The fading sun withdrew its last rays of light from the valley nestled between forest and hills. A loose circle of huts stood sprawled across the valley's face. Surrounding the structures, simple but sturdy in their construction, wolves darted in and out of the new shadows. They were larger than normal wolves, possessing intelligence and power unmatched in their earthly brothers. They patrolled the area, searching for movement with green and yellow eyes that began to stand out in the gathering grey settling over the region. The creatures watched the village, accounting for each human moving through the square. They knew every man, woman, and child by scent. One of them in particular, a beloved sister, was causing them a great deal of alarm this evening. A single wolf neared one of the huts set apart from the rest, on the perimeter of the circle. It stood on the edge of a field of tall, brittle grasses. The creature rose his snout to the wind, sniffing deeply. Pain rose like a cloud from the building. He whined softly, knowing his voice would still carry.
Outside the hut, a man cuffed in fur was pacing. His ears, poking out from under a high ponytail, swiveled towards the whine. The man answered in a curt, clipped bark. Carried by a breeze, his reply made the wolf move on and continue his route around Enomoto.
Kouga resumed pacing, biting the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood. Evening's strengthening shadows followed him as he walked back and forth, marching in front of the door as if standing guard. A sentry waiting for trouble.
Two men approached from the village square, their hands in their pockets. Toushi and Umi looked up as they neared, slowing as they saw the worry in their friend's face.
"Hey," Umi called, not wanting to startle the preoccupied youkai.
Kouga still jumped. He looked around, broken from plagued thoughts. Catching sight of the two hunters, he gave a quick nod and went back to pacing.
Toushi sidled up next to the hut, leaning on the doorframe. "How goes it?" He wanted to sound casual, but the question came out strained. Umi crossed his arms and tried for an equal amount of nonchalance. He had never undergone what Kouga was going through, but had seen it in enough of his brothers.
Kouga grimaced. "Not good. They made me leave," he motioned to the drawn door.
Toushi wanted to clap a reassuring hand on his friend's back, but knew better. The man before him was as tense as iron. "She'll be okay. It was just like this with Reina's first."
Umi nodded. "Rika's overseen a hundred deliveries."
Kouga shook his head. "Kagome's had such a hard pregnancy. The baby's taken so much out of her," he thought of the months leading up to today, watching his wife wane and weaken just like the dreams that had plagued her three years ago. "The boy is willful and spiteful. He's being stubborn just to make a point," he couldn't keep the anger from his voice. All he wanted was for his son to be out of her.
"Kagome's stronger than you're giving her credit for," Umi assured. "She'll teach him quickly whose boss. He's taking this one chance to be insubordinate."
Kouga stopped pacing. His right hand curled into a fist. "I'll give him hell," he growled. "He shouldn't be treating his mother like this."
Toushi grinned. "He's not working with much… his father is pretty lacking…."
Kouga knew his best friend's tactics well. He didn't leave his frantic state. The three men fell silent as a female scream erupted from the hut, practically shaking the door hide with its volume.
"Kagome!" Kouga called. He stepped to take hold of the door.
Toushi stayed his hand, grabbing his wrist quickly. "Let Rika do her work. She has Hiro, Itsumi, and Akina in there with her. They can handle this."
Kouga shook off his hold. "She needs me."
Toushi fixed his friend with a knowing stare. "She needs to concentrate. If she's worrying about you out here almost sniveling, she's not going to be able to push like she should."
At that, Kouga fell silent. He stood, poised at the door, as Kagome screamed again. With his youkai hearing, he could make out hushed voices, speaking quickly and with great urgency. His tail whipped furiously back and forth, voicing the turmoil he kept just inside his teeth. Having kept his original form for more than three years, Toushi and Umi were both accustomed to his expressive wolf-like appendage.
Umi spoke up, trying his hand at diversion. "What of the hanyou?" He asked. "Is he on his way?"
"Shh," Kouga hissed. "Kagome doesn't know. I didn't want her getting her hopes up at seeing them if Inu-Yasha doesn't come through."
"Is her family really from a different world?" Toushi straightened. "How can Inu-Yasha possibly retrieve them?"
"They are, and he can," Kouga flicked a glance up at both men for the first time. "I've seen him do it."
"He went back and told her kin she was alright after he left the village, didn't he?"
Kouga nodded. "My men tracked him down four days ago, when I smelled Kagome was getting close to giving birth."
Umi looked over his shoulder into the darkness. "Will he make it in time?"
"I don't know," Kouga raked a hand through his hair as a muffled cry, full of agony, floated to the doorstep. "I hope so. It would mean a lot to her to see her mother, brother, and grandfather."
"Do you think your men found him?" Toushi asked.
Kouga reared. "Ginta and Hakkaku are as trustworthy as you brother. They found him," the youkai thought of the past three years. Reconnecting with his clan had been rewarding, but difficult. The village had been slow to accept help at first, but without Hiro's protective barrier, they'd been left with little choice. Kouga's tribe had migrated nearby to look out for Enomoto, while Kagome and a recovering Hiro feverishly wrote new spell scrolls. By the time the barrier was back in place, the wolves were established, and unwilling to give up their newly retrieved leader. It had been a tense, but ever-growing relationship ever since. Kouga's train of thought made him think of the headman's son, who had done more to forge a pact between the two families, than he'd ever done.
"How's Sen?" Kouga asked, aware that they had succeeded in distracting him for a moment.
Toushi shrugged, joining Umi in scanning the young night. "It seems like he couldn't be happier. Akina was right about him loving the forest. The distances your people travel suite him, and he genuinely enjoys their company."
Kouga arched a brow. "One in particular I hear."
Umi answered. "Ayame. They seem pretty taken with each other. Akina will be pleased."
"As long as she can hope for grandchildren on the horizon," Kouga smiled, thinking of the young man and the wolf princess. Once, a lifetime ago, he himself had been promised to her. It was astonishing how things happened. And all for a reason.
Another scream brought him out of his thoughts and back in front of the healing hut. His fisted hands grew white and shaking at his sides. Every fiber in his being wanted to cry out for Kagome, but he knew Toushi and Umi were right. She needed to concentrate.
"Kouga!" A voice, running towards them, called through the night.
The youkai squinted into the darkness. A girl, only a few years from womanhood, sprinted in their direction. Mika.
"Inu-Yasha's here!" She yelled, no trace of secrecy in her loud voice. "He's brought a woman and boy who look like Kagome!"
"Shh!" Kouga rushed from the doorway, meeting Mika halfway. "It's a surprise!"
The eight year old clamped a hand to her mouth. "They're just outside the common, by the hunting lodge," she said softly. "Should I get them?"
Kouga looked from the common to the hut. He couldn't leave Kagome. "Yes, please."
Mika nodded and ran off without another word. Kouga stood for a moment, gathering his frayed nerves. He had never met Kagome's family. After four years, it was a little late for their approval. He knew how he'd be received. Umi and Toushi walked through the darkness, both clamping a palm on each of his shoulders. They didn't have to say anything. The trio waited, their backs to the healing hut.
Mika was gone for several minutes, no doubt asking the visitors all manner of prying and personal questions. Though she's outgrown many of her younger tendencies, there was an unending curiosity that was still uniquely her.
When the girl finally emerged through the night, she was flanked by Inu-Yasha, an older woman, and a young man. Kouga straightened and forced his tail to be still. He hadn't seen the hanyou since the battle with Naraku. His familiar haori shone through the shadows, a flag from a past that still stirred his stomach. Kouga rallied and plastered on a smile, recalling the customs Kagome had idly told him one afternoon.
"Welcome to Enomoto," he called as they drew near. "You must be the Higurashi's."
The older woman gauged him, looking from his pointed ears and overhanging fangs, to the fur wrapped around his wrists and waist. The young man next to her, almost still a boy, stared over at Kouga in interest.
"And you have to be Kagome's husband," he stepped forward and thrust out his hand. "I'm Souta, her little brother. I know you were hoping for all of us, but Grandpa stayed back to watch over the shrine."
Kouga took the offered palm, shaking with reserved strength. "I've heard a lot about you," he said carefully, studying the boy. His features were shockingly similar to Kagome's. It was obvious they came from the same pack. Bringing his eyes up to Mrs. Higurashi, he could see much of the woman he loved in her lined features. "She hasn't given birth yet," he answered her unspoken question.
Mrs. Higurashi's mouth thinned to a small line. "It's not going well, is it?"
Beside her, Inu-Yasha's ears swiveled and twitched. His eyes narrowed marginally, but he said nothing.
Kouga shared his disquiet. The two met each other's gaze, not saying aloud what both could hear plainly. The baby was stuck, and Kagome was weakening.
Kouga took the opportunity to examine his foe, finally forgotten as he and Kagome had moved on with their lives. Inu-Yasha had aged – impossibly so. As a hanyou, he would have felt the passage of time more than full youkai, but his lifespan was still far greater than that of humans. Kouga tried keeping the surprise from his face at the gaunt set of the dog demon's once youthful features.
Inu-Yasha, sensing the inspection, managed a small, bitter smirk. "Living without her has been hard on me," he said softly.
Souta and Kagome's mother both looked away. Inu-Yasha had obviously meant a great deal to them. Guilt clawed at Kouga's heart.
Toushi took the tense moment to step forward. "I'm Toushi," he smiled at the newcomers. "A friend of Kagome and Kouga's," it was natural for him to mention them together, as a unit.
Surprise registered in both their faces. They obviously weren't nearly as accustomed to the association.
"Our sister is tough, she'll pull through, and with temper to spare," Umi added, speaking to Souta. "You'll see."
Another scream, the loudest and most pained yet, ripped through the darkness. Everyone turned to the healing hut.
Mrs. Higurashi reached out and grabbed Inu-Yasha's arm. "Take me to her," she ordered.
The hanyou hesitated. "You should ask Kouga. Kagome hasn't seen me in three years."
"He's a stranger," she answered crossly, not bothering to look at him. "I want to see my daughter."
Apology crinkled Inu-Yasha's eyes. With a look to the wolf prince, he started past towards the hut. Kouga let them go. Now was not the time to intervene or explain himself. A mother hadn't seen her child in over four years.
Umi and Toushi stepped to the side as Mrs. Higurashi, Souta, and Inu-Yasha moved on. Mika stayed behind. They watched them go, each growing tense and upset.
"Wow," Umi finally whispered. "That was rough."
"Are you going to let her talk to you like that?" Toushi asked. Anger was creeping into his voice.
"What choice do I have?" Remorse choked his own words. "I stole her daughter away and never let her say goodbye."
"You both lost your memory! How could you—?" Toushi rushed to his defense.
Kouga held up a hand. "It's done," he pulled his arm back, running fingers through his hair and sending his ponytail into disarray. "Come on," he started retracing their steps. "Rika is talking about needing more towels. I think the baby's on his way soon."
Both hunters shared a look. Neither wanted to ask what else was being said. They followed silently with Mika in tow, each step growing heavier than the last.
When they returned to the healing hut, the Higurashi's and Inu-Yasha were outside, standing in the path Kouga had smoothed with his pacing. The hanyou was holding a hand out, keeping Kagome's family back. His ears were taut and quivering.
Kouga's eyes widened as he picked out what Inu-Yasha was hearing.
Rika was swearing and Hiro was feverishly chanting a spell. There were hands, moving fast and haphazardly, mopping up pools of something wet. Many pools. Kouga didn't know the actual words Hiro was saying, but he had been around enough of Kagome's training sessions to understand their intent – he was casting a spell to bind a spirit to its body.
The world around him seemed to stop. The six people standing at the door grew hazy and distant. He felt as though the earth was falling away below him – as though Osaki had finally claimed its prize.
"Oh my god," the strength ebbed from Kouga's legs. His knees buckled before he could stop them and he dropped to the ground. Stuffing knuckles into his mouth, he screamed his wife's name, desperately trying to muffle the sound. "KAGOME!"
Mika surged forward and wrapped thin arms around his shoulders. Hot tears wet the side of his face as she cried into him. "Is she dying?" She hiccupped.
"No!" Inu-Yasha growled. "She'll pull through! Just wait!" The palm keeping Mrs. Higurashi in place shook violently. "She's still pushing! I can hear her!"
Kouga fought through his edging delirium to listen. He could hear Kagome straining and crying. Her breaths were gasping. Rika ordered her to bear down. A cry ripped up his wife's spine, exploding from her mouth.
It was echoed by a new sound, soft and mewling. He faintly heard Rika say she had his shoulders. A wail, new and foreign, filled the healing hut. His son left his mother fully, shocked by the cold and noise around him.
He heard Kagome fall back against the floor as Hiro finished his incantation. There was a snipping and rustling as the baby was wrapped in a blanket. Akina took him from Rika as the midwife bent to help Kagome with the afterbirth.
Inu-Yasha's arm had wilted in the air. It threatened to fall at his side, but he feebly kept it up, not wanting Mrs. Higurashi to rush in. This was a crucial moment.
The group waited. Kouga couldn't feel his legs and made no attempt to rise. Mika was still against him, taut with expectation. After a minute that lasted longer than a lifetime, the hide was ripped aside.
Itsumi stood in the entrance, her dress stained with blood. She stared into faces, both familiar and foreign, as her eyes adjusted to the night. "Kouga?" She called tentatively.
He rocketed to his feet, nearly knocking Mika over. Pushing past the Higurashi's and Inu-Yasha as if they were invisible, he took up Itsumi's hand. His fingers shook as they closed over hers.
Umi stared over Kouga's shoulder at his sister, already reading her answer. An exhale of relief sunk his shoulders.
Itsumi squeezed the youkai's hand. "She's fine now," she said breathlessly. "Come see her and your new son."
Kouga rushed inside, heedless of anyone else. The healing hut was lit with dozens of candles, casting the room in a warm, bright glow. On the floor lay a pale Kagome, her hair matted with sweat. Blue-gray eyes fluttered open as he entered.
"Kouga," she whispered.
Hiro got up from his knees and backed away as Kouga took his place by her head. He fell once more to the ground. Cupping her forehead, he bent and kissed her gently.
"I was so worried," tears he barely felt grew in his eyes. "I thought I was losing you," wet streaks ran down his face and pooled under his chin.
Kagome lifted a tired arm up to his cheek, wiping at his sadness. "I was just getting back at you," she smiled weakly. "For those endless days after Naraku when you refused to wake up."
Kouga kissed her again, more fervently and with less restraint. "We're definitely even."
The women of the hut moved about, picking up soiled towels, wet cloths, and a wrapped package to be buried outside.
He remembered himself as he caught sight of Itsumi holding a swaddled form close to her chest. "I wanted you to be able to share this night with the people most important to you. There's a surprise waiting outside," he drew back enough to wipe at his face. "I had Inu-Yasha get your family."
Shock brought energy and color to Kagome's face. "M-My family?"
Kouga looked up and met Akina's eye. The headwoman nodded and pulled open the door. Six anxious faces peered in. Mrs. Higurashi was among them. Eyes the same color as Kagome's misted over as she surged into the room.
The new mother's mouth dropped open. "Mama!"
Mrs. Higurashi fell down next to Kouga, uncaring that he was a stranger now. She leaned over, staring at her daughter in wonder. "I've missed you so much," she said, as her son joined them inside.
Kagome grinned with returning strength as her brother leapt forward and embraced her in an awkward hug.
Kouga smiled at the reunion and quickly got to his feet. The Higurashi's filled the vacated space, talking and crying and hugging. The wolf youkai joined Hiro against the wall. Both men watched for a moment, processing the last few minutes.
"Will she be alright?" Kouga asked, without turning away from the group engrossed with one another on the floor. He heard Hiro nod.
"She's out of danger now," the healer was shaken, but beginning to recover. "But I won't lie to you. It was her miko powers that helped her survive the delivery. The baby was turned around and stuck."
"I heard you pulling her spirit back into her body."
Hiro held up a hand. "That was only a precaution. You can never be too careful with something so precious," he turned away from the scene.
Kouga instinctively reached out and took hold of the healer's wrist. Both men met each other's eye. Kouga was struck with the realization, once again, that Hiro loved her still. In three years, the healer had made no further attempts at gaining her affection, and no ploys at discrediting the youkai. He had played the part of a mentor simply teaching a pupil.
Gratitude, thick and overwhelming, filled him. His tail swished as he thought of what he owed this man. "Thank you," he said hoarsely. "I'm glad you were here."
Hiro could hear all that wasn't said. He'd learned long ago that Kouga was a better man than he, and one Kagome deserved far more. Instead, he glanced around the room, settling his gaze on Itsumi.
"Go see you son," he urged. "Kagome's going to be okay."
Kouga's eyes skirted over Umi, Toushi, and Mika all hesitantly poking their heads into the room, following Hiro to the small, unassuming bundle in the woman's arms. He left the wall, and strode with steps more steady than he felt over to Itusmi.
She grinned as he neared, as proud as if she were holding Hisa the day she was born. "Meet your son Kouga," she held the infant out.
Trembling clawed hands extended and a warm little body was placed in them. Kouga widened his palms and instinctively pulled the baby close. With laughter and shouts of joy behind him, he examined soft, miniature features, looking for something recognizable.
The boy's eyes were closed in exhaustion. Impossibly small lips were parted, breathing in quick breaths, as though they didn't yet trust what the air contained. A mop of black hair, starting to dry, curled around a large head in need of support. Kouga was careful to keep it cradled in his hand. A nondescript nose, pointed ears, and thick cheeks rounded out a face impossibly new.
The baby's eyes opened, and startling blue focused on Kouga's face.
The youkai forgot how to breathe as his son met his gaze. The air left his lungs. They studied each other, staring with the same intensity. Kouga tried to smile, but fear filled him as he looked into the face of someone who needed him so completely. He registered a warm hand on his arm vaguely.
"Show Kagome," Itsumi said softly.
Kouga numbly did as he was told. Making his way towards the center of the room, he crouched carefully beside his wife. "Look," the word was full of wonder and held no thought that he might be interrupting. "He's awake."
Kagome, Mrs. Higurashi, and Souta all turned. Faces lit up and Kagome reached out to take the infant. As Kouga handed him over, a pair of amber eyes watched from just outside the doorway.
Inu-Yasha held the door open, but stood behind Umi, Toushi, and Mika. He stared at Kagome and her baby, drinking in the sight of the woman who had filled him with such life and insurmountable death. The heavy sword pulling at his hip cried out as evidence to the latter. It had been a great burden for the last three years, and seemed to slowly be sucking away his life force. In this moment though, it held no power, no presence. Relief, joy, jealousy, and poignant sadness fought in Inu-Yasha's insides, one vying for dominance, but none succeeding. He was so happy, and so devastated all in one moment, he almost couldn't bear it. He started to turn away, when a small hand reached over and grabbed his.
"Are you alright demon man?"
Inu-Yasha looked to the fingers curling around his. It was the girl who had brought them to see Kouga. Examining her face, he realized it was the same one who had spoken of Kikyo three years ago and left him to grieve in peace. He searched his memory for her name.
"Mika," she answered, as if his words had been aloud. In his overwhelmed state, Inu-Yasha wondered if they'd had.
He couldn't find his tongue enough to answer. It had withdrawn to the back of throat, thick and useless. His only answer was to pull his wrist away.
The girl offered up a calm smile that belied the turmoil and significance of the situation before them. "She'll be glad you did this."
Inu-Yasha backed up, almost releasing the hide door. "I only did what Kouga asked of me."
Mika pressed. "You didn't have to. You chose to go back to Kagome's time."
"Because I owed it to her."
She shook her head ruefully, as if she knew far better than him. "You owe her a lot," she conceded. "But you traveled because you love her, and you're a better man than you allow yourself to believe."
Inu-Yasha straightened and batted the hilt of Tessaiga. "I carry the reminder of what kind of man I am."
Mika's gaze flicked from the sword to his face. "You carry a mistake you made, and you shoulder its burden dutifully," her eyes turned solemn. "Don't let it define you for the rest of your life Inu-Yasha."
His name left her lips and he couldn't help but stare at her young face. "Why do you speak like you know so much?"
She smiled and withdrew from the doorway, letting the night shield her features. "Because I listen. And your ears gather more wisdom than your mouth."
He was struck by her. Inu-Yasha studied her subtly from the corner of her eye. She still had the body and height of a girl, though he knew from her age that those would give away soon. When her eyes searched his though, he saw wisdom and insight far surpassing her years. He was grateful for her presence and nodded as proof of such.
Where others might not have picked up on the gesture, Mika did. She returned the nod demurely. "Make yourself known Inu-Yasha. This is a happy time for Kagome – it's right that you get to share it with her."
Inu-Yasha glanced once more into the interior of the healing hut. Mrs. Higurashi was holding her new grandson while Souta fingered one of his little kicking feet. Kouga and Kagome were watching with wonder and pride that almost left them bursting.
He shook his head. "No," he released the door, letting it fall. "It's not my place," he thought of the life he could've given Kagome and didn't. "It never has been," he turned and walked away.
Mika watched him leave, an unreadable expression on her face.
From inside, Kouga heard the hanyou's departure. Indecision filled him. He couldn't imagine anything tearing him away from this momentous moment, with Mrs. Higurashi's coldness melting away to gratitude as she looked over at him, but he knew Inu-Yasha was leaving for the final time. There would be no return. Planting one more kiss on Kagome's brow, he rose and exited, letting the cool night air swallow him and pull him away from his new family within.
"Inu-Yasha!" His shout burst through the darkness. "Wait!"
Red haori was already disappearing towards the village square. Kouga cursed and broke into a jog. "Hold up!" He called again.
Inu-Yasha ignored him, walking faster.
"I know you can hear me!" His shout grew angry. "Don't be the one who stands in the way of everything I've always wanted again!"
The haori froze and grew sharper as he got close. Inu-Yasha had stopped, rooted in place. He turned around slowly, almost afraid of what he would see.
The two men gauged each other, measuring what three years had wrought. Inu-Yasha leaned on his right leg, favoring the side holding Tessagia. His features had changed and aged, growing hard and soft at the same time. In contrast, Kouga stood strong, wearing fur around his head, shoulders, wrists, and legs. His tail, ever present now, hung low. Color in his face and chest, from weeks of harvest and village work, gave him a healthy visage.
"I just wanted to say thank you," Kouga said. "You helped make this night so special."
Inu-Yasha frowned. "Whoever thought you'd be telling me 'thank you'?"
"I know, right?" Kouga's mouth turned up in a half-smile.
The hanyou continued to measure him. "I don't have to tell you to take care of her. I don't even have the right to say so anymore."
"You know I will."
Inu-Yasha nodded, letting his hand wrap around Tessaiga's hilt. "We've found the last of the shikon shards. Will you tell her for me?"
Surprise lifted Kouga's brows high.
"It's been hard without Kagome to purify them, but Kaede is working on it," as new words tumbled from Inu-Yasha, he seemed unable to stop. "I think soon we'll be able to put them all together."
"What will you do with it then?" Kouga asked slowly.
"You get to make one wish."
Caution broached the youkai. "Be careful," he warned. "The shikon-no-tama is corrupted, no matter how pure you make it. Trust me," he patted his thighs. "I remember its power."
Annoyance flicked across Inu-Yasha's features. "I know, I've been battling it for the past six years," he frowned. "I plan to use it to pull Naraku out of my father's sword."
"Ah," Kouga nodded. He appraised the hanyou anew. "Would you like to tell Kagome about the jewel yourself?"
Inu-Yasha shook his head vehemently. "I can't. Seeing her again has almost killed me."
"She'll be disappointed," Kouga allowed himself to be gracious, knowing he had nothing left to fear from his once rival. "What about Miroku and Sango?"
"Didn't they stop by here over the summer?"
Kouga's eyes widened. "You knew about that?"
He scoffed. "Of course."
They stood in the darkness a moment, silence wrapping around them like the coolness of night.
Kouga spoke first. "Safe travels then Inu-Yasha."
The hanyou nodded. "Have a happy life Kouga," he turned and began walking away without another word.
The wolf prince watched him go, staring until his haori disappeared beyond the common. "You too," he whispered. With a final glance, he headed back for the healing hut. It held everything he loved and a future so bright, it brought a misting to his eyes. After a lifetime of battle and hardship, he was finally home.