A/N: Hello, all. I'm back! Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Rumors about my insane schedule leaving me little to no energy to write, however, are not. Sorry, people. I keep promising to be better about this, but I've clearly failed to live up to that lofty goal. But if anything, this proves the truth in one promise I *will* keep - I will not abandon this story! Not until it is done. Pinky swear!
I want to thank all of you who have stuck by me all this time - I got several notes and reviews throughout the last 24 months encouraging me to return and promising they'd continue reading, no matter how long it took. It was incredibly heartwarming, and I'm absolute full of gratitude and love for all of you. If I have lost readers, that is entirely my own fault, but the ones who have stayed deserve all credit for being absolutely fabulous! *hugs*
Special thanks to Ijin, who has put up with two years of sporadic "I swear I'll send you the next chapter to beta!" emails and has been unfailingly patient with me. She is awesomesauce.
A brief recap for those who do not remember - Kagome and Sesshoumaru were last seen in London, vanquishing Jack the RIpper, who turned out to be a demon-turned-traitor. The Order (specifically the last female shape-shifter) was controlling him and having him kill people with the smallest traces of demon blood, for reasons unknown. After their victory, Kagome and Sesshoumaru heard of a group of demons hiding in Africa and decided to go to make contact.
Beside You in Time
1896: Stanley Falls, Congo Free State
Kagome lifted her thick hair off of her neck and coiled it loosely at the crown of her head. "I've decided that I'm going to kill him," she murmured, pressing a cool, damp cloth to her sticky skin.
"That is not our purpose here." The phrase was so well-worn after only two days that it just rolled off his tongue without a second thought. He kept his eyes on his book.
"And we never go beyond our intended purposes, right?" She turned to him and frowned. "You know that he deserves it."
Sesshoumaru nodded. "Every man in this place does. I would gladly remove their heads from their shoulders myself, but we can't afford to draw anyone's attention here."
"The next closest outpost is weeks away by steamship. If we set the place on fire, they won't even suspect us."
"No, they will not," he agreed, closing On Liberty and looking up at her at last. "They will suspect the natives. You know what they do to criminals here."
Her hair tumbled back over her shoulders as she pivoted towards him. "They were not criminals!"
"The Force Publique believes they were," Sesshoumaru countered. "That is all that matters here."
"How can you do nothing? Leon Rom is insane. A monster."
"Which we knew as soon as we arrived, but that does not change the fact that he is considered the law here." He shook his head and added quietly, "Step away from the window, Kagome."
She gave him a flat look, although she did as he requested. "It's not like I don't see them staring at me every time I close my eyes."
His eyes slid over to the one window of their small, thatched hut. The small opening overlooked Leon Rom's garden, and Sesshoumaru knew its position had been deliberate. The station chief was not one to hide his malicious nature. Not here, thousands of miles from anyone that could do anything to tear him from his secure seat of power. No one else in Stanley Falls cared that Rom had a garden of human heads.
One of them stared at him through the window - a dead man's face frozen in an expression of fear and despair and baked in the sun. Twenty more heads in various states of stinking decay stood on spikes arranged throughout Rom's personal garden - all of them Africans, naturally. They stood as milky-eyed guardians, deflecting anyone that would dare to question Rom.
Sesshoumaru had simultaneously sensed the swell of pride in Rom as well as Kagome's trembling anger when they first saw the macabre display. After all she had seen, Kagome had managed to keep her stomach still, but it was only a matter of time before she did kill Rom. Honestly, Sesshoumaru was warming to the idea himself. They clearly had to leave as soon as possible - he could not have a manhunt at their backs while they searched the jungle.
He turned back to Kagome. She was flush with her fury, which had been simmering beneath the surface for the past two days. He knew he should work at reining it in - stop her from turning a tinderbox into an inferno - but he couldn't bring himself to do more than the bare minimum. Her thirst for vengeance was not new - she had always raged against cruelty. The bloodthirstiness, however, had taken a sharper edge in the past few years, since the moment they'd arrived in Africa. It was dangerous and strange and seductive.
Sesshoumaru pulled himself upright and cursed the hot weather for affecting him so greatly. Kagome had been his companion for centuries and had more recently started to share his bed - the attraction was nothing new, and he would not normally be having such juvenile and base urges. He was no pup! If he were honest with himself, in cooler-headed moments, he was appalled that he found a murderous Kagome alluring at all. It was not her - it was more akin to looking in the mirror. He recognized that quick temper and willingness to use the sword instead of patience and planning from his own younger days.
He grimaced. He could imagine what Inuyasha would say to something like that.
"We will be late for dinner," he said, shaking his head clear.
"I would rather sit down at a table with one of the shape-shifters," she muttered. "Tell Rom that I don't feel well."
"I told him that last night, and before you say that it will lend greater credence to you being sick tonight, he saw you leave for your walk through the jungle. He is evil, but do not confuse that with stupidity."
"Tell him I'm asleep then," Kagome said, her breath quickening and her voice rising. "Or a hippo dragged me to the bottom of the river. Or I've fallen into a black hole and have been temporally displaced. I don't care, but I'm not sharing a meal with that man."
He stepped close to her and enjoyed the defiance in her eyes. "You are being ridiculous," he growled, watching a droplet of sweat rolling down her neck, over her clavicle and down into her loose chemise. He felt his own breath quicken and turned his gaze away. Damn this heat, he thought again. It wasn't only Kagome acting out of sorts - they didn't suffer as the humans did in the humid jungle, but the constancy of it meant their bodies couldn't entirely compensate. The heat seemed to simmer inside his skin.
Sesshoumaru was catapulted right back into immediate desire for her. He remembered how long it had been since they were truly alone, without an entire ship's crew outside their door as they crawled up a river or a company of Force Publique soldiers watching their every move.
When he looked back, Kagome was watching him with a guarded expression. He backed up a few feet. "I apologize," he murmured. "I am unhappy with the situation as well, but you may do as you wish."
"You want me." Their eyes locked for a moment before she reached for her high-necked blouse, and her cheeks colored. "I mean, you want me at dinner. Don't you?"
"I do not want to sit at a table with Rom any more than you do," he said. "The frustration of not being able to cut his throat open is easier to bear when you are beside me. An ally can be the greatest comfort before a fight."
"'Before'?" she echoed, pausing in her movements.
He allowed a corner of his lips to tilt upwards. "When we are finished finding our kind and securing their safety, we might have reason to pass back through this place. Then Rom's continued health is no concern of mine."
She flashed a predatory grin at him as she shrugged into her outer layers of clothing, hiding the smooth expanses of skin from his view. "I guess I can get through dinner with that to sustain me."
Sesshoumaru curled a hand into a tight fist, feeling his blunted nails dig into his palm. "It is a different thing to murder a man than to kill him in combat, Kagome. Should we feel the need to kill Rom, I will deliver the blow. I will not have you become a murderer, no matter what anger you feel," he said. "I have told you all of this before."
"And I've told you that you're far too worried about my innocence, which is long since gone. It's as if you don't believe that I have blood on my hands." She lifted her head high. "Besides, there is a human head staring at me from outside my window. It's not murder. It's justice."
He could be so much harsher with her if he didn't find her steely resolve so damn enticing. "Then keep justice at bay for a short time longer."
She slid a final pin into her hair and smiled at him as she swept past him. "I'll try."
Within five minutes of leaving the little hut that served as their temporary home, Sesshoumaru regretted the request. Rom had disguised himself wonderfully - handsome and powerful with his oiled mustache, his pressed uniform and his ribbons. His masquerade as a human was almost perfect, except that he betrayed his true nature as soon as he opened his mouth.
"The problem with the blacks is that they lack discipline. The best of them are lazy and uncivilized. Others are like wild dogs, snapping at our heels whenever they have the chance. We deal with them as anyone would deal with a feral beast," Rom was saying, a smug little grin under his mustache. "Unlike dogs, however, they don't learn their place when they've been kicked."
Sesshoumaru could almost see Kagome's skin crawling from the opposite side of the table. "I don't really see what that has to do with our choice of sites for the new mission," she said, keeping her expression impressively neutral.
"My lovely Madame Spenser, I am trying to be delicate. The fact is that I see your entire Christian mission to be a waste of time. These blacks have no interest in anything that would encourage them to be good, moral and hardworking. Not even the threat of hellfire and damnation will have an effect. I know from personal experience." He reached across the table and patted her hand, giving her a smile of pity the whole time. "I wouldn't want you to be too disappointed. It's their nature. I'm sure it will have nothing to do with your teaching."
Kagome pulled her hand out from under Rom's. "Don't worry about me," she answered. "I'll find someone to save. And there'll be plenty of the fire and brimstone of damnation along with it."
Sesshoumaru looked at her smile and her tense muscles, knowing that she was about to throttle the life out of Rom over the dinner table. He had to suppress his own desire to drop his concealment spell - to let his stripes, claws and fangs show before opening Rom's throat. "You can understand that hope springs eternal in my wife," he cut in. "And she is far more tenacious than you give her credit for, sir. She will have her way." He cast a meaningful glance at Kagome, and she understood. Her shoulders relaxed.
Rom gave a small smirk, and Sesshoumaru remembered his own words to Kagome - a monster, perhaps, but Rom was not a fool. "You will both have the support of the Force Publique, of course. Whatever you need. We are all brothers in Africa, whether we are English or Belgian." He paused and looked at Kagome. "Or whatever other kingdom we are subject to. You are missionaries, after all."
"Missionaries that have been in Africa for years, commander," Sesshoumaru said. "We understand the way of things."
"Do you?" Rom asked. "I suppose we shall see when you ask for our help, monsieur. It will happen. It is just a matter of whether you ask for food or for shackles."
"You have a permanent gallows in an outpost for a few hundred men," observed Sesshoumaru. "I can imagine what sort of help you are more willing to provide. I assure you, neither my wife nor I shy away from the more unsavory parts of this life. We understand there are necessities that go beyond what we would want. Do not mistake a missionaries' hands for ones that are clean."
"You do have a military bearing," Rom said, grinning again. "Am I wrong?"
The demon lord frowned - he was willing to play his part as a missionary, as a Christian, and even as a man willing to overlook the corruption of an entire colony, but he would not share the truth of himself to Rom. "There was a time I shed blood as my primary occupation," he hedged.
"Past, but not forgotten?" the commander asked. "I am pleased to find a missionary with such an open mind. We've had trouble with ones that are not so agreeable to the, ah, realities of Africa."
"'Trouble'?" Kagome echoed. "What kind of trouble, when you are so generous with your assistance, commander?"
"I already told you, madame. These blacks will not take to your teachings. Some violently reject them and the teachers. We find the bodies on occasion, but usually, we don't. Then, there are the missionaries that lose themselves to Africa and defend the violence and unrest of the blacks."
The miko straightened in her chair. "And what happens to those missionaries?"
Rom smiled. "We do find them. This may be the Dark Continent, but when it comes to treason, we may as well be in Belgium. I am the king's man in this small corner of the world, after all," he said. "But I'm sure we won't have any reason to remind you of that, madame."
Sesshoumaru held back the snarl that rose in his throat at the obvious threat. "Do not concern yourself," he said. "It will be like we were never here."
"We're ghosts," Kagome murmured.
"You'll have good company, then," Rom said with a twist of his lips.
The antelope's blood spilled down his back as he slung the animal over his shoulder. The heat of it radiated through his muscles, relaxing him for the first time in recent memory. His predatory nature had been confined for so long in the guise of a missionary, an aristocrat, a human. It had been years since he even allowed himself the raw, animalistic pleasure of the hunt.
He paused and took stock of his location. He'd gone farther than he intended - Kagome was several miles away, in the small clearing they'd made on the river bank. Sesshoumaru had no fear for her safety - she'd shot a crocodile clean through its skull on their third day in the forest when it had mistakenly believed the miko was an easily-caught lunch. His concern did not stem from the fact that he had left her alone, but rather, that he may have not. The Force Publique soldiers had escorted them to the site of their new mission a week before, and they had all borne each other's presence with wordless civility. In the days since their departure for the station, however, Sesshoumaru had found signs that they had not all left. Rom was having them watched. The only blessing seemed to be that his appointed spies were terrible, at best - Sesshoumaru was having a harder time avoiding them than letting them realize he was aware of their presence.
The situation with Rom's lackeys would resolve itself, he knew, as he began the jog back towards Kagome. It would not be hard to slip away, unseen and untrackable, to continue their search for the last demon settlements. The Force Publique would look for a time but eventually give them up as victims of the African wilderness. A soldier may even spin a tale about seeing them dragged off by crocodiles, crushed by hippopotamuses or struck down by natives to cover for his own careless spying. Sesshoumaru found that being dead, when he could manage it, could be very helpful indeed.
And it would give them that much more advantage of surprise when they returned to Stanley Falls to carry out the death sentence Sesshoumaru had promised Rom would receive. Kagome had not spoken of it since leaving the station, but he knew her fervor hadn't diminished. She reminded him of a sleeping leopard - harmless only until she didn't want to be.
Perhaps he would let her kill Rom, after all. They were in the middle of the jungle, free of European social constraints, and yet, she had not shed her mask of the proper missionary's wife. She remained swathed in thick, high-necked dresses as she studied her Bible, breaking only to do her chores and to take a short, daily walk through the rubber trees. He was not fooled by her well-mannered bearing. Her frustration and anger was rattling around within her, smashing everything else to dust, and he was beginning to believe her bloodthirsty mission was the only thing that would release her.
He swung wide around the camp as he approached, checking downwind of the camp for any lingering Force Publique soldiers. He found nothing new - Kagome had been left in peace during the day. Just as he turned his feet towards her, however, he heard a sharp shriek that was unmistakably hers.
Sesshoumaru flew through the trees, his feet barely touching the ground as he imagined Kagome fending off a crocodile or struggling to escape a spitting viper. Bursting into the clearing, however, he found nothing of the kind - only Kagome, smiling and encircling another male within her arms. It was the first time he'd seen anything but quiet fury from her in weeks.
Kagome turned to Sesshoumaru as soon as he came into view, her arms still looped around the other male's neck. "Sesshoumaru!" she exclaimed, her shriek of excitement - not fear - still reverberating through the air. "Look! He's here!" Her joy stuttered as she realized who she was talking to, and she fell silent for a long moment. "I only meant... it's Shippo. He made it."
Sesshoumaru and Shippo stared at one another impassively as Kagome moved to embrace the fox again. "Please," he heard her whisper into Shippo's ear. "Please don't fight."
He buried his nose into her hair. "I'll try. For you."
They broke apart once more, although she kept a tight hold on the fox demon's hand. "You're late. I was terrified. I haven't seen you in decades, and you took your time in meeting us?"
"It's Africa. Things don't go as planned," Shippo answered. "I didn't even know you were looking for me - for us - until you came to Stanley Falls."
Sesshoumaru's stomach twisted as Kagome beamed up at the fox. "We didn't know either. It wasn't until we got a letter from the countess when we arrived in Boma telling us to ask for the kitsune leader that we realized you might be the one running things down here."
Shippo gave a small smile. "I'm just one of the old guys now, Kagome. That doesn't mean I'm one in charge. It's not how we work."
"How do you 'work' then?" cut in the taiyoukai.
The fox studied him for a long moment before answering. "The Kuba tribe has taken us in. We respect the fact that our decisions affect them. We all move forward together."
Sesshoumaru scowled. "You mean that you allow humans to make decisions for our kind."
A flash of indignation crossed Kagome's face before she settled into that flinty expression that Sesshoumaru knew did not bode well for him. He saw that Shippo noticed it as well. A small smirk tugged at the corners of the fox's mouth. "Are you asking if we have similar arrangement to your own? Yes, we do," countered the fox. The smile dropped away. "In all your time with the humans, living in their world, have you really not realized that we can't live in isolation anymore? That we need them?"
"You are supposed to protecting our species, not exposing us to outsiders," snarled Sesshoumaru.
"We're not the only ones in danger!"
"They are none of our concern. Humans thrive while we die. You are capable of living without them. If they are not capable of living without you, it is not your problem."
"Just because you're a heartless bastard that doesn't bother considering anyone's interests but his own doesn't mean that we're all like you. And I'm glad of that!"
"Your foolish sentimentalities endanger our kind!"
He became aware of Kagome's blossom of power only a second before she sent a sharp pulse through the air, making their skin prickle and a shiver run down their spines. "Five seconds, and you're already fighting! Can't you put aside your petty, ancient history and act like adults for once?" She took a deep breath, and her shoulders slumped. "I can't deal with you two and your issues too. Please, I will ask one more time. Be civil. For me."
The defeat in her voice chastened him more than the purification energy still crackling through the air. He did not understand why the fox angered him so much - Rin and Suoh had moved past the long-ago indiscretion. Why couldn't he? Shippo's mere presence roiled his insides almost as much as Brandt.
He glanced at the fox, who seemed similarly subdued. Their eyes met and a grudging, silent truce was reached in an instant. Shippo evidently had had experience with an infuriated Kagome as well.
Sesshoumaru cleaned the antelope as Shippo built up a fire, and soon, Kagome hummed as she cooked the meat. Her tension melted away, and Sesshoumaru saw his familiar companion reemerge as she talked and teased them both about long-ago adventures in Japan. Shippo began to laugh more often, and Sesshoumaru finally felt his own muscles relax as the jungle began to grow dark. The discomfort of the sudden shift of circumstances ebbed, and Kagome rolled up her long sleeves and loosened her high collar as she worked. Only when dinner was complete and night had fallen did she turn serious again.
"It's been, what? Eighty years since I saw you?"
"Closer to ninety," replied the fox with a small smile and shrug.
Sesshoumaru didn't know if he imagined the hollowness behind Shippo's words, making him sound more like a lost child than a demon. He had not been there when Shippo decided to part from Kagome and travel on his own, but Sesshoumaru knew he had been the deciding factor. Kagome had wanted to return to Sesshoumaru after losing her husband, and Shippo had refused to accompany her. He could not overlook the bad blood between them, and the situation would only make Kagome miserable. In the end, she had realized the truth of it, and Shippo had left.
The taiyoukai preferred it that way - although he had long ago absolved Rin for her indiscretion with the kitsune, Shippo never held the same favor with him as his ward did. He had been Shippo's lord and commander - he had given him a place in his guard and elevated him to a coveted position in the inner castle. Sesshoumaru did not reward parentage in his troops, and Shippo had risen to his rank entirely by his own merit, which naturally included his express loyalty to the Western Lands. And then, he had betrayed that trust that Sesshoumaru had held in him. He betrayed his direct superior, Suoh, by sleeping with Rin - a woman who would have died of old age when Shippo was still a child but for Suoh taking her as his mate.
He would never trust Shippo again, regardless of how much faith Kagome had in him. Perhaps because of that faith she had.
She was leaning close to him now. "So, what have you been doing all this time then?"
"Same as you. Traveling. Looking for more youkai. Searching for places we can be safe. Occasionally running across the Order."
Kagome shook her head. "It can't be as simple as that."
"Yeah, it can. How much really matters when you live as long as we're supposed to? Things change, but it has to be huge for it to make a lasting impression on immortals." His green eyes flashed as he looked back and forth between them. "Why? Anything happen with you two that's worth mentioning?"
If his nose hadn't already told him, Kagome's nervous stutter did. "No. No. No more than you," she replied as Shippo's tails twitched. "Why did you come to Africa?"
He let the question hang for a moment before he acquiesced to the shift in subject. "I thought it would be a good place for us. Some youkai already had that idea, of course. I tried to gather them a bit closer together though, in case we ever needed each other. Now that we do, I'm not so sure that's been a successful part of the plan. We haven't lost any that I know about though. Not yet."
"How many are there?"
"Sixty-eight in the village I'm staying in at the moment. Twelve of us are full youkai, which is more than I'd seen anywhere else in decades. I don't know exactly how many more are spread through the region. Not everyone agrees with my way of doing things. And the Kuba aren't the only tribe helping us, although they're particularly useful, because they have a long-standing policy to kill any unwanted visitors, especially Europeans. Rumors are slower to get around."
"Seems to be working well enough. That's more than we expected, after all," Kagome said. "Is anyone as powerful as you?"
"We don't compare ourselves, but, like I said, I'm one of the older ones," he replied, which Sesshoumaru silently translated into a 'yes'. Shippo had four tails now, and he'd been born of powerful parents. Even in the old days teeming with demons, the kitsune would have been a challenging foe.
"There are young ones? Children?"
Her questions were so different than the interrogation Sesshoumaru would have put him to, but they were far more effective. A grin spread across Shippo's face, and he leaned towards her. "Yeah, we have a few. More on the way. Full-blooded, three-quarters, half-demons. Everything. Sometimes, I forget that we're in any danger, because I'm surrounded by kids." He paused for a moment to give her a knowing look. "Before you ask, none of them are mine."
Her expression softened. "Shippo," she began.
"Not now, Kagome," he interrupted with a small sigh.
"Alright." She cast a troubled look at Sesshoumaru, as if she expected him to empathize when he was really just thankful he did not have to listen to Shippo's romantic woes.
"Why do you need us here?" Sesshoumaru asked instead.
"Who said we did?" Shippo countered, his eyebrow creasing. "I found you after some of the men told me about the strange missionaries that arrived at Stanley Falls. I knew it had to be you. But we didn't ask anyone for help."
Kagome was touching him again, wrapping her small hands around one of his. "Shippo, we've met Rom. And a hundred more like him, even if they didn't exactly have a garden of severed heads. The Belgian king is telling the world this is a humanitarian colony, to Christianize and to civilize the natives."
"If you're trying to tell me how alone we are, we already know," he murmured.
"No, of course not. We would like to help you, but only if you want us."
He bent his head over their interlaced hands. "Kagome, when you're here, I feel like everything's going to be alright at the end of the day. Just like when I was a kid," he said. "I didn't know it could end any other way back then. I do now. So, yes, I want you here, but I need you to leave. The youkai will survive, so the Alliance has nothing to worry about."
Kagome shook her head. "Absolutely not. If you're helping this tribe, so can I. And Sesshoumaru will come, because I'm sure he's already realized that the youkai aren't actually safe if they're in the middle of this fight." She arched an eyebrow in Sesshoumaru's direction, challenging him to say otherwise.
"If we do assist, it will not be in a fight over their village," the taiyoukai said. "The tribe will have to move. They cannot fight the Force Publique from the ramparts of a city, as in a normal war. On even ground, they will be slaughtered."
"That's their home," began the kitsune.
"And their graves, if they hold a piece of land more precious than their common sense," returned Sesshoumaru. "You were a soldier in my guard for years. You should see there is only one possible answer. Your emotions, as always, are your downfall."
"Don't," snapped Kagome as Shippo opened his mouth. "You know he's right. About the fighting. Not the emotions bit." She shot a peeved look at Sesshoumaru.
He mentally added it to the growing list of reasons she was liable to banish him from her more intimate company. "You will need all of your able-bodied humans and youkai that can handle themselves in a fight. Sudden, surprise attacks with rapid withdrawals will be your only chance. I assume this tribe knows the jungle well. The Force Publique does not."
Shippo nodded, but his eyes were guarded. "Others have tried that."
"But it will work with us, if you care enough to listen to sense."
"Come on, Shippo," Kagome said, silencing the indignant noise that came from the back of the kitsune's throat. "If there's one thing Sesshoumaru knows, it's how to win a war."
He scoffed. "See, this is the reason you shouldn't be here. We're not trying to win a war, Kagome. This isn't France. There are women, elderly and children, both human and youkai, in the middle of everything. We're trying to prevent an extermination of an entire tribe. Probably of the entire colony's tribes."
"We're not fools," said Sesshoumaru. "The Force Publique wants the Congo, and the native residents are only standing in the way of that goal. It is not a new story."
"It's not the same," Shippo muttered, glancing at Kagome. "You really should leave before you have to see what it's like."
Kagome reached up and brushed her fingers along the kitsune's jawline. "You're sweet for wanting to protect me," she said. Her hand dropped, and her eyes turned cold. "But both of you need to stop treating me like a child. When, exactly, did I give you two the impression that I can't handle the worst life has to offer? When I was constantly surrounded by demon guts at the age of fifteen and watching Inuyasha rip my heart out on a regular basis? Or when I was the unwilling sexual plaything of a murderous pirate? Or perhaps..."
"Stop," cut in the fox, grabbing her hands. "It's not that I don't think you could handle it, Kagome. But this isn't just a war. And it's not just an extermination of a tribe in the way of colonization. You've been through enough, and you shouldn't have to suffer through this too."
"This is for you and people that matter to you," said Kagome. "That's worth it."
He sighed, but Sesshoumaru could see Shippo would not fight her any longer. "Alright. I'll take you to the village in the morning."
"Good." She slowly pulled her hands from Shippo's grasp and stood up. "Do I need to tell you how annoyed I'll be if I wake up to you two fighting, verbally or otherwise?"
Sesshoumaru bowed his head. "You will not be disturbed. Sleep well, Kagome."
She wished them both a good night and retreated to the makeshift hut they'd built at the edge of the clearing.
"She sleeps?" asked Shippo after she disappeared. "But she doesn't need to."
"She always preferred it," he replied.
The fox shook his head. "Not always. She rarely did when we were first together. And whenever I visited her and Bastien, I'd find her wandering the hallways at night."
Sesshoumaru gave him a sharp look. "She sleeps when she is with me."
"Why? Because you think she feels comfortable with you?" He laughed under his breath. "Inuyasha used to watch her when she slept. He said it was his favorite part of the day, because her sleeping under his protection meant she was safe."
"Inuyasha always overestimated his abilities. I have not."
Shippo shrugged. "Maybe. But it felt safe back then. Kagome let me sleep with her. I'm sure you can understand how much I miss that."
"Do not even consider it."
Shippo smiled, although his green eyes were not kind. "We were never truly safe while we slept. It's just an illusion, just as it might be now. But I can tell my spot's been taken anyway," he said. "Does Inuyasha know?"
"Yes, although I owe you no more explanations than I did him."
"I don't care about your explanations. I only want Kagome to be happy."
Shippo hummed, raising both eyebrows. "Really?"
Sesshoumaru curled his hands into fists at the challenge in the fox's voice. "What could you possibly do if she was not? Do not make the same mistake as my half-brother in trying to challenge me."
A kitsune without a wisp of amusement in his trickster eyes would have cowed anyone else, but the taiyoukai stood straight as Shippo sneered. "Centuries gone and you haven't changed. I hope, for your sake, you never lose your physical power, because you're pathetic otherwise." He drew back. "And you're transforming her into something just like you too. I can see it. She wants to kill Rom. Murder him and the rest of the Force Publique. The Kagome I knew would have been horrified at the idea. So, tell me again that she's happy."
The words were far sharper in his heart than the frigid stare he was receiving. Hadn't he been struggling against his attraction to this alluring, new Kagome? The one that even he admitted earlier reminded him of himself? "Change is inevitable," replied Sesshoumaru after a moment, "especially in humans."
"No. Not like this." He shook his head. "She's losing her soul. And you're not doing a damn thing about it."
"Do you believe your fawning childhood memories give you a unique insight?" Sesshoumaru asked, scowling. "She is not a naive girl, and she has not been for centuries."
"I know. Or are you forgetting the decades during which you abandoned her? I was there. I stayed with her."
He ignored the barb. "Then you should remember her strength. Do you think we don't know what's happening here? That we have made it this far with our eyes closed? We have seen the chains and the rifles and the whips going down the river. We have seen the ivory and the rubber shipped out of the ports. We have seen the bodies. Kagome knows this is a slave state. She is not soulless. She is furious."
Shippo shook his head. "Fine. She's angry. So we all are. But you're kidding yourself if you think she's not different. You call it 'fury', but I see it is burning her up from the inside. Soon, she won't be anything else. You'll have lost her again, even if she's right beside you."
Sesshoumaru bent over his work, ignoring the way sweat rolled down his neck and how his head ached from his intense concentration. It was temporary - as soon as he stopped, his unchanging body would restore him to his normal, pristine condition. He would not fail because of some discomfort.
As soon as he lifted the tool off of the soft wood, his neighbor slapped him on the back, grinned and said something in his native tongue. The other men roared with laughter. "He says, 'You may live forever, but you will need longer than that to carve anything that's not the total shit you're have now'," said the leopard demon on the other side of the circle, purring his own amusement.
The taiyoukai almost growled, but a glance at the misshapen box in his hands told him that they were right. He tossed it aside and rolled his shoulders. "I am not accustomed to creative pursuits. This is Kagome's area of expertise."
His neighbor smiled at the sound of Kagome's name. "You make it for her?" he asked in broken French, the only language they all had in common.
Sesshoumaru looked at the discarded carving and frowned. "She is the only one to whom I would give a gift. She would probably be so foolish as to thank me for it."
The leopard, Faraji, held out his own carving, an intricate cup decorated with a precious red dye that the Kuba tribe favored. "Mine is almost finished. Would you like to claim it as your own?" he asked, his yellow eyes wide. "It takes only one fine carving to gain a woman's attention. Even one such as Kagome."
The offer was generous. Faraji had not been born in Kuba lands, but he had been raised there and with their traditions. Carving the soft palm wood was a competitive sport among the men - it was no exaggeration that a gifted artist could have his pick of wives. Faraji was young by demon standards, but his dark skin and thick muscles were common enough in this tribe. Appreciative glances from the women of the village were not enough. His choices of mate were slim, and he needed all the edge he could get. Offering such a fine piece to an older, more powerful male was a calculated risk of trading favor of a potential mate for the putting the taiyoukai in Faraji's debt.
Sesshoumaru shook his head. "Thank you, but I have no need of it."
"But Kagome is not your wife or your mate," Faraji stated, still proffering the cup.
"No, she is not."
Like all the demons in the village, Faraji seemed utterly confounded by the admission. But despite the remaining questions in his eyes, he lowered his arm and nodded. "Well, if you change your mind," he said, trailing off with a shrug of his shoulders.
The other men glanced at him expectantly - although human, they had been living alongside their demon refugees and allies for far too long to ignore the issue. Sesshoumaru had encountered the same question with every surviving demon they met, whether in Africa or elsewhere, after all. To think the humans weren't asking the same was foolish. He suspected Kagome did not tell him half of what they inquired of her when he was not around.
They couldn't understand that a carved trinket would never win Kagome's heart. Sesshoumaru remembered a time, centuries ago, when the gift of a particularly valuable sari had earned him a kiss. Not for the sari itself, but for the fact that he had finally recognized the valuable place she held in his life. She needed so much more than a wooden cup, a sari or a display of appreciation now.
Kagome's stormy mood had calmed somewhat since their arrival in the village - the adults offered friendship and the children had been endeared to her in an instant, as usual. And Sesshoumaru was loathe to admit it, but Shippo's presence had cheered her more than anything else. He suspected the fox now knew all the most intimate details of his relationship with Kagome, but he was willing to bear it so long as it didn't become the village gossip.
Shippo was still wrong, of course. Sesshoumaru had spent most of the last few weeks studying Kagome, and although her hatred of the Force Publique still simmered beneath the surface, she certainly had not lost her soul. The fox was an alarmist, Sesshoumaru reasoned. Anyone - human or demon - would be different after such a life as Kagome had lived. If she had become flinty and aggressive lately, that was certainly a reaction to their current circumstances and not a permanent loss of herself. They had, after all, traveled through half a continent only to find death and destruction at every turn. Europe had seized Africa and seemed determined to squeeze every drop of blood out of it, although the naive ones seemed to believe they were only bringing civilization to godless and beleaguered people. Kagome always seethed at such pretentious acts of superiority, and the Congo pushed her past all bounds of patience.
Although, even if the fox was completely mistaken - which he was - Sesshoumaru planned to leave Africa as soon as possible. There was a limit to what two additional bodies, even immortal ones, could do for the village. The king of the Kuba tribe had, at long last, accepted the truth of what would happen if they stayed. The village would be moved as soon as a more tactically advantageous location could be scouted and cleared. Sesshoumaru had been working with the warriors in the meantime. Men and women, both human and demon, had shown considerable skill and the willingness to use it against their foe. They would be able to withstand an attack by the Force Publique's deep-jungle patrols. They might even be able to launch a few of their own ambushes.
There was no guaranteeing the lasting survival of the villagers or the demons who sheltered here - standard warfare was unpredictable enough. Kagome couldn't provide assurances - a fact which she cursed daily, along with her history teachers who had apparently skipped African history almost entirely.
Sesshoumaru could guess what would happen though. The Kuba were no strangers to battle, but the Force Publique had rifles and cannons. They had Rom too, who would never settle for anything less than total, annihilating victory. A few Kuba successes would certainly bring the full weight of Rom's power down on them. Blood spilled when tyrants with superior weapons decided to rid themselves of the troublesome masses.
He should demand that the demons in the village leave with him and Kagome. That was always their objective, after all. The demons needed saving and could be saved, while any loss of humans should be considered only a side benefit. That was how the countess would see it. It was how he would have seen it too, in the past - any other options would be a sign of weakness. A sign that something mattered more than the survival of his own kind.
Kagome was his weakness. He had known that for a long time. In the past, he had almost entirely defined his weaknesses - what few there were - by his physical limitations. Sesshoumaru was beginning to wonder what the consequences a limitation of this different kind would bring.
He looked up to see Faraji standing over him and staring at the other end of the village. The sounds of alarm filtered through, breaking Sesshoumaru's reverie. People were shouting, calling for the king, the elders, Shippo and for him.
There was no acrid smell of blood as he approached the throng that had gathered at the village edge. No one was scrambling into or out of a fight either. The initial panic had ebbed as everyone circled one small, panting hanyou. His claws clicked together in a rapid rhythm as he gulped water and answered the steady stream of questions coming at him. The hanyou stuttered his answers in Bushong, a complex local language that even Kagome still struggled to comprehend.
"What is he saying?" Sesshoumaru asked Faraji, who had kept pace.
"His village is being attacked. They sent him for help at the first sign of trouble, but even at his fastest, he has been running for a long time."
"The Force Publique?"
Faraji gave a small shrug, his eyes still on the rapid exchange in front of them. "Probably. Or an enemy tribe collaborating with them in exchange for their own lives. They had rifles though."
Whispers rippled across the gathered crowd, and Sesshoumaru looked up to see Kot a Mbweeky II approach. He was not wearing his beaded crown or holding his tremendous spear, but he did not lose his impressive bearing. Standing nearly as tall as Sesshoumaru himself, the king had the strength of a much younger warrior, but the age and wisdom to know when to stay his hand. Sesshoumaru had only spoken to the king twice, but he had watched enough of his royal audiences to know Mbweeky had justly earned the tribe's respect.
Mbweeky listened to the strange hanyou for several minutes, asking a few vital questions in his rumbling bass voice, before beckoning to Shippo. Sesshoumaru did not have to understand Bushongo to recognize the look in the king's eyes. "We will be going to fight. Immediately."
Faraji nodded. "The Force Publique and their allies just had a battle. They're unlikely to be prepared for another."
"Only if we fight. The humans would take too long to reach the village."
"I will willingly go," said the leopard. "As will Kagome, I am sure."
Sesshoumaru wove through the crowd that now buzzed with a new purpose. Shippo began to shout orders to the demons. Mbweeky was surrounded by the most elite of his warriors who were all volunteering to go to battle.
Kagome appeared from the direction of their hut. It appeared she had slipped away for a moment and was now flush with her rapid run across the village. She was stripped down to her white chemise with her rifle slung across her back and her Colt revolvers peeking out from where they were strapped to her thighs. Extra ammunition rattled in an another bag as she moved. She looked like Rom's worst nightmare come to life.
"Eager for battle?" Sesshoumaru asked.
"I'm not going to be left behind," she said. "Are you going too?"
"Yes," he replied without pause. "We fight together." He felt a tightness in his chest when he looked at her, and he wondered if it was attraction to her war-born attire or fear that she suited it.
She didn't look like a killer as she gave him a smile of relief, and he realized that she truly doubted whether he would accompany her. "Thank you, Sesshoumaru."
He bit his tongue, refusing to destroy this rare moment of restored faith by reminding her that there could be no victory here. There was only survival. It was the best the Kuba tribe could hope for now.
Instead, he allowed her to stand in anticipation, checking and rechecking her rifle and her ammunition. She spun the wheels of her revolvers and snapped them closed again. It was a blessing when Mbweeky reappeared, wearing a breastplate of bone and beads and carrying his sharp spear. The crowd circling the demons and human volunteers fell silent.
The king spoke briefly in his deep, unwavering bass. "'Fight well for our brothers, so that if we die, we die well'," Faraji translated.
A flare of blue fox-fire erupted, accompanied by the gasps of the villagers and more than a few of the other demons. He heard Kagome's quick intake of breath next to him as Shippo stepped out of the flame in his natural form. On four legs, the fox stood twice as tall as the king. His red fur shimmered in the sun and the licks of blue fire that still danced around his paws, and as he tossed his head, Sesshoumaru caught a glimpse of white fangs as long as his forearm.
"He's beautiful," murmured Kagome. She blushed immediately and stole a glance at the taiyoukai.
Sesshoumaru resisted the urge to scowl at her. "Do not expect me to transform," he replied. "These human foes do not warrant my full power."
"I know." She wrapped her arms around his shoulders as he lifted her. "It's been a long time though. Don't you miss being yourself?"
"I am always myself," he said.
Mbweeky, sitting across Shippo's shoulders, gave the order, and three dozen youkai sprinted after the fleet-footed fox. Sesshoumaru took a place at the front, between Faraji and Shippo. The path stood clear - the hanyou that had come to the village had not been concerned with covering his tracks.
"Even a human could follow this. We must attack," Faraji said after they had been running for some time. "Or they will be led directly to us."
Sesshoumaru frowned. Was he the only one that knew the Force Publique would inevitably find the village? Despite his apparent progress in speaking with the elders about relocating, he wondered if anyone truly took his warnings to heart. "We will not allow these men to escape. Although it is still possible it is not the Force Publique." He glanced down at Kagome. "And most certainly, Rom will not be among them if it is."
"These men will die quickly," said Kagome with a shrug. "That's not Rom's fate."
He pulled her closer against his chest. Could she feel the way his heart twisted?
"Sesshoumaru, you're squeezing me."
His grip loosened. "I apologize."
"Are you worried? I'll be fine. These guys can't hurt me," she said.
"I know that you will be physically unharmed at the end of the day."
She studied him for a moment. "Good. Then, you can spend your time protecting the others."
He wanted to deny her request, but he could think of no logical reason to do so, other than his concern for her soul, as Shippo called it. So, he agreed with a nod.
Soon, the smell of hot, spilled blood met their noses. "You will not be reckless," Sesshoumaru said to the miko as they drew close.
Her lips brushed across his cheek. "Never."
The moment he slowed his steps, she leapt from his arms and pulled her Colt revolver.
A young Force Publique soldier who had wandered too far from the village looked up as demons swarmed in from the jungle. He was standing over a dead villager, a knife in his hand. His mouth dropped open as he raised his rifle, but Kagome was quicker. One shot sprayed his blood across the earth, and his body dropped across his earlier victim.
Several soldiers materialized out of the trees at the crack of Kagome's revolver. A bullet splintered a tree branch inches from her head. Mbweeky roared an order, and the charge began.
Sesshoumaru caught one on his claws, tearing him straight across his stomach. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Shippo snap another between his jaws. Kagome was a few seconds behind them already, but she soon found the one that had shot at her, his rifle still smoking. The man fumbled with his bolt action rifle, trying to load another cartridge as Kagome bore down on him.
She didn't shoot him. She came up close, sidestepping the soldier's last-ditch stab with his bayonet. Her hands wrapped around his rifle and pulled it from his grasp, sending him sprawling on the ground. She opened the bolt, ejecting the empty cartridge of the bullet he had sent towards her head. The soldier didn't have time to react before Kagome flipped the rifle in her hands, bringing the butt of the gun down across his temple with all her force. He collapsed, and she brought the gun up again, preparing to deliver another blow.
Sesshoumaru looked away as the bones crunched. He plucked another soldier off of his feet as the man tried to run, and he broke his neck with a swift movement.
The gunfire had all but stopped - no human could load a rifle as fast as a demon could attack - but these men seemed to sense death was coming, and they were in no hurry to meet it. Most were standing their ground, fighting with bayonets and knives. Some of the youkai - the younger ones, cocksure with their untested abilities - were decorated with deep lacerations from a costly misstep.
The taiyoukai grabbed one soldier, crushing his throat with his free hand and tossing away his corpse. The young hanyou who had almost been his victim turned around at the noise. "Watch your back," said Sesshoumaru to the wide-eyed boy.
He kept his eye on the half-demon as he worked his way towards the village. Kagome had disappeared from sight, as had Faraji. Shippo had apparently set some fires - he could see licks of blue flame through the dark underbrush and smell burnt flesh.
A third, fourth and fifth soldier died on his claws. The sixth met his poison whip - a weapon he had not used in decades. He met each one with the same, cold focus that every one of his kills received. But as each fell in front of him, he realized with a start that he was not enjoying himself. These humans were irritants but far too easily exterminated. There was no challenge facing him in this jungle - he was immortal, unconstrained by any spells or sutras or serious threat to anyone he cared about. And where once upon a time he had taken pleasure in ridding the world of a few more obnoxious humans, he knew it didn't truly accomplish anything. There would always be more. They would continue killing each other too, it appeared - in far greater numbers than he could ever wish to achieve himself.
He pushed on through the undergrowth, assisting a few of the others. The humans' bravado was beginning to falter. He could hear some of them running - a move that would have a higher chance of survival if they weren't fighting demons. He caught a glimpse of Shippo and others giving chase.
The jungle opened up, and Sesshoumaru stepped into the village. The sounds of fighting grew distant, and the huts in front of him only buzzed with ten thousand black flies. Bloody footsteps were printed in the dry earth, sometimes ending where the body had fallen.
A flash of white drew him farther in, and the initial battle played out in Sesshoumaru's head as he walked around the corpses. Deadly rings radiated out from the center of the village. The strongest warriors had died first, on the edge of the clearing - a couple of them with traces of demon blood that was now spilled. The too young and the too ancient had been defeated next, holding the weapons of their fathers and their sons - weapons not meant for them. The fighting ended with them, although the slaughter did not. The huts would be thick with flies for days.
He found Kagome where he expected her. Her chemise was dark with the blood of the soliders, and her skin was splattered with crimson droplets. Two more Force Publique soldiers who had been stripped of their rifles were still gasping for breath close by - the bullet wounds in their stomachs would make for very long and painful deaths. Kagome's exceptional marksmanship and knowledge of human anatomy served her hatred well.
"I thought you said you would end them quickly," he said, remembering his own gunshot wound, so many years ago. It had almost defeated his immortality and would have, if not for Kagome.
"They don't deserve mercy." Her face was stone, but her eyes flickered away from the men for a brief moment.
He had seen, but he looked again. The pile of hands, freshly harvested from their recently deceased owners, was far more grotesque than Rom's garden of human heads. Most of the hands were too small to grasp a weapon.
"Are there any survivors?"
"She died in front of me," Kagome said, pointing to a young girl a few feet away, "but the rest had already been bayoneted or died from blood loss from the amputation. Apparently, they had been fighting back against Rom. I suppose they didn't feel like working themselves to death for rubber."
"Don't tell me that this sort of suffering has happened before and will happen again. I don't care. I refuse to accept that any more."
Sesshoumaru nodded. "It has happened before," he said, "and you would not be you if you accepted it. But you have never been the one to prolong the suffering, even for those who deserve it."
Her eyes met his. "You have."
"Whatever you may believe, your actions have always been innocent in comparison to my own. I have done things humans would say were evil. I have lived up to the name of 'demon'. I have murdered and tortured men and my own kind. I once did so in vengeance of you." He stepped closer. "But that never changed what happened. It did not absolve me of my earlier failings."
"Are you asking me if this is helping me? If their suffering is making me feel better?" she asked. "Because it's not about that. They deserve punishment. Death is too easy."
"Soon, they will just be two more corpses amongst the many they created. The dead do not care about revenge," Sesshoumaru said. "You are the one that lives."
She stood in silence for several minutes, watching the men die. "I shouldn't have come. It wasn't even my vengeance to take," she said, her voice too soft for anyone but him. "End it."
His poison whip struck out, silencing the soldiers' strangled gasps in one movement.
Her eyes closed for a moment, and she breathed deep, inhaling the scent of death. "We should look for the others," she said.
"They're on their way."
She nodded. "So, what happens now?"
"You know what happens. We help the village relocate. Then, we leave."
"And when does Rom die?"
"When and if the king decides he must die," he replied, watching a cloud pass over her face. "You just said this isn't your vengeance to take. Does that not apply to Rom as well?"
"Then we capture him," Kagome said. "We can drag him in front of the king, and he'll get his punishment for what he's done to these tribes. I'll be satisfied watching him die."
"Do you believe the Force Publique will just allow us to take him? That they will not search, even if we manage to escape without being seen?" he asked. "Who do you believe will pay for that?"
Before Kagome could reply, Shippo came into view with Faraji and others. He had transformed into his human-like shape again, although blood was still smeared across his mouth. "We haven't found any survivors," he said as some of the others began to fan out through the village. "But we did not leave any from the Force Publique either."
"The king?" asked Sesshoumaru.
"He's fine. He's examining a clearing we found. A rubber tree grove cut to the ground."
The leopard demon stretched out his hand, rolling shriveled bits of a milky white substance between his fingertips. "It's been dry for some time.
"Probably what brought the soldiers here. It's forbidden to cut the trees down, although villages keep doing it to satisfy their quotas. But killing the trees makes it more difficult in the long term. I wonder if the village was already marked for death or it was a scare tactic that went wrong," Shippo said.
"It's unlikely they truly weighed those options," said Sesshoumaru. "And it will not be long before Rom sends out a search party. I assure you there will be no scare tactics when they find this village."
"We'll erase everything then," said Kagome. Her voice was strained with anger. "Bury the bodies. Keep the weapons."
Sesshoumaru took a breath. He could hear her plan for a counterattack before it was even fully formed. "Rom is no fool. He will know what happened, and he will raze any other village within miles to suppress any further incidents."
Kagome's frown deepened, and she switched to Danish. "You aren't going to let them do anything to pay back Rom for this slaughter? Maybe it's not my job to kill him or destroy the Force Publique, but are you going to ask them to ignore this?"
"We always knew they had to leave, and now, that plan must be accelerated." He paused. "They need to save their own lives, not throw them away in a foolish attack. Rom will be on the hunt, and we risk everyone's lives if we go on the offensive."
"They might think it's worth it to take the fight to him," she said. "He's weakened. He lost a lot of men today."
"That garrison has two hundred more men with superior weaponry," he replied. "A desire for revenge should not override good sense, especially when it comes to battle."
He could feel her growing cold again. She was drawing away from him, although she had not moved an inch. "Why aren't you letting him die? Why does he get to live?"
"He richly deserves a painful and prolonged demise, but it would risk their lives if we linger any longer." Sesshoumaru glanced at the fox, who was watching them intensely.
Kagome ducked her head, her hands curling into fists and pressing against her mouth. "That's the problem, isn't it though?" she asked at last, her voice cracking. "No matter what we do, we never seem to make a difference. We can't kill him. Even if we do, we can't ensure the tribe's survival. The Force Publique would probably find someone worse than Rom anyway. What's the point?"
Faraji coughed as Sesshoumaru searched for an answer. "Don't mean to interrupt," said the leopard, "but we should prepare for some burials."
A moment passed before Kagome straightened up and nodded. "Right," she murmured. "Let's go."
She and Faraji walked off, gathering the others. Shippo hovered. "So, you two make any decisions?"
"Do not insult me by pretending that you do not know Danish," growled Sesshoumaru.
"Fine," he said. "Then I'll just say that I think it was the right one. Letting her kill Rom would make things worse, and not just for the rest of us. There's a difference between killing someone and murdering them, and I'm glad she doesn't have to feel the guilt of that difference. It was the right decision."
The taiyoukai scoffed. "But not a mutual one. I have not imposed my will upon her in such a way in a long time."
"This was for her own good though."
Sesshoumaru's head snapped to look at him. "Again, it was not a choice she made for herself. I may be sitting passively while she loses her soul, but you are asking me to dictate her actions."
Shippo's face darkened. "That's not…"
"I know what you meant," cut in Sesshoumaru. "But now you see the reality of our situation. It is not so easily navigated as you seem to believe. I can let her live her life and make her own mistakes, or I can interfere. Which do you think has worked?"
The fox was quiet for a long time. "Which does she do with you?" he asked.
"I do as I please," said Sesshoumaru.
Shippo arched an eyebrow. "Sure. And it just so happens that what you want to do seems to be what makes Kagome happy."
"'Happy'," echoed the taiyoukai. "What happened to your ridiculous theory of her soul melting away because of my influence?"
"We're standing in the middle of the mass grave that was once a village full of people. I saw her face. Maybe it's not so hard to believe that things have influenced her aside from you and in spite of your protection," Shippo said. "That, and she's been telling me stories."
"Ones where she looked happier just remembering them," he replied. Sesshoumaru gave him a sharp glance, and Shippo shrugged. "Look, this is as close to an apology as you're going to get from me. For anything. So you should just accept it, and we'll go on ignoring each other."
"Your lack of a true apology is noted."
Kagome approached again as the taiyoukai and fox frowned at one another. "Why are you still standing here?" she asked, her eyes still not turning towards Sesshoumaru.
"We were just talking about future plans," said Shippo.
"Well, we have a lot of bodies to bury, and it would go faster with your help. Talk while digging, okay?" She held out a pair of shovels.
It took several hours to dig enough graves. There seemed to be a unanimous, silent agreement that none of the youkai would use their powers, aside from their strength, to shorten the work. The king labored as well, shedding his armor and soon only recognizable by his stature. They were all smeared in sweat and dirt.
There was little ceremony. The corpses filled the village, and there was only so much that could be done. Those few who had died inside their homes were carried out through holes in the wall, zig-zagging across the village so their spirits could not find their way back. Kagome and a few others attempted to find a few items of value to bury with the dead, but much of it had been destroyed. The villagers were buried in the clothes in which they had died, alongside the relatives that had died in proximity to them. Guesses had to be made for the warriors that had died at the edge of the village. A separate grave was made for the mountain of hands severed from their owners.
The bodies of the fallen Force Publique soldiers were stripped of all valuables and then dumped in the clearing of the dead rubber trees. Their bodies would feed the animals and insects.
When they were done, darkness had fallen. They would have to spend the night in the village of the dead, above their graves. A fire was built, and they all sat in the corona of light. A few of the human fighters began singing - not the spirited, rhythmic songs that usually accompanied larger gatherings, but what sounded more like a lullaby to Sesshoumaru's ears. Others joined in and dropped out of the singing as one song flowed into another. More and more of the warriors began falling asleep. The firelight faded.
Kagome had been by his side all afternoon, but she had been silent. As Sesshoumaru laid back on the earth, she tucked herself to his side, resting her head on his shoulder. He didn't know when he had been forgiven for not taking her to murder Rom.
She put her lips to his ear. "I've lost count how many graves I've dug in my life. Which means I've dug far too many."
Sesshoumaru turned his face slightly towards hers but held his tongue.
"I keep thinking I can prevent having to dig the next one. But I can't." Her fingers scratched his ribs as her hand curled into a fist. "I'm so tired of losing. What are we doing wrong?"
"We are doing our best," he replied. "People die. Even your foreknowledge cannot change that, Kagome."
"But it should."
He covered the hand that was pressed into his ribs with one of his own. "You have saved lives. You will save more. But I cannot assure you that there ever will be an end to evil in this world. You are not so naive as to believe that you could stop monsters like Rom. Not all of them."
"I know. But ever since London - ever since I realized Jack the Ripper stopped exactly where my history books said he would - I've wondered what we think we're doing. If this is the way things are going to go, whether or not we're here to help, what's the point of trying? I'm starting to think that we really are cursed." She let out a long breath. "But not as cursed as the people we fail."
Sesshoumaru turned his head sharply. "We have not failed anyone."
She pulled away and sat up. "You don't know what's coming. Even if I told you everything, I don't even know if you could conceive of it. Don't tell me we won't have failed if we can't stop just some of the suffering that is coming."
"If they die, regardless of our presence, who have we failed?"
"I don't know," she whispered. "But it's not fair. I get to live forever while everyone around me dies."
He rose to her side and studied her pale face. "We have a purpose. We find the shape-shifters and kill them. We destroy the Order. Those two things alone will save countless lives."
"And all the people we meet in the meantime? We're not supposed to care?"
Sesshoumaru sometimes wondered if she even remembered the taiyoukai she had first met four centuries ago. "You cannot care so much that it crushes you. But if you stopped caring entirely, you would not be you," he said. "I do not have an answer. I do not think there is one. None that we will ever know.
She sighed in the dark and pressed her fingertips to the corners of her eyes. "I guess we just continue then."
"It is the only thing we can do."
They laid back down again. Her cheek was pressed against his chest, and her breathing evened out. He thought she had fallen asleep until she murmured, "I keep wondering if I've lost my soul."
Sesshoumaru frowned. "Why would you think that?"
Kagome shifted her weight, and he heard the catch in her throat when she spoke again. "I can't stop thinking about Kikyo. About what she was like right after she was resurrected. I never thought I could ever understand what she felt. I never wanted to."
He realized it hadn't been his younger, rasher self he had been seeing in her - he had just been hoping for such luck. He had been angry, but he always had purpose - finding Tetsusaiga, killing Naraku, saving Rin. It was much the same now, with slight variations on the players. But Kagome had been set adrift.
"Kikyo is no longer so vengeful," he said.
Her chin lifted to look at him, and he remembered their first meeting - when she was a young girl, fearful and uncertain. "I know, but it took a long time," she said. "And her soul is still a fragment of what it was. I should know, since I have the rest of it."
"You have told me what happened at her resurrection," Sesshoumaru said. "If your soul is strong enough to survive that, it will never be lost."
"I hope you're right."
He drew in a breath, making his chest rise. "I have never expressed false hope."
She ducked her head again, but he could feel a small smile. "No, I guess no one could accuse you of being an optimist."
There was more to say - he could feel it in his chest and on his tongue - but she fell asleep as the words made the interminable journey to his lips. She relaxed into him, and the fire burned down to embers.
Sesshoumaru stared up at the sky, turning recent events over in his mind. He wondered when they had diverged so sharply from all he had known and trusted. It wasn't just Kagome - he felt as if they had both woken up as different people. It was a sickening feeling, not knowing when he had become someone else. When had he stopped enjoying the kill? When had he advised running over turning the fight onto his enemies? How had he lost Kagome so completely, even when she slept beside him?
He had told Shippo that change was inevitable in humans. With all that had happened to them, Sesshoumaru realized the same had to be said of him. But that didn't mean he would accept those changes wholly and without question. It was not written in stone that immortals would become wiser and better simply for having lived longer. Sesshoumaru suspected the opposite was true.
Kagome was his weakness, but he was not weak. Any compassion he felt would be tempered with logic, as it should be. People died, and he would still be glad to usher them towards that end, if they deserved it. Others may not see it, but his strength would only grow.
As for Kagome herself? He knew he could not fight for her, nor would she allow it. He could, however, ensure that she had every opportunity to win - to reclaim that part of herself that was slipping away and changing the core of her.
The Order and the shape-shifters flickered into his mind, and he sneered. They would be defeated. He had no doubt of that. It was the unseen enemies - the intangible forces that a stretching eternity pressed upon them - that were the more difficult foes. But nothing stood in the way of his ambitions, not even the incorporeal dangers of Time. He may not be able to slay those enemies with a sword, but all would fall before him.
He was Sesshoumaru, Lord of the West and the Killing Perfection. Who would dare to cross him?
A/N: Hope that was worth the wait! (Probably not, but I can't actually make cookies and kittens come out of your computer screens at home, so this is the best I can do.) I probably picked the worst possible moment in the story to take my unintended hiatus - right *before* Kagome and Sesshoumaru's 'burnout'. The good news is that this chapter and the next feed off each other in ways that would make it difficult for another hiatus. I will make no promises about a timeline for an update (because I always seem to break those and disappoint people), but I'm hopeful!
The Congo Free State is an event that has fascinated me for more than a decade - mostly for the fact that no one seems to know about it. Basically, King Leopold II of Belgium wanted the power and money a small, new-ish country couldn't easily obtain within the confines of Europe. Africa was the latest and greatest frontier, however, and already served as a cash-cow for his more powerful neighbors. So Leopold began to move the pieces necessary to obtain the loans and buy a huge swath of land for his own private property. He kept the wool pulled over the eyes of most - he told everyone it was a humanitarian mission, to bring civilization to the African natives.
What he really did, with the help of some interesting and malicious cronies such as Henry Morton Stanley, was set up a slave state. The Force Publique, was formed to enforce Leopold's rule in the Congo - it was made up of Belgians, mercenaries and even other Africans. They forced the native population to build cities, harvest ivory and even construct an entire railway through a jungle. The natives weren't paid, barely fed and often left to die where they dropped.
Then came the rubber boom. Manufacturers were discovering the many uses of the sap of the rubber tree, and with the beginnings of mass production of things like bicycles, they needed vast quantities. The Congo was full of rubber trees, and Leopold had finally found his money-maker. Villages were given quotas, working them so hard that they didn't have time for anything else. Cutting down a rubber tree was an offense punishable by death, but many were cut to bleed them of the last bits of rubber for the quotas. When quotas weren't met, the natives were punished with death and dismemberment. It was what every period of slavery has been - utter horror. They chopped off hands to prove their kills - bullets were too expensive to ship to the Congo without them going to "good" use, instead of being wasted on sport hunting. There was an incredible amount of "cheating" - chopping off a hand to prove a kill so the soldier could go shooting for fun - which left many natives, including many children, mutilated.
In the end, Leopold was caught. At first, it was just missionaries making reports, despite Leopold's efforts to shut them out and up. George Washington Williams, a politician, began sounding the alarm, but died in 1891. A shipping clerk, E. D. Morel, noticed ships were going to the Congo with chains and bullets and guns and coming back with rubber - hardly the chattel of a humanitarian state. He began an investigation, and along with others, such as Roger Casement (a diplomat), William Henry Sheppard (a missionary), and even writers like Mark Twain, Leopold was exposed. It was a public relations nightmare, and Belgium eventually had to take control of the colony itself in 1908. The Congo gained independence - of sorts - in 1960, but that didn't end its problems. Leopold himself died a year after he gave up the Congo to his own parliament. He was 74. It's estimated his rule over the Congo was the cause of 10 million people.
As for our chapter's villain, Leon Rom? He was a real person. He is (supposedly) one of the inspirations for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness - for the insane, cruel character of Kurtz. Rom and his fictional counterpart both had a garden of severed heads. However (and unfortunately), Rom never paid for his crimes. He went back to Belgium with his money and lived well for the rest of his life.
The Kuba remain in the region to this day. They lost many people and many of their villages were burned. They were kingdom, and they never fully recovered. The current ruler is Kot a Mbweeky III.
If you're interested in this atrocity, King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild is incredible. I picked it up over ten years ago, simply because I needed a non-fiction book for a high school project. It truly left a mark on me. Go check it out.