Wow it's been two months. Life takes away all of my time hehe. But this chapter turned out wayyy longer than I imagined. Like I think it's the longest chapter yet.

Andddd I lied D There are still going to be three more chapters since this one turned out so long. I considered not ending it here but I figured it was long enough already and covered so much it was a good part to end at.


"Kajuu!"

It was Keikai who yelled it and the sound reverberated all around them, like a bell tower chiming out the procession of a death march. Kajuu's eyes switched from Rin to her and Rin found she was finally able to breathe again. Her brain, which had slowed to a crawl, now sped up to a thousand different whirling thoughts.

Run. She had to run. If she didn't they were going to kill Keiseki. With Kajuu's attention elsewhere she might just have a chance…

Quickly she looked back to the way they had come, ready to flee, but across the expanse of space between the ruined walls small figures loitered, stopping her feet from moving. Their route of escape had been cut off. The only way out was through the assassins and Kajuu.

"I'm very sorry," said Kajuu. The tiger youkai wasn't smiling anymore. He just looked sad, as if he truly meant it. "Keikai, Rin."

Keikai made a weird sound, like a huffing bull, and her hand seized Rin before she knew what was happening. She was pushed against the stones of the wall, Keikai forcing her there as she moved in front of her.

"Mamoru!" Keikai shouted, voice tight with rage and apprehension. "Move back to the castle! Together we can break through!"

But Mamoru did not move the slightest at the command. She simply continued to stand there, gaze still locked on Kajuu.

"Mamoru!" Keikai snapped.

From around Keikai's side, Rin saw Kajuu nod slightly. "Mamoru, if you will." He gestured with his left hand, the right remaining buried in his pocket.

The assassins blocking them hustled forward. Keikai whirled to face them, her arm pushing Rin and sliding her further down the wall away from the small lizards. Rin stumbled, not expecting the sudden push, and fell onto the grass.

There was an unexpected rush of air next to her but by the time Rin looked up it was too late.

Keikai had only enough time to half-turn before Mamoru's sword sank into her midsection. The cougar's claw hand clasped the shaft of Keikai's spear at the same time, preventing the weapon from swinging any further towards her person. Both of their hands shook with the strain of trying to best the other, veins rising along the corded muscle. Their faces came only inches apart, eyes locked and expressions serious.

"Ookama wasn't lying," Mamoru spoke flatly, the words delivered in the same tone one would talk about the color of the sky. "You have lost your touch."

Keikai twitched. She released the spear, allowing it to fall to the ground with a soft thunk, and her hands shot up to wrap around the cougar's neck. She tightened her grip, teeth baring aggressively. Her youki began to rise as redness began to cloud her eyes.

"Sorry," Mamoru swallowed with some difficultly around the hands griping her throat. "Nothing personal really. Just following orders."

She thrust her sword forward and jerked the hilt upwards, forcing the blade higher, widening the wound. Keikai made a gurgling sound deep in her throat. Blood dribbled out her mouth.

Mamoru stepped back, pulling her sword away, and without the blade embedded in her to hold her upright Keikai collapsed onto the grass.

"Keikai!" Rin's shrill shriek split the misty air. She clambered to her feet, stumbling in her haste, and tried to run to the fallen bodyguard. "Keikai!"

Mamoru's hand snaked out. She grabbed Rin's shoulder, drawing her up short, and pushed her violently backwards. The force knocked Rin clear off her feet and the jarring impact of her body meeting the ground winded her. She gasped for air, rolling onto her side and withering on the cold grass.

The assassins, she thought dazedly, feeling as if she were far away and watching this happen to someone else. They had only been a distraction to let Mamoru attack. Oh, Keikai…

"Thank you, Mamoru."

The sound of Kajuu's feet moving across the grass caused Rin to force her eyes open, drawing her back to reality. This was not happening to someone else; this was happening to her. Tears she hadn't been aware of shedding streaked down her cheeks as she clutched the sobbing Keiseki closer to herself, meager protection against a slew of youkai.

"You have done a good job," Kajuu remarked to the cougar.

Mamoru was smiling again, like the praise was the best thing she had had ever heard. She turned to face him fully, sword lowered at her side. Kajuu drew up close to her, too close for mere subordinate and commander, and he withdrew his right hand from his pocket.

A brief flash of metal was all Rin saw before he plunged the curved dagger into the cougar's body. He pointed the dagger upwards, the blade sliding past the ribcage into the organs beneath it, the curved blade enabling it to go further than a straight blade would have. His other hand gripped Mamoru's wrist, keeping her sword pointed to the ground.

He aligned his body against hers until every inch of them was touching. "I'm sorry, dear," he whispered in her ear, barely loud enough for Rin to hear even though she was practically under their feet. "Thank you for all that you've done. Sleep now."

Kajuu withdrew the blade and stepped back. Mamoru's body slid to the ground in much the same manner as Keikai's had. Rin unconsciously slid backwards, eyes glued to the ruined body before her.

"I'm very sorry, Rin." From within his right pocket Kajuu pulled out a white square of cloth. Apathetically he began to wipe the blade clean of Mamoru's blood. "I never intended for it to go this far," he continued. "But unfortunately it has and I have no choice but to go forward."

Rin swallowed. She tightened her hands, trying to stop them from shaking. Unsteadily she rose to her feet to face him, moving herself away from the two bodies. She didn't dare look at Keikai's. She would lose her rickety courage if she did.

"Why?" she demanded, voice sounding strangely loud in her own ears. She bit back the sob. "Why are you doing this?"

He moved closer to her and she leaned back slightly but did not back up, forcing herself to confront him even as her body trembled beneath the fabric of her kimono. Her eyes darted side to side, searching the area desperately around them.

Kohaku…

"I'm afraid explanations will have to wait. I am in a bit of a hurry," said Kajuu. "My partner has been growing steadily more aggrieved by all these debacles lately and is anything but forgiving to lateness considering the circumstances. His company has become even more so unsettling than normal. I'd prefer to not antagonize him any further."

Rin stilled, breath hitching, eyes training on him.

Partner? Then he's not the only one?

Kajuu's hand reached towards her and out of the corner of her sight she could see the assassins cluster closer. Hurriedly she flung herself away from him, flattening herself against the wall and tightening her hold once again on the screaming Keiseki.

"I won't let you take her! I won't let you hurt her!"

Kajuu's hand paused halfway towards her. A frown marred his handsome features. "What? Oh, you mean the baby. She isn't the one we want."

Rin's lips parted in surprise. "What?"

Kajuu stepped towards her and Rin closed her eyes tightly, turning her head to the side and tensing as she waited for the cold steel of the dagger to hit her. But it never did and instead Kajuu simply lifted the screaming Keiseki out of her arms. He whistled sharply and the assassins descended on Rin, their weight boring her down to the ground.

She tried to scream but it was swallowed by the black cloth pulled over her head.

-

-

-

Ayame stood with hands on hips in the middle of her home cave, sternly regarding the three boys seated in front of her. The three were trying their best to look innocent, except Tsume, who kept letting out a stray snigger or two.

"So," began Ayame, "which one of you boys would like to tell me who set Houkou's tail on fire?"

The three started giggling. Obviously the little demons – demons in both senses of the word, Ayame reflected – found the idea of another member's tail getting set on fire quite humorous. Upon seeing their mother's expression they immediately quieted. They looked around the cave, anywhere but at her, as if trying to find diamonds hidden in the stone.

"Unaru," Ayame honed in on the youngest wolf cub, knowing he was the one who broke the easiest under pressure. "Who was it?"

"Uhh…I don't know, Mom," the wolf cub stirred uneasily. "I think it might have been Ginta."

Ayame rubbed her temples and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. Already she was feeling a headache coming on. "Unaru, I highly doubt Ginta would set fire to his uncle's tail."

"Yes he would!" Kiba piped up. "He says all the time that somebody needs to light a fire under Houkou's butt!"

The three burst into giggles and twitters as Ayame's eyebrows rose into her hairline. She was going to have to make sure she spoke to Ginta later about his language use around her children. They were bad enough already without him adding to the problem.

"Alright, you three are on punishment," Ayame announced, prompting a series of protests and exclamations from the three. "You can start by apologizing to Houkou. Then you can sweep out all the fire pits and clean up all the bones lying around. And then after that you can-"

"Hi, kids! Daddy's home!"

Ayame's punishment dealing was brought to an abrupt end as Kouga vaulted into the cave, returned at last. The three boys gasped at the sight of their father and a chorus of "Dad!" sounded loud enough that it caused their baby sister sleeping in the other room to come screaming awake. The three boys raced towards the wolf prince, conveniently forgetting they were in the middle of a scolding, and tackled him to the ground.

Ayame sighed in defeat. Punishing them was a lost cause. Anyway, they had missed their father dearly so she decided not to ruin their reunion with scolding. Waving a hand in front of her face to clear away the dust, she slipped into the other room to retrieve her squalling infant.

"My goodness you boys have gotten so strong!" Kouga marveled while the three boys pulled on his arms and legs, bounced on his stomach, and chewed on his hair. "Or has your mother just been feeding you too much?"

"I heard that," Ayame called from the other room, eliciting a stream of giggles from the boys and a grimace from Kouga. She reentered the room, baby in arm, and strode towards him to bend down to kiss him. "It's good to have you back, even if you are lacking in manners."

Kouga grinned wolfishly at her. Already he was wondering when and if they would have enough time to slip away from the kids in order to make a new one. That was one of the best parts after all.

"Hey Dad!" Tsume shouted right in his ear. "What were the blue dragons like? Did they live in a seashell under the sea like Ginta said?"

"Oh no!" Kouga responded just as enthusiastically as his son. "They lived in a huge castle and everything in it was blue! Even the bed sheets!"

"They had beds?" Unaru gasped.

"That must not have been very comfortable," Kiba muttered. "I'd much rather sleep on the floor."

"Yep, they had beds," said Kouga, "and they were blue too! And there were secret passages all over the castle! There were stupid meetings Daddy had to go and a bunch of parties where I had to go and talk with other royal families! And you know what else Daddy did? Daddy got drunk!"

"Daddy did what?" asked Ayame.

"Nothing, dear."

It was another fifteen minutes of excited storytelling and wrestling before the boys departed to wreck havoc elsewhere and Kouga was finally permitted a moment to relax. It had been a long run from Shouada's castle back here. He had rested little during the trek, his desire to get back home stronger than his desire to rest adequately.

Settling on a fur lined rock leaning against the wall, he stretched his sore muscles and took a deep breath. It was nice to be home.

"So," Kouga glanced at his mate cuddling the youngest member of the royal wolf family nearby, "anything worth mentioning happen while I was gone?"

Ayame hummed low in her throat. "It's been quiet for the most part," she said, "but there was one incident."

"Incident?" Kouga turned his head to get her fully in his view, all his attention now focused on her.

Ayame nodded. "That taijiya boy Kohaku came here."

"Kohaku?" Kouga frowned. The name sounded vaguely familiar but he couldn't recall exactly where he had heard it.

"The brother of the female taijiya that traveled with Kagome," Ayame explained.

"Ohh! Now I recognize it. Why the hell was he here? They've never been here before."

"He was fleeing from some assassins. Not only that but, and you're not going to believe this, his companion was the ward of the Western Lord."

"The ward of the Western Lord?" Kouga sat up. "You don't mean Sesshoumaru's ward do you?"

"Yes, Sesshoumaru's ward," Ayame confirmed. "Oh goodness what was her name again? Lin? No, that's not right. Kin?"

"Rin," said Kouga. "Her name is Rin."

"Yes, that's it. Rin. Anyway they were running from a batch of assassins and landed up here. They had an infant with them and were trying to get the infant to Sesshoumaru's because it had been poisoned and they needed a cure to save it. The infant was the female taijiya's offspring apparently."

"Assassins," Kouga muttered lowly. He stared at the ground between his knees for a long moment, brow furrowed. "It couldn't possibly be…No, it couldn't be…But...Could she have been found out..." He swung his gaze back to his mate. "When did they leave?"

"Days ago," said Ayame. "I sent an escort with them to the edges of our territory and they found no trace of the assassins on the way there nor back. I assume that those two made it to Sesshoumaru's by now. I certainly hope so anyway."

She looked up from her infant and saw Kouga's expression. "Is something wrong?" she inquired.

"I hope not," Kouga murmured, rising from his chair, "but I intend to make sure."

-

-

-

They were nearly ready to depart. Amid the hustling and bustling of the soldiers making the final preparations to leave the castle Sesshoumaru stood, watching it all without really seeing any of it. Physically he was there but mentally he was deep inside himself, pondering over his decision.

He was a youkai and he would never, ever be his father. He had sworn he would not and he had married a youkai, one that may not be a royal youkai but was still a youkai regardless. He would never produce a hanyou. The simple idea of it made him shutter with revulsion and in his travels he had never found any sort of human female sexually attractive. He knew beauty when he saw it but not one female human, despite how gorgeous she might be, had attracted him.

So why was he doing this? And why didn't his decision bother him more than it should have?

He was fully aware that he had broken the unsaid laws of the youkai world by taking Rin under his wing. He had taken an accepted belief that youkai and humans could not coexist peacefully, one he had in fact believed himself, mashed it up and thrown it away like a discard piece of paper.

Did that alone not make him like his father? Did that not make him a 'human lover'?

Sesshoumaru wasn't entirely certain what label he would be given. He didn't practically care either nor did he care about the human race. He cared about one human and that was enough to drive him forward without regret or reconsideration of his decision.

General Ookama raced up to him, bowing lowly. "We are ready to depart, my lord."

Sesshoumaru nodded slightly. "Get them mounted."

"Yes, sire!"

The general raced off, shouting commands to the platoon of soldiers Sesshoumaru had selected to accompany him. He had emptied his stables of his flying mounts and the armored soldiers quickly clambered on to the beasts.

Sesshoumaru's own selected mount, a replacement in lieu of AhUn missing, was being held by a stable hand nearby but ere Sesshoumaru had mounted, he turned around to address the youkai that had been standing behind him for quite some time.

Kagura's arms were folded over her chest, a black scowl on her face. Her fan tapped against her upper arm.

"Don't be angry," said Sesshoumaru passively.

"I should be going with you," Kagura snapped hotly back. "Why must I remain behind?!"

Sesshoumaru exhaled deeply through his nose. The wind sorceress had been most vexed when he announced his decision that she remain at the castle. She had been griping about it all morning.

"I need you here," said Sesshoumaru patiently. "You are the only one I can trust at this moment."

"Leave Jaken in charge."

"He is not strong enough," Sesshoumaru refuted. "You are the only one who has the capability of warding off an attack should one occur. Jaken would only panic and be utterly useless. I am leaving my estate in your capable hands. You should be honored."

Kagura's eyebrow twitched just a bit, lips compressing. "You're such a jackass. You know that's not the reason why I want to go."

"I know. My deepest apologies."

"You better bring her back." Kagura's eyes bore into his, gaze severe and compelling. "You better."

Sesshoumaru inclined his head in understanding. He turned and headed towards his mount.

"I plan to," he whispered.

-

-

-

Rin had not shown up. The hour was growing steadily later and Kohaku's worry was steadily growing with it. For as long as Kohaku had known her Rin had always been an early riser. Today should have been no different.

Unless…had she had stayed up late out of worry? Maybe she had stayed up all night pondering their conversation or his upcoming departure.

The taijiya scowled, disregarding that train of thought. It was highly improbable. The girl had not acted the least bit troubled last night. She had only been her normal happy, smiling self. She would have said something if something had truly been causing her anxiety.

Had Keiseki kept her up? It didn't seem likely but maybe that was the case. Babies were unpredictable and though Keiseki was usually quiet and well-behaved that didn't mean she wouldn't stay up all night bawling occasionally. Maybe the baby had needed something and Rin had wandered off somewhere to get it.

Kohaku had visited her room earlier to see if she were still asleep but there had been nobody in there. There was no evidence of any sort of struggle either and Kohaku was not foolish enough to think that both Keikai and Mamoru would be taken out easily - especially not Keikai considering how protective she was of the girl. If Rin had been taken forcefully there would have been some sign of it. Rin had left by her own means.

The lack of struggle was a good sign that Rin was safe wherever she might be, though not enough to put Kohaku's worry to rest. It was not like her to simply wander off without coming to see him first. If she had done it at Sesshoumaru's castle it wouldn't have concerned Kohaku nearly so much but here in Souten's palace, a place Rin was an utter stranger in, Rin's disappearance was quite disconcerting.

"Well," Souten opened the door and stepped inside, Shippo devotedly beside her, the two having returned from consulting with some of her subjects. "Several different areas have been searched but unfortunately we didn't find anything. No one has seen her or her bodyguards. If they left the room they must have done it early." The queen blinked her large eyes. "You saw the room for yourself. Rin was not taken by force. I'm sure she just walked off somewhere because she couldn't sleep."

Kohaku barely absorbed the words, not believing them for a moment. "What about you?" he directed his question Shippo's way. "Can you pick up her scent?"

"Barely," answered the kistune. "My nose isn't as good as Inuyasha's. I caught just enough to know she headed towards the garden. I can't smell around all those damn flowers."

"She's probably in there then," Souten concluded. "The gardens are large enough that it can be hard to find people sometimes."

"Maybe," Shippo sniffed. "What do you think, Kohaku? You know her the best."

"I thought you did," Kohaku responded automatically, mind elsewhere.

"Heh," Shippo grunted. "Once, maybe. You now."

Kohaku didn't reply, too busy thinking of places the girl had gone to properly hear the kitsune. Would Rin really just walk off like that on her own whim? And with Keiseki with her? It seemed too dubious and not at all like Rin. She had never sauntered off with the baby without mentioning to him where she was going. Hell she had never sauntered off by herself without saying something to him first.

Something was definitely amiss.

Hurriedly Kohaku tried to smother that thought. It's no good to jump to conclusions. Panicking will only make the situation worse. Surely nothing bad happened to her.

The door opened behind Souten and the Thunder Beast Queen turned to address whoever had entered. It was a small guard of hers. The small youkai fidgeted a moment, looking anxious, then it whispered something hastily in Souten's ear.

Souten abruptly straightened, eyes widening. Kohaku could see the pulse in her throat quicken.

"What's wrong?" Shippo asked right as Kohaku nearly shouted, "What's the matter?!"

The young queen took a moment to steady herself before answering, her gaze slowly sweeping the room. Her hand fiddled at her collar and the other tightened around Raigekijin. Then she said her answer very quietly, like it was a deep dark secret that could destroy worlds.

"Something has happened."

-

-

-

She led them through her castle down to the infirmary, talking as they raced along, giving them the few details she did know.

"One of the bodyguards has been found, and the baby with her-"

"Are they alive?" demanded Kohaku.

"The baby is fine," answered Souten. "The bodyguard is just barely. She has been severely injured."

"By who?"

"I don't know yet. They were found by a gardener in the far corner of the garden. He heard a baby crying and went to investigate. Somehow that bodyguard, whichever one it is, had managed to drag herself and the baby to where someone could find them, and in the condition she was in…" Souten shook her head, face turning grim. "I don't know how she did it."

She reached a large door in the hall and slid it open. Inside the room was a maelstrom of activity. Soldiers were running back and forth, shouting at each other and questioning several different gardeners standing against the wall. Healers rushed about, blood-stained bandages in their hands, red stains on their outfits. One of them was yelling at the soldiers to leave but nobody was listening.

Souten swiftly stepped inside. "Get out." She wasn't yelling but her voice carried over the hectic bustle. "All of you. Go back to your stations."

The occupants, upon hearing her voice and seeing her, instantly quieted. Without a sound they began to quietly shuffle out, bobbing their heads as they passed Souten's still form. The Thunder Beast Queen reached out a hand and touched two of those passing her on the shoulder, an indication for them to stay. One of them had the most stains of blood on his clothes, the head healer by the look of him. The other was a youkai decked in armor.

"Show me to the victim," Souten spoke to the healer.

The head healer bowed in compliance but his eyes flicked onto Shippo and Kohaku skeptically.

"They are fine," Souten said at seeing his look. "They are friends of the victim."

"Ah I see." The healer bowed once more then turned towards an open doorway. "Right this way, my queen."

He guided them into another smaller room. A removable wooden wall had been erected to conceal half of it, providing some privacy for the victim. The healer stepped around it, gesturing with his hand for them to enter past it as well.

Kohaku tensed for the worse, expected it, but hoped for the best. He got what he expected.

On a mat placed on the floor lay Keikai. The boar youkai was covered and surrounded by blood. Freshly placed bandages were wrapped about her middle, a dark bloom like a red winter rose already spreading across the white cloth. Her breath was harsh and it rattled in her chest like bones clanking together. Her eyes were closed.

A pair of healers kneeling on the floor rose and bowed graciously out of the room at the silent indication of the head healer, leaving their charge completely open to view to the visitors.

"Kami," Shippo breathed quietly.

Kohaku was the first to move. He dashed to the bedside, crouching over the injured youkai. "Keikai."

He glanced up at the only other occupant in the room. The masseuse was standing in the corner, holding a sedate Keiseki in her arms. The baby was safe.

Kohaku's eyes traced over the woman quickly, judging her in those fleeting seconds. Shippo was already walking towards her and Kohaku, satisfied with what he saw there, returned his attention posthaste to Keikai.

"Keikai," he called to her softly. "Keikai!"

Her eyes opened blearily, lids dragging slowly upwards. She blinked several times, her pupil rolling around in her eye until finally focusing on Kohaku. She swallowed thickly. "Kohaku."

She had dropped the honorific from his name.

"Keikai." He cupped her hand gently in his. "What happened?"

Keikai swallowed again. Her breath escaped her mouth in a shuttering breath. "Kajuu," she said. "It was Kajuu. With the assassins."

"Kajuu? Sesshoumaru's second?"

Weakly Keikai nodded.

A surge of anger and disbelief like the one he had experienced when he had burst onto the scene of Dezaia and Rin flooded through Kohaku. Fury burned in his belly.

Kajuu. He had been behind it all. He had sent assassins after them, poisoned Keiseki, nearly got them killed several times, attacked Sesshoumaru. He had pretended to be Rin's friend while behind her back he had been trying to kill her.

That bastard.

Kohaku had never been fond of him but now…now he hated him.

"Keikai," Kohaku worked his fingers through hers. "Can you tell me what happened? What happened to Rin? Is she alright?"

Slowly, with some difficulty, Keikai nodded. She told them what she could, how Mamoru had led them outside the castle's perimeter, about the arrival of the assassins and Kajuu, then Mamoru's betrayal.

"I was too weak to fight," she said. "Mamoru knows how to incapacitate an enemy. I think she wanted to kill me. I think that's what Kajuu wanted too. I was barely able to stay conscious. Then they took her. They weren't after the baby, they were after Rin and they took her, and I couldn't do anything about it." There were tears in her eyes. Her teeth grit together. "They left the baby and they left me, and then they left. Kajuu didn't even bother to check if I was dead."

"He probably figured you were," Kohaku said gently, trying to offer what little comfort he could.

Keikai shook her head almost violently. "No, I was insignificant. He didn't give a damn either way. I don't know where they went but I think he wants to be found." Her eyes flicked intensely onto him. "Please," she said, words strangled and desperate. "Please save her. I wasn't able to but you can. You have the heart, you have the desire. You must save her. She is…she is all I have left."

The words held the same conation that Kaede's had held that day she had charged Kohaku with the protection of Rin. Now Keikai wanted him to save her.

Over his lifetime Kohaku had always made promises that he was unable of keeping. He had wondered countless times in the past why he kept making promises when he knew he shouldn't. It was why he had become so hesitant in making them.

But now there was no hesitation. Because this was one promise he would die before breaking.

Kohaku tightened his grip on her hand. "I promise."

-

-

-

They left Keikai after that. The exchange had exhausted the already worn out bodyguard and she fell swiftly into a deep sleep once Kohaku had risen from her side. It amazed him that she had remained conscious for as long as she had with the amount of blood loss she had sustained, much less been able to drag both herself and the baby from the outside of the castle back inside.

He still remembered the small smile she had given him when he made his promise.

"Will she live?" he whispered to the head healer.

The healer's expression did not change. "We have done all we can for her," he said back just as quietly. "It is up to her now whether or not she has the will to live."

She does, Kohaku thought but dare not speak the words. He knew that so long as Rin was alive she had the will.

Souten led them out of the room, leaving the head healer behind to look after Keikai, and to the place outside the castle's walls where the attack had occurred. The scene had barely been disturbed at all. Mamoru's body still remained where it had fallen and all around her the grass had been flattened. Blood stained the green blades, surrounding the cougar, and a path of it led from another area back into the castle. Keikai's blood.

Shippo stepped away from their group, raising his head and sniffing the air. Right away his nose wrinkled. "I can smell them all over. They didn't even bother trying to cover themselves up."

"They did it on purpose," Kohaku replied distractedly, looking to the side. "They want us to follow them."

Amid the long grass something gleamed. Carefully so as not to disturb anything else, he walked over to it, mindful of Mamoru's body and any other area of significance. He stooped down to get a closer look.

A long knife shined up at him, streaks of blood glinting on its surface. The streaks suggested that it had been cleaned but poorly. Whoever had used it had not been too intent on masking their presence

A horrible feeling swept through Kohaku. Who had it been used on?

He grasped it by the handle, heedful of the blood. "Shippo."

The tightness of his voice made the kitsune whirl to face him. Seeing the blade held in the other's hand, he hurried over. His hand circled Kohaku's wrist to steady the knife and maneuver it closer to himself.

The contact barely registered in Kohaku's psyche. A month ago he would have reacted by jerking away but now it scarcely fazed him.

Shippo sniffed then took a step back, hand falling away. "Mamoru's blood," he said, shoulders sagging in relief. "It stinks of Kajuu too."

"He really did turn on Mamoru," he murmured. "She helped him and he turned on her. After she turned on the very person she was supposed to protect. I bet she was the one who let Dezaia in too."

Kohaku stared at the knife in his hand. An image of Kajuu's face flashed in his mind. He remembered that smug smile, that cocky aura around him, and for a moment he was so blinded by rage he couldn't move.

If he hurt Rin…

It was a thought he didn't dare finish. But if it was true, Kajuu was going to pay dearly. His hand tightened over the blade angrily then, disgusted, he tossed the knife away from him.

They had been foolish to not consider Rin a target. They had been so focused on Keiseki and himself that they had not thought of Rin. It still didn't explain why Keiseki had been poisoned, which was exactly why they had never considered Rin to be the target. She didn't have the close blood ties that Kohaku had with Keiseki. How they had tried to get to Rin through Keiseki was still a mystery.

One that could wait to be solved.

"Which way did they go in?"

Shippo sniffed the air one more time. He pointed. "That way."

"That's the way we'll be going then."

"Is it a trap?"

Kohaku looked him square in the eye. His face was resolved and resolute. "Does it really make a difference?"

Shippo smirked at the reply. He rolled his shoulders, shaking out his arm muscles. "Heh. Point taken. When do we leave then?"

-

-

-

The first sensation Rin received after finally being released from the confines of the sack was being dumped onto a hard, smooth surface. The sudden impact made her yelp as her hip bone connected with whatever it was.

"Ow!"

She rubbed at her sore hip, hissing at the pain. Her hands and feet were free, having not been bound in any sort of way. Neither the assassins nor Kajuu had taken any means to restrain her besides stuffing her into that sack, to her slight surprise. Apparently they were either extremely confident she would not be able to free herself or didn't think she would try.

They had been right of course. Rin knew they had flown here. She had felt the wind through the bag. Even if she had managed to break out of it she would only have fallen to her death. If by some miracle she survived the fall, they would come after her, and though they had not killed her at Souten's place Rin was not stupid enough to believe they would not harm her if she tried an escape.

They wanted her alive. That much was certain. If they wanted her dead there had been plenty of opportunity after Keikai had been taken out. There was no way Rin could fight off all the assassins and Kajuu. She doubted she could even withstand Kajuu alone. There was a huge difference in physical strength between a 16-year-old girl and a decades old youkai.

Straightening, Rin blinked in the light, eyes unadjusted from being stuck in the darkness of the sack. Kajuu stood close to the table, the nearest one to her, looking elsewhere then at her. A gaggle of foreign soldiers were gathered by the wall. Strange items she had never seen before were held in their hands. They were long enough that one end stuck out above their shoulder, a gray round end.

The last one in the room was the one shouting. His back was turned towards her so she was unable to see his face. He was currently yelling at the assassins who were crowded in front of him. For a moment a snake of fear curled around her spine upon seeing them but the assassins were paying no attention to her at all. They were completely focused on the big youkai in front of them, a youkai that was bigger than the soldiers, bigger than Kajuu. Gray armor plated his body. Two strips of the metal crossed his shoulders, spikes protruding from them.

Could he be the cohort Kajuu mentioned?

He seemed the most likely. None of the others appeared to be in charge.

Removing her gaze from the occupants, she turned it on the area around her, searching for any clues that would alert her to where they had taken her. From the walls alone she could tell they were in a castle. Large white stones surrounded her, resembling Sesshoumaru's own, but Rin could see the decreption in this one. Piles of rubble lay at several intervals on the floor. Some of it had been stacked in the corner but it looked like whoever had tried to straighten out the mess had given up halfway through. The hard surface she had been dumped on was a table made of white stone.

"Are you alright?"

Rin blinked in surprise at the soft inquiry. She had momentarily forgotten about Kajuu being next to her. She glanced his way, unconsciously shifting her body to the other side.

"Sorry for the rough ride," Kajuu continued talking despite her lack of answering. "I was in a bit of hurry. I hope it wasn't too taxing on you."

Rin looked at him out of the corner of her eye, rubbing her wrist absently. His words scarcely registered. She was too distracted by the shouting youkai.

The youkai was talking to the assassins in their own language. They hissed, chirped, grunted, and hooted back and forth, though it was obvious the big youkai dominated the conversation. He gestured expansively with his hands, the movements strikingly angry. With one final hoot from the assassins that was met back with a series of snarling grunts from the big youkai, the assassins began to shuffle off out of the room.

The big youkai stood where he was, his hands on his hips, glaring after the small lizards. "Useless help," he growled. His voice was harsh and gritty, like stone being rubbed unpleasantly against metal. "What a useless waste of time."

He turned and Rin saw his face.

To say he was unattractive would be an understatement. The youkai before her was strikingly ugly. His mouth was much too wide and his lips too thin. His skin held an unnatural grey quality to it, and his nose was flat with slitted nostrils. Stringy brown hair swung from his scalp, which was strange in shape, almost flat at the top. His eyes were hard and warm as black stone.

Rin stared at him, unable to tear her gaze away. There was something about the youkai that made her hair stand on end. It was the same dangerous feeling of warning she got whenever she suspected a predator nearby.

"What a useless waste of time," the youkai snarled. "Shows that you really can't rely on anybody but yourself."

"Did you pay them?" asked Kajuu.

"No I didn't pay them," snapped the youkai. "I don't pay for poor service. How many times did they screw it up for Kami's sake? How hard is it to kidnap a 16-year-old girl? I don't give a damn how many of their brethren they lost. It isn't my problem if they can't do things right."

"They might come after you," Kajuu warned.

The youkai waved his hand dismissively. "I arranged a little farewell party for them. I never let guests go without thanking them properly after all. If they manage to make it out of the castle alive they can come back and thank me."

He laughed, a deep and repulsive sound full of malice. Rin unconsciously clenched a hand in front of her heart.

His eyesight focused on her unexpectedly and a cold feeling swept over her body. Whereas before she had felt relatively safe due to the lack of attention on her, she now felt small and extremely vulnerable. Her head felt fuzzy and her ears rang from the fear that gaze made her experience. It was nearly as bad as when she had awoken to a den full of wolves.

The youkai looked her up and down, like a beast sizing up prey. "So this is her at last," he said blandly. "Sesshoumaru's filthy little human. If I had known it would be this hard getting you I might have revised my plan. What a pain in the ass you are."

She hunched down, as if trying to make herself smaller, and scooted back on the table she had been placed on like some sort of big birthday surprise. She kept her eyes glued on the youkai. She didn't dare look away. If she did she wasn't sure what he would do.

"Wha-" she swallowed. "What's going on?"

The youkai sneered at her. "You are going to make me very powerful - very powerful indeed. If it's not too late anyway, and you better hope it's not. I don't take too kindly to bad work as you can see and Kami knows how sloppy things have been because of you."

"Gimon," Kajuu's low growl sounded next to Rin's elbow and even she could hear the underlying threat in it. Was Kajuu protecting her? She couldn't imagine why. Lord knew he was the very one who brought her here. Why would he bother protecting her now?

And Gimon. The name of the youkai sneering at her. It sounded vaguely familiar but she couldn't remember where exactly she had heard it.

"Shut it," Gimon snarled back at the tiger. "We got a while to wait yet. I'm sure the bastard knows by now that his precious pet is missing." He turned to the side and whistled to the soldiers standing by the wall. One of them hefted one of the strange weapons they carried and tossed it to Kajuu. "Make yourselves comfortable." Gimon's smile was anything but friendly. "My home is your home."

He bowed mockingly then laughed uproariously before turning and heading off to consult with the soldiers in the corner. Rin watched him like a hawk. She forced herself to blink, having stopped doing the action without thinking sometime ago.

Were they going to kill her? The thought rose again in her mind. It didn't seem like their objective, at least not yet. They needed her for something, though she had no idea what. There was nothing she could imagine she could give them. She didn't have anything. Everything that was 'her's' was in reality Sesshoumaru's.

Was it Sesshoumaru then? Were they trying to go through her to get to him? But why? What was it Sesshoumaru had that they wanted? Kajuu might want power but what could that Gimon fellow get out of it?

Furthermore nothing in that explained why they had attacked Keiseki at the village. If they had wanted Rin why would they bother with an infant that was not related to her in any way, shape, or form? Had they discerned the relationship between her and Keiseki and attacked Keiseki based on that? But why bother with all that trouble when they could just have easily poisoned her and taken her rather than involve everyone else?

And Dezaia and Jogon. Nothing in the equation explained their involvement. Mamoru was the one who had let Dezaia in to the royal wing. Rin could figure that much out. The cougar youkai had been Kajuu's collaborator. She must have been following Kajuu's order. So then why had Kajuu let the dog demon in?

The questions jumbled through Rin's mind like sand in an hourglass. Despite what she knew now, knowing that the ones that had been after them all this time was Kajuu and Gimon, she still could not figure out the rest. She just didn't understand the point of it all.

"Why?" she directed the question towards Kajuu. She refused to turn his way but she could feel his presence nearby. She knew he would hear her. "I don't understand. If you were after me why did you attack Keiseki?"

"Keiseki?"

"You know who I'm talking about." Her voice was somewhere between a snarl and a sob. "The baby."

"Oh the baby. I'm not good with names I'm afraid. Well, you see," he grimaced a little, "she was a mistake."

"A mistake," Rin replied slowly, not quite able to believe it.

"Yes," he responded easily. "The assassins were supposed to take you but something went wrong and they were unable to locate you. They panicked and kidnapped the baby instead. I think they thought we had our information wrong and that the baby was Sesshoumaru's ward. Regardless they were unable to find you in that house so they took the closest thing to a young woman they could find."

House?

Her brow furrowed. He must be referring to Sango and Miroku's house. She had been staying with them during her time at the village. But why had they had been unable to find her?

Her eyes suddenly widened, some of the pieces of the puzzle falling into place. That was the night she had gone to Shippo's house after Kohaku and her had fought. The very same night Keiseki had been poisoned. She had been away from the house that night because Shippo had convinced her to come play cards with him. They had left the house through the window rather than the front door. The assassins must not have seen them.

Which brought up another question.

"How did you know about the village?"

"That night you asked to leave the castle is when it slipped out. We, and by we I mean Jogon and I, heard you mention a village. Mamoru filled in the rest of the details and though she hadn't know personally if Sesshoumaru had sent you there or not when you disappeared as he left for the council we figured he had sent you there. We were right too."

Rin remained silent for a long moment. She stared at her fingers splayed atop the smooth table top. "So Miroku-sama and Sango-chan were just in the way," she murmured softly. "The assassins weren't after them at all but me…"

Guilt seeped into her heart. She felt sick. Tears pushed at her eyelids. Tears she had refused to shed when Keikai had gotten stabbed. Tears that she knew she had to hold back. If she started crying she wouldn't be able to stop.

She wiped her eyes discreetly hoping that Kajuu wouldn't see. She wouldn't be able to stand it if he tried to comfort her.

"Why did you want me then?" she asked, forcing strength into her voice. "What is it you hope to gain? Do you want Sesshoumaru-sama's kingdom?"

Kajuu snorted. "Nothing so cliché as that, love. It's not his kingdom we want but his ore."

Baffled, Rin stopped wiping her eyes and actually turned to look at him. "His ore?"

Kajuu nodded.

"Why in Kami's name would you want that?"

He raised the weapon in front of her face. Rin stared, uncomprehending.

"To make Tanegashima," said the tiger youkai with conviction, fangs flashing between his lips. His hand tightened around the metal, squeezing it. "To form the weapon that makes all the difference in the world."

"Tanegashima?" Rin rolled the foreign word around her tongue. That name too sounded familiar. She must have heard it from someone. Sesshoumaru probably.

"Guns," Kajuu explained, lowering the weapon away from her. "The new weapon that all the humans have been getting their hands on from foreign traders. They are extremely hard to make and require a lot of resources."

"Why would you want to make them then?"

"For the turn of the tide, my dear." A smirk was on his face but it was a rueful one. "We cannot lose an advantage. If we do, it will be the end of us. Times are changing you see. We cannot go on living as we once did. The lines are blurring. Now is the time for transition between what we were and what we must become."

Rin continued to stare at him, utterly baffled. She had no idea what he was talking. "Why didn't you just ask Sesshoumaru-sama for the ore then?"

Kajuu's rueful smirk turned into a smile. There was no malevolence in the action. He was still being genial with her despite what had happened. It flabbergasted Rin.

"We tried that, love. Regrettably he denied to take any look at any inquiries and denied Gimon at the council. There was no way to conduct the trade civilly. We were finally forced to use more underhanded ways to get the ore."

"So, you sent the assassins after me," Rin deadpanned. "To use me in exchange for the ore."

"Yes," Kajuu affirmed. "Gimon left the council claiming problems with human uprisings on his territory. It enabled him to come back here and hire the assassins to kidnap you and bring you here. The plan was to poison you and keep you incapacitated through it all. That way it would be less traumatic for you."

Rin's laughter came out as a snort. Less traumatic! She couldn't believe what he was saying.

"Unfortunately," Kajuu continued, either having not heard her snort or ignoring it, "that plan went terrible awry. You left the village with that poisoned baby. Gimon had the assassins pursue you but, as you know, they never succeeded in acquiring you. The presence of the taijiya prevented us from fulfilling that plan."

"Kohaku…"

The name fell from her lips wistfully. She wished he was here now but at the same time was glad he wasn't. He would have been killed if he had shown up at Souten's castle. Kajuu needed her alive but not Kohaku. There was no doubt in Rin's mind that the tiger would not have hesitated in the least at slaughtering the taijiya.

Would Kohaku come for her? She wasn't certain. Keiseki was safe and the responsibility Kaede had given him to protect her was moot now that their journey was over and Keiseki cured. If he did come it would be suicide. Kohaku was enormously resourceful and strong in his own right but there was no chance of him succeeding in a battle against all these youkai. He may be able to take them on individually, maybe even one as strong as Kajuu, but surely not all of them.

She bit a nail, emotions roiling in her. Even after all her thoughts, after all her arguments of not wanting him to come, she still couldn't help but wonder almost desperately if he would. And wishing he would.

Sesshoumaru would come. She had been in enough dangerous situations with him in the past when she was a young girl to know he would. He stood a much better chance against Gimon and his soldiers than Kohaku ever would.

And yet…

Kohaku.

She wanted him to come for her. She needed him.

"The assassins could not even manage to kill him," Kajuu was saying, pulling Rin back to reality and out of her desperate thoughts. "They were thwarted at every turn. He took out a good deal of them if I heard right. We were all a little surprised. Neither Dezaia nor I trusted the assassins very much. We figured out you were heading here and-"

"What about Dezaia?" she interrupted. The tiger had mentioned him at all until now and though it frightened her to ask, she had to know. She had to. "Was he in on it too? Like Mamoru?"

"The stablehand? Yes though he did become a…reluctant asset. I saw his closeness to you that day in the field when Jogon and I happened upon you. I could see his attraction to you. I approached him after Sesshoumaru burned his arm in the stable. He was angry, as you can imagine, and I told him of my intentions. He was furious at Sesshoumaru so he agreed to work with me. I think he knew it was in his best interest, for his own sake and yours. He agreed on that condition that you would be unharmed. He knew that the best way to watch over you was on the inside."

"I don't believe that," interrupted Rin venomously. "I don't believe that at all. You're lying. He wanted to protect me so he joined you?"

"Try to think of it from his position, love," Kajuu said calmly in the face of her anger. "If he did not agree to my plan I would have to kill him. By joining me he saved his own life and enabled himself to watch over yours as well. I'm sure revenge played some part in it. Everyone has their own sins to bear.

Anyway neither he nor I trusted the assassins. The assassins had botched up already and we were worried for your safety. There was no guarantee that scum wouldn't harm you despite being told not to. We had Mamoru, who was unfettered with obligations due to you being absent, keep an eye out for you approaching the castle. When you did at last draw near, Dezaia flew out to meet you on AhUn. The assassins were aware of his participation in our plan. They knew better to attack him."

Rin narrowed her eyes, trying to recall the day her and Kohaku had reached the castle. Dezaia had managed to chase the assassins off with just one sentence. At the time she had been too concerned with Kohaku's wellbeing to really question the abnormality of the situation. She had just been so relieved to finally be home that she hadn't analyzed the assassins' queer actions. Looking back now, she should have known something was amiss.

"That doesn't explain why you let him in my room," she said.

"Well, I was getting to that." Kajuu rolled his shoulders, flexing his muscles, and took a seat on one of the chairs near the table. It looked as though his shoulders had been wound up tight for quite some time. "You know he cared about you and we wanted to do things as genteelly as possible. If we could get you to go along with us willingly it would solve all our problems. It was his – well, I guess our hope - that you would feel the same about him and that he would be able to convince you to join us, that it would be for the best good. He wanted you to be free of Sesshoumaru. He loved you-"

"He didn't love me," Rin bit out harshly and bitterly. Her hands curled into fists. "You don't do that to someone you love."

Kajuu shrugged dispassionately. "Love takes many forms. I don't pretend to know all the dark places that resided in his heart. All I know is that he hoped to persuade you into coming with him. He wanted to protect you as much as he could. He was hoping you would come willingly. If you didn't we would have no choice but to take you by force. He was trying to protect you."

Rin's teeth ground together painfully. She wanted to rage at him, punch him, tell him he was wrong and full of lies, that Dezaia was an awful person whose motives had all been evil.

Yet she remembered what Dezaia had said to her, how he had told her not to resist him for both their sakes, how he had tried explaining something but she had not let him. He had not tried to take her clothes off, had not tried to kiss her. He had held her down on the bed but was it only because he wanted her to listen to him?

Quickly she banished the thought. Her hatred of him was firmly burned into her mind and heart. She didn't want to hear or think any different, didn't want to be convinced of anything else. It made it so much easier for herself to hate him.

"We faked Mamoru's death," Kajuu carried on heedlessly. "Blamed it on Jogon. We let Dezaia into your room to try and seduce you. That plan failed tragically. That taijiya muddled it up once again. Dezaia fled back to me and I was forced to kill him. I couldn't leave him alive. It was too risky to let him live when he knew about everything. He almost let it spill when Sesshoumaru revived him. I had no choice but to push him out that window to get him to stop talking. It was quite terrible really. I-"

"Stop." Rin choked. "Please just stop."

She couldn't bear to hear anymore. Her throat felt so raw it was painful to suck in any breath, which rattled through her unsteadily. She trembled on the table she had been placed on, feeling like her whole heart was exposed for everyone to observe.

Dezaia had been a tool. Just a tool. Kajuu had used him and then thrown him away. It made her sick to her stomach.

Kajuu sat up straighter in his chair. "I'm sorry, I've said too much. You didn't need to hear all that. Dezaia was…regrettable, I admit. But he did love you and did want to keep you safe. He-"

A low dark chuckle cut Kajuu off and the tiger fell silent. Gimon strolled over towards them, apparently done with whatever he had needed to talk to his soldiers about. The big lizard was eating an apple, munching merrily and gazing at Rin with an amused expression. She looked warily back at him through the strands of her tangled hair.

"Telling her the story, eh? That's my favorite part." Gimon munched on his apple. "He loved a human. That's why he's dead, you know. He was weak, just like humans are. What a stupid boy to use."

"Weak?" Rin echoed hollowly.

"All humans are weak," Gimon responded harshly. "No better than rats. They serve no purpose. They just run around, breeding as they go, mindless creatures. They are disgusting, horrid things. They should be eliminated along with all their spawn, yourself included. Nothing but a blight that needs to be wiped out.

Rin stared at him. Her mouth gaped a little.

"Don't be so cruel, Gimon," said Kajuu tepidly. "She's been through a lot already. Let her alone."

The gray youkai sneered at him, yellow pointed teeth flashing between his thin lips. "I'm starting to wonder about you," he growled dangerously. "If I didn't know any better I'd say you were turning out to be just as much a human-lover as Sesshoumaru."

"Don't be silly." Kajuu folded his arms, gaze on the ground. "We have just been forced to drown along with their ideals and succumb to them at last. That is the only path we can walk. If we do not it will be the end of us, the end of all youkai. It is a future we cannot escape. Youkai are doomed to become the one thing we most hate."

At his tone, Rin turned to get him in view. Looking upon him, she saw that the once sleek and proud Kajuu now only looked cowed and resigned. He looked as if he had seen a horrible truth and had been forced to accept it.

It was in that moment that Rin realized that all of Kajuu's bravado, all of his cockiness, all of his smooth ways and suave words were really just an act to conceal the crippled youkai underneath. The youkai he had become from the horrible truth he had seen and been forced to accept. The youkai who was forced to do what he must to guarantee himself a future. A broken youkai.

"What a load of bullshit," Gimon snapped. He finished eating the rest of his apple and held out the core to Rin, a devilish smile on his face. "Want some apple, little girl?"

Rin shook her head with revulsion. It wouldn't be too long before Sesshoumaru arrived. She just had to keep herself alive until then.

Unfortunately with Gimon grinning at her like some sort of maddened beast and Kajuu a broken puppet whose strings had been cut, that plan was starting to look harder than she had thought.

-

-

-

There was an infernal noise coming from below. Sesshoumaru, with his superb hearing, could detect it even as high as he was. It had been going on for some minutes and he had been unsuccessfully trying to ignore it. In fact the more he heard of the cursed racket the more he swore it sounded disturbingly like someone was calling his name.

Frowning, he pulled lightly on his mount's reins, stopping the beast. Leaning precariously over the side, he peered down.

A small brown figure stood on a cliff overlooking the tress below them. The figure had its hands circled around its mouth. It must have noticed Sesshoumaru had spotted it too, for it started to wave and shout some more.

General Ookama sidled up next to him. The general had caught sight of the stranger as well. "Orders, sir?"

Sesshoumaru frowned harder. There was something familiar about that figure but he was too high up and the wind was blowing the wrong way for him to detect the scent. Could it be someone who had to do with Rin?

"Surround him," he ordered. "Cut off his legs if he tries to run."

Ookama immediately shouted out the command and a platoon of soldiers swiftly flew down towards the figure. Sesshoumaru watched with interest as the figure backed up a step or two but did not run at the approach. He faced the soldiers headon. Either he was very brave or very foolish.

Clucking lowly, Sesshoumaru guided his mount downwards. The voice of the stranger fluttered to his ears and as Sesshoumaru drew closer he could tell right away who it was. He raised an eyebrow in astonishment.

What the hell was he doing out here?

"Some nice greeting this is," the figure complained to the soldiers surrounding him. "I'd hate to see how you treat your guests. You probably beat them up at night when nobody is watching, don't you?"

Sesshoumaru's mount landed agilely on the dirt and Sesshoumaru smoothly dismounted facing the figure. "What are you doing?" he demanded. "Kouga."

The wolf prince rotated to face him, lips compressed in disgruntlement. The tanned youkai was covered in dust and grime from traveling at fast speeds. Apparently he had been in a hurry and for quite some time if appearances were anything to go by.

"Oh finally, there you are. You know how long I've been shouting at you? Good hearing must not run in the family. Nice to see you too."

Sesshoumaru gestured at his soldiers. "Stand down."

The spears were swiftly lifted away and the soldiers backed their mounts off to give the two royal youkai more room, hovering nearby in case of need. Kouga paid them no mind, acting as though he hadn't just been in a precarious position with their spears at his throat.

"You didn't answer my question," Sesshoumaru addressed him once again. "What are you doing here, Kouga?"

"Heading to your place obviously. You're a hard youkai to catch." Kouga marched over to him, getting close enough that he could lower his voice. "Ayame told me about the girl, about how the assassins were after her. Is she alright?"

"She will be," answered Sesshoumaru. "After I deal with the problem." His eyes narrowed then, giving Kouga a piercing look.

The wolf glared right back at him. "Don't give me that look," he snapped hotly. "I live in a cave for Kami's sake. Where would I get the means to hire assassins?"

Sesshoumaru hummed low in his throat. The wolf did have a point and after their talk during the council Kouga would have to be unbelievably stupid to attack him. The wolf prince may not be the sharpest rock in the field but he wasn't that stupid. The wolf was innocent.

"Quite right."

He turned around, heading back towards his mount, intent on returning to his flight. He didn't have a lot of time to dally and didn't practically give a damn what the wolf did. Let him run around in the woods as much as he wanted.

From behind him, the wolf followed.

"Where are you going?"

"After her."

"The whole world might be against you after this," said Kouga to his turned back. "You know that, don't you?"

Sesshoumaru ground to a halt. He tilted his head to the side, mulling over the words.

The thought of his father once again crossed his mind, that powerful youkai who had disgraced his name and standing all for the love of a human. Sesshoumaru had been living under that shadow for a very long time, always fighting to prove he was different, that he was better, that he did not suffer the same weaknesses of his father.

And now…

Maybe his father hadn't loved human kind. Maybe it was simply one human he had cared about and not all of them. Maybe Sesshoumaru was more like his father than he had thought. That bastard.

"Yes," he answered at last, both to Kouga and himself.

"Oh good," said Kouga, brushing off the serious matter in his usual way. "I'm coming with you."

"I didn't give you permission to come with me."

"I didn't ask for it," Kouga replied. "Besides, you need all the help you can get right now."

Sesshoumaru grinned despite himself. The wolf did have a point. Maybe the whole world would be against him after this. In that case, it might be a good idea to have at least one ally.

Even if he did smell funny.

-

-

-

"Are you ready?"

The voice pulled Kohaku out of his inner thoughts and he looked up at the voice. Souten was standing there, waiting on him.

"Mmmm," he grunted in the affirmative.

He pulled on his glove, flexing his fingers in the stretchy material. He didn't know how long he had been sitting there, just staring and thinking. It must not have been long.

He stood and together they walked out into the courtyard. The courtyard had been a bustle of activity a short time ago, but now it was significantly calmer due to most of the preparations having been finished. Pages and maids still hustled back and forth, delivering supplies and fiddling with saddles. Several of Souten's soldiers were out there, polishing their weapons and waiting for the signal to mount. Kohaku swept his gaze over them.

"Is everything prepared?"

"Yes. They are all ready to depart." She tilted her face up to look at him. "I'm sorry," she said, "but these are all I can spare."

Kohaku shook his head. "No, these are more than enough. You have done way more than I could ask of you. I am very much in your debt." He paused a moment before turning to look at her steadily and penetratingly. "You don't have to do this. There's no telling how this might endanger your kingdom or your title."

Souten snorted. An ironic grin crossed her lips. "If I was ruled by that I wouldn't be here in the first place," she stated. "Besides, Sesshoumaru entrusted Rin into my care. That's not a task I take lightly. We will get her back and I'll repay whoever took her. I won't let anyone who dares threaten my friends walk away."

Kohaku gave her a small smile, one that lacked force but not warmth. Souten was providing him with more than he had expected or anticipated, and though there weren't many soldiers accompanying them it would do. Kohaku's main objective wasn't to defeat Kajuu or the assassins or whoever else was involved with Rin's kidnapping. His main objective was freeing Rin and keeping her safe. Anything else beyond that was secondary.

"I brought that dragon mount out for you," said Souten. "The one Rin rode in on. It'll be faster then riding your horse."

Kohaku nodded his agreement. "Thank you."

But I sure as hell hope Jinsoku never finds out. He'll never forgive me.

From a corner of the courtyard Shippo came bounding up the stairs towards them, making the youkai queen and taijiya both turn towards him. The kitsune had been tracking the scent of the assassins while Souten had been getting her soldiers prepared.

"I tracked them pretty far," he panted. Twigs stuck messily out of his hair. "They flew close to the ground, close enough that they brushed against trees and grasses. You were right, they really do want us to find them."

He huffed heavily and wiped his face. "I don't think we'll have a problem finding them."

"I hope not," Kohaku muttered.

"What about Keiseki?"

"She's staying with that masseuse who is alright. She'll be safe until we return."

Though Kohaku didn't say it, he had also arranged that the child be returned if neither Shippo nor he returned. The masseuse and Souten had both agreed to make sure Keiseki get home to Miroku and Sango. No matter what happened to Shippo or himself or even Souten, Keiseki would be looked after.

Despite not saying it, Kohaku thought he saw a flicker of understanding in Shippo's eyes. The kitsune nodded astutely but said nothing.

"Let us get going then," Souten advised. "The faster we go, the faster we find Rin."

Kohaku didn't need any more convincing. He vaulted over the railing and headed towards the large dragon mount without waver. Whereas before he had been unsure of approaching the big beast, now he strode toward it unafraid.

The two heads swiveled towards him when he grabbed the reins. He leaned back to look up into the twin pair of large yellow eyes. The dragon seemed to look back at him in confusion. It more than likely didn't understand why he would be here without Rin.

"Work with me," he spoke to it, uncertain if it understood him like Jinsoku could but not really caring either. A deep, primal part of him wanted the dragon to hear his desperation if not the words. "Help me and we'll get her back. Please."

The small ears rotated. It regarded him for a long moment before rumbling lowly in its throats. Then its heads lowered to the ground, exposing its long neck and the saddle on its back. Maybe the dragon did understand.

Carefully Kohaku scaled the beast's scaly hide. He pulled himself into the saddle and settled there, the reins held loosely in his grip. The dragon's heads lifted, puffing air loudly through its nostrils.

Around them Souten's soldiers were already ascending. Souten herself was at the forefront, held securely in Shippo's lap with Koryu's cloud form under them. She waved her spear in an arc, pointing it forward. She barked a command Kohaku was unable to hear but the soldiers began to follow.

Unaware of how to get the big dragon to move, Kohaku's slight panic was appeased when he felt the beast rise on its own and move to keep pace with the other mounts. He had been trained well. Kohaku probably wouldn't have to give him a single command until they got to their destination. Wherever that was.

Leaning back in the saddle, Kohaku got as comfortable as possible. It may be a while before they got there and there was no telling what awaited them when they got there. He would have to be ready for anything.

It was okay though. It didn't matter what it was because his need to get to Rin made him fearless of anything that stood in his way. He didn't care what it took. He would face anything to get there. He would do anything to keep her safe.

While he had been waiting on Souten to ready her soldiers, he had thought a lot about Rin and what she meant to him. He had admitted he wouldn't be able to live if she hated him but he also knew he wouldn't be able to live if she was completely absent from his life. If something bad were to happen to her he would just die inside.

There was still so much he wanted to tell her, so much he wanted to experience with her. To think he would be robbed of that was too painful to think about. To even think of a day he would wake up and know he would never be able to see her again caused a rush of fear and anxiety.

Which was why he went after her without hesitation and without regret. He didn't need anyone to give him the charge of keeping her safe or to rescue her. The promise to Keikai was just a reaffirmation of what he intended to do himself. He was going after Rin because it was what he wanted to do. It was a charge he had made to himself regardless of what anyone else asked of him.

The words he had wanted to say to her for so long still lingered in his heart. He had been too scared to say them before but now he knew he must. He would keep true to those words no matter what it took.

Because a future without Rin wasn't a future at all.

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Three more chapters left! The next one shouldn't take me so long since it should be a lot shorter than this and not cover so much. I had to be really careful with this chapter in order to cover everything. Phew glad that's over!

Reviews!

Utsukine – Sorry! ( Although it does make me glad to hear somebody liked Kajuu hehe. Hopefully he isn't too bad. I wanted to make him less of a bad guy and more as a guy at the end of his rope. Dunno if I pulled it off though hehe. Hope you enjoy the newest update!

Destatikai – Yep it's amazing how long this fic has turned out. It just won't end haha. To be completely honest I hadn't intended for Mamoru to be a part of it. But then I remembered Sesshoumaru could revive her with Tenseiga so I ended up having to rework it. It actually turned out for the better, though I wish I had had a few more chapters to develop her 'bad' side. Hopefully this chapter explained most of Kajuu's motives. There will be a bit more with him next chapter so we'll get to see a little more of what's going on in his head. Hope you enjoy the newest chapter!

Nessie6 – Hehe sorry to put off the epic battle some more. This story kind of writes itself so some of the things in here I hadn't planned to put in (namely Souten getting her army involved) but I think it will work out for the better. Hope you enjoy the newest update!

Raniatlw – Hehe hopefully I didn't make him too suspicious. I didn't want him to seem completely innocent but I didn't want to give it away either. Glad to hear Mamoru was a surprise though D Hope you enjoy the newest update.

Senbo-sama – Him yelling Kagura was a bit of a twist on my part hehe. I didn't want to reveal right away who the bad guy was. I actually almost ended that chapter right after Sesshoumaru yelled her name but decided against it lol. Sorry Kohaku didn't get to shine in this chapter. Next chapter for sure!

Ishimaru Amon – Yea it was really sad losing my job ( Thankfully my new one pays more hehe. Glad to hear Kajuu was too suspicious! It was hard keeping a good balance between not making him too suspicious and still keeping him away from being innocent. As for the ending to Inuyasha, I would have liked it a lot better had it happened about 100 chapters ago. I felt like the series got dragged out too long (I actually did stop reading it for a long while there) and I was disappointed that we didn't get a kissing scene. It was nice to hear that Kagome and Inuyasha got married but I would have liked to 'see' the closure of their relationship. Kohaku's new weapon was badass though.

Moviefan-92 – Hehe sorry about the Kagura part. I wrestled with the idea of putting it in but I figured it would be good for suspense :P Kagome will make an appearance I swear! It probably won't be until the last chapter though. Hope you enjoy the newest update!

Yami Umi – Hopefully this chapter made it better hehe. Kagura didn't betray Sesshoumaru :P I just did it to build suspense! What's funny is I hadn't planned for Mamoru to be part of it. It just turned out that way due to me completely forgetting Sesshoumaru could revive her with Tenseiga. I ended up having to work her into the plot pretty late. Oops! (

Darksouled Saiyanphoenix – Glad to hear you liked the last chapter! Hopefully this chapter reveals a little bit more as to how everything came about. Enjoy the newest update!

Starlight15 – Hehe well I did go on hiatus for a longgg time, like 2 years long time lol. I'm really determined to get this fic finished though, come hell or high water, though it has been hard due to time constraints. I'm sad to see it end too, but happy because it's been so long and I'm ready to move onto something new hehe. This chapter turned out way long so at least we got one more chapter before the end. Glad to hear you enjoyed the Rin-Souten and Kohaku-Shippo scene from last chapter! The Shippo-Kohaku was a long time coming and I'm so happy to finally close off their relationship and finally let them be nice to each other XD Hopefully this chapter revealed a little more about Kajuu, Mamoru, and the whole assassins deal. It was hard keeping him suspicious and innocent at the same time, along with Mamoru entering it so late in the story. I pray to god I didn't miss anything and didn't leave any plot holes! Okay I've talked long enough hehe, hope you enjoy the newest update!

None – Sorry for the cliffhanders next chapter heeh. Although I guess they are in here too. Hopefully the next chapter won't take so long for me to update. Hope you enjoy the newest chapter!