Standard Disclaimer: Inuyasha and all belong to Rumiko Takahashi…

A/N: For those who don't already know, life hasn't been very good for the past three years. My latest doctor has finally come to a likely diagnosis so it's starting to get marginally better in terms of treatment, but it's still a fight to get approval all my procedures. With all of that going on, it's been hard to focus on fanfic. But I'm thinking if I can knock out the small pieces and then take on the monster, I can get everything that's still open finished and just leave it at that.

Originally, I had intended this to be a two-piece, but the path it's taken makes more sense to be split into three. So… one more left in this one.

Cabrit Sans Cors

Tertium non datur

"It's a simple enough question, is it not?" Naraku prodded softly when she remained silent and still.

"Don't lie to me." Kagome finally found her voice enough to grit out, jerking back away from him so quickly the edges of his nails left faint scratches on her skin. "You expect me to believe that's the question you brought me here to answer? You think you can trick me into thinking you actually care how I feel about my friends?"

Naraku simply arched an eyebrow. "Why not? Is it so difficult to believe I would be curious?"

"About that? Yes," Kagome returned with unflinching certainty.

"Come now, my dear," Naraku scolded lightly. "After so little time knowing of me, following me on your faith in the words of others, can you say know me so well?"

"Don't act like you're a victim of some misunderstanding." Kagome struggled to keep her lip from curling in disgust. "I've seen more than enough of you for myself to know better."

Naraku smiled at that, reaching out to brush his fingertips up her cheekbone. Kagome jerked her face away from his touch with a warning glare, drawing a low chuckle from him as he obligingly withdrew his hands. Sliding them into his sleeves, he offered her a shallow bow. "I make no excuses for who or what I am."

"Once you're exposed," she corrected with a glance toward Sango.

Naraku shifted his weight, forcing her to either step out of their line of sight or end up flush against his side. Carefully keeping the smug triumph from showing in his eyes at her predictable decision, he turned to both face her new position and effectively cut the others out.

"That may be," he agreed. "But I don't maintain the lie past that point."

"You move on to new ones." Kagome folded her arms and struggled to hide the shiver of apprehension snaking down her spine. To be the focus of his complete attention, in what could almost be mistaken for a civil discussion.

It was... ominously unsettling...

"If I followed your ideas of morality, I believe you would refer to that as adaptability to my rapidly changing environment," Naraku challenged with an amused smile.

Kagome felt a dull flush rise in her cheeks and she gritted her teeth, narrowing her eyes at him. "Don't patronize me."

"And don't misunderstand me." The smile dropped from his face and he took a step forward to loom over her, forcing her to tilt her head farther back in her efforts to appear unaffected by his proximity. "I have consistently shown my respect for you as an opponent by admitting to the deceptions you figure out. I've never denied your intelligence. If anything, I've complimented it with my actions."

The anger in her eyes changed to disbelief. "Complimented?"

Naraku grasped her chin in his hand too quickly for her to step away, giving her a warning squeeze when he felt her tense. "If I felt you were stupid, I wouldn't spend so much time and effort on you. And so saying, I would appreciate if you would extend me the same respect."

Kagome's hand curled around his wrist, holding his stare while their auras crackled against one another with a faint spark. "I'm here, aren't I?"

"Ah, but not out of respect for me," Naraku chided dismissively. "You came for them."

"You knew I would," Kagome returned with absolute certainty. "Don't act like it's not what you were counting on when you planned this."

Naraku's lips once again curled up in a smile, his amusement restored in the face of her accusation. His answering chuckle insidiously wound its way through her senses like a tangible thing until the muscles in her legs and arms twitched with the nearly overwhelming instinctive need to escape it. Kagome took a deep breath to stave it off, exhaling shakily as Naraku abruptly switched his hold to her neck and pivoted to stand at her side.

"There is a pattern to life," Naraku finally offered in a strangely pleasant tone. Exerting just enough pressure against her throat to turn her face towards her friends, he dipped his head mockingly toward each to further illustrate his words. "A role that every player will fill in a given situation depending on the actions they face. A certain predictability to your opponents if you have the presence of mind to watch them. Learn them."

Kagome struggled to push away from the self-made hanyou, her body contrarily rejecting her attempts despite how she felt mere seconds ago. It was his voice... Something in that voice and those words held her just as surely as if he'd restrained her like the others.

"Take yourself." Naraku's gaze lifted, casually meeting Inuyasha's furious glare. He watched impassively while the hanyou's lips curled up off his fangs to form an impressive, if entirely impotent string of threats and profanity. Barely resisting the urge to show his amusement more directly at the growing light of desperation in those inhuman eyes.

Instead, he distracted himself by reaching out and threading his fingers lightly through Kagome's hair and continued to watch his delightfully expressive captives as he spoke. "You are willing to place yourself in front of me in such a place as this. You give up your life and you give up the world beyond the well. All for them."

"How did-?!" Kagome started to twist around to face him, only to freeze when his hand tightened on her throat.

"I know?" Naraku finished, returning his attention to her pale, anxious face. "My dear, there is not a single moment that my eyes do not follow you. That I am not watching and waiting to see what you will reveal for me. I see you strip your soul bare time and again. How could you possibly doubt I would know?"

Confusion slowly pushed out her fear and she leaned back to search his face. "But if you know-? Why haven't you-? Have you tried to cross over?"

"You're a child of magic." Naraku slid his hand down Kagome's throat in a feather-light caress. "I see no reason to follow you to grounds I am unfamiliar with when you never fail to return here. And here you follow my rules. You perform the way I want you to. Here you are unsure and susceptible to manipulation. I am not so foolish as to give up my advantage for the sake of simple curiosity."

Kagome opened her mouth, but closed it again when her mind failed to come up with a response for that. Her head felt like it was spinning. After all the lies, all the carefully planned and even more carefully performed tricks Naraku had forced them to suffer. He was being so... so honest.

"Then... If you already know the answer to your question," Kagome managed to sound mostly normal. "Why this?"

"One must know which opponent will play the part that best serves one's intentions." Naraku elegantly turned his hand to gesture toward her companions. "And you? You've played your role beautifully."

Kagome frowned, absently following his lead to stare at her friends. "I don't understand. You did this just to show you could? To show them I would do what you expected? They already knew I would-"

"Because you love them?" Naraku interrupted when she hesitated in finishing the thought.

Kagome fought to hold her composure despite the alarm those words quiet words sent snaking through her gut. Her brows furrowed and her shoulders subconsciously hunched forward in a protective motion as she answered again. "If you had any doubts of that, you never would have done this."

Naraku discreetly shifted closer until he could feel the heat from her body permeate the silk of his kimono. "Now, Kagome, I do believe you're beginning to show me that respect."

Kagome stiffened, but stubbornly held her ground. "What's the real question, Naraku?"

"It's fascinating, isn't it?" Naraku closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, savoring the way her heartbeat was racing. "The power that such an intangible thing has over the inhabitants not only of this world but the next."

Kagome's hands clenched into fists at how brazenly he ignored her demand, but she was fully aware there was no way to force him to comply before he was ready. "You think you can fool me into believing you hold anything but contempt for human emotions? For my emotions?"

Naraku tilted her head back to be absolutely certain her eyes met his and smiled with disarming candor. "I have nothing but the utmost respect for the emotion that led to my own creation."

The sudden intensity in his glowing eyes was nearly hypnotizing, seeming to freeze even the air in her lungs.

"Evil can't love… youkai can't love… That's what you're thinking now, isn't it?" Naraku challenged softly, barely grazing her arm with the fingertips of his free hand. "But even I am not so foolish as to repeat such lies to the ears of miko."

As much as she was loathe to show her curiosity, Kagome couldn't prevent herself from murmuring, "Why are you-? What does this have to do with why I came for my friends? That has nothing to do with this."

"Doesn't it?" Naraku dipped his head, placing his lips so close to her ear that she could feel them move against her skin. "I am never one to deny power, or my addiction to power, my dear. And I have seen so many things done under the excuse of love. Lives ruined and destroyed, worlds conquered… death overcome," he trailed off with a meaningful glance toward Inuyasha.

"You manipulated their feelings-!"

"I don't deny that either," Naraku cut her off again, refusing to be deterred by her outburst. "But to perfect the manipulation, Kagome, I would have to know the emotions I was twisting. Wouldn't I?"

Kagome shook her head in denial. "You aren't capable of love."

"My definition of 'love' does not have to be the same as your own," Naraku countered. He watched with veiled satisfaction as the involuntary curiosity slowly overtook her instinctive defensiveness, easing the tension from her muscles the more her focus drifted away his touch. Pushing his advantage, he lowered his voice and fed her uncertainty further, "Knowing that, can you truly say that I'm incapable of experiencing it in my own way? And just because it isn't the same… does it make my emotions less than yours?"

Kagome started to reply, but stopped herself. A hint of bemusement chased across her expression before she tamped it down and denied, "Love isn't self serving."

"Your love perhaps," Naraku specified that distinction. "But all love? You are too old for such blind naiveté, my dear. There are very few souls who can claim such a purity in their emotions. Even less who are touched by youkai blood." Naraku chuckled softly at her disbelieving expression. "Our kind are powerful and ancient. And when those powerful creatures have little care for your version of morality, they will not hesitate to remove another, perhaps softer-hearted youkai who stands in their way.

"But I digress." He lifted his head to stare thoughtfully at her companions yet again.

"What do you want, Naraku?" Kagome demanded in frustration. When he stayed silent, she started to glare at him again only to find his eyes narrowed coldly at the others. Even more confused at the sudden, unexpected change in his demeanor, she had barely started to think of how best to react when he gave a disgusted snort.

"They should be thanking me."

Kagome couldn't keep the disbelief out of her voice, "What?"

"They should be thanking me," Naraku repeated, his eyes losing their fury once his attention returned to her. "Without me, none of them would have ever met you."

"It wouldn't have mattered." Kagome nearly gaped in awe at his rationalization, shaking her head to reject even the possibility. "It's because of you that everything happened this way. Without you, they never would have needed to meet me. They would have had their own lives."

"But would they trade that?" Naraku asked. "Do you think they would trade knowing you?"

Kagome flashed him a tight, humorless smile. "For their happiness and a life without you? In a heartbeat."

"I think you've misunderstood me." Naraku's answering smile was dark and piercingly smug. "I asked would they?"

Kagome frowned sharply at the insinuation. "Of course they would."

"I think, my dear, that you do not fully appreciate the true selfishness of humanity," Naraku's tone turned patronizing. "The way the hearts of even your dear friends will twist such pure emotions."

"I think you're trying too hard to bring them to your level," Kagome retorted, bristling when he gave her a mockingly sympathetic smile.

"Lower, actually." Naraku pressed one hand to his chest in a gesture of sincerity. "I admit to my own desires while they hide them away and pretend to never 'suffer' from the darker side of life." He leaned in closer, bending to graze her cheek with his as he whispered, "It's in their eyes, miko, if you care to look for it. Perhaps they are not searching for me as fiercely as they could."

Kagome's head snapped around, eyes wide. "What?"

"They hope to keep you," Naraku continued as though she hadn't spoken. "Every day I survive is another day that you remain by their sides."

"I won't listen to this," Kagome refused, shaking her head in vehement denial.

"They're willing to die for you. When they've proven that so often, can you honestly think they would do any less if it meant keeping you here with them?" Naraku delighted in the chill that raced down her spine, wrapping his arm around her back to trace his fingertips just above the skin and absorb its lingering effect in her aura. "And you… Do you love them enough to give up everything?"

"Nara-"

"The monk will die," Naraku interrupted, his voice strangely lacking its usual cruelty. Despite the harsh words, he delivered them for what they were, nothing more than a blunt truth.

Kagome tried to answer much the same way, almost able to keep to tremor from her voice, "Because of you."

"It could be argued that his grandfather holds the fault for originally crossing me," Naraku offered the alternative perspective to the particular story. "I was merely defending myself against a hostile force. And as such, the monk is merely suffering from the actions of his ancestor."

Kagome gave a short, disgusted laugh at his defense. "The one who placed the curse is still you."

"In that, yes. The blame is indeed entirely my own," Naraku acknowledged shamelessly. "But tell me, Kagome. If I was to… remove my aspect of that equation, in exchange for something even more satisfying than the death of that bothersome line. What would it be worth?"

The words hung in the air between them as absolute silence descended on the courtyard.

Kagome felt the blood drain from her face as her mind reeled with the implications of that question. Her eyes searched his face almost desperately for a sign that he really was offering what he suggested even as she damned herself for showing him that hope.

At the level, perfectly solemn stare he graced her with, Kagome shook her head and forced out, "Why?"

"In that, I can prove to you that my intentions are more honest." Naraku let his palm rest on the small of her back, smiling at how badly she jumped at the touch this time. She'd barely taken a half-step away from him when he disrupted the reflexive escape attempt by adding, "Without such an immediate threat hanging over their heads, how seriously do you think they will hunt for me?"

"You're underestimating them." Kagome struggled to recover her scattered wits, gritting her teeth as she fought to remain outwardly steady despite the way her heart raced. "Nothing would change."

Naraku chuckled softly and stroked his hand up her spine once before returning to its previous position. "I think, my dear, that you still have so very much to learn about human nature."

Kagome stared defiantly up into his eyes and insisted, "I know my friends."

Naraku took another step forward, purposefully curling his jyaki up her sides just close enough to tug at her clothes and tease the air above her skin. His hand sunk into her hair, gently turning her face up until she was staring straight up at him. "Are you so certain of that?"

Kagome started to lean back, only to halt that motion when it only brought her head fully into the palm of his hand. She instinctively closed her eyes and swallowed hard at the shiver of revulsion, snapping them open in alarm when Naraku brushed a lingering stroke against her scalp with his thumb.

Almost before she'd realized she'd moved, she grabbed his arm to halt the disturbing caress. Digging her nails into his skin, she whispered harshly and precisely, "They aren't you."

Naraku cupped her chin in his other hand, countering just as quietly, "And they aren't you."

Kagome was taken aback by the seriousness in his eyes and voice, brows furrowed as she struggled to figure out what he meant by that.

Naraku dragged the backs of his fingers up her cheekbone, more assured she would tolerate it this time given the altered circumstances. "Have you ever stopped to consider that out of all your friends, the only one who has ever truly had the depth of their devotion tested time and again is you?"

"That isn't-"

Naraku pressed a finger to her lips to stop her. "This is not your fight, Kagome."

Kagome jerked her head back harder to shake off the unwelcome gesture and released the arm still holding her hair in favor of grabbing the one so close to her face. "You made it my fight."

Naraku clucked his tongue in disapproval, shaking his head to deny that responsibility. "Now, now, my dear. Think back before you go about accusing me of something so serious," he patiently scolded. "Before you repeat what you've heard so often from your beloved friends."

"It's the truth."

"Is it?" Naraku challenged.

"None of this would have happened if not for you," Kagome hissed in mounting frustration. "Inuyasha and Kikyou, Miroku, Sango- it's all because of you!"

"I could just as easily say that it's because of them," Naraku pointed out. "If Kikyou had never tended to Onigumo, if she and Inuyasha had trusted each other, if the monk's grandfather had never crossed me, if the taijiya had seen through my trap earlier... How many excuses do you want to hear? This is their world, miko, their time. This is the way of life as they've always known and accepted it to be."

"It doesn't change anything." Kagome dug her nails deeper into his wrist.

"Not for them," Naraku agreed easily. "But what about you?"

Kagome shrugged, not following his logic. "What about me?"

"This." Naraku gestured as expansively toward the surrounding landscape as her stubborn grip allowed. "This was not you." Turning back to capture her in a particularly piercing stare, the fingers in her hair curled into a loose fist. "Not until they made it yours. The hanyou, the kitsune, the monk, the taijiya. All so eager to draw you in to a fight that was never yours, to keep you here at their sides because they couldn't bear to let you go."

"I broke the jewel," Kagome reminded him. "If I hadn't-"

"And if Inuyasha had been more vigilant, there would never have been a chance for it to be broken," Naraku stopped her from laying blame on herself further and slanted a sly look at the hanyou. "He knew the jewel, the draw it held for youkai, not you. And yet he allowed you to go off alone, to be captured. Then fed your guilt with accusations to manipulate you into staying to fight his battles, chase his dreams. Never caring that you left your life behind just for him, just for a hanyou who tried to kill you."

Kagome opened her mouth but closed again when her voice failed her.

"As the others joined, did they ever once doubt you would return?" Naraku released her hair to slide his hand down the back of her neck and rest his thumb over the violently beating pulse-point in her throat. "Did any one of them ever think your life as important as theirs? Telling you their tragedies in secret whispers, basking in the sympathy and love you gave them without judgment, without question. Each one playing on that same guilt Inuyasha so carefully cultivated until there was no doubt that your heart and soul belonged to them."

"It wasn't like that," Kagome hesitated at the waver even she could hear and took a deep breath to restore her control. "Inuyasha tried to send me back."

"Ah yes..." Naraku's smile regained the patronizingly edge. "Once, wasn't it? And with all his strength, all his capacity for destruction, his best effort to seal you in the place he knew was your own and stop you from returning here was a tree."

At the naked shock on Kagome's face, Naraku clucked his tongue and feathered his thumb across the taut muscle of her neck. "I told you, my dear, there was never a time when my eyes weren't watching."

Kagome stared at him, light-headed and faintly sick with realization.

"Inuyasha lifted it easily even when he'd been gravely wounded," Naraku pointed out with obvious derision. "How much of a deterrent could such a thing possibly be? Or did he even intend for it to be one in the first place?" He carefully tilted his head in a way that sent his hair slithering down his chest and brushing against her exposed collarbone in its descent. "Your quest has become infinitely more dangerous since that day; has there been even one more attempt to send you away? To save you from the war they so willingly forced you to join?"

Kagome's eyes slid away from his, unable to meet the mockery in his gaze. "They respect that I made my choice."

"Or maybe," Naraku drawled out as he slid the tip of his forefinger around to the hollow of her throat, "they understood that the only way to truly hold you was to force you to make that decision. You're traveling with warriors and thieves, my dear. Do you really think them incapable of devising a plan in regards to something so important to them?"

"I think you're so desperate to make me believe they're capable of your type of deception that you're willing to say anything," Kagome spat out in disgust.

Naraku's laughter was filled with genuine amusement, "Couldn't I say the same for you? So determined to believe your friends would never suffer from such selfish thoughts that you're willing to overlook what's right before your eyes?"

Kagome knocked his hand away from her throat with the back of her hand and warned softly, "You aren't going to convince me."

"No." Naraku turned his hand to catch her wrist, pressing his fingertips over the pale blue veins visible beneath her smooth skin. Ignoring her attempts to tug her wrist free, he lifted her arm higher until his lips were hovering just above that same spot. "With all that beautiful loyalty you waste on them, I don't suppose I could."

"Stop it," Kagome hissed.

Naraku's hold tightened until Kagome's fingers involuntarily curled into a fist. "How many times will they demand you prove your devotion? How much of yourself will it take before it's enough?"

Anxiety shivered down her spine at the ominous note in his voice, and she pulled against the hand holding her wrist dangerously close to his mouth. Her heart sounded abnormally loud in her ears as he pulled her off balance, forcing her to step forward on her own or risk falling against his chest.

"What do you feel for me?"

Kagome's eyes snapped to his face.

Holding her gaze without the slightest hint of his earlier laughter, Naraku pressed for an answer, "Does it compare?"

Kagome shook her head in disbelief, unable to stop the way her lip curled in disgust at even the thought of such a thing. "You're a parasite, Naraku. And you aren't worth that much of me."

Naraku smiled warmly at the raw emotion in her reply and grazed his teeth over her knuckles. Chuckling at the way the skin turned bone white with how tightly she squeezed her fist in response, he couldn't resist dragging the fingers of his other hand up the length of her captured arm.

"Does that mean," he purred silkily, "they would be worth everything? Ah-!" He preemptively interrupted before his words had even sunk in, brows rising as though he had only just recalled what he wanted to say. "That would be the reason you're here after all."

Kagome refused to rise to the bait in his taunt. "Something like you can't possibly understand."

"I wouldn't be entirely that hasty," Naraku's voice lowered dramatically, every hint of humor or play leeching from his eyes. He unblinkingly watched her pupils dilate and her breath catch at the dangerous shift and lifted her arm high enough to brush her breasts against his kimono. Returning his other hand to the back of her neck, he applied just enough pressure to prevent her from moving away.

"Would I place myself in the hands of my enemy this way?" Naraku subtly shook his head for emphasis. "Never. It's not my nature. However-" he trailed off momentarily, staring into her in a way that made her feel stripped to the soul. "Don't mistake how I feel, or how very much I understand how you do as well.

"You said it yourself, my dear," he taunted. "That's why I picked you."

Every ounce of her concentration went into holding herself still, breathing through her mouth as deeply as she could without unintentionally brushing her chest against his. Determined to see whatever this was through and get them out of here without letting Naraku see her crack, she repeated, "Any of us would have come for the others."

Naraku let out an exaggerated sigh and scolded, "Don't be so humble, Kagome."

"It's not being humble when they feel the same way," Kagome returned defensively.

"Oh?" Naraku drew the inquisitive sound out much longer than necessary. "Out of everyone your path has crossed, I am the only one who could possibly understand you. Who appreciates what you're capable of doing for them, enduring for them." Leaning closer, he pitched his words to a conspiratorial whisper, "Trust that it is quite predictably different."

Kagome flinched when the hand on her neck rose to stroke her hair, and Naraku squeezed her wrist to remind her of the precariousness of her position. He made a soft, soothing hum in the back of his throat while he continued to slide his fingers from the top of her head to the small of her back. Resting his cheek against her temple, Naraku purred, "Even now, just the thought that I have something to offer you to benefit their welfare is enough to hold you docile in my arms."

Kagome turned her head to put enough distance between them to break contact, biting down on the side of her tongue when he easily followed to keep it. Closing her eyes, she insisted, "They would do the same for me."

"Would they?" Naraku absently trailed his fingertips down the back of her neck and moved away enough to look at her face again. "No," he chuckled softly, "you don't believe that." His lips barely curved up at the corner as he brushed his thumb down the line of her jaw and regarded her through half-lidded eyes. "You know them as well as I do, my dear. You're fully aware they would have come with the intent to fight, to die telling themselves they were doing it for you. Even in that, their love is selfish."

Kagome lifted her chin away from him. "I would die for them too."

"Dying is far too easy to be worth the meaning you give it." Naraku's smile took on a wicked edge, and he cupped her cheek in his hand before she could retreat too far. "It's infinitely more difficult to live for them the way you do."

"What do you want, Naraku?" Kagome glared up at him. "If you don't want to kill me, and you don't want to kill them, what's left?"

Naraku stared down at her face in silence for so long that Kagome's frustration fueled bravado seeped away under a nearly oppressive sense of foreboding. His eyes gleamed darkly as the wind shifted with his jyaki, dramatically fanning his hair out behind him as he straightened his spine. "I've already told you that I'm curious."

Kagome shivered, instinctively curling herself further inward to avoid the increased brush of his clothes against her exposed skin as much as possible, but unable to tear her eyes away.

"To be the focus of that kind of love, my dear." He traced his thumb under her lower lip in a languid caress. "You've presented me the rare opportunity to assuage my curiosity, and I'm fully prepared to barter my services."

"Services?" Kagome repeated numbly.

"The monk's curse." Naraku took another step forward and pulled to more than make up for her attempted retreat, bringing her flush against him from breast to hip before finishing the terms of his deal. "In exchange for that love."

"For-?" Kagome stared at him in horrified incredulity before she shook her head fiercely and denied, "You can't just turn it on like that! It isn't something you-!"

"Pretend," Naraku calmly pressed a finger to her lips to halt her stumbling excuses. "Until morning."

Kagome inhaled sharply as the meaning behind those words sunk in.

"You focus every last part of you that loves them onto me." Naraku dragged his finger down the center line of her throat and farther until it rested at the neckline of her shirt. Subtly, he slid his fingertip back and forth across the hem of the fabric, grazing the skin beneath with each pass. "Show me everything in you capable of those emotions. You give them to me, and I'll give you his life."

"This-" Kagome let out a humorless laugh, lips twisting in derision as she murmured in a subdued voice. "You just wanted sex?"

"You weren't listening." Naraku tsked in disapproval at her interpretation, squeezing her wrist, and brushing it against his cheek. "If all I wanted was sex, I wouldn't have gone to all the trouble of arranging these... special negotiations. And it never would have warranted something as valuable in trade as the removal of the monk's curse."

Renewed confusion wiped the anger from her face all over again. "Then what-?"

"What I want, my dear, is for you to give me the full focus of those emotions." Naraku curled his knuckles below her jaw, tracing it up to her ear, and down the line of her throat with meticulous precision. "I want you to show me the way you would give every part of yourself; your heart, your soul, your entire being... How would you give all of that to a most treasured lover?"

Naraku gently nudged at her chin up until she was right back to staring straight into the glowing scarlet of his eyes. "I want you to make me believe the one you love is me."

Kagome's lips trembled faintly when her lips parted and her voice wavered when she finally managed to ask, "And... and if I say I can't?"

He gently squeezed her chin and gave a soft snort of laughter before he answered thoughtfully, "Then I suppose I would have to admit that I misjudged the depth of your devotion."

Kagome's jaw clenched until the muscle in her cheek spasmed at the strain.

"Either way, you may leave without fear of my retribution," Naraku promised in the same mild tone. "But if you leave, would your decision haunt you? The more time passes and the void consumes him, could you live with knowing you could have saved him that fate?"

Naraku lapsed into silence, perfectly content to bask in the miko's scrutiny and watch the gamut of emotions chase through those wide, expressive eyes. She had no idea just how easy it was to read every step of her internal struggle. And just how easy it was to predict how it would end.

Finally, Kagome dropped her gaze to avoid his eyes completely and demanded tightly, "How do I know you won't curse him again?"

Naraku's answering smile radiated arrogant satisfaction. "Because, my dear, from the moment I remove the void to the day the last of your companions dies, you will remember." His hand traced the curve of her cheek almost tenderly. "Every step, every breath, they will think of me, imagine me having you until it consumes their thoughts. Until their imagination provides them with a fantasy a thousand times worse than the reality. Until the guilt seeps so deeply into their being that it fills their very bones."

Kagome stared up at him, her lips twisting in a bitter smile. "When you say it like that, I can believe you'd actually keep your promise."

"In my lifetimes, I have learned that sometimes the truth will cut deeper than any lie."

"And that suits you," Kagome murmured in undisguised contempt.

He dipped his head in silent accord. "It would be far too easy for them if I broke the bargain. The hate and anger they directed at me would be no different from what I already have of them. They would ease their guilt and their minds by telling themselves I had taken advantage of your nature and repaid you with my usual lies. And in time they might even forget you tried to buy his life with your body."

Kagome closed her eyes, involuntarily gritting her teeth in revulsion.

"This way," Naraku continued undaunted. "This way, my dear, I will be a man of my word. And in that, their suffering will follow them into their afterlife."

"You really are the most sadistic bastard that ever lived," Kagome whispered.

Naraku smiled and grasped her chin again, this time turning her face to look directly at Miroku. "Do you have my answer, Kagome? Do you love him, your dear friend, enough to take me into yourself? Could you pretend to love me until dawn to see him safe from the curse that haunts his every breath? That has already taken two generations of his family?"

Kagome felt the burn of unshed tears sting the back of her throat the longer she watched him. Unable to voice a single thought as she stared at Miroku's haunted eyes. The normally serene violet had turned dark, visibly fearful with aching pain and uncertainty...

Naraku brought his hands to rest gently on her shoulders, tugging her back against his chest. He brought his mouth to her ear and looked directly into the monk's eyes as he questioned, "He would never ask you to do this for him, would he?"

"No," Kagome answered without hesitation.

Naraku watched with undisguised pleasure as an entirely new array of emotions chased through those violet eyes. He pitched his voice just loud enough to carry to their human ears and let his lips graze Kagome's skin with every word. "Could you face him? Day after day?"

Scarlet eyes glittered with wicked pleasure at the sudden spike in fear that cut through the air within his carefully constructed barrier. It was difficult, but he resisted the urge to look away and possibly break the thrall of the moment. Far more interested in waiting for the exact moment Kagome's thoughts reached the inevitable outcome.

They already knew the answer.

Basking in the intoxicating force of their combined tension, he murmured for her ears alone, "Could you face yourself?"

Kagome stared across the courtyard, distantly feeling her fingernails bite into her own palms. Pale and grim-faced, with his jaw clenched and his eyes so very tortured that she couldn't bring herself to look away, Miroku slowly shook his head in silent denial.

Closing her eyes, Kagome turned her face away from her friends.

"If I do this-" Kagome's voice broke. Swallowing hard, she straightened her spine and exhaled a shaky breath before starting again. This time, despite the near silence of her words, her voice held nothing but resolute determination, "If I agree, you have to promise me it will last forever."

Naraku's smile widened as Miroku's eyes instantly clenched shut, his body going completely lax until the restraints were the only things supporting his weight. He relished the agony he could feel violently tainting the air all around the holy man, soaking in the desperation and hopeless fury.

He stared at each of his captives in turn, memorizing every single emotion that colored their eyes in that singularly beautiful moment.

Fully satisfied, Naraku finally dismissed them in favor of giving Kagome his complete, utterly undivided attention.

"Oh, my precious miko," the deliberately melodic tones of his voice were thick with dark finality. He slid both hands up the sides of Kagome's neck and brushed his thumbs down either side of her spine as he assured her, "If there is any one thing you have no need to fear, it's that I would ever promise you anything less."