Sorry for the wait! I was abducted by aliens…they made me their queen and after helping to repopulate their species, I was allowed to return home.
The woman knelt on the ground, her hands folded in her lap as she bowed her head.
"Please," she murmured. "I know you don't understand me, but I need this. I need to be at your side. If you abandon me now..."
She was right, he didn't understand. The words she spoke were meaningless sounds that slipped inside his ears only long enough to annoy him. He understood the taste of blood, crimson and rich. He understood the cold, pale moon that rose in the sky like a bloated goddess. The whisper of night, the fury of the kill and the need to hunt his prey were things he was born to understand.
He did not understand this woman.
Slowly, he dropped to a crouch and waited for her to look at him. When she raised her eyes, he suddenly remembered the words of human speech. So that was it, she wanted to stay with him. She needed him.
Understanding her at last, he smiled and licked his lips. Her expression flickered fearfully when he pulled her into his arms.
On the morning of the third day, Shippou knew that Kagome wasn't coming back. Rin didn't say anything when he slowly started to gather up the bits and pieces of their meager campsite, tucking away the extra blanket and cooking pot that Natsu had left behind. Watching him accept the reality made her ache, but there was nothing else she could do.
As she sat on the ground, knees pulled up to her chin and gripping Tessaiga's scabbard like the ancient sword would give her strength, Rin wondered when she'd started to care so much about him. The redhaired kitsune wasn't a close friend, wasn't someone she'd shared all that much time with, but somehow his presence had become deeply important to her.
When he finally seemed ready, staring into the forest with a sort of hopeless resolve, she got to her feet and rested her hand on his arm. "What…what should we do?" she asked, hating the timid sound of her own question.
"I've thought about it," he murmured, rubbing the back of his neck as if it could ease his anxiety. "There's nothing we can do here, Rin. We have to do what Kagome wanted."
At her concerned expression, he smiled sadly. "We'll go to Kouga first, the wolves are closest so if Inuyasha…" Shippou stopped, swallowing hard as if the words themselves were stuck in his throat. "We'll warn them he could be heading their way."
"Is that what Kagome really wants?" Rin searched Shippou's face for any trace of anger, vengeful need and found nothing. Instead, he only looked like he was weary of regret, of every word spoken in heated anger or jealousy, and a deep sadness had settled over his soul.
"Not really," he answered, covering her hand with his own. "I think she'd rather be here and telling us that everything was going to be okay. Since she's not…"
Unable to help herself, Rin put her arms around Shippou and pressed her face into his chest. "You don't know for sure," she whispered. "You don't know that she's dead, Shippou. We can't give up on her now."
The weight of his arms around her shoulders surprised her and Shippou leaned heavily into Rin like she was only thing keeping him on his feet. "You think so?" he asked, his words stirring her hair as if he were grasping for any reason to hope. "She went after him. From what Kohaku told us, Kagome doesn't stand a chance against what Inuyasha is now. "
Rin put her fingers against his lips to hold back his doubts. "Even so, she knew that and went after Inuyasha anyway. If she believes that she can reach him, believes it enough that she went after him on her own, I believe in her and so should you."
His eyes brightened at her words and while he didn't smile, she felt some of the defeat lifted from his body as if she'd managed to take a burden from him. Suddenly, she realized that they were still holding each other and flushed. Rin dropped her eyes to the ground, hoping he didn't notice her embarrassed face or think that she was less than serious about this.
"I think we should go back to Kohaku's village," she said, taking her time and choosing her words carefully. "We should try to find out what he's planning before we go to Kouga. And find out if Shiori is okay," she added quickly when she saw a scowl drop over Shippou's face. "They know this part of the forest better than we do and if Kohaku knows a way to track them…"
He immediately understood where she was going. "Kagome might still be searching for Inuyasha," he said, "that's why she didn't come back. We only came here because this was as far as Natsu could take us." Shippou shuddered, thinking of that dead and barren hilltop where even setting foot on the ground filled him with dread. It hadn't affected Rin as much and he thought maybe that why she was more hopeful.
What she said about Kohaku's hunters knowing the forest made sense too.
"Let's go," she said, squeezing his hand quickly and smiling like everything would be okay just because she said so. Shippou stared at her, wondering what happened to the jealous, stubborn brat he'd met just a few weeks earlier. Then he felt a twinge of pure embarrassment himself as he realized she was probably thinking the same thing about him.
"All right," he said gruffly, taking Rin's pack and slinging it over his shoulder. It would take at least a day to get back to Kohaku's village, probably another three or four to reach Kouga. He hoped they hadn't waited too long here. He hoped that they were giving Kagome enough time to find Inuyasha.
Most of all, he hoped that Rin was right about not giving up on them both.
Cold wind whipped around her ankles, plastering her hakama against her legs and tangling her hair. Realizing that she needed more rest than she'd been willing to give herself, Kagome stopped and sank to her knees. She was tired, certainly quite tired, but the woman that Kagome used to be would never recognize her now.
Eyes turned towards the sky, Kagome unwrapped the last bit of dried fish that Shippou had given her, mindlessly bringing the food to her mouth and chewing as her senses spiraled outwards, searching for him. No, she couldn't pause for long even though her body begged for her to listen. Inuyasha travelled swiftly, much faster than a human woman could match.
If she didn't stay alert, she might lose him.
Kagome washed down the dry fish with a swallow of tasteless water and grimaced. She'd been lucky so far, remembering more of how to forage for herself and silently thanked Kaede for all of her patient teaching so long ago.
Although there was no way the old woman could have known that her young student would someday face such dire necessity.
No, that's not it, Kagome thought as she continued to study the darkening sky. She was here by choice, not necessity. It was her own decision, not that she was lost or without other options. She left Shippou and Rin to go after Inuyasha because she had questions that needed answers. She'd never rest easy if she didn't try to reach him one last time.
If there was anything left to reach, even a shred of his soul left behind after the demons consumed him. If he remembered her, then she might have a chance, slight though it was. She was possibly heading straight to her own death, but if some part of Inuyasha was still inside and fighting to survive, then she might have that chance.
If he didn't kill her because there was nothing inside to quell the darkness that raged for blood. Remembering the fury and malice of the monster, the rage and insanity in his burning eyes made her feet freeze to the ground and her heart quail with panic. Kagome was quite certain that she didn't want to die and that she wasn't consumed by self-destruction.
It was just that there was nobody else, so it had to be her.
She was the only one desperate enough to throw herself right into the teeth of that monster. She was too stubborn and angry to give up now. She loved him and hated him with the same breathless passion, had wept for his sake and cursed him bitterly in the night. With the stark reality staring her in the face like an accusation, Kagome realized that everything she'd endured had led her to this place.
I will save you, Inuyasha, she told herself over and over. She wouldn't abandon him or accept defeat, never again. She would spend forever here and not be satisfied until she found a way to take him back.
Now, under a cold gray sky with the wind pulling at her hair and clothing, she felt a chill run down her spine that had nothing to do with the temperature of the air. Immediately wary, she searched the waving grass until her eyes were drawn to a deep shadow at the edge of the forest.
"There you are," she murmured, spotting the crouching figure that was almost invisible in the deepening gloom. She'd felt him watching her for days, tasted his presence at night when she huddled beside her tiny campfire. It was something like being protected by a wild animal that wouldn't approach, yet also refused to allow any other creature near. For that reason alone, Kagome was able to get what little uncomfortable rest that she could.
Slowly, she stood and let her shoulders relax, turning her palms towards him to show that they were empty. A strange sort of gesture, as if a weapon wouldn't have been useless anyway. Rin's bow and her few arrows were left on the ground beside the small pack Kagome carried and she took a hesitant step forward, not taking her eyes from the shadow of the trees. As she drew closer, one step at a time, she could see a glimmer of pale hair and pick out the deep red of his clothing against the darkness.
He's letting me come near, she thought, her pulse starting to race. After days of not seeing his face, only the vaguest instinct guiding her direction, she was nearly delirious with hope. Kagome licked her dry lips and tried to keep calm as he let her approach him, the dangerous aura of demon youki hiding his intentions as thoroughly as if he'd been covered by a dark veil.
Finally she stopped, unable to force herself to get any closer because her body was trembling. It was this dark energy that scared her, not any physical threat or show of force. She'd sensed it in the forest while trying to follow him, slept fitfully because the presence of it rubbed her nerves raw. Still, she didn't come all this way just to cower and run away from him.
"Inuyasha," she murmured, holding out her hand. "Do you know me? My name is…"
He charged at her faster than her eyes could follow and Kagome cried out, instinctively ducking to protect herself. When she looked up, he was gone, the air still trembling in the wake of his passing. Suddenly weak, she sank to her knees again and let herself feel all the aches and misery of her tired body just so that she wouldn't start crying.
So close, so close that she could almost see his face and meet his eyes. That was what she really wanted, to look into his eyes and see if Inuyasha was looking back. She really thought she'd seen it once, but it wasn't enough. Chasing the ghost of her love, a tangible ghost with claws and teeth, sinew and bone, was all the more frustrating because he wouldn't let her get close enough to touch.
This wasn't what she'd expected when she'd made her decision to save him.
The morning that she'd left Shippou and Rin, the sky was sullen and gray after a hesitant dawn. Kagome smiled to herself as she remembered their serious faces so tense with concern. She hoped they didn't wait for too long, huddled with worry and anxious for her return.
No, she didn't think so. Shippou and Rin would have returned to Kohaku's village, hopefully able to lend Shiori the support she needed when she had to confront her husband and his secrets. Somehow, she knew that they would find a way to deal with the mistakes he'd made and the awful burden he'd been unable to share.
It wasn't her responsibility to absolve Kohaku for what he'd done. He'd have to find forgiveness somewhere inside himself, same as she had, in order to move forward. Quite simply, hatred was exhausting whether directed inward or outward, and Kagome no longer had energy to spare for such destructive emotions.
She was more than willing to forgive Kohaku or anyone else who might have wronged her if it meant she would be able to save Inuyasha. A difficult road she'd travelled, a path she feared to walk, but it brought her back to Inuyasha's side and not for the reasons of a vengeful heart.
At least that's what she told herself when she left Shippou and Rin and headed back to that dead place where Inuyasha lost everything. As soon as she'd stepped on the withered grass, she'd felt a tremor run through her body as if she'd plunged her foot into icy water. Whatever had been holding together the illusion of life was long gone, wasted and abandoned like the dead shell of a devoured corpse.
Kagome shuddered, raising her eyes to the ruined temple where Kohaku had taken refuge against the tormented demon souls clinging to his sister's lifeless body. Not there. She wasn't going to set foot in that place again, the place that had nearly become both hers and Kohaku's tomb. Instead, she let her steps carry her without thinking too deeply, the bottoms of her sandals slipping on the dry grass and kept her gaze on the cold horizon.
There was nothing to suggest that Inuyasha was anywhere near, no signs of destruction or bloodshed. Instead, she'd swear that the hillside had been wiped clean of any hint of youki, not so much as a broken blade of grass showed sign of struggle. This was where she'd seen it, where she'd seen Inuyasha fall under a writhing mass of demonic forms, swallowed up only to be reborn as something menacing and monstrous.
She shook her head, pushing those thoughts away. "I'm not afraid of you either," she whispered to the demon lurking in her mind. If the Inuyasha she found was deranged and thirsty for her blood, it was a chance she had to take. Not that she liked the idea one bit, not any more than she'd liked Midoriko's will that Inuyasha would be destroyed by her hands.
What she could destroy, then she could also save. When she was fifteen, she'd had the kind of stubborn optimism that refused to bullied into despair. Reaching deep inside once again, she found that it wasn't naivety or foolishness that gave her strength. It was love, unselfish and openhearted, and believing in the best possible chances because she did not deserve anything less so neither did Inuyasha.
However, it was still something that wouldn't help her right now. After walking for most of the day, climbing over the hill and into steadily wilder forest, Kagome wondered how she was going to find him. She had no choice but to wander alone, blindly trust in herself and the decisions she made.
As the sky grew darker, Kagome told herself that the first night would be the most difficult. Utterly alone, she built a small fire and forced herself to eat. This was the price for her decision, the long night when she'd be the most vulnerable and alone with her fears.
"I didn't find you today," she murmured, feeding twigs to her fire with more care than she'd fed herself a meal. "I miss you more than you can guess, Inuyasha. All those years I spent trying not to remember, I got pretty good at forgetting about you. Now all I want is to see you again."
She should be frightened right now, she should be shivering with doubt. It wasn't the case as she found, instead wrapping herself in those memories and feelings that had once been the very soul of her worst fears and secret shame. Pulling her blanket tight around her shoulders, Kagome closed her eyes and let herself slip into the past.
The warmth of Inuyasha's back as he carried her so many years ago, the feel of his body as he leapt effortlessly across the trees. His long hair, smelling slightly of lush forest and the faint musk of clean sweat. Her fingers clenched in the tough material of his firerat haori, feeling the rough texture of it between her bare thighs, the sharp tips of his claws, and her awareness of his hands under her knees.
It was when she'd first become conscious of her desire for him, a blossoming attraction to this blustering and strangely vulnerable young man. Although she'd realized early that she was in love with him, it was the pure of and bright love of an innocent heart. It wasn't until later that she'd lie awake at night, safe at home and in her comfortable bed, and find herself thinking about him in a way that made her pulse race and her breath catch in the back of her throat.
Sighing to herself, Kagome rested her head on her folded arms and listened to the sound of the crackling fire. She'd been a girl immersed in a fairy tale, romantic and idealistic because it was only natural for her to be swept away by romantic ideals. Just as she became aware of her own feelings, the way the muscles of his shoulders felt when she put her arms around his neck and the way her heart would pound suddenly when their bodies were close together, those feelings made her more afraid of herself than she'd ever been of him.
She managed to fall asleep that first night only because her body was exhausted and her mind was soothed by happier memories of the past. The warmth of those days wrapped themselves around her, keeping away the chill of the night and doubts of reality. The small fire was only glowing ash, its light and crackle fading slowly as the forest slept around her, stirring only when the first hint of dawn brightened the sky.
Kagome shivered as cool air brushed across her cheek, the blanket sliding from her shoulder as she curled into a ball. She wasn't ready to wake yet, didn't want to open her eyes. She'd been dreaming of him, as if he didn't already fill all of her waking thoughts. The illusion had been so sweet, the dreaming part of her mind refused to give it up.
Lying on her side, he was behind her and tracing the line of her shoulder with a single finger. She could almost feel his breath stirring her hair, the rise and fall of her breathing matching that hesitant touch. Murmuring sweetly, she pressed herself into his warm embrace, the solid shape of his upper body fitted to the curve of her back.
She'd had this dream before, waking to berate herself for being disappointed when she'd find the other side of the bed cold and empty. Even those times when she'd woken with another man beside her, Kagome was fiercely angry with herself for letting Inuyasha's presence invade her dreams again. As the years rolled slowly by, those dreams had become fewer and Kagome refused to allow herself any regret for their absence.
Now…now she could pull him closer in her heart, grateful for the illusion of his warmth, the memory of her love no longer a burden. Instead, it became the core of her strength, the dream no longer reminding her of her own losses, only the promise of a brighter future. She was done with running from her feelings, just as she swore she'd never again push him away.
His palm cupped her bare shoulder as she felt him lean closer, sniffing hesitantly at her hair. Without waking fully, she reached for his hand and curled her fingers around his as if it were the most natural thing in the world. His skin was warm and slightly rough, his fingers felt strong and the sharp claws so real that she flinched involuntarily and came fully awake.
Kagome opened her eyes, focusing on the remains of her campfire and the dry leaves she'd used to cushion her makeshift bedding. Her head was heavy, her body stiff, and as she shifted her hips to a more comfortable position, his bright red sleeve fell across her face.
His hand pulled out of her grip so quickly that she didn't have time to reach for him again. Kagome struggled to free herself from the tangle of blanket and hakama that had twisted around her legs, stumbling as she got to her feet and threw herself blindly after him. In the gloom of the early dawn, she couldn't see past the thick brush that rustled around her. The forest was still dark and her feet bare, she knew it was stupid of her to charge after him when she might fall on her face.
"Inuyasha!" She called out his name as she pushed forward, small branches slapping her in the face and tearing at her hair. She knew he could hear her voice, probably see her as she fought to follow him. Only silence answered her, the sound of her gasping breath echoing in her ears. Biting back frustrated tears, Kagome stopped and leaned heavily against a tree to steady her shaking legs.
So close, why did he come so close only to run away?
She brushed her hair away from her face and hissed when a low, thorny branch scratched her arm. It caught her sleeve and she yanked hard to free herself, pulling at the offending plant until it broke off in her hand. Kagome stared at the twig, taking a few deep breaths to calm herself before unwinding a strand or two of long silvery hair from the thorns.
He's still alive, she told herself as she watched the strands drift away, falling from her fingertips to lose themselves in the gloom of the forest. I'm still alive. That means there's still hope for him. I have to believe in that for now.
And she still believed it, although it had been days since he'd come that close to her again. Days spent wandering aimlessly, without intention. Kagome had no destination in mind and set herself as easy a path she could through the forest. Her best guess was that she was heading east, setting herself in the direction of the sunrise every morning because she didn't have any better ideas.
Inuyasha…whatever he was now, he was following her.
Kagome didn't know why, couldn't guess why, or what he was thinking. Only that his presence was always near now, shadowing her silently and unseen as the wind, constant and inescapable as the night sky. It comforted her as she sat waiting, night after lonely night. She was grateful too, because she didn't think she could have tracked him on her own. All she had to rely on was the resolution that guided her so far.
Making her way back to where she'd stopped for the night, she saw something huddled on the ground next to her pack. A freshly killed rabbit, its neck broken so quickly that the small creature probably never even felt the blow. Her fingers were shaking as she reached out to stroke the soft fur, sadness and gratitude welling from some place deep inside her body.
"You're still watching over me, aren't you?" she whispered. He ran away from her touch, but left behind food like an apology. He hid from her eyes by daylight, but in the night she felt his presence standing guard. The dark and malevolent energy clung to him like warning, but in that split second before he'd charged at her, she thought that she'd seen the shimmer of his eyes.
Gold breaking through darkness, light hidden by shadow and maybe, she prayed to any deity that might listen, behind that wild demon she'd find not a dreaded monster, but her beloved Inuyasha.
"You back here again?" It was the same sneering tone that Rin vividly remembered from the first time they'd met Natsu, but this time it seemed like something was missing. There was no weight of hatred behind his words, or anger, not even contempt. Instead she thought it was something like relief to see them alive, although it had not been more than a few days since they'd parted.
"You can't get rid of us that easily," she answered, smiling at the older man as if he'd given her the most pleasant of good mornings. Natsu snorted at her confidence, instead sliding his gaze to Shippou's sullen face.
"Thought you'd make for your cozy den," he said, watching the young kitsune carefully. "Don't you think you'd be better off with your own kind, brat? Or is the little girlie here still running the show?"
Shippou didn't react to Natsu's taunt, not so much as a flicker of anger crossed his face. "We just came here to speak to Shiori, that's all."
Natsu looked away from them, his face slightly reddened as if he regretted trying to get a rise out of Shippou. "You know the way," he said gruffly, gathering up a pile of bundles that he'd set down when they entered the village. Rin noticed for the first time that the place seemed emptier, only a few men still here and there, loading handcarts with what looked like most of the village's possessions.
"Natsu-san." Rin caught his sleeve. "What happened here? Where are all the women and children? Are you leaving this place?"
"Yeah," he said, sounding tired to the bone. "Ain't safe here, no way to tell what's coming at us if we're so deep in the forest. Boss…" Natsu cleared his throat and rubbed his eyes. "Boss says he no longer controls those things, those demons that used to look to him for help. Says they've got good cause to be angry with him."
"He's right," Shippou said coldly. "There's a lot of people who are angry with Kohaku."
Edging closer, Rin put her hand on Shippou's wrist to remind him that now was not the time to air those grievances. "Wasn't that what he was afraid of?" she asked quietly. When Natsu didn't answer she realized the truth was far more grim.
Kohaku had never intended to return to his village or his wife after what he'd done. If the souls of the demons he'd slaughtered bore a grudge, he'd be their first target once they had control of Inuyasha's body. Having fulfilled his role in their bargain, Sango's brother was no longer necessary now that they had what they wanted.
"Said he was going to stay here in case it came hunting for him," Natsu muttered. "Told me I'm in charge of things now and we need to leave. If I'd known what he planned from the start…"
"You would have stopped him," Rin said softly. "Of course, he knew that. It's why he didn't tell you or Shiori what was really going on."
"She won't leave him." Shippou squeezed her hand as if to comfort them both. "You know she won't, Rin."
Taking a deep breath, Rin stepped away from Shippou and Natsu. The lives that Kohaku had gambled with while expecting to sacrifice himself were far too expensive, and too innocent, to bear the cost of his death. Still, Kagome saved Kohaku's life even after he'd betrayed her and all but murdered Inuyasha. Done so because she thought Sango's brother needed to live and see his child be born, to hold his wife's hand and protect the ones he loved.
He was wrong to give up now. He needed to live because otherwise Kagome's sacrifice would mean nothing and Rin could not let that happen. Inuyasha used to call her a pigheaded, spoiled little brat. Well, they were going to find out exactly how stubborn this pigheaded, spoiled brat could be!
"Someone needs make him see that," she said, raising her chin and squaring her shoulders as if getting ready for a fight. "I'm not going to let him run away from what he's done."
With Shippou right behind her, Rin stamped up to the door and shoved the mat aside without even asking permission. "Kohaku," she began, "how can you…"
Looking up at her in surprise was Shiori, who was on the floor with her bulging belly exposed and a drape over her legs for modesty. Next to her was a very disapproving old woman who was rinsing her hands in a bowl. Rin's eyes went wide, the words drying on her tongue and she stopped so suddenly that Shippou ran right into her and nearly knocked her down.
The startled kitsune took one look at the two women on the floor, flushed as red as his hair and bolted back out the doorway. From outside they heard his horrified and suddenly very young sounding voice.
"Forgive me for intruding!"
Kaede turned to pat Shiori's belly before helping her to close her yukata. "Just as well the baby isn't being born right now," she murmured, amused. "I don't think that boy can take much more."
A nervous giggle escaped Rin's throat and she clapped her hand over her mouth. "Shiori," she mumbled through her fingers, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have just burst in here."
"I'm fine," the small hanyou girl answered, grunting as Kaede helped her to stand. "Kaede-sama is just here to make sure I'm able to travel. We don't have much time, but I don't want to go into labor before we get there."
"You're going?" Rin was thoroughly confused, her angry speech for Kohaku all but forgotten. "But Kohaku is staying here, I thought…"
"He is not staying here," Kaede said severely, the scowl crinkling around the patch over her eye made her look like someone not to be crossed. "He will see his wife to their new home or he will be tied and dragged along like a willful goat."
"It's a mistake," came Kohaku's quiet, almost whispering voice. Slumped in the corner, Rin hadn't noticed his presence in the room before he spoke. He seemed swallowed by the shadows and when she saw a look of intense pain cross Shiori's face, the anger in her stomach started to simmer again.
"Rin, make them understand." Kohaku's wounds had been freshly bandaged but Rin was shocked to see how weak he looked. "I'm only a danger to her now. Please, I've given up everything just to keep Shiori safe. "
She opened her mouth but again the words wouldn't come. It seemed they weren't needed either, because Shiori suddenly covered her face and sobbed into her hands.
"How is dying going to keep me safe?" she asked, tears streaking her cheeks. "Didn't you say that we wouldn't let anything keep us apart? Was that just another lie, Kohaku?"
Shamed, he stared down at his hands. "I tried to make Natsu leave me in the forest, but he refused," the young man said. "I can't even walk right now, so how can I protect you from anything?"
"Maybe you should let someone else worry about the protecting and just be with Shiori because she needs you." On the other side of the doorway, Shippou seemed to have found his voice now that he'd realized the terrible danger of a newborn baby wasn't imminent.
Rin's mouth twitched in a smile in spite of the tense atmosphere. The kitsune still made no move to come inside the hut.
"Look, if it was up to me, I'd leave your ass here," Shippou continued, sounding more like Inuyasha or perhaps Kouga than Rin had ever heard before. "That's not gonna happen because then Shiori is the one who gets hurt. Don't you think it's time you thought about what she wants?"
"I'm her husband," Kohaku muttered defensively, looking away from Rin as his face flushed red. Shippou had been unconscious when Inuyasha confronted Kohaku about the dangers Shiori faced, but he was still hitting all the young exterminator's sore points like they were targets for his words.
"Too bad for you," Shippou snapped, disgusted by Kohaku and his excuses. "Maybe Inuyasha hit you hard enough to splatter your brains around in your skull. If you could get away now, you would have already done it. One more good smack to the head might solve all your problems, but it would be easier on her if you'd quit feeling sorry for yourself and just go."
"Yes." Shiori knelt at his side, picking up Kohaku's hand to press it to her wet face. "It would be so much easier if you'd just come with us. I'm not letting you stay here without me."
Kohaku leaned against the wall, exhausted, but with a weak smile for Shiori. "I keep trying to do the right thing," he said softly, "but all I do is make things worse. I was an idiot to think I could keep this from you."
"Yes," Shiori said again, brushing the back of her fingers against Kohaku's cheek. "An idiot and I'm sick of both fighting and secrets. Please Kohaku, I won't let you be alone this time."
Realizing that the time was right for the young couple to have a private conversation, Kaede took Rin's arm and shuffled towards the door. "I'm rather tired myself," she said. "Help an old woman to sit down outside."
Shippou caught her other arm to help her and wondered silently how old Kaede really was. She'd seemed ancient and indestructible when he'd first met her, smiling down at an orphaned fox-child like she was pleased to have him in her home.
At the time, Shippou stayed close to Kagome because she was kind and treated him like family simply because he'd lost his own. It hadn't made him trust all humans though and he'd been just a little skeptical about staying in a village, in the home of a woman who surely bore no love of demons. Even ones that were small and friendly.
"You know Shiori is a hanyou," he said as soon as Kaede was settled.
The old woman sighed. "Of course. I knew the first time that I met her when she was already Kohaku's wife. I warned him that he was playing a dangerous game, but that no longer matters. It seems that Kohaku was keeping far worse secrets than his half-demon wife."
Reaching out to grasp Shippou's hand, Kaede seemed to be trying to bring herself to speak. When she could, she asked what had to be asked.
"We waited for three days," Rin said so that Shippou wouldn't have to. "She didn't come back."
"She said she won't give up on him," Shippou answered, his voice quiet and calm. "I believe her. If anyone can reach Inuyasha now, it can only be Kagome."
Kaede regarded him seriously, squinting a little with her one good eye that was growing dimmer with age. "Then we must leave Inuyasha to her," she said as if it was reasonable and not their only choice. "But now we must leave this place, this forest. There has been too much blood spilled here for the dead to rest easily."
"What are you afraid of, Kaede-sama?"
The old woman smiled kindly at Rin. "I'm not afraid, child. At my age, I can only hope for an end to this bloodshed. Kohaku said that the demons intend to create their own Shikon no Tama inside the body of Inuyasha. That was something Kohaku didn't plan for when he wanted to free his sister's soul from them."
Standing again, Shippou rubbed the back of his neck and stared out at the thick forest. "I have to warn Kouga," he said almost to himself. "He's already moving closer to the river because he's afraid of another ambush. The caves near the old village will provide shelter and less chance of getting trapped during an attack."
"The village near what was called Inuyasha's Forest?" The old woman's voice was suddenly sharp with alarm. "That is where the people from this village are heading right now. Will the wolf youkai attack them?"
"Kouga doesn't attack women and kids," he answered. It made him angry that Kaede would suspect such a thing. "Not like the bastards here…" He caught himself and then grimaced, remembering when there was a time that Kouga would have no problem doing just that. He took a deep breath so he could choose his words more calmly.
"He wouldn't do something like that now."
"Are you sure?" Rin tried to keep her voice even, knowing how Shippou would feel he had to defend his foster parents. "The wolves suffered a lot because of what Kohaku's men did, much more than the inuyoukai. If there is any kind of misunderstanding…"
She didn't have to finish, the ugly thought was vivid in their minds.
"We've wasted too much time," Kaede said heavily, sounding more exhausted by the moment. "Some of the hunters are already there and preparing for the ones who left yesterday morning. I will not be able to move quickly, Kohaku is still injured and Shiori will not leave him behind. Shippou…"
"I can get there before them," he said immediately. "I know that you don't trust youkai, but please believe me." He put his hands on the old woman's shoulders and hoped that somehow she could. "Kouga is a wolf demon, but he does not want to fight them. He only wants to protect his own pack."
"Will he listen to you?" Rin had been worrying about it ever since Kohaku had told them to convince the wolves and Sesshomaru to find Inuyasha. Shippou made a mistake in bringing the youkai hunters to Kouga's den, she didn't think the wolf's tolerance could be tested much more.
"I'll make him listen," Shippou snapped, "even if I have to sit on him to do it. Ayame will also hear me and if anyone can keep Kouga from doing something stupid it's going to be her."
She had to smile at the determination in his voice. Overwhelming defeat and despair had been weighing Shippou down, a heavy burden on his back since they had first learned of Kohaku's deception. Rin could understand why after watching Shippou struggle to put aside the past. Everything he'd feared was happening again, Inuyasha probably lost in mindless rage, Kagome somewhere in that forest without anyone to defend her.
"You're not alone this time," Rin murmured. Shippou glanced down at her, frowning until she gave him a playful shove.
"We're going to make Kouga listen," she said, feeling almost happy about trying to persuade the stubborn wolf. "Just like Kagome would want, we're not going to give up."
She wasn't giving up, but she wondered how long she keep going. Days of wandering, the weeks before that of traveling and enduring hardships had taken their toll. She wasn't a demon or hanyou, not a soldier or warrior either. It seemed so long ago that she'd kept her body in excellent physical condition simply because it was an asset that gave her advantages.
Now that body was telling Kagome it had suffered enough, willed to its limit by her desperate need.
Hunched over and wrapped in her single blanket, Kagome was too tired to even think of taking care of herself. She'd become weaker as the days passed and now a light fever drove her to rest when she didn't want to. She was also sore, her feet hurt and her muscles protested even the simplest movement. She wasn't giving up, refused to even think about it, but…now there was no other choice.
She had to rest even if it meant that she lost track of Inuyasha and had to start all over again. That thought was like a painful spike to her chest, but Kagome told herself that it didn't matter how long it took. Too many times she'd stumbled, too many times betrayed by her own indecision. Now she couldn't be denied, couldn't be turned away by hardships or distraction.
Luckily, she was able to find a small clearing on the heavily forested hillside to make camp. She managed to rig a crude shelter of fallen branches and gathered a pile of leaves for her bedding. There was a stream close by that she could reach for water, and while food was a more pressing concern, Kagome had no appetite anyway. She dreamed of hot tea, wrapping her hands around a steaming cup and inhaling the delicate fragrance.
Was it only a few weeks ago that she'd turned up her nose at her mother's tea because it wasn't the coffee that she craved?
"Idiot," she muttered, rubbing her cheek on her sleeve. Idiot for being so stubborn, for wasting so much time away from her family. She finally realized the truth during one of these restless, lonely nights. She'd avoided coming home not only because of the memories of the girl she'd been, but because somewhere inside her, that girl was ashamed of the woman she'd become.
She wasn't ashamed anymore. She wasn't afraid. For these things alone, Kagome was quietly grateful. It was worth losing everything to find herself again.
Sighing, she tried to get comfortable enough to sleep. As soon as she'd had a chance to rest a bit, she'd start again. No thoughts of failure entered her mind, focusing only on her need to find him. Inuyasha. He couldn't be far away, not when he was so close in her thoughts. She wondered if it was possible that he was still following her, if he was watching over her right now.
As the daylight slowly faded, mists rose from the forest floor like ghostly memories of the past. A damp chill settled over Kagome's tiny campsite and when the first drops of rain whispered through the leaves, she was very glad that she had shelter. Already exhausted, being soaked would have made her miserable and while the rain meant that a fire was out of the question, at least she was dry.
"I'm so tired," she murmured, pulling her knees up to her chest. Kagome closed her eyes, listening to the faint patter of the rain and inhaling the rich scent of damp forest. It was comforting, familiar and soothing. How many times had she and her friends waited out a storm together? Finding shelter together in an abandoned hut or empty shrine, laughing and telling stories until the rain passed never seemed a hardship.
She missed Sango and Miroku so much that it made her ache. She'd forced herself to forget everything about this part of her life, as though by denying the happier memories, she could somehow banish the worst. Now, she willed them to life, remembering the color of Miroku's eyes and the blush on Sango's cheeks when he teased her. She could see Shippou as a child, curled up with Kirara's tails wrapped around his waist.
The taste of Kaede's cooking when they'd come back to the village and she'd insist they have a hot meal. The crackle of the fire and the delicious steam rising from her bowl as she gobbled down as much as she could hold. Then at night with her friends around her, she would sleep soundly and safely. As always, the last one to fall asleep would be Inuyasha, sitting with his back against the wall and Tessaiga in his lap.
More than once she'd woken, surrounded by shadows and seen him watching her, the flicker of the dying fire in his eyes. Each time their eyes met in silent acknowledgment before she drifted off to sleep again. Neither of them mentioned it by day because at the time it felt as natural as breathing, as warm as if he'd taken her in his arms.
She missed that feeling of having friends that she loved and trusted. That sense of belonging, of being protected and having something to protect. Her body exhausted, her mind lulled by fond memories found in the sound of a gentle rain, Kagome relaxed and let herself fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The crash of thunder and the clamor of a sudden downpour jolted her awake. Kagome sat up, struggling to free herself from her soggy blanket. The branches and leaves that she'd used as a shelter had collapsed around her in the torrent of a storm. Now the slightly sunken clearing was rapidly filling with water and Kagome could hear the rushing of the nearby stream.
Moving quickly, she snatched up Rin's bow and slung the small quiver of arrows over her shoulder before reaching for her pack. She didn't carry much, only a few supplies. Kagome had already run out of the dried travel provisions and was surviving on wild roots and other edible plants. Still, she would miss her only knife and the metal bowl she used for a cooking pot.
After stuffing her few belongings inside the pack, she was trying to wring excess water from her completely soaked blanket when she heard a crunching sound like branches being snapped under pressure. Warily, she raised her eyes to scan the steep hillside for the source. Ribbons of water were pouring down the hill, snaking between the trees and turning the ground to muddy sludge.
"God, no," she whispered, face upturned and rain streaming from her hair. The soft, loose earth of the forest floor, unable to hold the weight of soaked leaves and brush, was starting to move towards her. Kagome knew how much devastation a sudden mudslide could cause, even a small displacement could start a rolling progression that grew until it was unstoppable.
She swallowed hard, letting her blanket slide from her hands and the pack hit the ground at her feet. Slipping and stumbling, she started down the hill as quickly as she could manage. Behind her, the crunching sound grew louder and she knew better than to look over her shoulder right now.
"Come on," she panted, breathless and trying not to panic. Going faster now, she caught herself against tree trunks and brambles, scratching her hands and face, but at least keeping her feet. Water was running ahead of her now, pooling around her ankles with a deceptively gentle rush as she tried to outrun the deluge.
Coughing, she stumbled badly and had to cling to a slender tree to keep from falling on her face. To her right was a rocky slope and Kagome turned towards higher ground without hesitation. The rough boulders were unlikely to be washed away unless the entire hillside was about to go and if she climbed up the rocks, then maybe she'd be out of immediate danger.
Hauling herself up by her arms, she found that her feet had nowhere to go, sliding into the soft, muddy ground. She crawled on her hands and knees until she felt safe from the washed out hillside. Of all the damned luck, there hadn't been any rain for days but she nearly got herself killed in a flash flood because she'd picked the exact wrong place to make camp.
"Now what?" she muttered, settling herself on the rocks to wait out the rest of the storm. She was drenched to the skin, covered in mud, aching and bruised from her headlong run for safety. Shivering, she pulled her knees to her chest and put her head on her arms.
I'm not going to cry…
Kagome dug her fingernails into her arms, pinching herself because even that tiny pain gave her some other focus than the overwhelming despair. Was she supposed to just give up on him? Maybe it was time for her to stop kidding herself. She'd already had everything ripped away from her, lost herself for his sake. What else did she have left?
Only her life. Once she would have stayed at his side, followed him to the end of the world. The child that she'd been expected no more, no less. The woman she was now wasn't so naïve to think of her life as sufficient sacrifice. That wasn't going to be enough this time. Not nearly enough.
Chilled to the bone and with darkness creeping overhead, Kagome slumped where she sat on the hard boulder. Rain fell unnoticed on her face as she closed her eyes, abandoning both consciousness and choices. If she was supposed to give in now, she would. At last, she had no other options, no plans for moving forward. She willingly surrendered, gave herself with total trust to whatever fate awaited her on this side of the well.
Warm. She was warm and comfortable, maybe for the first time in days. Her body felt deliciously relaxed, rested as though she'd had a full night's sleep in the most comfortable bed. Her stomach rumbled, letting her know that she was ready to wake instead of sliding back into sleep.
Stretching, she tried to roll on her side only to find that she couldn't. Something held her tightly around her waist, keeping her hips and upper body from moving while her left arm was pinned to her side. At the same time, her legs and right arm dangled freely in the open air.
She jerked all the way awake, ready to struggle and fight, but when she raised her head she found herself unable to look away from him. Inuyasha returned her stare with no expression, only the sunlight reflecting in his eyes, the morning breeze stirring his hair and making his ears twitch. Catching her breath, Kagome swallowed against her dry throat.
She was in his lap, his arm behind her shoulders and holding her firmly so that she couldn't roll away from him. And that was a good thing, she realized, as the tree was very tall and she wouldn't have been able to save herself if she fell. Kagome kept very still, not afraid of him, but so baffled to wake up in his arms that she couldn't process what had happened to her.
Finally, she licked her lips and spoke. "Inu-Inuyasha?"
His ears twitched at the sound of her voice and she saw him sniff the air like he was testing her scent. She studied his face, finding absolutely no trace of the monster from her nightmares. His hair looked as wild as the first time she'd seen him, but his eyes were very bright, very alert as he returned her curious gaze.
So now what?
"Do you know me?" she whispered, half afraid of what his answer would be. He blinked, raising his eyebrows before leaning closer, sniffing intently around her face and hair like he was trying to decide what to do with her. It was obvious that he must have rescued her, picked her up and held her all night and most of the morning. Her hakama was almost dry and when she glanced down at her legs, she could see the mud caking her bare feet.
"I must have lost my sandals," she said, saying the first thing that came into her head. "Thank you, Inuyasha," she added when he narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "You…you saved me, didn't you?"
He just kept watching her, curiosity glittering in his eyes. No reaction to his name or her words. Kagome bit her lip, wondering what they were supposed to do now. He could just as easily drop her from the tree as anything, so she didn't want to move very much. Her foot twitched, a sudden spasm after lying still all night long and he immediately rested his hand on her ankle.
She couldn't help herself, not this time. Raising her hand, she reached out to touch his face, brush the hair away from his cheek. He stiffened, shifting his posture ever so slightly, but otherwise didn't move away from her touch. His tangled hair was soft against the back of her fingers and with a tiny smile, she moved her hand slowly towards his ears.
How many times had she done this? The first time he'd been asleep and she'd had to touch his ears just because she couldn't believe they were real. After that, he was always embarrassed, blushing when she'd try to touch them. Blustering, pretending to be offended, she knew he liked her attention even when he'd huff at her with annoyance.
Cautiously, she stroked the soft fur, ready to pull her hand back if it made him angry. It didn't and Inuyasha leaned against her hand, rumbling softly in his chest. Kagome felt tears spring to her eyes, overjoyed that he allowed her to touch him, to see him clearly after all these days of restless wandering.
"You do know me, don't you?" she whispered, her throat dry as he caught her fingers against his cheek, holding them still while he stared at her. Inuyasha ignored her words, sniffing again at her wrist, the palm of her hand until Kagome shivered. His casual exploration was making her heart race, she was trembling by the time he glanced at her face, meeting her eyes as he brought her fingers to his mouth.
Kagome held her breath, tracing his lips until her caught her fingertip between his teeth, nibbling gently while watching her face. So she'd wanted to see him, to reach him, didn't she? This gentle Inuyasha was more of a hesitant forest animal, wild and innocent rather than the monster of her nightmares. It…made no sense.
The demons of the Shikon no Tama, the monsters that had survived by possessing Sango's corpse…they had agreed to share his body, the full youkai Inuyasha. What she'd been expecting to find, she wasn't sure, but this feral creature was no more her Inuyasha than the raging demon that had terrorized her not long ago.
Another side of him, hidden somewhere inside, someplace she'd never guessed.
Just as she was thinking about what do to, his body suddenly stiffened, lifting his face to the breeze like he'd scented something in the forest. Kagome yelped when he sprang to his feet, tucking her easily under his arm like so much baggage. His arm around her waist was hard as stone and she writhed uncomfortably with Rin's bow digging into her ribcage.
Still sniffing the air expectantly, Inuyasha swung her about as he crouched and turned quickly to stare at the thick forest. Kagome felt a little queasy from the movement and the pressure on her empty belly, covering her mouth with a groan.
"Don't…" she gasped when he stooped over to stare at the forest floor. Inuyasha growled, a low and angry sound that vibrated through her body. Frightened, she twisted around, digging her hands into his haori when she felt him gathering himself to jump across the trees.
Inuyasha leapt in a graceful arc that continued downwards, springing from tree to tree so quickly that the ground was only a blur to Kagome. She stifled a shriek when he let them freefall, feet skidding on the forest floor before racing wildly to build speed for another strong leap that took them back to the treetops. Although it wasn't the first time she'd moved like this, it was the first time being dangled instead of riding on his back.
He's not going to drop me, she told herself, shutting her eyes because the wild movement was making her nauseous. She'd trusted him to carry her in the past, she had to trust him now even if she couldn't even guess why he was hurtling through the trees like a wild beast. Just when she thought she couldn't take anymore, he dove for the ground again, coming to an abrupt stop and dumping her unceremoniously on her face.
"What the hell," she muttered, pushing herself up to kneel at his feet. Inuyasha stalked restlessly around her, making urgent little sounds in the back of his throat while she tried to catch her breath. Pulling her hair back from her face, she looked around anxiously, trying to see whatever was bothering him so much. Nothing she could sense, looking around at quiet greenery, thick trees and peaceful woodlands.
"Inuyasha," she said, trying to make her voice sound soothing. "What's the matter?"
Of course he didn't answer her, standing quite still with his face lifted and his nose twitching. He didn't seem to be afraid, not even wary. More agitated, just like a dog that knew his territory was being invaded, but not where or why. Kagome sat quietly, her hands in her lap as she watched him pace, his body so alert and tense that it raised the hair on the back on her neck.
Finally, he stopped and shook himself, his hair flying around his face and his sleeves fluttering. Ignoring her, he stalked away and she suddenly knew that he was leaving her behind.
He paused, turning slowly to look over his shoulder before shrugging his shoulders as if to brush her existence from his thoughts. She moved fast, grabbing the edge of his hakama and holding on for dear life. Surprised, he yanked away and looked alarmed when she fell heavily on her hands. Inuyasha backed away from her, going into a half-crouch that made it look like he was seconds away from bolting.
"Please," she murmured. "I know you don't understand me, but I need this. I need to be at your side. If you abandon me now..."
Kagome stared at her hands, unable to continue. He'd saved her, but she couldn't keep up with him and she knew it. If he left her alone now, she'd stumble around the forest until her bare feet were bloody, but the chances were slim that she'd survive for much longer on her own. She'd given her everything, fought back doubts and nightmares to earn this chance to stay by his side.
"I love you," she whispered. "I need to be with you. Please, Inuyasha…"
It was hopeless. He couldn't understand her.
The grass rustled softly as he moved closer, crouching in front of her until she lifted her head and looked at him. His face was only inches from hers, she could count his eyelashes and was certain he could hear the blood racing in her veins. He was staring intently at her now and Kagome swallowed hard, suddenly haunted by the vision of mad, demon-infested rage.
No, now was not the time for fear. She'd had enough of it, gorged herself until sick with poisons of doubt and dread. Taking a deep breath, she raised her chin and waited quietly for Inuyasha to make the next move.
Licking his lips, he almost smiled, the expression was so brief that Kagome barely saw it before he reached for her. Inuyasha held her close, standing up to pull her to her feet. For a long moment he looked like he wanted to speak, frustration building silently in his eyes. Then he sighed, shaking his head as if trying to clear his mind, confusion settling over him like a dense fog.
"Talk to me," she begged, grasping his haori in her fists. "Inuyasha, I know you're in there, I can feel it. I'm Kagome, remember? You know me!"
You love me!
Instead of answering, he touched the ragged edge of her sleeve, his claws poking through ripped material. The rest of her wasn't any better, she was filthy and torn, her hair a matted mess. Kagome knew what she looked like, she didn't need a mirror to know that she was in bad shape. Abuse, desperation, and grief had cost her the beauty that had once been her pride. Weeks of sleeping on the ground, inadequate food and rest left her weak and thin.
Won't you please hear my voice?
"Don't leave me here," Kagome whispered. "Please…"
He stepped away, turning from her and her heart sank. Then he held out his hand, looking over his shoulder at her until she realized he was inviting her…he was asking to carry her on his back.
She took his hand, her knees were weak, and when he lifted her up it felt like her body was as light as a palm full of feathers. Kagome wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face his hair. This strange Inuyasha that she didn't know, this newborn demon who seemed at peace with the wild forest…they were together now.
Wherever you go, I'm with you. Under her hands, she could feel his pulse racing, the strength in his shoulders and the gentleness of his hands under her legs.
I'm with you forever, Inuyasha. His muscles tensed and he crouched down low, his face lifted towards the sky as sunshine poured over them like a waterfall. One of his ears twitched in her direction and Kagome held on tight.
"I'm ready," she told him softly, her heart overflowing with joy. "Let's go!"
There will be at least one more long chapter after this. Sorry for the wait and thanks for hanging in there. I'm hoping to get this damn epic finished by the end of the year, so I've got a lot of work ahead of me. Thank you again to everyone who has commented, reviewed, sent emails and PMs my way for encouragement. I'm truly shocked and humbled that so many people have stuck with it (and me) through this long hiatus. I won't let you guys down.