AN: Well, here we are. It's been a long and bumpy ride, but we're finally at the end. To those who have stuck with this story from the beginning, and to everyone who's left reviews and words of encouragement, you have my sincerest thanks. There's a lot more I'd like to say, but I'll save that for after the epilogue.
The rest of the day passed without much incident. Inuyasha and Sango were both on the quieter side once they returned to the village, but neither would admit why that was. If asked, Sango would only smile (despite it lacking its usual warmth) and give a simple "It's nothing." Most people avoided asking Inuyasha since they had become accustomed to the way he acted in the time that he'd been at the village, but the couple who did dare to question the hanyou only got a sharp, "Nothing!" in reply.
By the time the moon had climbed into the sky, causing the villagers to turn in for the night, Inuyasha's mood had only darkened. It was no ones fault, and he certainly couldn't blame Sango for bringing up something that would've had to have been addressed again some day, but he was still ticked off. Not at Sango or anyone else, but at the Shikon no Tama – that damn jewel. He was angry at himself too, but it was a lot easier to focus his disdain onto the jewel.
After settling in his usual sentry tower, the hanyou pulled the pouch from around his neck (since Kaede had kindly fixed him a new one the previous night) and dumped the Shikon no Tama into his hand. The faint moonlight added an eerie sort of glow to the ethereal light it already put out due to its holy power but, after only a few seconds, Inuyasha let out a low growl of frustration and closed his clawed fingers around the jewel.
This was bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit. It had been over a year already, and he still had no idea what the hell he wanted to do. That indecision had never bothered him too much before. Sure it was annoying having to constantly be on guard and having to fight against every pathetic demon who thought it might have a chance at taking the jewel from him, but that was an annoyance the hanyou had easily put up with.
Now, though... now it was proving to be more than just a simple annoyance. The jewel wasn't just costing him a few hours of sleep, or a few injuries from fighting. It was costing him something more, something... that he really didn't want to think about. Not because it was something that he didn't want – but because it was something that he did want. Very badly. It was simply something that he couldn't have, not as long as the jewel remained in his possession.
Which brought him back to the same point: the indecision was fucking ridiculous. Inuyasha knew what he didn't want, so why the hell couldn't he decide what he did want? He knew he didn't want to become human – he definitely, definitely didn't want that. He had been willing to become human for Kikyou, so they could be together, but now that that was no longer an option, it wasn't something he would ever consider again.
On the other side of things, there was the idea of using the jewel to become a demon. That was what he had always wanted, what he'd always said he would do once he was given the chance, but... ever since Goshinki had broken Tessaiga – ever since his demon blood had taken over and caused him to transform that first time, there had been a little bit of doubt in the back of his mind. What if, when he used the Shikon no Tama to become a full-blooded demon, that was the type of demon he became? Not a demon that could control themselves like his father – or hell, even Sesshoumaru – but one whose only thought was of killing. The very possibility that he could become someone – something – that enjoyed ripping into anything and anyone was what kept him from using the jewel to become a full demon.
Uncurling his fingers, Inuyasha turned his attention back to the jewel. If he didn't use the jewel to become human, and he didn't use it to become a demon, what did that leave? That left his choosing to remain a half-demon, of course, but that meant keeping the jewel with him and letting himself remain a target. It also meant anyone around him would be in danger, and...
Dammit! The hanyou growled and dropped the Shikon no Tama back into the pouch, and then tucked it back into its place beneath his haori. It was no use. The more he thought about it, the more irritated he became. Right now, he needed to stop thinking and just... live, he guessed. Don't think about the 'what ifs' or the 'could be's,' just focus on the 'now.' Sango deserved that, at the very least. She deserved much better than that, but she had at least seemed willing to resign herself to this... whatever it was they had between them now. It couldn't last – Inuyasha knew that, and Sango did as well – but as long as she was willing to put up with it, he would take whatever she gave. He may have been proud, but he wasn't too proud to admit that he could also be selfish.
Stuffing his arms into his sleeves, he settled back and closed his eyes. Right now, though, he needed to sleep. Hopefully he could find something to distract him from those types of thoughts once morning came...
The hanyou groaned, struggling to open his eyes again. "What the hell...?" He shook his head slightly and, with a little effort, finally managed to push himself up.
Inuyasha took in his surroundings, or more appropriately, the lack thereof. It was as though he had fallen into some sort of black void, there were no distinguishable shapes or landmarks he could make out – the only bit of color, aside from himself, that he could see were a mess of sakura petals that were littered across the ground (or at least what passed for the ground).
Climbing back to his feet, he frowned. Just where the hell was he? And how had he gotten there, for that matter? Come to think of it, what had woken him up? He was certain it was important, so why couldn't he-
Turning was almost instinct, a gut reaction to the voice that had called his name. As automatic as that had been, though, he couldn't help but freeze the second he came face to face with his past. "Ki... Kikyou?"
And indeed, the woman standing before him was none other than the tragic priestess. "Inuyasha, I've wanted to see you for so long."
"Kikyou..." That seemed to be the only word he could form at the moment, and suddenly, he wanted – needed – to touch her, just to prove to himself that she wasn't merely a figment of his imagination. He stepped closer to her and raised his hands towards her face, only to hesitate. What would he do if she wasn't really there? Hell, what would he do if she was?
At his hesitation, Kikyou smiled an understanding, yet somehow sad looking smile; it was the kind of smile she was most known for giving. "It's all right, you don't have to be afraid of me," she said, reaching up to gently cup the side of his face in her hand.
Inuyasha closed his eyes and leaned into her touch, exhaling a barely audible sigh. With little more hesitation, he lifted his hand to cover hers. "Kikyou, how..."
"Does it matter?" she asked calmly, continuing to look up at him. "I'm here now... I just wanted to see you."
"I... I've wanted to see you, too..." the hanyou admitted, opening his eyes again so he could look at her. "I thought... I thought you were gone."
Her smile faded slightly, even as her thumb brushed his cheek tenderly. "My body may be gone, but that doesn't mean I've left you."
Inuyasha didn't say anything in response to the miko's comment, but he did allow himself to smile as a way of showing how much the statement meant.
Kikyou closed her eyes, allowed herself to bask in his warmth for a few more seconds, and then lowered her hand as she took a step back and canted her head. "Things seem to be going pretty well with your life in the demon exterminator's village."
He had been surprised to see Kikyou at all, but that surprise had been nothing compared to what he felt now. Nevermind how they were even having this conversation in the first place – just how did she know that he was currently staying with Sango?
"You seem happy there, Inuyasha," the priestess continued, clarifying what it was she wanted to know, "What's the matter? Why do you continue to hesitate?"
The hanyou blinked in surprise, and then cast his eyes down, suddenly feeling very guilty. Whether that guilt was on Sango or Kikyou's behalf, though, he wasn't sure. "Yeah... Yeah, I am happy, but Kikyou, I..." He shook his head. "That doesn't matter."
"Why not?" she asked. "Do you not deserve to be happy, Inuyasha?"
He growled softly to himself, his hands curling into fists at his sides. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that, coming from Kikyou, that was a very significant question, but he couldn't bring himself to focus on that just yet. "It doesn't matter whether I'm happy or not. Not if it means other people are in danger. Not if..." Not if it meant Sango was in danger.
"Inuyasha," Kikyou sighed and Inuyasha briefly thought he had said something to upset her. Much to his surprise, however, when he looked at her again, she had a small smile on her face. "Are you really that blind?"
"What..." Furrowing his brows, the hanyou frowned slightly. This was the woman he had loved – the woman who would always hold a piece of his heart even in death – but that didn't mean he wasn't at least a little offended at the comment. "What are you talking about?"
Rather than immediately replying, the miko stepped closer to him and reached up. Inuyasha thought she would touch his face again, but her hands instead went to the pouch around his neck. "The answer is right in front of you."
"The... Shikon no Tama?" he asked, amber eyes narrowing slightly as his hands wrapped around both of hers. "Kikyou, I don't..."
"Then stop," she interrupted, "Stop thinking, and close your eyes."
Inuyasha hesitated, still skeptical, but eventually he did as she asked and closed his eyes.
"Just relax," Kikyou continued softly, and Inuyasha found himself doing just that as she continued to speak soothingly to him. "Don't think about what's right or wrong... Don't worry about what you should or shouldn't do... Just take a deep breath and relax."
She remained silent for a moment, as though giving him time to follow the instructions. Then, once satisfied that she had waited long enough, she started to pull her hands away from him.
The moment he felt her start to pull away, however, his grip on her hands tightened and he opened his eyes. "Kikyou-"
"Shh..." The priestess firmly pulled away from him, though she did immediately reach up to cup his face in her hands. "It's all right, Inuyasha. No one will blame you for letting go."
There was a double meaning to her words, he knew that, but he still shook his head, and it took every ounce of his willpower not to cover her hands again. "Kikyou, look at us. My life was yours and yours was mine, remember? But now..."
"Now you remain in the world of the living, while I don't," she finished for him, lowering her hands as she did so. "And that is how it should be."
"But we were supposed to..." he started, only to trail off again. Dammit, why did he suddenly seem incapable of finishing a complete sentence?
"Inuyasha, do you want to die?"
"No!" the hanyou immediately replied, jumping at the sharpness in his own voice. Then, cringing in something akin to shame, he looked to the side and repeated a bit more normally, "No... Not yet."
"Good," Kikyou said, and it was a miracle Inuyasha didn't give himself whiplash from turning back to her so quickly. "I don't want you to die yet, either."
"Then..." He hesitated, and fought with the question before finally forcing himself to ask, "What do you want?"
Kikyou smiled. "I want you to be happy."
"But I can't-"
"What's happened to you, Inuyasha?" she asked, and if it were anyone else, he would've long tired of the fact that she kept interrupting him – even if he did kind of deserve it, at this point. "It isn't like you to give up so easily."
What could he say to that? She was absolutely right, there was no doubt that about. Unable to think of anything to say in response, Inuyasha remained silent, and it wasn't long before Kikyou spoke up again.
"What happened to never giving in? What happened to fighting for what you want? You do know what you want, don't you?"
"...Yeah," he finally admitted with a nod. "I do, Kikyou."
"Then fight for it. Fight to live your life the way you want, and... be happy. For me." Leaning up, she pressed a gentle kiss to the hanyou's cheek and, when she pulled back again, there were tears shining in her eyes, but she was smiling. "And most of all, Inuyasha, be happy for yourself."
Inuyasha awoke with a start, amber eyes blinking open and then looking around. When he realized he was sitting in the sentry tower of the exterminator's village, he took a breath and leaned back against the railing again.
A dream... It had all been a dream. Still...
In a quick movement, the hanyou was on his feet and leaning out over the guard rail, looking over the village; specifically, his eyes were drawn to one particular hut – the one Sango resided in. It may have only been a dream, but Kikyou had stirred something inside of him – it was as though his usual determination and drive had gone dormant, only to be reawakened once again at the priestesses words. He felt revitalized, and he was ready to fight – he was going to fight. Not for what he thought was best, but for what he wanted.
Tilting his face upwards, he couldn't help the smile that spread across his face.
Thank you, Kikyou.
Sango stretched and rolled her shoulder experimentally once she'd finished dressing in her kimono. Her arm was still tender, which was to be expected being that she was only human, but moving it didn't cause too much pain. She still wouldn't be able to use hiraikotsu just yet, but the injury shouldn't interfere when it came to training with the others.
She'd let Kohaku or some of the others handle any exterminations they were called to for a while too. Not only because of her arm, but because there was still the point of her uniform needing repaired. Shina had more or less commandeered the suit once Sango had changed out of it the previous night, anyway. The taijiya couldn't find it in herself to blame the woman for that, either. Even if it had only been a few tears in the arm, it was still dangerous – and not to mention, unprofessional – for a demon slayer to have a damaged suit.
...of course, that meant she was going to have to find something else to occupy her time with. Repairing the uniform wasn't too much work, so Sango knew that Shina would be able to handle it on her own. And there were only a couple training sessions per day, so there wasn't much else to do. She could always take Kirara and travel to other villages to see if she could recruit anyone into the demon slaying profession but, ever since word of the villages' restoration had gotten out, most recruits came there on their own. It wasn't as though they were desperate for new members either, so doing that seemed a little silly besides.
Sighing, Sango reached up to run her fingers through her hair. She really had hoped to find something that would keep her busy, so she could keep her mind preoccupied. As it was though, it seemed that she was going to have some time to herself now. Normally that would have been appreciated, but now... now that wasn't something she wanted. Now, when she stopped to think, she found herself thinking about Inuyasha; his leaving, his coming back, the inevitable idea of his leaving again – and for good. He'd told her that he couldn't stay forever, and she had known that was true, even when she had asked him to return with her. As long as he carried the Shikon no Tama with him, it would be dangerous for him to stay in any one place for too long. The fact that he'd stayed with her this long meant more than she could say, and there was no denying that she wished he could live there, but... she couldn't afford to be selfish.
Maybe I will see if Shina needs help, she thought as she stepped outside her hut. Or, at the very least, perhaps the woman wouldn't mind a bit of company. It would only be for a short while, but at least it would provide some distraction. First there was the matter of breakfast, though. She'd find Shina after getting some food, and then–
The taijiya wasn't even able to turn around before she suddenly found herself swept up into a pair of arms.
"Ahh!" she cried, startled, gripping onto him – one arm around his shoulders, and the other clutching at his front. This must've been what it was like for Kagome-chan with Kouga...
For his part, Inuyasha didn't look the least bit apologetic for surprising her. He merely grinned at the woman in his arms before setting her down again, although his hands remained on her waist – a move that further surprised Sango considering there were other people around, since the other villagers were beginning to awaken and bustle around.
"Sango," he began, and there wasn't a thing in the world that could wipe away his smile. "I know what I want."
"What you want?" she asked, thoroughly confused.
"Right!" He nodded. "I mean, I still don't know if I should become a human or a demon or stay the way I am now, but none of that matters right now. I may not know what I want to become, but I know that I want to stay here."
Sango gaped, her eyes wide as she stared at him. A part of her was suddenly very sure that this was only a dream. She didn't want it to be – she wanted to hear those words from him – but hadn't they just talked about this yesterday? She didn't want to get her hopes up, not again. "Inuyasha? I thought you..."
"I know, and I did," he interrupted, his smile fading slightly. "But that was yesterday, and... Sango, I've wanted to stay here for a long time. I think I even wanted it back when we first ran into each other and you asked me to come back to the village with you. I just... I didn't think it was possible."
"Because of the jewel?" she asked carefully. Seeing him nod his response, the taijiya paused for a moment and then continued, "But you still have it with you, right? You said yourself that you still don't know how you want to use it, so what... What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that this..." The hanyou lowered his voice slightly, as though he were just now realizing they had gained the attention of a few curious villagers. "This is what I want. I want to stay here – live here... With you."
Any chance she had at not getting her hopes up vanished with those last words. Sango couldn't have stopped the elated smile from spreading across her face even if she wanted to, just as she couldn't hide the fact that her eyes were shining with unshed tears – happy tears. "Inuyasha..."
All too soon, though, the gravity of the situation struck and Sango swallowed as she tried – and failed – to rearrange her features into a more neutral expression. "I-I want that too, you know I do, but... What about the jewel? What about... what about the dangers? The attacks, the–"
"To hell with all that!" Inuyasha barked, and Sango couldn't help but laugh since the sharpness of his words were somewhat offset by the fact that he was still grinning. "I'm a half-demon and you're a demon exterminator – hell, we've killed numerous demons together, Sango. No one said this'll be easy, but dammit, I want to stay and protect this village with you."
"Do you mean it?" she asked, finally giving up her losing battle of trying to remain skeptical. "You'll really stay, even if there are more attacks? Even if someone gets hurt?"
"That won't happen," he replied, and both his tone and expression had changed to one of complete seriousness. "As long as I'm here – and I'll be here for as long as you let me – I won't let anything like that happen, because..." He hesitated slightly, his gaze lowering. But, after only a few seconds, he took a deep breath and looked to the slayer once more. "Because, Sango, protecting you and this village is what I want to do. It's the only thing I could wish for."
Sango smiled, but before she could say or do anything in response, a bright light suddenly distracted them both.
Stepping back, Inuyasha pulled the pouch – which the light was emitting from – from around his neck. "What the he– ow! Ow!" Trying to grab the Shikon no Tama proved to be a bad idea since, as the hanyou quickly found out, the jewel was burning hot. Trying to toss it from one hand to the other in an attempt to alleviate the burning probably wasn't the best thing to do either, since it wasn't long before the jewel ended up falling to the ground as a result.
As soon as it hit the ground, both Inuyasha and Sango – as well as the other onlookers that had started watching the scene – were shocked to see it shatter. But, rather than having to watch helplessly as countless shards scattered across the lands, the broken shards all began emitting the same bright light the whole jewel had, and it wasn't long before they were forced to shield their eyes from the brightness.
When the light finally began to fade, Kirara was the first to react. The fire-cat gave a happy cry and, when Sango lowered her hand away from her eyes, she couldn't help but gasp. "Mi-Midoriko-sama?"
"Midoriko?" Inuyasha echoed, glancing first to Sango and then to the woman who was suddenly standing before them.
The woman – and indeed, it was Midoriko – smiled. If not for the fact that she wore armor over the usual garments of a priestess, as well as the fact that she seemed to emit the same soft, ethereal glow of light the complete Shikon no Tama had, nothing about her would have seemed too different, compared to any other person. "Inuyasha, your wish has been heard."
"What?" The hanyou's eyes narrowed in slight confusion. "What are you talking about? I didn't... I didn't make a wish."
Midoriko laughed, although there was no sense of scorn or mockery in the sound. "But you did say 'it's the only thing I could wish for.' You may not have made it into a wish when you spoke aloud, but your heart and your mind..." She trailed off and lifted her hands, crossing them over her own heart. "They spoke for you, and they wished for the same thing. The jewel has chosen to respond to that."
Once again Inuyasha found himself looking to Sango, whose confused (and mildly awestruck) expression only seemed to mirror his own. Turning back to the ancient miko, he asked, "What's that mean? What's it going to do?"
The priestess extended her arms again, indicating the village around her. "You wished for the protection of this village, and that is the wish it will grant. For as long as you remain here, no harm shall befall this place. It shall become a safe-haven; beings that would cause harm to the village or to the ones who live here will not be permitted to cross its gates." She paused there, her arms lowering back to her sides again. Then, after waiting a few moments to let all she had said sink in, she asked, "Is that acceptable?"
Acceptable? It was damn near perfect! Almost a little too perfect, in fact. Inuyasha was having a little trouble believing all of this. Having Midoriko appear would've been surprising enough by itself, but to have his (partially) unspoken wish granted as well... It all seemed too good to be true. What if...
Before the thought could finish, he felt Sango's hand slip into his and he turned to her. She was smiling up at him and her eyes were bright and hopeful, but there was something that bugged him... Something about how tightly she held onto his hand, something about the way she was holding herself...
Ah... Realization hit, and the hanyou could've kicked himself. He was hesitating again, and that scared her. He sure as hell wasn't hesitating because of her or because of what it would mean if Midoriko's promise rang true, but Sango couldn't know that. So, he offered the slayer a small smile, and when his fingers curled around hers, he saw some of that tension leave.
Their hands remained joined, even when he returned his attention to Midoriko and answered with one single word, "Yes."
"Then it will be done," Midoriko said, and only a few seconds later her body began to disappear as the light surrounding her began to dissipate. She looked from Inuyasha to Sango, and then smiled fondly as her gaze landed on the fire-cat sitting near Sango's feet. Then she was gone, as was all traces of the sacred jewel.
For a few minutes, nobody moved or said a thing. It was as though everyone (or at least those who had witnessed the scene with the ancient priestess) was trying to work out what had just happened, what the miko's promise would mean, and most of all, whether it had just really happened or not.
It wasn't until some of the villagers began murmuring quietly to each other that Inuyasha took a deep breath, exhaling a bit of a sigh as he turned once more to the woman beside him.
Sango gave him a somewhat-nervous looking smile. "No more jewel..."
"No more jewel," he repeated, nodding. "And the village is supposed to be safe."
"It will be," she said quickly, without an ounce of doubt in her voice. "Midoriko-sama promised, so... It's true."
Both were silent for a few seconds. It was odd how Midoriko's appearance and subsequent vow could disrupt the confident, determined air that had surrounded them prior to her arrival. Now, despite their hands remaining clasped together, it was as though neither were sure what to say or do. The main obstacle that had stood between them – the jewel, and the danger that followed it – was gone, only moments after they'd vowed to fight against those dangers together. It was a lot to take in at once.
"So, what does–"
Both stopped abruptly, each giving a slightly nervous laugh (or chuckle, in Inuyasha's case) as they started speaking at the same time. Inuyasha then nodded to Sango, as a way of telling her to go on.
"Um..." The taijiya cleared her throat, glancing down briefly before she looked to him and spoke. "What happens now? What... What are you going to do...?"
As unsure as he had been in the moments following Midoriko's arrival and disappearance, his reply came easy enough. "I already told you, I want to stay here," he replied. Then, lowering his voice slightly, his gaze slid off to the side as he added, "I want to stay with you, as long as–"
'As long as the offer still stands,' was what he had intended to say, but he wasn't able to finish that statement since Sango suddenly surprised him by kissing him. The hanyou made a small sound of surprise, but it wasn't long before he returned the gesture as his arms wrapped around her waist.
At the moment, he didn't care that they'd gained a bit of an audience, or that a few of the villagers had taken to cheering, or even that one particularly loud voice had declared, "It's about time!" much to the amusement of those who had heard. None of that mattered, because this – a woman he cared for, people who accepted him for who he was, and a place he could actually consider home – was exactly the thing he had wanted. It had taken a lot to get there but once all had been said and done, and once the dust had settled, it had all been worth it.
There was no doubt about that in either Inuyasha or Sango's mind.