus upon a particularly wide swath of gore as it trailed across the snowy ground. "How could that kid even move after taking a wound like that?" he exclaimed in a tone that was, as usual, absent of any trace of tact. "I didn't think a human even had that much blood in 'em!"

Inuyasha scowled at his old rival, inwardly cursing the loathsome creature's abysmal lack of delicacy. He prepared to let a rude comment fly, a rather cunning one, in fact, attacking not only the wolf but whatever poor ookami demoness suffered the misfortune of spawning so brainless a creature as well. But he never gotten a chance to deliver his insult for another voice quickly interrupted ---

"Jewel shards," Kagome whispered, surprising them all with her calm, matter-of-fact tone. "Kohaku must have been given jewel shards. I can still feel them --- sort of." The miko trailed off, sounding so very lost and confused.

"Sort of! What do you mean?" Inuyasha asked, his own words coming out in a pitch that was a bit harsher than he intended. He leaned back on his heels, awaiting Kagome's prompt reply. But the priestess did not answer, and merely shifted uneasily in his arms, staring at the fringe of the clearing with empty eyes. Inuyasha cleared his throat, trying to prompt the girl to speak. He gasped in surprise (and no small amount of annoyance) as Kagome merely continued to ignore him. First, she fidgeted with the zipper of her winter coat, and then she chewed her lip nervously, and then became far too fascinated with brushing the fallen snow off her own knees! What the hell!

Kagome shook her head and fought to compose her words, not knowing if she could answer Inuyasha's question, even if she really wanted to. "Well, jewel shards still feel so strange to me, but I think I can sense them --- moving." She could hardly breathe as she pointed one shaky hand to the west, her other hand now pressed tightly to her heart. "That way ---I think," she concluded sheepishly.

Inuyasha arched a dark eyebrow as he searched her face. Awwww, he didn't need this shit now! He didn't need her getting all girlish and secretive! It looked like Kagome was hiding something from him --- something important! So, what was happening? What was going on with the jewel shards? She had mentioned having the same difficulty in the north, complaining that the jewel somehow felt different to her. What was it --- could she NOT sense the Shikon no Tama properly anymore? Inuyasha frowned, suddenly remembering something Kikyou had once told him so very long ago. It had been such a simple statement, just another item she had casually added to the long list of reasons he should give up his youkai blood to become fully human. At the time he had merely discounted her words, believing them nothing more than silly human superstition ---

Did you ever notice that there are so few hanyou, Inuyasha? she had whispered so very ominously. Have you never wondered why so few are born?

He shook his head to clear the miko's lingering voice. Damn, even when he and Kikyou were supposed to have been so lost in their love for one another, her tone had always been so solemn, so sad. Like she somehow already knew they were doomed from the start. He remembered now that he had stammered out an uneasy guess to her query. Well, actually --- he amended --- it hadn't really been a guess.

Not entirely.

After all, for years, both demons and humans alike had been taunting him with that very same accusation, that very same heart-wrenching charge. It was a claim he had originally ignored as a rival's last ditch effort to make him suffer, to make him feel even more lowly and miserable than he already did. It was a claim that was always silenced by his claws ripping through flesh and bone, rendering his foolish opponent into a heap that resembled nothing more than a pile of wet, bloody rags. But --- could that be it though? Inuyasha wondered, staring down at Kagome's flaring belly. Was the hanyou baby inside her interfering with her holy powers? Or worse, just as Kikyou had finally suggested, was the youki in his growing child tearing at Kagome from within, pulling at and feeding off her fragile human soul?

At that very moment, Kagome inclined her chin, tilting her head up to finally notice his brooding expression. Having no knowledge of his true worries or his newly awoken suspicions, she seemed to take his dark look of fear as one of anger and annoyance. In the next instant, she had shot him a warning look of her own, and Inuyasha fell back a step, one hated word ringing over and over again in his mind. Oh, fuck, he cursed to himself, just how many centuries would it take before he forgot the confining weight and the sharp pull of those stupid prayer beads!

Kagome felt the stiffening of the hanyou's spine and the instant snap of tension in his forearms. As if he were mentally preparing himself for a rude, face-first introduction with the frozen ground. But he needn't worry. After all, that particular punishment was just another part of his past. To demonstrate that fact and calm him down, she ran her fingers across the oily black beads now encircling her own neck. As he watched her wind the loathsome necklace around her pinkie, Inuyasha let out an audible sigh of relief and seemed to relax a bit, that strange, tight expression vanishing from his face.

Still convinced that Kagome was not being entirely honest with him, Inuyasha forced a scowl at the girl. She was looking up at him now, studying him closely even as he stared back, just trying to interpret the confusion in her voice. Why was she this uncertain? he puzzled. Could Kikyou have been right? Could Kagome really be having trouble using her powers? Or worse, could she really be sick and in danger? He watched as the miko's eyes flashed away for an instant, darting over to the dry well. Inuyasha smiled patiently, years spent at her side teaching him how to interpret her silent messages as if she had spoken aloud. No doubt about it, he thought, Kagome was urging him to find what he was looking for, to hurry up and come away with her.


He turned his chin to hide his grim smile. She needed him --- she needed his help to investigate the well, that weather-worn pile of ancient timbers that was her one link to her future and her family. And she didn't want to do it alone. She was still obviously terrified of what she might find on the other side. Well, so was he for that matter.

With a sigh, he set the priestess down on her feet, trying to ignore the girl's fearful gaze. He paced away, joining Shippou and Kouga at the base of the Goshinboku. Together, they moved to focus exclusively on the tracks surrounding the old tree, the tracks and the shifting layers of scents still hovering heavy in the air. The scent of Naraku's power was definitely the strongest and Inuyasha could not contain his loud, instinctive growl. It seemed Naraku had done nothing to mask his presence and the hanyou grimly wondered what this new arrogance could possibly mean. What did that wicked bastard have in store for him this time? What next? He tried not to dwell upon those thoughts, simply turning all of his attention back to the torn ground. Besides recognizing the presence of his greatest enemy, he could also sense that one of his minions had been here, too. There was a subtle shift in the auras that clung to the clearing, a slight change in scents that clearly indicated --- Hakudoushi.

Inuyasha was only dimly aware that Kouga begun to echo his own growl and that Shippou was dabbing at his emerald eyes, his fiery head hung in sadness. He still couldn't believe that any of this was even really happening. After months and months of peace he had somehow stumbled back into the same old nightmare. How could he have been so damn blind?

"So, what do you think, yase ookami?" Inuyasha asked impatiently. Even as the words left his mouth he realized he was not particularly interested in learning the wolf's assessment: he just wanted to dispel some of the eerie quiet in the clearing.

Kouga's growl more grew a few decibels in volume and doubled in intensity in response to the hanyou's quick slur. "Well, it's pretty damn obvious, don't you think?" He sneezed in disgust, wiping the back of his hand clean on the Goshinboko. "Naraku's stench is everywhere --- and if that ain't bad enough, this whole place reeks of you, too! Forget scents, mutt, I'm looking tracks!"

Shippou listened to the exchange with growing annoyance. He rolled over-bright eyes and threw his hands in the air in exasperation, wondering if he had the strength to break up the pair should an impromptu wrestling match break out. "Honestly --- I've grown up, why can't everyone else do the same!" he complained.

Standing a safe distant away, Kagome watched as the curious spectacle continued to unfold. Marginally embarrassed by Shippou's small quip, the youkai concluded their argument before it ever really even started, and then spread out to search. Soon the strange assortment of dog demons were all sniffing at the air and pawing at the ground in a manner she still found most uncanny and strange. A quick image of puppies playing in the park near her old schoolyard flashed through her mind and if the situation weren't so grave, she might have even laughed aloud.

It would seem that there was much for them to make of the jumbled tracks scattered about the clearing and for that she was truly grateful. She waited, feeling a small stirring of hope, as the trio studied the dirt, and scratched at the ash beneath, whispering to one another, occasionally trading insults as they began to form some kind of order to the assault.

Inuyasha was the first to report his conclusions out loud. "Poor kid," he breathed, nudging Kouga out of his path with a grunt of disgust. "Got cornered by the two of them. Never even had a chance. But he tried to fight --- here, look at this." The hanyou poked at the ground with a broken twig, stirring something metallic out of the burned earth. The object came free easily and he turned it over and over in his hand. It was a throwing star, twisted and cracked, its iron dulled to a chalky grey from age and use. "Yeah," he mumbled, shaking his bangs out of his eyes and tossing the weapon over for Kouga to inspect. "Even though he was outnumbered and overpowered, Kohaku most definitely did not surrender without a fight. The poor bastard."

Kouga said nothing but merely stared down at the damaged weapon cupped in his hands. The star might have been small but it was wickedly lethal. Well, the wolf corrected, wickedly lethal to a human opponent, but most certainly not to a youkai. Though the star's use in battle would most likely take an attacker by surprise and cause a searing flash of pain, it was simply not enough to bring down anything but the weakest of demons. Most of them healed too damn fast!

Yes, he knew ALL about this type of weapon. For so many years now he had been tasked with protecting his pack, charged with defending his comrades, his mate and his children. Every so often the ningen villages in his province would hire mercenaries, thieves or rogue exterminators to try to drive his clan out of the mountain passes. Having faced such foes in battle on far too many occasions to count, he knew firsthand that this kind of weapon was nothing more than a last resort in a slayer's arsenal. Its use in a fight with a youkai was nothing more than the final, hopeless effort of a warrior who already knew he was soundly defeated! That kid Kohaku must have been REALLY desperate if he tried to use so pathetic a thing on a creature as powerful as Naraku! Kouga sniffed at the star gingerly, his belly churning and his face turning in instant revulsion. "Well, I'll be damned. Your friend got one of them --- Hakudoushi, by the scent of it. Wherever that creepy little bastard is, he's bleeding good. Heh. That'll piss him off! And at least that slayer woman you travel with will find some comfort in the fact that her brother fought and didn't betray you guys on purpose," he concluded sadly.

Inuyasha snorted his agreement back at the wolf and brushed his soot-covered palms on his hakama. Standing quickly, he let the breeze wash his face with the cold breath of winter. Nose twitching, he searched the wind for Kohaku's scent, hoping the course the boy had taken would give him some insight into Naraku's next scheme ---

A deep scowl spread across his features. Westward? Kagome hadn't seemed all that confident when she pointed out the direction of the jewel shards, but --- damn it --- she was right! Kohaku was heading west.

Inuyasha was only dimly aware that Shippou and Kouga had begun a dispute over who had drawn first blood in the fight, the demon slayer or the demon. He ignored the pair, refusing to be distracted from his own thoughts.

Yes, Hakudoushi had been here, he restated in his mind, and, yes, that little son of a bitch HAD been wounded. It wasn't just Kohaku's blood staining the clearing. The evil little youkai would be murderously angry, and --- and now, by the scent of things, it looked like he, too, had set out after Kohaku. But Hakudoushi was obviously not hunting the taijiya down to finish their match or restore his damaged pride. Hakudoushi's pace was too slow, too measured, too careful --- as if he was keeping his very presence hidden from the boy he was following.

Why? Why? WHY?

A sudden shadow swooped overhead and Inuyasha whirled around to face the new threat. He quickly discovered there was no threat, for the shadow turned out to be nothing more than a large crow drifting in lazy circles above the Goshinboko. The crow cawed down at him in loud protest, obviously angry that the clearing was being so rudely disturbed. Inuyasha wasn't normally superstitious, but even he had to admit that black silhouette hovering above his head wasn't the best of omens. Biting his lip with a sharp fang, the hanyou ignored the noisy bird, and glanced at his still arguing companions. He let the sound of their bickering fade along with the crow's impatient calls, crossing his arms into his sleeves and turning to watch the clouds gathering in the western skies.

The peaks of the distant hills were already capped with a gray blanket of a freezing rain showers. A heavy fog clung to the tree tops, the thick trail of vapor making everything seem positively --- ghostly. But even through the dense fog, even over the great distance, the half-demon found what he was looking for. Almost immediately, his keen eyes settled on a set of footprints captured in the melting snow. His narrowed gaze followed the tracks as they disappeared, fading directly into the woods. Much to his surprise, he found them again moments later, picking the tell-tale marks up on the next snow covered rise. It wasn't too hard, he mumbled to himself --- after all, they were moving in a straight line.

Inuyasha blinked in confusion, almost doubting the scene before him. He rubbed his knuckles against his disbelieving eyes, half-expecting the vision to fade. Huh! The tracks! They WERE straight as an arrow shot from Kagome's bow! There was no zig-zagging, no meandering, no sudden switch backs to throw off a pursuer. Kohaku knew where he was going and he --- and he was in a damn hurry to get there.

Wait a minute.

Standing there, Inuyasha tried to piece everything together as quickly as possible:

One – last week Kohaku had been just another companion. Now he had returned to being just another deadly enemy, and all the more lethal because of the trust they had bestowed upon him and the countless secrets they had shared. The boy had run --- no, the boy had sprinted --- from this clearing, apparently quite eager to do his new master's bidding.

Two – Hakudoushi, though keeping his distance, was trailing ever so patiently in Kohaku's wake. He was biding his time, poised for the strike, just like a viper looming over an unsuspecting mouse.

Three - true to form, Naraku had simply strolled away, his presence vanishing after a few teasing steps. He had disappeared into nothingness, melting into the night, quite confident that his latest plan was successfully set in motion.

It was SO clear in the hanyou's mind --- the jaws of the trap had been baited. Kohaku and Hakudoushi HAD both been given their orders. They both had a purpose. Naraku had dispatched his servants, sent them on some devious new mission, and that mission WAS leading them westward.

For some reason that thought alone filled Inuyasha with a deep sense of foreboding and an icy chill of fated-ness. He tried to swallow but found his mouth had gone far too dry.

The west. Why, why, why would they go THAT way? he chanted in his thoughts. After all, what about --- what about --- the north! That canyon they had just visited in Kouga's lands, that awful hole in the earth that looked like it might even extend all the way into hell itself --- that had to be a new stronghold of some kind! So why didn't Naraku and ALL of his minions return up there! What was it in the west that held Naraku's interest?

One very possible answer dawned on him with shocking clarity. "It fucking can't be," he stated aloud, earning more than a few puzzled looks from the rest of his companions as they stopped their fighting to stare at him.

But Inuyasha paid them no mind and merely walked to the edge of the clearing. He stared down at the tracks again, at footprints trailing away, racing towards the promise of much, much more violence to come. His puzzled gaze drifted back to the distant hills, and in his mind he suddenly conjured a place of magnificent emerald mountains, of cool, towering forests teeming with game, of pearly clouds and lush, sweeping valleys ---

It was a place he'd traveled to only once in his youth.

Only once and then never again.

But though the years of his life had been long and his time THERE painfully brief, he could never forget the memory of its splendor. It had been burned deeply within his mind, haunting both his dreams and nightmares alike. Behind his golden eyes that clear picture of the wondrous beauty of the Western Lands continued to form. Inuyasha suddenly remembered a white fortress, rising so proudly from tide-worn cliffs, its banners and silks tossed by the wind, the setting sun glowing upon its tiled arches. He remembered a wide silver beach lined with great black stones and the bright unnamed sea stretching out beyond it ---

Inuyasha clamped a fist against his temple, wishing the visions would fade. But the dull ache in his head only seemed to grow, pounding in unison with the drum of his heart, and with each second that passed new memories continued to spring forth. Yes, there had been a proud fortress and a wide beach and a seemingly endless sea, but there had also been a tall, stately demon. A tall, stately demon, standing before him as he walked hand-in-hand with his frightened mother. A tall, stately demon that moved --- ever so slowly, ever so elegantly --- to block the stone path leading to a cool garden and the warm promise of home and security. A tall, stately demon whose costly white robes could not compare to the flowing silk of his hair, a demon whose scent was a strange blend of magnolia blossoms and bitterness. A demon who was unmistakably outfitted for battle, waiting, just staring down a long, narrow nose at them, marking their timid approach with eyes that were the same polished amber as his own. Now he remembered how those eyes had bled to crimson, a shade darker and more liquid than spilled blood. The fire contained within those eyes had burned him, seared him with their terrible heat and hatred. They had scorched the last trace of innocence from his childhood, a childhood that had already been so lonely, so empty. All at once, he could hear it all clamoring in his mind again --- the savage snarls and the high-pitched screams, his mother's tears and her pleas for mercy, the acid sting of claws and the sharp bite of the whip. And those words --- those words in that rich, terrifying and wholly detached voice ---

Whore and --- and filthy hanyou. Lowly half-breed.

Inuyasha squeezed his eyes shut. His skin felt too tight, his fangs were clenched and his jaw ached terribly. But in his heart he felt nothing now --- nothing but vengeful anticipation and more than a little dread. It was ever like this, he reminded himself, trying to calm down and fighting to draw in a deep breath. Throughout his life all of his visions and memories had been sullied, all of them ruined in the whisper of one name. It was the name of the creature that had driven him away, the name of the creature who had forever despised him ---

"Sesshoumaru," he breathed. "I think --- I think Naraku is going after Sesshoumaru."

Five minutes and five hundred years later, Inuyasha and Kagome made the slow climb out of the Bone Eater's Well and into her family's shrine. Though the age-worn planks of the well had been charred by noxious miasma, Naraku's scent had faded away as soon as they had leapt into its depths, the stench disappearing entirely just as they were engulfed in the eerie blue light that signaled they had fallen across the boundary of time.

Even though Inuyasha had assured her the very second Naraku's scent had vanished, Kagome still thought the shrine still felt --- tainted --- somehow. The air felt cold and oppressive to her, and never before had the place seemed more haunted, as if it were truly ruled by ghosts and darkness. But the priestess didn't have time to dwell on her feelings for all at once her mate was extending his hand to help her lever herself (and her ever widening belly) over the ledge of the well.

Together, Inuyasha and Kagome made their way out of the dusty shrine and scurried across the concrete courtyard to the main house. They raced past the Goshinboko, standing so menacingly, with its winter-thin branches looking as dead and neglected here as they did in the Sengoku Jidai. They sprinted by Mama's small garden, now full of nothing but the dried up forms of last summer's flowers. They passed it without giving it so much as a second glance. Finally, they came to a halt on the terrace, staring breathlessly at the sliding glass doors that led into the kitchen.

"Mama!" Kagome shouted, simultaneously attempting to wrench the door open. But the door proved to be locked from the inside and would not budge, and, if not for the clawed hand that snapped out to brace her, the young miko would have fallen directly onto her backside. Feeling more than a little bit shaken, and a trifle embarrassed, too, Kagome paused to exchange a worried glanced with the half-demon at her side.

The Higarashi family's door --- her door --- was never locked.

And not only was the door locked, but she suddenly became aware that the curtains --- ALL of the curtains --- were drawn tightly about the windows in a very unusual way. It looked like not even the smallest sliver of sunlight could get past them.

Hopelessly, Kagome tugged on the sliding door again, almost as if she believed there had to have been some mistake in her first attempt to throw it wide. When it still failed to open she called out for her mother once more, this time much louder. When that yielded no results, she shouted for her grandfather instead, beating on the glass with her fist for good measure. The noise only seemed to echo back hollowly --- as if the entire house had been gutted from within. Kagome cursed and stomped her foot impatiently. As with the curtains, the blinds had been drawn tightly against the door. But the young miko suddenly noticed there was the smallest a crack in the corner and though she could see a little beyond it, it was enough to let her know that the house was unnaturally dark. Kagome pressed her face tightly to the glass, knowing full well that she looked like a squashed-cheek, chibi little troll doll, but she was past caring and desperate to know what was going on. From her angle she could peek down the main hall, seeing just a small bit of the living room and the lower corner of the family portrait that hung on the wall.

There was nothing. No movement.

Geez, don't panic! she scolded herself. Mama could be out --- shopping --- but --- but she always left such cute little notes tacked to the well-house door whenever she went on an errand! And --- and never mind that --- Jii-chan was always home these days! Grumbly old man couldn't be away from the shrine for five seconds any more! Souta's absence she could understand, after all he had just started his first semester of college in the fall --- but still ---

What if something had happened? What if Kohaku had told Naraku about the well's strange powers? What if Naraku was able to come through?

Kagome felt a sudden wild frenzy to get into the house --- NOW. She kicked petulantly at the door, giving an instant yelp of pain and cursing her own stupid action. She turned to Inuyasha for help. He was just standing there, staring down at her, looking at her as if she'd gone mad.

"Hey, can you --- can you --- I mean, break it down or something!" she pleaded, not understanding how he could remain so relaxed in this situation. This was too bizarre and she was growing more frantic by the minute. "You know as well as I that this isn't like my family!" she shouted, waving her arms for emphasis. "What if you're wrong? What if HE was here?" To her surprise, Inuyasha didn't even react to her not so subtle reminder about Naraku, nor did he immediately comply with her raving requests. He just stood there, watching her thoughtfully, his lips pursed in concentration. Then, without a word, he turned and walked away, marching towards the little storage shed. "Inuyasha," the miko called out shrilly to his retreating back. "Do something! Wait --- where are you going? What are you waiting for? Break this door down, will you!" She sunk to her knees in fear, confused by his complacency and silence, not understanding why he simply didn't shatter the glass with his fist or rip a hole in the masonry with the Kaze no Kizu!

At that very moment, Kagome suddenly noticed that the window above the kitchen sink was hanging slightly ajar and felt very, very, very --- stupid.

Inuyasha disappeared into the shed and reemerged just a quickly, humming a light tune and carrying a large wooden crate in his hands. He reached her side and up-ended the crate, spilling its contents (an assortment of rather pungent dried radishes and himono) unceremoniously onto the ground. Throwing his miko a pointed look, he eased the little window open a bit further with a claw, squeezing his nimble fingers into the widening crack. The window came open with a pop and, still humming, the half-demon stepped up onto the box, swinging a long leg over the sill. He met a very embarrassed Kagome at the now unlocked door a moment later, wearing the naked blade of the Tetsusaiga slung over his shoulder and a rather sarcastic grin on his face. "Sometimes even I know when situations call for practical thinking and delicacy, Kaa --- go --- meee," he sang out, riling her further. But in the instant the young priestess charged across the threshold, he became deadly serious again --- the time for teasing was abruptly over.

Now that they were both inside, they discovered that the terrible stillness only continued to creep throughout the whole house. The kitchen seemed so empty and small, and was not entirely clean. Little siftings of flour were spread all across the table, blown into odd patterns from the draft coming from the window. The sink was overflowing with all manner of plates and pans, while the counters were covered with bags of groceries that had yet to be put away.

Inuyasha frowned. It was not like Kagome's mother to be so untidy. Now HE was starting to get a little worried.

The hanyou listened closely, ears pricked forward and straining to pick up the smallest noise. He filtered the annoying buzz of distant traffic out of his mind and tried to ignore the echoing sounds of the dripping faucet as it ticked away agonizingly long minutes. Beneath all that he could make out the quickened thud of Kagome's heart and beyond --- now he could hear --- the barest scratching and scraping. A sharp scratching, he thought --- like an insect. And it was coming from --- the living room.

Kagome was suddenly at his side again, clinging to his shoulder. "Mama? Jii-chan?" she out called, her tone tentative and shaky, her face growing increasingly pale.

But still no one answered.

They moved down through the darkened hall with their weapons drawn, fanning out when they finally reached the living room. As Inuyasha charged into the room, diving for cover behind a bookshelf, Kagome tried to squeeze herself behind the grandfather clock. The hanyou stared back at her in patent disbelief, rolling his eyes at the fact that her belly was sticking out far beyond her chosen hiding spot. Kagome caught his look and shrugged, throwing him a sheepish grin of apology. It wasn't her fault that she needed more space to conceal herself these days, after all, if memory served her correctly HE had played a clear roll in getting her into her 'present condition' too!

Inuyasha suddenly looked as if he had sighted something of great interest. He mouthed frantic instructions that she could not quite understand and pointed furiously with a long claw. Kagome squinted in the direction he had indicated and then, she saw it, too. Behind the old couch, a dark shadow was steadily moving. Something or someone was trying to stay hidden. Her eyes narrowed and she nodded in unspoken agreement, watching as the half-demon readjusted his grip on the Tetsusaiga, drawing the sword over his head as he began a countdown. Kagome sucked in a calming breath and slowly, soundlessly drew back upon her bow, waiting for his lips to silently shape the number 'san' (three).

"SURPRISE!" Mama, Jii-chan and Souta all shouted in unison, as they exploded up from behind the couch.

Many things happened at once.

Kagome shrieked and knocked into the clock, sending the antique to the floor in an explosion of mahogany, gold chains and greasy gears. The clock chimed out one last discordant toll and then was silent forever.

The Tetsusaiga went whistling through the air, coming to a stop with a noisy thunk as it pierced the wall above the mantle. There it hung, vibrating from the force of its impact like some musical instrument badly out of tune.

Inuyasha lay sprawled on his back, growling from the rug where he had fallen after tripping backwards over the ottoman. His bare feet stuck up at odd angles over the upholstery, poking into the air. He alternated his snarls with moans, curses, and a few loud complaints of grievous injury, but it would appear the only real damage he'd sustained was to his pride.

"Oh dear," Mama whispered, pressing a tight fist to her mouth as she surveyed the chaos that was formally her well-appointed living room.

"My goodness, you people sure are jumpy!" Jii-chan added airily, shuffling forward. With an obnoxious cackle of laughter, he jabbed his wooden cane at the downed hanyou's ears.

"You see, Mama, I told you a surprise was a bad idea!" Souta concluded. He hurried to Inuyasha's aid, herding his grandfather away from the hanyou before the limits of his notoriously short temper were reached. With a soft chuckle, he extended a hand to pull the upside down youkai right-side up again.

Inuyasha reluctantly accepted his 'rescue', muttering with embarrassment. Sometimes, he thought as he allowed Souta to drag him back to his unsteady feet, sometimes it was still hard to believe that --- that --- this young man --- before him was once the same sniveling, often cowardly brat that was always clinging to Kagome's skirts. But as the long years had worked to change him, they had inevitably changed Souta as well. Though still a bit on the sensitive side, there was now an easy confidence to the boy, an easy confidence that Inuyasha proudly felt he had played some role in developing. And, much like it was with Shippou and Miroku, over time Souta had grown closer to him, becoming like the brother he never had. Correction, Inuyasha added, a few of his thoughts still centered uncomfortably around Sesshoumaru, make that the brother he WISHED he had.

Straightening his rumpled clothes, he smirked as he stared into the boy's face. Even though those annoyingly round cheeks were long gone, Souta still had those same warm, brown eyes, and a small smattering of freckles remained to dot his cheekbones. He had the exact same uneven bangs, teasing grin and easy laugh as his sister. And, much like Kagome (well, before pregnancy, Inuyasha corrected with a silent laugh), the boy's frame was lean and tall. Really tall. In fact, adding insult to injury, the damn kid actually stood just a hair taller than he himself did now.

Gods, he fucking hated looking up to anyone!

Now that Inuyasha was vertical again, he promptly reached out to catch his unsuspecting rescuer in a vicious headlock, hoping to recover a small measure of what little remained of his dignity. His poor, ambushed captive clawed helplessly at his shoulders and punched at his ribs, cursing rather colorfully. Inuyasha's depraved smirk grew and his ears cocked forward in rapt attention. A few of the phrases Souta was spouting were rather imaginative, original --- and extremely wicked. Make that downright filthy! he corrected, releasing a low whistle of admiration at one particularly vile insult. In fact, the hanyou decided, he might have to commit THAT new expression to memory to unleash on Kouga later.

Kagome rolled her eyes at the sight of her hapless brother struggling and sputtering against Inuyasha's tight grip, all to no avail. Really, she didn't have time for any of this foolishness now. Why were boys so --- so weird? Wisely deciding to ponder the idiosyncrasies of the male psyche on another day, she left her poor brother at the half demon's mercy. Carefully picking her way through the scattered remains of the broken grandfather clock, she moved to stand before her flustered mother. "Mama," she demanded firmly, her stomach still in a knot from her initial scare. "What is going on! Why didn't you answer me when I called you? We were so worried! Just what's going on here!"

Her mother's expression brightened and quick as could be the woman turned, reaching behind the couch to pull forth an obnoxiously large present --- an obnoxiously large present wrapped with obnoxiously loud paper and adorned with an obnoxiously loud bow. "Why, Kagome --- don't you see? It's a baby shower!" she responded lightly, as if her answer was the most obvious thing in the world.

"A baby what! What the hell are you people going to do to my ---" Inuyasha interrupted, his pitch high, his tone filled with an equal mixture of horror, outrage and intense curiosity. "Wait, fuck --- owwww!" he snapped a moment later, sliding back to the floor again. In his confusion, he had loosened his hold on Souta, allowing the young man to accidentally land an unchecked kick to his groin.

Kagome winced and heaved a small sigh of sympathy. In truth, she was not sure who she felt more sorry for at the moment: the obviously agonized hanyou writhing on the carpet or the little brother who was more than likely about to have double the torment revisited upon himself once said hanyou recovered. Still unwilling to waste any time dwelling on the actions or immaturities of boys, she pursed her lips and fixed all of her attention squarely on her mother. "A baby shower --- right now!" she squeaked.

Mama inclined her head to the side and favored her with a soothing smile. "Why do you sound so upset, dear? I thought this would make you happy! Are you both alright? Did something happen back there? Back in the past?" As she waited for her daughter to reply to her many questions the woman shook the present in her hands, rattling its contents in attempt to further entice the girl.

But Kagome would not allow herself to be tempted so easily. She crossed her arms and tapped her toe to the floor in an impatient cadence. The past few days had been filled with so much strain, so much anxiety. There were so many unanswered questions. She felt like hell, and, as she brushed a lank strand of hair over her shoulders, she had a sneaking suspicion that she didn't look that much better. "Well, yes, thank you so much for all --- this --- but --- wait --- that's not the point," she stammered. "I mean --- a baby shower? The baby's not due for five months, and --- and how could you have even known we'd be home right now?"

"Right now?" Mama repeated hollowly, a small spark of panic appearing in her usually warm eyes. She looked shaken and distracted, and suddenly seemed way too interested in re-positioning the arrangement of dried flowers that rested atop the television set.

Kagome gasped inwardly at her mother's actions, having used much similar tactics on Inuyasha when she didn't care to answer one of his demands. Her mother was obviously trying to distract her! Her mother obviously hiding something! "Yes, Mama! Right now!" she continued hotly, unable to escape the cold press of her returning doubts and fears. "How did you know we'd be here? Be here right this day, right this minute, right this second! And, YES, something bad happened in the past! We wouldn't even be here right now if it wasn't for --- oh, never mind! Mama, DID you know we were coming or is this all just a lucky guess!"

From his place at the doorway, Jii-chan suddenly released a loud, deliberate cough. The harsh noise seemed to have more of an effect on Mrs. Higarashi than any of her daughter's impatient questions, for in that instant the woman suddenly relaxed, seeming to return to her old self again. She giggled easily and she strode forward to press the present she carried into Kagome's hands.

Kagome accepted the offering with a grateful grin, but her body language remained tense. Even as she tore into the present, she kept herself on guard, still feeling so awfully skeptical. Much of her thoughts were still centered on the trials that awaited her back in the past and she felt --- so --- so drained. At that moment, as if sensing her need, her mother reached out and pulled her close, dragging her into a tight, and very, very welcome hug. "Mama, it's been ages --- just however DID you know I'd be here?" the miko repeated, her stubborn will demanding that she make one last attempt to draw out the truth even as her tired eyes fluttered closed.

"Ohh, I don't know!" the woman whispered into her ear as she soothed her dark hair back from her forehead. "Call it Mother's intuition --- maybe."

From his place back on the floor, Inuyasha watched the quiet exchange with a wary eye, the strangeness of it all causing him to forget his temporary pain and his need to even the score with Souta. Kagome's mother did not seem to be herself at all, and, for a moment, the look of misery that passed over her face as she held her daughter was so raw, so intense that it marred her beauty. Now what the hell is going on? he wondered. The half-demon scratched at his ear, feeling torn into every different direction at once. He looked away from the two women, his thoughts lost and jumbled in far too many intrigues to keep track of anymore.

First Kikyou wanted him dead! And --- and --- now he was being forced travel with the obnoxiously arrogant yase ookami! On top of it all, he was going to be a father!

And --- and Naraku had just re-emerged to try and ruin it all, strolling out of whatever greasy hole he had walled himself into for the past few months! And there was a missing Kohaku to find! Correction, a missing Kohaku to find, catch and slap till his senses returned!

And, most disturbing of all, Kagome was keeping little secrets from him, and her powers seemed so spotty and unpredictable --- and, damn it, she was barely eating! These days even he had to admit she sure didn't look all that healthy!

And --- finally--- now his enemies seemed ready to challenge Sesshoumaru one more time, seeming about to commit the gravest of insults by actually marching right towards the borders of his lands, and who the hell knew WHY? Whatever the reason or result, nothing good ever came of Naraku getting tangled with Sesshoumaru. In fact, in the past such plots and schemes usually only served to piss the already insufferable taiyoukai off, only causing the stuck-up son-of-a-bitch to blame ALL interference out on HIM, and not the real culprit! And now here he was, unable to do anything about, well --- anything --- stuck in an outlandish future, a future where Kagome's family was currently behaving even more bizarrely than usual!

Truly, Inuyasha thought, he was fucking cursed. Rolling his eyes, he picked himself up off the carpet and marched across the room, straining to draw the Tetsusaiga from the skewered mantle without causing any further damage to the living room wall.

It had taken some coaxing, but Mrs. Higarashi had finally managed to convince her wayward guests to prolong their visit and stay for dinner.

Now she raced to pour more batter into a skillet, and while the okonomiyaki curled brown at the edges, she burned her hand. She ignored the injury, and merely popped her fingers into her mouth as she hauled a pot of steamed broccoli off of the stove. She carried the vegetables to the table and then up-ended them into a bowl, hurrying back to the range to salvage the rest of her now 'extra-crispy' meal.

"Mama, can I help you?" Kagome asked trying to keep up with the woman's harried pace. She still couldn't figure out what was making her mother so agitated, so scatterbrained. She had the distinct impression Mama wasn't paying attention to ANY of the dishes currently being charred to black ash on the stove-top. In fact, it looked like her mother was merely directing all of her focus into sneaking peaks at HER --- again! Kagome frowned, completely baffled. Yes, she wasn't imagining things. Every single time she had glanced up while un-wrapping her wonderful presents, she couldn't help but notice that the woman had been watching her. Mama's gaze had been hovering heavily over both her and Inuyasha, as if she were closely studying them ---

And --- and her eyes had been damp and miserable, her expression far-away.


Mrs. Higarashi had nearly tripped in surprise at hearing her daughter's voice. "No, sweetheart, I can manage. You just relax and enjoy yourself!" She looked around for something to occupy Kagome while she finished preparing the meal. She immediately searched for Souta, thinking to put him on charge of entertaining his sister, but, as usual, the boy had run off with his 'Inu no nii-chan'.

Mrs. Higarashi sighed in resignation. More than likely Souta was showing the half-demon his new car. She suppressed a small shudder, remembering how many of her daughter's bicycles Inuyasha had somehow managed to destroy. She couldn't imagine what he could do to an automobile. Though Souta's car was especially old and clunky, purchased lovingly with every last dime from a summer job, she still could imagine that the half-demon could most certainly find some creative ways to add a few more dents to the hood.

"Mama?" Kagome prodded again, snapping the woman out of her musings. "Are you sure I can't help you?"

"Oh, ummm, if you really want to help, I suppose you can set the table, dear." Mrs. Higarashi waved absently at the drawers and turned back to the food that was now smoldering on the skillet.

Kagome pursed her lips in frustration but obediently moved to carry an assortment of serving ware to the table. Her mother was being so – so bizarre. A quick glance over her shoulder revealed that the woman was now opening and closing the sliding doors, fanning her white apron, and letting the fierce winter wind gust throughout the room, blowing the napkins she had so carefully laid out to the floor.

A small muscle in the miko's temple twitched against her every effort to control it. "Mama," she asked slowly. "I know I haven't been home for awhile but isn't it customary to --- ummm --- CLOSE the kitchen door when the weather is this --- ummm, unpleasant?"

"Ahhhhhh, its all part of my strategy!" the woman giggled, casting a mischievous look over her shoulder. "It IS the best way to get HIM to the table, after all!"

Kagome sulked at first, wondering if her mother was having a bit of fun at her expense. But she understood completely when Inuyasha appeared at the doorway a mere second later, looking over the table to stare pointedly at the oven. Though he tried his best to appear nonchalant, his twitching nose and wide, longing eyes gave him away ---

"Steak? Did you --- did you cook me a steak?" he asked hopefully, his expression fixed and pleading and downright --- adorable. A look of unbridled ecstasy passed over his features as Mama nodded in sly confirmation.

Kagome couldn't keep from laughing and shook her head at her mate's distinctively canine sensibilities. She imagined that if he possessed a tail it would be wagging ferociously right now. Moving to the table, she took her seat at her usual place just as Souta came through the door. The young miko couldn't help but notice that her brother was currently flashing one of those goofy grins all men seemed to wear when they've been bragging about a fabulous new toy or possession. Well, she amended slyly, the same goofy grin men wear either when they've been bragging about a fabulous new possession OR after they'd been WELL pleased by a woman.

Arghhhh, men! she laughed to herself as she pushed a bowl of edamame (snowpeas) away from her plate. And, not too mention --- Arghhhh! All these stupid foods, all these overpowering scents! They were wrecking havoc on her poor stomach!

But she didn't have long to dwell on her aching belly, for at that moment, Souta passed behind her chair, reaching out with a careless hand to mess her bangs. Already on the edge, her nerves close to abandoning her for good, Kagome released a rather impressive growl and tried to arch out of his touch. She wasn't fast enough though, and as her hair was teased into a spiky riot, she found she could do nothing but wish for the long ago days when Souta hadn't been tall enough or strong enough to inflict such torture upon her. Arghhh, men! she repeated in her mind again, sagging in defeat. Men and the joys of little brothers who weren't quite so little anymore!

Souta seemed to reading her very thoughts for he cast her wicked smile that clearly invited her to bring on a sibling brawl. For a moment, Kagome forgot her exhaustion and her nausea, and her eyes sparkled in obvious challenge. But just as she prepared to thrust a slim ankle out from under the table to trip him, her insides seemed to twist, her strength falling sharply away. She gasped, drawing her leg back quickly, and curled down into her chair with a small noise of shock. For a long, tense moment she fought to keep from getting even more nervous, most certainly not needing Inuyasha to notice her discomfort! After all, he had so much to worry about already! And this was really nothing to get excited over! Maybe--- maybe she had just pushed herself too hard over the past few days! Taking in slow, steadying breaths, she massaged tiny circles into her temple with the pads of her fingertips, and waited patiently till all of the odd feelings left her. Within moments she felt just like her old self again, and sighed in relief. She straightened, glancing up just in time to catch Souta as he flashed her a smug smirk of victory.

Now it was time to share a triumphant smirk of her own.

Clearly, she HAD succeeded with her little ruse --- she HAD kept her feelings well hidden, for all her brother could see now was that he had somehow managed to escape his 'big' sister's wrath. And --- more importantly than that, she realized happily, she had managed to keep from alerting Inuyasha to her distress as well. After all, the hanyou was still standing guard over the oven, watching his steak sizzle as if hypnotized, and not racing to her side in blind, screaming panic.

Inuyasha quickly turned away from the tempting sights and scents coming from the stove, certain he had sensed an abrupt spike in Kagome's heart-rate. He fixed the girl with a shrewd gaze, searching for signs of anything out of the ordinary. But the miko appeared just fine; her eyes were amused and bright, and a contented smile was painted on her pink lips. For a moment, he couldn't help but wonder if he was finally starting to crack after all these years. Still, he just couldn't shake his underlying feeling of dread, that he was missing something --- something huge. Surely, Kikyou couldn't have been right ---

In spite of his worries, Inuyasha smiled as he watched Souta continue to tease Kagome, taking in their exchange with a curious sort of amusement. He immediately wondered what it would be like if he dared such carelessly playful actions with his own brother. The half-demon cringed instinctively, shoulders bowing inward, another chill streaking down his spine. More than likely anyone stupid enough to drag so much as a pinkie finger across Sesshoumaru's perfect locks would suffer the gruesome fate of being beaten to death with one of their own dismembered arms. He could picture it now ---

Luckily, a round of Souta's noisy laughter snapped him away from the rather bloody image that was currently half-formed in his head. Inuyasha shrugged and moved to take the chair on Kagome's left, reaching down to capture an unsuspecting Buyo. He flipped the yowling, old cat upside down and pulled him comfortably into his lap.

Even though the mood had gotten a bit lighter, Kagome couldn't remember a time when her family was this quiet at the table. Mama hurried to serve everyone, finally placing one large, VERY rare steak in front of Inuyasha. The miko watched his as eyes expanded till they seemed very nearly the same size as the plate that his meal was resting upon. Alright, so it appeared her hanyou could be bought for a price, but she remained unconvinced. She knew her family and she still thought that something fishy was going on! Her speculations ceased abruptly as her mother swept several outrageously large spoonfuls of rice onto her plate. And it didn't stop there! Somehow, in the next few moments, monstrous portions of every dish featured on the table were ladled out before her, with no end in sight. And she could do nothing to protest. She could do nothing at all, in fact, but bow her head, grit her teeth and attempt to breathe through her mouth. Slowly.

This time, Kagome realized with dismay, there was no fooling Inuyasha --- he was too close to her now and his steak was already mostly devoured, shredded right down to the bone. With nothing left to distract him, he picked up on her distress on the spot, and fixed her with a cold, probing look.

"What's wrong, Kagome?" her mother asked suddenly, honing in on her discomfort almost as fast as the demon did. "I've tried to fix your favorite foods? Is everything alright? Can I make you anything else?"

"I guess I'm not very hungry just yet," Kagome mumbled softly, poking her chopsticks into the fluffy mountain of rice on her plate, wondering if she could sneak some back into the serving bowl when no one was looking. "I have the distinct impression my appetite will suffer as long as this little one takes up residence here!" She gave her wide belly a fond pat. "Don't worry --- I'll come down and raid the fridge later tonight!"

Inuyasha's quick, side-long glance was almost as deadly as a dagger. "No, Kagome, you'll eat now --- there won't be a 'later tonight'! We have to leave here as soon as possible!" Without another word, he scooped up another a helping of rice, and doled it onto her plate. Kagome felt her stomach drop again and stared at her dish in numb amazement, quite unable to meet his eyes. "Not only will you eat now, but you'll finish every single thing here!" the half-demon added, his domineering tone making her feel even more nauseous than ever.

Kagome groaned aloud. She knew what was coming. She'd heard this same little speech countless times before. The faces of the people giving the lecture might change but the words and message were always the same --- EAT! Ohhh, like she wasn't trying!

As her mate and her family launched into a scathing sermon about her general health, the miko withdrew into her own thoughts, wondering what could possibly be wrong. One thing was for sure, the little thing inside her seemed to be just as picky and stubborn and OBNOXIOUS as his or her father! These days nothing in her stomach seemed to want to remain there for very long. It wasn't fair! She was starving, but the prospect of choking down an actual meal made her want to retch; she was so weary but there was no time to sleep; she was so frightened, but there were too many things to focus her fears upon; she was supposed to locate the stupid Shikon no Tama, but these days her senses were so scattered she feared the only way she'd be able to notice the jewel's presence was if Naraku lobbed it at her head; she was just ---

"Everyone seems so anxious to remind me about what I already know!' Kagome shouted, nearly exploding up from her chair. "What do you think! Do you think I want this child to be unhealthy!" The miko cringed and clamped a trembling hand to her lips, ending her hysterical outburst just as swiftly as she'd started it. She didn't need to look up. She could already FEEL the startled expressions of hurt that were displayed on everyone's faces, and she was so mortified by her own behavior that she simply wanted to race from the room and cry. How could she raise her voice in anger --- especially after all of the thoughtful things her family had done for her on this night?

Kagome cleared her throat and quickly sat back down. Even to her own ears her words had so sounded petulant, so selfish and immature. She waited for Inuyasha to begin a furious rant of his own or for Jii-chan to insist she leave the table as if she were still a child. Gods, she sure was acting like a child! To her great surprise, no one in her family said anything at all. They simply nodded and exchanged knowing glances with one another, continuing on with their meals as if nothing had happened. Kagome tried to look to Inuyasha then, certain that at least HE would be fed up with her actions, but she quickly found he was no longer at her side. She blinked in confusion, finding that the half-demon had slipped over to the sink and was currently running a small kitchen towel under the tap. His eyes met hers briefly and then he hurried back to the table to press the cool, damp cloth to her temple, his free hand sweeping over her spine in a soothing caress. Kagome sighed, his tender gesture leaving her both grateful and surprised. Obediently, she brought her chopsticks to her white lips and all that was left of her irritation fled, to be replaced instead by reluctant acceptance. She chewed slowly and deep inside her, felt the baby lurch painfully against her diaphragm. Spirited little thing! she commented in her mind. Using Momma's spine as a springboard, are we? At that silent question the infant only leapt again, and Kagome could clearly feel the kicking of two tiny feet --- two tiny feet that seemed to enjoy practicing acrobatics against her rib cage. She fought to swallow a mouthful without wincing.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered, her words directed to no one in particular. She decided to alternate her apology between gulps, hurriedly wolfing down as much food as she could before any strange pains returned. "I'm t-trying. It's just that --- lately ---" The priestess sighed again, wishing she could explain everything she was thinking and feeling.

"You don't have to say anything, Kagome," her mother replied, reaching out to grab her hand tightly. "We just worry ---"

"Yeah, take it easy, Kagome," Inuyasha echoed, dragging her dull hair over her shoulder and away from her face. "Just relax. In fact, don't worry about anything. I guess --- I guess we will stay here tonight after all. We've been running for a week here." At the hanyou's unexpected announcement, Mrs. Higarashi suddenly looked up, seeming so relieved. She turned away once again to slant what she thought was a secretive glance at Jii-chan.

But Kagome caught the look and blinked in confusion, now certain that her mother and grandfather were definitely --- plotting --- something. She paused in mid-bite of a mouthful of vegetables, groaning aloud. "But we need to get back," she argued. "And as quickly as we can!"

"Keh. You've never been in a hurry to find the jewel before, so what's your rush now, priestess?" Inuyasha teased, his tone overly light. "I mean, Miroku and Sango will be spending the night at the temple. We wouldn't even begin tracking until the morning anyway."

"Please, Inuyasha! I feel better already!" Kagome pleaded rather unconvincingly. "We can't just relax here! What about poor Kohaku! He's got a huge lead on us!"

Inuyasha bowed his silvery head. "It's not that I don't care about what happens to the kid, but it's just --- this means more. A lot more," he explained softly, pressing a clawed hand firmly to her belly.

"Baka! I don't believe what I'm hearing! You KNOW we can't stay here," Kagome returned, her teasing statement made with sufficient kindness and sincerity to douse the quick beat of annoyance that sprinted through him at her continued resistance. "Inuyasha, you can't stay here tonight, and then figure out what Kohaku's up to and then get back here in time before the New ---" she trailed off, clearly wanting to speak of his monthly curse as little as possible. Her tone was abrupt now, not in a rude sense, but with the fear of having to watch him go through another night in his human form. Another night when he would be mortal and very vulnerable to Naraku's power and malice.

"The New Moon," Inuyasha finished for her in a sad whisper, already knowing the full scope of her worries. "Kagome, believe me, I NEVER lose track of the night of the New Moon. I know what I need to do. And I know how much time I have ---"

All the while, Mama watched the tender exchange, thoughtfully stroking her chin. "Of course, you'll stay here," she interrupted, her statement made more forceful by the accompanying quick wave of her hand. "At least for the night. Besides, Kagome, your friends --- they need time alone with their own little one, and you two need time, too. Who knows when you'll get a chance to rest again?" Before the young priestess could dismiss her mother's logical argument the woman quickly continued, "You'll need to gather your strength, Kagome. You too, Inuyasha. You look very worn out, my boy, so tired ---"

And that was it.

In that moment Mrs. Higarashi knew she'd won. After all, her daughter was absolutely selfless, giving to a fault when it came to the hanyou. She was always putting his comfort and safety above her own. If the girl thought Inuyasha needed the rest, of course she would instantly agree to stay.

And, at the very same moment, Kagome knew she had been soundly defeated. She had the distinct feeling she WAS being expertly manipulated and tried to come up with one final objection, but still she hesitated so long that her mother was leapt back into the breach to shut off further debate with the cruelest, most unfair parting shot of all ---

"Who wants cake!" Mama suddenly sang out. Once again, Inuyasha's eyes widened to comical proportions and his hand shot into the air like an over-enthusiastic child in a lesson.

Mrs. Higarashi waited, maintaining her enthusiastic grin. But inwardly, she held her breath, fearful to hope, studying the considering expression in Kagome's face. Oh kami, she prayed earnestly, please, please let them stay ---

There was a long silence before the miko finally broke into a light grin.

Inuyasha, who was currently observing Kagome just as carefully as her own mother, watched as the girl's tired eyes warred between the intense need to know what was happening in the past and the desire for one night of peace. He knew in an instant which desire had emerged victorious ---

Kagome heaved an exaggerated sighed and leaned back into her chair. "Yeah, I guess it'll be good to stay away for one night." She quickly wagged a scolding finger under Inuyasha's nose, always wanting to have the last word. "But I'll say it again --- I'm REAL worried about Kohaku."

"Keh, we'll get him back," the hanyou snapped. "The only thing you should be worried about right now is Kouga! I don't even want to imagine what HE'S doing in our village right now! I sure hope Shippou's up to the task of keeping him out of trouble." Inuyasha's words and worries suddenly died out as Mrs. Higarashi suddenly stacked a large piece of cake on his plate.

The older woman laughed brightly at his reaction. "Stop arguing! You eat too, young man! You're still so skinny," she chided, pinching the demon's cheek before hurrying on to serve Souta.

Kagome's eyes narrowed in speculation. For some reason Mama's gesture did not seem as funny as it should. Instead it seemed rather --- forced. The woman's eyes were sad, brimming with memories as she stared down at the hanyou, as if she were memorizing every detail. But still Kagome made herself laugh because she knew her mother expected her to be amused.

"Not as skinny as your daughter, here. Give her some of that! Make HER eat at least something," Inuyasha bit out with a scowl, rubbing at the reddening mark on his face. "And, YES, Kagome, we won't be getting too comfortable --- we're leaving as soon as the sun rises! One night --- that's it!"

"You drive me insane, silly wan-chan," Kagome mumbled, giving his ear a playful tug. For all her rounded girth, she still managed to avoid his outstretched hand and the quick slap aimed at her backside. The hanyou sighed in mock exasperation and then returned his focus to his dessert.

The miko knew she would not be presented with a better chance for escape. "I'll be back in a minute," she lied, her tone full of friendly reassurance as she rose from the table. Truth-be-told she was completely exhausted, only wishing to collapse into bed, and had no intention of returning downstairs whatsoever.

Inuyasha merely snorted around his first mouthful of cake, not really hearing her.

As Kagome stole from the room, she cast one last look over her shoulder to search her mother's face. Mama's expression bore such a strong a resemblance to pure despair that it actually hurt to look upon her for too long.

She looked like --- like a stranger.

She looked tired. She looked old.

Frightened, Kagome turned and fled down the hall.

"Hey, isn't this supposed to be a party!" Ji-chan shouted, ignoring his granddaughter's rapid departure. He rapped his bony knuckles against the table loudly, forcing all the faces at the table to make the sudden shift towards him.

Almost against his will, Inuyasha smiled at the old man, grateful he had found a way to lighten the mood. Somehow, he thought, Kagome's grandfather was the kind of person that looked better when you weren't looking straight at them or examining them too closely. Even when the crazy old creature was young, the hanyou reflected, he couldn't have been what you would call handsome. In fact, Inuyasha thought, staring at a yellowed picture over on the now cracked mantle, Ji-chan had the pug-nosed kind of ugliness that a young man like him actually found impressive.

It was the same repulsive kind of impressive as getting fabulously dirty, or lifting a rock to find a particularly fat grub or snail, or getting fish slime on his fingers, or plunging his fist through the guts of a screaming demon opponent.

Men stuff.

Or maybe, he corrected, fidgeting with the hilt of Tetsusaiga, maybe it was just DEMON men stuff?


Not caring to pursue the real answer, he simply returned to examining Jii-chan. Though the old man's figure was short, he was very wiry and rugged. His face was actually a lot like old Totosai's, all lined and pitted like a mucky riverbank. At nearly eighty, his hair was dull white and sparse, but somehow his eyebrows had remained black and horribly shaggy, like two fat caterpillars had landed upon his temples and decided to settle there. And on his chin there was a large brown mole from which --- the hanyou paused to count --- four, no FIVE hairs emerged, bristling forth as sharply as a porcupine's needles. And though Jii-chan's eyes were small and full of mock-disapproval, they were so bright and ageless none-the-less. Those eyes actually reminded Inuyasha of the eyes of a fledging owl he had once run across. It had been ages and ages ago, back in his boyhood. As he recalled, he had been only recently orphaned and was seeking out a cave in which to hide out the night. Just when he thought he had found the perfect spot in which to shelter himself, he discovered --- too late --- that it had already been occupied. The young bird had taken him by surprise, hopping out from the dark crevice, shrieking shrilly as it beat its half-feathered wings in his shocked face. Proud little thing, he mused with a genuine, grudging respect.

As he remembered now, he HADN'T been quite so proud. In fact, he had been so startled by the bird's sudden leap that he had screamed like a little girl and tumbled unceremoniously down the cliff into the river below. Inuyasha smiled ruefully. Yeah, maybe that particular memory was one he'd keep to himself. But funny, he scoffed, how some stupid thing like that would stick with him after all these years. Must be his far-too-full belly making him get all stupid and reflective.

He shook his head and resumed examining the old man. Damn! Summer or winter it seemed Jii-chan was always wearing the same ugly old robes. That particular thought brought his inspection to a screeching halt once more and Inuyasha looked down at his own attire with a sheepish grin. Perhaps HE wasn't the best one to comment on a person's need to expand their wardrobe. But still --- the fire-rat haori was nothing like those musty, moth-eaten temple garments ---

His thoughts were interrupted again as Kagome's mother brushed past him. Fuck, that woman could never sit still! She was always moving about, working in the kitchen, or running out to the porch to shout for Souta. Then in a flash she would be disappearing through one door, only to dart back in through another. Funny, though --- he couldn't remember her ever looking this sad. In fact, tonight, Mrs. Higarashi actually reminded him a bit of his own mother, the beautiful lady Izayoi. With that one thought, he was suddenly glad he had ordered that they rest and spend the night. Something was definitely wrong here. Mrs. Higarashi was usually just like her daughter. Smiling, amused, beautiful, laughing happily as she raced about with her errands, just like his ---

Just like his --- Kagome! Wait! Inuyasha realized with a scowl, now just where the hell did SHE go anyway! Wait a minute! Didn't she say she was coming right back!

Kagome made the slow climb up to her room, hands bracing the underside of her swollen belly. Her fat, ugly, uncooperative belly! she cursed mentally. With each heavy step she took she relieved herself of a few unfeminine words of profanity. They only made her feel better to a small extent.

Easy, Kagome! she hastened to remind herself again. It's a baby! Inuyasha's baby! That line of logic brought her sharply back to all she had achieved and experienced, and for a moment she thought nothing --- not even her excess weight --- could spoil her feeling of pride. But with that feeling of pride came a sudden pang of fear. Maybe she shouldn't boast that nothing could spoil her pride, after all there was still the missing Kikyou to worry about! And of course back in the past Kohaku was getting one hell of a head start now, too!

Kagome snagged a lethargic foot on the carpet at the top of the stairs. And, she added to the ever-growing list of problems --- there was no denying it anymore --- as she definitely proved at the dinner table tonight, something was wrong most definitely wrong with HER. This pregnancy was taking its toll on her body, more so than she thought it would. She couldn't shake her queasiness and there was no damn doctor to she could consult with, no medical glossary of how to bring a little quarter youkai infant into the world! And --- and Naraku had obviously formed a new plan of attack! And Inuyasha kept mumbling over and over about Sesshoumaru! And --- and now her family was acting insane! Well, Jii-chan always acted insane, she amended with a quick shake of her head. But she could tell Mama was hiding something --- something else. Something more important then her own current lack of appetite was upsetting the woman!

Kagome paused, hearing Inuyasha's laughter as it echoed up the landing and smiled, loving how sweetly he was treating her tonight, loving how well he fit into her family. At that moment, the hanyou's deep, raucous laugh, to be replaced by the unmistakable sounds of him beginning another argument with Jii-chan. Bone-weary, Kagome decided to ignore the fray, and continued on to her door. She flicked on the light absently and flopped onto her frilly bed, tugging at the comforter in annoyance and punching an over-loved teddy bear to the floor.

Really, she thought, as she snuggled deeply into the pink covers, even though she was almost never here, she should ask Mama to buy a new spread. Something more dignified and mature. Something with no polka-dots. After all, she wasn't some silly little teenager anymore. That thought caused Kagome to crane her head to glance up at her old bulletin board.

She groaned.

Sure enough, pinned to the board's fraying fabric were old high-school schedules, forgotten locker combinations, ribbons from choir concerts, out-dated calendars, and scattered photographs. She squinted for a closer look, staring at the pictures as the girl she had once been smiled back at her, just a shade of an easier time.

A time of promise.

Reluctantly, Kagome let her eyes wander over the rest of the pictures, having made this same mental journey several hundred, no several thousand, times over the years ---

To say the least, her teenage years were quite far from normal, and that phase of her budding womanhood was not exactly what one might call 'the norm'. It was not a time of trips to the mall or giggly makeovers. It was not a time of posters of teen idols plastered on the wall or overnighters at pop concerts. It was not a time of parties or young bodies straining in the backseats of cars. It was rather a time of demons and mystery and holy powers and battles and magical artifacts and --- love.

Yes --- she had been too busy falling into TRUE love to waste time with simple crushes and passing gossip in the hallway. The boys of her own era always seemed hopelessly immature and silly to her, and besides, Kagome giggled to herself, who among them had fierce golden eyes and silver hair? Back then, she recalled, whenever she'd return from the past, most of her social life would involve chasing down classmates in order to plead for their notes. She'd been forced to learn what she'd could when she could. She had been so naïve, and picked up little about sex and men in general, for the boys at school all thought she was desperately ill, or at the very least horribly contagious. And on those occasions when she didn't seem so sickly, they still thought her to be a bit strange and distracted, flighty and --- out of touch with reality.

Besides, most of them feared her crazy old grandfather too much to attempt any seduction, she reminded herself ruefully.

After squeaking through high school, she had tried to go off to college, but after a year of struggles and missed exams and term papers that had been half melted away by shouki, she had been forced to take a semester off. That semester off was quietly followed by another.

It was then that she'd had her first real sexual encounter ---


Even now, her cheeks still burned at the memory and Kagome buried her face further into her pillow in embarrassment. On that long ago night, she had not succumbed to the boy's masculinity, nor his ever-present enthusiasm and kindness, but to her jealously after watching Inuyasha melt away into the forest with Kikyou late one night, arms entwined, lips less than a breath away from touching.

Yep, jealousy. A pure-hearted, virginal miko succumbing to bitter jealously. Well, she added ruefully, her jealously had been helped along by the aphrodisiac effects of three martinis, two large glasses of Asahi and several shots of some other burning liquor that she could not remember.

Luckily, they didn't get very far.

Just a few desperate and wild kisses, and then one warm and far too-soft hand, a hand that had never wielded a sword, fumbling under her bra. That hand was quickly joined by its mate, stroking and teasing and diving down past the buttons of her jeans, clever fingers ghosting along the lace trim of her panties. It was then, in the heat of his passion, that Hojo had erred, committing the gravest, most terrible of mistakes ---

He'd simply breathed her name.

And in that moment, there was no more pretending.

That voice wasn't the voice she had been wanting to hear. It wasn't the voice she'd been longing for. She recalled how violently she pushed poor Hojo back; she recalled his wounded expression and his look of dumb surprise. She remembered how she had choked a stammered apology as she speedily readjusted her clothing. And, of course, she could never forget how she had simply run away, sprinting faster perhaps than she even would have if a demon had been chasing at her heels!

Kagome's guilty blush grew. She never really did discover just how exactly Inuyasha had found out. Actually, she revised with a small pout, she DID have a pretty good idea. She and Sango had been sharing everything for years, all their hopes, all their girlish dreams and fantasies, and all of their frustrations when those fantasies were drawn-out against reality. Late one night, as they had relaxed together in an onsen, she had confessed the entire sordid incident to the taijiya.


It had seemed like the right thing to do at the time. After all, she had just questioned Sango about the strange purple marks on her neck and the girl had taken her completely off-guard, blurting out the fact that her relationship with Miroku had suddenly taken on a whole new, and much deeper, dimension. That night, Sango had her OWN confession to make, her brown eyes wide with a new understanding, her cheeks tinged a deep scarlet.

And not just from the heat of the spring ---

Ah, well. In return, she had spun her own tale back and, in light of their new intimacy, Sango had obviously passed the word along to the monk. Kagome cringed, not even wanting to picture the look that must have appeared on Inuyasha's face when he had eventually found out. She remembered that the hanyou had confronted her, trying to paint a tolerant smile on his face, but she could tell in an instant that he was having difficultly quelling his primal urge to storm into the future and murder her old school-mate.

"Did you ---" he had bellowed at her, his eyes frantic, wounded, enraged, and, above all --- regretful.

"No," she had sighed. She had tried to make a show of re-adjusting her back-pack, trying to do anything to avoid looking into his eyes. "What about YOU?" she hadn't been able to resist asking. "What about you and Kikyou?"

Inuyasha had looked away so quickly then, trying to keep from telling her the truth she already knew in her heart and never before or since had she EVER remembered feeling so wretched.

"I see," she'd hissed, so tired of all the games, so tired of the desperate longing and the weak hiding. "Well, did you enjoy it, Inuyasha? I sure hope you did. Funny --- I thought it was only us girls who mistake sex for love!"

Kagome found that her eyes had grown a bit damp just remembering those days. He'd growled so viciously at her then. Even now, she could still hear the sound so perfectly, for it had been that same frightening snarl, that same jagged rumble that he'd usually only reserved for Naraku or Sesshoumaru. Inuyasha had stormed in her wake, unwilling to drop it, unwilling to let her go. "And what about you?" he'd screamed, outraged and re-faced. "So you didn't let that --- that --- little --- you didn't let him fuck you but you let him --- I-I can't even say it! Self righteous bitch, what did you mistake THAT for?"

"I didn't mistake it for anything!" she'd laughed maniacally. "I just wanted to forget about the way I feel about you!" She'd raced back to the well then, and did not return to the Sengoku Jidai for several weeks. Actually, she'd only returned after she'd awoken one night to find him standing over her in the dark, his hands clenched so helplessly at his sides.

That was the night things started to change.

Wordlessly, she had turned back her covers, inviting him to share her bed. And wordlessly he had accepted her offer, stretching out beside her and holding her in the dark. He had pressed so many shy kisses against her temple and cheeks, but never to her mouth ---

Yes, Kagome thought, reshuffling that particular memory back where it belonged --- back to the furthest hidden depths of her mind. Once there was a simple, ordinary girl, filled with simple, ordinary jealousies, and simple, ordinary plans on how life her life was supposed to turn out. Now there was only a powerful miko.

A powerful miko who would soon be a mother. Kagome smiled, allowing her eyes to travel over the useless items in her bedroom once more.

These mementos of her youth were nothing to her, she decided. Nothing at all. In fact, all she really saw now were faded photographs and dusty frames in need of cleaning.

At that moment, almost as if reading the reflective nature of her thoughts, Inuyasha appeared at the doorway and she breathed in a peaceful sigh. Her gentle smile widened as he turned off the light. The waning moon shone dimly though the faded pink curtains next to the bed, shading his long white hair with an eerie cast of blue. He removed the Tetsuaiga from the cord at his lean waist, turning to rest the battered sword against her old desk. Gods, there was an ease in the way he carried himself now. He seemed so content, so relaxed here in the future. His golden eyes were on her, gleaming seductively in the dark, his intentions rather obvious. Her heart ached as she watched his hands tremble, loving him all the more for being as moved by the sight of her as she was at the mere sight of him. She watched quietly as he fumbled with the ties of his clothing before crawling into bed beside her. As she felt his lips trail kisses down her throat, she thought about the years, aching with memories of all the sweetness and sorrow that are the heritage of real, lasting love. No, Kagome thought, as Inuyasha pulled her tightly against him, she could never really be sad. She could never be sorry she had traded the future for the past --- not at all.

It was quite late when Sesshoumaru finally decided to return to the shiro. All lay dark, save for a single lantern glowing weakly from within the thick walls of the main house. Just as he entered under the archway and finished closing the main gates behind him, something --- some flicker of movement at the opposite edge of the courtyard --- caught his gaze. Instinctively, he froze and waited, wondering if it was some trick of the starlight, or perhaps merely the ocean's reflection. His eyes dilated and, with the deadly accuracy of a natural predator, came to focus on a small, rather familiar shape slinking through the hedge rows.


What was she still doing out here?

Sesshoumaru's heart pounded as he started forward silently, tracking his prey, following the girl's wavering shadow as she snuck towards the stables. Alright, he had originally intended to ignore her this night, to leave her to her foolish grief, but --- what the hell was she doing awake at this hour? And where the hell did she think she was going?

He froze again as the girl abruptly paused, tilting her face upwards to cast a very annoyed look up at the sky. He smiled in spite of himself, knowing that the little thing could barely see three feet in front of her face and was most definitely cursing the gloom. Rin was alone and lost in the dark, for the moon was gone, hidden beneath the ever present winter clouds.

And, in little over a week, he mused, there would come the night when the moon would fail to appear at all.

The night of the New Moon.

A sharp noise and a quick curse distracted the taiyoukai, and he looked back just in time to see Rin stumble over a loose stone. Without thinking, he nearly lurched forward to help steady her, stopping himself as he remembered his original purpose with a jolt of disgust.

Gods --- had he really been reduced to stalking the girl?

NO, of course not, he reminded himself in a fierce rush. That would be beneath him. After all, he was only here to discover what she was up to --- nothing more. He would not interfere --- not unless absolutely necessary, of course.

Crouching lower and choosing to remain hidden, he left her to continue feeling her way blindly in the dark. Rin resumed her slow progress, inching along the wood timbered building, pausing again to take in a shaky, relieved breath when her fingers touched the frame of the wide doorway. Sesshoumaru suddenly wondered if she knew he was so close at hand.

What if the girl was actually aware of his presence, and was simply ignoring him?

His cheeks burned at the implications of the very idea. He felt another cursed set of emotions flutter through his mind, his chest, his every vein. And though these particular emotions were not exactly new to him, he had not felt them for a long, long time and he quickly realized they might have been as disturbing as love.

At this very moment, he felt indignant. No, wait --- he felt self-conscious. No, that wasn't it either. His brow creased as he settled upon the right word to categorize his current state of mind. Ridiculous. Yes, that was it. He felt absolutely ridiculous.

Rin ducked into the barn, and peeked quickly out into the darkness one last time, wondering, indeed, if her Master was still following her. She would not have known of his presence at all if not for the new, small creak that now sounded out with every opening or closing of the outer gates. When Sesshoumaru had stormed into the shiro the other night, he had thrown those gates so wide they had nearly splintered, and she doubted ANYONE would ever slip past without the screeching accompaniment of strained hinges ever again.

But even though it was the broken gate that betrayed his presence, still she never knew Sesshoumaru to be so careless. It was just another fact that proved wasn't himself. Relax, she tried to reassure herself. You have nothing to fear from him. He may not love you but --- but he --- won't hurt you. Think of how he could have been that night. You were so very, very disrespectful to him, but he --- he remained in control ---

But it wasn't the threat of harm that was so worrisome, a small voice taunted from the farthest corner of her mind. It was something she couldn't even identify. It was the realization that she just didn't have a clue of what to expect, that there was no way for her to prepare for whatever new confrontation was steadily building ---

Sesshoumaru crept closer to the stable. Why was SHE here so late at night anyway? Truly --- did she have any thoughts of leaving him? Perhaps he should send Aun away on some pointless mission, cleverly robbing her of any transportation? He knew he should deal with her now, but --- but what if even face to face she had no wish to speak to him at all?

What has happened to your mind? Be reasonable! he counseled himself with a quickening breath as he stepped out of the shadows. Do not let the impertinent little thing get away with anything!

Not again. Never again.

Rin tensed as she suddenly heard Sesshoumaru's slow, approaching footsteps and hurried to at least make herself appear busy. Whatever his current mood, hopefully petty revenge would not be on his mind tonight, she wished with a fervent sigh. In one last ditch effort to remain bold, she pinched at her pale cheeks, desperate to look alert and fresh, even though she felt on the verge on fainting away.

Forget everything! Stay calm!

And --- maybe, on this night, she could stay composed long enough to gather her explanation. Maybe she could learn his expectations and find relief from this pain eating away at her soul. Maybe it was all the same for him! Maybe answers and an easy truce would be the things he most desired as well. Maybe --- oh, there were too many maybes.

Hurrying through the quiet stable, she caught Aun's reptilian eyes as the dragon snapped awake from his deep bed of straw. Offering a curious snort and swaying sleepily, the creature rose at once and shambled towards her, his twin muzzles sniffing at her hands and robes, eager to receive whatever treats she had brought. As quickly as possible, Rin brushed him back, nudging the sleepy dragon into the center aisle. She hobbled past him to grab a few grooming tools from the shelves, nearly tripping over a snoring Jaken in her haste, as the old toad lay nearly hidden, tucked under Aun's fine saddle skirt. She quickly readjusted the toad's makeshift blanket back over him, racing to begin her task ---

Sesshoumaru pushed past the wide doors and rounded the corner, surprised to find Rin just standing in the main aisle-way, humming, as she briskly rubbed Aun's withers with a damp cloth. In that one instant he KNEW that she had been aware he was following her: Rin was quick, efficient with her chores, and swift to act when given an order --- but only when there was need. She loved the stables, the gardens, the fields and the meadows, and she ALWAYS found ways and excuses to linger in those places. If she had thought she was truly alone on this night, she would still be greeting Aun, fussing over him, crooning about how strong and brave and good the creature was --- as if the formidable beast were a tiny lap-dog rather than a fierce demon! Inwardly, he laughed. It was perfectly clear to him now that she was purposefully trying to appear busy, merely acting and setting up a scene.

Sesshoumaru couldn't decide if that fact was something that should make him furious or --- or heart-achingly miserable.

Whatever the case, he chose to ignore his feelings, allowing a critical eye to wander over the young woman's form. Rin's hair was tied in a long braid that hung well past the small of her back, and she was once again dressed in a few more of his outgrown clothes. These robes, he noted, were not quite so fitted to her petite frame as the ones she had first selected. Her shape appeared lost, swallowed up by the many pleats and trailing folds, as if she was still blatantly choosing to hide her body from him ---

Good. Now he could begin to direct his shifting emotions. Sesshoumaru sniffed disdainfully at her clearly defiant choice of attire and for a moment, the crease of his brow grew a bit deeper in his building rage. In the next instant, however, he had collected himself and any evidence of his anger faded, his face once again smoothed into a haughty mask of neutrality

During the terrible silence, Rin studied her master from beneath her wispy bangs, wondering just how to act. Sesshoumaru was just standing there, remaining far too silent and still. Growing increasingly nervous by each ticking second that passed, the girl finally risked raising her eyes to his.

Her master stood no more than a few feet away and he was just staring at her with that typically blank and utterly unfathomable expression on his face. His far too handsome face, she amended ruefully, trying to ignore the sharp pains slicing through her chest. She couldn't detect any anger or malice in him --- actually, she could discern no real emotion at all. If anything, she'd say he looked bored. Rin's stomach tightened into a queasy knot.

It was the demon lord who broke the terrible quiet first. "Why have you come here at this hour?" he demanded in his most booming, authoritative tone. "Where are do you think you are going?"

"Going, my lord?" Rin asked, truly surprised. Was he frightened by the thought that she might be running away? Did that thought worry him? For the first time in days, she felt a faint stirring of hope. "Rin is not --- I'm not going anywhere. I --- I just couldn't sleep," she supplied truthfully, instinctively wanting to ease his doubts.

Rin suddenly realized what she was doing and frowned. Once again, she was seeking to comfort HIM while her own mind was lost in some turmoil! Her frown deepened into a scowl, her lips tightened and she ground her teeth together in frustration. In the next instant, a choice, rather bitter phrase that betrayed all of her nagging doubts was spit out in an icy hiss. "I didn't want to be cooped up in the house any more --- like another one of your possessions."

Though she tried to imitate his commanding tone and held her chin high, inwardly she cringed. Did she really just say THAT to him! So much for finding 'peace and relief together'! Rin hurriedly turned her attention back to polishing Aun's scales, struggling to rein in all these opposing feelings that seemed to be seething against her every attempt to control them.

"Kono ore to kenka shiteiti muda da. I will not be drawn into another fight with you, girl," the taiyoukai rumbled out behind her, his voice seeming as empty and unfeeling as his expression.

"Fine," Rin replied slowly, rather relieved that he had not risen to her childish baiting. "Because on this night, it is hardly fighting that I have in mind at all, my lord." Sweat was beading on her brow and she ducked beneath Aun's long necks to groom his other flank. But she had already brushed him there, and she realized now that her own swift move was merely a way to put some distance between herself and her master again. Gods, why did she have to be such a pathetic little coward?

At that very same moment, her master was not thinking along similar lines. Sesshoumaru was temporarily lost in a pleasant memory, one dark eyebrow raised at the oblique, sensual nature of her first comment.

On this night, it is hardly fighting I have in mind, my lord.

Truly, what did she have in mind then?

He knew her only too well though, and he realized that she was not really aware of the subtle promise held within her own words. But, most infuriatingly, even though he already knew that little statement was not meant as an invitation, it still was enough to send all thoughts from his head, scattering his carefully rehearsed explanations. For a few seconds, he found his logical arguments were gone, replaced with a few rather wicked images. He scowled, and promptly forced himself to forget the accidental innuendo as the girl began to readdress the real topic that weighed so heavily between them.

"I have thought long about my behavior the other night night, my lord," Rin stated in her soft, lilting tone, as she lowered her eyes from his unsettling gaze. "And --- and I have thought about all the things the miko said."

"And? I suppose you now expect me to hold my breath and await your brilliant conclusions?" he returned coldly, disguising his building tension under a razor edge of sarcasm. Damn --- how the hell did this mere girl cause him to lose control like this!

Rin stiffened, trying to ignore his rude comment. Alright, she thought, she had truly invited that remark --- after all, she had struck the first blow against him tonight. But --- but --- her mind protested, she had sought the solitude of the stables! She had come here alone, eager for a few chores to occupy her mind, eager to do anything to cause her to forget this whole nightmare! And Sesshoumaru had followed her! HE was forcing this confrontation and invading her peace! And now HE was going to punish her with harsh, scornful words! But as quickly as her resentful protests began to build within her own mind, she let them fade again. Really --- she did deserve that. After all, hadn't she tried to hurt him that first night she had returned to the shiro just to prove to herself that she could?

Gods --- none of this made ANY sense.

Drawing in a deep breath, Rin tried to forget her all of her quick-blooming anger and fear. She tossed her grooming rag to the straw, squared her shoulders and took a measured step towards him. Slowly, she moved to stand at the Sesshoumaru's side, her hands trembling as she touched his arm to gather fistfuls of his haori in her hand.

His dark haori, she mused.

He seemed to have returned to choosing bleak and somber colors to outfit himself, as if the shades were a perfect reflection of his current mood. In this quiet light, she couldn't really tell if the robe he was wearing a midnight-blue or true black, but --- gods, did it look so lovely against his white skin. As the dark silk glided like water beneath her fingers, she was suddenly painfully reminded of the night she had first really dared to cling to him. That night --- after she had interfered in his battle with Naraku --- that night when she had clung to his sleeve, pleading for acknowledgement. Pleading for his forgiveness.

Quiet unlike that occasion, this time, he did not wrench away. But though he did not flinch or force her back, he did not seem especially comfortable with her touch either. Rin sighed in frustration as he twisted his face from her ever so slightly, shifting so that she could no longer see his eyes. "I need to know what it is you want from me, Master," she finally willed herself to whisper, praying she could somehow touch his heart. "That's all. Please, my lord."

Sesshoumaru did not reply at first, choosing only to stare down at the girl's hands with a blank look. He watched her little fingers fluttering along the hem of his sleeve, and felt his level of irritation steadily rise.

Just what the hell was she doing now?

What was she thinking?

She wasn't going to soothe him, or lull him into some state of tranquility as if he were Aun!

Fine, he sulked inwardly, Rin wasn't running-off and his curiosity had been satisfied. He should go now --- go and leave her alone so this didn't turn into some mortifying spectacle like their encounter the night before. He growled and shrugged away from her touch, just wanting to return to the main house.

As her hands were abruptly torn away from him, Rin faltered for a brief moment. Sesshoumaru was leaving, marching away without so much as a backward glance! With a small noise of resentment at being so casually dismissed, she stumbled forward to boldly step into his path. But the demon lord merely continued on with his stately march, as if he took no notice of her presence at all.

For the barest second Rin wondered if he would walk right over her and send her sprawling across the wide stable aisle as if she were Jaken. She experienced a brief, ridiculous fantasy of having to scrub his large boot-prints off of her robes as she had seen the small toad do so, so many times in the past. Holding out her hands and squeezing her eyes tightly shut, she waited for the jarring impact ---

Sesshoumaru came to an instant halt when only a mere inch separated their bodies.

Rin cracked an eyelid in surprise, only to find her master staring down at her as if she were a particularly slimy new species of insect. She quickly looked away from his critical gaze, focusing her full attention on a bright, corded tassel hanging from his armor. "Master --- you said I'm not your pet," she quickly sought to remind him, still not trusting herself to look in his face. "Well, if I'm not a --- p-pet --- then why do you treat me as such?"

Sesshoumaru took in a fortifying breath, his head high and his back stiff. As he let his angry eyes bore down upon the obstinate girl, he felt a rush of resentment the likes of which he had never known since learning of the damn hanyou's birth!

This little thing did not seem at all grateful for the countless sacrifices he had already made for her!

Did she not realize all the ridicule and scorn from other demons he would face? But – but in truth, as he had already decided, their scrutiny would really mean nothing! He was above the judgments of other youkai, even the judgments of what remained of his kin!

It was --- it was the uproar that she had caused within his own mind that was so difficult to bear.

She had turned him into nothing more than a hypocrite!

She had reversed his mind-set on the natural order of things, forcing him to redefine beliefs that he had long held as absolute truth! And still she wanted more!

When would it end?

He found could no longer keep silent.

"You are not a pet!" he growled. "But --- but you belong to me all the same! Have you forgotten! You draw breath because of MY power!"

Rin bit her lip. "Of course, I've never forgotten!" she argued, startled that he would ever think such a terrible thing about her. "I just thought things would be ---" The girl trailed off, completely baffled at how to proceed. How could Sesshoumaru-sama NOT understand? Of course she was grateful to him, but --- but --- didn't he think she had at least had some pride in herself, too! She knew she was forever in his debt, and she had spent all of her days trying to repay him --- but --- she didn't just love him because she was obliged to! And shouldn't her love mean more to him because it was given freely, not because it was simply expected? Didn't he think her love was something precious or worthwhile?

Wait --- didn't he think that SHE was something precious and worthwhile?

Rin shook her head sadly, her bound hair feeling so heavy and stiff against her neck. She thought quickly of Inuyasha and Kagome, their unquestioned bond to one another, the relationship they shared, and the way they constantly bickered. Like two little pups --- all yapping noise, flying fur and rolling fluff, but with true claws sheathed and fangs gentle. It suddenly occurred to her that those arguments weren't a sign of a weaker love. Kagome-sama and Inuyasha argued because they COULD --- because they had a strong enough connection to survive the fighting and move on. When their petty squabbles were over, their love was still there, stronger than before. They knew enough to value one another's opinions, even on the occasions when they differed. But --- but how was she to make Sesshoumaru understand something like that?

"I thought we would --- be like ---" Rin stammered, gesturing wildly with her hands, rushing to explain a million thoughts at once. "I thought we would --- Inu --- ya --- and Kagome-sama ---"

"I know what it is you thought," her master abruptly spat out, scattering her thoughts and words. "I know what you wished for --- perhaps this Sesshoumaru should have explained sooner, but --- there is nothing more I can say. There is nothing I can change."

"Why are you like this?" Rin murmured, finally tilting her chin up to stare at him as if she'd never laid eyes on him before. "WHO are you?"

Sesshoumaru straightened, and his expression seemed to become harder and less forgiving, as if he was deliberately trying to shut out her words and the past. "A taiyoukai --- a great demon lord, the first son of the Inu no Taisho, true heir to all his power," he countered after a moment's pause. His eyes gleamed as he brought up a pale hand, staring at his sharp claws as if truly fascinated. "Unquestioned master of these lands and quite soon many, many, many more." He offered an evasive shrug as if those statements alone should explain the rest. But to a devastated human girl it explained nothing and Rin felt her heart die a bit more.

As the cold silence expanded, Aun shifted his legs and whined pitifully, looking back and forth from the scowling youkai to his small trembling mistress in growing apprehension. Jaken's snores had stopped altogether. The toad had obviously awoken and was listening intently now, hardly daring to draw breath, anxious to know how this tense little exchange would end --- after all, his very future depended on the outcome.

Without another word, Rin turned, pausing to compulsively straighten Aun's tangled bridle on its hook. She then offered the restless dragon a small smile and a loving pat. To the cringing Jaken she offered a tiny salute. To Sesshoumaru she offered a respectful, yet wholly impersonal bow --- the kind of bow any lowly servant would grant to its master. She quickly hurried away before any tears would betray her.

Keeping his distance, the demon slowly followed the girl all the way back to her rooms. As the screen to her chamber clamped shut with a loud snap, he suddenly realized that he was facing yet another lonely night where he would be denied the gentle comfort of holding her in his arms. For a long time, he simply waited quietly outside her door, listening as she undressed for bed. It was not lust or any longing for her body that caused him to linger there, but rather the fierce need to guard against certain noises in the night. Certain noises in the night that would indicate she was planning to return to the stables and sneak away, to melt into the darkness and leave him forever.

Like I said, this will be edited a bit. I'm just needed to slap it out there before I lost it. Thank you to the people who have been patiently waiting. I know this wasn't worth it, with all the mistakes and all, so please feel free to e-mail me with typos!