CHAPTER TEN

The night was quiet, no screaming. Sesshoumaru waited until he heard stirring from the study before making his way downstairs to the kitchen. Kagura survived the night without crying out. He'd know when she appeared by the dark circles under her eyes if she'd done so by simply not allowing herself to sleep or if she'd been fortunate in her dreams.

When the woman made it downstairs, Kanna in hand, she was wearing the same jeans she'd worn the day before, and was sporting the white turtleneck Kagome had worn when they first arrived. Her hair was gathered up off her neck with the red fabric tie Kagome had given her the night before. Her eyes were unclouded, her skin clear. She was tougher than Sesshoumaru credited.

Breakfast was a loud, boisterous time. Kagura was exuberant, seemingly unaffected by her run-in with Raku. However, there was a look in her eye at times, a watchfulness that said part of her was just acting a role. Inuyasha was too oblivious to notice and they traded outrageous remarks with each other that had Kagome squeaking her boyfriend's name in protest and the Bixlers laughing helplessly.

Bixler was the quiet one in the relationship. He kept his hand on his wife's arm or shoulders and paid attention to her contributions to the conversation. Sesshoumaru saw him squeeze her arm gently whenever she'd glance Sesshoumaru's way. Wisely, she didn't direct any of her remarks at him. The table was large and full enough that the conversation ran along fine without any contribution on his part.

After breakfast the Bixlers retreated to their room, claiming the need to check email. Kagome, Kagura, and Kanna bundled up and went out for a walk after Kagura unleashed Raku long enough to use the facilities, and Sesshoumaru did his duty as prison warden while the man inhaled the leftovers from breakfast.

Needing some time alone, Sesshoumaru slipped out the front door and climbed the hill at the back of the ranch house.

Snow covered the land. Flakes continued to fall gently to the ground. There were less of them now. The storm was nearly past. It was quiet. Not one breath of wind touched the trees. They'd grown since his time.

He stayed there a while, enjoying the stillness. Years from now, when he and Inuyasha were both dead, the land would remain. He missed it, fiercely, the sense of belonging he'd had when he lived on the ranch, the sense of being a part of a greater whole.

He heard feminine laughter and voices, and looked downhill to see Kagome and Kagura walking by the barn, Kanna trudging ahead of them along the path towards the house. Kagura stopped by the toolshed to adjust her borrowed snowboots, an old pair of Inuyasha's by the looks of them. Her hand slipped on the slick wood siding and she tottered. Kagome reached out to help her and they both fell in the snow, laughing. Kanna walked on, seeming not to notice.

It took the women a while to get back to their feet and help each other brush the snow off their jackets and hats. Neither one appeared hurt.

Sesshoumaru blew warm air on his hands and descended. Gloves got in the way of trigger fingers, so he didn't wear them. Half running half walking down the steep incline, he got to the bottom of the hill and entered the house through the back door of the kitchen. Rounding the kitchen counter, he made it through the door into the hall when all hell broke loose.

Raku entered the living room from the corridor leading to the guest suite. He had a knife to Sesshoumaru's mother's throat as he sidled along, back to the wall behind him, and came into the living area. Bixler and Inuyasha followed warily.

"Please, don't hurt her," Bixler begged, anguish contorting his expression. "I have money, I'll give you whatever you want, just don't hurt her." His hands were open, his body language pleading. Sesshoumaru could've told him not to bother. Men like Raku were born without mercy. Bixler didn't know that.

The man glanced wildly around the room, locking eyes with Sesshoumaru who merely stared back impassively. His step-father wilted a little and looked to Inuyasha instead. Sesshoumaru waited. Inuyasha didn't disappoint him.

"If you hurt my mom, I'll kill you!" his brother shouted. Unlike Bixler, his hands were fisted, and the tendons in his neck were taut with rage.

Raku ignored both of them, and turned his body so Bixler's wife was a human shield, covering his torso and legs. Sesshoumaru would not be able to shoot Raku without hitting his mother.

"So this is your mom, eh?" Raku sneered. "Nice body for an old girl."

He ran his free hand down her side, causing her to close her eyes and whimper.

Bixler made an incoherent sound of frustrated rage mixed with fear.

Raku tilted the knife against her jawline, forcing her chin up. "So how do you want her to die?" he asked Sesshoumaru. "Quick or slow? Horizontal cut, or maybe some verticals?"

His mother was panting in fear with her eyes screwed shut, face tight. She'd looked a little like that the day she'd rushed out of the lawyer's office.

"I don't care," Sesshoumaru said. He turned his back and began walking away towards the stairs.

Hostages always complicated things. The only way to negate the effect a hostage had on a situation was to sacrifice the hostage. Since he couldn't very well shoot through his mother to get to Raku with Inuyasha and Bixler there as witnesses, his only other option was to place doubt in Raku's mind that taking a hostage was an effective strategy.

Raku gave an audible gasp, or was it Bixler? Sesshoumaru didn't care much either way, but it was Raku who protested first.

"What do you mean you don't care? She's your mother!"

He sounded oddly indignant for a criminal. He also sounded closer, and from the scraping and fumbling noises going on behind him, Sesshoumaru realized Raku was following him, pushing his human shield ahead of him as he went.

Making it to the stairs, Sesshoumaru put his foot on the first step.

At that moment the front door opened and Kagura and Kagome came inside, smiles fading as they took in the scene.

Raku was fast, Sesshoumaru had to give him that. In the second or two it took Sesshoumaru to turn around and step off the stair, Raku had shoved his mother to the floor and grabbed Kagura, substituting her as his hostage.

"If you don't care about your mother, then how about her?"

Fury coursed through him, surprising him even as it clouded his mind for a moment. With an effort, Sesshoumaru calmed himself, but knew his eyes were revealing his hatred to the man.

Raku cut into Kagura's neck a little, causing a fine red line to appear across the white skin. She winced, but remained completely still, eyes open, looking directly at Sesshoumaru. That was Kagura, facing life head on without apology or regret.

"Give me the gun."

Sesshoumaru knew that was coming. Moving slowly, he raised his hand and pulled his weapon out of its holster by the butt.

"Drop it," ordered Raku tersely.

Sesshoumaru obeyed, bending slightly to set it on the floor.

"Now kick it over here."

Placing his boot tip against the butt, Sesshoumaru shoved the gun across the wood floor towards his enemy, hatred running through him like an electrical wire, sharp and painful.

As he rose back to his full height, he took inventory of the situation, forcing himself to take note of anything that could help.

Bixler was on the floor with his wife, huddled protectively at her side and beginning to ask if she was OK. Kagome was shrinking back in the doorway, white faced and eyes wide with panic. Kanna was nowhere in sight. Sesshoumaru didn't know how the little girl had stolen the handcuff keys from Kagura, but the logical place for her was upstairs. She was quite probably still in the bathroom where she'd freed her father.

Out of the corner of his eye, Sesshoumaru saw Inuyasha grab the fireplace poker and begin yelling insults at Raku. He was so noisy that Raku actually glanced over at him. That was when Sesshoumaru made his move.

When he'd bent to set the knife on the floor, he'd pulled his throwing knife out of his boot and palmed it. The moment Raku looked over at Inuyasha, Sesshoumaru sent the cunning little carbonized steel dagger flying into Raku's arm. From the stairs the angle was much better for projectile fighting, and the knife buried itself deep into Raku's bicep. The fool had wrapped his free arm across Kagura's chest, presenting an easy target.

It crossed Sesshoumaru's mind, fleetingly, that he'd known Inuyasha would provide a welcome distraction because he knew his brother so well. Inuyasha could no more keep quiet during a confrontation than he could fly. Some knowledge was ingrained.

Kagura was the wild card, but she didn't disappoint.

The moment Raku grunted in pain, she became boneless, slipping down his body and under his arms, which had loosened in surprise. Landing on the floor in a crouch, she lunged away and grabbed Kagome, pulling her back away from the hall and into the doorway of the utility room to Sesshoumaru's right. Raku's two closest choices for hostages were now barred to him.

Raku howled and tried to follow, but Inuyasha was there, charging forward and swinging the poker. Sesshoumaru wisely stepped back out of the way. When Inuyasha was enraged he resembled a bull in a china shop, and Sesshoumaru preferred not to become broken crockery.

The poker hit Raku's arm, dislodging the knife embedded in it. Sesshoumaru felt his eyebrows rise. His little brother was showing a modicum of sense in his plan of attack, going for Raku's weakest flank.

The man howled and stumbled, dropping his own knife to the floor. He flattened himself to the wood flooring to avoid Inuyasha's next swing and reached out, hooking the boy's heel with his hand. One yank, and Inuyasha was down on his back, cursing.

Unfortunately, Raku noticed Sesshoumaru's gun lying on the floor in front of his face and grabbed it as he pulled his arm back from tripping Inuyasha. Grimacing, he rolled to a seated position and backed up by sliding his rear end across the floor so his back was in the front doorway.

Sesshoumaru was pleased to note that Raku's wounded arm hung useless at his side and blood was seeping from the wound. He was less pleased to realize that Raku's eyes were no longer coldly calculating, but seething, and Raku's gun was pointed directly at him.

Inuyasha was staring at him as well. Sesshoumaru had one last card up his sleeve, but it depended on his brother remembering.

Llamas were skittish beasts. In order to sneak up on them, Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha had developed a set of small hand signals to communicate their next move in trapping the animals in order to vaccinate them. Shifting his hip forward to conceal his hand from Raku, Sesshoumaru pointed two fingers at the floor and curled them before relaxing his hand. If Inuyasha saw and understood then even if Sesshoumaru died, he'd still get Raku in the end.

"You!" Raku snarled. "This is all your fault. I'll make you pay." He raised the gun an inch higher.

'How disturbingly unoriginal' Sesshoumaru thought as he braced himself. At this range Raku wasn't likely to miss, and there wasn't much Sesshoumaru could do about it but move as Raku fired and hope he didn't hit anything vital. While Raku's attention was focused on him, Inuyasha could make his move.

The gun barked once, just as a shape exploded from the side.

Sesshoumaru looked down in front of him to see his mother's crumpled form between him and Raku. She'd thrown herself in front of the gun, taking the bullet meant for him.

A second later, Inuyasha swung his poker, hitting Raku from the side. The poker landed with a crunch against the man's temple, and he dropped.

Sesshoumaru didn't need to check Raku's pulse to know the man was dead. Only death could cause him to release Sesshoumaru's gun and lie like a pile of dirty rags on the floor.

His mother, on the other hand, was writhing and groaning. Bixler was at her side in a heartbeat, cradling her upper body against his chest and pressing against the widening red stain on her shoulder. He was crooning nonsense words, endearments, at his wife.

Inuyasha dropped the poker and fell to his knees at her side.

"Mom? Mom! You're going to be OK, you hear me?"

Trust his brother to try to harangue someone back to health.

Kagome tore away from Kagura's side and ran past. "I'll call 911!"

Ever practical, Kagura disappeared through the door of the utility room and returned with one of the clean towels stacked on the laundry machine. Bixler accepted it with thanks and pressed it to the wound.

Sesshoumaru stood in his place by the stairs and watched. The shoulder wound was high, directly under the collarbone. His mother was breathing fine, so the lung hadn't been hit. Unless she went into shock, she'd survive. He walked slowly over to stand by his brother. Her eyes followed him, her expression dark with pain.

"Why?"

His question was directed at his mother, but everyone except Kagome, who was yelling hysterically into the kitchen phone, turned to look at him. He ignored them, keeping his attention on his mother.

Her eyes were blue. He didn't remember them being that vibrant a shade and supposed she wore color enhancing contact lenses. Pain was making her cheeks appear drawn, and her blonde bob of a haircut was an unruly mess. Still she managed to look beautiful.

"Because you're my son," she told him hoarsely. "And that's what mothers do."

Sesshoumaru looked away. He walked away from the group on the floor and left through the open front door.

o-o-o

Kagura knew that she'd never met anyone as stubborn as Sesshoumaru in her whole life. His mother threw herself in front of a bullet for him, and he walked away.

Before he took that first step, she thought she saw a gleam of doubt in his eyes.

Never one to let well enough alone, she followed him out the door.

He hadn't gone very far. He was at the edge of the porch when she caught up with him.

"Hey, where are you going?"

She hadn't meant for her words to come out so belligerently, but she stood by them, coming to a halt at the top of the porch steps and grabbing his arm to top him.

Sesshoumaru looked at her, not her hand on his arm as if he wanted it off of him, but right in her face. It wasn't much, but it was a start. It showed he was taking her seriously.

"To meet the ambulance," he said simply.

Anger deflated, Kagura remembered the trouble she'd had finding the ranch house's driveway. There was only a small mailbox by the opening in the trees to show where the driveway began.

She lifted her chin. "Then I'm coming too."

"Suit yourself."

Kagura wasn't sure if she was imagining it or not, but it sounded like there was a tiny note of amusement in his voice. It was truly a day for miracles.

Moving her hand around his arm, she linked elbows with him, scarcely daring to breathe as she waited to see how he'd react.

Sesshoumaru merely started down the steps, allowing her arm to remain linked to his when they reached the bottom and made their way down the driveway Inuyasha had shoveled earlier that morning.

They must've looked like an ice skating couple in one of those Victorian style greeting cards, but Kagura found that she didn't care. There was something almost stately about walking on a man's arm, and she was glad of the support for the driveway was slippery. As they came to the trees, Kagura caught a glimpse of the road beyond them and saw that it had been snowplowed already. The ambulance would get through. It also meant that they could've left any time that morning, yet Sesshoumaru chose to remain at the ranch. Was it because she still had his car keys?

She took a deep breath and felt their solid, metallic presence in her bra. The handcuff keys she'd kept in her pocket. Kanna must have lifted them during the walk, then ran on ahead to free her father. Raku wouldn't have harmed Kanna; she was far too useful a tool to him. The child was a survivor. Damaged, but enduring. Kagura saw a bit of herself in the kid.

Dismissing Kanna from her thoughts, she centered her attention on the man walking next to her.

"So, what'll you do now that your bounty is dead?" she asked, meaning to taunt but sounding curious instead.

"The reward has a dead or alive clause to it."

She snuck a glance at his face. Sesshoumaru was never what you'd call animated, but there was a relaxed, thoughtful aspect to his expression that she'd never seen before.

"That's lucky."

"Yes."

They walked on in silence to the end of the driveway and stood by the mailbox.

"She'll be alright," Kagura predicted.

"I know."

She stepped around to stare in his face. "How do you feel about that?"

The question hung in the air between them. The silence drew on as Sesshoumaru stared down into her searching eyes. He let her see the confusion inside. Shutters were coming down, and they were coming down for her.

"Content," he said at last.

Content.

And with that one word she had to be content too, for she knew Sesshoumaru wouldn't say anything more.

She smiled. It was enough.

o-o-o

The next day Kagura and Sesshoumaru took Kanna for a walk up the hill. She'd been told her father was dead, but hadn't reacted with either sadness or joy. Her hand was limp in Kagura's grip as they made their way through the snow.

The police finished taking all their statements the night before, the questioning expedited by a friend of Sesshoumaru's in the local police department. Raku's body was in the morgue, and Bixler took his wife home from the hospital to the tender care of a housekeeper and maidservant. He declared he was taking a week off of work as well to make sure she recuperated properly.

Kagome became clingy and sentimental towards Inuyasha, his brush with danger making her hyper aware of the fragility of life and the ease with which loved ones could be lost. She agreed to stay on at the ranch for the last week of her Christmas break, even after her plumbing was fixed. Kagura wondered how long it would take for Inuyasha to do something to get them bickering again.

The trio stopped at the top of the hill and turned their backs to the ranch house. Kagura watched Sesshoumaru's eyes sweep across the landscape. It wasn't a tactical sweep. It wasn't the way he looked around when entering different surroundings like a hospital or police station, searching out possible threats. It was different, appreciative. He loved the place.

Kanna lifted her free hand and latched on to Sesshoumaru's, hanging still at his side. Kagura saw his jaw tighten with surprise, then relax. The three of them stood quietly, looking out over the ranch.

"So what now?" Kagura asked softly, speaking over the child's head. "Do you have to show up in person to collect your reward, or will you stay here for a while?"

Inuyasha, with Kagome's stout support, had invited Sesshoumaru to stay. He insisted that half of the ranch belonged to his brother and said that from now on Sesshoumaru had better be around to check on his investment or Inuyasha would run it into the ground just out of spite. Kagome made a face at that pronouncement, but begged her future brother in law to consider the ranch his home whenever he wanted it.

"I will stay, for a while," Sesshoumaru's voice came grudgingly.

His mother's recuperation may or may not have factored into his decision. Kagura suspected that part of the reason he was staying was because of her, but knew he'd never speak of it. She knew too when to let things stay unspoken.

"It's kind of nice out here," she said, scanning the landscape.

It was true. The land dipped in a series of meadows past the ranch buildings. In the far distance a ridge cropped up like a protective wall, sheltering the meadowlands. Beyond it lay mountains, dark purple shadows beneath snow tipped summits.

"It grows on you," she pronounced.

Sesshumaru hummed a single note of agreement.

It was true. She'd always lived in towns or cities, but it wasn't until coming to the ranch that she'd learned to appreciate silence. She'd have to get used to silence if she wanted to be with Sesshoumaru, and she did want that. Once Kagura made her mind up, she went for it.

"Want some company?" she asked airily.

Kanna squeezed her hand. Kagura looked down at her in surprise, but Kanna's face was set towards the meadows, and she refused to return Kagura's gaze. Glancing over, she saw that Sesshoumaru was looking down at the top of Kanna's head as well. The child must've squeezed his hand too.

He looked over at her, and Kagura promptly forgot all about Kanna.

"Yes," he said.

When had she ever thought Sesshoumaru's face was unexpressive? The raw hunger and longing she saw there made his look of appreciation over his ranch pale by comparison. Her heart clenched. She'd made the right decision. Besides, she was getting tired of insurance claims investigations. Assisting a bounty hunter was way more exciting. For all that Sesshoumaru loved his ranch and would always come back to it, hunting was in his blood now. They would hunt together.

"Good," Kagura said, and smiled.

The End.

A/N: That's it, end of story. Leave a review and let me know if you liked or disliked it. I thought the original ending was a bit abrupt so I tacked on the scene on the hill, but I'm not sure if it worked.