WARNING – This is an alternate pairing fic. This is an attempt at a plausible alternate pairing fic. The only way I could come up with to write an alternate pairing fic plausibly was to remove certain obstacles permanently. Death is very permanent. You have been warned.

Disclaimer: I do hereby disclaim all rights and responsibilities for the characters in this story. They have been kind enough to do their part in the telling of this tale, but in truth they belong to another. A nod is bent towards Rumiko Takahashi in recognition of her creative prowess.

Author's Note: This is the first piece of fiction I have attempted which extends beyond the scope of a oneshot or drabble. During its formative stages I was astonished to find myself divided over how the story should proceed. Each "voice" in my head offered suggestions in a singular manner, distinct from the others and true to itself. I have since been assured that these facets of my personality—these muses, if you will—are a common authorial affliction. So I did the only thing I could—claimed them and named them. Therefore, I post this story with a nod to my four-fold pantheon. Becoming acquainted with each of you has been an exercise in creative ecstasy. –forthright

A Debt of Gratitude: This story would not exist without the incomparable, inspirational, and inexhaustible promptings of my beta. Thank you, Fenikkusuken.

Chapter 1

Protecting the Village

A hush claimed the forest as a silent form glided toward the clearing. Several pairs of eyes turned to observe the newcomer, red glares catching only starlight. With a nod he insinuated himself into the undulating cabal. Power—seductive, beguiling, treacherous. Their clan felt its magnetic pull and schemed to make it their own. One over the top of the other, the writhing youkai wound themselves into a complex knot as their leader hissed his instructions into their ears. "We are many, and they are but a few."

The conspirators exchanged looks of malicious glee, eyes alight with lust for power, glory, and blood. Slowly, the roiling mass uncoiled itself, allowing each lithe figure to disappear into the surrounding gloom. Slipping off in several directions at once, the demons moved noiselessly into position outside the unsuspecting village.

"How's this one, Okaasan?" asked the eager kitsune, obviously fishing for a compliment.

Kagome tipped her head to one side and scrutinized the battle scene before her critically. "I think if you're going for historical accuracy, Shippo-kun, you'll have to fit Kouga-kun into that picture as well."

"Oh, yeah!" returned the excited boy, who flopped back down onto his stomach to amend his drawing. Kagome smiled to herself over the kit's ambitious plans. He'd always been permitted to page through Kagome's school books, enjoying the many pictures he found there. Once he'd understood what her history text covered, Shippo was appalled. According to the disgusted kitsune, her books left out all the really important stuff. Inspired to set the record straight, he'd taken on the responsibility himself. The would-be archivist was currently drafting a timeline of their group's exploits and their fight against Naraku—in crayon. Who was she to discourage a budding historian?

Kagome's eyes drifted past the little redhead to consider the rest of their crew. Despite the lateness of the hour, Kaede sat up with them, eager for more details of their final confrontation against evil personified. Miroku was explaining how events had unfolded, with Sango interjecting occasionally to supply details he missed.

"Then, while Kouga-sama shouted insults and leapt over tentacles, Sesshoumaru-sama dropped down from out of nowhere. That wiped the sneer off Naraku's face. There was fear in his eyes then," reminisced the monk with satisfaction.

"Don't forget about how Kagome-chan's arrows kept pushing him back until he had to face Inuyasha and Tetsusaiga," added Sango, who'd had an aerial view astride Kirara.

"Yes, and that is when you gave the signal for the two brothers to strike together," continued Miroku.

"Half-brothers," groused Inuyasha from across the room.

Kagome chuckled over the way Miroku and Sango were practically finishing one another's sentences. It was good to see the peace and happiness in their faces. Sango was seated by Miroku's side, leaning back into his shoulder while they shared storytelling duties. Kagome watched the monk press a quick kiss into the taijiya's hair. Now that the hunt for shards of the Shikon no Tama was over, she was willing to bet a wedding was right around the corner.

The romance of it all teased a sentimental sigh out of Kagome. They made the perfect couple. I wonder what I could bring back from home for them as a wedding gift? The plan was for Kagome to head back through the Well tomorrow. She couldn't wait to tell everyone the good news about Naraku's demise. The look on Grandpa's face when she showed him the real Shikon no Tama would almost be worth the cost of every shard. A hot shower, a quick nap, pull together some fresh supplies, and then come back for…for what? Kagome's eyes moved to where Inuyasha lounged against the wall. No use denying it. She loved him. She'd promised to stay by his side. And that's just what she planned to do.

He hadn't said anything yet, but there had been little things over the last few days that encouraged her to hope. Inuyasha had been staying closer to her—walking by her side, sitting next to her at meals, forsaking his treetop perch during the nights. Then there were the little touches. A warm hand on her arm or at her elbow. A soft pat before letting her down off his back. A gentle tug pulling her to stand behind him, protected. Oh, he was still his gruff, blunt, cocksure self. But he had made his preference clear by placing that gruff, blunt, cocksure self firmly by her side. Maybe…just maybe there would be two weddings in the near future? One can hope.

"Here, Okaasan. It's done!" piped up a proud artist.

Kagome dutifully studied her adopted son's masterpiece again, then bit her lip to keep from laughing. "Maybe you'd better show this to Inuyasha," she urged, catching the hanyou's inquisitive look with an amused twinkle.

"C'mere, runt. What's she goin' on about?" Inuyasha beckoned. He held Kagome's gaze a moment longer than necessary, eyes glowing contentedly. She flushed slightly and smiled back happily.

Shippo scuttled over to the half demon and plopped himself unceremoniously into his lap. While artist pointed out highlights in the reenactment before them, Inuyasha leaned over the youngster's shoulder, spilling dark hair around them both. Kagome watched bemusedly for the reaction she knew would come.

"Oi! Why'd you make that bastard so big, Shippo?"


"Sesshoumaru. You made him, like, twice as big as me!"

"Oh," replied Shippo offhandedly, "That's because I couldn't fit his markings on otherwise."

"That's not a good reason. You gotta change this or people will think he's the one who killed Naraku. Make me bigger. Tetsusaiga too," insisted the half-demon, tapping a blunted fingernail at the red-clad figure in Shippo's drawing.

"He did help us, you know," scolded Kagome.

"Keh. I know that. I just don't want him getting more credit than he's due. We're the ones that killed Naraku," returned Inuyasha a little smugly.

True. It was all over—the quest, the battles, the uncertainty, the danger. Miroku's wind tunnel was gone. Sango had avenged her family's deaths. Inuyasha had dealt the final blow to Naraku. She had reclaimed all the pieces of the jewel she'd shattered three long years ago. It was an ending that promised a new beginning for each of them.

The oppressive weight that had hung over them for so long was lifted, and it was a relief to be able to relax a little. Just look at them! Miroku's teasing his girl and stealing kisses. Sango's laughing and blushing. Even Inuyasha seemed content, despite the New Moon night that heralded his time of greatest vulnerability.All of them could rest easy, now that Naraku was dead.

Miroku eased his arm more tightly around Sango's waist, pulling her closer into his side. Nice, not being slapped for it, he mused. While Sango took over the tale for Kaede, his attention wandered across the room to Kagome-sama. She appeared to be lost in thought, fingers playing idly with the jewel around her neck. The Shikon no Tama seemed to glow from within. He wondered if it was a trick of the firelight or if the completed stone was actually radiating power. Even as he considered this possibility, he saw Kagome tense. Her hand closed around the jewel completely and she turned wide eyes to look at Inuyasha. Miroku couldn't quite place the look on her face, but it was something akin to horror.

Before he could ask Kagome what was troubling her, Kirara leapt to her feet with a spitting hiss. Her feline expletive pulled Sango upright. Transforming, Kirara streaked through the door and into the night beyond. For a moment, no one moved. They just stared after her.

Shippo was the first to speak. His gasp drew all attention to his bulging eyes. He reached one trembling hand to Kagome's knee, then turned to Inuyasha. "Snakes," he squeaked out.

Inuyasha was halfway to the door in a heartbeat, Tetsusaiga in his hand.

"Inuyasha, wait!" cried Kagome, and he pulled up to see what she had to say. "Let's go together." The hanyou nodded brusquely.

Sango moved smoothly out of Miroku's arms, pulling Hiraikotsu's familiar weight onto her back. Kagome gathered up her quiver and bow. The monk turned to regard Shippo, "You'd better stay here," he decided. The distraught kitsune didn't even argue, but moved to stand beside Kaede. With a few quick words, Miroku secured sutras on the four corners of the hut, effectively warding it from intruders. "Kaede-sama, we'll try to lure them away from the village."

Sango and Miroku ducked though the mat-covered door into the night, pausing for a moment to let their eyes adjust to the darkness. Kagome was easy to spot, for the Shikon no Tama was indeed glowing from within. Its soft opalescence guided them to her side. The young woman was urging a handful of curious villagers who wanted to know what the fuss was about to get out of the open. Sango lent a hand with a few of the nosier neighbors, physically turning them and nudging them firmly back towards their doors.

"Thought we'd get a break from all this," grumbled Inuyasha.

"It's not as if we don't know what to do," reassured Sango. "Shippo said snakes. We've done snakes before. Just be careful of the fangs—they'll be poisonous."

"Inuyasha," Kagome began tentatively. "Please be… careful tonight?"

"Keh. Worry about yourself, wench," he mumbled affectionately. "I'll be fine."

Sango called to Kirara, who bounded up to the four. Miroku pulled the taijiya close for a quick kiss before releasing her to mount the cat, and Sango gave him a soft smile before directing Kirara into the air. Turning to Inuyasha for direction, he was treated to a rare sight. Will wonders never cease? Not to be left out, the dark-haired hanyou had caught Kagome in a tight embrace, his lips pressed firmly to hers. When Inuyasha stepped back slowly, Kagome looked a little breathless. Casting an eye overhead to see if Sango had caught the interlude as well, Miroku cleared his throat with a small smile. Pointing his staff in the direction from which the youki came most strongly, he called the couple's attention back to the task at hand. "Shall we?" he invited cordially.

It was impossible to move through the moonless night without stumbling. Kagome tried to contain the panic that clutched at her heart. As they jogged toward the malignant auras of their attackers, she tried to steady her breathing. I won't be any use to Inuyasha if I faint away from hyperventilation, she chided herself. Spotting Kirara's flaming path across the sky ahead, she hurried forward.

The clearing they stumbled into wasn't large, but it still took Kagome a few moments to catch sight of the attackers. Black against black, she couldn't make them out until they began to move toward her. Yep, they're snakes alright. Tall, weaving shapes glided ominously from all sides. Starlight was hardly sufficient illumination for combat. That didn't stop Inuyasha from engaging the nearest enemy, though. What is he thinking? He can't see any better than I can tonight. They were all at a distinct disadvantage against any youkai on this moonless night. Time to shed a little light on matters. Notching an arrow, she concentrated, gratified to see it flare brightly. Sending it arching overhead, Kagome gulped at the scene it lit.

Inuyasha was already surrounded by youkai. The snake demons loomed over him, easily twice his height. While these creatures had broad shoulders and bare chests, their dusky grey skin merged into coal black scales at their waists. Reared up like so many cobras, they brandished weapons with sinewy arms. Lips pulled back from needle-sharp fangs as they mocked the presumption of such weak defenders. As she watched, Inuyasha deflected the thrust of a wicked looking pike with the untransformed Tetsusaiga. Even without his demon attributes, the young man was a formidable fighter. One of the invaders appeared to be dead, but Inuyasha had sustained a wound to his thigh and was bleeding.

Another arrow and another flash brought more details into sharp relief. Familiarly pointed ears were classically youkai, but these demons bore patches of black scales across brows and cheekbones. Forked tongues flickered, tasting the night air as if searching for one scent in particular. Cruel red eyes honed in swiftly on their goal. They're after me? They're after the Shikon no Tama! This time it was Miroku's staff that met a long-handled weapon topped with its crescent-shaped blade, knocking it clear.

A quick succession of arrows halted the youkai hoard's advance. Three had been purified into oblivion, though many more remained to take their places. Maybe this won't be so bad. That's when it happened. One after the other, their attackers began to cast aside their various weapons. Inuyasha and Miroku exchanged worried looks even as Kagome's hopes spiked briefly at the clatter of falling metal. Are they surrendering? Sango swept low on Kirara and warned them back. "Look out! They're about to transform!" Sure enough, the youkai began to revert into their true forms. With sick fascination, Kagome watched the clearing fill with giant serpents.

The demon beasts were monstrous. Their girth rivaled Goshinboku's, and the fangs that glinted pale against gaping maws would give Tetsusaiga a run for the money. One by one they reared up, leering down from a height that surpassed the treetops. Kagome knew they were surrounded without having to see for herself. The sibilant whisper of coils against grass came from every direction. Winding their way around tree trunks, around rock piles, around each other. It was mesmerizing. The sensuous slide of scales. The flex and pull of muscles.

Snap out of it. With a slight shake, Kagome tried to figure out what to do next. Just then, Hiraikotsu flashed through the twisting circle of heads, neatly bisecting two youkai. Good girl, Sango, she cheered silently. Kirara was easy to see against the pale stars overhead, her flaming footfalls beating rhythmically. It never occurred to Kagome that this visibility made her vulnerable to attack.

Miroku did not hesitate. The moment Kagome-sama's first arrow lit the sky, he'd sent a volley of sacred sutras at the youkai who were trying to close in behind them. He met hard, reptilian sneers unflinchingly, protecting Kagome's back while she sent her arrows to Inuyasha's aid. One dove towards them, low to the ground, but a well-placed shakujou snapped its spine, and Miroku kicked it aside. Once the youkai began to transform, realization dawned. They're just toying with us.

Finding his sutras no longer had any effect on the snakes, Miroku concentrated on erecting a barrier around Kagome-sama and himself. Keeping a wary eye on the contortions of their foe, the monk found himself missing his Wind Tunnel. Almost. Just three days ago, this youkai attack would have been nothing to worry about. Three days ago, Inuyasha would have been in top form, with deadly claws and a transformed Tetsusaiga. Even in these numbers, the Wind Scar would have made quick work of the serpents. Three days ago, he still had the kazaana in his hand. One slip of beads and cloth would have eliminated the foe in a matter of moments. Very bad timing, this.

His eyes turned to his beautiful Sango, battling courageously astride Kirara. The two moved in practiced tandem. Even as he watched, Kirara burrowed her fiery claws into the back of a serpent's neck just as Sango buried her katana in its skull. The youkai's slitted eyes rolled back and it slipped to the ground, dead. Kagome-sama's steady barrage of arrows helped to light the field of battle. She was doing just fine behind the barrier he maintained. A glance told him Inuyasha was not faring as well. He must try to get Kagome to move with him in that direction so that they can lend the hanyou their support. Getting Inuyasha inside their barrier would give him the chance to catch his breath. Perhaps we can all regroup.

An upsurge of movement off to their left drew Miroku's eye. One of the youkai had lunged straight up into the sky, momentarily blocking a swath of stars from view. It didn't take long to assess what it was after. Apparently Inuyasha had reached the same conclusion. His voice carried the same urgency Miroku felt. "Sango! Take Kirara higher!"

At that moment, Hiraikotsu drove its way across the clearing, separating flesh and bone as it sliced past in a powerful arc. Even as another serpent fell beneath the sharp edge of the exterminator's boomerang, two more snakes darted upward, fangs bared. Miroku's and Inuyasha's warning shouts rang out, almost in unison with a feline shriek.

Kagome uttered a low moan, and Miroku turned quickly to see if she was in any danger. A ragged cry overhead snapped his attention skyward again. Fear clutched at Miroku's heart. Oh, no. No! They heard the breaking of tree branches on the other side of the clearing, and the dull thud of something falling heavily to the ground. In the moment of absolute silence that followed, they all jumped at the unexpected crash of Hiraikotsu. Its momentum had carried it back around, but it failed to find a hand to catch it.

When the men shouted, Kagome drew back her bowstring, hoping to ward off whatever danger they'd spotted. Kirara's death wail was ghastly, but the hoarse cry which followed left the miko soul-stricken. Kagome searched her brain for what it could mean. Confused, she looked overhead for Kirara, but the cat wasn't there. Realization sliced through the haze. Sango.

Though the darkness prevented her from catching sight of her adopted sister, images flooded Kagome's mind. Sango, walking beside her in her pink and green kimono. Sango, fending off lecherous advances with a firm tap from Hiraikotsu. Sango, reaching out to the little brother who couldn't remember her. Sango, sharing secret hopes for love and marriage in the hot springs. Sango was the strong one, the confident one, the knowledgeable one. She understood youkai and battle tactics and poisons and weaponry. How could Sango be…? Could Sango be dead? Injured—maybe she's just injured. Frantically, she called out, "Sango-chan? Sango!" No answer came.

Behind her, Miroku had dropped to one knee. The barrier around the two wavered as the young man gasped for air. He's going to be sick. Instinctively, Kagome reached out her hand to grasp his shakujou. The surge of her miko powers steadied the field, despite her state of shock. Sango? No, it can't be. Not after all we've been through. It isn't fair! They'd withstood Naraku's many manipulations, orchestrations, and incarnations. For three years they'd endured every kind of weather, stayed in every kind of shelter, eaten every kind of ramen. Little discomforts. Little inconveniences. Little sacrifices. But through it all they'd stuck together. They'd stood up to countless youkai—even taiyoukai. For what? To be cut down in a moment? It only took one moment.

Anger surged through her, and Kagome redoubled her efforts to launch arrows at surrounding youkai. The air around her crackled and hummed with her miko powers. Snakes that had been closing in on her, drawn inexorably to the Jewel hanging from the chain about her neck, pulled back as her energy singed them. When her lungs began to burn, she realized she was holding her breath. Blinking back tears, she reached for another missile, only to find her quiver empty.

Emboldened, the snakes began closing in. Miroku managed to find his feet again. His voice, rough with emotion, reached her. "Are you all right Kagome-sama?"

Mutely she nodded her head, then shook it as her lip began to tremble. I don't want to do this anymore. But Miroku placed his hand on her shoulder and leaned close, holding her eyes. With a determined set to his jaw, he spoke slowly, as if instructing a child. "We need to get to Inuyasha. He needs our help."

Kagome snapped to attention immediately. I can do this. Focus! "Yes, of course," she replied, in a much steadier tone.

"Stay with me," urged Miroku, as they began to cross the field of battle. Up until now, they'd remained on the very edge of the clearing. As they picked their way towards Inuyasha's position, she stumbled over lax coils and slipped through steaming offal. She wrinkled her nose over the globules currently clinging to her calves. Disgusting. Her preoccupation was shattered by Inuyasha's string of colorful invectives.

"Inuyasha, hold on! We're coming!"

The hanyou wielded Tetsusaiga energetically. Despite its untransformed state, he left deep gashes in his opponent's underbelly with powerful slashes. The wound in Inuyasha's thigh was visible through a tear in his hakama, which clung wetly to his leg. He's losing too much blood. Miroku noted some scoring across the young man's back as well, and wondered if the gouges were from blade or fang. "Inuyasha, come closer and I'll set up a barrier." The hanyou glanced at them over his shoulder, dealt one last, mortal blow to his adversary, and hastened back towards them, limping noticeably. Reaching them, he collapsed gratefully to the ground.

As Kagome began assessing Inuyasha's injuries, Miroku stepped close. Giving his shakujou a firm footing, he pushed his barrier out to accommodate them all, then strengthened it a bit. For the moment, they were out of reach of the marauders. He only hoped the snakes wouldn't turn on the village instead.

Inuyasha grunted when the miko pulled a makeshift bandage tight around his leg, staunching the flow of blood. "Take it easy, there, Kagome."

Through the slight shimmer of spiritual protection, Miroku's eyes turned to the place where he knew Sango lay. Squinting against the darkness, he thought he could make out the lighter patch of Kirara's fur. The wave of despair that surged over him threatened to weaken the barrier yet again. As if sensing a fluctuation, one of the snake youkai threw itself at the flickering shield. Miroku heard Inuyasha curse softly, then mutter praise when the barrier held.

A few of the more foolish demons tried to breech the monk's barrier periodically. It withstood each foray, leaving their attackers shaking off the bite Miroku's holy powers carried. A quick calculation revealed that the defenders were still sorely outnumbered. Miroku was nearly out of sutras, useless as they were now, and Kagome's quiver was empty. Realistically, the besieged trio couldn't keep this up indefinitely. But we don't have to. We just have to make it until dawn. Once Inuyasha transforms, he can turn the tables with Tetsusaiga. He glanced back towards the fallen taijiya. Not that it does any good for Sango, added Miroku bitterly. He was having difficulty breathing past the pinched feeling around his heart, and the roaring in his ears threatened to consume him. Still, the monk clung desperately to consciousness, one thought repeating over and over in his mind—Sango.

Kagome lost track of time as she numbly cuddled against Inuyasha. They all knew their best bet was to wait for morning. The sky had begun to lighten with the approaching dawn, and their adversaries were coming more clearly into focus. Many of the serpents simply sat back, unblinking eyes fixed on the barrier, waiting for it to diminish with the monk's waning strength. A few moved restlessly around the perimeter of the clearing, wending lazily between the trees.

Kagome kept her eyes down, not liking to meet the red eyes that loomed so near. When Inuyasha began muttering darkly under his breath, Kagome looked up in the direction he was facing. His eyes were fixed on the youkai amongst the trees, and what Kagome saw there made her stomach turn. One of the mammoth snakes was apparently feeling peckish. While Kagome watched, horrified, it nudged Kirara's battered form, and lifted the fire-cat with cavernous jaws. Another snake closed in, looking for its share, and a disturbing game of tug-of-war ensued. With a sob, Kagome hid her eyes in Inuyasha's shoulder as their feline friend disappeared slowly down the serpent's throat, swallowed whole.

Miroku-sama was looking positively green, and kept his teary eyes carefully averted from the grisly sight. Another of the snakes had slithered over, and its split tongue was flickering over the huddled form of Sango. Kagome whimpered. Not that. Miroku made a choked sound. Inuyasha narrowed his eyes and heaved himself to his feet. "Oh, hell no!" Heedless of the consequences, the hanyou burst through Miroku's protective shield and raced across the battlefield.

Kagome tried to muffle her scream so she wouldn't draw any more attention to Inuyasha's little rescue attempt than it was already getting. The hanyou made it all the way to Sango's side before the youkai registered his presence. With a ferocity that belied his current fully-human status, he propelled himself into the enemy's face and drove them back. Scooping Sango's limp form into his arms, he turned tail and flew back towards them.

With his back turned to his pursuers, Inuyasha never saw the blow coming. Kagome watched, horrified, as one of the enormous snakes drew its head back and tightened its coils to spring. "Inuyasha, behind you!"

Panting under the added weight of their fallen friend, the hanyou redoubled his efforts. He was just shy of the line of safety. The strike was lightning fast, the youkai's head hitting Inuyasha's shoulder, spinning him around, and laying him out flat on his back. Sango's body rolled to one side, and Kagome screamed shrilly. The serpent's head dove again, forcing the wind from Inuyasha's lungs, pinning him to the ground with its blunt nose. Slowly, almost teasingly, the youkai dropped its lower jaw, revealing two glistening fangs. Lifting its head just enough to shift one fang into position, the snake languidly drew it across Inuyasha's torso, from hip to shoulder. Poison seared through the protection of his fire rat, sizzling into the flesh below. A tortured scream escaped the hanyou.

"Inuyasha!" I have to do something. Casting about, she spotted a spent arrow and darted forward to scoop it up. Miroku was in motion as well, shakujou already arcing towards the serpent's head. The blow that landed forced the youkai back, allowing Kagome to stand over the prostrate hanyou protectively. Miroku hurried to Sango's fallen form, pulling her close. Inuyasha's attacker lunged forward again, but this time Kagome was ready. In her hands, the arrow tip flickered, then flared brilliantly. Bringing the miko-imbued weapon down on the head of Inuyasha's tormentor, she squinted against the sudden blaze of purifying light as the youkai was reduced to ashes.

Kagome felt Miroku reestablish the protective barrier around their new position. She cast a glance his way, grateful for his quick thinking. Dropping to her knees, she fussed with the ties for Inuyasha's suikan and kosode, needing to get a better look at the damage. The hanyou writhed under her hands, plainly suffering. The poison laid onto his skin by the fang seemed to be corroding skin and muscle. Blackened tissue festered under a bubbling greenish venom. Without his youkai-enhanced healing abilities, Kagome didn't know long Inuyasha could endure.

Feeling helpless but wanting to help, she apologized, "I don't know what to do."

Inuyasha's breathing came in short, shallow gasps. "S'okay, K'gome."

Her hands wouldn't stay still, as she plucked at his clothes and smoothed the hair away from his face. He seemed to be struggling just to stay conscious. Casting an appraising eye to the east, Kagome judged sunrise to still be an hour or so away. "Please hold on Inuyasha. Just until the sun comes up. You can do it. We need you. I need you."

The eyes that focused on her were suddenly clear. Eyes that were strange, yet familiar. Violet eyes, with all the warmth of gold.

His eyes were her undoing. "I love you, you know," she mumbled.

"I know, Kagome." One corner of his mouth quirking up in a sad little smile. "Kagome?"


"I love you, too," he said simply.

"You do?" Kagome felt her heart beat a little faster.

"Yeah. I was planning on telling you later today, after I talked to your Mom."


"Really," he assured, with a hint of a smile. "C'mere," he whispered as one hand pulled her down for a soft kiss. Inuyasha stroked her tear-stained cheek gently, then winced. A sheen of sweat now covered his body, and Kagome was immediately apprehensive. He's getting worse. The sour odor given off by the venom blended unpleasantly with the sweet smell of decay. Anguish again clouded his vision as Inuyasha whimpered through clenched teeth.

"You rest now, Inuyasha. You've got to save your strength," Kagome whispered urgently. "Just a little while longer and the sun will come up. Everything will be fine. Just hold on for me." Kagome kept up this little litany of encouragement and pleading, tenderly urging the man she loved to stay with her.

In just minutes, the hanyou was fighting for every breath. Miroku, Sango's form pressed tightly against his chest, kept his shakujou firmly upright as he edged closer to his failing friend. Kagome and Miroku exchanged looks across the hanyou's struggling body. The monk's eyes were filled with deep sadness. Kagome's own were terrified. He can't die. He can't die. He can't die. She begged, she prayed, she pleaded for his life.

Inuyasha's strength was fading, but he managed to catch the monk's eye. "Miroku, make sure Kagome is safe."

Miroku swallowed convulsively, but nodded firmly. "I will, my friend."

Inuyasha turned his head slightly and looked long at the woman he loved. "Kagome, if you need help, ask that bastard brother of mine." He wheezed a bit before adding, "He'll help. Has to. You're pack."

Kagome just nodded, biting her lip against the sobs. "Please don't go, Inuyasha. I need you here."

"Love you, K'gome. Always."

"I love you too, Inuyasha," whispered the devastated girl. When he didn't respond, she reached out to touch his cheek. "Inuyasha? Inuyasha? Inuyasha!"

She looked desperately at Miroku for help, but he dropped his eyes and gently shook his head. It was too late. With an anguished wail, Kagome threw her arms across Inuyasha's shoulders, burying her face in the crook of his neck. The sobs she'd been holding back were released in a storm of grief.

Miroku turned away from the couple, dull eyes gazing again at Sango. He'd seen a lot of death over the last several years, but this death, her death, shook him to his very core. They'd made promises to one another. They'd made plans for the future. A trip to visit Mushin, to show him the wind tunnel was finally gone. A wedding in the village in just two week's time. A little house he'd secured, not far from Kaede's. A chance to leave all the pain and sadness behind. And there would have been children—lots of children, if he'd had any say. A quiet life, a settled life, a happy life. He ran his fingers quietly through her hair. The ache in his chest was both dull and sharp. The future that he faced looked bleak indeed.

Dawn approached, and when the first rays of sunlight topped the horizon, Kagome gave a strangled cry. Looking over to where she cradled Inuyasha close, Miroku understood the fresh pain on her face. The tumble of dark hair in Kagome's lap stayed black. It didn't turn back. There was a harsh finality to that daybreak. Miroku considered the kneeling miko. Would they die here as well? He'd made a promise to Inuyasha. And just how am I supposed to keep it? Miroku wracked his brain, trying to find a plan to get Kagome to safety. She chose that moment to spare him a glance. "I miss his ears," she murmured, causing Miroku to blink at the randomness of her comment. He merely nodded. What can I say?

"What should we do now?" Kagome asked wearily. "If the village men come, they're sure to be killed."

"I don't really know, Kagome-sama." Miroku shrugged one shoulder hopelessly, "They seem prepared to wait us out."

At that moment, the miko gave a little start. "What is it?" Miroku asked in a low voice. He wondered why he felt the need to whisper.

She turned her head away from the rising sun, squinting through the trees. "Something's coming. Fast." She raised an arm, as if protectively shielding Inuyasha's body.

Miroku could sense it now, and stood. There was a demon coming, and one of unusual power. The youki being pushed before it was impressive. It buffeted against his own aura uncomfortably, warning him that he was no match against this youkai. The snakes were also aware of the approaching entity, and rose up in threatening stances all around the clearing. Apparently they wished to defend their right to the Jewel that was almost within their reach.

Over the tops of the trees, a gleaming white orb darted towards the clearing. It hovered momentarily overhead, then resolved itself into a familiar figure. Sesshoumaru-sama dropped down out of the sky, landing squarely on the head of one of the demon beasts. With a flick of his wrist, an acid whip unfurled, glowing greenly in the early morning light. With practiced ease he swung its crackling length around the neck of the serpent beneath him. A tug, and it dropped, relieved of its head. Sesshoumaru launched himself at the next snake, lashing through its skull before somersaulting towards a third youkai. There was a graceful arching of lean body and long hair before the Lord of the West came to rest on the back of the attacker nearest to Miroku and Kagome, melting flesh with glowing poison claws.

Sesshoumaru landed gently, then turned his head slowly, to take in the wreckage of battle, the state of his brother, the desperation of the survivors. Anger flickered through his gaze for a moment, tingeing it crimson. Unperturbed by the closing ranks of giant serpents, he crouched slightly and put a hand on Tokijin. There was a flash of murderous intent on his face, and an almost feral smile touched his mouth. Miroku shuddered at the vengeful mayhem that smile promised.

Faster than his eye could follow, the demon lord catapulted himself at their foes. Sesshoumaru drove through the milling crowd mercilessly, wrecking havoc on the enemy. Pieces of snake—muscle and bone—began to rain around the clearing. The remaining serpents were scattering in panic as they searched for escape through the woods. They never stood a chance. Each and every conspirator that had crowded the clearing throughout the night was efficiently hunted down and butchered. Sesshoumaru-sama makes a good ally. He'd been equally vicious in the final battle against Naraku. In no time at all, Sesshoumaru stood before Miroku again, unruffled by the large-scale slaughter. "Lower your barrier, monk," he demanded calmly.

Miroku did so, and watched with interest as the taiyoukai lifted his chin, scenting the air. Both Miroku and Kagome gazed up at their rescuer hopefully. His hand drifted to Tenseiga as he gazed down at Inuyasha and Sango, but he hesitated, considering. Unaccountably, he left his father's fang sheathed, letting his hand fall to his side again. Miroku followed Lord Sesshoumaru's movement, hope fading to puzzlement.

"Sesshoumaru-sama, will you not wield Tenseiga?" he cautiously asked.

Sesshoumaru gazed at the monk impassively, then deigned to answer, "No."

Not wanting to insult the taiyoukai who had just saved their lives, Miroku bit back the angry retort that surged up within him. Kagome, it seemed, felt no such compunction. "Why not? Please! Help us! Help them!"

Miroku held his breath and watched the taiyoukai carefully for signs of anger. The pale, proud face with its bright markings remained impassive. After a lengthy pause, he calmly replied, "I cannot."

"Why not? Inuyasha said you were the one to go to for help. He said you'd help. You have to help." Kagome-sama dissolved into another torrent of tears, hiding her face in Inuyasha's hair.

Sesshoumaru-sama's eyes narrowed at the girl for a moment, then turned to consider his brother's body. He crouched down for a closer inspection, sniffing delicately. Looking to Miroku again, Sesshoumaru-sama asked. "What does she mean, monk. Why did Inuyasha say I would help her?"

Miroku thought back, trying to recall Inuyasha's last words. "Inuyasha told Kagome-sama to turn to you if she had need. He said you would help because she was pack."

Sesshoumaru's eyebrows shot up, and he turned a piercing gaze back to the weeping miko.

Kagome was in the process of wiping her nose on the sleeve of her shirt when she realized Sesshoumaru was leaning toward her over his brother's body. She did not like finding herself the object of his scrutiny one bit, and glared at him as she scooted back slightly. He drew closer. She leaned back further. The taiyoukai gave a small huff of impatience, then demanded, "Hold still, woman."

This brought Kagome up short, thoroughly confused and a little concerned. What's he after? She looked to Miroku-sama for some kind of support, and he crouched by her side. In his most diplomatic tones he addressed the impatient Lord. "Sesshoumaru-sama, perhaps if you told Kagome-sama what you want?"

Kagome was grateful for the monk's presence because the taiyoukai's proximity was flustering. His imposing aura clashed against her own, setting the Shikon no Tama to swirling. She also realized that she'd never been this close to Sesshoumaru-sama before. He is very... powerful. She found his dispassionate stare unnerving.

Perhaps scenting her fear and confusion, the taiyoukai tried to expedite his inspection. "You have this Sesshoumaru's word. I will not harm you, miko."

Kagome sat up straight and nodded her head. I know Sesshoumaru keeps his word. That didn't stop her from widening her eyes as the taiyoukai leaned forward over Inuyasha's body and invaded her personal space again. He was near enough for Kagome to get a good look at the indigo crescent moon on his brow. It stood out sharply against his smooth skin. Under the elegant arch of his brows, his lashes were very black, and she found herself wanting him to blink so she could get a better look at the magenta markings which swept across his eyelids. He didn't blink, though. He was staring… at her mouth… and sniffing. Kagome gulped.

Sesshoumaru straightened, and Kagome found herself looking into unreadable yellow eyes once more. After a moment, the taiyoukai handed down his verdict. "You are pack."

"Pack?" she asked.

"My brother. He intended you for his mate, yes?"

Immediately tears welled up in Kagome's eyes. She nodded, and her voice cracked as she confirmed his assessment. "Yes. He was going to…" Unable to continue, she curled back into Inuyasha's side, knotting her fingers into the red of his fire rat as she cried.

Sesshoumaru rose to his feet again, leaving the miko to her tears. Miroku tried to understand the significance of the Western Lord's statement. "What do you mean by 'pack,' Sesshoumaru-sama? I know Sango…." At this his voice broke with emotion. He cleared his throat. "Sango knew so much more about youkai than the rest of us. Perhaps you can explain what this means for Kagome-sama?"

"This girl is pack. As Inuyasha's intended mate, she is… family. She is now under my protection."

So that's what Inuyasha meant. Sesshoumaru-sama is honor-bound to look after Kagome-sama in his place. Miroku looked over at the bereaved girl, who was still clinging to Inuyasha. He thought it best to understand matters clearly. "Sesshoumaru-sama? How do you plan to protect Kagome-sama?"

Sesshoumaru mulled this over for a moment before replying, "She will come with this Sesshoumaru."

Miroku doubted Kagome-sama would like this plan. He continued uneasily. "She carries the Shikon no Tama, and more attacks are inevitable. Undoubtedly she would be safest with you, but Kagome-sama may not wish to leave."

"She must."

"Leave?" Kagome's voice trembled with despair. "I'm not leaving Inuyasha! I don't want to go anywhere!"

Ignoring the miko's outburst, Sesshoumaru continued. "There are places safe from youkai. And she must learn to wield the power at her disposal. The keeper of the Shikon no Tama is granted the means to protect it."

"How do you know this?" asked Miroku.

"It has always been so."

Kagome refused to listen while Sesshoumaru and Miroku tried to make her see reason. She wanted to go home. She wanted her mother. She wanted Inuyasha. But apparently none of these things were currently available to her. So she did the only thing that made sense. She cried.

Kagome's mind was awhirl with muddled thoughts. I want to stay with Inuyasha. He'd want me to stay with him. I promised to stay by his side. I won't leave him. But then she heard his voice, pleading for her safety. If you need help, ask that bastard brother of mine. He'll help. If Inuyasha trusted Sesshoumaru to protect her, and Sesshoumaru was insisting he needed to protect her, shouldn't she allow him to protect her? I'm so confused.

In the end, Kagome gave in. She didn't have the heart to fight, so she simply gathered herself up to do what was asked of her. She sat for several minutes simply gazing at Inuyasha's face, touching his skin with tender fingertips. She missed the silver hair and the points of his ears. And his eyes. He had such beautiful eyes. Golden eyes—warm and lustrous, flecked with bronze and brown and paler yellows. Eyes that look at me with love. She could not hold back the fresh fall of tears when she realized she would never see those eyes or that look again.

They were making her leave him behind. I don't want to leave you like this. Perhaps…. With reverent fingers, Kagome eased the familiar subjugation beads from around Inuyasha's neck, dropping a final kiss on his lips as she did so. These bound you to me. Now they'll bind me to you. She held the necklace tight in one hand, close to her heart. Next, she turned considering eyes to Tetsusaiga. The battered sword had been her protector almost from the beginning. If she was not to be permitted to stay close to Inuyasha, then she would carry his sword with her in his stead. She gripped the sheath of Tetsusaiga in her remaining free hand and knelt with her head bowed, eyes tightly squeezed against more anguished tears. Goodbye, Inuyasha. Love you. Always. Turning away, she slowly rose and walked resolutely to where Sesshoumaru and Miroku waited.

Miroku saw despair on Kagome's face as she presented herself before her new protector. She didn't want to go, he knew. Still, this is the right thing to do, isn't it? Sesshoumaru-sama could keep her safe. Inuyasha had wanted her safe. As the taiyoukai stepped behind Kagome, she flashed Miroku a slightly panicked look. Her nervousness intensified as the taiyoukai's striped forearm wrapped itself around her waist. The Lord of the West spoke quietly in her ear, and Miroku saw her give a shaky nod. Her eyes, though. She really doesn't want to go. Miroku raised his hand to forestall the demon, but even as he was drawing breath to speak, Sesshoumaru disappeared in a glowing ball of light. The rings of his shakujou jangled faintly in the gust their leaving created, then stilled. Miroku remained in the aftermath of battle, utterly alone.

For a while, Miroku simply stood. Feeling sluggish as the adrenaline of battle left him, he trembled slightly. Casting an unsteady glance at Inuyasha's body, he raised his hand in a gesture of blessing towards his compatriot. He then turned eyes, gritty with exhaustion, toward the body of the woman he loved. Sapped of all strength, Miroku leaned heavily on his staff as he went to her. Sango. His memories of last night had the surreal quality of a nightmare. If only it was a bad dream. But the evidence of reality lay all around him. The coppery tang of blood. The bitter stench of poison. The scorch of burned flesh. In the cold light of morning, reality could not be denied.

All night he contained his emotions, holding himself in check because his friends needed him to keep it together. For their sakes, he forced himself set aside his grief and horror, regret and pain. But no one was left who needed him to be a pillar of strength. Finally free to give vent to his own anguish, he knelt beside his intended bride. With one trembling hand, he touched her pale face. With a groan, Miroku crumpled to the ground next to Sango. His whole body shook with the heart-wrenching sobs he allowed to come at last.

Posted October 11, 2007