Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in this oft-pestered-for installment... especially for the one who can't have it all. A nod of recognition is bent toward Rumiko Takahashi for her creative prowess.
Naraku's final revenge: to die messily. Sesshoumaru resisted a full-body shudder, settling for a slow roll of his shoulders. With shaky hands, Kagome brushed at the hunks of decaying flesh that still clung to his armor before finding purchase on one protruding spike. She stared up at him with wide eyes, and he looked down his nose at her.
"You're alive," she whispered.
"This surprises you?"
"You're a mess. I didn't think that was possible."
"It was necessary."
"A noble sacrifice," Kagome said solemnly.
She was laughing at him, yet he allowed her to live. His jaw clenched as he inspected the gash beneath her collarbone, then lightly touched the thin cuts Naraku had etched into her fragile skin. "You are wounded."
At a shout from behind them, they turned and watched as a few badly-injured wolves were pulled free of the ebbing mire. After all the losses this battle cost, small mercies were welcome. Even when they were granted to the likes of Kouga.
The pack leader stalked over, cradling a bloody mess who still had enough fire in his eyes to be demanding. "Hurry it up," Inuyasha groused.
"I'd like to see you move faster, Mutt-Face."
The wolf-youkai dipped his head. "Sorry if this guy leaks on your boots, but he needs a whiff or two to reassure him." His blue eyes skimmed Kagome's features before he addressed Inuyasha again. "See? He caught up to her, just like I said."
Sesshoumaru frowned. His brother was barely conscious, and he seemed to be relying heavily on his sense of smell to make sense of the world.
She reached across, fingers brushing his shoulder. "Inuyasha."
He caught her hand in his. "You did good," he said fiercely. Sniffing as he scanned her for injuries, he asked, "Does it hurt?"
"Some. But you need doctoring more than I do. Let Kouga-kun bring you to Miroku-sama."
"Leave it to me!" the wolf exclaimed, wheeling to jog off toward the nearby rise.
Sesshoumaru glanced around. Naraku's remains were little more than a black smear, and he ground his heels as he strode to where Bakusaiga lay. Balancing his burden with extreme care, he reclaimed his sword before following the others uphill.
Sesshoumaru walked slowly, scrutinizing their surroundings with care. Unsavory youkai lurked nearby. Gathering forces. With Naraku gone and the Jewel whole, they would come. And keep coming.
When he reached the hilltop, the monk's barrier was gone, but Jaken still stood at attention.
Hakkaku knelt before Sango, her younger brother in his arms and a look of quiet devastation on his face. Miroku stepped to the taijiya's side, and she allowed him to draw her into an embrace. At the sound of her choked sobs, many of the injured wolves lifted their muzzles to express their grief for the freckle-faced boy who'd saved their lives.
Sesshoumaru saw the danger, and his voice cut across the noise. "Where is the Shikon no Tama?"
The monk leaned close and whispered something to the taijiya, who blinked at him through her tears. She looked down at her begrimed hand, which was clenched tightly enough to make her knuckles white. If possible, the woman paled further, for when she opened her hand, the shimmering sphere swirled darkly against her palm.
"It's here," she whispered. "I'd forgotten."
"Give it to the miko," Sesshoumaru ordered.
To her credit, Sango didn't hesitate to surrender her prize. She hurried to Kagome, and the completed Jewel rolled off her fingertips, into the younger woman's cupped palms. All traces of taint vanished in a twinkling.
Nodding, Sesshoumaru said, "Well done."
Tears still streaming down her blood-streaked face, Sango returned to her brother's side to mourn.
A pulse of youki thrummed through the blade at the taiyoukai's hip, and Kagome's startled gaze flew to his. "Was that...?" she whispered.
"Hnn," he replied, catching the monk's eye. "Take her."
Miroku's smile showed some strain, but both his hands were bare. The cursed void was gone, and he greeted the miko warmly. "Welcome back, Kagome-sama. I see you rescued our taiyoukai from certain doom."
"Me? No," she protested, glancing back at Sesshoumaru. "I didn't do much."
"You did your part," the monk corrected. "And with your consent, I'll do mine. Shippo, bring the first aid kit over here, please."
Once Sesshoumaru was certain the miko was in good hands, he sheathed Bakusaiga in order to heed Tenseiga's call.
"The Blade of Heaven," Jaken proclaimed in reverent tones. "It has the power to give life."
Hope glimmered in Sango's reddened eyes, and Hakkaku eased her away from her brother, making room for the taiyoukai to draw his father's fang. Members of Kouga's pack watched with varying degrees of curiosity and skepticism as Sesshoumaru narrowed his eyes, waiting for the blade to reveal the impish creatures who would come to claim Kohaku's soul.
There! Once... twice... Sesshoumaru slashed through the air over Kohaku's inert form. Smoothly sheathing the sword, he stepped back, watching the teen's pale face. The fallen taijiya's lips parted, and his chest rose.
"Kohaku?" Sango whispered.
At the sound of his sister's voice, Kohaku's brows drew together, and he turned his head. With a sudden sneeze, he opened his eyes. Sango threw herself onto her brother, gathering him into her arms and crying unabashedly. The boy's ears turned pink with embarrassment, but he didn't fend off his sister.
Miroku joined the reunion, kneeling down and placing his hand on Sango's shoulder. Meeting Sesshoumaru's unblinking gaze, he bowed low, and the taiyoukai accepted his thanks with a solemn nod.
Then he turned to check on Inuyasha, who was fending off Ginta in an effort to get to his feet. The hanyou knelt beside Kirara, leaning heavily on his sheathed sword in order to stay upright.
With a soft huff, Sesshoumaru said, "Lie down, or I will put you down."
Inuyasha scowled. "Look up, bastard."
So she lives. Sesshoumaru grimly traded swords. "I do not think she is here for us."
A white feather drifted to the ground a short distance away, and by the time Kagura's bare foot touched the barren ground, a growl vibrated in the throat of every wolf.
Kouga barked an order, then raised his voice. "Did you come to die, wind witch?"
Kagura's red eyes locked for a long moment with Sesshoumaru's. "I'm here to fight. But only for my life."
"Your life is forfeit," the pack leader growled. "You slaughtered my packmates."
Jaken glanced back and forth in obvious confusion. "What is this about, milord?"
Kagome explained, "Naraku laid a trap, making it look like Inuyasha killed Kouga-kun's wolves."
"More than half of my comrades died that day," Kouga confirmed. "And she's the one who slaughtered them."
"It was terrible," Kagome whispered. "Blood everywhere."
Inuyasha scowled. "Yeah, and the idiot jumped to conclusions."
Kouga glared at him. "You were drenched in wolf's blood."
"Yeah? Well, you're covered in mine," the hanyou challenged. "Doesn't mean you killed me."
Kagura rolled her eyes. "I was in the same position then as I am now. Give me what's mine!"
Baring his teeth, Kouga lifted the cloth pouch he'd been carrying since his earlier capture by Naraku. "You mean this?" he asked, tightening his fingers around the soft bundle.
The wind witch immediately doubled over, clutching at her chest. "Give me back my heart!" she cried, her voice sharp with desperation.
Sesshoumaru stepped forward. "Are her actions worthy of death?"
"Damn straight they are!" Kouga snapped.
"Your revenge is justified?" he inquired silkily.
The pack leader's eyes narrowed. "Yeah. So?"
With a pointed look in Rin's direction, Sesshoumaru asked, "Is mine?"
Kouga balled his free hand into a fist. "What're you getting at?"
"Where did you acquire that?" he asked, pointing to the bundle containing Kagura's heart.
"Naraku." Glancing at the sullen demoness, he admitted, "He told me to take my revenge."
"And you mean to carry out your enemy's plan?"
The wolf's blue eyes sharpened. "I'll do what I think's best for my pack."
"That is your right," Sesshoumaru acknowledged.
With deliberate motions, Kouga tied the pouch to his belt, right beside his sword. To Kagura, he snarled, "Your life is mine."
"Sounds familiar," muttered Inuyasha, trading a long look with his half-brother.
Kagura's eyes flashed. "I won't bow to you, wolf! End this!"
Kouga glanced at Rin, then gazed skyward, shoulders squared. "Not just yet," he said stubbornly. "Git. Come back another day, when I'm not so busy."
The demoness's fury was tempered by confusion, but she mounted her feather and soared away. Once she was well out of earshot, Inuyasha asked, "Whatcha gonna do about her?"
"Not sure," Kouga admitted.
"I'm glad you're giving her a chance," Kagome said. The freshly-bandaged miko sat quietly between Ginta and Hakkaku, with Shippo on her lap.
The pack leader grimaced. "Not sure about that either."
"Be wary," Sesshoumaru advised. "Her loyalty is as changeable as the winds she rides."
Before anything more could be said, Hakkaku's voice cut in. "Sister? Sister, are you in pain?"
Kagome slumped against him, her lashes fluttering weakly against pallid cheeks. Everyone rushed to her, all talking at once.
"Did you stop the bleeding?"
"Bring her water!"
"Was she poisoned?"
"Quiet!" roared Inuyasha, who crawled to the young woman's side and took her face in his hands. Patting gently, he called, "Kagome? Hey, Kagome. Pull yourself together."
Sango felt the miko's forehead. "She's lost a lot of blood. She needs rest."
Inuyasha shook his head. "Not good enough."
Miroku slowly peeled back the bandage he'd applied earlier. The wound still bled sluggishly.
Kagome winced and stirred. She asked, "What happened?"
"You dozed off, Kagome-sama," Miroku replied amiably. "If we were not so far from home, I would prescribe Kaede-sama's soup."
"Home?" The miko stifled a groan as the monk tightened her bandages. Clasping the Jewel to her chest, she murmured, "Yes, I... I need to go home."
Sango exchanged glances with her brother. "Kirara's hurt. She won't be able to carry anyone for a while yet."
Kagome reached a hand out to Kohaku, giving his a squeeze. Shaking her head, she assured, "Of course. I wouldn't ask her to try."
Inuyasha's ears flattened. "There are good doctors in Kagome's time. Better medicines. I'll take you. Just give me a few minutes, and I'll be good as new."
Kouga snorted. "Nice try, Mutt-Face, but even without the shards, I'm faster. I can take her wherever she wants to go. "
"No. The responsibility is mine." Sesshoumaru beckoned to Jaken. Handing his swords to his vassal, he began the tedious process of removing his armor.
Kagome smiled wanly. "Thank you, Sesshoumaru-sama."
"I should be the one," Inuyasha argued.
Sesshoumaru let his obi drop and reached for the first buckle. "Remain here until the wolves can defend themselves. Then follow on Ah-Un."
"Youkai are already gathering, and we're vulnerable here," Miroku said. "However, if Kagome-sama leaves, most will follow her. The lure of the Shikon no Tama is stronger than ever."
"You'll be in danger," Sango warned.
"But that's good." The miko looked from face to face. "If I go, you'll all be safe."
Sesshoumaru's breastplate rattled to the ground, and he reclaimed his obi and swords. Kneeling before Inuyasha and Kagome, he offered his hands. "Come. I will carry you to the Well."
The hanyou gruffly asked, "Do you want Tetsusaiga just in case?"
"No, thank you, little brother." Carefully pulling the injured woman into his arms and rising to his full height, he pledged, "Kagome is safe with me."
With a grudging nod, Inuyasha looked into her eyes. He opened his mouth, closed it, then let his gaze slide to one side. Sesshoumaru stood his ground, giving his brother the time he needed. Finally, Inuyasha's chin came up, and he fiercely said, "I'll follow."
Kagome's answering smile was too brave to be believable. "I'll watch for you."
Sesshoumaru's sphere was so different from Naraku's darkness. Even when Kagome closed her eyes, she could tell that she was bathed in light, and she clung to the safety the taiyoukai represented. When warm fingers grazed her cheek, she blinked up at him.
"Do you wish to bathe?" he inquired.
Kagome fidgeted. "Are you asking because I stink... or because you want a bath?"
He didn't bat an eye. "Both."
How chivalrous. Now that she was thinking about it, her skin positively crawled. Naraku's voice, his touch, his stench—she wouldn't pass up the chance to be rid of them. "I want to be clean."
"I know a place."
Miroku's caution came clearly to mind, and she dared to ask, "Is it okay to stop?"
"No harm will come to you."
Closing her eyes and resting her head against his shoulder, Kagome whispered, "I believe you."
He was fast. Or maybe he'd already been heading toward the spring. When the light of Sesshoumaru's sphere flickered out, they were in a wooded area. The afternoon was half-spent, and lengthening shadows stretched along the forest floor. With purposeful steps, he carried her toward a small vale where tendrils of mist drifted above a single pool, and the distinctive tang of minerals hung in the air.
As soon as Sesshoumaru set Kagome on her feet, she sagged against him. "S-sorry," she mumbled.
He ignored her apology, steadying her to the ground and setting her pack next to her. Bracing her with a hand at her back, he indicated her supplies. "What do you need?"
Her left arm was stiff; moving it was painful. With one hand, she fumbled with the zipper, then fished for the basics—shampoo, soap, towel, brush. Her hands shook, and her fingers felt clumsy. Color crept into her cheeks when Kagome realized she wouldn't be able to undress without help.
"Clean clothes," Sesshoumaru prompted. "Bandages."
"R-right," she stammered, pawing feebly through her things. Finally, she stopped, hiding her eyes behind her bangs. "Sesshoumaru-sama, this isn't going to work."
"I will assist."
She stared into his expressionless face. Which was worse—remaining coated in Naraku's filth, or allowing Sesshoumaru to bathe her? Slowly shaking her head, she said, "I don't think I can... Please, don't ask me to... erm..."
"I know your preferences, but you cannot have them all."
"So the cost of cleanliness is privacy?"
"Not all. Some."
Even some privacy was too much. Kagome clutched her shampoo bottle and resolutely said, "I can manage."
"Let me be!"
Sesshoumaru's voice took on a faint rumble as he firmly repeated, "No."
To Kagome's dismay, he removed her shoes and socks. Gripping the Shikon no Tama with all her minuscule might, she felt its purity responding to her panic. But it was a bluff. And he called it. Sesshoumaru picked her up and slowly lowered her into the hot spring, clothes and all. It wasn't really a loss. Her clothes were beyond saving. But he was attempting to salvage her dignity.
With slow, deliberate movements, Sesshoumaru unwound the bandages that encased her shoulder. Blood billowed. Cloth clung. Hair swirled. And her embarrassment was lessened because she was still dressed. But then he asked, "Can you undo the fastenings?"
He hummed and deftly sliced away her left sleeve, baring her shoulder. Kagome struggled to get away from him, but the taiyoukai kneeling on the brink held on. "You have shed enough blood."
"Hnn," he agreed, grasping her by the shoulders. "Your hair covers what the water does not. Permit this much, and I will turn away."
Kagome peeped over her shoulder. "You'll leave?"
"No." Tilting his head to one side, he said, "But I will do what I can."
She wasn't sure what he meant by that, but her resistance melted away. Reaching around with her right hand, she tugged at her skirt's zipper while Sesshoumaru ripped another seam, revealing other injuries. Fine cuts from wicked claws. Shallow punctures from spiny appendages. Red welts from merciless tentacles. They itched. They stung. They ached. And they evoked an odd combination of tuts and growls from her companion. "I'm fine," she muttered.
"No. You are not."
Kagome kept her back straight. "I'll be fine."
"Hnn." Placing her bathing supplies in easy reach, Sesshoumaru said, "Hold onto me as necessary."
Suddenly, youki buffeted Kagome, and she finally understood what the taiyoukai intended. Sesshoumaru transformed into his true form and lay down beside the spring, sheltering its entirety between his elbow and side. Silver fur surrounded her on three sides, a living barrier. Though she craned her neck, Kagome couldn't see the big dog's head, which meant that he couldn't see her. Despite his proximity, privacy was hers.
"Thank you," she whispered.
He responded with a wuffling huff.
Bathing proved an arduous chore, but Kagome washed her hair twice before gingerly spreading lather over her abused limbs. She was startled by an explosive noise from her watchdog. Twisting one hand in his fur, she tried to decide if Sesshoumaru was warning off a demon. Are they coming for the Jewel? But another possibility presented itself, and a soft giggle burbled up. "Sesshoumaru-sama, did you just sneeze?"
For just a moment, her silvery enclosure shifted, and an enormous red eye glared down at her.
Yep. Definitely a sneeze. Folding her arm across her chest, she warned, "No peeking."
His ears pricked, but he closed his eyes.
"Almost done," Kagome said more softly. "And... I'll need help out. Please."
Once she finished, power rushed and condensed, and she was left holding the trailing end of Sesshoumaru's pelt. A strong hand closed around her arm. After a fraction's hesitation, the other dipped under the water and took hold of her waist. Kagome squeaked and pulled his fur snugly across her body as he lifted her clear.
"I can't borrow your sleeve anymore," she joked lamely. "You're putting it to good use again."
"Hnn." Sesshoumaru dropped the towel over her head, and she pushed at it ineffectually. His larger hand closed over hers. "It is difficult with one arm."
He would know.
Wrapped in fur. Shivering anew. Kagome let him towel her hair, even though it made her feel like a child. A frightened child.
"He was terrible," she whispered.
"I know it."
Kagome peered into the inuyoukai's face. "He said awful things."
"I heard them."
"They were lies."
"I believe you." Sesshoumaru pushed her hair to one side in order to inspect the gash below her collarbone. "He is gone now."
She took hold of his sleeve. "But I can still hear his voice."
"Then listen to mine instead."
"Erm... okay?" But Sesshoumaru didn't immediately speak. With great deliberation, he re-wrapped the worst of her wounds, working around the fur to which she clung. To her chagrin, she noticed that his silver was liberally streaked with her blood. Red and white. His colors. Her fault. "Sorry."
Laying aside his swords and loosening his obi, he next shed his outer garment. "My kimono has renewed itself. Dress beneath its folds while I wash."
As the heavy silk settled over her head and shoulders, Kagome was reminded forcibly of the day Inuyasha had loaned her his fire-rat. This offer was personal. Sesshoumaru was keeping his promise with all he had. She drew the fine garment more closely around her shoulders, lost in memories. But Sesshoumaru's fingers curled beneath her chin, lifting her face, demanding her attention.
With great solemnity, he repeated, "Listen to me, Kagome."
In tones that held a lingering warmth, Sesshoumaru declared, "You did well."
Sesshoumaru didn't rush through his bath. Obliterating every trace of Naraku's scent demanded lengthy attention. Even though he had permitted both capture and captivity, his experience within the foul hanyou's body set his fangs on edge. Unwelcome touches. Unnatural intrusion. Every shred of his being trembled with revulsion and rage at the memory. Only one thing had kept him from venting his fury. Only by fixing his thoughts on the miko had he found the strength to submit.
Glancing over his shoulder to where Kagome dozed in a billow of clean fur, he wrung out his hair. Even now, the brightness of her purity soothed his rattled core. Holding her, nurturing her, protecting her—in tending to her needs, his own were being met. Her presence was his balm. Welcome touches. Artless intrusion.
He dried, dressed, and dropped to one knee, intending to wake her. No matter how much he would have liked to prolong his contact with the woman, he couldn't heal her. Kagome's wounds left her weak... and her duty to the Shikon no Tama was far from over. A wish would be required of her. That much had been clear to one and all.
Taking hold of her shoulder, he murmured her name, and even before she was fully awake, she turned toward his voice. Tears streaked her cheeks, and Sesshoumaru frowned. Now, more than ever before, she needed confidence. And it was up to him to help her find it.
"Kagome," he called again.
She woke with a sob, and in trying to reach for whatever she had chased through elusive dreams, she pulled at her injuries and gasped in pain. While she caught her breath, he helped her to sit up, and she muttered unnecessary apologies. "You'll need your kimono."
Accepting the garment, he remarked, "You were crying."
"Was I?" she asked, dabbing at her face. "I didn't realize."
"The time for courage has not ended." He reached for her fist, turning it and opening her clenched fingers to reveal the Shikon no Tama. Tapping it with one claw, Sesshoumaru said, "This requires readiness on your part."
Her expression clouded. "The wish."
"Do you know what you will ask?"
With great reluctance, Kagome nodded.
Sesshoumaru prodded, "And are you ready to accept the consequences?"
"I don't have much choice."
Sesshoumaru knew the dangers. This woman might be capable of purifying the Shikon no Tama, but she was equally capable of tainting it with an unwise wish. Had they pinned their hopes on one too weak to finish the task?
"I know what I have to do," Kagome said, her voice steady. "But it's so sudden. Everything happened so fast, I didn't say everything... do everything... I can't believe it's over." With a pained glance back the way they'd come, she whispered, "It's done. I'm done."
"Explain," he demanded. "Was something left undone?"
She plucked at polka-dotted pajamas, the only clean clothes left to her. "Not exactly."
Dissatisfied with her continued evasion, he took her chin between two fingers. "The wish you make requires resolve, not regret. Would you have it twist your hopes into some new horror?"
"But if I do this," she began, tears welling. "When I go, I don't think I'll be coming back."
"You did not mention this before."
"How could I?" she sobbed.
Sesshoumaru's brows knit. Was the Shikon no Tama at work even now, fiddling with their fates? Kagome did not wish to go, and he was increasingly inclined to keep her near. We need to act quickly.
She'd begun to ramble. "I couldn't say everything. There wasn't time. And I couldn't bear it. What if they tried to stop me." Her breath hitched, and she whispered, "What if they didn't?"
Now he understood. If Inuyasha had begged for her to stay, she wouldn't have been able to complete her task. "You did well," he repeated.
She hid her face in his pelt. "I feel so alone."
"How foolish." When she looked up, he felt a fresh tug toward her. "You are not alone. I am here."
Kagome winced. "I know, but it's not... the same."
I will see this through. It will be done correctly. Since the situation struck him as similar, Sesshoumaru repeated, "I know your preferences, but you cannot have them all."
"I don't think I can have anything," she replied softly. "Not even a proper goodbye."
"Hnn," he agreed. After a moment's thought, he cautiously asked, "What did you wish to say?"
She shrugged. "Lots of things. Important things."
Sesshoumaru flexed and fanned his fingers several times while making up his mind. "Say your farewells," he finally offered. "Entrust them to me."
"What good would that do?"
"I will find a way to relay your words to them."
"You?" she asked incredulously. Then her expression shifted. "You would do that for me?"
He walked while she talked, bearing the miko toward her destination at a pace slow enough to allow her to unburden her heart. Kagome fumbled at first, but her meandering confession soon grew more intimate in its detail. Sesshoumaru lagged as he concentrated on her words, committing them to memory. There was so much to express, and her sentiments were intensely emotional. Could he truly fulfill this promise?
After a long while, her voice hoarsened, and he redirected his steps toward a stream. Her litany trailed off, and she asked, "Where are we?"
He shrugged one shoulder. It hardly mattered. They would take to the skies after this break. The end was near.
She stirred in his arms and quietly asked, "Would you like some tea?"
The taiyoukai's eyebrows arched, but he inclined his head with an equally soft, "Hnn."
Bandages hindered Kagome's reach, but Sesshoumaru met her more than halfway, steadying both her hands and the cup as he accepted his tea. One last time. The familiarity of their little routine settled some of her uneasiness. As did the taiyoukai's promise. She could tell he was listening... and that he was taking her seriously.
Sesshoumaru took a slow sip of tea before asking, "Have you no words for Inuyasha?"
Her heart sank. Best for last? Or the one that's hardest to face? Kagome took a deep breath before committing herself. "I love him."
"I know it."
His frank acknowledgment threw her for a loop. "Erm... will you tell him for me?"
Over the rim of his cup, golden eyes held her gaze. "He knows it."
"But... you don't understand. I never told him." Sesshoumaru's eyebrow quirked, and she tried again. "I want him to hear it from someone he'll believe. Because he doesn't always believe in himself."
Sesshoumaru bent his head. "He will know it."
"Thanks," she whispered, eyes downcast.
"Have you no words for me?"
Kagome flushed. Secondhand messages were one thing; it was another to reveal your heart to someone who had a place in it. However, she didn't want to slight Sesshoumaru after going on and on about her friends. Her relationship with the taiyoukai had undergone subtle shifts since the first time she made him tea.
"I was afraid of you," she admitted.
"An appropriate response."
"But I'm not anymore."
He huffed softly.
Launching in, Kagome said, "You know... I always wanted an older brother. But then I met you, and felt bad for Inuyasha. You were easy to hate."
His expression didn't alter. "Your emotions are excessively changeable."
She smiled. "And you're always the same... except when you're not. You changed."
"In what sense," he inquired, staring into his cup.
"The meanness left," she candidly replied. "And you care. Not about everything, but about certain things. And you fought with us. It scared me so much when I thought you'd died."
His gaze lifted. "Why?"
"Because... we changed."
"Perhaps. Are you satisfied?"
"With you?" she asked blankly.
His lips quirked, and he clarified, "Have you finished your farewells."
"Erm... yeah. I guess so." She gingerly hugged herself. "Are you going to take me to the Well now?"
"If you are prepared."
The wish again. Is there no avoiding it? With a short laugh, she held the Shikon no Tama up to the fading light. "So in the end, the cost of ever after will be happiness."
"Was that your wish?"
"Maybe," she sighed. "In all the best stories, the girl who saves the world gets everything she ever wanted, but I don't want this any more than you do."
His gaze flicked from her face to the Jewel and back again. "What do you want?"
"A happy ending."
"And what would make you happy?"
"Oh, you know... the usual things," Kagome said, swiping at a fresh tear. "World peace. Good health. True love."
He honed in on the last one. "You expressed deep feelings for your companions, and they regard you with similar emotions."
"I know that. Of course I know that! But I'm talking about being special to someone, not friends with everyone. To have one person think about you more than anyone else. To be important, not on a grand scale, but in little ways."
Sesshoumaru's fingers drummed against the side of his teacup. "You have plagued my thoughts for months, and your import has been proven to my satisfaction."
She rolled her eyes. "But you don't love me."
"Did I not just fulfill your stated requirements?"
Is he trying to say he does? That's just... I don't even... Kagome waved at him. "Sesshoumaru-sama, no offense. But a girl can tell when someone loves her. I appreciate your trying to make me feel better, but this is hardly..."
Sesshoumaru drained his cup, set it aside, and laced his fingers together. "If regard is what you wish, you have it. If pursuit is what you require, I cannot oblige."
A slow blink. "Because I'm human?"
"Because I am unwilling to jeopardize the alliance you nurtured with countless cups of tea."
She straightened. "Because of Inuyasha?"
"Do you claim ignorance of his regard for you?"
Kagome clutched at the fur that still enveloped her. "He never said..."
Long fingers flicked dismissively. "Silence diminishes nothing. In either case." When she could do nothing more than gape at him, he calmly inquired, "Do you also need to be told what you already know?"
"Then why didn't he ever...?"
"He did. Repeatedly." Sesshoumaru showed the palm of one hand. "His attempts at courtship were clumsy at best, but you accepted him."
"Though he has human blood, my brother's inuyoukai instincts run true." The taiyoukai chose his next words carefully. "Regrets are dangerous. Was he remiss?"
In a bitter undertone, she muttered, "A kiss would have been nice."
Sesshoumaru's head tilted to one side. "Yet you did not ask?"
Kagome toyed with her teacup. "That would have made it too hard to leave."
"Perhaps his reasoning was the same."
Was Inuyasha's silence for my sake? Could he have been holding back so I could make the wish without regrets?
Shaking her head, Kagome whispered, "Idiot."
Kagome squinted, trying to see through the light that surrounded them. "Are they following?"
"Will they catch us?"
They arrowed through the sky, well ahead of the youkai behaving like moths to a flame. "If I permit it."
"They'll regret it if you do."
Kagome lapsed into silence, and Sesshoumaru used the simplest tactic to buy some time. Spiraling upward, he carried her high above the Bone Eater's Well, climbing to heights that lesser youkai could not reach. "Are you prepared to make your wish?"
He inclined his head. "I will not let you go until you are ready."
"How will you know when I'm ready?"
"I will know."
The miko relaxed into his hold, her fingers toying with his fur. "Do you know everything?"
"But you knew what would happen if Naraku captured you," she countered, the faintest hint of temper adding depth to her scent.
"You planned the whole thing."
"Who told you?"
"Miroku-sama wanted to distract me while cleaning my wounds." Shaking her head. "I can't believe you left me out of the loop."
"It was necessary for you to have someone to protect." Sesshoumaru tried to catch some hint of her mood. Anger? Hurt? Or was this just a delay tactic.
"I wish you could have trusted me," she complained.
"There was no lack of trust, Kagome. That was complete trust."
Kagome's cheek warmed. "What about...?"
"Did you mean it?"
His brow quirked.
"Do you... erm... regard me?"
So she was paying attention. "Does it matter?"
Kagome nodded. "It does to me."
"But it changes nothing."
She suddenly found the pattern on her pajamas engrossing. "Yes and no."
Curiosity piqued, he said, "Explain."
A shy glance. A soft tone. "I guess... I like knowing that I mattered."
Tilting his head in order to meet her skittish gaze, he assured, "You matter."
Sesshoumaru placed one finger over her lips, hushing the apology that he had no wish to hear. Couldn't she understand that if he'd pursued her and won, he would have destroyed the very thing that made her attractive? Withdrawing his light touch, he tried to explain. "Your loyalty pleases me."
During the breathless silence that followed, he searched her face.
A slow smile formed crookedly, and she whispered. "A noble sacrifice?"
She leaned into him, thoughtful.
Sesshoumaru's nostrils quavered as he tracked her shifting emotions. Is it enough... knowing that others cannot have every happiness? Perhaps the realization that her burden was shared would give her the courage to do her part.
Kagome tugged at his kimono. "Stay with him?"
"For as long as it takes."
"Even if it's centuries?"
"Hnn. Even five."
That shard of hope was enough to complete Kagome's resolve. Fresh and bright, her scent suddenly suffused with anticipation. The right moment had come to let her go. Once before, I let her fall. This time, Sesshoumaru chose to fall with her.
His sphere plunged toward the meadow far below, scattering their pursuers. As the small, black square of the well shaft drew closer, he allowed the light to dissipate. Wind whipped around them, and black and silver hair streamed together. She clung to him. Exhilaration. Confidence. Trust. They only strengthened his regard... and his own resolve. She was loyal, but he was selfish.
Using his youki to slow their descent, he prolonged the final moments. As her body began to glow and fade, his lips grazed hers in a kiss so fleeting, it hardly counted. But it mattered. And that pleased the taiyoukai who landed in a crouch at the base of the Bone Eater's Well... alone.
End Note: Posted on January 14, 2013. 5,729 words.