A/N: A brief chapter, and mostly a bridge to the good stuff. I'd planned more, but I figured you guys have waited long enough. Enjoy.

Chapter Eighteen

Kagome fumed all the way down Takeshita Street; honestly, the nerve of those two idiots! It was quiet, eerily so as they made their way toward the designated address, the buzzing of oversized demon world insects the only thing to break the tension around them.

The group had been decidedly smart enough to leave the cafe before the authorities came. Lord help them if they had gotten there and recognized Inuyasha, though the priestess had half a mind to let them have him. He'd been cruel to her, and he knew it. The sting of his words burned her heart like a brand, and Kagome didn't know if she'd be able to get past them any time soon. The fact that she knew he'd only been lashing out from the stress of the situation of her family and his own handicap did little to soothe the sting of his words.

Honestly, Kagome was tired of that kind of thing. She'd often made excuses for him in the past, to herself as much as anyone. She'd tried to understand what his life had been like, what it meant to be a half demon in Feudal Japan; but frankly, enough was enough. She knew when it really mattered he'd always be there for her, but what Kagome was beginning to understand was that the everyday mattered too. She was tired of serving as his metaphorical punching bag when things didn't go his way. As much as she loved the dog demon - and she could admit that she did, in fact, love him - she needed more than his protection. She needed him to be there for her emotionally, too. Kagome didn't know if he would ever be able to step up, especially now, and it hurt far more than she had believed it possible.

She sighed, the stress of the situation weighing on her like a fog. Kagome didn't need this bullshit now. Her mother and brother were her most important point of focus. They should have been his, too. Why couldn't he have just seen and understood? Why couldn't he have trusted her?

"He's an idiot, you know."

The priestess started with a jump at the old psychic's voice, but did not look her in the eye.

"Yes, I know."

Genkai smirked, clasping her hands behind her back as they walked, only a few blocks from the secluded area that would tell them whether their mission had gone from rescue to recovery. She eyed the dog and the detective from the corner of her vision, noting the way each moped in their own way as they fell into step. The girl had reamed them out sufficiently, but she knew it was far from over. 'Good,' she thought pointedly. Served them right, the morons.

They didn't need distractions like petty jealousy, nor did they need testosterone dictating their moves and decisions. Genkai grunted and flicked a demon bug from her shoulder in disgust, annoyed with the whole mess. Her pupil should know better at this point, thick-headed as he could be at times. He might be a child, but he bore the responsibility of saving the world on his shoulders, and Genkai knew he was damn well aware of it. The ass.

She dropped back subtly to walk beside Yusuke, and the detective sighed audibly.

"Save it, Grandma," he groused. "I don't wanna hear it."

"I don't want a lot of things, slacker," she rebuffed. "I don't want to babysit your candy ass to keep you from fucking this mission up because you can't keep your hands to yourself. But life just doesn't work that way.

"You're treading on thin ice, Yusuke," she added more seriously. "This is bigger than your crush on the girl."

"You don't understand," the detective grumbled irritably.

"I understand enough," she groused. "You're asking for trouble. Best put your hormones aside, boy. Besides, I think Keiko might have her own objections."

Yusuke rounded on her like a flash of light, stung. "Watch it, Grandma," he growled, angry at the truth in her words. His eyes danced like fire, his breath coming in quickly as he flushed in sudden fury and guilt. "You don't know anything about it!"

The old psychic stopped and faced him directly, frankly sizing him up and bringing Yusuke up short. He crossed his arms and stared down his nose at her, determined not to wither beneath her gaze. Genkai quirked a brow, then turned to continue on her way with a disapproving grunt.

"I know that there's a girl out there who loves you whole-heartedly."

Yusuke flinched.

"And she deserves better."

It would be so easy to just let go.

It was a coward's thought, but Shippou couldn't help but think about the peace that would come if he just took in that great breath of water. There would be no more cursed jewel; no more death and mayhem; no more destruction of worlds; no more fighting. It was selfish, he knew, but how easy it would be to just let go ...

He felt the ghouls wrap around his wrists, his legs while his lungs screamed for air. He thrashed beneath the surface, but the thought remained and though he struggled as they tugged on his limbs and pulled him further into the abyss below, Shippou closed his eyes and resigned himself to the deep.

... Only to be violently jerked toward the light above. And he thrashed again, away from the beast that gripped his collar and yanked him up into the clean air. The fox struggled and flailed as he was dragged into the shallows, his back screaming as rock and shell dug angry furrows into his skin through his clothing.

"Stop it, damn it! Do you want to die?"

Shippou went stone still at the gruff, throaty voice. His heart thundered in his chest as he fought to regain control of his breathing and think clearly. It couldn't be ... it wasn't ...

"Kouga?" He breathed, blinking the sting of the river from his eyes, disbelieving.

"What the fuck is wrong with you, kit?" the wolf spirit growled, giving him a rough shake as he did. "I thought I taught you better. I thought I taught you to be better."

The fox flinched, raising his eyes reluctantly to the wolf towering over him, his ethereal form radiating anger and frustration. His blue eyes bored into him, and Shippou felt his throat tighten painfully at the sight of him.

"I ... Kouga ... " He spoke, tripping over his words and feeling small. Shippou closed his eyes, unable to face him, and the wolf snarled, grabbing a fistful of the fox's red mane and hauling him violently to his feet.

"Look at me, kit!" He growled, ignoring the startled hiss from Shippou's mouth as he shook him. "Goddamn it, I said fucking look at me!"

Shippou opened his eyes, though looking the wolf prince in the face might have been the hardest thing he'd ever had to do. He didn't know if he could do it, knowing and seeing all he had in the last few years; Shippou was painfully aware that he'd been guilty of letting Kouga slip into that madness long before he'd had to kill him. He choked on the words even as they left him, and Shippou was ashamed at the inadequacy of it.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."

"Don't you let it be for nothing," the wolf spirit said gruffly, though his grip loosened just slightly. "You die here, like this - it'll all be for nothing. Me? Sakai? The cubs? Kagome? For nothing. They'll have died for nothing."

Kouga dropped him where he stood, letting the fox fall to his knees in the water at the edge of the riverbank. The wolf crouched down to look him once more in the face, voice a mere whisper when he spoke.

"Don't think about me, kit. I did this to me," he said, lucid in a way Shippou had not seen him in many years. "But you? You lived so you can fix this shit, Shippou. Now get your selfish ass up and do it."

Shippou shuddered and hung his head, heart burning with shame.

"What do you mean for nothing, Shippou?"

The fox whipped up and rubbed his eyes, surprised to find the monk poised before him where the wolf spirit had been only moments ago. Hadn't he?


"You said it wouldn't be for nothing," Miroku replied. "What won't be for nothing?"

The fox focused on him for a moment before gripping his arm through the robes and giving a reassuring squeeze. "... Any of this."

The two shared a knowing look before the monk offered a decisive nod and helped him to stand. He gestured over his shoulder with his chin at the ferry girl on the riverbank muttering to herself and wringing her hands absently. "Pulled her from the river screaming not far from here. No sign of Kuwabara."

"Well, I guess we'd better start looking."

Kurama held no ill will toward the ice apparition, despite the fact that their relationship began with the demon making an attempt on his life. Truthfully, the two got along rather well, having a shared intellect that few could meet. One might almost think they were friends.

But if Touya didn't stop watching him from the corner of his eye at every turn, Kurama was going to lose his patience sooner rather than later. He knew the demon was just being cautious; understood plainly that had their roles been reversed it would be he who was watching for any sign that something was amiss.

Still, that didn't stop it from working Kurama's nerves.

"I'm fine, you know," the fox said quietly as he worked to bandage the neko to the best of his ability.

It had taken a bit to collect themselves after Kenshiki's assault, and by the time they'd discovered the fire cat bleeding and broken in the brush, it had been nearly too late. True, Kirara had entered a healing sleep, but Kurama knew enough of wounds to know that this one was serious. She wouldn't recover on her own, he realized; Sango would be devastated if he'd let her die.

That the demon slayer and Hiei were nowhere to be found while Kirara lay bleeding only added to his frustration and worry.

"Are you?" the ice apparition questioned, shifting on his feet behind him. He threw a glance over his shoulder at Jin, who was flitting back and forth nervously at the gaping chasm in the earth where their missing compatriots last stood, and narrowed his eyes in speculation. The wind apparition was about to come out of his skin, he was so on edge. While it had been only a few hours, Touya could see something was amiss. Jin, typically so care free, was anxious to the point of maniacal; he paced and fretted, eyes darting wildly and unable to sit still.

It set Touya's teeth on edge. Something wasn't entirely right. The ice master couldn't help but wonder if Kurama, in his unrelenting cool, was ghosting over a lingering dark.

"You needn't worry yourself," Kurama replied quietly, lifting the tiny kitten into his arms as he stood. "Not yet, anyway."

Touya quirked a brow, and the fox sighed tiredly.

"I don't pretend to know what it is, but I know it was a planned and deliberate attack," the fox conceded. "It has a purpose designed for deceit and destruction, I'm certain. The best we can do is remain vigilant for the time when the seeds of that purpose emerge and be ready to address it accordingly."

Jin cursed as he peered down into the black of the chasm left behind in the disappearance of their comrades and found nothing, and Kurama eyed him from the corner of his peripheral vision.

"... He'll be first, you know," he said quietly, noting the way Touya tensed at the observation. "Can you do whatever is needed to manage the situation?"

The ice master didn't miss the implication, nor did he appreciate it. His mouth drew into a firm line as he set the kitsune in a chilly stare.

"It isn't me you need worry about," he snipped, turning to meet Jin at the rift in the earth. The two spoke softly a moment, and Kurama couldn't help but note the way Jin eyed him peripherally before he sniffed and appeared to shrug it off.

The fox sighed quietly and stroked the neko's fur.

"We should go," he commented, gesturing with his chin toward the tree line. They can't be far. There should be an entrance to the caverns to the east. We can be there before dawn.

"Well why didn't ya say so, lad?" Jin perked up before taking off at a dead run, leaving the others in a cloud of dust.

Kurama shared a long, cold look with the ice master.

"Watch yourself, Kurama," Touya intoned as he turned to follow his Shinobi brother. "You may be in more trouble than you think."

She was warm, that much she knew, though the fog that settled over her mind in sleep had yet to lift entirely and remind of her of just why.

Sango stirred, blinking the dirt and grit from her eyes as she shifted from one side to the other sleepily. She hissed in pain as the ribs she was fairly certain she'd cracked in her fall to the earth below screamed in protest.

"Damn it," she cursed, wincing as she clutched her side. "Once, just once I'd like to avoid breaking bones."

"Stop complaining," Hiei groused from beside her. "It's beneath you."

The huntress jumped, startled at the sound of his voice and she winced again but said nothing. He was so much closer than she realized. Sango blinked, surprised to find him lying next to her on the dirt floor, mere inches away.

She flushed, awkward in the face of his proximity but somehow unwilling to move and draw attention to it herself. She swallowed hard, feeling strange in her own skin as she met his gaze. Her breath hitched at the look in his eyes, like smoldering coals of fire.

"I ... um ..." she tripped over her own words, uncertain of just what she'd wanted to say. "Thank you. For keeping me warm."

His gaze sharpened, though the demon said nothing as he watched her. Sango felt her heart begin to race of its own accord and her mouth went dry as they sat trapped in the amber of the moment, neither willing to look away.

She shifted slightly at the discomfort of it, unconsciously brushing her hand with his own and drawing closer. "Hiei," she whispered, spellbound.

The fire demon stiffened at the touch and then jerked back as though stung.

"I didn't do it for you," he snapped, irritated as he sat up and turned away. "You're no good to us sickly and ragged. ... Not that you're much good anyway."

Sango drew her brow, hurt though she knew she shouldn't have expected anything else from him, no matter what she'd shared with him the previous evening. The demon slayer sat up slowly, brushing herself off and patently refusing to let the sting of his rejection show.

"Yes, well I suppose you're stuck with me for now," she snipped, easing up off the floor. "I guess you'd better just get used to it."

He was on his feet in and at the mouth of the cavern before she could blink, not caring whether she followed. "Hn."

She drew her mouth into a firm line and scowled, as she stomped after him. The self-important ass. Whatever. The faster they got moving, the faster she got back to Kirara and on the path to finding her brother again. To hell with him anyway.

Hiei never even looked back.