Kagome nervously wiped her hands dry on the rough fabric of her pants. She watched the limousine pull up to the front of the shrine, waiting for Sesshoumaru to make his grand entrance into her life once more. She was holding on to ritual and form like protective wards; she knew he would enter the shrine grounds and proceed directly to the Goshinboku for the meeting. There he would wait for her to approach, in order to question her devotion to protecting the Necklace of the Five. It was a time-honored ritual to ensure the worthiness of the Sunset Shrine Maiden to uphold the human side of their treaty. It would also be her duty to test him as well, to ensure that his heart remained pure. No one had ever informed her about the details of the challenges, however; apparently that was something each shrine maiden had to discover for herself.

Her breath caught in her throat as she saw him leave the car; Sesshoumaru, dressed in a traditional kimono, looking for all the world as though he had stepped directly out of the past and into the modern era. She knew better than to believe that, however; this was not Sesshoumaru, Lord of the Western Lands, the arrogant demon who had once helped them defeat Naraku. This was Sesshoumaru, Lord of all Japan, at least for those matters concerning the demon race. He was also Sesshoumaru, protector of humanity, if only by contract. That thought made her laugh; he, who hated humans, had been bestowed that title by the very humans themselves. The years had passed over him without leaving any visible trace in his physical appearance; he still radiated the coldness and distance of pure-bred aristocracy. She knew he was anything but distant, however; this Sesshoumaru was just as involved in the daily workings of modern Japan as any of its other residents. He upheld the sacred alliance as ruthlessly as he conducted his modern businesses, viciously cutting down those who dared to oppose him. It was the primary reason for the success of both ventures, and nothing unexpected for a demon of his age.

Catching herself staring, Kagome reluctantly climbed down the steps. The night was young but already the moon was high in the sky, brightly lighting the courtyard with its silver light. Time to renew the contract, she thought determinedly, releasing the fabric of her uniform from her clenched hands and smoothing it out. I won't be afraid. She saw him facing the old tree, his hands clasped behind his back as he stared up into its branches; he was waiting for her to approach. Kicking herself for the delay, Kagome quickened her pace across the yard. When she was less than a meter away, he turned smoothly and regarded her. Kagome froze uncertainly, all of her former resolve melting away under his intense scrutiny.

Sesshoumaru remained silent, his eyes fixed on her and his expression unreadable. "You!" he finally said, the barest hint of surprise colouring his voice.

Kagome had to resist giggling as she felt a crazy moment of deja vu. "Me," she repeated shyly, closing the remaining distance between them.

Sesshoumaru stared at her for a moment longer, and then unclasped his hands and sighed slightly. "I suppose I should pay more attention to the affairs of humans," he said nonchalantly.

Kagome grinned and shook her head slightly. "According to my mother, you already pay more than enough attention to us." She studied the ground, pushing around a few loose pebbles with her big toe. "… thank you for protecting our family after my father died." She grinned as she heard Sesshoumaru's loud snort.

"It was my duty to protect the jewel fragments, nothing more."

"Hnn!" Kagome answered, looking up with a teasing grin. Her almost-perfect emulation of his grunt earned her a sharp glare from the demon, and for a moment her smile faltered. "It's good to see you again, Lord Sesshoumaru," she told him honestly.

Sesshoumaru tilted his head slightly, the intensity of his glare fading. "It is not necessary to use such formalities with me," he said to her.

Kagome crossed her arms in front of her chest, quirking her lips together to prevent another smile from forming. "Oh, so we're old friends then?" she asked him with a touch of amusement.

"We are allies." Sesshoumaru looked away from her.

Kagome tried to push down some of the disappointment she felt when he wouldn't meet her eyes. This distance… we're strangers now. "I'd rather be friends, you know," she said softly.

Sesshoumaru glanced at her sharply. "You presume too much, priestess," he told her mildly. His glance held an undercurrent of warning, however. Do not act so familiar with this Sesshoumaru.

Kagome narrowed her eyes. "Hey!" she said hotly. "You're the one who told me to stop being so formal in the first place! Besides… I miss everybody." She swallowed, the brief flare of her temper sputtering out all too quickly. "…You included."

Sesshoumaru didn't seem to be paying any attention to her words. Instead, he was looking through her thoughtfully, rather than looking at her. "So you are a reincarnation of the priestess Kikyou?" he asked suddenly. It was another one of his declarative statements; he was clearly expecting an affirmative answer rather than a response.

Once, the question would have angered Kagome. Now, however, it just made her feel old and tired. "We were different people. It took a while for me to understand that." She smiled briefly at the ground. "You and Inuyasha helped me realize who I was." She heard Sesshoumaru grow still and snuck a look at him unwillingly. She didn't like staring at him for too long; it made the dull, fuzzy pulse in her heart ache all the more.

Sesshoumaru seemed to catch on her hesitation and glowered at her until she faced him properly. When he was sure he had her complete attention, he sniffed haughtily. "Your logic fails comprehension, woman. I have never helped you. If memory serves, I have often tried to end your life."

"Memories…" Kagome paused, brushing her fingers lightly over her forehead as she closed her eyes. "Hah, they don't serve either of us very well." She smiled weakly and let her hand fall away. "I'm losing mine, you know? Next time this year we probably won't be able to have this conversation." When she opened her eyes, she was surprised to see the look of displeasure on Sesshoumaru's face. Huh? she thought.

"Why are you losing your memories, priestess Higurashi?" he asked her, looking vaguely upset.

Kagome's smile widened and grew genuine, and the ache in her heart eased slightly. "You don't want me to leave again, huh?" she said softly. Sesshoumaru didn't answer her, and she stepped away from him. "Let's visit the past together," she told him, beckoning him to follow her. "No one ever said anything about the ceremony needing to take place here anyway."

Sesshoumaru looked confused, following her unwillingly across the courtyard and back towards the entrance of the shrine. "You wish to conduct the ceremony elsewhere?" he said with a note of disbelief, easily overtaking her with his lengthy strides. "No one in your clan has ever asked for such a thing before."

"My family puts too much weight on our old traditions," she explained with a brief smile. "This is special, though. We need to go back to a time older than this treaty and older than the Sengoku Jidai." She stopped by the side of the limousine and stared at the little green demon who tumbled out of its front. He scurried to the passenger door and hurriedly flung it open for her. The miniature formal suit and black chauffeur's cap set rakishly on his head made her want to burst out into laughter. She paused and gave Jaken a tiny bow, unable to hide the grin on her face. "Hey, you finally learned some manners, you little toady!" she laughed as she scooted into the car.

"Aw… awk! YOU!" Jaken replied, his eyes bulging even more as he choked. "Lord Sesshoumaru, what is this—"

"Jaken, silence." Sesshoumaru smoothly entered the limousine behind Kagome, not even bothering to use force to reprimand his retainer. Apparently Jaken had also picked up some facet of wisdom in half a century, because he shut the door without any further argument and scuttled his way back towards the front of the car.

Kagome managed to still her giggles as she felt Sesshoumaru's piercing gaze land on her. "Sorry," she mumbled half-apologetically. "It's been a while since I've seen him, too."

"Where do you wish to go?" Sesshoumaru said curtly, leaning back into the leather seat. He glared into the rear-view mirror of the car, meeting Jaken's gaze and stemming any verbal protest before it could begin.

"Take us to the Todoroki Valley," Kagome said firmly. Her command finally did rouse a protest from the smaller demon.

"L-lord Sesshoumaru! She is but a human!" he sputtered, half-turning in his high seat to glare at her. A deadly silence loomed in the car, and Jaken tried again. "That entire area is off-limits at this time of night—"

"Your point, Jaken." Sesshoumaru's chilly censure cut through the air like a sharp knife, and with a quietly muttered apology, the small toad pulled the car smoothly away from the curb. With the flick of a finger, Sesshoumaru separated them from Jaken's scrutiny with a thick panel of dark glass and turned his attention to Kagome. "Why there, priestess?" he asked her.

Kagome rested her chin in her palm and stared at Sesshoumaru irately. "You can call me Miss Higurashi if you like," she told him cheekily. "I don't like using my formal title all the time either." She felt Sesshoumaru's stare and glanced out of the window uneasily, wondering if she had pushed him too far.

"What is your full name?"

Surprise registered in Kagome's mind. "W-what?" she said, blinking and looking at him with confusion.

"Your name, priestess," Sesshoumaru repeated, a look of irritation flitting over his features. "What is your name?"

This is the first time he's asked for my name in any time, Kagome thought dazedly. "K-Kagome. Kagome Higurashi."

Sesshoumaru nodded slightly, giving a small grunt of satisfaction. "Then I shall call you Kagome." And like that, his decision was made, leaving Kagome feeling flustered and yet strangely comforted at the same time.

When they arrived at the valley, Kagome stepped out of the limousine and let out a little gasp. "It's bigger than I remember it," she mumbled incoherently as she sought out the tiny path that would lead to the temple.

"Is that so?" Sesshoumaru asked thoughtfully, falling into step beside her as they made their way down the abandoned walkway. "This forest may be ancient, but the encroachment of the modern city has greatly reduced its size since the feudal era." He eyed her speculatively. "Why then do you find it to be larger?"

Kagome waved a hand impatiently, seeing the bend of the river come into view. "Here it is," she said with relief as she stepped off of the path. "Come on," she said encouragingly, noticing his pause. "Join me here." She plopped down near the bank of the river, staring at the dark water flowing past with a smile. Sesshoumaru settled next to her, and together they basked in the quiet moonlight. It's almost like before, Kagome thought to herself. She felt a pang of regret that she had to break the peace, but she had brought him there for a reason. She wasn't interested in delaying reality for an illusion, no matter how beautiful or comforting it seemed. "Do you believe in time travel?" she finally asked him.

"I have never forgotten the birth of the alliance between our two peoples, but it is only recently that I have begun to understand it." He spared her a patronizing glance. "Why do you ask such foolish questions when you already know their answer?"

Kagome smiled at him. "Things have come full circle now." She picked up a rock and threw it into the dark river. It hit the water with a tiny plunk and made a small splash, swept away all too soon by the current. Just like my wish, she thought. So much has changed, but so little… I made a small impression, but the river of time just flows around it. "We finally broke free of the destiny that always surrounded the Jewel of the Four Souls." She fingered her necklace. "Just like these fragments are permanently broken."

"The destruction of the completed jewel was a great loss of power for this world," Sesshoumaru mused. "Do you not regret wishing for such a thing?"

"Not at all," Kagome answered him immediately. She turned to look at Sesshoumaru, and for a moment she forgot to feel nervous. Instead, she met his gaze confidently and honestly. "It wasn't a mistake," she repeated firmly.

Sesshoumaru leaned back and nodded slightly, looking satisfied. "Then I do not have to kill you," he said easily.

Kagome felt a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. Just like him. "So you were thinking about killing me again, I take it. What'd I do now?" she asked with amusement.

"I was judging your sincerity," Sesshoumaru told her, looking nonplussed by her good humour. "You do not covet the power of the completed jewel. How strange, for a mere human."

"… and a demon," Kagome answered pointedly.

Ignoring her jab, Sesshoumaru continued blithely. "You obviously have the ability to cross the barrier of time. It is my duty to ensure that you will not attempt to do so and change the fate of this world." He gave her a significant look. "This was your own request five hundred years ago."

Kagome smiled sardonically. I already changed the fate of the world, Sesshoumaru… She pushed down the unexpected bitterness that came with the thought and fingered her own necklace sadly. "I'll never go back," she told him quietly. She closed her eyes and thought about her fading memories, wondering how many sacrifices she had actually made for their future. How much did I already forget? she wondered. The weight of the crushing silence was broken by Sesshoumaru with unexpected gentleness, something Kagome wasn't expecting.

"… You may abandon the task of guarding the remaining fragments, if you wish."

She looked up and saw Sesshoumaru staring at the water. "Huh?" she mumbled, confused.

He reached towards his neck and pulled out a chain from underneath his robe. The necklace glowed in the light, five perfectly-sized jewel shards embedded into it winking softly in the light. It was a perfect match to Kagome's own. "I am more than capable of protecting all of the fragments on my own. I am more powerful than any mere human, even one such as yourself. So long as I live, I would ensure peace between our peoples." He lifted his gaze from the dark water and regarded her. "Do you wish me to carry this burden for you?"

Kagome stared at Sesshoumaru. His pure white hair reflected the silvery moonlight, making him look almost saintly. Is he some angel, sent to free me from the jewel once and for all? she wondered. I know he's not after its power; his half of the fragments are still pure, after all. So why is he asking me this now? Is he losing his trust in humanity? Or… does he feel guilty about my father's death? Her hand hovered over her own necklace uncertainly, and a thought struck her. "You asked my mother the same thing once, didn't you?" she said softly. It wasn't a question, and she wasn't surprised when Sesshoumaru nodded slightly in response.

So this isn't anything special for him, Kagome told herself, trying to stem the anger and disappointment she felt. Who knows why he does anything, anyway? Who really knows this Sesshoumaru? Kagome felt a sigh forming; she certainly didn't anymore. I can't believe we were friends once… She looked at her necklace, seeing the five symmetrical stones and feeling her anger congeal. We could be friends again, if I would just jump down that well and go back to the past. I could see Inuyasha and the others again. Maybe I could even meet Sesshoumaru and change everything back somehow… She caught her mind wandering down that dangerous path and stopped herself cold, stiffening. "Stop it," she snapped, her fingers clamping over the necklace painfully. "These jewels are the last things I have that tie us together." She let the chain drop and gave Sesshoumaru a hard look. "I won't lie, I want to give them to you. I've dreamed of this moment for a long time, for the day when I could finally let go of the Jewel of the Four Souls and get on with my own life. But now that you're offering, I…" She dropped her head and looked away. "I can't let go."

Sesshoumaru studied her thoughtfully. "What did you mean," he asked conversationally, "when you said that you did it for me? For the future?"

"Eh?" Kagome looked up and noticed he was staring at her. She blinked slowly, and then exhaled in surprise as she remembered their final conversation in the past. It seemed so long ago to her now; as if it was another lifetime that she had bowed before him, her forehead close to the ground, staring at the tips of his shoes as she changed the course of history. She remembered Michifusa and his brittle, caustic lessons, and she remembered a closer, warmer Sesshoumaru, cloaked by a different evening. All those ripples that he spread through my life, just by telling me a few simple words. I learned that lesson thanks to him. We're separate, now, but… happy. "Sesshoumaru," Kagome said finally, shaking her head slightly. "This precious, fragile thing that we have, this present… I won't risk that for anything. That's all I can tell you. It's enough."

"You will not give me the fragments, then?" he asked.

"I passed your test already. Stop trying," Kagome answered brusquely, averting her gaze to the river.

Sesshoumaru looked away from her. "… Perhaps it was meant as a trial for the keepers who came before you. Obviously one which no shrine maiden of your clan has ever failed." He joined her silent observation of the stream. "However…" He paused, and something in his voice made Kagome look at him. "… this offer was genuine." He sighed slightly, and Kagome suddenly realized that five hundred years had also had their toll on the proud demon; perhaps not as shocking as five hundred years of a human life, but it was a significant weight nevertheless.

He's still lonely, she realized belatedly. Suddenly she didn't feel as wise and sure of herself as she had before.

"It seems I have allowed my own desires to cloud my judgement. How… unusual." His face reflected nothing, schooled into its rigid mask; yet Kagome felt the tension leak out of her body, settling into something more comfortable. "It is proper for you to retain possession of the fragments," he concluded.

"Then why did you ask me for them?" Kagome questioned softly.

Sesshoumaru frowned at his reflection slightly. "I have come to realize that my assumptions of humanity have often been in error," he explained. "Humans are base, disgusting creatures, filled with greed and an insatiable hunger for power."

Kagome smirked slightly, not particularly offended by his analysis. "So are demons," she replied.

"We are not alike," Sesshoumaru cut in crossly. "Demons have more power than any human will ever be able to command. Our natural abilities can overcome the best of your pathetic sciences," he added scornfully. The brief displeasure dropped from his face and was replaced by a weariness that Kagome was surprised he let her witness. "In five hundred years, however, we have always followed humanity's lead. We have reacted to the changes humans have brought to this world, rather than causing those changes ourselves. A demon is stronger than any mere human, and yet we cannot shape our own destiny. We allow the creation of history to be left to those of your race." He paused and turned to face Kagome. "What is this spirit that is found only among your people?" he asked her. "How is it that you humans contain this unnoticed power, the ability to change fate itself, while my people are subject to its whim?"

Kagome caught herself staring. Is… that why? Is that why he really hated Inuyasha so much? she found herself wondering. She realized he was waiting for an answer; this Sesshoumaru had just exposed himself to her, and she knew if she wasn't careful, she could wound him and the fragile peace between the races all too easily. She closed her eyes and thought carefully about her words. "I think… I think it's exactly because we have to struggle, unlike you demons. We can't let ourselves be complacent." She felt the silence drawing out and cautiously regarded Sesshoumaru.

"But you are complacent." He gave her a hard stare. "Do not think you can fool this Sesshoumaru."

Kagome opened and closed her mouth. "Hey, that's out of context!" she cried out. Never mind that you actually did change the course of history, so technically it does apply, her rational mind reminded her. Sesshoumaru didn't seem bothered by her protest, either, and was waiting impatiently for her response. "Fine!" she grit out, crossing her arms defensively over her chest. "… no, I'm not satisfied at all," she answered heatedly. "There, are you happy now? I admit it, I had to settle for losing a lot of things that were important to me for the sake of this world. But it's my duty, and I understand that now!" She paused and took a deep, steadying breath, lowering the pitch and volume of her voice. "One day… maybe I will forget everything," she said bitterly. "Maybe it will be easier for me then, and maybe if you ask me on that day, I'll be able to let go of this stupid necklace. Who knows what the future will be like then?" she added. "But I do know that I have to protect this," she said, gesturing vaguely at their surroundings, "this peace we have, right here, right now." She finished, letting her arms drop into her lap exhaustedly and gave Sesshoumaru an irate glare. "You're a worse temptation to change the past than any jewel fragment, you know that?" she added spitefully.

Sesshoumaru, who had looked mildly surprised at her outburst, schooled his face back into its impassive mask. "I see," he said thoughtfully. "So this is the balance of the Jewel of the Four Souls." His gaze settled on Kagome, who squirmed uncomfortably. "I believe I understand now."

And then, to Kagome's great shock and surprise, he inclined his head towards her. It was a movement ever so slight that it might have gone unnoticed, had she not known him better; more shocking was that he deemed it a motion worthy for one such as himself to make. Sesshoumaru, Lord of Japan and supreme ruler of the demon race, was bowing to her.

"You have my gratitude… Kagome Higurashi."

Kagome felt her face flush, tiny seeds of happiness fluttering dangerously in her stomach and threatening to bloom across her entire body. My memories will fade, and I'll forget that Sesshoumaru, and who I once was. She returned Sesshoumaru's bow just as minutely as an uncertain, cautious smile graced her face. It was genuine, however; she meant it for him, this Sesshoumaru, and not one built from her fading memories. He straightened and returned her smile in his own silent, impassive way, and the seeds burst open and spilled into her heart, their roots mending together the cracks that had formed. "There is only the present," she whispered to him, reaching out and grasping his hand in her own.

Are we going to be friends forever? Asked Piglet.
Even longer, Pooh answered.
- A. A. Milne

- fin -

AN: I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Many thanks to all those people who have left or will leave reviews. Most of all, I want to thank the authors Resmiranda and Noacat for inspiring me to write this piece. Look up their profiles and read their works, if you haven't already, it's definitely worth your time.

October 2007: The new moon error should be completely fixed now. Enjoy!