A/N: Do you realize I've been working this damn story for over nine years now? What the hell, that has got to be some kind of record. Anyway, I suck for not finishing this and I am very very sorry about the wait. To those of you who are somehow sticking with this through my long hiatus, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Every review or PM I get kicks me in the ass to get back on track, and I am deeply grateful for your patience. I really wanted to have this be the last chapter, but I couldn't get there. I'll keep working on it, this story will have an ending.
Stumbling forward, sharp fear riddled her body with pain from the soles of her bruised feet up to the cold sweat on her neck. Ragged gasps burned in the back of her throat and sweat stung her eyes. Kagome didn't know what was chasing her, but the dread of being caught was like an animal trapped in her chest, desperately trying to claw its way out.
She caught herself as she fell against a tree, eyes darting from shadow to shadow. Where will it come from, when will it come? The questions drained from her conscious thoughts like water through a sieve. Emptiness followed and Kagome realized she was staring into the darkness with no will of her own to move forward.
Then time sped up and crashed into her like a hammer. Inuyasha! I have to save Inuyasha! She didn't know what was after her or why it was so terrifying, but the urgency dug itself deeply into her muscles and Kagome threw herself into running as if her life depended on it.
I'm not too late, she begged as the forest started to thin and she was able to see where she was going. I can't be too late, not this time, not when I'm so close! Her bare feet slapped the ground, it felt almost familiar as if she'd been this way a thousand times, knew each rise and fall of the path, every twist and turn in the road. She knew her way and she was so very close now…
Skidding to a stop, she couldn't breathe for a moment as she recognized the weathered, ancient trunk of the Goshinboku. The gnarled roots at the base of the tree were thicker than her arms and moving closer, she stared up into the sacred tree's lofty branches. As a child, she had sat with her mother beside this tree and listened to all the stories and never dreamed that one day, hundreds of years in the past, she would become part of those legends herself.
This is where it begins, she thought, the inside of her skull ringing like an ancient bell. Dizziness overwhelmed her and for a moment, Kagome forgot everything and leaned against the sacred tree, her legs weak and shuddering.
"I need to go home," she whispered.
Her hand suddenly burned and Kagome cried out in pain. It felt like smoldering coals were clenched in her fist. A shining jewel, perfectly round and smooth, glowed pink against the skin of her palm. The pain faded quickly as it had come and she stared at it, completely entranced. Shimmering as if lit from within, it was strung on a cord with polished stones that were irregular and sharp as if to contrast the flawless sphere.
"Can't be," Kagome muttered, her fingers tightening around the stones until the uneven edges dug into her skin. She felt betrayed, angry. Hurt beyond words as if the world was crashing down upon her head. Ashamed and humiliated, she could taste despair on her tongue like bitter ash.
In the distance, she heard someone shouting her name. Her back against the tree, she knew that she couldn't outrun them, whatever was hunting her had her scent, picked up her trail with savage joy. Heart pounding, she hauled herself over the thick roots and started to climb up the side of the sacred tree.
Kagome dug her fingers into the rough bark, hauling herself up until she couldn't find a place to put her feet. This is it, she thought, this is where I saw him for the first time. He was sleeping right here and these roots grew around his body. But that was so long ago. The Inuyasha she'd fallen for at first sight was no longer hers, vanished like the fairy tale dreams of a teenage girl.
I was supposed to find you, she thought as tears slid unnoticed down her face. You said you'd protect me, so where did you go…
She spun around, then froze in place as the figure approached. Red and white, blood and purity, darkness and salvation. The woman stood quite still, her face hidden by the long dark hair that had come free of its bindings. In one hand she held a bow, the other clutched an arrow and Kagome could not miss the scarlet blood that dripped down the woman's shoulder to stain her fingers.
"Kikyou?" she asked, shocked to the bone.
Not looking up, the woman notched her arrow.
"Wait, Kikyou!" Kagome cried out desperately. "I thought…how could…"
The arrow slammed into her with tremendous force, piercing Kagome's chest and embedding in the tree. Pain like nothing she'd ever known overwhelmed her and Kagome gasped in breathless agony. She grabbed weakly for the shaft of the arrow only for her hand to come away wet with blood. The taste of it filled her mouth and the jewel fell from her already numb fingers.
Moving stiffly, the woman shuffled to where the jewel had fallen and slowly bent to pick it up. Her pale fingers touched the jewel and Kagome saw the shimmering light darken, the pure energy curdling at the woman's touch. Darkness enveloped the woman's body as poisonous youki flowed from the corrupted jewel to cover her like a shroud.
Blood dripping down her chest to soak her clothing, Kagome had no strength to protest as the woman came closer, stopping when she reached the base of the tree. One hand rested on the gnarled roots and Kagome watched, horrified as the tree began to wither, decaying visibly at the lightest touch of the dark aura.
"What are you?" she whispered, blood flecking her lips. "Not…Kikyou..."
The woman tipped her head back and Kagome recoiled, writhing as the arrow kept her painfully trapped against the dying Goshinboku. Clawed hands reached for her ankles, a face with wild scarlet eyes and a manic grin twisted by loathing and violence was suddenly pushed close to her own.
"Don't think you'll escape from me this time," the demon hissed.
She jerked awake, biting back screams as the nightmare faded. Her whole body was trembling and her neck was clammy with sweat. So terrifying, so real, it took every bit of her will for Kagome to convince herself that she was safe.
At least as safe as she could be, high up in the branches of a tall tree and nestled in Inuyasha's lap. Ever wary of dangers on the ground, he preferred to sleep where nothing could sneak up on him. And since he wouldn't leave her behind that meant Kagome also spent her nights in the treetops.
His hand brushed over her hair and she knew he was trying to comfort her, unable to understand, perhaps, why she was so frightened. Not for the first time and hardly for the last, she wondered what he thought of her, of them. Sometimes she swore she saw a flicker of recognition in his eyes, the smallest hint of awareness, but that moment would pass between one breath and the next.
This Inuyasha carried no burdens, no memories of the past or fears for the future. His ears twitched happily when she smiled at him, his whole body seemed to listen for her voice when she spoke. Kagome was at a loss for what to do next, both baffled and frustrated by his mute innocence. At the same time, she was grateful to have this time with him.
"And I was so angry that you didn't remember me," she told him, playing with a lock of his hair as they watched the sun slowly rise and fill the forest with light. "I spent ten years hating you more each day, so it was painful that you didn't know why."
Leaves rustled behind them, most likely a sleepy squirrel or bird and Inuyasha glanced in that direction. The sunrise tinted his hair with rose and gold, caught the color of his eyes and made them sparkle. She'd been in love with him for most of her life, broken to pieces by his betrayal, only to be rescued from her loathing in the end. At this point, she didn't give a damn if she ever saw the other side of the well again. She only regretted that her mother and brother would worry over her and they'd had too much of that already.
"Are you ever going to talk to me?" she asked, brushing the back of her fingers across his cheek. Inuyasha looked down at her, bemused as she traced his mouth with her fingertip. "I can't get used to you being the quiet one."
She turned and snuggled into him, tucking her face to his chest just so she could listen to his heartbeat. Inuyasha yawned and stretched, somehow keeping them perfectly balanced on the sturdy branch before wrapping his arms around Kagome and they both drifted back to sleep.
Early morning. As the sky slowly brightened, mist clung to the rolling hills near the river and cloaked its banks with the chill of dawn. To one side of the river was dense forest, the trees huddled together as if protecting secrets and ever wary of their privacy. The edge was rocky and steep, lush foliage overgrown and forbidding, but just beyond the edge of the forest was a small network of caves, carved out centuries earlier when the river had been wild and powerful.
On the other side, the rough rocks had been taken away by human hands years ago and the riverbank was worn smooth by human feet. Even when the village had bustled with activity, with men setting fish traps and lines or women and girls carrying water, the villagers kept to their side of the river and cautiously avoided whatever ghosts and water dwellers that might call those hidden caves their home.
Wolf youkai, on the other hand, had little to fear from those kind of human superstitions. Driven from their own den, the caves provided shelter and a measure of security. Convenience was found in the nearby source of water and game was plentiful in the surrounding forest. Although more accustomed to wide open plains and mountain peaks, Kouga's pack had learned to adapt quickly. Settling into the caves, they found their numbers were again diminished and each child or young pup was carefully guarded as the future of a blended pack that had once numbered in the hundreds.
It wasn't any surprise that Kouga was less than pleased to hear that a group of refugee humans were taking up residence in the ruined village. And when he found out that these humans were also what was left of the youkai hunters who had so ruthlessly stalked and slaughtered both his men and their wolves, he completely lost whatever tolerance he had left.
"Are you fucking crazy?" he shouted, his face only inches from Shippou's as he towered over his adopted son. "You brought them here after what happened before? Gods be damned, Shippou!"
"I didn't bring them anywhere!" Shippou snarled back, holding his ground in front of the enraged wolf. "They were already on their way, I just came to tell you…"
"Tell me what?" Kouga exploded, pacing back and forth with his tail thrashing behind him. "Tell me those butchers are right across from us, ready to attack us again without warning, but I should do nothing?"
Shippou grit his teeth, obviously trying to keep his own temper in check and not add fuel to Kouga's fury. "I told you, it's mostly women, kids, and old geezers. They haven't got any hunters left, Kouga! They're all dead, didn't you hear…"
Kouga cut him off again with a threatening glare. "That's what they want you to think," he growled. "You gonna fall for that bastard Kohaku's lies again, brat? Do I have to beat your head on a rock before you get it?"
Watching from a safe distance with Ayame's hand on her shoulder, Rin wished that Shippou hadn't blurted out why they were there. They'd reached the old village in the dead of night, bypassed the sleeping humans to crash noisily through the trees and woken the entire den of wolf youkai. Everyone was shouting, the children were crying and Shippou started babbling as soon as he caught sight of Kouga.
She sighed, rubbing her eyes, and wished that they'd stuck to the plan of calmly and carefully explaining the situation. Stupid, she thought. Wolves weren't that different than inuyoukai, and as a young girl she'd grown up surrounded by demons that, with the exception of Sesshomaru-sama, were rarely calm about anything.
"Forget it," Kouga snapped, turning his back on Shippou's explanation as if nothing the young fox could say might have bearing on his decision. Rin didn't like the way Shippou's face turned almost as red as his hair and when he suddenly launched himself at Kouga's back, she wasn't the only one who caught her breath.
Ayame's fingers dug into Rin's shoulder and the girl stood very still, all of her nerves strung tight and instincts developed by years of following after her own guardian warned her that something very bad had just happened.
"Ayame," she whispered.
Her face pale save for two bright splotches high on her cheeks, Ayame met Rin's eyes and gave the slightest shake of her head, warning Rin to keep silent. Attacking his leader, his father in all but blood, in front of their entire pack was a challenge that would have to be answered.
Shippou made no attempt to press whatever advantage he'd gained by taking Kouga by surprise. He backed away immediately, letting Kouga get to his feet from where he'd been shoved to the ground. The fact that Kouga didn't spring into an attack said more about the wolf's hard learned self-control rather than any tolerance for his foster son's actions.
It didn't dull the anger glinting in Kouga's eyes or ease the deadly tension in his stance. Most of the wolf youkai were looking at the ground, or pointedly away from their leader to avoid becoming part of the confrontation. Meeting Kouga's gaze with the wrong body language might cause everyone to erupt.
As the silence between them stretched painfully long, Shippou fought to keep himself from backing down, aware that any apology or weakness would accomplish nothing right now. And doing nothing was never going to be enough for Shippou, not ever again.
"Kouga, I…" he began.
"You think I'm gonna let that go?" His voice was harsh, biting and snapped at the end of Shippou's words like a warning. "Give me a reason not to beat the hell out of you."
Taking a deep breath, Shippou raised his chin. "It's the only way to make you shut up and listen," he said. Like Kouga's, his words were short and pointed as claws. "You can beat me all you want, but not until after you hear why."
Her knees gave out when she slid from Inuyasha's back and Kagome staggered clumsily. His arm was immediately around her shoulders, supporting her as he gently helped her to sit on the ground. She could feel his concern in the tension of his muscles, hear it the soft whine that came from back of his throat. Inuyasha knew something was wrong and Kagome thought she'd better stop lying to herself.
"So looks like I'm sick," she muttered, staring at the ground. "Just what we needed, right?"
The truth was that she was still so very tired, far too tired to admit that she'd already gotten this bad. She barely slept at all, nightmare after nightmare jerking her awake and causing Inuyasha to hold her restless body tightly for fear she'd roll right out of the treetops. Most of the time the dreams were only murky and terrifying, something nameless was hounding her with the intent to rip the flesh from her bones like a threat in her ears.
Her other dreams were vivid memories of the past, happy times with Sango and Miroku, with Inuyasha and Shippou. Sweet memories, but they always turned bitter and fearful by the end and Kagome woke herself rather than endure the loss. The lack of rest at night made her sluggish during the day and because of that, she didn't realize that she'd come down with a fever. Weeks of pushing herself beyond her limits had finally caught up with her and Kagome acknowledged the fact without bitterness.
"It's really nothing," she told Inuyasha, looking into his clear eyes and wondering again what kind of thoughts hid behind them. She smiled, touching his face. "You know, I miss the way you used to complain when I needed to rest because I'm only a weak human."
To her surprise, he caught her hand in his, bringing it slowly to his lips like he wanted to drop a kiss in her palm. Instead she felt his breath whisk lightly over her skin, her fingers trembling slightly as he inhaled her scent. A soft growl from the back of his throat and Inuyasha closed his eyes, pressing her hand to his face.
"I don't know what you're trying to tell me," she whispered, wanting so badly for him to pull her closer. She ached for him, not only from the fever and fatigue. The touch of his hands made her tremble, yearning with her whole body for more of him. He opened his eyes to regard her soberly, still holding her hand to his cheek. Inuyasha leaned close, sniffing again with a perplexed frown between his brows.
It was suddenly quite obvious to her. She was painfully thin now, wearing the rags of a fallen priestess and so pitiful that even a demon could feel sorry for her. In sharp contrast, Inuyasha glowed like sunshine in the forest, robust and practically bursting with life. His strength was like a powerful aura, the scent of rich earth and leaves in his hair, hints of spice and warm musk when she put her face close to his skin.
Of course he didn't understand, he would never know weakness or become ill as a pure youkai. Free from even the memories of that outcast hanyou child, an orphan that never let anyone close, unwilling to ever let down his guard, must less call anyone friend.
Except for a girl who would be born some five hundred years later, the one who would pull an arrow from his chest and coax him from his shell by trusting him far more than he deserved.
"No," she murmured, her hand dropping away from his face. "You did deserve to be trusted, Inuyasha. I wanted to give that to you. It seemed so simple back then, but I only dreamed of being the one who stayed at your side."
Sighing deeply, peace flooded Kagome's body and she quite willingly let herself doze in the warm afternoon sun. Inuyasha sat close by her side, his gaze never leaving her flushed face, a worried scowl growing deeper as he listened to the woman's frail breaths.
Shiori shifted restlessly where she sat, rubbing her swollen belly with one hand and trying not to let her discomfort get the better of her. She'd been feeling ill off and on ever since they'd started the journey to the new village. Kaede had kindly told her that she'd experience this more often now that she was so near to giving birth, but it was difficult. She'd never been sick even a day in her life, a gift of her hanyou blood, so fatigue and nausea were unfamiliar territory.
The day had been warm and bright, excellent weather for travelling, but so much sun made her edgy and easily irritated. Shiori hadn't realized how much she'd miss the deep forest until they'd had to leave it.
They were lucky to have a cart, even if the elderly and good natured ox that pulled it set a rather slow pace. With their few belongings hardly taking up half the modest space, she had enough room to stretch out if she wished. Instead she perched at the edge, letting her bare feet dangle like a little girl while she watched the dusty road slowly retreat into the distance.
Kohaku had barely moved since she'd helped him into the cart. Yesterday he'd refused to eat anything, today he seemed so much weaker. She'd tried begging, even shouted at him once, but all he did was look at her sadly before turning away.
"Is there nothing we can do?" she'd tearfully asked Kaede, hoping the old woman knew some kind of cure. "The wounds to his head are healing, but it feels like he's given up."
"He has to decide for himself," Kaede told her, the weight of regret heavy in her voice. "It's not so simple, Shiori, as to tell him we need him to live on. He carried too much of the burden himself, now I believe he's lost the will to continue."
"Something happened to you out there," Shiori whispered, ignoring the way the cart jerked and jumped in the ruts of the road. Not just getting beaten so badly by Inuyasha, she'd seen Kohaku injured worse than this. When she looked at him, she could feel the grief and shame radiating from his body as if the man she loved were drowning in his own despair.
The cart jolted to a stop, the ox suddenly balking as Kaede gently urged him to move. The beast snorted unhappily at the ground, pawing at the dusty road and shaking its head. Shiori shivered, the hair on the back of her neck standing up and she unconsciously clenched her fists. Instincts that she rarely thought about awakened, warning of some kind of danger, some kind of menace that was invisible and yet, all around her.
"Shiori." Kohaku's voice was hardly more than a whisper, but it snapped her world back into focus. Immediately she crawled to the back of the cart to be at his side.
"Do you want some water?" she asked, reaching for the flask. "I thought you were going to sleep all day, isn't it time…"
Her voice died off as youkai appeared, wolves coming from the tall grasses, followed by men who wore pelts and carried spears, with arms bare and scarred from battle. Although she'd never met one in person, she knew they were wolf demons and that they were one of the tribes of youkai that Kohaku's hunters had fought with particular ferocity.
"So it's true," one of them said, ignoring her to stare into the cart at Kohaku. "Just as Kouga said, we'd find 'em on the road, alone and undefended. Not much fight left in 'im, I'd say."
"If you touch him," Shiori snarled, rising on her knees to protect her husband.
"Enough, Shiori," Kaede cut in, watching the wolves carefully. "We mean no harm," she said, addressing the one who spoke first. "The man is injured and the woman is near her time, will you let us pass?"
"Let you pass?" The wolf demon started to laugh, not a friendly sound at all, Shiori thought, or a good sign. "I'll think about it, maybe. You on your way to the old village, granny?"
"We are." Kaede's voice remained calm and composed, not reacting to their sneers or their obvious dislike. The wolf's eyes narrowed thoughtfully, taking a long and serious look at Kohaku before turning his back to them.
"Hell, we'll let you pass," he growled. "We're here to take that bastard straight to Kouga, so just keep on the road and don't get any ideas about running away." Taking in Kaede's frail appearance and Shiori's obvious condition, he shook his head. "Not that you'd get very far."
The wolves faded away into the tall grasses, disappearing as quietly as they'd appeared. Shiori felt them watching, their presence tickling at the edge of senses even as Kaede managed to get the cart moving again. Her chest felt tight and Shiori bit her lip, willing herself not to start crying. All the tension they'd been under for so long had built up inside her until it seemed like there was no way for her to contain it.
Kohaku's hand brushed her cheek and Shiori jumped, wondering if he'd ever really been unconscious.
"You don't have to worry," he whispered, looking weak and helpless, so precious to her now. "It's me that they want, Shiori. They won't hurt anyone else."
"Idiot," she muttered, brushing away her tears with the back of her hand. "That's not going to happen, I won't let them take you away from me." Shiori took a deep breath and reached out to squeeze Kohaku's hand. "I believe Shippou and Rin can change Kouga's mind once he sees you aren't a threat. After everything we've been through, we will live peacefully again."
His smile was faint, but she thought a little color had returned to his face. She settled down at his side, resting her head on Kohaku's shoulder and put her hand into his.
So there was one rightfully enraged wolf demon that would have to be pacified before they could live peacefully in their new home, it didn't mean that it would be impossible. Watching the clouds floating carelessly in the bright sky, Shiori didn't think that she'd come this far just to watch Kohaku die for his crimes.
There was always a better answer, always hope to be had even on the darkest of nights. She'd learned this as a child, when a half-demon risked his life to save hers, for no other reason than she needed saving. It would have been easier to destroy her and take the magic that she'd held, but it was not his way.
Kagome will save him, there no way she won't. Believing in this, Shiori allowed herself to rest and kept Kohaku's hand firmly in her own.
Trying to sleep and unable to rest, she kicked off the bed sheets in futile attempt to cool herself. Her pajamas were stuck to her sweaty skin, twisted around her body from her unsuccessful fight for sleep. With her window wide open and the fan listlessly stirring the humid air, Kagome wondered if she'd be better off trying to sleep outside.
She found herself staring at her open window and watching the moonlight shift patterns across the ceiling. The night air was so heavy that it pinned her to bed with dark silence. Sweat dripped down her face, fat drops of moisture sliding from her cheeks to slick her throat, soaking into her tangled hair. Feeling sick and disoriented, she wanted to retch but her arms and legs were trapped, sinking into the darkness like her bed had turned to sand, pulling her down into a hot, dark grave.
She was drowning in this desert, with lips so dry they cracked and her tongue glued to the roof of her mouth. Kagome struggled for air as the pressure around her body closed in, smothering her as absolutely as a hand pressed to her face. Sobbing, she desperately clawed at the darkness around her and then…
Something cool and soft, slightly sweet touched her lips. Kagome opened her mouth, grateful for the trickle of moisture that was like a lifeline. Sensation flooded back into her limbs as her thirst was relieved, she swallowed and took a deep breath of pure appreciation that she was still alive. Wearily, she opened her eyes to green forest above and Inuyasha's face hovering over hers. His eyes were anxious, worried, but his expression lightened when she managed a weak smile. Leaning back, he wiped his wet lips with the back of his fist and she thought he looked ridiculously happy that she was conscious.
"Thank you," she told him, a little embarrassed by her own weakness. She felt dizzy and wondered how long she'd been out. Her last memory was of sitting on the ground with Inuyasha at her side, but he must have moved her because now she could clearly hear the sound of a stream nearby. She struggled a bit to sit upright and Inuyasha immediately reached to help her, taking her hand with a gentle touch as if she were so fragile that simply moving could injure her.
Taking a closer look at him, she realized that Inuyasha's sleeves were wet to the elbows and there were twigs stuck in his hair.
He must have been frantic to help me, she thought unhappily. Only a few days of traveling like this and she was already at the end of her rope. Foraging for what little food she could find, unable to sleep and haunted by nightmares, her only consolation was that she was with him now and he wouldn't leave her side.
At least she wouldn't be alone.
"I'm…I'm glad I'm here," she said, her voice breaking a bit at how true those words were. His ears twitched, concern and confusion flickering in his expression as her eyes filled with tears. He touched her cheek with the back of his fingers, awkward and trying to comfort her. She had a thousand things she wanted to tell him, all unspoken words that he didn't understand. Her tears weren't for sadness or frustration, only that her heart was overflowing with emotions that her body had no idea how to express.
"Please?" she asked, holding her arms out. Uncertain, he crept closer and let her put her arms around him. Kagome burrowed against his chest, shivering a little until he settled at her side and pulled her into his lap. She could feel how bewildered he was, how baffled by this strange woman he'd adopted who clung to him so desperately. He didn't know how hard she'd fought to save him, would maybe never know how much it meant to her just to have his hands stroke her hair with such gentleness.
She was human, he was not. And she was so right about him, had been from the beginning. Inuyasha was no monster that deserved to be abandoned. Every moment they spent together was a revelation of this new Inuyasha, gentle and kind.
The demons of the jewel had failed. Instead of creating a ravenous beast bent on destruction and murder, only the sweetest and most innocent part of him remained. There was a weight on her heart, oh yes, because of all things they couldn't share. The memories that were bright and vivid, and the painful ones too where they could have held each other for comfort. It was unfair, ludicrous really, that so much of what they'd shared had become hers alone to carry. But carry it she would, because she had to, right until the end if necessary.
Inuyasha suddenly jerked, letting her slide from his lap as he put his feet under him, shoulders tense and wary. Kagome sat where he'd left her, watching as his eyes glimmered and his nose twitched. Something in the air had gotten his attention, some animal moving unseen through the trees or even…
Snarling with fury, Inuyasha launched himself into the trees, moving like a red blur in the branches until she lost sight of him. Kagome trembled, wondering what had upset him so much that he'd run like that. Her heart pounded, envisioning another mob of bestial demons descending on them like before. She felt sick at the thought of her Inuyasha being forced to fight them, she didn't want to see that, not ever again!
I have to do something, she thought, grim and determined. Still weak and trying to collect herself, she managed to get to her feet, finding Rin's bow and the last arrow stuck under a nearby bush as if Inuyasha had no idea what these things were about, only that they belonged with her. The bow at least came in handy, she needed it to steady herself when the earth seemed ready to surge under her feet.
Not that she'd be able to do much, but like hell she'd not do everything she could if Inuyasha were attacked. She could close her eyes and see him as before, standing with Tessaiga dangling from his limp hand, helpless as the swarm of Kohaku's demons descended on him. Bitter feelings twisted in her stomach, anger and guilt because in her heart she couldn't shake the fact that it was her, Kagome, who had been used to lure Inuyasha into that trap.
Pushing herself, she staggered from tree to tree, wondering how much strength the fever had cost her. Ever since she'd found him, it seemed like her body was becoming weaker until she expected she wake one day to find herself only a ghost. Barefoot, she took each step carefully and slowly, making her way toward the sound of the stream for no other reason that she didn't know what else to do.
She heard a splash and the sound of voices. Kagome stopped, biting her lip and leaning into a tree to hold herself upright. Humans? Could it be they were somehow near a village? It had been days, maybe weeks since she'd seen any sign of a human-made trail and hadn't given much thought to it either. It was like everything else in the world ceased to exist beyond this forest, beyond the world of her and Inuyasha.
If there's danger, I have to warn them.
She gathered her courage and pushed her way through the heavy underbrush. Even if she didn't know what was out there, she felt strangely hopeful about finding other humans. For the first time in days she found herself thinking in the present, not living in the dreams of the past. Kagome was content to stay with Inuyasha, but it would also be good for her to know if there was a village nearby.
Maybe there was some way for her to get word to Shippou and Rin, they had to be worried sick for her. She needed to tell them that Inuyasha was no threat, not only put their minds at ease but to make sure that he would be left alone. This time, she wasn't going to hide from that responsibility.
There would be no misunderstandings, Kagome determined quietly. She would do what she needed to do in order to make sure they were left alone.
"Hello," she called as she stepped from the shadows of the forest. "Can you help me find…"
The words died in her throat. Three wolf youkai were standing in the middle of the stream, one of them with a freshly caught fish in his claws. They stared at her and she stared back, completely caught off guard. They only looked at her warily, making no sudden moves and she realized that they must have seen her when she'd been to Kouga's camp.
"Kagome nee-san," one of them said, his eyes wide as if he couldn't believe what he saw.
Her knees went weak with relief. She knew him, he was older looking and carried more scars, but she knew him. "Ha...Hakkaku, isn't it?" she asked, smiling faintly. Memories of Kouga and his two friends, Ginta and Hakkaku, rushed back to her as if she was reliving those days. She hadn't seen him when they'd met up with Kouga's pack, but she remembered Shippou mentioning him and Ginta by name when he'd spoke of being raised by Kouga.
"It's good to see you again," she said, meaning every word. "I didn't expect to meet you here."
"We didn't expect you were still alive," Hakkaku answered, glancing at his two friends, men she didn't remember. "Shippou…he told us what happened to you…" His voice trailed off nervously and he looked embarrassed that that they'd assumed she was dead.
"Why did you…" She stopped herself, remembering what she'd told Shippou and Rin. That if she didn't make it, they should go tell Kouga what happened. If Inuyasha was a monster, they had to protect themselves, get word to Sesshomaru if possible. Cringing inside, she wondered how much time had passed for her and Inuyasha in the forest.
It had taken her several days to find him, to get close enough to follow him. After that, her memory seemed to blur. Two weeks? More?
"Shippou came back ten days ago," Hakkaku said helpfully, seeing that Kagome was lost in her own thoughts. "He tried to talk Kouga into searching for you, but we had to keep guard over those other humans, so…"
"What other humans?" she asked, confused.
Hakkaku's expression hardened. "The ones that murdered our brothers," he said, a hint of anger and old pain in his voice. "They moved into the old village like they owned it, Kagome nee-san. Kouga wanted to drive them off only…" His face flushed and he seemed to have trouble putting the words together. "Shippou…that brat…he fought Kouga over it, said we'd have to go through him first!"
Her mouth dropped open, unable to picture Shippou angrily defending Kohaku's villagers. Hakkaku snorted and shook his head. "Like that little scruff could stop the whole pack, but maybe that was the idea. He's always had a stupid kind of stubborn to him, like he won't let it go even if it meant a beating."
Just like Inuyasha, she thought, moved nearly to tears at the idea. Oh Shippou…
"So we left 'em be," Hakkaku said, tossing the still wriggling fish he'd caught onto the bank. "Stupid, huh? After the hollering was done, Kouga said Shippou had to look out for the humans, get them to stay in the village and not be sneaking off to the woods."
Kagome eyed the pile of freshly caught fish on the bank, holding back a smile. She couldn't remember Kouga being all that fond of fish. "So you're gathering food for them."
Hakkaku snorted in disgust, avoiding her eyes. "Can't let them starve to death," he muttered.
She was so proud of Shippou, of Rin too, knowing that the girl must have no small part in the uneasy truce between the wolves and former youkai hunters. It must have been hard won, no one could blame Kouga's people for being angry after what Kohaku's hunters had put them through. Still, most of the hunters were dead, killed by the demon swarm that Kohaku could no longer control. The thought chilled her as she remembered Kohaku's defeated face when Natsu carried him off, the soul-killing misery that Sango's little brother had brought down on himself.
"What about Kohaku?" she asked quietly. Forgiveness was out of the question and he deserved no leniency, not that he would ask for it.
Hakkaku went very still, refusing to look her in the eye as if wanting to spare her any pain. "As soon as he's able, he can leave," the wolf told her. "Kouga won't murder him outright, not that he hasn't earned it. That's the price for letting the rest of them stay."
And she already knew Shiori wouldn't let him leave her behind. At least they'd be able to start over together, maybe find a place that knew nothing of demons and blood-soaked vengeance. If such a place even exists in this feudal era, she thought with bleak realism. Life was hard, brutal sometimes, and Kohaku's path had been steeped in violence from his childhood.
Perhaps there was still something she could do, persuade Kouga and his pack to let Kohaku stay until they were better able to find a new home. Shiori would be having her baby soon and Kagome knew they'd be vulnerable with a newborn. Maybe that was why she felt protective of them both, wondering how she would have coped with that situation since it had nearly been her own. Even Kohaku shouldn't have to sacrifice his family, not when it was all he had to live for.
"We must not be far from the village," she said, thinking out loud and getting a confused look from Hakkaku and his companions. "If there's a way, I need to speak to Kouga…"
I need to tell him about Inuyasha.
"No, not far, just follow this stream to river," the wolf told her, heading up the bank to collect their fish. "You should know this area, Kagome nee-san."
Memories flooded her, the realization that she was actually quite near the old village. She could see herself with Inuyasha, riding on his back for the very first time with a bow in hands that she didn't know how to use. He was yelling for her to shoot at a demon crow carrying the Shikon no Tama. That a human child was also in danger was more Kagome's concern, not that Inuyasha cared at the time.
"I remember," she murmured, thinking of the way the jewel had shattered. Her mistake, she never denied it, but she'd learned to bear that responsibility. Inuyasha had been furious, a danger to her and anyone else that got in his way, but even that angry boy eventually learned to trust, to have compassion for those weaker than him, and to believe in his own good heart.
Inuyasha is no danger to anyone, I have to make them all understand!
"Hakkaku," she said, stepping forward. "There's something I should…" Her foot turned on the loose ground, she lost her balance and pitched toward the stream with a soft cry. Hakkaku immediately reached for her, his hand on her arm when…
There was a terrible sound, a loud and inarticulate roar of fury and Kagome found herself flung backwards into the trees. An angry blur of red clothing and white hair hurled itself between her and the startled wolf demon. He was moving so fast that she couldn't see his face or his eyes, but Kagome felt a sudden surge of darkness that made her tremble.
"Inuyasha!" Her scream came too late as bloody claw marks tore through Hakkaku's chest, a coarse bellow of pain echoing in her ears as he toppled backwards into the water. Hakkaku's companions rushed to his side, trying to protect him from the seething Inuyasha. Kagome stood up, horrified as Inuyasha threatened the wolves with a low growl before dropping into a fighting stance, ready to launch himself at them if they moved so much as a claw in her direction.
"No, stop!" she pleaded, throwing herself at him without care of her own safety. Inuyasha tried to push her away, but she dug into his haori with both fists and hung on for dear life. "You have to stop, Inuyasha, listen to me!"
He drew back, snarling, and she saw a glimmer of red behind the gold of his eyes. Fear made a cold knot in her belly, but she threw her arms around his chest in a purely desperate need to hold him back.
"Let them go," she begged, tears running down her face as her legs gave way.
Lashing out with a last snarl for the stunned wolf youkai, Inuyasha snatched Kagome up and threw her over his shoulder before charging wildly into the trees.
It was quiet in the old village when dusk approached, the sun sinking into the horizon as it burned the sky with orange-red flames that cooled into deep gray evening. The few days they'd been settled here had shown remarkable improvements to the few structures that had survived the years of abandonment. Walls and roofs had been repaired, floors swept clean and hearths rekindled. It was a bittersweet and nostalgic time for Kaede, who remembered best the days when the village had been bustling and prosperous.
Surprisingly, the wolf tribe had lent their assistance to supply materials and food, all the while patrolling from the edge of the forest with a watchfulness that she found unsettling. At Kouga's insistence, the refugees didn't even stray to the forest for firewood, instead delivering bundles of sticks and fallen branches each morning like a grudging guardian.
He just wanted everyone where he could see them, Shippou had explained. Kouga's open distrust did little to ease the hearts of the exhausted humans. He could easily see that they were only women with young children and no husbands, only a few elderly including herself, and a couple boys that were too young to have been counted among Kohaku's demon hunters. Natsu was one of the three able adult men, and the other two were obviously farmers and too afraid of demons to be anything like a challenge.
Kouga feared there were other hunters hiding the forest, waiting for a chance to regroup when Kohaku was healthy enough to lead them. Kaede understood that Shippou and Rin had done everything in their power to pacify the wolf youkai, even to the point that the pack continued to provide for the humans under their watch. She couldn't help but be impressed by Shippou's resourcefulness, the young kitsune had matured astonishingly fast from the sullen brat captured by Natsu only weeks before.
"I think I will not move again now that I am home," the old woman murmured, comforted by the familiar scenery and smells of the village where she'd been born. Her sight was failing, her knees and back were worse. The last ten years had been ones of deprivation, hardship spiked with terror and loss. Still, Kaede had never thought of giving up, not when she was needed so urgently. Once upon a time, she'd looked to Kagome as a possible successor, at least in spirit, to the responsibilities Kaede carried.
Forgive me, Kagome-chan, she thought, using the endearment as a habit of the past. From the moment she'd first seen the girl, running terrified from a centipede demon that should have stayed decently dead, everyone had imposed their own wishes on Kagome.
Priestess-in-training, Kikyou's reincarnation, and the seeker of the sacred jewel shards…it had been most unfair to burden a young child like that. Kaede had lived to regret forcing Kagome and Inuyasha together to recover the shards, but at the time it had felt only right.
So much for an old woman's dreams. When the demons of the jewel torn apart Inuyasha's soul, they'd also shredded Kagome's heart. Kaede was unable to bear watching the bright young girl become a shadow of herself under Inuyasha's madness. So she'd done what she thought was right again, and helped Kagome to escape even if it meant the destruction of her own home.
"And I have come full circle," Kaede said aloud, forcing her old bones to move from her stoop. Tonight she would sleep in her own home, praying into the darkness that not only was Kagome still alive, but that she'd be able to bring Inuyasha back to himself and finally right the terrible wrongs done to them both.
"Kaede-sama!" Hearing her name screamed like that sent a chill down her spine, driving the aches and pains into the numbness of dread. Shippou came to gasping halt, having come a dead run from the wolf youkai encampment across the river. He was deathly pale in spite of his exertion, the freckles on his cheeks stark in the dying twilight.
"You have to come," he said and she was shocked to see tears streaking his face. "One of Kouga's men was badly hurt and he's lost a lot of blood."
She was confused. "One of the wolf youkai?" To her experience, demons healed remarkably fast with little intervention. "Shippou, what is this?"
He shook his head, red hair whipping across his cheeks and his eyes were wide and frightened. He looked more the like fox child from the past rather than the young man he'd become, his fear was that great. "You have to hurry."
She had no choice. "Let me get my things, you'll have to carry me," Kaede told him kindly. "What kind of injury has he taken?"
Shippou dropped to the ground, his fingers dug in to the earth like he was trying to claw away from the awful words he had to speak. "He was attacked by Inuyasha," the kitsune said, his voice heaving as he tried to hold back his grief. "He's still a monster…and he has Kagome…" He forced himself to look up, to meet Kaede's fearful gaze.
"What are we going to do?"
"What am I going to do?" Kagome moaned, holding her head in her hands. Inuyasha had dragged her away from the wolf youkai she'd met at the stream, not slowing down until they were again in the deepest part of the forest. When they did stop, he was reluctant to let her down, huffing and sniffing at her like just being in close proximity to the wolves might have caused some lasting damage.
It frustrated her so much that Kagome had more energy than she'd had in days. "Put me down," she said, yanking on one of his ears until Inuyasha's eyes narrowed in pain. "Damn it, Inuyasha! You don't know what you've done!"
He put her down then, and slunk away to crouch at the base of a tree. His ears drooped and he looked at her so sadly that she felt her heart twist in her chest. Upset as she was, she wasn't angry with him. How could she be, when he'd obviously thought he was protecting her?
Kagome took a deep breath to calm her nerves, she needed all of her wits about her right now. "I've got to figure this out," she muttered. She desperately hoped that Hakkaku was still alive. From her own perspective, she didn't think Inuyasha had been trying to kill him, only to strike and force them to run from him.
At least that's what she told herself. Kagome looked up to see him watching her, his face turned to the side but his eyes on her. His ears perked when she met his gaze, then drooped again when she sighed heavily.
How the hell am I going to explain this to anyone?
She was running on her intuition that he didn't strike to kill Hakkaku. It had chilled her to see the glimmer of red in his eyes, but a raging demon wouldn't have been thwarted by her desperate hold on his haori. No, he would have struck her to the side and finished them off. Instead he'd grabbed her like a dog with his favorite toy and dashed for safety. In the treetops, he had the clear advantage of speed and distance.
But would Kouga listen if she told him that? Would Shippou who had seen Inuyasha at his worst believe her that Inuyasha wasn't dangerous? She eyed him again, still crouching watchfully, but with his arms crossed over his knees and his chin resting on them while he waited for the human to start speaking to him again.
She couldn't stand it. Kagome rose on her knees and awkwardly made her way to him. Her weak ankle still throbbed a bit and she wondered idly if this was the third or fourth time she'd injured it. Inuyasha sat still until she was directly in front of him, on her hands and knees, but they were face to face.
"I'm sorry," she said, hoping he understood her feelings if not her words. "It wasn't your fault, Inuyasha. It was just your instinct to protect me." He leaned his head sideways, looking at her with that sad confusion that just went through her like a spike.
"Don't do this to me," she murmured, reaching out to touch his head. She stroked the same ear that she'd yanked earlier, soothing it between her fingertips in a way that she knew he enjoyed. The tension in his shoulders melted away and he dropped his head, wanting more of her attention. It made her smile in spite of the grim reality of their situation, and Kagome felt her heart practically overflow with love for him.
"You are so precious to me," she told him, leaning close to whisper the words like a lover. "Even if the real you would be appalled to see you acting like this, even if we have to run away and hide now, it doesn't matter. Everything you are is everything I ever needed."
He lifted his head right then, their noses almost touching his eyes met hers with an intensity that shocked them both. His hands reached for hers, gently pulling them from his hair and cupping them between them. Kagome held her breath, waiting to see what he wanted from her, if he gave her the slightest signal, she would definitely…
Inuyasha pulled her close to him, cuddling her into his lap again like he done before only this time it felt different. Holding her close, his fingers wandering over her cheeks, touching her lips like she was a revelation to him. She smiled and kissed his fingertips, relaxing her body as best she could, so that he wouldn't mistake tension for rejection.
"If you kissed me right now, I'd probably start crying," she told him, curling his hair around her fingers. Inuyasha didn't seem to be listening, he was focused intently, his eyes shimmering as darkness started to fall in the forest around them. There was a lump in her throat that hadn't been there a moment ago, Kagome found it hard to breathe as his lips hovered closer to hers.
"Funny thing," she whispered, unable to help herself now. "Even if I told you to kiss me, you wouldn't understand. He hesitated, drawing back enough for her to catch her breath. "And even when I tell you how much love you, you don't…"
He caught her mouth with his, lips soft and open like a child's before suddenly clutching her tight, intense feelings like a tidal wave of pure desire left her limp and helpless under his kiss. His tongue touched hers, he broke the kiss with a soft gasp into her mouth, then continued with full intensity that left Kagome with no strength at all.
All she could do was taste him, revel in the passion he was giving her, a bonding between them that left all questions answered and at last, no doubt at all of their feelings for each other.