Stillness enveloped the countryside as the group of six settled in for the night. The remnants of a campfire still glowed red with dying embers, leftover food scattered about it. Not even the barest hint of a breeze stirred the treetops as five of the ragtag band of demon-hunters lay in slumber. The sixth sat wide awake, sleep eluding him for the third night in a row. Not that it bothered him all that much. He didn't need to sleep quite as much as the rest of them, being half-demon himself. That was the least of his problems at the moment.
His golden eyes, reflecting the weak light of the almost burnt out fire settled on first one companion, and then another. Sango was the closest to him, Kirara just beside her, then Miroku, Shippo, and Kagome.
How can they just fall asleep like that, Inuyasha wondered, a brief flicker of envy at his human friends' ability to slip into untroubled unconsciousness. Even Shippo and Kirara, full blooded demons, had no problems reaching dreamland.
Why am I so awake? I don't sense anything wrong. The past three days have been pretty boring, actually. I'm surprised we haven't run into a demon yet. Hmmph...
He shook his head, unable to fathom his strange alertness and shrugged it off. What did it matter? Someone had to stay up and guard the camp. It at least gave the others a break. Especially Kagome, who had been stressing over an upcoming math test back in her time. Inuyasha hadn't the faintest idea of what geometry was, or the formula for the Pythagorean theorem, but judging by Kagome's jittery nerves, it wasn't something to look forward to.
What is it that they do in her time anyway, the hanyo thought. He drummed his fingers against the ground, almost wishing for something to attack him to alleviate his boredom. But that's how it was when you traveled. Looking for Shikon shards was a task beset with quick moments of action interspersed with days or weeks of mind numbing tedium. They knew where the remaining shards were, but it was tracking them down that was the hardest part. Naraku and his incarnations were extremely talented at making themselves scarce when they needed to.
Man, I can't wait until this whole mess is over with! That stupid jewel's caused way more trouble than it's worth.
Inuyasha paused momentarily in his musings to glance over at Kagome.
And then what? Once Naraku is gone, what's going to happen to her? She'll want to stay here. I know it. But should she? And...do I want her to?
Once again the hanyo was beset by the ever present dilemma of being strung out like a marionette puppet between the two girls he cared the most about. Kagome was losing patience with him, even though she hid her frustration behind her usual cheeriness. He knew the sooner he decided between her and Kikyo the happier it would leave all of them.
Kikyo, on the other hand, seemed content to wait him out. At first it was the cool certainty that she knew he would never leave her, but now it appeared as though she felt that he was distancing himself from her, which was not entirely untrue. It still was too painful, the emotions too raw and overwhelming, when the priestess was near. He wished he could simply put her out of his mind and move on, but he could not. The memory of the miko haunted him at every waking hour and consumed his every dream. His blossoming and undeniable love for Kagome was ever tempered with his equally undeniable desire for Kikyo. How could he choose one without hurting the other?
Kikyo...The name was torture. Pain and pleasure mixed into one sublime ache for her voice, her scent, her touch.
Inuyasha growled under the vexation of his own making. Damn it all, this horrible yearning he still had! When would it cease? When would he find peace?
His questions went unanswered, for a breeze began to stir the treetops in a soft, swishing dance and ruffled the silver locks of his hair. Blinking in mild confusion, Inuyasha forgot his internal war and glanced around for the cause. It could just be a shift in the wind, but his instincts and experiences told him that more often than not preternatural forces could take the forms of even the most innocuous parts of nature. And sure enough, no sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he spied two small glowing silhouettes floating towards him. His hand immediately went for his sword hilt, ready to draw at the first sign of trouble.
The forms approached steadily until they were about five feet away, just beyond Sango's still body. Their presence seemed, however, not to alert her, nor anyone else. Drifting towards the ground, they shapeshifted into two little girls wearing colorful children's kimonos. Inuyasha immediately recognized them, and he withdrew his hand from his weapon. They were Kikyo's shikigami, spirit servants made out of paper and spelled to take whatever shape the maker wished. The fact that the priestess had chosen the innocent faces of children struck a nerve within Inuyasha's soul. When she was alive, Kikyo had always loved children and had always been loved by children. He always imagined that these shikigami were an unconscious manifestation of her desire to one day have children of her own, a wish that would never be granted.
"Lady Kikyo wishes to speak with you,"the girls said in unison, their voices soft and lacking any inflection. "She is waiting."
Inuyasha was on his feet in an instant, struggling to quell the surging, unbidden excitement in his chest. She was here! Now he could, perhaps, finally tell her what he'd been wanting to tell her for so long. Maybe they could make a decision about their relationship, sort through all the mess and begin to heal.
Lightly stepping over the bodies of his friends, Inuyasha followed the spirits into the woods. They were silent, but that was expected, and he was too wrapped up in his thoughts to bother with small talk anyway. His conversational style had always mimicked that of his fighting style: short, blunt, and to the point. Why waste time beating around the proverbial bush when you could just cut right through it?
Speaking of cutting...
Inuyasha glanced once over his shoulder, a shot of cold fear dampening his otherwise rising spirits. If Kagome should wake up and follow him, he knew he'd have hell to pay in the form of three dozen "sit" commands. Any time she suspected him of running off to find Kikyo, she became jealous and weirdly possessive of him. It one respect, it was almost flattering, and in another, quite scary. But knowing that he was going to see the priestess made it all the more worthwhile. While he did care for Kagome, he honestly didn't care for her sometimes childish temper tantrums.
They stopped short of a small glade amidst the trees. The shikigami did not move any further, nor turn around and acknowledge his presence. He took this as an indication that they had completed their errand and that he should now enter the clearing. Blinking, he skirted around them and edged towards the last of the cypresses to peer ahead.
Dancing globes of light hovered around a reclining figure at the base of the tree opposite him. Their soft light reflected gently off of a white hakui and ivory skin, making the young woman seem almost to glow of her own accord. Raven tresses spread out behind her head in a starkly contrasted halo. Her eyes were shut, her face serene, yet he knew that she was not sleeping, for sleep was something she no longer required. Her Shindamaachu circled lazily overhead near the tree's lower branches. It was an ephemeral, dreamlike scene and it would be romantic if not for the fact that the lights were not fireflies, but souls and the long, sinuous insects were actually demons used to collect those souls.
Inuyasha treaded softly towards her, not wishing to simply bound over to her like an alley dog desperate for human affection. He didn't want to shatter this peaceful stillness, didn't want to dash her fragile beauty any more than it already had been. He didn't want the spell to be broken so soon. Just being able to look upon her brought him untold happiness. Just for this one moment, he could forget the present.
He knelt down next to her, his eyes drinking in her features. He stretched out slowly, his fingers nearly trembling and lightly stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. She stirred, her eyes fluttering open to gaze back at him.
"Inuyasha?"she said softly, her voice tinged with the disbelief that he had actually responded to her summons.
He nodded and sat back on his heels, taking his hand away from her.
She pushed herself up into a sitting position, still letting her back lean on the tree trunk. She exhaled deeply, looking as though she was deciding on what she should say next, her head turned so he could only see her profile.
"What is it, Kikyo?"he asked, a puzzled expression crossing over his face. It wasn't like her to seem distraught. Normally, during their past encounters, it had been she who initiated their conversations.
"We have so much to talk about, Inuyasha,"the priestess said, her words carefully spoken as she turned to face him. Her brown eyes were wide and meaningful and he knew then that whatever it was she had to say was something urgent and grave. Maybe she'd finally located Naraku...
"Where is Kagome?"
The suddenness of the question threw him off balance, quite literally. He landed smack on his backside in shock, eyeing her as if she had just gone crazy. Kikyo was asking after Kagome? Since when was she so concerned about her reincarnation?
"She's–she's asleep back at the camp,"Inuyasha stammered, scratching his head uncomfortably, now genuinely confounded. He crossed his legs into a more normal position, leaning in slightly to see what he thought was a small, bitter smile flash across Kikyo's lips before she resumed her serious demeanor.
"Good. It's best if she were to not follow you and hear us. This concerns her."
"Because everything's changed now,"she said enigmatically, now resting the back of her head on the bark and glancing up at the dark sky. "Everything."
"What do mean?"Inuyasha demanded rather impatiently. "You're not making any sense, Kikyo."
"Just let me speak,"she said, rasing a small hand. "I'll explain everything to you."
Inuyasha huffed and settled back, but held his attention nonetheless. Kikyo looked at him for a moment before again turning her gaze skyward, as if the stars were more interesting to speak to.
"I passed through Ise not long ago,"she began. "You know of the Grand Shrines?"
Inuyasha nodded. The Grand Shrines of Ise were located on the most sacred spot in all of Japan in honor of her principal goddess, Amaterasu. Humans massed there for yearly pilgrimages and festivals, the nature of all of which eluded him. Having lived his life entirely outside the world of mortals, the hanyo had little inkling for religious matters. It seemed to him that whatever gods may be out there had abandoned him long ago. Even they had no place for a hybrid.
"I was in need of guidance,"Kikyo continued. "I had hoped that Amaterasu-sama would hear me and give me any clue as to how to destroy Naraku. There is a legend that tells of Amaterasu-sama's Mirror. If you look in the mirror, and she finds you worthy of her, she will give you the answers you seek. So I went. It took me many days before she heard me, but when she did...she...she showed me something that I had never asked for. She knew somehow that my greatest worries were not of Naraku at all, but of Kagome."
"What about her?"Inuyasha asked softly, peering intently at the priestess, any trace of his former impatience wiped clean. Was Kagome in some sort of trouble that he didn't know about? Was she going to die?
Kikyo paused to take a breath, closing her eyes.
"I know that everyone says that she is my reincarnation,"she said. "I know that the reason you care about her is because she's becoming more like the way I used to be."
"What? That's not true!"Inuyasha retorted, unable to stop the warm flush that spread into his cheeks.
"Isn't it? Don't deny it, Inuyasha. She may look like me. She may have something of me in her, but hear me when I say that she is not my reincarnation."
"But the Shikon Jewel was in her body when she was born!"he protested, by this point looking positively apoplectic. What the hell was Kikyo talking about? That must have been some screwed up mirror, or her goddess was crazy. Any idiot could look at Kagome and know...
Inuyasha swallowed in a sudden stab of uncertainty. Kikyo wouldn't lie about something so serious. That wasn't the kind of person she was.
"So if Kagome isn't your reincarnation...then what exactly is she?"he demanded warily. He didn't know if he wanted to hear the answer.
Kikyo opened her eyes and faced him, her gaze boring uncomfortable into his. No trace of amusement or mischief lurked in that penetrating stare, or in the hard set of her mouth. She wasn't joking.
"It isn't what she is,"the miko said softly, but with a firmness that made Inuyasha's heart sink into his stomach. "It's who she is."
"Who is she?"
Her next words, so seemingly simple, so brief, shattered his vision of what he thought was his reality, only to tangle it into a knot bigger and decidedly messier than any Clotho had ever spun.
Slamming into the brick wall that was his vocabulary, Inuyasha could only sit there and gape at Kikyo like a fish out of water, desperately attempting to form a sentence.
How could this be possible? How could he and Kikyo have children when he was half-demon and most likely unable to breed, and she was dead and barren? How? That would mean that Kagome would have demon blood in her, even though by her time it would be only a trace amount. It didn't make any sense at all. And if she was truly his descendent, then his feelings for her would no doubt have to be extinguished as quickly as a candle flame. But on the other hand, that implied that he would finally be with Kikyo, which secretly pleased him underneath all the layers of shock.
So there was an answer to this after all...
When the power of speech finally returned to him, Inuyasha stared sharply back at Kikyo, disbelief written on his features.
"That can't be possible. You're dead."
Kikyo slowly shook her head admonishingly at him.
"I haven't told you all of my vision yet,"she said. "Believe me, I was as overcome as you are. When Amaterasu showed me myself, I was alive. And you were human. She said that this was a possible future, but only if Kagome were to return to her proper time after Naraku was killed. She was only able to use the well to put a final end to the Shard. That's why it was inside of her. To mark her as my–our–descendent."
He drew closer to her, expression softening, hearing the truth in her voice. It certainly explained quite a bit about Kagome's stubbornness, her resemblance to Kikyo, her peculiar scent, which had the essence of the miko, but was mixed with something undefinable. Was it his human scent? There were so many questions, so many new problems that he didn't feel like facing, didn't want to deal with.
"And what is the other future?"he asked.
"I will die," Kikyo whispered, her large eyes shimmering with tears. "And I will not come back. And then there will be no Higurashi family to guard my shrine. Time will be altered and Kagome will cease to exist."
Her words struck him like a drawerful of knives. What was he going to do now? His choice, which he had so long put off, was becoming increasingly urgent, no matter what his desires. On the one hand, he would be with Kikyo, provided he found some way in which to resurrect her, but in order to do that, he needed all of Kagome's soul. So the girl would have to go back, whether she wanted to or not, if she wanted to live. And on the other hand, if Kagome stayed in the Muromachi Period, she would unknowingly bring about an end to her family.
The gravity of it began to settle on him, and he slumped against the tree trunk, his eyes dim and unfocused.
"Why does this have to be so hard?"he muttered. "I never wanted any of this to happen."
Kikyo reached out then to softly stroke the side of his face, her features inexpressibly sorrowful.
"It is a hard choice,"she agreed, her voice barely above a murmur."But we cannot control the things that life will throw in our path. When you do choose, make it wisely."
Inuyasha's eyes cleared and he concentrated on her, on her smooth, white skin, her glossy black hair, her soulful eyes. Even in death she was beautiful, unconquered. She was the woman who had stolen his heart, and yet not her at the same time. The dancing lights on the edges of his vision only served to enhance that.
But I know what I want, he thought. I know what I really want. I meant what I said to her that night. I don't care if she has to steal souls. I don't care if she's hollow. She's still Kikyo and I still love her. And now, if there's a chance that she can live again, that we can be together, I'm gonna take it.
He suddenly threw his arms around her in a fierce yet tender embrace, catching her off guard and buried his face against her slender neck.
"Inuyasha,"she gasped. "What–?"
"I've made my choice already,"he said, the vehemence in his voice further surprising her. "I'm not going to lose you again. I want us to have that future. I want you to live. I want Kagome to live. I want to be with you every day for the rest of my life."
"Do you...do you really mean that?"she asked, her voice quivering with fifty years of pain, regret and sadness.
"Every damn word."
She pulled away from him suddenly to stare up at him, curiosity tinged with suspicion.
"You cannot know what you are saying,"she whispered.
"But I do know what I'm saying!"he insisted vehemently. "I want to make good on that promise, our promise."
"That was a lifetime ago,"Kikyo said wistfully, her head dropping onto his chest. "I don't know if it can ever be again, even if it was shown to me."
"But it's worth a try, isn't it?"he asked, his hands reaching to clasp her shoulders as he rested his head on top of hers. She was so cold. He suddenly felt a desperate, instinctive need to warm her, among other needs that her closeness aroused. "If it can happen, it's worth a try."
A silence fell on them, and Inuyasha assumed it to mean that Kikyo was considering his words. Slowly then, he felt her nod and return his embrace.
"Yes,"she cried. "There's not a day that goes by that I wouldn't give to be the way I used to be, what I wouldn't give to feel the warmth of life again."
"I'll do whatever it takes," he vowed, once more wrapping his arms protectively about her. She lay still, listening to his heart beating furiously in his chest, all the while conscious of the silence within her own body.
"Then we'll have to hurry all the more,"she said.
"My time is slipping, Inuyasha. The wound on my shoulder is growing from the miasma. Kagome purified it, but even that wasn't enough to close it."
"Don't worry, Kikyo," he said, trying valiantly to sound confident that he would save her, that this time he would make up for his past failures at protecting her, but she could hear the tears in his voice nonetheless. "You're gonna be all right. I won't–I won't let you die. I promise you that. Right here. Right now."
The mixture of conviction and heartbreak tore at what little soul remained within her. She remember similar vows of passion and protection, all of which had seemed irrevocably lost. But here he was, in her arms again, making those same promises in spite of all the tragedy they had endured. Her most fervent desire was coming true. He was choosing her, claiming her.
Without knowing entirely why, Kikyo broke down. Whether it was from happiness or the sheer insanity of everything she'd had to go through to come to this point, she couldn't say. Her tears spilled into his robes and her body trembled with wracking sobs. Inuyasha held her the entire time, whispering soothing nothings into her ear while his hands gently kneaded her back. Then carefully, as though he were holding a porcelain doll, he lay her against the tree trunk, his fingers wiping the moisture off of her cheeks.
"Don't cry,"he whispered. "I'm here."
She started to calm down, taking in several deep breaths and drying her eyes with the sleeve of her hakui.
"Thank you,"she replied. "For staying. For hearing what I had to say."
"I'll stay with you all night, if you want,"he offered, settling down beside her.
"No, you shouldn't,"she shook her head. "The others would wonder."
"They're asleep. I'll go back before dawn. Just let me stay, please."
She smiled at him, brief yet sweet.
He returned her smile, leaning in and brushing her lips with a soft kiss, which she was more that eager to receive, gradually deepening it and running her fingers through his hair. No more boundaries stood between them and she allowed herself to let go of all reserve and tradition. She wasn't a miko. She had no responsibilities tonight, no journey to take. She was simply a woman, albeit a technically dead one, letting herself be loved by her Inuyasha. She forgot even that. The only thing that mattered was him.
Inuyasha, she thought. My dear, beloved Inuyasha. I've waited too long for this.
They parted and Kikyo locked eyes with his, utterly losing herself within those intense golden orbs. For this one night, at least, she wouldn't be alone.
No, she corrected herself. I'm not alone anymore. With him, I'll never be alone again.