Kaede's single eye was sharp as she watched the injured hanyou stagger toward her. One of the village children had fetched her moments ago, stating that Inuyasha was approaching, hurt and with an unconscious woman in his arms. For a moment, she had felt keen anxiety that Kagome had been harmed, but the figure in his arms was clearly not the reincarnation of her sister.
No, it was the demon exterminator he held with such determination, though he looked near to dropping from blood loss and exhaustion. She felt a moment's pride on Inuyasha's behalf, that he would exert himself to such an extent for a friend, and then he looked up from Sango's battered and dirty face to meet Kaede's gaze.
Though it had not been long since last she had seen their group, no, Sango was no longer just a friend to Inuyasha. The worry and upset stamped on his features spoke of a relationship that went beyond mere friendship. He was not just concerned, he was afraid. Afraid to lose her.
"Old woman," he rasped, and fell to his knees just steps from the entrance to Kaede's hut. "Help her. Please."
Several villagers hurried forward to take the girl's limp form from him, carrying her inside while he slumped back on his heels, hands pressed hard on his thighs as he struggled to contain himself.
"Ye should come in too, Inuyasha," Kaede said before going inside to tend Sango. "Ye are injured as well."
He lurched to his feet and followed her in. "You can poke at me after you're done with her," he growled.
Kaede worked diligently to repair the damage done to the taijiya; she had a concussion, a broken rib, and badly twisted ankle and wrist. Inuyasha steadfastly refused to answer any questions, and only when Kaede had convinced him that Sango no longer needed her services would he allow her to treat him. Once his ribs, gashes, bruises, and punctures had been dressed, he fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
When Kagome, Miroku, Shippo and Kirara arrived, they were breathless from running—they had hurried back as quickly as possible. Kirara's injuries were minor but had prevented them from riding her, so their journey had taken almost an entire day. Sango and Inuyasha were both still asleep, but the newcomers were more than pleased to describe the events of the previous day to Kaede. When she learned that Inuyasha had carried Sango so far, so quickly—and with his injuries—she was amazed at this further mark of his devotion to the demon slayer.
"Kagome," Kaede ventured once Miroku and Shippo had left the hut, and Kirara was curled protectively against Sango's unconscious form on the futon across the room, "I am confused." Her voice was low but puzzled. "I thought that Inuyasha was fated to love the soul you share with Kikyo. How is it possible, then, for him to love another?"
"Maybe…" Kagome whispered, fingers plucking at the hem of her uniform skirt, "maybe Inuyasha isn't meant to be with my and Kikyo's soul, after all."
Kaede frowned. "What do ye mean, child?"
"Well, think about it," Kagome said, her frank personality asserting itself. "Inuyasha and I are always arguing. And it was awfully easy for Kikyo to believe the worst of him, both before her death and after. Maybe he's meant to interact with us, to get involved with us, but for a love that will actually last, or make him happy…" She paused, her gaze traveling to Sango's unconscious face. "Maybe his fate lies with Sango."
The aged miko smiled faintly. Truly, this girl was growing quickly in wisdom and maturity. "Perhaps," she agreed at last, then heaved herself to her feet. "Let us find Miroku and Shippo and be sure they are not causing mischief in our absence."
Once they were gone, Inuyasha opened his eyes. He'd been awake since the others had returned to the village, had heard everything they'd said. There was an ache in his chest, right in the middle, at Kagome's words. Not fated to be with her or Kikyo? He felt oddly free at the idea. Kikyo had caused him such pain for so long, and Kagome… she was just so damned annoying most of the time. And yet, there had always been that compulsion to care for them. Both of them.
But perhaps it did not have to be… perhaps the eyes he stared down into could be those of someone else; perhaps the lips he kissed could belong to another. Someone who didn't want to change him, as Kikyo had; someone who saw him as he was, instead of Kagome's romanticized version of him.
Someone like Sango.
No, not someone like her. Her. He remembered her face in the moonlight when she'd told him he was beautiful; her face in the sunlight when she'd said he could do anything at all, except leave her. A wave of longing and affection and respect flowed through him, all at once, and before he knew it, he'd thrown back the blanket over him and begun to crawl across the plank floor of the hut toward her still figure in the corner.
"Sango," he whispered once he sat at her side, and carefully cupped her cheek. Even with her face banged up, she was beautiful. She'd gotten those marks fighting with him, fighting for him. To save him. Glancing nervously over his shoulder to make sure he wasn't seen, Inuyasha leant down and brushed a kiss over her mouth. He hadn't expected her to respond, however, and jolted back with a surprised yelp when her lips moved against his.
"Inuyasha," Sango murmured, a smile flitting across her face as she turned her head and saw him sprawled back, eyes wide as he stared at her in apprehension. "Are we all still alive?"
Quickly, he composed himself. "Of course," he replied, coming back to sit close to her. "How… how are you?" he asked, then winced at the lameness of the question.
She didn't seem to mind, however, and pushed down the blanket to reach for his hand. "Better than before." Her eyes were huge, and glowed with some emotion Inuyasha didn't dare put a name to. "How are you?"
"Just about healed," he replied, unable to look at her for long, not with the way he felt inexplicably like crying, a lump rising to his throat. "I'll be back to normal by tonight."
Sango seemed to sense his oddness of mood, and released his hand. "I'm glad," she said faintly.
Suddenly, Inuyasha was furious. "You moron," he barked. "What were you thinking in that soft melon of yours? You could have gotten killed with a stunt like that." He looked back at her, almost relieved to see the softness leave her gaze, replaced by an angry glint.
"I don't fear death," she snapped. Then she blinked. "At least, not my own," she continued quietly.
His anger faded as quickly as it had come. He knew what she was saying. "I'm not worth it," he said, his voice low. "You're worth ten of me. I don't want you to do anything like that again."
Sango struggled to prop herself on her elbows. "Don't," she fumed, gasping with the effort. "Don't you dare say that. You say that again and I'll… I'll throw Hiraikotsu at you."
Inuyasha snorted in derision. "I'm not allowed to say mean things about myself, and you'll beat the hell out of me until I stop? Is that what you're saying?"
"I'm saying I love you, Inuyasha," she said tiredly, flopping back on the futon and shutting her eyes. She was weary of beating around the bush, and there was really no point in keeping it a secret any longer. Not that it still was a secret, really… "I love you, and I don't let anyone say bad things about people I love. Even the people themselves."
"Sango," he breathed, but fell silent. He was quiet so long that at last she cracked her eyelids, peering at him through her lashes.
"What is it, Inuyasha?" she prompted gently, and reached for his hand again. This time, she only held her own out, waiting for him to meet her halfway.
"I— um—" His mouth seemed unable to form words any more, but he managed to put his hand in hers. "I do, too," he blurted out finally, his face most distressed, and he hung his head while his ears drooped.
"You love you, too?" she prompted, a little smile on her lips.
He glared. "No, stupid," he retorted. "I love you." Then he looked shocked to realize he'd been able to say it. Amazement spread over his face like the dawn, lighting his eyes like drops of gold. "I do," he said in wonder. "I love you."
Sango pushed once more to her elbows; immediately, he was there to help her, one strong arms coming to support her back while the other hand cupped her head, tucking it snugly into the curve of his neck.
"You're not going to sacrifice yourself for me again," he muttered against her temple. "You don't know how awful I felt, carrying you back here, knowing you'd done it for me."
"Oh, shut up," she murmured against his throat. "You're not allowed to tell me how to save you. I will if I want to."
He moved her back so he could see her face. "I thought the only thing I wasn't allowed to do was leave you," he said flatly, but there was a gleam in his eye… he enjoyed sparring with her like this, as opposed to the immense frustration that was the only result of his bickering with Kagome.
"Ok, so there's two things," Sango said comfortably, and grinned at him. "You can't leave me, and you can't tell me I can't save you."
Inuyasha listed a brow and smirked at her. "Anything else? Any other ground rules you want to set down before this goes any further?" He frowned, then. "And that is this, anyway?" He blushed a little. "I've never had…"
"A healthy, equitable relationship where both parties respect each other?" she finished for him, smiling openly when he looked away, embarrassed.
He nodded, still staring out the door of the hut. "Are you sure you want to start something, Sango?" he asked quietly. "I'm hanyou, shunned by both humans and youkai. Our life together… it wouldn't be easy."
She snorted. "Our life together isn't easy now," she said dryly. "I expect we'll continue to hunt shards and fight Naraku like we have been… the difference will be that we'll be…" Sango trailed off, uncertain how to put it.
"We'll be mates," he declared, then blushed a little harder. "I mean, if you want to be…" At her nod, a slow, tentative smile appeared on his lips. "But, Sango, don't you want a home eventually? A—a family?" His face was positively purple now.
"One day, when it's all over, I'll want a home," she said, reaching up to comb her fingers through his silver bangs. "And the family can come eventually… I hope they'll all have your ears…" She tugged gently on one, enjoying the feel of its velvet fur.
"You really don't mind?" he asked, his voice hushed, like he was both eager for and dreading her response. "That our children will be part-demon?"
He had been so terribly, terribly damaged by the bigotry of the world, she thought sadly. "No," she told him, and meant it. "We'll teach them to be good people, and if others can't see past the hanyou to the wonderful heart beneath, they can lump it."
Inuyasha embraced her then. "I love you," he whispered passionately. "You're mine. Never leave me."
Sango pushed back the swath of his hair to look past him to their friends standing in the doorway. "I won't," she promised, sighing in relief when Kagome and then Miroku (prompted by Kagome's pointy little elbow jamming into his side) smiled at her. "I'll never leave you."
T H E E N D