Continuing Tales

Tales from the House of the Moon

A InuYasha Story
by Resmiranda

Part 33 of 42

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Tales from the House of the Moon

pitam se jesam li slobodan znati
kako sam i sam ušao u zemlju svoje propasti.

I wonder whether I am free enough to know
I too have entered the land of my undoing.

- Mario Suško, "The Donkey Connection"


The first thing Kagome became aware of the following morning was the sharp, unrelenting pain in her neck that had settled alongside her spine and seemed to flow directly into her brain. This had, perhaps, contributed to the strange dream she had been having moments before she awoke which had involved very large brain-sucking bugs, so in a way the muscle cramp was actually a relief. She could only imagine how thorough of a spoon-beating she would receive from Fuyu should she display even fewer brains than normal.

The second thing she noticed was the fact that she was not in her sleeping bag. This was not nearly as bad as the neck pain, as her sleeping bag had been in constant use for a month or so and thus had begun to smell slightly more rustic than Kagome preferred. Still, it was strange.

Groggily, Kagome attempted to impose some sort of order on the universe.

Neck pain plus no sleeping bag equals... she thought vaguely.

No, no, she decided after a moment, more information was definitely needed. She shifted sleepily. To her delight, this action yielded a new discovery, which was that there was something heavy draped over her stomach.

They finally had me committed! she thought. Why else would she be weighted down to her bed? Finally, someone had taken pity on her.

Except her bed was moving, ever so slightly, a rhythmic bob as though she were on a ship. As she was fairly certain there were no homes for the intriguingly-wired on the ocean, this meant that she wasn't getting a vacation and she still had no idea what was going on. Visual aid was required for this problem.

Warily Kagome peeked from beneath lowered lashes in order to acquire further reconnaissance.

A well formed expanse of throat met her sight.

After a few moments of intense confusion she realized what she was looking at, and the last of her sluggish neurons fired into life. Comprehension dawned.

Oh, she thought.


Many, many times in her life Kagome had awoken in strange places, but, in all honesty, none had provided a shock comparable to waking up and finding the most powerful creature in Japan cuddling oneself like a teddy bear.

She felt the blood drain from her face, and for a moment she merely sat very still and tried not to move before she carefully retraced the chain of events that had occurred last night.

Had nightmare, she thought, very calmly and deliberately. Woke up. Ripped Sesshoumaru's shirt off. Fondled his chest.


Very definitely ignoring the part of her that was disappointed she had not dreamed of a thigh injury, Kagome rather giddily hoped that Sesshoumaru wouldn't bring a sexual harassment lawsuit against her before comforting herself with the knowledge that such things probably wouldn't be invented for another three hundred and fifty years. By then the statute of limitations would most likely have run out, so she was probably safe.

Well, safe from that at least. More memories surfaced.

Oh. Right.

As if subjecting him to mandatory strip search wasn't bad enough, there was still the little matter of baring her soul to him in what was probably an inappropriately erotic manner and then passing out in his lap. Whether she would be able to escape the resulting consequences of these actions without further humiliation remained to be seen. At the moment, she had to extricate herself as quickly as possible.

Except she didn't really want to, since it wasn't bad at all; he was very warm, and very comfortable. She'd slumped a bit to the side while she slept, and now found herself half-cradled in his arm, one cheek pressed against his chest. In fact, it was a very nice sensation, and she would have been tempted to snuggle down further and go back to sleep if two parts of her brain had not started clamoring for attention.

The first section was the place in which all her social norms and mores lived, and it was saying, very insistently, that this situation had the potential to be quite embarrassing and that she should get out of it as soon as possible. Her level of intimacy with Sesshoumaru was not nearly deep enough to allow sleeping in his lap.

On the other hand, the other - probably more primitive - section of her brain was suggesting lasciviously that the gap between her current level of intimacy and the intimacy needed for this position could be very easily closed, and, by the way, doesn't that throat look rather lickable?

Unmentionable parts of her tingled to life. They pointed out that his kimono was loose. Incidentally, they said, it might be quite easy to coax him out of it.

Kagome entertained these options for nearly two seconds before embarrassment at her immodest turn of thought settled in and she shut her eyes once more, rather tighter than necessary.

No! she told herself firmly, struggling not to squirm. No licking! Bad girl!

After she had calmed down a little, Kagome clenched her teeth and tried to think of how to get out of this position without waking Sesshoumaru. If she were lucky she could get ready for the day and down to the shrine without having to speak to him; that would give her an entire day in which to ruthlessly quash her embarrassment and pretend that things were perfectly normal.

First things first, though.

Right, she thought. Step one: remove self from the lap of demon possessing preternatural sensitivity of the nose and ears without said demon noticing. Easy.

Very slowly, she looked up, attempting to assess Sesshoumaru's depth of slumber.

This turned out to be very easy, since Sesshoumaru was staring at her.

For a moment, Kagome froze. Then she turned and buried her face in his chest, hoping against hope that he had been struck blind in the middle of the night, or that he had contracted amnesia, or something.

Be invisible! Kagome commanded herself frantically. Think transparent! Glass! Air! Water! Uh... glass...

Sesshoumaru blinked, slightly confused. For the past quarter of an hour he had been studying her and wondering what to do. On the one hand she looked tired and obviously needed the sleep, but on the other he was feeling dangerously unhappy.

Oh, he hadn't been angry immediately. First, of all the positions in which to wake up, Sesshoumaru felt compelled to admit that opening one's eyes to find a lovely young woman pressed rather intimately against oneself certainly ranked high in the top ten, and so he had felt quite content with the world and his position in it, vague discomfort in the groinal region notwithstanding.

Next, he had felt slightly panicked because he could not quite remember how she had arrived there. This made for a frantic few moments until he dredged up her actions of the previous night from the murky depths of his memory. With that recollection, he then remembered his brilliant logical loophole. Relieved that he no longer had to pretend to himself that she wasn't delectably tempting, Sesshoumaru had found that all was well again.

And if he had stopped there, then all would have continued to be well and he could have simply sat back and enjoyed the all-too-rare sensation of waking up with company, except then he had remembered their whispered conversation, and all the little sparkling secrets she had shown him -

- Inuyasha had not thrown her away, as he had always believed; rather, she had let him go. They had not parted with pain and betrayal, with anger and hatred - she had still loved him, and he had loved her -

- somewhere deep in her heart, a part of her was with him still -

- and it was right about then that he started to get upset.

Now she was awake, and he had worked himself into an internal, frothing frenzy of directionless rage complete with impotent frustration at both his inability to figure out exactly why he was so angry and Kagome's insistence on shifting restlessly in his lap and distracting him from pursuing his line of inquiry.

Her face was still buried in his chest. Impatiently, Sesshoumaru gave her a quick jostle.

Kagome, for her part, was still attempting to move past her initial reaction and was finding herself quite surprised by each moment in which she continued to exist instead of, for example, collapsing into a singularity of mortification. She was not entirely certain that this was a good thing.

At the little shake from Sesshoumaru, she risked a peek up at his face.

He was still staring at her.

"God!" she exclaimed turning back to his chest. "Don't you know it's rude to stare at someone while they're sleeping?"

Beneath her nose she felt his chest rumble with an impatient noise.

"I hardly think," he said haughtily, "that you have any grounds for righteous indignation concerning manners. It is also rude to rip someone else's clothing off. Especially without their consent."

In her brain, Kagome recoiled. He sounded pissed. She couldn't remember the last time he had sounded so angry.

Well! If he was going to be an ass, she could give as good as she got in that department! Kagome ground her teeth. "I was worried about you, and you had plenty of opportunities to object!" she snapped.

There was a snort. "Indeed. Now, if you are quite finished..." she heard him say. His voice was replete with a weary ennui which said, quite clearly, that finding pure young maidens in his arms was such a regular occurrence that he was growing rather bored with it, and why couldn't they just go away and let him sleep for once?

Well, all right, it probably hadn't said all that, but the sudden sensation of being lifted from the cradle of his legs before being deposited unceremoniously - and slightly painfully - onto her sleeping bag certainly contributed to this impression. He didn't even set her down - merely let her tumble out of his hands and onto the ground.

"Ow!" she grunted, the sharp jarring of her bones against the earth jerking her into full and irrevocable consciousness. She blinked, sleep and contentment now far beyond her reach.

In a moment of clarity, Kagome realized that the time elapsed between catching his eyes and getting dumped like a load of dirty laundry couldn't have lasted more than twenty seconds, which meant that the speed with which her day had turned from fabulous to horrible had probably broken some kind of record. This fact did not serve to put her in a good mood.

Angrily ignoring the sudden bumper crop of aches and pains, Kagome sat up and whipped around, glowering impressively at her companion. Unfortunately it was wasted on him, as so many things probably were; he was turned slightly away from her, making a great show of readjusting his messy kimono.

This just pissed her off even more. It had been one of her better glares. "What the hell was that for?" she demanded angrily.

"You were in the way," he said without looking up. He seemed to be taking more time than strictly necessary in straightening his clothing, as though trying to draw her attention to the results of her unseemly behavior.

Brat, she thought. She felt her frustration spike into the red zone, and she jerked her eyes away from him.

"It's also rude to be cold to someone who's obviously embarrassed enough as it is," she said angrily as she clambered to her feet and brushed the detritus from her clothing. "That's just so... so immature!" She whirled away, hands clenched into fists, and stomped her way to her backpack. Not even bothering to root through it she slung the entire thing on her shoulder and then stomped her way off into the trees in the direction of the stream.

After a short interval Sesshoumaru could hear her small, customary shrieks at the chill of the water. He tried not to think of the fact that she was naked at that very moment, which only served to further frustrate him. Forcefully he finished straightening his kimono and stalked over to where his armor rested against a tree.

It took a little longer than necessary for him to get outfitted for the day - for some reason, he couldn't stop yanking on the straps and subsequently cutting off all the circulation in his limbs - and so his mood was even more foul by the time Kagome came stomping back. When she arrived she paused and pinned him with a mighty scowl, somehow managing to give the impression that she was making a rude face without actually doing so.

"I'm going to go work my ass off," she announced. "I hope you have a nice day sleeping or scratching yourself or whatever it is you do all day."

"Hunting," he supplied through gritted teeth.

"Yeah, that. You go do that," she snapped, turning her back on him and taking a step in the direction of the shrine.

Sesshoumaru was beginning to suspect that she was not giving him the credit he deserved; of course, no one did, but she seemed to be admiring him far less than usual, and since he was showing remarkable restraint in several aspects of his life at the moment he felt that she was poking his sore spots on purpose. The thought irked him, and he felt a childish flash of malice. Against his better judgment, he opened his mouth.

"Do try not to assault any unsuspecting men on your way there," he drawled, loud enough so that she could hear him and almost succeeding in sounding bored.

He saw her stop in her tracks. Then she wove her hands in her still-damp hair and dropped to the ground in a crouch.

For a brief moment Sesshoumaru felt a flash of concern. Then he heard her take a deep breath before she gave a muffled scream through clenched teeth.

It went on for a while. When she finally stopped, she was breathing hard. Then, with rather more dignity than she seemed entitled to, she rose to her feet and walked away.

Sesshoumaru blinked as she disappeared into the foliage, feeling slightly uneasy, restraining the impulse to inform her retreating back that screaming was also immature.

Happily this concern was banished when he realized what he was doing, and began to feel even angrier. She didn't have anything to be upset about! That he wasn't certain his own rage was justified was beside the point; he was pissed off, and the fact that she had managed to redirect his considerable energy, even for a moment, into a flash of concern and remorse for his childish cruelty just upset him even more. He had a really great fury going, and she had almost distracted him from it. The nerve.

Low in the primitive section of his brain, Sesshoumaru felt the deep, burning desire to kill something. Of course, he always liked killing things, but right now he wanted something to slice up just to relieve the tension. There was just something so satisfying about a dismembered corpse, and besides, hunting tended to occupy the mind and provide an outlet for anger with no direction. He really needed that right now - he needed to wrest his thoughts away from the monopoly Kagome held on them.

The thought brought him up short. He had always been the master of himself. How had he lost control so completely?

When did this happen? he wondered, his anger teetering on despair. When did she take my thoughts from me?

He couldn't remember.

With an inaudible sigh, Sesshoumaru turned his face to the treetops and took off, attempting to outrun the chaos in his head.


Stretched out beneath one of the larger trees in the courtyard of the shrine, Kagome gazed upwards at its branches as they gently bumped against each other in the strangely cool breeze. It was a calming sight, relaxing and tranquil, and she wondered, with remarkable serenity, whether or not the bird perched directly over her face would choose to drop its blessings in her eye.

On its branch the little bird chirped and rotated where it stood. Kagome found this quite interesting and awaited further developments. After all, receiving an eyeful of bird crap would actually improve her day, so she was looking forward to a positive change in fortune. It wasn't the greatest of leaps forward, but even the feelings of disgust and righteous ire that would be caused by such an event would be substantially better than this horrible, miserable confusion that roiled deep in her stomach.

As if that weren't enough, all of her tension had slid down her spine to coil in the small of her back, and the muscles along the edges of her jaw were sore from the constant, absentminded clenching of her teeth. For some reason, the words "death warmed over" kept creeping along the edges of her head and popping out at regular intervals, as if afraid that she would forget her current state of mind and wanted to be sure she was reminded of it at least once every three minutes.

That wasn't all. Of course not. Topping all of this off, like particularly ignominious salt in her gloomy wound, she was perhaps two more clever comments away from strangling Fuyu and Kazuo, both of whom seemed to have assigned themselves as her own private peanut gallery. If cynicism increased with age, Kagome had decided, then the combined wit and worldly wisdom of both Fuyu and Kazuo apparently amounted to about seven thousand years of life experience, and neither of them seemed anything less than delighted to share it with her.

It was swell.

They were whispering to each other now, a few meters away. Kagome was doing her best not to listen, as no doubt it would all be in the same vein of their previous remarks and she'd had quite enough of those, thank you. Briefly, Kagome considered standing up and walking off in a huff, but some bizarre, malformed sense of pride kept her where she was. It wasn't her fault that Fuyu and Kazuo were convinced she needed advice.

It was Sesshoumaru's fault. Of course.

This fact was just so obvious that it hardly bore thinking about. Still, just for fun, Kagome thought about it anyway.

Yes, it was all so clear. Her misery had nothing to do with the vague, queasy guilt she felt whenever she thought of Inuyasha, nor was it caused by her deep and profound humiliation when she remembered that she had told Sesshoumaru - who was never very sympathetic even at the best of times - some of her deepest and most painful secrets. And of course her state of mind had nothing to do with the perilously deep and probably unrequited feelings that she had allowed to take root even though she knew better. None of that had anything to do with it.

Nope, it was all Sesshoumaru's fault, because...

Well, it just was, dammit.

Kagome bit her lip and shifted on the gritty stones beneath her as she tried to maintain this conviction, but after a few minutes she gave up and just stared glumly at the tree branches again noting absently that the bird had been joined by two of its closest associates. They were chattering back and forth to each other, possibly discussing various aerial formations, and determining which one would lead to the most pleasing poop patterns. It didn't matter, of course; she couldn't be bothered to move even if she was directly in the line of fire. She was used to being shat upon, or at least it seemed that way.

In fact, everything seemed to be conspiring to turn her into an apathetic blob of miserable miko, especially her so-called mentors. Weren't they there to encourage her and help her figure things out? Because if so, they were doing a terrible job and should be fired post haste. Besides, she had been doing just fine sorting it all out for herself that morning, or at least she had been sorting it out with slightly less humiliation.

Admittedly when she had still been on her way to the shrine, she had been in a bit of a tizzy, trying to sort out the myriad of feelings that had buffeted her from all sides, each clamoring for her attention. Anger, rejection, misery, and even a tinge of sexual frustration had warred for dominance as she tramped through the forest to the field, and to her chagrin rejection had won the first round.

Staring unseeingly at the path ahead of her, Kagome had miserably mulled over the events of that morning.

He just walked off, she thought. He'd shoved her aside, insulted her, and walked off, just like that.

Had it been something she had said last night? she wondered. Something she did? Did she repulse him? It didn't make any sense, he hadn't been cold - no, not at all - when he turned her in his arms, he'd never given any indication, and she was not going to cry -

Desperately Kagome clenched her teeth and concentrated on the little trail she had worn down over the course of the month, struggling to clear her head, trying to slow her breath and keep herself inside.

Still the thoughts beat against her mind, like insects at the window.

She couldn't stop remembering it - he'd just walked off, as if the night before hadn't happened. And nothing had happened, except it had, and he shouldn't have just left -

Except she was right the first time - nothing had really happened between them. Even though she found the experience to be more raw and more electrified than she had ever imagined possible, it didn't necessarily follow that Sesshoumaru would feel the same way about it. Perhaps her head just wasn't clear enough to understand...

As she reached this conclusion, Kagome stepped from the line of trees and into the large field in front of the shrine. The sky was overcast this morning, but the slowly rising grey light was still stronger here in the open air instead of in the gloom of the forest. Kagome felt a small flash of annoyance at the hokey symbolism of the moment before frowning and stepping with determination into the wide expanse of grass.

O-kay, she thought carefully, let's try being rational about this.

Luckily, it only took her about a half a second to come up with a viable way to reconcile the difference between her reaction and the reality of the situation.

She was overreacting.

Kagome took a deep breath and rolled the hypothesis around, testing its weight. It seemed to have some merit.

Overreacting. Yes. She must be. It wasn't like their relationship had suddenly changed just because she wanted it to do so, and aside from confessing deep secrets and painful life events and then falling asleep in his lap after forcing him into a state of dishabille, there was nothing to indicate that any sort of line had been crossed.



By the time she reached the steps she was beginning to get angry again, though she wasn't certain how much of it was justified, and she was acutely aware that anger was a luxury. She didn't have time to be upset. She didn't have time to obsess over stupid shit.

We don't have time to care about stupid, stupid youkai or stupid, stupid feelings for said youkai, she reminded herself. That is not what we are here for. We are here to save Edo, not...

Well. You know.



There was a long pause in her thoughts as Kagome deliberately stuffed her silly fantasies in a mental cupboard, placing them out of sight so that she would not dwell on them any more and could calm down. When she was about halfway up the steps, she experimented with thinking again.

It didn't appear to have worked. Stupid, stupid Sesshoumaru, she thought fiercely.

That stupid bastard. Stupid, stupid, stupid! she thought as she stomped the rest of the way up the steps.

God! It served her right. She was always forgetting that he wasn't human, that he didn't feel the same things she did -

- his father did, her mind whispered treacherously, his brother did -

- and even if he did he probably wouldn't even recognize them -

- what about Rin? -

- or something.

Kagome reached the top of the steps and slowed her pace, wondering if she was rationalizing this just a little too much, if she was letting her offended feelings govern her too much. It was not unheard of for her to flip out over things that perhaps did not warrant it. In fact, such things had been, she shamefully acknowledged, a regular occurrence when she was younger.

But I'm an adult now, right? she thought. I should handle this like an adult.

Oh, if only she knew how adults handled things! Deep inside, she still felt sixteen, still felt at that age when her life had ground to a halt, when the well had closed, when all of that was suddenly behind. It was so depressing.

All right, she thought, scowling at the ground passing slowly beneath her feet, let's try to think about this in another way. What if? Maybe...

What if she had made him uncomfortable? She couldn't really remember a time when he had seemed embarrassed - angry, yes, injured pride, yes, embarrassed, no - so she wasn't certain what embarrassment looked like on him. Maybe he didn't like other people seeing his discomfort. Maybe he had never been embarrassed before and didn't know what to do about it.

Hey, maybe he just didn't realize what a jerk he was.

Kagome was so wrapped up in her own little world that she didn't even notice the figure in the shadows as she passed by.

"Girl!" The sharp voice of Fuyu sliced across her tumultuous thoughts, effectively severing the unproductive thread of thought that she had been following. Barely suppressing a shriek of surprise, Kagome halted clumsily.

"Um! Ah - eh?" she said, whirling around to where the old miko stood, only a few feet away and slightly obscured by the shadows of the trees and the shrine wall.

Kagome saw Fuyu's eyes narrow fractionally.

"Are you all right, girl?" the old woman demanded.

For the second or third time that day Kagome was sent reeling. "What?" she said, startled, momentarily forgetting her woes. In her experience, Fuyu was more likely to burst into spontaneous song with assorted forest friends than express unprompted concern about anyone. It was unnerving.

The old woman's eyes narrowed further. "It wasn't that youkai was it?" she snapped.

"What?" Kagome said again, thoroughly lost. "What wasn't him?"

For a long moment Fuyu just stared at her, and Kagome had the unpleasant impression that the old miko was attempting to bore a hole in her skull with the power of her mind, until abruptly the old woman jerked into action, striding forward into the grey light with such purpose that Kagome took a step sideways, certain that she was about to be knocked over like a bowling pin. Unfortunately the old miko merely changed course and walked right up to her and shoved her face upwards, until their noses were almost touching.

"What," Fuyu said, her voice filled with a hard, rough menace, "did he do to you?"

Kagome took a step backwards. "What?" she cried. "What are you talking about? He didn't do anything to me!"

There was a pause while the old miko glared at her a little more, seemingly for dramatic effect, before nodding her head curtly, as though some fundamental piece of a puzzle had suddenly dropped into place.

"I see," she said solemnly. "That is a problem."

For a split second Kagome floundered before realizing that she had missed a turn somewhere.

"What?" she said for the fourth time. It seemed the only coherent response, though she found it deeply annoying that it was fast becoming the most used word in the Kagome Lexicon.

But Fuyu was rubbing her chin sagely. "I think you should take it a little easy today - no wonder you're in a bad mood," she said airily. "Not that I blame you," she added with a slightly unsettling smirk.

Stunned, Kagome was not sure which statement to tackle first: the insinuation that she looked bad enough to warrant a day off, the assumption that it was Sesshoumaru she was obsessing over, or the rather disturbing implication that Fuyu had actually given Sesshoumaru more than five second's thought and that not all of those thoughts were negative.

Steeling herself, she went with the path of least resistance.

"Do I really look that bad?" she asked.

Fuyu raised an eyebrow. "Of course you do! You question my judgment?"

"Uh, no!" Kagome said hastily, belatedly registering the words 'take it easy.' "It's just... um..." She waved a hand vaguely. "What makes you think my, uh, bad mood -" boy, is that an understatement, she thought, " - has anything to do with Sesshoumaru?"

Sesshoumaru? Upset me? she mentally cried. It is to laugh!

The miko looked at her as if she were stupid. "Well you're always so damn upbeat," she snapped, "so something had to have happened this morning or last night, therefore it must have been that youkai who did this."

Kagome scowled, annoyed. It was true, but that was not the point. It might not have been. "And you didn't stop to think that it had anything to do with your little 'training session' yesterday? That wasn't exactly the most brilliant of plans, you know."

Fuyu made a rude noise, as if bad ideas were something that happened to other people. "Nonsense!" she said, throwing her hands into the air. She turned smartly and began to walk across the courtyard toward the shrine. "If anything that should have strengthened your bond, and if you can't even get that right it has nothing to do with me!"

"Our 'bond' didn't need to be strengthened," Kagome snapped, stumbling after her.

"Which is why you're in such a lovely mood this fine morning!"

Ouch. Taking a deep breath, Kagome prayed for patience. "Look," she said, "I don't know what you think you know about me, but you don't know as much as you think."

"If you don't know what I think I know, how do you know I don't know as much as I think?" Fuyu shot back without skipping a beat.

In the five seconds between the middle of the courtyard and the door of the shrine Kagome managed to work out the last bit of their exchange, but could think of no snappy comeback. Just as well, she thought gloomily - the window of opportunity for a clever reply had passed, and she would only look foolish - more so than she did already - trying to recover it. She shook her head as Fuyu held up a hand, indicating she wait as the old woman disappeared inside. A few moments later she returned, carrying a basket in her hands and sporting the little determined gleam in her eye that foreshadowed a purification of the weeds in the garden. "So," Fuyu said imperiously, "am I right? Your youkai upset you?"

"He's not mine," Kagome sighed.

Fuyu sniffed. "That is completely irrelevant," she said. "The only important question right now is this: am I right?"

Determined to make a valiant last stand, Kagome lifted her chin defiantly. "I really don't see how any of this is your business," she said haughtily.

Then, to her everlasting dismay, the old miko broke into a grin. "I knew it!" she cried. "Now let's go sit in the garden. You look awful." Without another word she swept off, towing Kagome in her wake.

They spent the morning in the garden in silence, Fuyu industriously pulling weeds and squishing giant insects between her fingers while Kagome half-heartedly plucked at the invading plants and occasionally flicked a pillbug over into another row of radishes. She didn't have the heart to kill them today.

Strange, but her little argument with Fuyu had actually calmed her down somewhat. The old miko hadn't been terribly off base, but she had arrived there from the wrong direction.

Iit was now gradually occurring to Kagome that she couldn't really talk about this situation with anyone because they didn't understand Sesshoumaru as she did, and that classification probably included Sesshoumaru himself. Even with Inuyasha she could talk to Sango or Kaede or Miroku or even Shippou, but now there was no one. She was going to have to get through this on her own. Part of that 'growing up' thing, she supposed.

She was still moodily pondering these small revelations at lunch when Kazuo slouched his way into the main building and informed Kagome that she was late for training.

"Kagome is not going to train today," Fuyu decreed. "She's not feeling well."

"She doesn't look sick," Kazuo said dubiously. "What's wrong with her?"

It was as if she wasn't even there. Kagome opened her mouth to protest this conversation, but to her despair Fuyu ignored her, steamrolling right over her barely voiced objections.

"Her spirit is ill!" the miko declared, waving her chopsticks for dramatic effect and consequently flinging a piece of fish into the air. Fuyu, caught up in the throes of melodrama, appeared not to notice. "She is sick in her soul. She suffers from a malady of the heart!"

Kagome's face burned, but under the embarrassment she couldn't help but think, Sick in my soul? A malady of the heart? Where the hell did that come from? She was beginning to suspect that, buried deep under her crusty exterior, Fuyu might possibly be a romantic. Or maybe she was just a sadist posing as a romantic. Yes, that made more sense.

Over the humiliated groans in her head she heard Kazuo grunt.

"Eh?" he asked.

She saw the old woman lean towards Kazuo with a conspiratorial air.

"Her youkai," Fuyu informed him in what she probably thought was a whisper.

Kazuo blinked, then rounded on his pupil. "The youkai? What did he do to you?" he half-yelled, a thunderous frown crossing his normally genial features.

ARG! Kagome decided. Frantically she waved her hands, trying to placate him. "Nothing!" she cried. "He didn't do anything to me!"

"Nothing?" Kazuo demanded.

"Nothing!" she squeaked, shaking her head with vigor.

Kazuo pursed his lips for a long moment before nodding sagely.

"I see," he announced. "That is terrible."

"That's what I said," Fuyu replied.

Horrified, Kagome buried her face in her hands and prayed that Sesshoumaru was not in the vicinity. Damn youkai hearing, she thought with despair, and for one wild moment she considered upending the kettle of stew in front of her and escaping in the ensuing confusion. Unfortunately this was not an option, as she appeared to be paralyzed by shame.

"You know," Kazuo was oozing, "if you need some male attention, I'd be more than happy to - "

"Oh, get off it!" Fuyu cried, cutting him off and sounding a bit more like her normal bossy self. "She doesn't need someone like you!"

"What, human?" Kazuo said snidely.

"Washed up," the old woman snapped back.

"Ha!" the samurai barked.

"It's not - " Kagome began to say, but it was too late.

"Those that can't," Kazuo was saying, "uh... Those that can't... um, don't."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Fuyu demanded.

The samurai sniffed. "Miko," he said.

There was a pause. Kagome watched the approaching headlights with a serene terror. As if the day hadn't been bad enough already...

"I am well aware of what she needs," Fuyu growled.

"Yeah, I'll bet," Kazuo muttered.

" - and," Fuyu continued as if he hadn't spoken, "it's not some drunk soldier."

"'A sickness of the soul?'" Kazuo reminded her. "As if you would know! What she needs is - "

"I was merely putting a nice face on it," Fuyu said primly, interrupting him. "I didn't want to embarrass her."

Oh, for god's sake.

"I'm out of here," Kagome announced.

"No, you're not," Kazuo said, rounding on her. "You have to train."

"No training!" Fuyu half-shouted, throwing down her chopsticks in favor of the spoon and brandishing it menacingly.

"Stop that," the samurai snapped at her. "Nothing physical." He turned back to Kagome, who was willing to do almost anything to get out of that room. "You remember your strategy?"

"Uh... yes?" Kagome ventured. She did remember. She wished she didn't. It involved a lot of disemboweling. Ugh.

"Right! Go find a tree to sit under and meditate on it."

"Meditate?" Kagome almost said, but thought better of it. Instead she ducked out just as Fuyu laughed unkindly and accused Kazuo of being too hungover to do anything but sleep it off under a tree. She hadn't stuck around to hear Kazuo's retort.

It was now nearly evening and Kagome had managed to spread a lot of the blame for the situation around. It might even have been mostly her fault.

Or all her fault. Sesshoumaru didn't owe her anything; she didn't have a right to requited feelings.

She sighed. Kazuo and Fuyu seemed to have reached an agreement, and were now sitting under a nearby tree and discussing the Kagome-and-Sesshoumaru relationship in half-audible tones. From what Kagome could hear, they were getting it mostly wrong.

Well, that made three of them. At least.

A flurry of movement high above drew her out of her miserable musings. Her little bird friends were flying off, taking her hope for a better future with them.

Kagome closed her eyes and began to compose a dramatic and moving soliloquy on her poor fate, rejected and ridiculed and not even worthy of being birdcage liner. There were lots of 'woe!'s and many 'alas!'es. She even threw in an 'alack' just for flavor.

She was debating between ending the whole speech on a couplet or simply a declaration of despair when someone nudged her in the ribs and Kagome opened her eyes to see Kazuo standing over her, poking her with a toe.

Why can't anyone just let me lounge around? Kagome wondered unhappily. Someone was always giving her a rude awakening of one kind or another, and it was getting tiresome.

"What?" she demanded wearily, looking up at her sensei and wishing he were too drunk to talk, let alone bother her. Unfortunately - for her, at least - he seemed to be uncharacteristically sober, though this did not necessarily incline him toward a more sober attitude.

Kazuo ignored her tone. "I said meditating, not sleeping," he informed her as if he didn't constantly make up stupid excuses for his own frequent forays into the land of the unconscious.

"I was," Kagome replied, "but then someone interrupted me."

The samurai just twisted his lips in a strange look that was half amusement, half exasperation. Kagome thought this was pretty rich. "Anyway," she continued, "it's not like you could tell the difference between the two just by looking at me."

Kazuo merely shrugged. "True," he said. "I suppose you know best how to spend your training. I'm not the one going to fight, after all."

Though she had never been a violent girl, Kagome took this opportunity to imagine Kazuo's head exploding in a rather spectacular manner. The vision came disturbingly easily.

"That's not fair," she complained, "I'm just not very good at imagining disemboweling someone. I've never done it before."

"All the more reason to imagine it a lot," Kazuo sniffed. "Then you won't be so distracted when you're actually trying to get the job done."

Kagome didn't feel like arguing, so she merely nodded as she sat up and began to brush herself off. Unfortunately, Kazuo didn't buy her acquiescence.

"Look, miko-san," he said sternly as she batted ineffectually at her clothing. "You need to start concentrating on your battle."

"I know," Kagome replied with a sigh as she bent and shouldered her backpack. "It's just..." She trailed off.

Just what? she thought absently as they walked to the top of the shrine steps. Just... I don't want to kill anyone? Just I'm tired of blood? Just I didn't really think this through? Just I'm risking my life for an unrequited infatuation?

Just I'm a fool?

They were all true. Kazuo, who could be depressingly sharp at times, seemed to hear her unspoken words.

"Miko," he said as she started down the stairs, "if you are not in this all the way, to win, why are you here?"

Kagome stopped, mid-step.

"I am in it to win," she told him without looking back.

She waited for a moment, in case he had anything else to add, but when it became apparent that he was going to remain silent, she continued down the stairs and into the field below.

I am in this to win, she thought again as she walked across the meadow to the trees. I just don't know if I want to win it like this.

But then again, if she had doubts about her method, why was she doing this at all? It was a very good question, all things considered. Why did she bother? Why, of all the things in the world that she could be, did she always think she had to be self-sacrificing and noble? She could, she supposed, blame it on her personality, which was dutiful and ethical - if she weren't so self-sacrificing, she wouldn't be Kagome, and all that other feel-good stuff her mother told her when she was younger - but that would assume that it was her duty to throw away all the things she wanted and needed, and that she had no will to choose.

And she didn't really believe in fate any more. Not after what had happened with Inuyasha, at least. But, then again, why had the well let her through? What was she doing here with Sesshoumaru? What the hell was she trying to prove, and to whom?

Around her feet, Kagome watched tiny white insects fly up and out, almost brilliant in the gloomy grey light; it were as though she were casting sparks with her steps that faded and disappeared as she walked into the darkness of the forest.

She just couldn't make sense of any of it, and it frustrated her to no end. She felt as though she had blinders on; she knew there were answers to her questions - all of them, about both her mission and her tumultuous feelings - and yet they were always partially blocked from her view. Here and there she could catch a glimpse, but the whole picture, the true form of the story, always remained fragmented and incomplete; she could never catch enough of it in her sight to understand what it meant.

Chewing on her lower lip, Kagome was so deeply immersed in fretting that she almost didn't notice the sudden hush in atmosphere as she walked further into the woods. Things were getting quieter and quieter, and when she finally noticed the howl of the hush, it was almost too late.

Storm, was her first, incoherent thought, and then suddenly a terrifying cold pierced her throat, flowed down over her lungs and into the pit of her stomach, and she shivered violently with the force of it.


The word flapped wildly in her head, beating frightened wings against the inside of her skull - unfamiliar, not him, youki, youki - and then her bow was no longer slung across her back but in her hand, an arrow nocked and readied. She couldn't remember doing any of that.

Her eyes were wide and dry. She almost panicked, almost swung about wildly, but instead Kagome forced herself to concentrate before whirling around, a near half turn, and pointing her blazing arrow into the darkness beyond the path.

"I can feel you there!" she said loudly, with a confidence that almost seemed real. "Come out, now, or I'll shoot!"

In the silence, a branch snapped. It sounded like the breaking of a mind.

"You will fire?" a voice said, amused. It was unfamiliar, felt dark and warm and soft. In other circumstances, it would have been a calm and comforting voice, but here, on this isolated path and the chill of youki with killing intent slowing the blood in her veins, it didn't sound soothing at all. It sounded like the inside of a grave.

Her breath came in fast, quick pants, and she struggled not to hyperventilate. If you faint, you die, her mind hissed. The goosebumps on her skin tingled.

Swallowing, she lifted her chin. "I don't need to see your face to kill you," she replied.

There was a rustle, and a footstep.

Then, onto the path, eyes trained on her arrow in dark amusement - but he's wary, she noted absently - stepped a handsome demon. Wildly, strangely, her mind carefully catalogued everything about him, as if she wanted to ensure that he would be the same when they met again inside her nightmares.

Pointed ears and dark brown eyes, and features that were a little rough; like Kouga, but burlier. He wore simple armor, a dark blue kimono and loose hakama, and there was a pelt of brown fur wrapped around his waist. Chin tilted in arrogance, as though he knew that this was all a misunderstanding, and things would be fine if she would just listen to him.

Lifting his eyes from her arrow to her face, the demon grinned, displaying teeth so long and sharp it was a surprise he didn't pierce through his own lips.

"Ah," he said, that strange, chocolate-coated voice flowing from his tongue, "at last I am able to meet milord's whore."

Kagome felt the world go numb.


Sesshoumaru was not jealous. He knew this because he told himself so.

Definitely, definitely not jealous. Not at all.

Anyway, even if - purely hypothetically - he was jealous, he didn't have time to think about it. He was hunting. He was focused and ready, his predator's mind trained solely on the task set before him, and the world narrowed down to the scent and the chase and the blood -

On the other hand, Sesshoumaru admitted gloomily, this excuse would have more weight if there were actually anything to hunt. Still, sooner or later, something suitable for killing would come along and so he was staying staunchly vigilant. He was certainly not distracted by occasional waves of possessive fury, because being jealous of his stupid, annoying, filthy half-breed brother was such a ridiculous notion that it deserved no further consideration than a disbelieving laugh.

Loitering on the limb of a particularly majestic beech tree, Sesshoumaru gave the surrounding area a surreptitious glance, and then laughed as derisively as possible to see if it dispelled the nonsensical notion that he would harbor any jealousy towards the hanyou. Unfortunately, it was growing ever more difficult to ignore the fact that he was testing this method of dismissal for the seventh time and it had yet to work in the expected manner.

To his annoyance, this newest attempt yielded the same poor results; instead of setting his mind at ease he merely felt silly. If anyone caught the Lord of the Western Lands sitting around in a tree and giggling to himself -

Well, all right, he would remove their capacity for speech very quickly, but it was the principle of the thing.

Sesshoumaru ground his teeth and acknowledged that it was probably time to try something else. He could still feel the strange, cold-burning fog gathered at the base of his throat, and he was running out of theories as to what it could be, since it certainly wasn't jealousy.


Ha! he thought to himself. Ridiculous!

Yes. It was ridiculous. Not just because the hanyou didn't have anything the great Sesshoumaru would ever want, but because being jealous of him would be almost like admitting that the half-breed could possibly be within shouting distance of his level, and that was such an absurd idea that it was actually insulting. If it were true, he would have growled out loud.

But he didn't, because it wasn't true, so clearly he wasn't jealous, and if he wasn't jealous there was no reason for him to be thinking about this at all. Which he wasn't, because he was busy hunting.


Sesshoumaru stood on his tree branch and tried to focus.

A long minute passed.

Another long minute passed.

Across the small clearing below, the unseasonably cool breeze whispered through the sparse grass, sending a handful of fallen leaves tumbling. They jostled and chased each other over the parched ground.

Sesshoumaru watched them until they had mostly disappeared into the shade beyond the trees. At that point his eyes began to water; he had forgotten to blink.


So maybe he was a little distracted.

That didn't mean he was jealous. He could just be... envious.

...Yes, he decided after a moment, that was acceptable. Envy could imply covetousness, a desire for something that someone else possessed. No, even better, something that someone else was unworthy of possessing. Like Tessaiga.

Maybe even like Kagome, which would explain a lot, actually. Such as, for instance, the inexplicable anger that had overwhelmed him that morning before he had dumped Kagome out of his lap, hastily dressed, and then took off into the forest, running without direction until he accidentally stumbled upon some bears, which he then, in a fit of agitation, turned into ex-bears. Envy could certainly have something to do with that.

It wasn't until after he had created a number of ex-animals that he had calmed down enough to think rationally about the situation. Unfortunately he had been dancing around the idea of jealousy the entire day and had therefore made very little progress, instead choosing to pursue a number of other, increasingly unlikely causes for his discombobulation.

But now - now he had finally found an acceptable variation on the theme of jealousy. Who cared what had transpired between Kagome and that stupid, ugly hanyou? Certainly not him, that was for sure! Clearly Inuyasha did not deserve Kagome - he hadn't deserved much, really - and this covetousness was merely his sense of justice, of balance in the universe, asserting itself.

So he was not jealous. He was envious. There was a difference, albeit not much of one, but then again he had grown quite good at making extremely fine distinctions between his situation and... well, his situation and something else. He was no longer certain as to what particular fate he was struggling against, but it must be unpleasant or he wouldn't keep fighting it so fiercely.


Slowly, Sesshoumaru lifted a hand and rubbed it over his brow, suddenly feeling exhausted. He had never been one to run from anything. True, sometimes he made temporary, strategic retreats, but unless he achieved what he wanted in some other fashion he always came back and finished the job after he had stopped bleeding.

However this was a different feeling altogether - this strange, almost instinctive aversion to whatever fate he felt himself falling into was unsettling. There was a wild restlessness in his feet, urging him to run somewhere, though where he would go, or if he would flee or give chase, he could not tell. It wasn't powerful enough for him to seriously consider giving it to it, but it was a persistent tickling in his limbs, growing fractionally stronger the closer he came to whatever it was he was avoiding.

It was all right, though. As long as he kept whittling down hairs he could postpone whatever it was indefinitely; therefore there was nothing to do but renew his determination to stay his asymptotic course. Logically there would always be a halfway point between his fate and himself, so there was always a place to draw a new line.

There. Problem solved.

Good thing, too, Sesshoumaru reflected, as now it was nearly nightfall and he had accomplished very little today, numerous corpses of relatively inoffensive animals notwithstanding. It was nice to know that those meandering trails of logic had finally lead somewhere productive, or at the very least they had led somewhere where it was finally possible to be productive without all those inconvenient feelings and worries getting in the way of doing things. He really needed to stop thinking about things so much or he would never get anything done.

It was almost time to go back, anyway, though Sesshoumaru had already spent so much time thinking about Kagome and what had happened that he didn't really feel like he had left her at all. At least he wasn't so agitated any more; perhaps they could have a calm, relaxing evening tonight instead of the angry morning they had parted on.

With a deep sigh, he turned toward camp and -

- paused.

On the air... there was... something...


Sesshoumaru inhaled.

Yes, the smell of smoke was definitely tickling his nose; to a human being it would smell like a normal fire, carried on the wind, but to him there was a sharp edge to the scent, like the sound of a sword, revealing its true nature.

Suddenly, the world tipped over, and just like that all his ridiculous obsessing over Kagome seemed exactly like what it was - silly and pointless - because his true purpose for being here, the real reason he was so tangled and dark inside, had suddenly reasserted itself.

Ah, he thought, narrowing down his mind.

A youkai. He could smell it.

An elemental had come for her, though he had never expected a fire youkai to be so foolish; their smell was so distinct that even lesser beings could pick it out, leaving them an especially open, exposed target for one such as he.

It was a potent scent, too. Her assassins were getting stronger, had been getting stronger, really, since the very first one he had killed.

The boldness was beginning to get rather worrisome, and, as he stood very quietly on his tree branch and tested the air, Sesshoumaru absently wondered for the millionth time how his home was faring. He'd not heard a word from Myouga in all the time he'd been here with Kagome, and the feeling of dread that had settled in his gut was slowly curdling.

The day was clearly fast approaching when he would be forced to leave and return home, to face all the turmoil that waited for him there. Already the inner turmoil that raged inside him was beginning to pale and fade next to the coming struggle, though he knew that it would not disappear, merely slumber until the outward danger had passed and then wake once more.

But that was in the future, and right now, not for the first time, he wondered if all of this was actually worth it. It always seemed worth it when he was with her, of course, but right now, sniffing out the scent of flame, he wasn't quite certain that he was doing the right thing. Was there even a right thing to do? Or did it all come down to him and what he chose to be right?

Soon he needed to return and sort things out. Very soon.

Grinding his teeth at the thought he turned his nose to the wind and inhaled, drawing the acrid scent deep into his lungs. Closing his eyes he concentrated, feeling the breeze wash against his face.

There. To his left. Not far, but moving toward the shrine, and definitely hunting. With a small, silent curse, he leapt from his branch and hurtled upwards, striving for the air above the treetops where he would make less noise and his scent would be scattered.

Breaking through the treetops, Sesshoumaru relaxed slightly. The leafy forest pulled away from him, leaving only the queer light feeling of weightlessness in his abdomen. Paradoxically this was one of the few times he could relax. With something strong to track and kill, he had a purpose; waiting did not suit him. Taking another deep breath, Sesshoumaru allowed himself to find comfort in the hunt, in the familiar carving of his mind down to a sharp point, intent only on his prey.

Sliding on the blade of the youkai's scent, he launched himself forward, leaving himself and all his tangled thoughts behind.

Nothing but wind and the dimness of the forest below, nothing but the heavy evening light settling across the grey landscape, nothing but the scent, closer and closer, stronger and stronger, and -

- there, only the faintest of flickers, and he had found the youkai. He cracked his knuckles and readied his claws.

Leaves whipped by him as he descended, dragging tiny stinging scratches against his skin that were healed the instant they were made, and then he was in the darkness of the forest, racing parallel with the fast moving fire. He thought he heard a laugh drift by him on the wind.

It was hard to see, but he thought he recognized the voice - some vassal of his, perhaps, or maybe it was someone he'd wounded long ago, come to take his revenge, too weak to injure the youkai but more than strong enough to kill a human woman.

Cowards, all of them. Lowly, treacherous, cowardly filth -

Blinding light flashed across his vision, and he barely had time to launch himself out of the way of the blaze that scorched a path through the forest before it flickered and disappeared, leaving glowing embers scattered in its wake.

He cursed mentally. The light had been just enough to confuse him in that one instant, but it would not be so again. The weird, taunting laughter came again, and he whirled in its direction. Slightly further away, going more off to an angle than last time. Not stopping to think, he raced after it.

The cool wind in his nose intoxicated him as he followed the fire that danced just out of his reach. Growling, Sesshoumaru drew Toukijin from the sash at his waist and leaned forward, his blood boiling at the elusive and presumptuous bastard that had dared to come near him, that had dared to even think about injuring -

The quiet thoughts at the back of his mind churned, twisting up in knots.

Another fiery blast shook him from the chaos of his head, sending him dashing a hard right from his trajectory, and once again the youkai changed directions. It dawned on Sesshoumaru that he was being toyed with.

Which was just the sort of thing that got right under his skin. Face pulled into a thunderous scowl, he twisted deftly in the air, planted his feet against a solid tree trunk, and pushed off with such force that he heard the agonizing sound of splintered wood, followed by the crash of the tree behind him. It was all very distant, though, because he had closed the gap, he was there, and one swipe of Toukijin sent the youkai crashing into the underbrush, trailing thick, brimstone blood behind him.

The world snapped out of the thin blade of the hunt, blooming into existence around him. Not bothering to sheath his blade, Sesshoumaru calmly approached his injured enemy.

To his dismay he found that he did recognize his adversary - one of his so-called allies - but he could not remember his name. Not that it mattered since soon he would be dead. Then no one would ever need to know his name ever again.

He gazed impassively at the dying demon before him.

The demon gazed back. At his approach, yellow eyes turned up and regarded him with a strange, almost maniacal glee, and the bloody grin set deep in sickly sallow skin was eerily white and crimson. Blood dripped down the pointed chin. The bizarrely happy look on the youkai's face would have been a sign for caution if not for the fact that, further down his body, his hands struggled to push his own slippery entrails back inside his abdomen. As it was, the demon's expression was merely unnerving.

He was breathing heavily, fluid rattling through his lungs.

The demon didn't have much time, and neither did Sesshoumaru. "What were you hoping to distract me from?" Sesshoumaru demanded, low and quiet, cutting, as it were, to the heart of the matter.

The youkai just giggled, letting his orange hair fall into his eyes.

"Answer me, and I'll kill you quickly."

The lips parted, and for a moment Sesshoumaru thought that he might find an answer, but instead a crimson tongue snaked out of the youkai's mouth, seemingly searching for the blood on his chin, finding it, licking it up, withdrawing.

It snickered again. "I am at your disposal, milord," the demon said happily.

Sesshoumaru felt his patience slipping, revulsion rising to meet it. "Answer the question," he commanded.

Once again that eerie giggle burbled from the bloody mouth.

"I am only a slave," he snickered, his voice a wheezing, ingratiating whine. "I am only a servant of the House of the Moon, I am only here for Sesshoumaru-sama, to help him be strong - forces are gathering against you milord, but here we are, to help you, I am loyal - "

Comprehension dawned.

Here we are, to help you be strong.

An involuntary snarl leapt from his throat. Without hesitation he lunged forward, slicing cleanly through the demon's neck, and then he was hurtling through the trees without a backward glance.

A trap. A diversion.

I should have seen it coming, he thought. I should have known, should have been cautious, should have, should have, should have -

Desperately he inhaled, wanting to catch her scent so badly that it hurt, but when he did he almost wished he hadn't.

Sesshoumaru raced on through the forest, could barely think, didn't want to think but had to -

She's not alone, he thought. She's not alone, she's not alone, she's not alone, find her find her find her -


The form of the youkai in front of her wavered beneath the knowledge of his purpose.

He's here to kill me, Kagome thought dimly. The point of her arrow flared as the realization slipped through her mind like a specter through walls. He's here to kill me, and Sesshoumaru isn't here to stop him. I'm all alone.

She'd been alone before. No big deal.

...And I'm not a whore. For some reason, this seemed very important to her. It was very important that she - and he - not be dirtied that way, even only in rumor. Of course she'd always known, deep inside and mostly unconsciously, that most people assumed she and Sesshoumaru were lovers, but she'd never heard it spoken out loud in such a way before.

And even though it would never happen, it didn't help that she knew she might succumb to him, should he ever choose to - to -

Insanely, as her life hung in peril, Kagome felt a small wave of heat at the thought, just a ghost of her desire, almost teasing her...

I'm not a whore, she repeated. I'm not, I'm not, I'm not -

She felt very, very ugly. The fingers holding her arrow twitched, burning to let go.

The youkai in front of her leaned casually against a tree, as if she and he were merely chatting, as if they were not mortal enemies, each seeking the end of the other. The sight brought her back, and mentally she shook herself.

It wasn't important - she had to... she should try to do something. Desperately, her mind fumbled for the right questions - what would Sesshoumaru want to know from this demon?

Narrowing her eyes, Kagome pushed her dark feelings from her head and steadied her slightly wavering hands. "You called him your lord," she said quietly. "Are you a vassal?"

The youkai's eyes flared with amusement, as though he were just waiting for her to ask this question so he could answer her. "Of course I am! Why would I be here if I didn't have an interest in Sesshoumaru-sama's little mistakes?" He whistled low. "Who could have guessed he'd be dumb enough to take a human whore?" he added, seemingly to himself.

In her chest, there was a tiny snap.

"I am not his whore!" Anger swelled inside, warming the numbness of her heart, bringing tentative feeling back into her body. "I am Sesshoumaru-sama's loyal ally. Unlike you, it seems," she accused. "You're nothing but a traitor."

"That's not true at all," said the demon. "I am loyal to Sesshoumaru-sama."

"Then who are you? What are you doing here?" she demanded. The muscles in her arms were quivering beneath the tension, and she wasn't certain how long she could keep from shooting him. Much as he richly deserved it, she knew an opportunity for information when she saw one.

She just wished that she didn't feel so terrified.

The youkai's voice seemed preternaturally loud; it hurt her fear-enhanced ears. "I am his loyal servant, and I am here to... aid him."

"If you wanted to help him so badly," Kagome said sharply, "you'd be at his home, ensuring that it is safe."

"But that is so boring," the youkai said arrogantly, waving an imperious hand, "and besides, if I kill you, he will no longer be distracted, and there will be no need for him to defend his home."

Distracted? I thought... wouldn't... no, that can't be right, the only benefit to killing me is to injure him!

...Isn't it?

She felt the blood draining from her face. "What are you saying?" she demanded, struggling to keep the panic from coloring her voice. "Speak clearly!"

For the first time in their conversation, the youkai frowned, and the look was so ferocious that she nearly took a step backwards.

Don't! she screamed at herself. Don't run! Don't back down!

Her arms trembled.

"I am saying," the youkai replied softly, and his voice sounded horribly warm, "that when Sesshoumaru-sama is strong, the lands are stable, and stable lands provide... opportunities. But when he is weak, things fall into chaos." The youkai's eyes gleamed as he took a step forward. "Mortal things," he said, almost dreamily, "make him weak. If I get rid of you, he will become strong again, and there will be more order, more power for us all. Without him, things are... uncertain. The land languishes."

Then he smiled. "So you see, it's all for him that I do this. It will be painful, but will preserve the order of things, as they should be. It will be like removing an infected limb." Nodding, as if he had proven a point, he took another step forward.

Kagome could only watch, paralyzed, her mind in turmoil; cool, blue despair was threading its way through her gut.

All this time she had believed... she didn't know what she had believed, but it had never, ever occurred to her that his allies might wish to see her dead as well.

Had she been in danger even in his home? From his servants? Was that why they had to leave so quickly?

It must have been. To all of them, she was just history looping back on itself, except this time they knew how to mitigate the damage of a human; eliminate the human, eliminate the weakness. Or exploit the weakness to their own advantage.

He'd left his home, just to make sure she survived. He had left, for her. She was such a liability that should he have stayed and let her go, his enemies would have sought her out and killed her. And yet he had gone with her, which was so much worse, because it proved to his allies that, despite the things he knew and the lessons learned, he valued another mortal woman. She was his weakness.

They all wanted her dead.

This cannot be, Kagome thought, feeling cold. I can't mean that much to him. He cannot have done all of these things just for me.

She didn't know what to think or how to feel, and the youkai was strolling ever closer to her, his sharp teeth gleaming white in the half-light of dusk.

"At least," she murmured, almost to herself, "I trust his judgement."

It was the wrong thing to say. Or the right one, perhaps.

She watched as the youkai's lips twisted, an eerie, incoherent roar that might have held the ghost of words booming from his chest and then she thought she saw him blur at the edges - so fast, so impossibly fast - and then he pounced -

The world was very still, and the impact of her arrow in his chest was the only sound in that endless space between her life and her death.

The youkai was still in the air when Sesshoumaru broke through the trees.

For a terrible moment, time seemed to slow to a stop - she could see everything, the look of surprise on the youkai's face, the frightening frenzy in Sesshoumaru's eyes, the perfect swell and fall of their clothing - and then the demon hit the ground and Sesshoumaru was standing over him, Toukijin drawn.

"Keiichi," she heard him say, "were you truly too cowardly to fight me?"

But the youkai didn't answer; instead he lay on the ground and seemed to paw at the air, as feeble as a kitten. There was a long moment as he gasped for breath, and when he did speak, his voice was hoarse and raw, no longer the velvety texture that had mesmerized her.

"Bitch," he gasped, "what did you do to me?"

Sesshoumaru's eyes flickered towards her.

Her fingers were so cold. Her body was so cold, but it had nothing to do with youki, because -


"Your... your youki," she heard herself say. "I sealed it. Um... now - now you just have the... have the strength of a human..."

Her voice was only a little tremulous - almost calm, even - but inside she was filled with a pensive terror - she had meant to seal him completely, but she'd done it wrong, she hadn't finished it properly, hadn't let go enough, and she was doomed, doomed, doomed. At the base of her throat was a crushing pressure, but whether it heralded tears or laughter she could not say. Perhaps they were one and the same.

Her eyes were still trained on the youkai on the ground, so she watched as his fingers reached for the shaft buried in his chest, feeling the first stirrings of panic jolting through her legs. Then, without warning, the sealing spell crackled and sparked. He jerked his hand away, his face a perfect study in horror.

"Really, Kagome," Sesshoumaru murmured, "that is rather harsh."

He lifted Toukijin and placed the blade under the demon's chin, tilting his captive's head. They stared each other in the eye, both filled with defiance and some unspoken understanding.

"Tell me about the House of the Moon," Sesshoumaru said calmly.

The youkai - Keiichi, her mind supplied, and somehow that made it so much worse - emitted a wheeze, which, after a moment, Kagome recognized with vague horror as the approximation of a laugh.

"Your house stands," the demon hissed eagerly, urgently, "but not for long. There is... a loose coalition building against it. I do not know when they will strike." Then he smiled, baring his pointed teeth. "Milord, if you kill her and present her head to - "

Kagome gave a small scream as Sesshoumaru drove Toukijin straight through the demon's eye.

Then it was done.

Her hands were shaking violently with the adrenaline that still coursed through her system, and she could not steady them. Stubbornly, Kagome forced her fingers to clench around her bow just for something - anything - solid to hold on to, and watched numbly as Sesshoumaru whipped the blade of his sword, a short sharp movement that sent what had been Keiichi's brains off into the underbrush before wiping it against a mossy tree and sliding it back into place at his hip.

Then Sesshoumaru glanced over his shoulder at her.

"No killing blow?" he asked her, and his tone was so ironic she thought he might be serious.

She let her gaze fall to the ground, feeling strangely ashamed.

"I thought I might try sealing him," she told him quietly. "In case he had any useful information."

There was a soft sound as he took a step in her direction.

"Look at me, Kagome," he commanded.

Kagome looked at him.

There was... something cold as winter in his eyes, an expression she hadn't seen since she was fifteen; her legs jerked slightly with the sudden, instinctive urge to flee this predatory creature that suddenly stood in the place of the man she had grown to care for so deeply -

- but she knew that this was Sesshoumaru, who had risked so much for her. She stayed where she was.

He was still staring at her, and then he said, very softly:

"Do not gamble."

She could hear the promise of death, should she gamble and lose, in the words beneath the words.

And Kagome wanted to tell him that she wouldn't, to swear to him that she would not risk her life, but that was an oath she could not keep, and then she just wanted to be angry, to tell him that she had made that gamble when she had jumped down the well for a story, that she had made that gamble when she had fallen through time to find him.

It was her choice to take this bet, and it would be she who decided which risks were worth it.

She'd thought he was worth refraining from the killing blow; that was her choice to make.

And really, she thought with a small, hollow despair, the stakes were so high already that it seemed pointless not to go as far as she could.

But Kagome didn't say any of that. Instead, she swallowed around the lump in her throat and opened her mouth.

"You need to go home, Sesshoumaru."

The sound of her voice was strangely flat and heavy in the rising dark of the silent forest.

His eyes narrowed a cold, significant fraction.

Her throat clenched tight on itself, choking on the angry, lying yell she kept locked inside. I didn't ask you to do this for me, she wanted to shout. I never wanted this to happen! Go home, get out of here, I don't need you!

Except that she did need him. But she also couldn't let him just lose it all again.

"I'll be fine," she told him firmly, not believing it but praying that he would. "You need to go."

High above, the breeze wove its way through long, full branches, sending leaves rattling against each other. They sounded like tiny bones.

Then he nodded, and she felt herself falter for just a second until he arrested her fall with his voice.

"Yes," he said, "I do. But I will stay."

Nothing seemed to work properly - her tongue would not move, her feet would not walk - and so she could only watch helplessly as he turned away from her and strolled into the forest without another word, leaving her alone with a cooling corpse and a blazing pain in her heart.


Night fell. In the north a summer storm gathered the darkness to itself and rolled it into towering clouds, keeping it until the time when it would burst in a blaze of light and water, and on the wind rode the thick scent of rain. All around him the woods were quiet, but not peaceful; it was a pensive stillness that waited, building pressure and muffled sound, for the right moment to fly apart and scatter its chaos into the world.

It was a night that he could taste, but there was no pleasure in it.

Sesshoumaru was cluttered inside his head, cramped inside his own body. His thoughts were wrapped up in what he had allowed to happen, and any convenient walls he may have built in his mind to separate her from the violence that kept her alive had crumbled; she was a gentle creature, and now he could no longer pretend that she was safe. Now she stood in the darkness he had fought so hard to keep from her.

As though he were on a tether, Sesshoumaru wove wide circles around her as he searched for any other signs of intrusion upon the small domain they shared together, but there was nothing to find. If there had been any other demons in league with the bear and the fire youkai they were long gone, their scent erased by the clean rain-laden breezes. Nevertheless, he kept searching.

There was no reason for him to continue the hunt, of course, but he could not bring himself to return to Kagome just yet. The base of his spine itched with resentful claustrophobia, even as he circled her; he was not used to anchors.

It had all become so complicated. At first it had seemed that the things that bound him to her - grief and honor, debt and obligation - were merely whims that could be broken easily, should he so choose, but now it appeared the connections between them were stronger and deeper than such vague and simple inclinations. What, exactly, held him to her was still a mystery to him, but he did not like it.

And still each moment spent in her company softened the urge to sever all ties, as if he were happy to be so bound.

His mind kept traveling back to what Keiichi had said, before Toukijin cleaved his skull.

If you present her head, the bear had told him, they will know that you are strong.

And, even further back, his dark and bloody thoughts before her quarters in his home, in the cold breast of the sea -

If I were strong, I would have killed her myself.

He could still do it.

He had all the time in the world to kill her, if he wanted.

Except now, it seemed, killing her would be a waste. He had spent so much time and effort ensuring that she lived that it seemed pointless to throw it all away simply because a pack of cowards and traitors thought they knew something about him. The regard that he held for what others thought had never been much to begin with, anyway; after all, had he really cared he would never have kept Rin with him. The youkai lord and the little girl had been bound together by a whim, and since reconsidering his whim was out of the question - he wanted her near him, for no other reason than that it pleased him, of course - she had stayed by his side. What others thought of this development was not important. Sesshoumaru always did as he pleased.

And yet, his mind whispered, if he had heeded the talk of others, if he had left her in some human village, she never would have died; he never would have known her at all, would never have mourned her so deeply. She would have lived, but he would not have cared one way or the other.

It was his own reckless disregard that had left her vulnerable; he did not have to care what others thought, but it affected him all the same. Ignoring that, perhaps, had been his mistake.

Perhaps he would always stand in the shadows cast by Rin, and they were so much larger here inside his mind than any shades she could have trailed behind her in life. Perhaps he wished only to make amends for his failure; perhaps he wished only to escape from her shadows by rewriting the past with Kagome.

Except Kagome was not a little girl. She was not his little girl - she was, most certainly, a woman - but he still wished to keep her safe from whatever danger he brought to her.

That had to be it. Like his lands and his name and his heritage, he was responsible for keeping her unmolested by forces that sought to destroy him. That he took some treacherous pleasure in her was of no consequence; he had no other obligation to her. He stayed tethered through his honor, and the moment they parted on the outskirts of Edo - she to her battle and he to his - he would be free, just as he liked.

So why, Sesshoumaru wondered, did the thought not make him happy?

Outside the gloom of his head, the wind picked up slightly, trailing the cool promise of water across his face. With a frustrated sigh, Sesshoumaru turned toward the clearing, feeling his ties slacken the nearer he drew.

The fire was burning brightly when he arrived, casting warm light over everything. Next to it, Kagome had spread her sleeping bag, and she was sprawled across the strange, smooth fabric, staring at the creeping clouds above her. She had already washed and changed for the night; she was wearing those clothes that taunted him so much. He walked to where she lay, watching her watch the coming storm.

By all appearances she was enjoying the night air. Her hands were tucked behind her head, glossy locks of hair spilling over her pale arms like black rivers. One leg was bent, pointing to the sky above her, and the other casually crossed over it, ankle to knee. To his eyes, Kagome looked content.

His nose detected a different story, though; he could smell her fear and apprehension, marring the lovely brightness of her normal scent. Sesshoumaru imagined that she was thinking of the future - knowing her, she was also thinking of his as well as her own - imagining the trial she was soon to face. There was no more avoiding it, now; the time had come for her to complete the task she had chosen to undertake.

Kagome shifted her eyes from the sky to his face. Her features were remarkably tranquil, and she gave him a small smile.

"Take off your armor," she said. "Come sit with me."

He looked at her for a moment wondering, idly, why she thought he would do what she said, but then he realized it was because he would. Of course, it wasn't as though he did not ask things of her, and since she usually complied the trade-off seemed fair.

He could not remember the last time he had ever felt any kind of fairness or balance between himself and another. Maybe he never had before.

Thoughtfully, Sesshoumaru removed his swords and armor and set them by his tree before turning back to where Kagome was spread out on the ground. Gracefully he sank down next to her, and, stiff-backed, he crossed his legs and folded his hands into his sleeves before turning his gaze to the clouds that hung, heavy and swollen, high above them. It seemed to him as though the night had been slung low over the earth, weighted down with the rain that threatened to break.

For a little while they gazed at the sky, each lost in their own thoughts and pretending not to steal glances at the other.

After a time there was a low roll of thunder in the distance. Kagome sat up at the sound and scooted to his side, still staring at the sky. She was close enough to brush against his sleeve. Sesshoumaru forced himself to stay still, to keep his hands to himself, to ignore all the shadows lurking in the forgotten rooms of his head, each of them cast by things he could not see.

He shifted his gaze to the fire.

Kagome watched him transfer his attentions to the flames in front of him, and in the quiet of her mind she almost smiled at the expression on his face, so locked and guarded and yet so pure and innocently revealing to someone who knew him well.

She really hadn't expected him to sit by her - he tended to dismiss such requests - but clearly it had suited him to do so tonight, for whatever reason. Maybe he just felt like being near her after her brush with death today.

Kagome was glad; he took her mind off things. Before he had so gently intruded, she had been staring at the sky contemplatively, and missing Inuyasha.

Of course, she never really stopped missing him, because the world didn't work that way. She might have managed to grow out and around the hole of his loss, might have been able to obscure it with the dullness of her every-days, but just because it was hidden didn't mean it was gone. Of all the people she had loved and lost, he had given her one of the deepest scars - not because of anything he did, but because she had loved him so much, so all the things that had made him Inuyasha had left behind impressions, little fossils in her so deep and detailed that no one who came after could ever fit perfectly into his place. And that was how it should be.

She had not really thought of him in a long time, though. Inuyasha was gone, and the person she wished for in times of trouble - and times of happiness and times of boredom and any time at all, really - was now someone else. He was gone and she loved him, but his absence no longer ruled her life.

But now, so close to the end of her journey, teetering on the edge of something she couldn't put a name to, now she missed Inuyasha. She missed him because, no matter what happened, he had always reassured her that things would be all right, that he would fix this or that problem, destroy this or that enemy, bring some mangled form of justice to the world. Even though things might be different in the world of the aftermath, they would still be all right.

Kagome had always believed him; though his manner was rough his intentions were good, and he remained perpetually convinced that the next battle would be the one after which everything would be better.

But Inuyasha and all his brash optimism were both gone. It was his brother who was here beside her now.

The difference between the two brothers - or one of the differences, anyway - was that Inuyasha thought he could make things right, and Sesshoumaru knew that he couldn't, that the world was a cruel place where terrible things happened and justice was scarce, and he expected her to know this too. He expected her to be an adult about it and get on with things even without the hope of a happy ending.

It was so funny to remember that, for all of his childish ways, Sesshoumaru was far, far older than she would ever be, and was, in other ways, very much a grown man.

She wanted to ask him how he did it, except that this was something that could not be taught or told, only learned on one's own, and right now she was learning so quickly that it felt like screaming.

But there were other questions to ask now. If there was ever an after, then she could ask the unimportant ones, the ones that plagued her.

Kagome almost hated to break the silence, but she hated to stay quiet when they were so close to being over...

"I guess we're going soon," she said suddenly.

From the corner of her eye she saw Sesshoumaru blink, and then, after a second, nod. "Yes," he said, not looking at her. "Tomorrow."

She was very close to him, and Sesshoumaru thought he felt her shudder at his answer, as though her body and the air were one and the same. She drew fractionally closer.

"How long will it take?" she asked him.

Sesshoumaru had already thought of this. He had thought of it more than he wished to, though he did not tell her that fact. "A day," he said instead.

Her surprise was evident in her voice, and somewhere underneath it was a current of fear. "Only a day? But I thought - "

"I will carry you," he interrupted her. "Time grows short."

Expecting to hear her despair, he was surprised when he heard her laugh softly. Curious and strangely apprehensive, Sesshoumaru turned to her, wondering what she was thinking.

Kagome noticed his inquisitive look and gave him a wan smile. "It's just... this is our last night together." Her voice sounded odd, almost as though it were full of echoes of words that she dared not even think.

Swallowing, he nodded.

She looked away.

"I'm going to die, aren't I?" she said, lightly.

In the calm before the storm, Kagome heard him become very still. Turning her face to the sky once more, she caught the skitter of lightning as it boldly leapt from one cloud to another.

It was not what she had meant to say, but now that she had it was as good a question to ask as any, so she waited for him to pick up her words, turn them over in his hands, and toss them back to her.

She listened to Sesshoumaru spin his silence before she heard him release the breath he had caught at her question.

"It is not inevitable," he said quietly.

In her chest, she felt the burble of a hysterical laugh, but she quashed it ruthlessly. It was just such a Sesshoumaru thing to say, though, so bland and bald that it sometimes seemed as if he were a living, breathing satire of himself.

Not inevitable, she thought sadly, and at that moment she missed Inuyasha even more, Inuyasha who would have told her that she was stupid for even asking, because of course she wasn't going to die, he'd make damn sure of that because he was going to take care of her.

Turning over and in on herself, she wished, knowing it was foolish, that Sesshoumaru did not expect her to be so strong.

Her fingers felt numb. Rhythmically, she clenched her hands into fists, trying to work some life back into them, though her heart seemed to have stopped already.

Not yet, she thought. But soon enough.

She could have just left it there, but she did not. "Not inevitable," she blurted suddenly, "but it's... likely."

Anything is possible, I guess.

And maybe he wasn't so cruel after all, because he didn't say anything to that, just sat next to her, still and silent, holding the future close to him so that she would not see.

Thunder mumbled as it moved across the sky. Still far away, Kagome thought, though she did not know if it was the storm she was thinking of, or him.

"When were you going to tell me that your allies wanted to kill me, too?" she asked abruptly.

"Never," he answered without hesitation. Their voices seemed loud in the damp air, masking even the crackling of the fire.

"Why not?" she wanted to know.

Uncomfortably, Sesshoumaru shifted slightly where he sat, willing her to cease this line of questioning, but it did seem rather pointless now to keep things from her. It wasn't as if he had liked doing so in the first place. He chose his words carefully.

"You had enough to occupy your mind," he said after a moment, "and any who questioned my judgment relinquished his status as ally."

There was a long pause, and then a small, battle-scarred hand alighted on his knee, commanding his attention before he forced himself to meet her eyes.

"I'm sorry," she said.

But he already knew that.

They looked at each other. After a moment she withdrew her hand, color rising to her cheeks as though she were embarrassed, and glanced away.

Kagome tried to order her thoughts as she watched a fallen leaf tumble by on the rainy breeze. Eventually they would have to relocate to a tree - would he hold her again, if they took shelter? - but for right now she needed to be under the sky. There were stars up there, somewhere behind the clouds; she couldn't see them but she knew they were there, and she had so many good memories beneath the stars that she wanted to remember them all as quickly as possible, so she could cup them in her hands once more before she died.

The terrible thing - the truly terrible thing - was that even if she did survive, she would most likely not be the same person when she came through on the other side. She had... killed before, but not so close, and not a real, honest-to-god human being. Technically she didn't have to kill the madoushi - the story said nothing about that, after all - but when she had tried to seal the youkai in the forest and failed she had realized something that she hadn't thought of before.

If she were lucky, she wouldn't end up like Kohaku, who had cracked down his center, or like Kazuo, who hated himself so much. If she were lucky.

"I have to kill one of them," she said quietly. "Did you know that?"

Next to her, Sesshoumaru was quiet for a heartbeat or two before she heard him laugh, the short sharp sound that had grown so familiar.

She knew what that laugh meant. Slowly she turned her head and leaned toward him, looking into his face. He seemed to struggle for a moment before he shifted slightly, finally letting his eyes meet hers again.

"You did know, didn't you?" she said. "And you didn't tell me."

Sesshoumaru was silent.

It was so much of what she had feared. Kagome swallowed around the strange thing that had lodged in her throat, some thing full of claws and teeth. "If I can't kill the god - or spirit, or mononoke, or whatever it is - I have to kill her, don't I? Because if both are alive, one will save the other."

There was a strange look in Sesshoumaru's eyes, so odd and sharp that she almost reached out and passed her fingertips over his eyelids - beautifully marked, like his cheeks, like his brow - to close them.

Instead she looked away, fixing her gaze on the ground even though she didn't see it.

"If I don't kill her, I have to kill the god, because she'll just release it when I'm gone," she said, smoothing out the edges in her mind, speaking the puzzle pieces out loud so she could watch them fall into place. "If I don't kill the god, I have to kill her, because it will just heal her."

And then, "I've never killed a human being before."

Overhead another bolt of lightning sparked against the sky. This time, the thunder that rumbled was much closer and much louder. When it had died away, she heard Sesshoumaru move restlessly, the heavy silk of his clothes whispering to the crackling of the fire.

"Why do you think you must kill her and not the other?" he asked quietly.

Kagome blinked. She had thought it would be obvious. "Because..." she started, then stopped and licked her lips, frowning a little. "Because I don't have enough power to kill it."

"Why do you think that?" His voice was low and even, and she was afraid to seek out his face for fear that he would look just as low and even as he sounded, just as cool and impassive as she had always thought he was when she was younger.

It was so obvious, why didn't he see? "Because my heart needs to be pure."

He rustled again. "You are pure."

And it was so strange to hear those words on his lips that Kagome felt as though she were going to cry.

"No," she said softly, "I was, but I don't think I'm pure enough any more. I just don't feel as good or strong as I used to be..."

She took a deep breath. "So much has happened," she whispered. "I can't help but think that my heart must be very bitter by now..."

She trailed off, and Sesshoumaru wanted to say something, to her, to reassure her in some way, but he did not know how, so he did not answer.

He couldn't answer, really, so it didn't matter. All his thoughts and inclinations were dull and muted, and he was almost hypnotized by her face; to him, she looked very sad - not because she herself was unhappy, but because there was a heartbreaking earnestness in her expression, a naked sincerity he had never seen anywhere but on the face of a child.

Then again, she was never anything but heartbreakingly earnest; she just hid it better now than she had in her youth, when she had been so bright and so close to the surface.

Now she was bright again, but in a different way, as though she were full of fire instead of sunshine.

Kagome raised her head, and he slid his eyes away, uneasy, wondering if her glance would burn him if he looked back.

She'd seen him avoid her eyes, and it hurt, but not so much that she couldn't speak. She just needed to know so many things, and she could only ask him a handful of questions. She had to choose carefully.

The future loomed, and Kagome quailed in her secret heart.

"Are you ever afraid of anything?" she wondered suddenly, her voice a little too loud. She didn't care, though - it seemed so important, now, to hear him say that yes, yes he felt dread and terror beneath that bored facade; she had heard it in his voice the day that he had smelled her blood, had seen it in his eyes the moment he came through the trees, not too late but so close that he might have been. Her heart was pounding as she waited for his answer.

Finally he shifted his gaze to her. "Why should I fear anything," he asked, "when the only thing worth fearing is me?"

For the faintest, briefest of moments, Kagome hated him fiercely.

That is not it. That is not the right answer, she thought savagely. Don't lie to me.

Then, just as quickly, her hatred died as she realized that what he said was perfectly, utterly true; it might not have been what he meant, but it was the truth all the same, inadvertently slipping off his tongue without his permission.

She drew back slightly, astonished at his admission, to take him in, to see him cast in different shadows. And when Sesshoumaru gazed back at her, she thought that she could see, in his eyes, the place inside him that weighed heavy with all his regrets and loss, with his mistakes that would live as long as he would. She thought she could see all the emotions that knotted him up, over and over, into a creature as weak and assailable as any mortal.

He hated his griefs, even as he gathered them to him.

Wide-eyed, she leaned in to him, and he did not pull away. How much, she wondered, wanted to ask, held inside, do you fear yourself?

But she didn't ask that. Instead, she said, softly, "I'm scared."

He was very close, and, dizzily, she remembered his hand on her thigh as she sat beneath the tree where she had waited for him to come home to her.

"Will you not win?" he asked, as if she truly knew, as if all the pretty stories she had been told - fairytales, parables, romances - had not turned out to be lies.

"The story says I will," she said, "but it doesn't say whether or not I will survive."

"Ah," he sighed.

There was a swell of silence and then lightening flashed and thunder snarled right above them, causing Kagome to jump.

She came back to her surroundings a little. It was so dark now; the fire was burning low, but she couldn't bring herself to stand up and replenish it, couldn't bring herself to part from him for a moment more than necessary. Instead, she simply scooted a little closer to him, all her memories crowding around, tumbling down like waters, washing away the moment even as she desperately clung to it.

Sesshoumaru leaned a little toward her, inhaling deeply. Her scent was so strange and shining tonight, so deliciously mixed with the rain in the air - it was almost intoxicating. Each beautiful whiff of her wrapped itself around him, sinking down, teasing and soothing him at the same time, and he didn't want her to leave -

"Oh!" she said suddenly, startling him a little. He drew back fractionally as she turned her gaze to his face. "Oh, god!" she said again. "I have... I forgot...!"

She shook her head, deep lines of worry etched into her face.

She leaned in even further toward him, very close, close enough to close the space between them with the smallest of movements. But that was not what she was thinking about - he could smell her anxiety on her.

She was shaking her head. "I forgot to tell you - I can't believe it. Do you remember Machiko?" she demanded, and she seemed so agitated that he merely nodded, not trusting himself to question her.

He saw Kagome lick her lips. "Well, she gave me a message to give to you, right before we left to go to, um... Edo."

Sesshoumaru said nothing, merely waited for her to reveal what she had to say so that she could calm down.

Kagome squirmed a little where she sat, averting her eyes again. "She said... um... that..." She swallowed hard. "She said that she was sorry."

It had been a while ago, and so much had happened between now and then that for a moment Sesshoumaru had no idea what she was talking about. The confusion jolted him unpleasantly for a moment until he suddenly remembered, with remarkable clarity, that night in the snow when the pregnant hime had tried to seduce him.

She apologized? he thought distantly, blinking.

It was such a strange thing for Kagome to tell him. He had not expected it.

"Why are you telling me this now?" he wondered, voice soft.

He saw color flood to Kagome's cheeks, and her scent spiked -

Sesshoumaru felt the breath knocked from his lungs. She was leaning into him now, her head turned, just a heartbeat away from the soft hollow between his shoulder and his chest; if he inhaled deeply, she would be pressed against him.

She shook her head, minutely.

"I just remembered," she whispered hoarsely.

He was trying to catch himself, leaning into her as well. "And why did you remember, Kagome?" he wanted to know, and his voice was soft, murmured into her hair.

He saw her shiver. "Because..." she trailed off.

Her head drooped a little more. "Because she said that... she thought she was going to die. She said she didn't want to feel... unloved if she did."

Sesshoumaru froze. Over the little rumbles of thunder, he heard her breathing pick up pace.

He closed his eyes.

The unspoken words hung in the air - make me feel loved, just once - and it was dragging him down. He knew, he knew that he could give this one thing to her, could take this one thing from her. He had let himself want her, and now that he had crossed that line his thoughts were wild, his body burning with the thought of her sweet, soft curves, helpless and needy. She was untouched, would be slick and snug and oh, when she moaned his name -

She wanted this. She wanted to know this before she died, and he wanted to know her before she died, as well. He wanted to pin her against the ground, to have her up against a tree. He wanted to drag her into his lap, spread her thighs and hold her against him, suckle her, devour her, let her ride him until they slaked their thirst. There was no one else around. No one would ever know.

But -

It was not enough. He would know.

And, in the end, that was all that mattered, because he would remember. He would know that he had her once and let her go, would remember the way she tasted, the way she moved, and the memory of her would haunt him long after she would have died, because she was rooted so deeply in him that it was unthinkable for him to be without memories of her.

It should end there. That should have been the final word on the matter, but it wasn't because this was his ruin: even though he knew how much it would undo him, how eviscerated he would be, how hollow he would become because of it, he still wanted to choose her. He would not die if he could not have her, would not perish if he could not enter her and make her cry out. She was the worst possible choice that he could make, and he was fortunate, for he did not have to choose her. He wouldn't die if he didn't.

But he still wanted to so badly that it hurt. He wanted to so badly that he might regret this denial of pleasure as bitterly as if he had given in to it.

And very softly, very far away, Sesshoumaru wondered, his brain dark with desire and a strange, delicate misery, why it seemed that he never failed to want the thing that would cripple him the most.

Next to him, Kagome waited, wondering if he would turn to her, would touch her the way she wanted, would soothe her and let her pretend that she was still as loved as she had once been, but he said nothing and did nothing, just like always.

But that was all right; she didn't really need them, neither his actions nor his words, and she didn't really need him to lie to her. That morning, maybe, she would have wanted him to lie, to give her this one fantasy that she wanted so badly, but now it didn't seem so important.

Really, she just wanted his true thoughts, and those she knew, though she probably only saw a fraction of them. But this was okay as well, because no matter what happened or might have happened, she would never have found out the full extent. He would never tell her what he thought of her, how he felt, would never declare anything, ever, but somehow that was all right, because when he had burst through the trees only a few hours ago, when he had been almost too-late, when he had been almost not-good-enough, and she had seen his face so clearly -

He would never say anything, but that look in his eyes hadn't been a lie. It hadn't been good or bad or ugly or beautiful, or anything at all, actually, except perfectly itself. But whatever it was he felt for her, she knew, at least, that it was real.

Sesshoumaru heard her laugh a little, and he opened his eyes again to see her, nearly resting against him.

She must have felt the stiffening of his limbs, because she straightened a little; though she hid her face, he could hear the little smile in her voice.

"So I'm going to die tomorrow," she said. It was a strange truth to hear from her. He suspected that even if he heard her say it every day of his life, it would always sound strange to hear such a dark fate on her lips.

He opened his mouth to reply, but she was already speaking again.

"I didn't actually think I was going to die," she said softly. "I thought it was possible, but I just... I never died before."

She gave a small laugh. "And I can't run away, you know? It's so horrible, what she's done, and I'm one of the only people who can do anything. So I have to.

"But I don't really want to die."

Then she sighed, gently, and he imagined that he could feel her breath stirring in him, burrowing down, finding a place in his heart where it could live forever, even if she didn't.

"I don't want to," she whispered, "but that's the way the story goes."

He felt as though she had sliced him open.

This was not right. Those words were true, but not right, and in his chest something twisted and strangled, snapped and shattered.

Sesshoumaru let himself drift closer to her, until his lips were so close to her hair he could almost taste it.

"This," he murmured, "is a very cruel story you are in."

She was still for a moment. Then, slowly, she leaned back slightly, lifting her head, and Sesshoumaru found himself gazing directly into her eyes.

She was close, magnetic - it would be easy to fall into her.

And yet he did not, for the look she gave him was so sad and sweet that it sucked the breath from his lungs, and in every soft line of her face lived a resignation so light and so pure that he could only watch helplessly as, in her eyes, her illusions burned away, until he was certain that she could see the bones of all things.

She was so luminous that it hurt to look upon her, but Sesshoumaru kept his gaze steady; it seemed dishonorable not to bear witness to her conflagration.

Then Kagome closed her eyes, turned her face to the curve of his shoulder, and gently rubbed her cheek against him.

"Oh, I don't know," she said softly, her voice oddly comforting. "It hasn't been so bad."

Sesshoumaru felt himself waver, and he almost, oh almost gave in, almost pulled her to him and let her have him, but at that moment the sky convulsed with lightening, roared with thunder, and the clouds tore apart, emptying themselves on the land below. The cool, heavy wetness jerked him back from the brink.

Kagome made no move to seek shelter. Instead she merely snuggled a little closer to him.

They were quiet for a long time as the fire died and their clothes filled with water.

Then Kagome shifted against him.

"Will you forget me, Sesshoumaru?" she asked, so softly that her voice wove itself into the rain, and he thought her throat might have been made from raindrops.

It was a heavy question, far too heavy, but he could not let it go unanswered, could not deny her this, and he had opened his mouth to tell her no, no she would not be forgotten before a frown passed over his features and he closed it again.

Because that wasn't right, not right at all. It wasn't that he wouldn't forget, but that he would...

- that he would recall her scent and the curve of her body, her eyes and her voice, her laugh and all the thousand and one things she had said to him, all the hundreds of secrets she shared with him in gesture and in words, all the beautiful thoughts she had let him see. He knew that he would take these things out and hold them, weigh them, taste and touch them.

He would sleep inside her laugh and live around her secrets, would wrap her voice around him and chase her scent into the day and out again, he would swallow her thoughts and make them his own. He would keep her with him until -

- well. Until. Just until. He would not resign her to his mind, to static silence, to lifelessness. He would not do that to her, as he had to so many others.

He would not just fail to forget her, for surely, surely a failure to forget could never be the same as the will to remember.

Very carefully, Sesshoumaru stretched out a hand and brought it to her face. He let the back of his fingers trail over the high plane of her cheek, feeling her shiver at the touch, then let his hand weave its way through her hair, lifting it from her skin, pulling it back to expose the arch of her throat.

Gently he leaned in, let his lips brush, feather-light, against the soft sweep of her brow before moving to the curve of her ear.

Then, very quietly, he gave her his promise.

"You will be remembered, Kagome," he whispered.

And then she laughed, and in it Sesshoumaru could hear the world stripped bare.

Tales from the House of the Moon

A InuYasha Story
by Resmiranda

Part 33 of 42

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