AN- LAST chapter. There will not be an epilogue, since I'd rather leave it open-ended. Again, please check with my profile for a note on future stories.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chest heaving, Miroku tried to blink away the haze that blurred his vision. Every inhalation sent a shaft of fire screaming across his back and ribs. He slid shaky fingers through the pool of blood to rest his palm on the floor and levered himself up, forcing his body to ignore the accompanying pain.

"Damn it!" He'd been so utterly stupid! The witness from the subway had been too helpful. Too eager to give a description when most teenagers would have been wary of approaching a figure of authority. Well, he was now paying for his bout of monumental idiocy.

Carefully taking stock of his body, Miroku confirmed that he was hurt bad, but not mortally wounded. At least he hoped the hell not. The bullets, from what he could tell, had gone clean through. One punched through the muscle of his shoulder and the other went through his ribs but had, by sheer luck, missed hitting his lungs. That didn't mean he wasn't in danger from bleeding to death, however, if the massive amount of spilled blood was any indication.

Miroku swallowed back the urge to vomit when a sudden wave of dizziness swept over him. Shit. Despite his immediate need for medical attention, the resolve to hunt down his assailant burned bright. Who knew why the man had attacked him, though his instincts screamed that it was all connected. There were too many coincidences. Too many interlocking patterns steadily swirling down into one giant circle.

Kagome… She was out there too, he remembered. Kagome…

Blaming the lapse of intelligent deduction on his part on the blood loss and shock, Miroku slapped his forehead. The painful twinge of muscle protesting the movement he accepted as a deserved reprimand for being so blind.

In the excitement of seeing Naraku-turned-Ryoko, he had almost forgotten the on-going case of the serial killer. He searched his mind for the name that eluded him. Finally, it came to him.

Jin… Are you the one I've been hunting? The one that killed Kagura?

---------

With a disdainful swipe, Noriko flicked the blood off her claws before it had time to congeal. She sniffed before giving the fallen neko her back. That had been revoltingly easy, she thought as she moved into the darkened Coliseum tunnel to await her next challenge.

The young male she had just defeated would live to see another day merely because he had granted her the respect she deserved with a wary gaze and fearful regard.

What were these children thinking? she was left to wonder when another of the crude specimens strutted past her to meet his fate in the ring. How could they possibly hope to demand the respect of the youkai they would rule if they couldn't even defeat an unarmed combatant? It was frightening, to think upon what could have happened had she not entered this fight. Either Naraku or one of these insignificant, weak-willed and even weaker-bodied youkai would have been the Taiyoukai of the Western Province.

She subdued the shiver that skated up her spine. It would have been complete and utter chaos. Really, this outdated means of choosing leadership would be the first thing she would work to abolish as soon as she was in a position of power to do so.

Thirty minutes later, the intercom system barked again, calling Noriko to the ring to face the last of the challengers. After this one was dispatched, she would face the winner of the other rounds in the final match.

Regardless of who she faced, a small part of her hungered for a real challenge. She hadn't even had to take out the sword that Taro had lent her for the occasion.

---------

"Wow. I'm impressed. Your mom is really powerful!" Wide eyes staring up at her mate, Kagome watched as he smirked.

"To assume otherwise would be a mistake." He had always known his mother could fight. It was a matter of bestirring herself to the effort.

Kagome's smile dimmed. "Do you think she can beat Naraku?" They'd watched the entire fight, and while she would love to say that Noriko would win hands down, she wasn't so sure. Narkau had also proven himself a strong fighter. Between the two, neither had even been injured.

A contemplative silence fell between the two while Sesshoumaru formulated a reply. "Naraku is yet hiding his true strength. Mother has not needed to reach into her full arsenal, either. I do not know how the battle will end."

As a poison master, his mother could have easily dispatched all the comers with her abilities, but had settled instead on using claws and speed to swiftly eradicate them. Her prowess with a sword was also assured due to her training with her people, but she had yet to take one up.

"Kagome?" a soft voice came from the right of the pair.

Glancing up swiftly, a broad smile crossed her face. "Oh, hi, Souta! Hi, Hiten. I didn't know you were going to come see the Tournament!" Behind her brother, Hiten gave a sharp nod of his head.

Souta's hands twisted together nervously. "I'm not here to watch. There's something going on that I thought you should know."

"What is it?" Sesshoumaru asked before she could.

Hiten replied, "There was an attempt made on Mrs. Higurashi's life and a fire was set to the museum. Both Mrs. Higurashi and Kagome's boss are fine, but we cannot locate the woman, Sango, that had been last reported inside the museum."

Kagome gasped, hand to her mouth. "Oh no! We've got to go help her!"

Giving her a repressive frown, Sesshoumaru shook his head. "No. These attacks were designed to draw you out. They would on-"

Her purse warbled, breaking off Sesshoumaru's conversation. She dug the cell out of the satchel and snapped it open when she saw the number on the line. "Mom! Thank the kamis! I thou-"

A male voice snarled, "Shut up, bitch! I'm not your stupid mom. I've got you little friend, and if you want her, you come to Jinegi's place alone! Alone, you hear! I'll slit her throat the second I see anyone else with you!"

The called hung up before she could formulate a reply.

"He's got Sango," she whispered. Hand shaking, she automatically flipped the phone closed and dropped it into the purse. At her side, having overheard the threat, Sesshoumaru turned to Hiten.

"Go to Jinengi's and retrieve the woman."

"No!" Kagome wrung her hands. She turned pleading eyes on her mate. "He said he'd kill her if anyone but me came!"

Surprisingly, Souta spoke up in defense of Sesshoumaru's plan. "Kagome, you can't go there. Hiten knows what he's doing, and if you go, that will just be one more person to distract him from getting Sango away and safe."

"On my word as the best damn assassin there is, I'll get her out, Kagome," Hiten promised. "They won't even see me coming."

Kagome reached out and took hold of Sesshoumaru's hand, twining their fingers together. He squeezed them reassuringly. "He expects me to come running, doesn't he? I mean, I am a bit impulsive like that." She sighed when no one spoke up to refute her. "Please be careful, Hiten."

He nodded, gave the small group an arrogant smirk, and then disappeared in a whirl of smoke and wind.

"She'll be alright. You'll see, Kagome," Souta consoled his sister. In the short amount of time that he'd known Hiten, the youkai had been nothing if not discrete. Given how people tended to be wary of youkai, the fact that Hiten had managed to remain out-of-sight even while in full sight had been a real confidence booster for the young man.

Girding her courage, Kagome gave a short, decisive nod. "I know." She smiled weakly. "Do you want to sit with us?"

"He will remain in my sight," Sesshoumaru declared in a no-nonsense tone before Souta could even blink. With his protector gone, Souta could be the next target.

"Well, how could I refuse such a warm and fuzzy invitation," Souta stated dryly.

Kagome snorted. "Better get used to it." Still, she rewarded her mate with a small kiss on the back of his hand for the effort and intent behind the words.

-----

"You will just have to forget it!" Naraku sneered at the teenager attempting to stare him down.

Fists clenched at his sides, Jin snarled, "You promised! You promised I could have her! She was to be mine!" After dispatching the officer, he had cased the Coliseum for the other target he would need to collect before claiming her. Just one more death stood between him and his Kagome.

And now Naraku was trying to call it all off? "I trained those boys to follow you! I kept your secrets, Ryoko," he spat. "I even killed off that bitch you kept around! Don't do this to me!"

"To you?" Stepping forward, Naraku released a portion of his aura to encase the slender youth. "You are nothing to me," he snarled. "A street rat that has outlived his usefulness. Don't toy with me, boy. You won't like the results."

Drawing up to his full height, Jin stepped out of Naraku's shadow. "I should have known better than to trust a hanyou. The despoiled spawn of a whore and youkai scum." He spat on the ground before Naraku's feet. "You'll regret crossing me."

A passing group of youkai appeared before Naraku could retaliate. Jin smirked before following them out of the dimly lit hall. Naraku was powerless to stop him from leaving lest he draw attention to himself or chance Jin revealing his alter-ego.

Impotent rage built up in the hanyou's chest, threatening his perfect calm and orderly existence. The experimental rat had slipped out of its cage. There was no telling what sort of damage Jin could inflict.

Naraku cursed viscously when the intercom announced the last battle of the day. Enraged, feeling cornered and threatened, Naraku's lips turned up at the corners in resigned, malicious glee.

If he was going down, then he would make sure to take as many as he could with him. Starting with that bitch, Noriko.

----------

Jin reached the corner of the hallway before reaching for his cell. He dialed the number that he had memorized. "It's off," he ordered as soon as the man he'd called answered on the third ring.

"What?" the accomplice couldn't keep the surprise from leaking over the line. "I've got the woman here, ready to go!"

"Naraku has turned on us. He's decided to switch sides and fuck with my plans. So now, I'm fucking with his."

Outrage colored the other man's words. "He did what?" The sound of other voices in the background came over the line. "Fine. What am I supposed to do with the woman?"

"Kill her for all I care. I've got what I want right here." He would have to kill off the others soon, Jin decided when the voices of dissent came over the line once more. They were proving dangerously volatile. While it had been easier to target the other women from different provinces with his gang to round them up for him to dispatch, now they knew too much.

After this, he would make a clean break. To do so, he would need to clean house.

Jin hung up the phone after a carefully worded reprimand to stay away from the Tournament. Assured of an open field, a wide grin, one which displayed two rows of bright, shiny teeth, split his face into a terrifying parody of innocent joy.

It was time to play.

---------

Out of the corner of his eye, Souta spotted an old friend making his way through the throng of people that had gathered at the first tier of the Coliseum to watch the final battle. He frowned. What was Jin doing here? He'd never expressed an interest in coming to the Tournament.

Granted, they hadn't been on close terms lately. Jin had seemed distracted, or whenever Souta would suggest they do something, Jin had other plans. Then, with Hiten over, the few times Jin had called, Souta hadn't wanted to invite his friend over simply because it would have been awkward to explain why he had a bodyguard.

"Hey, Sesshoumaru," he said, "I see a friend down there. I'll be right back."

Souta didn't make it further than a step before a hard, uncompromising glare halted him in his tracks.

"What friend?"

Rolling his eyes, Souta pointed out the young male. "It's just Jin. Kagome knows him."

Sharp eyes pinned Souta to the spot, refusing to relinquish their hold. "The same one who was at the subway and at the gala?" His gaze left the boy to travel around the Coliseum until it landed on the one in question.

Sesshoumaru's eyes narrowed on his target. Given everything else, he did not feel paranoid in questioning anything in regard to the debacle that had become their lives. What, then, were the odds that one who Kagome had no connection to except through her brother would constantly cross their paths simultaneously with danger, Naraku, or both?

Kagome picked up on some of what he was thinking and turned incredulous eyes on the boy. Could Jin have had anything to do with anything? He was so young! "Souta, what do you know about Jin?

"Jin?" Uncertain why they had both gone so still, Souta frowned in concentration. "You know I met him at the manga store I like to go to, Kagome. He's privately schooled, but he says that his dad always made sure he had the best teachers. He's just a kid I like to hang out with. That's all."

"Who is his father?" Sesshoumaru asked, all business.

Souta shrugged. "Some Lee guy. Lee, Ryoko I think."

Kagome paled. "Ryoko!" Jin had been one of Ryoko's spies? Was Jin the one who had been killing all those women? A sick feeling pooled in her stomach and threatened to chill her to the bone. All the times she had sat next to him, laughed at his jokes along with Souta …

Swiftly gaining his feet, Sesshoumaru pulled Kagome to her feet before starting for the first floor. "Stay behind me," he ordered.

Confused, Souta yelled out, "Wait, what's going on?" Without understanding why, he took off after the pair. What the hell was going on?

--------

Noriko stepped into the ring right after Naraku. The officials that had been asked to preside over the affair stared down upon them from the tented pavilion seats. Scowls marred the pronounced jowls of their aristocratic countenances.

She delicately sneered. Those fools would have rather had one of the male idiots win simply because it was the way things had always been than a hanyou or a female. Offhand, she wondered if this was how humans felt when looked down upon for their humanity.

A thinly-arched brow dipped thoughtfully. Intriguing.

"Last chance, Noriko," Naraku growled out, his voice overpowering the droning of the official as he stated the rules of combat. "Stand down, or you will soon join your bastard mate in hell."

Fist tightening on the leather hilt of the katana she had drawn before entering the ring, Noriko refused to dignify that with a remark. Instead, she concentrated on the play of light over the razor-sharp edge of her blade.

Incensed at being ignored, Naraku's rage climbed to dangerous proportions. Red eyes narrowed into thin slits, flaying her where she stood. His aura billowed outward, clawing at the surrounding youki.

Noriko chuckled coldly, unimpressed. "Hanyou, I have lived in hell for two centuries. You are nothing but an impudent roach that I will take great pleasure in exterminating." She paused to examine her nails with utmost boredom. "I shall, of course, offer you leniency. Stand down and I will forgive you your stupidity in challenging me."

Shocked gasps were heard throughout the Coliseum as the words, magnified by the microphones set about the ring, echoed through youkai ears. The raw arrogance of such a statement resounded within their primitive souls. The spectators hunkered down, awed by the prospect of the Lady defeating the Hanyou and becoming the first female Taiyoukai in the history of the world.

Perhaps, they whispered amongst themselves, such a thing would not be such a calamity. They were reminded of her presence behind the former Taiyoukai. She knew and understood the lands and what they needed. As a strong youkai, even if she was female, she had proven herself in combat. As a female, she would bring a level-headedness to negotiations that had been conspicuously absent in the male-dominated sphere of human/youkai politics.

It was a lot to think on. Later. They would ponder over it later. For now, every eye in the Coliseum was on Noriko and Naraku.

Every eye except those belonging to the small group of people that fought for an even greater cause than the fate of the Western Lands.

----------------

The sight that met Hiten upon his arrival to the restaurant was something he never would have expected. Within the dingy interior, a woman, chestnut hair reflecting the bright light of the sun that flowed in through the broken front window to form a halo about her delicate features, landed a punch strong enough to break a youkai's jaw. The man she cold-cocked dropped like a load of bricks.

"Well, shit," he drawled, holding his hands up - palms out - when she whirled around to face him. "I'm here to rescue you."

She snorted, purveying the limp bodies that surrounded her, littering the floor like so much garbage. "Do I look like I need rescuing?"

He grinned widely. "Nope, can't say that you do." He dropped his hands. "Hiten. You must be Sango."

She nodded warily. "You said you were sent to rescue me. Who sent you?" She stepped over the bodies to walk toward the door.

"Kagome and Sesshoumaru were at the Tournament when she was called about you. I came since we figured it was a trap to lure her in."

Sango rolled her eyes. "You figured all that out?" As if it hadn't been the most obvious thing in the world. "What about Mr. Miagi?" The museum had been on fire the last she had seen.

"He's fine, but the museum was burned to the ground."

Jinengi spoke up from the kitchen entrance before Sango could recover from the volatile mixture of relief and shock that Hiten's answer had instilled in her. "The others in here are taken care of, young Miss. We'll handle the rest here if you are ready to go home." He started upon noticing Hiten. "I'm sorry, the kitchen is closed for the day. Renovations, you know."

Hiten chuckled. "Yeah. Renovations. How many did you send through the wall back there?"

Jinengi smiled benignly. "Only two. Better the wall that my oven. I just bought it the other week."

Embarrassed by the girlish giggle that escaped, surely a product of the stress of being kidnapped then the ensuing fight, Sango clapped a hand over her mouth.

Hearing it, Hiten lost all thoughts of Tournaments and dire emergencies. He turned the full power of his seductive voice on her in a lazy drawl that could have melted steel. "So, why don't we let Jinengi call the police and you and I can head off to talk shop."

"Talk shop?" she asked, intrigued despite herself.

He grinned wickedly. "Let's just say that, as a student of the philosophy of violence, I recognize another when I see him." He inspected the lean curves that fairly screamed strength and vitality. "Or her."

She regarded him silently before asking, "What about Kagome? Is she okay?"

Hiten winked. "That Daiyoukai of hers isn't going to let anything happen to her."

"You're a friend of hers?" Somehow, it didn't surprise Sango that Kagome had picked up a friend like this youkai appeared to be. Danger flowed about him, the aura exciting to the woman after being immersed in a world of weak men and even more boring dates. Was this what Kagome had fallen prey to? The lure of a youkai male in comparison to the dull reality of a human?

He nodded, watching her with unconcealed humor. "It might seem odd, I mean, what are the chances that someone like her would call something like me a friend, you know? But, hell, look who she's mated to. Not so weird after all."

Sango shrugged. He was right. "Why not. It's not like I've got a job to go back to."

"That's the way to think about it!" One of the men began to moan, but a swift kick to the head silenced him. "As for a job … maybe we can talk about that too."

Definitely intrigued now, Sango followed him out of the restaurant.

----------------

As if he sensed the imminent arrival of the dangerously intent Daiyoukai, Jin glanced over his shoulder. Once he caught sight of the approaching trio, his eyes flew impossibly wide, the skin around his piercing paling as he began to hyperventilate. One look into the searing gaze of the inuyoukai told Jin that he knew.

He knew.

How he knew, Jin couldn't even begin to guess. What mattered now was escape. He couldn't face the youkai down face to face. He was only human. His strengths has been secrecy, deceit, and the face of innocence. No one had suspected him, and so he had been free to go about the business of punishing those that deserved it.

Not any longer.

He whirled around and took off in a mad sprint for the exit. He made it into the hall before the youkai was upon him, pinning him to the wall with indomitable strength.

Cursing, Jin spit in Sesshoumaru's face. "Let me go!" he yelled for the benefit of the gathering crowd of youkai and humans. "Help! He's going to kill me!"

Disgusted by the feel of the foul spittle wetting the fur of his cheek, Sesshoumaru roughly shook the male to silence him. Head wobbling on his neck, Jin's eyes rolled into the back of his head. The crowd remained, but made no move to help the boy. They had no wish to anger the one who had killed the Tashio.

"You will tell me the plan," Sesshoumaru demanded once he stopped shaking the human.

About to interrupt, Souta was silenced by Kagome placing a hand on his arm. She shook her head, and he subsided into tense silence.

"Make me," Jin shot back. Fingers slipped into his pocket. He grinned snidely, insulated from the Daiyoukai's glare by the safety pin he had just pulled out of the grenade he had always carried on his person as a last 'fuck you' to the world.

About to employ a more convincing line of reasoning on the male, Sesshoumaru was alerted to a change in the human's scent. The faint odor of chemicals entered his nostrils. Swiftly, he pulled Jin's hands out where he could see them. The grenade dropped to the ground between them.

Jin chuckled, a maniacal light gleaming within his eyes. Turning to Kagome, he smiled warmly. "I'm sorry we never got that dance, Kagome. I had so much I wanted to show you."

Gasping, Kagome reared back just as Souta finally put two and two together. Surprising everyone, he roared, lunging for the treacherous male he had once called 'friend.' "You bastard!"

Sesshoumaru caught Souta mid-leap, tossing him away from the grenade.

Reacting instinctively, Sesshoumaru pulled Kagome's power from within and shielded the explosive just as it went off. Barrier bowing outward with the force of the expended power, the shield held.

Slowly, Sesshoumaru leaked the power out of the shield, allowing it to escape harmlessly into the atmosphere. All the while, he never took his eyes off of the human scum that had just attempted a suicide bombing.

Jin stared in disbelief at the Daiyoukai. "It's not supposed to be this way," he whispered, shocked gaze riveted on the scorched stone that betrayed the power of the explosive that had been contained. "I had everything planned. If it wasn't for him, if only he hadn't gone back on the plan… We had everything in place!" he ended in a wail.

"He?" Sesshoumaru stared down the human, willing Jin's defenses to crumble completely. Kouga chose that moment to step behind Sesshoumaru, drawn by the steadily growing crowd from his post beside the ring entrance to see what was going on.

"Naraku." Jin spit out the name as if it were vile refuse. He looked around the somber faces, eyes searching for a sign of sympathy. "He tricked me! I swear he did! He lied to me. He said we would show everyone the way it should be! Youkai aren't supposed to be with humans. We were going to show you, teach you to be righteous in your beliefs!" His thoughts shifted inward, the mad light of a zealot growing brighter within his eyes with every second that passed.

He pointed at Kagome. "It was you! Women like you who started this all! You could have loved me! I would have protected you from Naraku! ME!" he howled. "Instead, you copulated with that monster! He promised me! He said I could have you, to teach you the right way!" Saliva began to pool in the side of his mouth, and he wiped it away with the sleeve of his shirt before pleading, "Don't you understand? I had to show them. I loved them. I had to save them f-"

Offended on every level, Sesshoumaru punched Jin in the chin. The boy crumpled in on himself and slid to the ground in a boneless heap. The cretin had begun to repeat himself.

"What the hell is going on here?" Taro pushed his way to the forefront of the silent crowd. "Sesshoumaru?" Blue eyes turned to the Daiyoukai for answers. He would have thought that Sesshoumaru would be watching his mother, not playing with a human boy!

"It was him, Taro-sama," Kagome uttered softly. Taro swung around to stare at her pale face. "He was the one killing the women. He admitted to working with Naraku, too."

Kouga added, "Father, he also said something about Naraku turning on him. Do you think …" Trailing off, Kouga watched his father frown down upon the boy thoughtfully.

Just then, a howl went up in the crowd. "That's him?" an unknown neko howled after pushing his way to the front. The green-eyed, lithe male asked, "That's the one that killed my Mai?"

Sensing the danger building in the flashing eyes of the neko, Sesshoumaru stepped between the fallen boy and the youkai crowd. "He will be punished by human law. He killed human women. If you dispense of him in youkai fashion, you will aggravate our tenuous connection with the human justice system."

The neko ignored Sesshoumaru's words and made to attack the unconscious Jin. Taro sought for a means to keep order before chaos broke out as more youkai that had been hurt by Jin's actions caught wind of the boy's identity.

"Calm yourself," he ordered the neko. "He will be punished. The human law has been hunting him for months and will ensure that he isn't allowed to enter society again. Your human lovers are safe once more."

The neko hissed, "It isn't enough! What of those who have already tasted the bitter pang of loss? Will we never have justice for our loved ones? 'Never enter society again,'" he repeated. "It isn't enough!"

"No, it isn't," a new voice agreed somberly.

"Miroku!" Kagome cried out upon sighting her friend. She made to run to him but was halted by the strong arm that encircled her waist. "What happened to you?" Slumped over, his hands were stained with … blood?

The injured man smiled grimly. "I'm well enough to take him into custody for the murders of the women and for the attempt on my own life."

She gaped. "Wha-"

The neko cut in. "You can't take him! He deserves nothing less than death for what he's done! Your justice system will see him rot in luxury!" For years, under Naraku's rein, humans had been allowed to get away with murder, literally, if it involved crimes against youkai. When caught, they were merely put up in jails that catered to their every need.

Miroku chuckled coldly. "Oh, I can guarantee that a bullet is just about the only thing in his future." His lips twisted in an uncharacteristic show of primal satisfaction. "In Naraku's absence, I was designated as the acting magistrate. I am judge, jury, and executioner."

Silence fell while the neko tasted Miroku's honesty and found it to his liking. With one last glance at the bloody monk magistrate, he turned on his heel and walked away. "See that you keep your word, human. I'll be watching," he called over his shoulder.

Silently filing away, the rest of the youkai departed without comment. It was just another exciting story to add to their lifetimes.

Taro motioned to the fallen teenager. "Kouga, take him wherever the magistrate orders then see to it that a paramedic is summoned."

Nodding, Kouga bent to heft the limp male over his shoulder.

"What about Naraku?" Miroku asked. "He has committed grave crimes as well. He will need to see justice for what he has done, and I do not trust him not to disappear after the Tournament."

Surprising the humans, Sesshoumaru, Taro, and Kouga all smirked in unison. "Naraku is no longer an issue," the Daiyoukai stated with satisfaction.

Kagome's brows furrowed. "How so?"

He shrugged. "Mother has taken care of that for us."

Looking between the smug grins adorning both Wolf faces, Kagome shrugged. If they weren't worried, then she wouldn't be. "What now?"

Staring off in the distance, introspective, Sesshoumaru contemplated the answer to that question. Kouga walked off with Miroku trailing slowly behind him and Souta tried to piece together what he knew while still in a daze.

"There will be others that will need to be hunted down. Though, if Hiten is half the youkai he thinks he is, that matter should be resolved in your friend's rescue. After that," Sesshoumaru slid his hand from her waist to rest the protective weight of his arm around her shoulders, "perhaps life can resume a level of normalcy."

She wrinkled her nose. "Normal? Between you and me, I don't think that's possible."

Taro laughed, slapping Sesshoumaru's back. "She's got you there, son."

"Hn."

----------------------------

"Die, bitch!" Naraku shouted between pants. The damn female had proven resistant to most of his attacks! He had managed to land a few, but the heavy blood loss from the strategically placed attacks she had sliced through his thigh slowed him down.

It was time for drastic measures. Naraku drew himself to his full height. "Taste my poison," he cooed, almost lovingly as a coiled length of flesh shot from his body to wrap around her form.

Startled by the emergence of the slimy limb, Noriko didn't react fast enough to avoid its grasp. At the feel of the hot flesh, her skin recoiled. Disgusting.

Naraku squeezed, releasing a cloud of miasma at the same time. Stealing the youki of all those he had condemned to death had paid off in terms of gathering the poison ability of the few he had tried. Not to mention the extra bodies he had absorbed to be used as he saw fit.

It was frowned upon, of course, and he would have to explain away his reasons for 'waste not, want not' later to the youkai council, but he would prevail. His plans always worked. He would win the day. He would not lose!

He was the most powerful being in the land!

With a disdainful sniff, Noriko sliced through the tentacle of stolen youkai flesh. Walking through the cloud of miasma, she sighed. "Was this your big gambit for victory?"

With a wave of her hand, the cloud dispersed as if it had never been. "I should have known better than to expect more from you."

He gaped, shocked at her easy dismissal of his poison. "It's not possible! I worked for over a hundred and fifty years to gather the power, the youki it would take to become this strong!" His eyes narrowed into fury-filled specks of hatred. "What are you!"

As if in a nightmare, she seemed to grow before his very eyes. The air shimmered around her, breaking the streams of sunlight into a million crystal shards that reflected the light in every possible angle. Blinding, immobilizing him as her voice whispered over him, hypnotically alluring. "I am Lady Noriko. Taiyoukai of the Western Lands. You will bow before me or die."

Her aura, he realized, it was subverting his very will to fight, to live! One last shred of defiance screamed out, "Never!"

She smiled beatifically. "So be it."

The flash of light reflecting off the blade as it arched downward was the last thing he saw before darkness swallowed him whole.

In the ring, Noriko left the sword where it stood imbedded in the skull of her only kill of the day. With a flick of her hair, she bowed to the officials and was rewarded with wary nods in return.

Ah well, she philosophized. It was as it should be. As males, they would never trust her feminine mind or motives. Just as she would never turn her back on male reasoning. But they would respect her, or she would know why.

Slowly, a pattering of claps and shouts greeted her victory. Then, as it gained momentum, she was showered with a cacophony of applause and whistles as the Coliseum of youkai and humans welcomed their new Taiyoukai, Lady Noriko.

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---One year later---

"Inuyasha, I'm not sure about this," Kikyo whispered to her mate. Ever since he had returned that day, so long ago, he had been a different hanyou. Freer, someway, as if the weight of the world no longer pressed down on him.

Belly heavy with child, she nervously slipped under his arm for support.

"It's going to be fine, Kikyo. Kagome will be there, and you know you two get along great," he reassured her. He wasn't exactly looking forward to sharing space with his brother, either, but he understood what Kagome was trying to do. With his own little one on the way, family ties suddenly had a hell of a lot more meaning to him.

Even strained ones of the sort that he and Sesshoumaru shared.

"Okay. But what about Noriko?"

Inuyasha nearly winced at the reminder of the other party invited to the get together. After winning the Tournament, something he still couldn't believe the prissy bitch had done, she'd made some sweeping changes to the hierarchy of the Western lands. For one, she'd actually appointed Miroku, a friend of Kagome's, to the position of Sheriff.

That she, one who had a well-known dislike for humans, had done so had managed to quell much of the human resistance to her appointment to the title. Miroku, himself, and his fair judgments for both youkai and humans had silenced the youkai detractors that had feared another like Naraku.

It was even rumored that she was seen taking advice on matters concerning politics from her new Sheriff.

Inuyasha scoffed. As if. Though… From the one time he'd met him at the belated party to celebrate Kagome's and Sesshoumaru's mating, the monk Sheriff had seemed like a real smooth-talker. Maybe he could have charmed the frosty bitch.

Stranger things had certainly happened.

Speaking of stranger things … "Did you get the video that Kagome's mom sent?"

Kikyo nodded before peering shyly up at her mate. "I think I'm going to take her up on it. I don't know where I could get another shrine to take me in without being family."

He nodded. "You'll be happy. Kagome will be happy, and her mom will be happy to have someone to take over at the shrine after her since Souta has decided he wants follow Sesshoumaru into business."

Kikyo frowned. "Do you think Kagome will ever forgive her mother?" There were many who still held a grudge against Kagome for giving her mate the Vow, but human memory being what it was, the dulled effects resulted in nothing more than unpleasant looks and whispers rather than open hostility.

Inuyasha scoffed. "It don't matter much. Eventually, seeing as how her mom is helping you so much and hasn't dumped on Souta for bailing out on monk training, she'll forgive her. I can't see Kagome as holding a grudge. Sesshoumaru, now… That's a horse with an entirely different mane."

Kikyo giggled. "You say that now, but I dare you to say that to him."

Smirking, Inuyasha leaned down to stare her down. "Is that right?"

She blinked. "No … No, I was just kidding! I don't want a fight today!"

He laughed. Caught in the joyful sound, she felt her heart swell.

Everything wasn't perfect, there was still a lot of hurt to be healed and everyone didn't accept her mating with Inuyasha or her sister-in-law's mating to Sesshoumaru.

But, as long as she could be by his side, it was enough.

Had Kagome been there to share the sentiment, she would have agreed wholeheartedly.

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"Are you sure he got the invitation?" Kagome asked the imp standing by with a sophisticated PDA at the ready.

Jaken glared at his weapon of choice, punched in a few buttons and gave a decisive nod. "He even called to confirm the time, Kagome-sama." He glanced up at the fidgeting woman and showed her the note he had made on the hand-held computer.

The visual didn't do anything to quell her nervousness, but she offered a small smile in thanks for the attempt. Jaken put away his PDA with a sigh. His Lord's Lady was human, that was true. But his Lord surely knew what he was doing. If Sesshoumaru-sama wanted a human, then Sesshoumaru-sama would have a human. It wasn't as if she was weak like most. And she did give the Vow …

Working from their home in the Realm, she'd even managed to convince Sesshoumaru-sama to indulge in some of the finer luxuries such as a full bedroom and housing necessities. She never nagged when his Lord needed to spend days on end distracted by the booming financial consulting business, instead keeping herself occupied with the antiquities research that she was enamored of. Given his Lord's deep pockets and connections, she had been able to delve even further into the subjects than while with the museum.

Jaken could even forgive the fact that his Lord had become nauseatingly affectionate around his mate, even holding hands with the woman in mixed company! That's not to mention all the times he … The imp shook his head at the reminder. Who knew that his Lord was so lusty a male? He'd lost track of the number of times he'd been dismissed out of hand at some of the oddest moments simply due to a heated glance sent his Lord's way via his mate.

Shuddering at the thought of being so easily manipulated by a female, Jaken was forced to acknowledge that at least Kagome-sama was a woman of fine taste to have fallen in love with Sesshoumaru-sama and his appearance. That was something the green, warty male could appreciate more fully than most.

All in all, Jaken supposed, his Lord could have done much much worse.

"Calm down, Kagome." Coming up behind his mate, Sesshoumaru dismissed Jaken with a stern look. "He and Kikyo will come. On one thing you may count, is that the hanyou does keep his promises."

She lightly elbowed him. "Stop with the hanyou remarks, Sesshoumaru. You know you only do it to annoy me and pick on him."

He shrugged. "It is what he is. I do not take offense to being called a Daiyoukai." But, for the sake of keeping peace, he leaned down to lay a soft kiss on her cheek. "However, I will still my tongue for the night."

"Thank you. Now, should I sit your mother next to Taro? I'm not sure." She looked down on the short list of to-do's that she'd thrown together last night.

Sesshoumaru pursed his lips. After the Tournament, the Wolf had been on the make. He didn't know whether to be unnerved by the notion of the Wolf Lord becoming his de facto father, disgusted by the thought of one day calling Kouga brother, or just plain impressed that his mother had the gall to keep Taro dangling for a year. "It does not matter what you decide in this," he finally said. "Taro will claim a seat next to her, even if it is not his seat to take."

"Hmmm… Then I suppose I had better give it to him." Kagome giggled at the thought of the coming night. Noriko was a real bitch when it came to Taro. She was definitely finding the reality of freedom more to her liking than her sad past. It would take some pretty heavy convincing on Taro's part to entice her to see him as anything other than a horny annoyance.

It was something to snicker over, at any rate. No matter how much Noriko snipped or made with the cutting remarks, Taro just came back for more. Kagome had to wonder if, maybe, some part of him liked it.

Sesshoumaru slanted her a speaking look of inquiry when she giggled again. Kagome waved a hand negligently. "Oh, it's nothing. I was just thinking."

She looked back to the list. "What about Miroku? Should I put him next to Sango?"

"Not unless you wish to preside over his funeral."

She winced. "Hiten has gotten bad, lately, hasn't he?"

After the Tournament, Sango had called to tell Kagome that she was alright, and that the other conspirators had been taken into custody. Then, she'd shocked the hell out of her friend by stating that Hiten had proposed a business partnership.

Sango had taken him up on the offer. After a bit of restructuring, instituting a few iron-clad rules in regard to just what sort of contracts they would take, Sango, Hiten, and Manten were now the most sought after vigilantes the world had ever seen. Supposing, of course, that they'd ever been seen.

They were the ones you called if justice failed. It was rumored that the new Sheriff turned a blind eye to their actions, even used them a time or two when loopholes allowed murderers or serial rapists to escape the grasp of the law. It was all conjecture, of course, and said whispers were firmly kept behind teeth lest the new Taiyoukai, Noriko, hear them. She was rather fond of the Sheriff and his unprejudiced view of a female giving him orders.

Three weeks ago, however, Sango had called to say that Hiten had asked her to be his mate. Given that she wasn't sure how the whole thing could possibly work, since she would age and die long before Hiten, Sango had been resigned to letting Hiten down.

Instead, shocking the woman, Kagome had proposed that she undertake an affair with Hiten. Learn if what they had was enough to sustain them through the coming years. So far, all signs pointed to an imminent mating.

"I think I'll put Miroku and Inuyasha together. They got along fine last time, and Kikyo will be sure to keep Miroku entertained by baiting Inuyasha so he won't be in danger from Taro or Hiten. Manten can sit next to Sango and Sout-"

Sesshoumaru pulled the tablet out of her grasp and threw it onto the couch. Taking her into his arms, he nuzzled the soft skin just behind her ear. "Everything will be fine," he whispered between kisses to her neck. He claimed her lips. "Perfect."

Whimpering, Kagome's fingers slid through his fur lovingly. They had a few minutes, and he had just reminded her of one last item on the agenda.