+ Chapter 19: One Winter's Eve +

She thought she'd died.

There was no other way to describe it.

It was incredibly painful. Fire searing from every side, melting her skin until it ran down bones like snow melted from marrow branches. It wasn't dark---it was horribly bright, flaring like a sunburst, except her eyes had already melted . . .

Yet all at once, juxtaposed, she was wrapped in warm liquid so gentle it made her weep. And that was the strange thing . . . How could she weep with no eyes, and no cheeks for tears to trickle down? There was a sweet smell all around, and a song like a child's lullaby. The song had no language, and no set pattern, but wove its way through her mind, wrapped itself round her body and cut off the pain. It was a cool hand, closing round her in a fist strong enough to hold Death at bay.

Lost in sensation, the world faded to white . . .

Darkness returned so slowly that she felt she was dying all over again. There was nothing like being immersed in that light. She felt like weeping anew as it faded, blackening into a bed of flat rock against which her knees were pressed through the holes torn in the legs of her jeans. When she opened her eyes, there were tears in them.

But awareness was not something that could be banished, and the light did not return.

The air reeked of ash; ash was caked in her hair.

Her cheek was pressed against something soft. She was warm. And whole. Alive.

She didn't want to move, but as the tears spilled from her eyes she could see more clearly and recognized the face lying next to hers.

"Inu . . . yasha . . ." she murmured.

His eyes opened as slowly as hers had. They lay there regarding each other, like two creatures newly born from the same womb.

Then something stirred beneath Kagome's head. A chest, rising and falling.

"Uh . . ." She frowned, conscious now of the tang of blood near her nose. The front of the robes beneath her cheek were crimson with it.

But he stirred now, and began to rise.

"BLAUGH!" Inuyasha barked, sitting up in a hurry. When Kagome, perplexed, lay where she was, he grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her upright in a hurry.

Sesshoumaru's regard of them was clear and cold as ever.

Inuyasha leaped to his feet, pulling Kagome with him with one arm round her waist while reaching for Tetsusaiga with the other. The two brothers glared at each other across a few feet of stone and darkness. Then realization of what had happened came flooding back, and Inuyasha's hand moved slowly away from the sword-hilt.

"You . . ." Inuyasha said softly. Peering up at his face, Kagome saw a look there that might have been deep gratitude. But the hanyou recovered himself and finished with: "You smell like wet dog."

"You reek of the Tatesei, half-breed," Sesshoumaru retorted coolly, pushing himself to his feet.

"Where---where are we?" Kagome managed, forcing herself to focus on the here and now and not on the very strange thing they'd just endured. "D---did you bring us here?" As brave as she was, it was still a difficult endeavor to demand answers from Inuyasha's brother. That glare could melt rock.

"Tenseiga," Sesshoumaru answered curtly, turning away from them. To Kagome's surprise, he started walking.

She wasn't particularly inclined to follow, but Inuyasha was, and as he didn't seem keen on removing his arm from around her waist she was obliged to go with him.

"Where are you going?" Inuyasha demanded, addressing the back of his brother's proud, bloodstained head. "Do you even know where you're going?"

Sesshoumaru's step faltered, ever so slightly. Kagome wanted to tell Inuyasha to shut up in the interests of keeping peace, but instead she hunched over coughing from the ash in the air. Inuyasha hauled her upright again, pulling her closer but still keeping his gaze fiercely trained on his brother.

"You were saved for a reason," Sesshoumaru said softly, fingering the hilt at his waist. "Come now, Inuyasha. Let us prove the worth of that reason." He began to move further into the ashy fog. "The Wise are gone. The souls of our kindred are gone. There is but one ghost left to lay to rest."

Then light flared around him, swallowing him in silver. It cut through the rain of ash, billowing toward the two standing behind him so that Inuyasha pushed Kagome behind him to shield her from it. But it wasn't meant to harm; it was the jyaki flare as the Lord of the West rose into the shape of a beast.

This is my last chance.

To join with him . . .

To become him . . .

In that fragile mortal flesh. Is this not what I've wanted? What I've slept and waked and killed and fled for?

My one remaining faithful servant. He is my last chance at eternity.

And his fragility terrifies me.

The Dragon's spirit struck the tiny figure standing beyond the lake full force, silver-black coils seeping into its body like fat snakes. The tail vanished last, sinking into the chest.

He was instantly swallowed in a flood of memories; all of them Asano's. He was a child running in a garden. He was making love to a woman. He was a boy standing on a lake shore strewn with gray-robed corpses facing his brother, who wasn't human any more. He was a king, newly crowned beneath the shade of a temple's pagoda. He was a king even more newly made, weeping as he held his dying brother, even as with his last breath the brother cursed his name.

He was a king, standing on a lake shore.

He drew in a deep breath and opened his eyes.

Asano's eyes. Something was wrong. He was still Raiiru, and not Asano. The boy king's spirit had not sunk into dreaming like Sesshoumaru's had. Perhaps because the boy did not have the white demon's greed.

The Dragon could not completely take possession, because some part of Asano remained unwilling.



Asano's eyes were trained on the lake. It reflected the cloud of dark ash billowing over the mountainside, and the brighter, fiercer glow of lava spilling down the cliff toward the valley. The Dragon saw this and sensed Asano's fear for his people. Tried to use that fear.


Asano's jaw clenched, and the eyes through which the Dragon saw the coming disaster grew narrower still.

"You did not choose me," the king hissed. "He chose me. The Lord of the West. Because he knew I would not betray them . . . that I would not let them become slaves again to the Wise . . . or to you."

The Dragon knew fear now---fear for his immortality. Fear for his newfound mortality.

The king's hands clenched into fists.

"You will stop the flowing fire and save the city you nurtured," Asano commanded. "That is, if being Lord over us all is a sacrifice as you say it must be. If you are truly greater than Sesshoumaru."

The Dragon was silent for once. Raiiru sensed Asano's utter lack of cowardice, and knew that if he chose not to save the city the boy would stand there, on the stone bridge by the lake, until at last the ash and fire rolled over him and both their souls vanished into whatever lay beyond. Raiiru seethed angrily with this knowledge, determined that death would not strip him of godhood so swiftly.

The first streams of lava touched the water like long, orange fingers, hissing and raising whitish steam across the lake's surface.

"Save your children, and I will let go of my will and vanish into sleep," Asano repeated. "Then you can live forever, taking new form with each generation."

Again the Dragon seethed. He, god of this land, was being forced by his own creation to choose. But he was also---even after eons of life---too frightened by death to die.


Asano's head nodded assent, causing the ornaments in his hair to tinkle softly.

"I give my word."

The Dragon's coils pulled free of the king's body partway, lifting Asano on their dark masses and bearing him smoothly across the lake. The boy's arms lifted like a supplicant's hands, but silver-scaled claws slid out from them, stretching claws toward the approaching morass.

As the coils bore Asano forward, the lava began to part.

It rose on either side of the boy like a hallway walled in flame, ashy smoke curling away from him on either side and dispersing into the cold winter wind that swept across the valley. He ascended dreamlike up the slope, and the lava retreated with his advance.

The fire furled backward on itself like a wave in reverse, and through Asano's eyes the Dragon could see the shapes of serpentine heads writhing in anger amid the flame. Coils shifted and twined within the lava's currents---the spirits of Raiiru's dead comrades whom he with his necromancy had bound to flame and rock that they might serve him when he woke from his own prison. Never to ascend to heaven or to descend to hell, as humans believed, nor to vanish as Raiiru believed. Chained to the earth, to serve their god. They hissed at him now with tongues of flame, forked and malicious.

They could do naught but obey him.

"Return to the earth!" he cried through Asano's lips. "Sleep again, I bid you!"

The lava began to fall. It crashed backward onto the plain below the ruins of the mountain Reiyama, where first it splashed chaotically upon itself and upon the broken teeth of boulders jutting from the flow. Then it began to sink, seeping swiftly back into the cracks in the earth from whence it came. The process was unnaturally fast; the liquid flame's currents were driven by the dead souls of dragons. They obeyed.

Raiiru and the boy stood upon a ridge above the slope they had just ascended, watching. A cloud of ash still darkened the sky above the plain and the mountain, but morning was beginning to filter through, slanting in from the east in shades between gray winter dawn and a weak, watery blue. As the sulfurous air from the eruption's aftermath was sucked backward onto the plain, a natural, freezing wind swept northeast, beating against Asano's back. Raiiru felt the sensation of cold for the first time. It reminded him of the fragility he was accepting in doing this, this chill that cut to the bone.

But he was determined.



Raiiru was beginning to feel a great need for haste; he sensed that Asano was not lying in his willingness to give up his body. Why, then, was the boy delaying the inevitable? He sensed no fear . . . what was this then?


Raiiru could see through Asano's eyes; the king's gaze was trained stubbornly on the ash cloud over the plain, as if he expected something to happen. As if he were hoping . . .


Still Asano's gaze was locked on the plain.

"No," the boy managed between clenched teeth. "Not yet."

Raiiru was angry. Yet he could see that he must let Asano wait this out---wait and become disillusioned when his Lord of the West did not come---or the boy would never willingly give him his body. Asano's faith in the white demon, even now, was unreasonably strong. So certain that enemy of the Tatesei would even come to save him, let alone rise from whatever fiery grave he now lay in.

They stood. For an eternal moment, they stood. The smoke rolled softly back over the plain; a black velvet curtain drawn aside to let morning seep across the wasted land.

"My faith . . . endures," Asano whispered at long last, brokenly. "He will come. He will come to stop you, even if I cannot." But he bowed his head, and Raiiru felt his spirit begin to slip into dreaming. The Dragon had finally found a dream to give him, since the boy had no greed to entrap himself. A dream in which Sesshoumaru came.

This was his chance. Within Asano, the Dragon's coils shifted and compressed, joining with the new flesh as he once had with Sesshoumaru's.

He felt the press of a knife at his throat.

With a start that manifested in his new body as a flinch, Raiiru realized that Asano's hand held a dagger at his own throat. And the boy's soul was what moved that hand. He had not seen it before, because Asano had not looked down at it.

Alarmed, the Dragon pulled back, trying in vain to unwrap his soul from the flesh in preparation to flee. The boy was mad. The boy was willing to die. Not to accept the painless sleep deep within that Raiiru offered, nor to become a soul amid the Dragon's ranks of the dead. To vanish. The Dragon's spirit trembled.

The blade scratched the tender skin of his neck. Within the boy's body, standing motionless as a statue on the ridge, two souls vied for possession of the right hand's fingers, to decide the outcome of the knife.

Then, through Asano's eyes, both souls looked out and saw the massive white form of the Inu Youkai burst free of the ash cloud.

Standing upon a field of waving white hairs like a field of silver grass, Inuyasha drew his sword. Ahead, far below, he saw the young Tatesei king standing on a ridge with a dagger at his own throat. At first his heart skipped a beat---it looked like the stupid kid was in the process of killing himself.

Then he realized that Asano wasn't actually moving.

He couldn't see the boy's face close up, but there was something tense about Asano's posture that seemed to indicate strain. As if Asano were struggling either against the hand holding the knife . . . or to move the knife . . . which meant that something was inside him to struggle back . . .

"Shit!" Inuyasha swore, rushing forward with his sword drawn. "STOP RIGHT HERE AND LET ME DOWN! HE'S GOING TO---"

Ahead of him, the field of white fur lifted, and one red eye rolled up in his direction.

"Inuyasha, maybe he doesn't want you on his neck," Kagome called after the hanyou. She was kneeling and clutching the hairs with both hands, which made Inuyasha smirk inwardly. She looked as if she expected Sesshoumaru to throw them off at any second. Well, he wasn't afraid of his brother right now. He knew the way Sesshoumaru's mind worked, and right now Sesshoumaru had far bigger fish to fry.

But the neck beneath Inuyasha's feet rumbled, and he realized the Inu Youkai was growling. The eye was clearly saying, Listen to the girl, asshole. Or you might be next.

Inuyasha, more concerned with Asano right now, backed off and turned toward Kagome.

"Get on my back," he ordered, jabbing one clawed thumb over one shoulder. "We're going down."

Kagome nodded. "To stop him, right? We'll talk him out of killing himself?"

Inuyasha shook his head. "I think we've found our dragon. I think the kid's trying to kill himself to kill the dragon. We're going to need my blood if we're going to do this."

Kagome glanced dubiously at the lone figure on the ridge.

"Hurry," Inuyasha insisted, approaching her and crouching down for her to climb on his back. "I need you to do this. We're going to get that thing out of him."

Because of many years' habit, Kagome obliged him and climbed on. However, Inuyasha could hear the doubt in her voice as he stood up and prepared to take a running start.

"Wait, you mean you're going to---"

Whatever else she said was lost in a sudden rush of air. Inuyasha had been waiting for one of the cold winter gusts to come blustering toward them, and now he seized his chance. Sprinting across Sesshoumaru's back, he took a flying leap off it. The winds rising from the plain slowed his descent, causing his hair, sleeves and the legs of his hakama to billow upward like red and white flags. Kagome's arms tightened around his chest, and judging from her sharp intake of breath he guessed she was screwing her eyes shut against the wind and the sight of their descent.

He landed hard on the scorched earth. This time wasn't as bad as before---instead of hard ice he landed shin-deep in ash and rubble, but once again his knees took a jarring from the impact. He made a swift mental promise to himself to spend an entire day lying with his feet propped up once this was over.

Then he straightened, reaching one hand back over his shoulder.

"Kagome," he said quietly, "give me one of the shards."

He felt her body tense against his back, just as she'd been about to relax. He took a deep breath.

"In fact, give me both."

She let go of his neck with one arm and pulled back that hand for a slap. Knowing her, Inuyasha knew it was coming and knew he deserved it, but he didn't have time for this. He caught her wrist and held it.

"Now," he insisted, gritting his teeth as his gaze turned once more to the boy standing on the ridge with the knife at his throat. "Or he'll---"


"---kill himself! I'm just going to put them in Tetsusaiga! And besides---"

A pair of massive white forelegs passed them by. Inuyasha looked up in time to see Sesshoumaru's red gaze fix itself upon Asano. The great head lowered and the thunder-rumble of a growl started again.

"STOP; DON'T KILL HIM YET!" Inuyasha shouted, brandishing Tetsusaiga with his free hand. "WAIT A SEC AND I CAN---"

The white paws kept moving, bits of poisoned drool trailed between the huge prints in viscous purple puddles. Thin clouds of ash rose from the edges of the trail in soft puffs.

Inuyasha let out an impatient huff. "Kagome, I just want the shards for Tetsusaiga! My blood needs its added strength to expel the Dragon, like it did with Sesshoumaru!"

"NOT AGAIN!" she shouted.

A brief, poignant silence stretched between them. He let go of her wrist.

"Not again," she repeated, in a smaller, more fragile voice that he hated to hear. He knew the proposed risk was already causing her pain.

But there was nothing for it.

"It won't be like that this time," he told her huskily. "This time, you'll be with me. That's why I need you."

She didn't reply.

He reached a hand behind him, craning his neck so that she could see the sincerity in his eyes.

She reached into her pants pocket and retrieved one shard. She reached into her jacket and retrieved the other. Both she gave to him, wearing a fierce look that made his heart skip a beat. His fist closed around the two tiny fragments so tightly that they left painful indentations in his skin, and he turned away quickly so he wouldn't have to look at her.

He took off at a run.

The great shadow of the Inu Youkai had already passed over them, moving terribly and inexorably onward. Inuyasha knew from the purpose in Sesshoumaru's four-footed stride that if he didn't reach Asano before his half-brother the boy was about to become melted.

'Not if I can save him first,' Inuyasha thought grimly, gritting his teeth as he sprinted. 'Sesshoumaru gives up on people too easily, thinking they can't be saved just because they've done the wrong thing.'

Thinking that having "tainted" blood determined whether a person deserved to live or die.

This last thought irked the hanyou so much that he almost planted a foot in a puddle of the drool in his distraction. The near-miss inflamed his temper.

"DON'T BE IN SUCH A RUSH, ASS-BREATH!" he bellowed at Sesshoumaru, surging forward. "WE CAN STILL SAVE HIM!"

This new spurt of speed carried him ahead of his brother's forepaws, where he made straight for the ridge where Asano stood. By the time he'd come within thirty feet of Asano he could see the strain on the boy king's face. Sweat was beaded on his forehead, and tears cut two long runnels through the ash smudged on his cheeks. His mouth was drawn back in a grimace of fear.

'Here goes,' Inuyasha told himself with a fierce grin, slapping the two Shikon shards onto Tetsusaiga's blade, where they sank into the metal. Crystalline jyaki encased the sword, making a noise as it hardened like ice cracking. Quickly he turned the blade inward and drove it into the palm of his left hand. He felt Kagome flinch; she always seemed bothered when it came to him injuring himself. Inuyasha could care less---you did what you had to, and if what you had to hurt, there was always your Youkai blood to heal you up nicely overnight.

He hefted Tetsusaiga with both hands and charged up the ridge. The blood filtered into the lattice-lines of the crystal encasing the sword; only a little blew off the more jagged edges in tiny, jewel-like drops. It would be enough to restore the Tatesei king to himself.

Asano watched him with wide, frightened eyes. Inuyasha's breath was uneven with anticipation. As Kagome had felt when she shot him with her last arrow, Inuyasha saw the world slow and stretch in the distance between him and his target. He adjusted Tetsusaiga's aim to catch the boy full in the chest. Because of Tetsusaiga's size, it would be a killing blow . . .

'. . . but if Sesshoumaru will use Tenseiga afterward. . .'

He was closing in.

Asano's lips moved.

"Don't, Inuyasha-sama, I beg you . . ."

Scarcely a whisper emerged.

Yet Inuyasha, given pause, began to slow his charge. That whisper was Asano's; the boy was either begging for his life . . . or he was warning Inuyasha not to interfere. Or it was the Dragon's voice speaking through Asano's lips.

"If you do, he'll be freed," Asano or Raiiru whispered.

"Inuyasha, stop."

This second voice was Sesshoumaru's.

Kagome felt Inuyasha slow to a stop and unscrewed her eyes, which she'd kept closed to avoid being hit by his flying hair. She felt rigidity seize the red-clad shoulders to which she clung, felt him stiffen---and at first she feared the shards had overpowered him.

But he didn't go mad.

He stopped, as if something had frozen him solid, the deadly swing of Tetsusaiga halted inches from Asano's breast. Kagome had heard a voice from behind them, and thought that Asano had also said something, though she couldn't be sure because Inuyasha's head and masses of hair were in the way, and because a sudden gust of wind sweeping across the plain made it impossible to hear. Now she craned her neck sideways and saw that Asano still stood frozen, the dagger still pressed against his own throat, as if his body hadn't even flinched when Inuyasha swung Tetsusaiga toward him.

"You have to do this," Kagome insisted, speaking directly into the hanyou's ear. "Your blood has to set Asano free." She thought he was hesitating because Asano's words might have been a plea for his life.

"Silence, girl," someone said coldly.

Now Kagome knew whose the other voice had been. She didn't recall exactly when he'd slid into man-shape, but he had and he was still closing in for the kill.

"Inuyasha, why did you stop?" she pressed, unlocking her legs from the hanyou's waist to stand on the ground behind him. She didn't let go of him, though, because she was still afraid of what the shards might do to him. Inuyasha merely shook his head, brushing off her question; he was staring intently at the boy in front of him. The two of them were still as statues. 'He's waiting,' Kagome realized. 'Inuyasha's holding off the strike because he's waiting to see what both of them meant by "don't do it".'

She felt rather than saw Sesshoumaru approaching from behind.

"You'd better have a damn good reason for stopping me," Inuyasha snapped, without looking at his brother.

"The Dragon wishes to be freed from that body, Inuyasha," Sesshoumaru said, brushing past the both of them. Now Inuyasha turned to glare at him, though the hanyou kept his sword leveled with Asano's heart. "Raiiru knows I will kill him if he remains mortal," the white demon went on. "That is why he doesn't try to flee your sword; he knows your blood will eject him from the boy." A pause, and in his voice the sound of a faint smile. "There is but one end to this. Surely you see it. Even Asano sees it, for he holds the knife even though he lacks the courage to do it himself."

"How do you know the Dragon wants Inuyasha to strike?" Kagome asked, apprehension making the words come out shaky.

She heard a faint sniff that might have been a bitter laugh.

"Though it is gone from me, I hear the Dragon's voice."

Kagome turned to glance at him now in alarm. Sesshoumaru's face, filthy and smeared with crimson, was nevertheless calm and cold as ever.

Tokijin crackled in his hand.

'He's still determined to kill Asano,' she realized in horror. 'To kill the Dragon, he'll murder the one it's possessed.'

"Stay the hell away from him," Inuyasha snarled at his brother. "Whatever the hell the Dragon wants, we can still save Asano. There has to be another way to destroy Raiiru."

But Sesshoumaru didn't seem the least bit inclined to back down.

He came to a halt calmly, but a few feet away from both Inuyasha's Tetsusaiga and the one it was pointed at. Kagome felt Inuyasha twitch, as if he were itching to take a swing at his brother but didn't want to start another prophecy-driven battle.

"Your blood made you too weak, boy," Sesshoumaru murmured to the frozen Asano. "You should not have let him inside you."

He drew back Tokijin, readying to slash downward, to cut the boy in half.

Inuyasha's protective instincts finally won out; he swung his own blade upward and to the side. It clashed with Tokijin, and sent Sesshoumaru's blade spinning from his hand. In its jewel-enhanced state, Tetsusaiga's blow was far too strong for Sesshoumaru to deflect. Sesshoumaru uttered a curse, turning swiftly to retrieve the fallen sword.

Before the white demon could regain his weapon, Inuyasha seized the opportunity to do what he'd come to do. He faced Asano again, and drove Tetsusaiga's point into the boy's belly. Kagome gasped and instinctively averted her face; she didn't want to see what the blow would do.

There was a rush of wind in front of Inuyasha, this time having nothing to do with the natural gusts from the plain behind them. Kagome knew it was the Dragon's spirit, beginning to tear loose from its mortal host.

She thought she heard Asano whisper something.

Then the wind died.

Kagome let go of Inuyasha and skirted round him, more concerned now with what had happened than she was with the possibility of Inuyasha falling prey to the shards.

What she saw stopped her dead in her tracks. She gasped. Inuyasha uttered a curse in astonishment, stumbling back a step and pulling Tetsusaiga back.

Inuyasha's blow had struck its target. But it was already too late to set Asano free.

Because the Dragon's hold on Asano had finally loosened as the creature's spirit attempted to flee, Asano was finally free to move the knife. The pale skin of his throat split crosswise in a wide, macabre grin. There was a brief red spurt over his collar-bone and the front of his robes.

It was already over before his body hit the ground.

And Sesshoumaru, who did not surprise easily, froze in disbelief, holding Tokijin low at his side. The thoughts that flowed through his head in this moment were vague and disjointed.

'He has . . . the throat slit . . . And Raiiru . . .'

Though Sesshoumaru strained to hear, the Dragon's voice was silenced at last. Asano had done what he, Sesshoumaru, could not.

Inuyasha heard Kagome weeping. He wanted to weep himself, but of course he wasn't going to allow himself to do that in front of his half-brother. Although . . . Sesshoumaru's reaction to Asano's noble death was perhaps the most unexpected. Even after time had sped up again, and he and Kagome were no longer rooted where they stood in shock, Sesshoumaru did not move. His robes fluttered in the wind, and his face had settled back into its usual white, stony mask, but his eyes upon the dead king were unreadable and distant. He did not speak for a long while.

At long last, he said---more to himself and the boy on the ground than to the two beside him who were still among the living---"I won't bring him back. His soul must move on for the Dragon's to truly die."

But before he turned and began to walk northeast across the plain, Inuyasha saw that his hand had lingered near Tenseiga's hilt. Sesshoumaru did not let the hand drop until he was no longer facing the boy.

The white demon strode quietly across the tortured, blackened landscape without looking back. Inuyasha let him. The ash clouds had long since rolled away, and warm sunlight and winter-sharp air stole across the land in its lee. Both he and Kagome could see that the white demon was heading for the long steep slope that led upward toward his palace, where the peak was still capped with snow.

"Miroku and Sango are there," Kagome told Inuyasha, in a voice that rose and fell strangely as she forced back the flow of tears. "They're safe. Sango helped the Seer and Miroku back to Sesshoumaru's palace, so they were warm and safe." She paused, swallowing hard, and when she spoke again her voice was steadier. "But he . . . I don't know what Sesshoumaru will do when he's like this . . . if he finds them there . . ."

Inuyasha watched his brother's receding back a moment longer, then snorted and turned away. "They'll be fine," he assured her. "Miroku still has the Wind Tunnel, doesn't he? And Sesshoumaru's probably not in the mood to attack anyone. He's probably sad his chance to gain a dragon's power is dead, and he sure as hell won't show it, so he'll go off and wander by himself for a while."

Another cold wind swept the plain, and Kagome moved closer to him, shivering.

Inuyasha sighed. "They'll be fine," he repeated. "As for us . . . You and I will take Asano home."

Sesshoumaru did not return to the Inu Youkai palace. Instead he made the long ascent up the mountain and down again on the other side, descending far to the east of the garden's borders. The snow was still thick here, and sparkled so brilliantly that at times he was forced to shield his eyes. The winter morning light gave everything a terrible harsh purity that somehow darkened his mood.

His journey carried him between the snow-laden pines and down another slope at the base of the mountains on the valley's eastern side. Between the high, craggy mountains and the edge of the wood was a narrow ravine, dark and carpeted with scrubby bushes. The bushes were capped with snow also, which brushed off on his legs as he passed and burned his bare feet with cold. But he was not wandering aimlessly, as Inuyasha had assumed.

The ravine ended where the tunnel began; little more than a narrow mouth in the mountainside. He set off down it, grateful to leave the day's brightness behind.

After a time of walking soundlessly beneath the mountain, he heard the sound of small voices conferring in the gloom. They echoed off the stone walls, almost recognizable, reminding him of memories long barren. He had heard the voices of children in this place before, long ago.

"Sesshoumaru-nii-sama, come see the cave I found!"

"Sesshoumaru-nii-sama, we've made a fort to keep out enemies!"

"Sesshoumaru-nii-sama, they killed everyone. Grandfather is dead . . ."

Voices that trailed off into screams, which he hadn't been there to hear because he was wandering somewhere else. But he imagined those screams echoing in his head when he visited this place, when he saw the claw marks on the walls where the Wise dragged them away. If he had not been selfish, if he had joined his father to fight the Wise instead of refusing because his father defended his human bride, if he had not gone to the battlefield at all and gone to defend the survivors instead . . . the children might have been spared.

His heart was what it was. It was far easier to blame Inuyasha, blame the Dragon, blame the Tatesei, blame his father than it was to torment himself with what if. But Asano's face haunted him. The boy's death had been an act of faith in the Lord of the West, even though Sesshoumaru had not had faith in the boy.

He shook his head, brushing the memory aside.

The voices he heard now weren't products of memory. Two children---a boy and a girl---and a third voice far harder on the ears that could only belong to Jakken. He rounded a corner and saw them at last.

Jakken was facing his direction, clutching the Staff of heads, standing a pathetic-looking guard over the two children. The Kitsune who traveled with Inuyasha stood facing the cave's other entrance, standing an even more pathetic-looking guard. Between the two, the Seer sat cradling Rin in her lap, who was fast asleep. The woman looked up at him as he emerged into the light from the tunnel. Her expression was unreadable, but her eyes were gray---no longer stained with the Dragon's curse.

Sesshoumaru did not look at the walls, which were graven with the runnels left by long-dead children. Instead his gaze slid down from the Seer's face to Rin's. Lingered on the top of her raven-haired head; her child's lips; her rosy cheeks; her chest that rose and fell gently. Her distinct but not altogether offensive odor of dirty child.

"Come, all of you," he said softly, brushing the past aside. "I will lead you home."

One Day Later

Kagome and Inuyasha arrived at Sesshoumaru's palace long after Sesshoumaru himself returned. Inuyasha---who had obviously been looking forward to badmouthing his brother for wandering off to sulk---instead found a very calm and collected Rin playing with Shippou, who told him that Sesshoumaru had merely gone somewhere to bathe in the snow. Robbed of his opportunity to insult the white demon's character, Inuyasha instead deigned to make a very nasty remark about the effects bathing in the snow was likely to have on Sesshoumaru's nether parts, which was rewarded with a very heartfelt Osuwari from Kagome.

Shippou, it seemed, was quite happy to have Rin following him around and calling him Lord Shippou. Jakken paced the halls listlessly, grumbling ceaselessly about the human blight that had descended upon his master's domicile but failing to conceal his happiness that all was set to rights. The Seer kept mostly to herself, sleeping much of the day as if she hadn't had a good sleep in ages.

As for Miroku and Sango . . .

Miroku was still bed-ridden on Sango's orders, which he claimed was because she liked to keep him in bed, which resulted in a rather long, icy silence between them. Bored by the silence, he dozed for a while. When he awoke, Sango's ire had cooled because she enjoyed watching him sleep---the only time he ever looked innocent. He smiled at her, tenderly, gently. And she returned the look, kneeling contentedly beside his bedding.

"How do you feel?" she asked him, bending closer. For a moment he studied her seriously, like a man trying to drink in every facet of a beautiful painting. Her hair, her dear face, her eyes back to their lovely color instead of Raiiru's stain.

"Lusty," Miroku replied. Then he pulled her down and rolled on top of her.

It was this moment that Sesshoumaru happened to slide open the panels and enter the chamber, on his way to the hall.

Both humans froze.

The white demon regarded them icily for a beat, then continued on past them quietly.

But he stopped in the doorway that led into the hall, sliding that panel open as well.

"There will be no rutting in this house," he said coldly, without turning around. "There are enough humans polluting this place without you making more of them."

Then he was gone.

Sango unfroze, shoving Miroku off her. He rolled back onto his bedding.

"What were you thinking?" she demanded, sitting up and hastily righting her clothing.

Miroku sat up as well, looking ruefully down at himself. "Whatever I was thinking, it's gone now. Felled by a glare."

Kagome sat splay-legged beside Inuyasha, who was lying on his back on the cushions in the main hall, beside a blazing fire. His arms were tucked comfortably behind his head, and his legs were propped up to warm his feet. Both were quiet. The previously jocular mood when they'd been reunited with everyone had faded a bit as they remembered what it had been like bringing Asano's body back to Reiyama. He had no family to mourn him, but all of Reiyama wept when they learned what he had done. As Kagome and Inuyasha had left the city, there arose a great wailing from the temple there, which was to go on for a day and a night before the boy-king was finally laid to rest.

"Your face looks serious," Kagome remarked, gently attempting to lighten the mood.

Inuyasha's brow knit as he stared up at the cavernous ceiling. "Yeah." Silence. And then, "He was so light, when I carried him . . ."

She bent down and kissed his forehead, on an impulse.

"What was that for?" he asked, flushing as he turned his head to look up at her when she'd straightened.

Kagome flushed as well. He was dense. "That was for saving me," she told him. "When I caught the shard but almost fell. When the mountain was erupting."

He sat bolt upright. The next thing she knew, he had taken her chin delicately between his clawed thumb and forefinger and pressed his lips to hers. It was the gentlest thing she had ever known him to do. His breath was warmer than the hearth.

He broke away all too quickly, beet-red but earnest.

"Then that," he said, "was for saving me."

It was fortunate that he'd broken the kiss quickly, because soon after came the telltale soft footsteps of Sesshoumaru gliding into the room. Behind him came the Seer.

"Where are you going with Suiton?" Kagome asked, a bit worriedly.

Sesshoumaru ignored her, addressing Inuyasha instead. "I go down to Reiyama. The city must have a new king ordained, for I have no wish to rule them myself. When I return, all these---" here his lip curled in disgust---"Ningen will be gone."

And he swept past. Inuyasha kept silent. Having just kissed Kagome and thoroughly embarrassed himself, he didn't have the heart to pick a fight.

Hours Later

Two figures stood in the cool darkness of the Tatesei temple, where in a way it had all begun. One spoke. The other laughed.

"It is my place to choose who rules this city, woman," Sesshoumaru snapped, cutting short her laughter. "Let no one dispute, least of all you."

Suiton shook her head, the soft bitterness gone from her lips as she realized his sincerity.

"I can't," she insisted. "I can't."

Sesshoumaru's pale, beautiful face remained impassive. To him it was foolish the way humans wasted time saying what they couldn't do instead of trying to do what they could. But in some ways human foolishness was also wisdom. He was remembering a boy who had given his life to free his people---and to restore a demon lord's faith.

"You will," Sesshoumaru told her coldly. "A priestess you have been, sequestered in a temple. Now your cage is gone, and I give you the ultimate freedom---and you fear to take it?"

She bowed her head.

"To rule over others isn't freedom," she replied. "You know this, my Lord."

He nodded briefly; he did know. But he would not change his mind.

"Why?" she demanded, finally mustering the courage to raise her head and stare him in the eye. "I have no strength. Why do you do this to me?"

In spite of himself, he smiled faintly.

"Because before, on the plain, you called me a coward."

Epilogue: Blood and Destiny

One winter's eve, a boy and a girl climbed out of a well into a world newly capped with snow. They donned warm jackets and knit caps and funny things called mit-tens and left the city on a five-o-clock train.

The train was crowded, and so they didn't speak to one another until they'd reached their stop, where they emerged into a soft snowfall. The place they'd gotten off at was no longer the mammoth city it had been before. Now it was a quaint, quiet town, where light glowed cheerily between the curtains of the shop windows and houses lining the streets, and the streetlamps gleamed a welcome down the lanes. Hand in hand, the two walked to the center of the town, where there stood a modest city hall in place of the monolithic capitol. The signs still read "Reiyama," but the name was no longer the warning knell it had once been.

They stopped before the lone statue that stood outside the city hall. Many people passed them by in the square, carrying groceries and dragging children and toting precariously stacked towers of presents off to various destinations. But the two who had come through the well only looked at the statue.

"So he kept his faith with the Tatesei after all," Inuyasha murmured, reading the inscription on the pedestal.

Kagome didn't reply, but squeezed his mitten-clad hand in response.

The statue was made of ordinary stone. It bore near-perfect likeness to the king it represented.

The plaque read:

Asano-o-sama: He Who Slew the Dragon

It is not blood that changes the shape of destiny

Nor birthright

Nor race

Nor blame nor guilt nor greed nor sorrow.

It is the strength of a man.

This is the declaration of He whom the Heavens ordained;

Sesshoumaru-o-sama, Lord of the West

Epilogues 4-3V3R!11eleventyone1

The white demon strode softly down the hall, his footsteps the only echo there. Rin and Jakken were asleep, and the nuisances were gone. The palace almost seemed empty without them.

"But wait," he murmured, bending to pick up something lying on the floor. "What is this thing they have left behind?"

His nostrils flared; it had a rich, distinctive odor. Brown powder in a bag.


Yamisui: Well, this was a very Long fic, so this is going to be a very Long author's closing note.

First off, thanks to all those who actually deigned to review. I project astral Pocky your way.

Second, I note that this has been nominated for the IY Fanguild Action/Adventure thingie, so now I guess I have to go back and edit the thing. Damn.

Third, I'll edit it later. It's off to Maui for a week.

Fourth, Inuyasha, actually DOES use the F-word a LOT. Read the scanlated manga on Eartweak, or download the subbed versions. You'll see. I never put swearing in unless it's in character . . . or funny as hell.

Fifth, the hardest part about writing this story was making Kagome's character interesting. She's hard for me to write, for some reason.

Sixth, I like lists.

Seventh, Sesshoumaru's glare can melt even the hardiest of boners, so don't try snogging in his house, please.

Eighth, I will not be writing any more sequels to this. The Tatesei Arc is done. There will be an epic coming once R. Takahashi FINALLY decides to end the manga . . . or whenever I get impatient with her Ranma-like prolonging of the series. In the meantime, I've got an idea for a very . . . um . . . different kind of IY fic to do while I wait. Be forewarned. Or, if you like Naruto---you're a crack-monkey if you don't---check out my Naruto fics, onegai shimasu. Watashi no Naruto no sutori wa The Shit desu yo! Sutori no namae wa "Red Blossom"to "Fire and Leaf" to "Scarlet" desu.