Chapter Fifty

It hurt to breathe.

Each inhalation became sordid agony within his chest, each exhalation like the point of a knife between his ribs. Bones were cracked, punching their angry sharp edges into his slowly weakening flesh. Lacerations marked his body, some clotted with rust-colored blood, others still bleeding fresh crimson.

Unrelenting, unstoppable, and unavoidable blows had crushed the left side of his face. It had been a long time since he'd tasted this much of his own blood, and a long time since mere physical pain had been enough to make him fall to his knees and retch.

Sesshomaru was dying.

He'd attacked the monster with everything he had, too furious over Sango's death to be rational. A bad mistake and one he'd not likely have opportunity to make again. Now, face down in the dirt and pride a distant memory, he wondered if it would have made any difference at all.

Probably not. But he did not intend to die like this, helpless and driven to his end by a bastard more powerful. He wanted to die on his feet, still fighting and still trying to inflict whatever damage he could. But it wasn't his pride that made him hold fast to this resolution, and it wasn't fury or revenge.

It wasn't even regret…although he'd had enough of that by now to recognize its salty taste in his mouth.

Sesshomaru didn't believe in an afterlife, such notions were fit for superstitious peasants and weak-minded fools. He neither embraced the idea of redemption nor rejected it, just as he would never quite trust foreign concepts such as enlightenment. He had no use for such things, and deity was only seen as an expression of nature in a more tangible form.

River gods and forest sprites did not challenge a daiyoukai, and Sesshomaru had always looked on with a sneer of superiority at the little shrines and grottos that were dedicated in their honor. His existence, however lengthy, was also finite and measured out by each drop of blood that splashed the ground.

Staggering, he managed to get to his feet and faced his opponent with what might have looked like pride. It was not. It was not pride at all and anyone who knew him well, and there had been few enough, would have known that it was not pride.

It was grief. And deep within what had been a coldly dispassionate heart, Sesshomaru who did not believe in an afterlife knew that most humans did. And if his beloved Sango was looking at him now from across the unknowable chasm that separates the living from the dead, he wanted her to see this.

He wanted her to see him give his life for her. It was the last thing, the only thing that he could give for her now. It would have to be enough.

Sesshomaru closed his eyes for just a moment, the space between heartbeats, but long enough to remember everything about Sango.

"Giving up?" a dark voice drawled.

He opened his eyes. "No."

"Good," the voice hissed. "Let's make it interesting." There was a dark flash and Sesshomaru found himself staring into the monster's face, just inches from his own. A hand that felt like iron gripped his hair and twisted viciously. He wouldn't, not even in death, give the bastard the satisfaction of hearing him cry out.

"Proud one, aren't you?" the elder demon muttered, trying to force Sesshomaru to his knees by using the tearing pain in his scalp for leverage. "Fought like you had something to prove, like you had a chance. I like that about you, boy. Beg for me now, I might just let you live."

The dark creature smiled, his teeth sharp and black against the ruby violence of his mouth. Startling almost, the deathly pallor of his skin and the brutal darkness of his hair and eyes. Sesshomaru found himself to be unbearably calm at the moment. His shoulder had been dislocated some time ago and he could barely even raise his arm anymore.

But he'd die on his feet…and never beg for anyone's mercy!

Instead he let his eyes blaze with fury, his lips only curling slightly in disgust. "Pathetic thing," he whispered, words now soft as snow. "I can see you now for what you are, a shell, a desperate beast who attacks out of madness and misery."

The hand in his hair tightened and Sesshomaru let his body sag slightly, forcing his opponent to take the weight of his body. A little more…he might be able to pull him down if the bastard dropped his guard. He had been overwhelmed by anger; he wasn't using his brain in this fight. He'd forced a physical confrontation against something that didn't have physical weakness. No, that body was long since dead and each pulse of deep, corrosive energy made him even more certain of what he was facing.

Not a ghost, and not the walking dead. Something that had been vicious enough in life, become even more hateful in death…more an expression of perfect corruption. The beast stank right down to its soul and for all the years of separation and distrust, decades of anger, Sesshomaru found himself thinking about his father.

And felt pity for the living hell he must have endured at the hands of this monster.

Something must have glittered in his eyes; perhaps his opponent sensed his distraction. Or maybe it was just madness, winding its way through time and instinct, once again binding together grandsire and grandson as one prepared to die at the hands of the other.

"Who are you?" the dark beast whispered, staring at Sesshomaru as if seeing him for the first time. Not as just as a rival, Sango's lover and the man who had the heart of a woman he'd wanted, but really seeing him. Fingers twisted in white hair, eyes black as pitch stared into gold. And the scent of Sesshomaru's blood surrounded them like a heavy veil, a scarlet mist that tasted far too familiar for even madness to be comfortable.

"Answer me!"

"Why?" Sesshomaru husked, his voice like dust in his throat. "Do I remind of someone? Have you forgotten everything that you were before your death? Or is it only that pathetic, miserable death itself that you can't stand to remember?"

Sesshomaru ground his teeth, feeling claws slice into his chest. He shuddered, but refused to cry out or scream. His lips thinned as his jaw clenched against the pain, and focused with all the will his father had taught him. Hanging like a limp rag from the mouth of death itself, Sesshomaru was just waiting for an opportunity.

Catch the bastard off guard

"You died beaten," Sesshomaru whispered. "And the man who killed you had nothing but contempt for all of your miserable life. He beat you, butchered your filthy carcass, but you weren't even worth the crows. Ran you through with his blade, hacked off your head, then buried your corpse beneath a mountain. Erased your existence so that no one, particularly himself, would have to suffer the memory of a bastard like you."

"How do you know this?" Insanity was like black flames in his eyes and the cold hand that held Sesshomaru by his hair was starting to shake. When he didn't get an answer, the dark youkai growled and flung Sesshomaru hard to the ground and kicked him viciously.

"Tell me!"

Rolling on his back, Sesshomaru smiled faintly as blood ran from his lips. If he had the strength to get to his feet, he would have done so. If he could have lifted his sword, struck with his claws, poisoned or lashed the air with his toxic youki, he would have done so. But without resources and hearing his breathing grow ever shallower, and his own heartbeat starting to falter, he could do little more than smile up at his executioner.

"Look at me," he murmured. "Do I not look familiar now? My hair, my eyes, even the scent of my blood is itching at your brain. Like the teeth of a thousand rats, it will gnaw at you until you guess who I am. But by then it will be too late and whatever grip you've managed to hold on this world will slip between your fingers."

Come closer, grandfather, I want to take you back to hell

Sesshomaru heard a soft thud and realized his opponent was kneeling beside him. Rough hands pulled him upright, supporting him as the deadly creature who had been driven insane centuries earlier stared into his face. Calmly, as if his own death bored him to tears, Sesshomaru waited for his bastard grandfather to beg.

"I have to know," his voice sounded like he was pleading for forgiveness. "Your face, I can't remember…but your eyes…" There was a long pause and Sesshomaru kept silent. It was more torturous than the pain of his wounds, lying passive and numb. He wouldn't have victory today.

But he might have revenge.

"My son had eyes like yours," the dark, miserable monster whispered. "My lost son, the one I've been searching for…how do you know of my son?"

Sesshomaru's lips moved, but no sound broke from them. He was too weak, it was too late and silent pain wracked the monster's body at the thought of being so close to the truth…and having it slip away once again. Tenderly, he raised the dying youkai against his chest, his face so close that Sesshomaru's last breath might kiss his ravaged cheek.

"Your son…was the one who destroyed you."

Memories slashed through his mind, each one tearing deep gashes out of the black void of nothing. A white-haired child running away from him in terror. A young boy trying to defend himself as heavy, drunken blows blackened his face with bruises. A man now, his son screamed at him with wild and frantic hatred, furious over some vile act of depravity. He could almost hear his own laughter and the sick pitch of his heart when the boy become a man raised a glowing sword…

"My…son," he whispered. "He was…"

"My father," Sesshomaru hissed. "And I am here to take you back to hell, monster!" Surging forward, he sank his fangs deeply into his grandfather's throat. Sesshomaru felt the other youkai try to pull back and growled as he kept his jaw clenched tight. Foul flesh and thick, rank blood ran between his lips and he shoved forward with his last strength to topple his stunned opponent.

Sango…his heart was crying out for her…for the child they'd almost had, the love they'd tried to share. Sesshomaru closed his eyes. Ignoring vicious curses and the desperate struggles of the demon under him, he concentrated on slowly tearing his grandfather's throat to shreds.

oOo

"Have you decided to leave us then, houshi-sama?"

Smiling, the monk turned and offered Jano his hand. "My friends are still out there," he said, his mild voice belying the worry in his eyes. "As comfortable your people have tried to make me, I can't wait here any longer."

Jano leaned close. "Just how comfortable did Aiko make you last night?" he asked with a knowing grin.

Of a like mind, the monk didn't even blush. "Very," he answered with a light smile. "And gave me the promise of making me much, much more comfortable in the future…as long as I return alive."

"That might be the trick," Jano said soberly, the grin fading from his eyes as he rubbed one hand over his stomach. The wound had healed, healed astonishingly fast in fact. Makiko was certain that it had something to do with the herbs that Naota had packed the injury with. It seemed that Sesshomaru's wayward cousin knew things that the fortress healers would give dearly to know.

"Don't worry, Jano-san," Miroku said evenly. "I might be only a human, but I can handle myself. Trust me, I will not return without San…that is…my friends."

Jano didn't miss the way that Miroku avoided speaking Sango's name, or the echo of an unrequited love in the young man's voice. A sad thing, he thought, to be happy with one woman and still in love with another. Equally sad when the one who was loved only had eyes for another, and more painful still to know that Miroku would always stand on the outside of that love.

It would certainly complicate their friendship, Jano thought. If both the exterminator and the monk were to return alive, which he still hoped was possible. If anyone other than Sessh had gone after that monster, Jano wouldn't have given them a chance in hell. Since it was Sessh…even the chances of hell would have to be careful of their fates.

"We should all be mindful of our fate," a soft voice intoned, soft but with enough weight behind it to make both Miroku and Jano jump. Barou moved so quietly that he was almost a ghost himself. His smooth face, nearly a mirror of Sesshomaru's, displayed no emotion. Only stoic acceptance of whatever would come.

"Do you have to sneak around like that?" Jano muttered. Embarrassing enough that he'd jumped, but the sudden twitch had made the newly healed muscles of his midsection ache. "Always a damned spy…"

Barou ignored him. "Are you going to pursue Sesshomaru-sama?" he asked Miroku, his storm-gray eyes placid as a windless sea.

Miroku nodded once, and then smiled when Kirara let out a loud purr as she rubbed against his ankles. She meowed worriedly when he lifted her, stroking the kitten's ears. "We'll follow whatever path Sesshomaru and Inuyasha took, hopefully we'll pick up their trail along the way."

"It wasn't your direction I was inquiring about. I asked if you intended to pursue him…" Barou's voice broke off and he suddenly stared upwards, a rare expression of utter shock on his face as he scanned the sky. A heavy, dark cloud had appeared from nowhere, silver flashes of lightning charged the air with an unfamiliar potency.

"It…it can't be," Barou muttered, looking more frightened and flustered than Jano had ever seen him. He might not like the man, but over many years he'd come to respect his instinct for danger. Jano stiffened, the twinge around his middle reminding him that he was not ready for any kind of serious combat.

"What is it?" he said harshly, glaring at Barou. "Should I call the guards, is it an attack?"

Miroku's forehead wrinkled as he followed Barou's gaze. "It's not Naraku," he muttered. "But it is a youkai presence…very strong…wild even."

Then from above, a sound that made Jano and Barou's blood run cold and set the hair on Miroku's neck standing straight up. It was a harsh echoing scream, like that of a beast being tortured to madness. Kirara hissed, springing from Miroku's arms to transform into her larger youkai self. Her fur was standing on end as if she'd become charged with electricity and her eyes glinted furiously.

"What the hell?" Jano muttered. "It sounded almost like…"

"Get out of the way!" Barou's shout rang against the stones of the courtyard and Jano cursed as the youkai lord grabbed his arm and dragged him forcefully towards the nearest wall.

"Goddamnit! That hurt, you spying little shit!"

A rush of energy suddenly flattened all three men against the wall. Miroku was already pulling ofuda from his robes while Jano swore furiously as Barou kept him from charging towards the gates to call the duty guards. There was suddenly a lot of smoke in the air, enough to make his eyes water. And having been attacked and nearly killed not three days earlier, Jano was ready for a little payback on whatever had invaded Sesshomaru's fortress.

"Dear gods," Miroku cried out when the smoke lifted. "What is that thing?"

That thing seemed to be half horse and half visitation from hell. It struck the ground angrily with silver hooves, leaving long gouge marks in the ancient stone. Its midnight-black coat glinted in the pallid morning sun, the long silver mane and tail whipping the air like a brush fire as it glowered challenges to every living thing in sight.

Kirara yowled and the war stallion trumpeted an answering fury. Then stood stock still, watching the big cat with glowing eyes, but making no move of aggression as a small, slender, green-skirted figure slid from its back.

"Kagome!" Jano and Miroku both shouted at once.

The girl staggered a bit and rubbed her ears. "He's just so loud," she murmured as they ran to meet her. "It really hurt my ears…"

She swayed a bit and Jano caught her by the shoulders. "Jano-san," she said, her face brightening considerably. "I'm so happy you're alive!"

"I told you he was," Naota muttered, staring down at them from the tall charger's back. He held an unconscious Kohaku in his arms and let Miroku and Barou help them both down. The boy's face was so pale that his skin seemed translucent, as if by every breath it was growing less substantial. As Naota cradled him carefully, Barou's expression grew more worried.

"He's near death," Barou whispered, reaching out to touch Kohaku's forehead. "Where's Sesshomaru, this child needs to be near him and Tenseiga. It almost feels like his soul is being torn from his body."

"That's exactly what's wrong," Naota said, biting off each word like a curse. "Those bastards did something to him, it's as if he has no will of his own, like something inside is telling him to die."

Miroku snarled an obscenity under his breath before turning to Kagome. "Was it Naraku?" he demanded. "Kohaku ran off, but you and Sango followed him."

Tearfully, Kagome nodded. "He did something to Kohaku, he forced him to bring the last shard to them." At Miroku's hiss of anger, she grabbed his arm. "He seemed to come out of it a bit when we escaped, but I thought we should hurry back here in case…in case he didn't…"

Miroku turned to look at the tiny woman still seated on the massive horse. Her dark eyes met his and he found himself nodding respectfully before offering her his hand to help her dismount. There was a powerful aura surrounding her, a strength of youki that commanded others to do her will.

"My lady," he murmured.

Her small face tilted slightly in acknowledgment. "Is Sesshomaru here?" she asked quietly. "I wish to see him."

"No," the monk answered, turning to glance at Kagome. "He's not with you?"

Her eyes widened. "He's not here?" she said, looking wildly over at Jano. "Sesshomaru and Sango…they didn't come back yet?"

"Kagome," Naota said, his tone hard. "We need to take care of Kohaku now, there's nothing we can do about Sessh. If he's not here, we have to find a way to heal this boy or trust me, he is going to die."

"Not yet," Barou murmured. His eyes were unfocused as he rested his hand over Kohaku's heart. "There is a darkness in this child's soul, something wicked that is drawing him towards death. He is still fighting it…deep inside, he is fighting the compulsion to destroy himself."

"Can you do anything?" Jano asked. He grabbed Barou's shoulder, forcing him to come back from his distant vision. "Can you help Kohaku?"

The clanlord nodded slowly and then reached out to touch Kagome's arm. "If this priestess is willing to aid a youkai."

"Of course she will," Shi said briskly. "Inside with the boy, Naota. And be quick about it. You," she said, gesturing at Barou. "If you have some talent at mending broken souls, you must be much valued by Sesshomaru. I will come with you to observe while these servants make my Nashi-chan comfortable."

"Did she just call me a servant?" Jano asked, leaning towards Miroku.

The monk grinned. "Perhaps if you told her you were Sesshomaru's servant…"

Jano shook his head and stared up at the imposing demon-horse. "I suppose you remember the way to the stables," he said tartly, pointing as if the beast could understand him. "What you're doing here though…I can't guess."

The horse whickered softly as pink drool slid from his tusks to sizzle on the ground. Jano sidestepped the pool of slobber before daring to rest his hand on the beast's flank. "Kuchinashi," he murmured. "I never expected that you were still alive, let alone serving another master…or mistress as it seems."

"Kagome," Miroku called out as the girl headed towards the stone staircase, just a few steps behind the strange Shi who looked as if she expected to take over the fortress in Sesshomaru's absence. "Where is Inuyasha? He left here with Sesshomaru and Naota two mornings ago…"

"Oh!" Kagome spun around, staring at the gate. She suddenly blushed dark red and stammered a bit. "He's…he's right outside the gate. I…almost forgot that he…I mean, they…oh, they're still fighting!"

"Fighting?" Miroku glanced at Jano, who shrugged.

Jano nodded in the direction of the fortress' entrance. "I can't stand the suspense," the tall inuyoukai confessed with a grin.

Together they headed for the heavy gates, Jano shouting out orders to open it and cursing inventively when the guards didn't move fast enough for his liking. Miroku privately wondered if the swearing and abuse was just a sign of affection. Jano's men seemed to respect him, but they obviously weren't terrified that he was going to char them to the ground if they didn't obey.

Sesshomaru…on the other hand…was probably a different story.

The huge doors creaked open slowly as the ancient mechanism moved inside the gates. Unlike the fortress walls, they were made of heavy wood bound in iron casings, three feet thick and almost as dense as stone. Why hadn't Inuyasha come inside with the rest? That beast horse could have certainly carried another rider, unless Inuyasha didn't trust it. No, that wasn't it or he'd have never allowed Kagome to ride on its back.

Come to think of it, why had Kagome ridden the horse inside of letting Inuyasha carry her? In any case, Miroku was relieved to have them back. If Inuyasha and Naota had found Kagome and Kohaku, that meant that Sesshomaru must have also been successful in rescuing Sango.

He supposed he could think of several reasons why the exterminator and daiyoukai might have been delayed…a passionate reunion, for instance. Miroku found the thought didn't sting as much as he would have expected. But…Sango never would have gone off with Sesshomaru if she knew Kohaku was in danger.

And to give the youkai credit, Miroku didn't think that Sesshomaru would have abandoned the boy either. He'd used his sword to free Kohaku and had since seemed intensely protective of the boy's welfare. Not quite as intense or protective as he'd been over Kohaku's sister, but enough to convince Miroku that even Sesshomaru wouldn't just let the boy die without trying to help.

"Move your ass, you worthless old bastard!"

Miroku stopped, staring at the unlikely sight before him. He heard a low chuckle from Jano and fought to keep himself from laughing as well. Kagome had said Inuyasha was still fighting…but this wasn't what he'd expected.

A large dog with shaggy gray fur was hunched on the ground, its four legs braced as Inuyasha pulled and yanked at its long tail. The dog was growling, teeth bared and threatening as Inuyasha cursed and heaved at the animal's backside. Abandoning the tail, Inuyasha dug his claws into the thick fur and tried to bodily drag the animal toward the fortress.

"Miserable asshole, you're going inside! I'm not gonna go in there and try to explain to all those fuckheads about you. I'm sick of cleaning up your fucking messes, you ugly gray shit!"

"That's unkind," Jano said cheerily, watching an unstoppable force do battle with an immovable dog. "For being half dog-demon himself, you'd think he'd spare a little more respect for the creature."

"You'd think," Miroku agreed, shaking his head. Inuyasha snarled when the dog suddenly turned on him, snapping viciously at his hands and legs until Inuyasha had to spring away or be bitten. Then it hunkered down, belly on the ground but Miroku thought there was something decidedly not submissive in that position.

No, the animal wasn't cowering; it was just making it as difficult as possible for the hanyou to get leverage on him. Inuyasha grabbed at the dog's floppy ears, snatched his hand back just in time to avoid the teeth and circled around the growling beast once again.

"Oh, you just think you're one smart bastard," the hanyou said disgustedly as the dog curled its tail under its rump. To Miroku's surprise, the dog seemed to be laughing, short pants with a grinning mouth, and long tongue extended as the dark eyes watched Inuyasha with shrewd intelligence.

Inuyasha suddenly ducked and shoved at the dog's behind, obviously hoping to catch him off guard. He heaved and swore again, pushing until the back legs came up off the ground even as the front claws dug deeper into the earth. Just as his hanyou friend managed to pick up the rear portion of the dog, the animal suddenly surged forward, kicking Inuyasha in the face and flopping over with a decidedly doggish smirk.

"That's how it is, eh?" Inuyasha's expression was almost maniacal by now, his eyes bright and glittering. "Ain't going in, just gonna run away from it like before? Let me tell you, I don't give a rat's ass about what your reasons were. You're a fucking coward and I'm fucking embarrassed to be related to a fucking coward!"

The dog's hackles raised at the insult, teeth gleaming as he glared at Inuyasha. Slowly, the hanyou drew Tessaiga and the blade pulsed to life with a throb of power. The dog's eyes narrowed and his ears went flat against his skull.

"Inuyasha," Miroku called out, "you aren't going to use the sword on a…"

"Shut up!" Inuyasha snarled viciously, not taking his eyes from his prey. "Oh yeah, I believe that it won't let itself be used against you, bastard. Don't worry, I wouldn't waste Kaze no Kizu on a cowardly shit like you."

Inuyasha smiled unpleasantly, raising the sword so that the flat of the blade was parallel to the dog's body. He swung hard and fast, the blade connecting suddenly against the dog's rump with a resounding smack! The dog yelped, scrambling away as Inuyasha tried to swing again.

"How's that feel?" the hanyou shouted. "Not as bad as being abandoned by my own father! Not as bad as being shunned by my brother, or being left on my own after my mother died! You wanna talk about some pain, I'll show you some pain, great general of the dogs, my ASS!"

The dog yelped again as Inuyasha made contact, chasing it towards the open gate. "You get in there and face up to what you did!"

"Inuyasha," Miroku shouted, distracting the hanyou as the dog bolted towards the fortress. "What the hell are you doing?"

He swung around, glaring at the monk. Grumbling a bit, he sheathed Tessaiga as he kept his eyes on the gate, expecting to see the dog make an escape. Jano was still staring at the gate as well, his mouth hanging slightly open.

"Was…Inuyasha, was that really…" Jano murmured, stunned and completely bewildered.

"Yeah, it's him," Inuyasha snapped. He glanced up and noticed Jano's shocked look. "It's a long story, but yeah…he's back."

"First Kuchinashi, now him," the inuyoukai said, shaking his head. "Where's Sesshomaru? Does he know about it?"

Inuyasha stopped, suddenly not angry anymore. "He's not back? I would have thought he'd have made it here by now. What about Sango?"

"She's not here," Jano said quietly, glancing at Miroku's silent face. "Look, that thing out there…"

"It's still got her," Inuyasha said grimly. "Kagome said…shit. Kagome said that bastard that attacked you…he attacked them too. But he turned Naraku's demons against him and used the confusion to free her and Kohaku. She said he did it for Sango…so she'd belong to him."

"Belong to him?" Revulsion filled Jano's voice and his hands curled into fists. "You're saying Sango traded herself to that…that foul thing…for Kagome and Kohaku's freedom? I can't believe it!"

"You'd better. He wanted her for himself, and it was worth turning on Naraku just for her. Sesshomaru went after them." Inuyasha's expression drained of anger and suddenly he looked tired and sad.

Jano grit his teeth and tried to keep himself from shaking. That monster, that filthy, corrupt, evil monster…

"Sango's strong, she's about as strong as any human woman I've ever known…but if that thing forces himself on her…she might die of it." Jano's voice was bleak. "Sesshomaru will kill himself getting to her, kill himself trying to get revenge if she's been hurt. And if it's too late…and she's too badly hurt…he'll take care of that too."

"He'd die for her." Jano was surprised to hear the conviction in Inuyasha's tone. "I wasn't sure about it before, I thought he might just be fucking with Sango for his own reasons. But I saw his face when he found out…what that bastard really is and what he wants to do to Sango. He'll die before he'll stop fighting for her."

"We have to help somehow," Jano said, burning to go after Sesshomaru now. They'd been friends for too long, seen each other suffer too much over so many years. If the worst had happened, Jano couldn't stand the thought. They both deserved better…and deserved someone to take vengeance if they weren't able to take it themselves.

"Miroku," he said, turning towards the monk. "Let's get some men together, start a search party, we can cover more ground…"

Inuyasha's hand fell on Jano's shoulder and they both looked up at the same time, watching the blue sky with an empty, sinking feeling in their hearts.

Miroku and Kirara were already gone.

oOo

She could feel the weight of it on her chest, heaviness, pressure that kept her immobile and stole any hope from her heart. Her eyes, her mouth, they were filled with black water. She could neither see nor breathe; instead Sango found herself lying like a stone at the bottom of a deep and dark sea.

My baby

She tried to move, one hand wanted to wrap over her belly, the other itched to have a weapon. Sango thought wistfully of Hiraikotsu, now shattered into a thousand pieces and wondered when she'd have the time to find and fix it. There was never any question of her abandoning the weapon; it had become a part of her.

Like her own bones.

Like her own skin.

Like her love for Sesshomaru, carved deep into the body and soul of her. It wasn't something she could give up…not for anything.

So what was she doing here, encased in black glass like a fell doll, a mere toy for some child and only waiting to be picked up and made to live once again.

Did I…die?

No, her mind stubbornly told her. You are not dead; you are still here and part of this world. He isn't going to let you go so easily.

And she shivered, even though she couldn't move, she shivered at the thought. She'd seen into his mind and knew that when he was done, she wouldn't remember herself anymore. She'd become as twisted and mad as he, filled with dark desires, obscene lusts and pain. Her baby…Sesshomaru's child…would grow up knowing only her mother's madness, and nothing of her father's love. Almost she could see the future and wished again for the blackness to swallow her so deeply that she might never wake.

No…not now!

Sango felt a stinging pain, a hard pulse from somewhere in her body. She felt numb all over, aching with numbness, the lack of sensation more agonizing that she would have ever believed. She believed it now, and was caught again by a hot pulse, centered now below her navel and above her pubic bone.

Oh please no…she was losing the baby!

Sango started to sob, even though she couldn't move or draw a breath, she was crying with all of her being. The warmth felt like blood, pouring out from her belly, over her chest, from between her legs. But it was too hot, too demanding, to be only blood. Strangely, she felt her numb cheeks streak with sudden warmth and gasped…drawing a breath.

And another…

Sango wanted to shout, her emotions swinging wildly from despair to hope as she found herself breathing, really breathing, and she felt her chest rise and fall with each breath. There, under her skin, the warmth of blood in her veins and her toes started to tingle as if tiny fingers were tickling her feet. Carefully, she lifted her hand and felt her stomach. Nothing, no stickiness, no pain, no wound.

Even the darkness was lifting, her eyes had been open the whole time, and she could make out the living world in tones of muted grays and green. The green turned out to be the leaves overhead, and the gray cleared until she could make out the bright blue sky as the sun lifted over the trees.

She was alive. Somehow he'd pushed her right into the arms of death and held her there like a fly caught in amber, a living woman frozen in a cave of black ice. Sango wanted to giggle, pure reaction to finding herself alive, her baby safe, and moved her body slowly, trying to sit up.

Around her…devastation.

The earth was blasted; she could see great scars where youki had ripped all life from the forest floor. The trees surrounding them were shattered; she was lying far to the side, as if left there on purpose and out of the fight. Trembling, she forced herself to her feet and nearly stumbled when she tripped over a sword hilt.

It was Tenseiga, wedged deeply in the ground as if thrown by a mighty force. Wincing, she managed to drag the blade from its earthy sheath. If Tenseiga was here, Sesshomaru must be nearby and she stumbled again, and used his sword as crutch to find her way to him.

Only a few steps and she saw the outcome of a war that had been waged…a war where she herself must have been the prize. Her captor, the dark monster who had terrorized and tormented her, tried to break her spirit and her love, was lying sprawled on his back. Both of his arms were outstretched and palms up as if in supplication. His face, pale and dead white, ravaged with so many scars it was heartbreaking…even for a monster. Sango swallowed hard as she looked at his wide-open eyes, obsidian and giving the appearance of black flames.

Dark blood guttered around him, his throat torn apart; claw marks all down his chest. The exterminator in her viewed him distantly, professionally and she noted the way the flesh had been shredded, gnawed. The gouges continued from his throat to the midsection of his chest, carving into the heavy pectoral muscles, even separating them from his breastbone…as if something had been feeding on him, tearing him apart with a kind of savagery that made her sick.

It had been trying to get to his heart, the claw and teeth marks frantic but shallower, as if the creature attacking had been losing its strength, but propelled on by nothing less that pure hatred.

Backing away from him, Sango's mouth filled with bile. As glad as she was to be free of him, she couldn't help but feel pity at the same time. He'd let her see into his dark soul, forced her to see him for what he was, for what he had been. It hurt her now, thinking of that poor child in the distant past…a boy who'd never had any choice about his future.

Sango heard a soft moan, more of a growl really, and turned to look for the source. Then she saw him and wondered how she'd missed him when she'd first looked around the site of his battle. Sesshomaru was hunched over near the tree line, crouching with his back to her, but she couldn't mistake him…bloodstained and filthy, but hers.

"Sesshomaru," she called softly, her knees trembling and still dragging the tip of Tenseiga through the dirt. His shoulders jerked, his torn sleeves fluttering a bit in the light morning breeze. She forced herself to swallow against a dry throat as she approached her lover. The baby inside her had a youkai's instinct…and warned her to be wary.

But her heart was human and she couldn't have kept her distance if she'd tried. The closer she got, the more she saw of his terrible injuries. His hair, once so sleek and shining, was matted with blood and lie across his shoulders like shredded silk. Blood stained his body too; the pristine white of his flowing kimono was dark with filth. Still, he was not only the survivor of a terrible battle; he was its victor as well.

And if he was badly injured, Sango swore, she'd nurse him back to health with her own hands.

"Sesshomaru…my love," she whispered, reaching for him. He turned towards her and she saw the glint of crimson in his eyes.

She flung herself to the side as he struck at her, a wild, desperate lash of claws. Weak, he crouched on all fours and growled at her with feral anger. His face had half-transformed, the jaw elongated and the markings on his cheeks were darker and thicker. His eyes were fire; his fangs were sharp and still smeared with blood. Sango was shocked that he'd tried to hit her, bit her lip and knelt on the ground.

"It's me," she said, her voice just a soothing murmur. "It's Sango, don't you know me?"

He blinked at her, breathing hard and she saw his tongue flick over his teeth. "Trick…" he growled, sounding like he was grinding rocks in his throat. "A trick…"

"No," she whispered, approaching again. She kept her hands in front of her, the knuckles of one hand white around Tenseiga. "It's me, Sesshomaru. You came for me. It is not a trick."

Oh, her heart wanted to break for him. She'd never thought to see him like this, so torn and hurt, his instincts fighting with his heart to either accept her or tear her to bits. She realized he must have been too weak to transform fully and looking at the injuries on his body, she wondered that he'd been able to survive this long.

"She is dead," he husked. Sesshomaru blinked and some of the red fire in his gaze faded. "I could not save Sango…she was already dead."

Catching her breath, she felt a memory surface. Black water, pooling around her body. Death screaming at the back of her mind, watching as she rose from where the monster had left her. Her body, moving jerkily like a toy, swinging a heavy sword that was more of a cudgel than a blade…at…at…

"Oh, my love, forgive me," she said, tears already sliding down her cheeks. Shaking, she reached out her hand and flinched when he recoiled, seeing pain twist his features again. His hand, pale but stained with blood, reached towards her only to fall again and he closed his eyes.

"Dead," he said and this time there as a darkness in his voice that was final. "Dead and I could not raise her…I did not deserve her.

Silently, she pulled Tenseiga forward and dared to reach for his hand. She curled his fingers around the bare blade, cupping his cold hand with her own.

"That's where you're mistaken," she said, the words thick in her throat. "You did save me, because I could not die without seeing you again. It wasn't this sword, or any kind of magic. Just your love, more powerful than his spell could ever be."

Tenderly, she reached for him, touched his face. "I never gave up hope," she whispered, feeling the bones under his skin shift as he started to transform back into his usual appearance. Crimson seeped from his eyes, leaving them light as claret and troubled with the dark dreams of what had almost been.

"I could not bear to lose you," Sesshomaru murmured, staring into her eyes. "I resigned myself to death, and fought until there was nothing left. Because to live without you at my side would have been a meaningless life."

Sango put her arms around him, drawing him close until she felt his arm slide around her back, and the cold edge of Tenseiga pressed between her shoulder blades. He was hers, she belonged to him and nothing would ever tear them apart again.

"I love you," she breathed, her lips against his neck and she felt Sesshomaru shudder. "Stay for me, only for me. And I will never leave your side, I swear."

Two bodies huddled together, each aching for the other's hurts, and clinging to each other when their strength might have failed them. It would be some time before either could stir, too moved by emotion and weak with relief. As the sun lifted over the trees, the air around them warmed and became golden.

They would both survive.

And neither noticed, a few feet away, when a monster's fingers twitched at the warming of the sun, and slowly curled into a fist.

oOo