InuYasha Fan Fiction ❯ ThirtyThree ( Chapter 33 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

Possession 33
 
 
 
Dreams fading as consciousness returned, she opened her eyes to bright sunlight filling the mouth of the cave. She felt stiff and sore, curled on her side with her left arm under her head. Her left hip felt like it was digging into solid rock and the muscles of her back protested about how she’d let them sleep last night. With a somewhat pitiful groan, she gathered her strength and sat up.
 
Passionate encounters in secluded caves might sound romantic, but Kagome had to admit there was something to be said about a nice, soft bed. With clean sheets, thick blankets and…god…room service. She rubbed her face and grimaced at the grit in her hair. No, she wasn’t anyone’s idea of a beauty at the moment. And quite honestly, she didn’t give a damn.
 
She was only a woman and last night she and Inuyasha had made this dusty little cave into a sanctuary that she wouldn’t trade for the best hotel room in Tokyo. Stretching her sore back and smiling a little at the pleasant ache of nearly too much sex, Kagome sighed in contentment.
 
It felt like she was whole. Healed. Reborn even, she thought, hugging her knees because she couldn’t contain her emotions. Despite years of hate and oceans of regret…she’d found him again. She’d told herself viciously that he didn’t deserve her forgiveness, but in the darkness of her abused love, she’d only been denying that solace to her own heart.
 
In forgiving him, she’d finally been able to forgive herself.
 
For all the mistakes she’d made before and after. Every wrong step she’d made since the first time she’d fallen down that well, as well as every selfish, or self-destructive, act she’d committed since. The friends she’d lost while clawing her way to success, the loves that she’d left burned and ravaged in her wake. Her mother, growing older and lonely on the other side of the ocean. Her brother, angry and directionless when she might have been there to listen.
 
Grandfather…jiichan…who’d died without saying goodbye or been granted one last time to tell her that he loved her.
 
And Inuyasha. She’d loved him and lost him and broken herself to pieces over him. Disguised by anger, she’d managed to convince herself that she was to blame, that her weakness and her love had been the thing that had destroyed him. She’d grieved for him in a way she’d never grieved for herself, and walked with his ghost behind her at every step. Only to cross time once again, find him again, and meet herself along the way.
 
Was this what redemption meant? Kagome snorted back a laugh, covering her nose with a grimy hand at her own peculiar version of introspection. She didn’t give a damn what it meant, only that right here and right now…it felt wonderful.
 
A shadow crossed the sunshine and she looked up, tilting her head to the side when he entered. Inuyasha stood for a long moment, just looking down at her until she lifted her chin and smiled. He looked so good…she’d eat him alive if she could. Barring cannibalism, she only wanted to drink him in as if his presence was the sweetest nectar.
 
“You look happy,” he said at last, and she raised an eyebrow at the smugness in his voice.
 
“I don’t know,” she said, teasing him just a little. “I didn’t sleep very well. Someone kept me awake most of the night.”
 
His smile turned positively wicked, his eyes lighting like the sunrise itself. “Should I apologize?” he said, daring her. Before she could say a word, he dropped to his knees and caught her in a sudden embrace. His hands had a confidence she’d never known before, sliding around her waist and tucking against her body. Lips brushing hers in what might have been a kiss if she hadn’t been grinning so hard, he nuzzled the tip of her nose with his own.
 
“I’m going to have to make it up to you.”
 
“And I’m going to let you,” she whispered. Inuyasha kissed her hard, quickly aroused and letting her know. The muscles of his arms were like solid stone, his kisses sweeter than a promise, but he moved a lot faster than she could so soon after waking. After a few moments of touching, his hand already slipping from her belly to play where her thighs met, and Kagome became aware of an embarrassingly human predicament.
 
“Um…Inuyasha?”
 
He looked at her, shining with golden intensity. “Yeah?”
 
“Let me up. I have to…go.”
 
His eyebrows quirked and he grinned. “Go where?”
 
Dense as a stone, she grumbled to herself. Holding back a laugh because she feared she’d pee herself, Kagome pounded her fist on his shoulder. “Don’t make me say it!”
 
“What, you gotta take a piss?”
 
Lips pressed together, it was getting urgent now, Kagome nodded. Just for a moment, she’d swear he hadn’t changed since the first day she’d met him. Blunt and unembarrassed by such trifling needs as those of nature, she could always trust Inuyasha to cut to the chase of any conversation.
 
“Inuyasha, if you don’t mind…”
 
“Right!” Kagome squeaked when he suddenly stood, sweeping his arm under her legs and heading out of the cave at a quick pace. Within moments, she was dropped to her feet in a shady and suitably private cluster of bushes at the edge of the forest. Her mouth fell open slightly when Inuyasha just turned his back and gave her a lazy wave of his hand.
 
“Go on, ain’t no one else around but me.”
 
“I’m not going to piss in front of you,” she hissed, suddenly livid.
 
“Ain’t looking,” he muttered.
 
“You can hear!”
 
“Yeah, so what?” Inuyasha sounded bored. “Everyone does the same thing, Kagome.” He took two steps away and she glared at his back. “You weren’t so modest last night.”
 
She was going to burst before she’d let him get away with this. Kagome swore to herself, her bare toes twisting in the grass. The set of his shoulders was uncompromising; she could tell by the way he was standing that she’d have an argument on her hands if she tried to push. And honestly, her body didn’t care anymore and was making its discomfort known in no uncertain terms.
 
“You will pay for this,” she muttered, reaching for the ties of her hakama. Her face had to be burning bright red and Kagome contented herself with imagining different ways to make him suffer. This was so embarrassing, Kagome was fairly squirming with annoyance. He was either treating her like a child or…or…
 
Words failed her when it came to Inuyasha.
 
His ears twitched when she came out of the bushes. “All done?” he asked brusquely before grabbing her arm. Kagome realized he was about to scoop her up again and this time she was ready. Twisting her arm away, she planted her feet and glared at him. Inuyasha just stared back at her until finally he shrugged and folded his arms.
 
“What?”
 
“Was that some kind of joke?” she asked, striving to keep her voice even. Ten minutes ago, she’d been riding the swell of euphoria, drunk on her love for him without feeling anger or guilt. She’d told him everything she’d held in for so very long and he’d comforted her. Soothed her.
 
Loved her…and now she was back to the status of a possession again? Something that could be bundled and bullied, tossed over his shoulder like a sack of rice? It infuriated her that he’d take her so lightly, not when she’d laid bare all the wounds on her soul. Not when she’d come to trust him again, with her body, with her heart, and now he didn’t even trust her to relieve herself without standing over her?
 
“It’s not a joke,” he said, his eyes dimming just a little when he took in her anger. “I just…I want to protect you, Kagome.”
 
“From the bushes?” she asked sarcastically.
 
He didn’t blink or react to the sneer in her tone. “From everything.”
 
Her anger faded as she realized he was nothing less than deadly serious. There was no smugness in his words, no teasing glint in his eyes. As a hanyou, she’d known him to be a little overprotective. Okay, a lot overprotective, but usually with good reason.
 
When he’d changed, he’d become absolutely possessive of every second she wasn’t in his direct line of sight. Every breath, every twitch of her body, he’d owned them right down to her toes. And let her know it, over and over, that she was nothing more to him than his toy. He’d ruled over her those few weeks, it was less than three months that she’d endured him. Kagome trembled slightly, realizing that his hold over her had reached across time and she’d never escaped the demon in more than body alone.
 
“Let’s go back to the cave,” she said softly. “We’ll wait for Kohaku…we’ll talk some more and…”
 
“I will protect you,” Inuyasha said fiercely, his voice low and hard. He took a step closer until she had to raise her chin to look him in the eyes. No trace of possessive cruelty or desire to rule her existence. If she hadn’t known better, Kagome would have said he looked like he was about to cry.
 
“I will protect you,” he repeated and put his hands on her shoulders. “Believe me, Kagome. I’m going to be there for you the way I should have been from the beginning. I’m not going to make any mistakes this time.”
 
“I know,” she whispered. Kagome reached up, touching his face with her hands. He seemed so desperate suddenly, desperate for her to believe in him. While insisting on carrying her out here, watching over her while she relieved herself, seemed a bit too extreme, she understood where it was coming from.
 
Hadn’t she been desperate herself all these years, just to prove to herself that her love wasn’t so wrong?
 
Inuyasha took a deep breath and smiled. It was a pitiful smile, full of apologies and relief that she understood him. So vulnerable…how could she have thought for one moment that he’d gone back to the domineering bastard who’d nearly destroyed them both?
 
“I promise…I won’t let you down again,” he murmured, stroking her hair with the back of his fingers. “I promise, no matter what happens, I won’t let you be hurt. Not by anyone…especially not by me.”
 
He was going to make her cry if he kept this up. Kagome’s eyes were already burning and she wanted to kiss away his doubts. So serious, like a little boy swearing an oath, and she wanted to comfort him instead. She didn’t want to hear about getting hurt, or needing to be protected. She didn’t want to think about anything bad that could happen, or had happened. It was time to move on.
 
So she smiled and nudged him with a fingertip. “Hey, we’ve been through this already. You know how I feel about you; do you think I need to hear anything else? I believe you, Inuyasha. And I know you’ll keep your promises.”
 
Warm arms pulled her close and Kagome sighed as she rested her cheek against Inuyasha’s chest. She could hear the rapid beat of his heart as he held her, feel the slightest shiver in his arms. He meant it, this Inuyasha meant everything he said and needed her belief in him just as badly as she needed to believe in them both.
 
“Promise me then,” he murmured into her hair. “Let me protect you, even if it turns out to be nothing. I can’t shake this feeling I’m going to lose you again.”
 
Again? Kagome closed her eyes and leaned against him, hoping he’d feel her sincerity and her love. “I promise.”
 
He pulled away from her gently, taking her hands and staring at the ground. There was something oddly formal about it and Kagome’s pulse started to race. Wild thoughts scattered in her mind, old and forgotten dreams. God, she wasn’t a schoolgirl anymore! She was a grown woman with a past of her own now, a life that she’d lived beyond that well and beyond the child that she had been.
 
If he asked her…if he asked her to marry him…
 
“One more thing,” he said, still not looking at her. “Promise me one more thing, Kagome. And I’ll never ask you for anything else.”
 
Once upon a time, a princess lived happily ever after
 
“Yes,” she whispered.
 
Inuyasha looked up and met her eyes. “If I ever turn into that monster again, promise that you won’t stay by my side. Go to Kouga. Go to Sesshomaru, or anyone else you think is strong enough to take me down. Run away from me, Kagome, and don’t stop until you’re safe.”
 
Oh dear god
 
He squeezed her hands tightly, almost hurting her. “You find someone to protect you,” he said, his voice cutting her like a jagged piece of glass. “And make sure they do what’s right…”
 
Inuyasha…no
 
“And kill me before I ever touch you again.”
 
oOo
 
Late afternoon and Rin couldn’t stop looking at the sky. Since awakening that morning in Shiori’s home, she’d felt more and more uneasy. Idly, she leaned against the doorway and curled her hair around her fingers. The morning had been busy, a lot of confusion in this village of humans. It had been a very long time, she thought, since she’d been comfortable as one of them.
 
If she ever had been, Rin couldn’t remember much of her life before Sesshomaru-sama. Only that her family had died and left her alone. No one in that village had cared much for her, another mouth to feed, another penniless, useless child to watch over. She’d felt unwelcome and out of place back then…and found that she felt the exact same way right now.
 
She’d offered to help with the clean up, desperate to have something to distract her from worry. Inuyasha and Kagome…they hadn’t come back. Shippou was still unconscious, and she could see the strain in Shiori’s eyes whenever the girl came to speak with her. Some of the people were hurt, injured in the wild attack that had come out of nowhere…and disappeared just as quickly.
 
While nursing the injured was far from her favorite activity, Rin knew how to dress wounds and change bandages. Even though she’d never lacked for anything since Sesshomaru-sama had taken her in, she knew how to clean, she knew how to cook simple food, and she knew how to make sure that scared little children didn’t run off or get themselves hurt. She could have done all these things for Shiori’s village, but she did nothing more than watch the activity around her.
 
They didn’t want her help. As far as these people were concerned, Rin was the enemy.
 
No, worse than that. She was a human who had betrayed her own kind to live with youkai. Some of them had heard about what had happened in Kaede’s village, had seen her arrive with Inuyasha and Shippou. Never mind the fact that Inuyasha had spared the very people who’d been ready to murder him, and never mind that Shippou was still out cold on Shiori’s floor.
 
They were youkai, they were dangerous, and if she was with them…she was a threat to every other human being here.
 
“Don’t mind them,” Shiori said softly, touching her arm. A mother with her toddler walked near them and smiled fondly at Shiori, but her smile slid from her face when she looked at Rin.
 
Rin pretended not to see…and said nothing about it.
 
Shiori sighed and sat down on the stoop next to her, rubbing at her swollen belly. She’d been on her feet all day long, tending to the wounded, directing people in different tasks, giving her people somewhere to focus while her husband was gone. And she did it all gracefully, Rin thought. With a smile and a light laugh, she’d calmed the panicked women and children by setting them an example of something other than worry and dread.
 
She only wished that Shiori could have done the same for her.
 
“I don’t mind,” Rin said, hugging her arms to her chest. “I don’t care what they think of me.”
 
“Mmm…”
 
Rin glanced over at Shiori’s serene face. “How do you stand it?” she murmured, barely moving her lips. “You know what they think of youkai. Inuyasha was right, Shiori. You and your baby…if you stay here, it could get pretty bad.”
 
“It won’t.” Smiling, Shiori leaned next to Rin. “I know what I am, Rin. I’ve never been ashamed that my father was a youkai. When I was little, the other children in my village were unkind to me, same as their parents were unkind to my mother.”
 
“But…”
 
“I won’t run away, not while Kohaku needs me.” She rested her hand on her stomach and grinned. “Besides, what about yourself? You don’t have to be here either; you could be safe at home. Why are you trying to help Kagome?”
 
Rin blushed. Her motives had been anything but noble, but she couldn’t hate Kagome the way that she’d thought she would. There was something about her that touched Rin’s heart, something vulnerable and still angry. Wounded almost, like the pain in Shippou’s eyes when he watched Inuyasha. She understood things better now.
 
Kagome hadn’t been lying…and she’d never tried to kill Inuyasha by using the jewel. She’d been innocent…a victim…and Rin cringed inside when she thought of what must have really happened between Kagome and Inuyasha all those years ago. It made the hair stand up on the back of her neck, it made her stomach feel tight and aching. For the first time in her life, Rin wondered, honestly wondered, why Sesshomaru-sama had allowed his corrupted younger brother to live.
 
It certainly wasn’t out of kindness.
 
“I don’t know,” she murmured, staring out at the village with unseeing eyes. “Maybe because I just want to be here. They don’t need me, you know. I’m just a spoiled little brat who won’t do as I’m told and go home.”
 
“And Shippou?” Shiori asked quietly.
 
Rin laughed softly. “He’s worse than me. He won’t leave because he wants to save Kagome from Inuyasha. His hatred is his whole world…I think he’d be lost without it.”
 
“Hatred?” Shiori frowned, her pretty face crinkling with confusion. “That’s not the Shippou I remember. They seemed to be so close…”
 
“We were.”
 
The women turned to look behind them as Shippou came over to lean against the doorway. His face was still very pale and there were dark circles under his eyes. Rin thought he looked weak and ill, his green eyes somehow dimmer and less sharp when they met hers.
 
“Are you going to live?” she asked, worried.
 
Shippou snorted and then grimaced. “My head hurts,” he said petulantly, dropping down to sit beside her. “What happened? This place looks like it was hit by a horde of demons.”
 
“It was.” At Shippou’s startled expression, she started to explain but was interrupted by Shiori’s light voice.
 
“You should have seen it last night,” the girl said cheerfully. “We’re lucky that any of the houses are still in one piece.”
 
He stared at her. “I missed a fight?” Shippou sounded so disappointed, scowling before turning on Rin. “Why didn’t you wake me up? I could have…”
 
“You couldn’t do anything,” Rin scolded. “You were too sick and you know it. You’re lucky that Shiori let you stay here at all, tossing and turning all night and groaning. I would have tossed you out the door to sleep with the livestock!”
 
Shippou grumbled and then blinked, turning wide eyes back to Shiori. “Shiori?” he asked, shocked. “What are you doing…how can you…” He gripped his head in sudden pain. “What the hell’s going on?”
 
His voice carried loudly and a few villagers looked nervously in their direction. Shiori waved at them, smiling and they turned back to their tasks. “We were attacked by youkai last night,” she said quietly, her smile somewhat fixed. “Don’t give them more reason to be frightened, Shippou.”
 
He shut his mouth, leaning more into the shadows inside the house. “What’s going on, Rin?” he whispered. “Where’s Kagome, where’s Inuyasha? Did they go somewhere with Kohaku?” Shippou inhaled sharply with a hiss. “She’s not hurt, is she?”
 
Rin could see it, the anxiety starting to take over the young fox demon, the fear in his eyes that so many years hadn’t erased. Quickly, she reached out and grabbed his hand, squeezing as hard as she could.
 
“Inuyasha argued with Kohaku,” she said in a firm, steady voice. “He left and went into the forest. We were attacked…that same presence. It seems to draw demons to it, drive them to attack. Kohaku and his people fought to keep them away from the village, but during the battle…” She took a deep breath, knew Shippou was going to raise hell. “Kagome went after Inuyasha on her own.”
 
“And you let her go?” Shippou yanked his hands away and glared at Rin. “What are you, crazy? She’s already been attacked so many times, couldn’t you make her wait until I could…”
 
Shippou yelped as Shiori drew back her hand, having pinched his ear hard enough to leave a mark. “You were unconscious,” she said, her voice still sweet and mild. “And it’s not Rin’s fault either. She couldn’t have stopped Kagome and I don’t think that she should have tried.”
 
“What do you know about it?” Shippou said bitterly.
 
“I know that Kagome loves Inuyasha,” Shiori answered. Shippou flushed and turned to look at Rin, who nodded in agreement.
 
“You just have to accept it,” she told him quietly. “Shippou, she loves him. And he loves her. Nothing you can do or say is ever going to change that.”
 
She’d expected him to argue, maybe fight with her and Shiori about how he had to go running after Kagome to save her from…oh gods only knew what he thought she needed from him, but Rin knew it wasn’t the answer. So when Shippou fell back against the floor with a thud and bent his head until his bright hair covered his eyes, Rin was more than surprised.
 
“I know she loves him,” he said in a dull, heavy voice. “Don’t you think I know it?”
 
“Shippou,” Rin whispered.
 
“I’m not an idiot, no matter what you think.” He lifted his head and she saw that Shippou wasn’t crying. The skin around his eyes looked pinched, his mouth a grim line of defeat. “I wasn’t doing it because…because I thought I could make her love me. I understand that, Kouga beat it into my head so many times that I’m sick with it.”
 
“Then why are you so hurt?” Shiori asked, covering one of his hands with her own. His other hand reached for Rin’s and squeezed it hard.
 
“I was just a little runt,” Shippou muttered. “I couldn’t stop him, nobody could. Maybe if Sango and Miroku had been there they could have done something to stop him. Not me…and I was all she had left by then. And all I could do was stand outside…and watch him destroy her.”
 
Rin felt tears stinging her eyes. Such a little child he’d been back then, so alone and scared. The two people he loved the most and he had to stand there and do nothing because he was too young to fight alone. It must have agony…and she knew that those memories couldn’t just fade away.
 
And she’d called him a little brat, told him to get over it…Rin shuddered. She’d thought he was selfish and obsessed, too angry and bitter to see that Inuyasha was no longer that monster. He hadn’t been there when Sesshomaru-sama had tried to heal his younger brother. Shippou hadn’t seen Inuyasha fight to live, or grow into a strong and honorable man who had gained the respect of his father’s people.
 
And Shippou couldn’t know that in a fortress of powerful demons, Inuyasha was the only one who’d taken the time to be friends with a lonely little girl.
 
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, sliding her arm around his shoulders. “I didn’t think about it.”
 
She was surprised again when Shippou didn’t pull away, instead leaning against her like his heart was still breaking. “It’s okay,” he said quietly. “You couldn’t know…not really. Not unless you were there.”
 
Shiori smiled wistfully. “I understand. Kohaku is a bit like you, always trying to make up for the past. He feels guilty that his sister died saving him, and shares that feeling of helplessness. It’s hard to sit by when people you care for are hurt, even now…he can’t stand to let go of anyone.”
 
“Shouldn’t they have come back by now?” Rin was worried. She had the feeling that there was something very wrong, something terrible that was going to happen. It had been with her since last night, just after Kagome had run into the forest after Inuyasha. At that moment, the attack on the village had ceased, all of the attacking demons turning as one and scattering.
 
The rest of the village’s men had come stumbling into the village just a few minutes later. Some were hurt, bleeding, and others just seemed stunned and overwhelmed. The sheer enormity of the presence was enough to knock anyone to their knees, and they’d remained shaken and fearful since.
 
“I’m worried too,” Shiori said at last. She met Rin’s gaze soberly, worry making her look pale and tired. “He should have been back before dawn, even if he chased the demons to the edge of the forest.”
 
“What about Inuyasha and Kagome?” Shippou asked, his hand slipping around Rin’s once again. So they were all worried now. “Where else could they be?”
 
“There’s not another village for miles,” Shiori answered. “Usually Kohaku has others with him when he leaves, he’s got several men that he trusts like brothers. They wouldn’t betray him…or abandon him in a fight.”
 
“And?” Rin felt like she was stretched thin, her legs almost quivering.
 
“They haven’t come back yet either.”
 
Shippou groaned, rubbing his eyes. “We should go look for them.”
 
“You can’t!” Rin burst out, grabbing Shippou’s hand when he started to get to his feet. “It’s too dangerous, you were sick and…”
 
“I’m fine now,” he said, irritated.
 
Rin didn’t let go of his hand, instead scrambling to her feet while Shiori looked on in confusion. “No, you’re not,” the girl said firmly. “Have you forgotten what Kohaku said about the spiritual wards in the forest? If you go out there, you’ll just get sick again. Shippou, you could die!”
 
His shoulders slumped. “I have to risk it,” the kitsune muttered. “I don’t care about the wards or barriers or whatever Kohaku said it was. What if they’re hurt and can’t make it back?”
 
Rin was fierce. “Kohaku said you could die, he tried to send you back to Kouga, remember? Inuyasha had to carry you here, who do you think you’re going to rescue?”
 
He glared at her. “So? What about you? Kohaku told Inuyasha and Kouga that you should stay behind, that Sesshomaru wouldn’t want you to be in danger. You’re the brat who won’t go home, why the hell should you tell me what to do?”
 
“Excuse me…” Shiori murmured, glancing around.
 
Furious now, Rin shoved Shippou hard enough to make him stumble. “You’re a stubborn ass, Shippou! I can take care of myself and those wards don’t affect humans!”
 
“That doesn’t mean you can’t be hurt!” Shippou yelled back. The entire village was staring at them by now, all eyes fascinated by the loud confrontation between the young fox demon and the human girl who lived among youkai.
 
Shiori sighed heavily and stood up, her round belly making her awkward. She reached out to the angry pair and tried to calm them before some of the villagers started picking up weapons. Just what they needed with Kohaku still missing and her trying to keep their people from panicking like scared rabbits.
 
“Please calm down,” she said, gently taking hold of Rin’s arm. The girl pulled free and grabbed a handful of Shippou’s shirt, trying to force him to turn back towards them. “Now is not the time to fight…”
 
“Tell him, Shiori,” Rin said firmly. “Tell him that those spirit wards will kill him if he goes into the forest. Kohaku said they were supposed to weaken demons so they were easily killed, but Shippou won’t listen!”
 
Blinking in surprise, Shiori pulled back and stared at them both. “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about spiritual wards that would weaken demons. Kohaku’s never said anything about it.”
 
Rin gave her a questioning look. “But the barriers…they don’t affect you?”
 
She was quite honestly baffled. “Why would they?”
 
“Because you’re half-demon,” Shippou explained. “Kohaku said the wards were to weaken youkai, they made me so sick I passed out.”
 
Shiori’s eyes grew wide. “He told you that?” she asked, her forehead creasing in a worried frown. “Shippou, that can’t be true. There are barriers in the forest, but they aren’t very strong. They only warn us if something is coming so that we can defend ourselves.”
 
“Are you sure that Kohaku has told you everything?” Rin asked softly.
 
The girl nodded decisively. “He couldn’t keep it from me,” she explained. “I go into the forest often to gather food and herbs with the other women.”
 
For a long moment, they just stared at her, turning her words over slowly as if to deny the truth. Shiori bit her lip and stared at the ground, understanding that if her husband had lied to Shippou and Rin about the wards, lied to Inuyasha and Kagome, there was something very wrong. Kohaku didn’t lie, but why would he make up such a story to explain Shippou’s illness? If he used such an excuse, he must have been trying to hide the truth. And if he was hiding the real reason for Shippou’s illness, using it as an excuse to send him back to Kouga just like he’d tried to send Rin back to Sesshomaru, it only meant one thing.
 
He was trying to get them out of the way…out of his way.
 
Slowly, Shiori raised her eyes. “I don’t know of any spiritual wards or barriers in this forest that might weaken a youkai. If…if there were such things, we wouldn’t have had to fight so much, lose so many lives. But Kohaku is a youkai exterminator; he’s told me about how his father trained him. There have always been other methods to subdue the demons that would prey on humans.”
 
She took a deep breath and knew that she had to tell them everything. “Like poisons. There are special compounds that might make a youkai sick, or weak, or helpless. He made sure to show me what they were, so that I didn’t handle them. If Kohaku told you that you were sickened by a spiritual ward…”
 
It hurt to say such things about him. “He must have had a reason.”
 
Confused, Shippou sat down heavily. “What reason?” he muttered. “I didn’t even know he was alive, Shiori. He had that asshole Natsu track me down and drag me to see him. If he’d wanted me dead, you’d think he wouldn’t wait for the chance to poison me.”
 
“Natsu?” Rin cringed a bit, remembering the man’s bitter, scarred face, his overwhelming hatred of all things youkai. “He’s the one who was going to murder Inuyasha at Kaede’s village. I remember what he said…”
 
Shiori rubbed her eyes, they were stinging. “He blames inuyoukai for his family’s death,” she murmured. “But he’s not an evil person, Rin. And he’s not a monster either. He’s just an ordinary man, but he would follow Kohaku into hell if he were asked. And keep any secret, no matter how terrible.”
 
“Kohaku didn’t want to kill you,” Rin breathed, staring down at Shippou’s dejected expression. “He needed you. You brought him to Kouga’s camp to see Kagome and convince her to help him. He even said he knew a way for her to get home, like he knew all about where she’d come from.”
 
“I told him about the well,” Shippou admitted. He stared up at Rin, his mouth twisted with self-disgust. “I just wanted him to get her away from Inuyasha. I didn’t care how he did it or why he wanted my help. I didn’t even think about it.”
 
“You think he lied about that too?” She turned to look at Shiori. “There’s no old priestess in the forest that will help Kagome?”
 
The girl shook her head slowly. “I don’t know of any priestess other than Kaede,” she said, her voice a little rough with emotion. Her hands curved protectively over her stomach as if to shield her unborn child from the words of its father’s betrayal. Then her jaw clenched and she glared out at the darkening forest.
 
“I don’t know why my husband lied,” Shiori said in a quiet, determined voice. “He’s kept things from me, things that I didn’t need to know about. Things I didn’t want to know about, like why he knows where that dark cloud will appear, and why he kills so many demons. I know…I know it haunts him, all this killing.”
 
“What should we do?” Rin felt useless, helpless. She wanted to hide her face and try to pretend that she didn’t know about Kohaku. She’d wanted to believe that there was someone, anyone, who would help Kagome. Someone who might be able to save Inuyasha when even Sesshomaru-sama could not.
 
“We have to go after them,” Shippou growled. “Kagome needs to know the truth.”
 
“I’d like to hear it myself,” Shiori answered. Her expression was severe and Rin wondered if Shiori was imagining something far worse when the young woman suddenly made a harsh noise in the back of her throat. “And I’m going to hear it, right now!”
 
Determined, Shiori gestured for Rin and Shippou to follow her. They made their way to the edge of the village, where a few structures had taken the worst damage. A group of men were gathered around a pile of rubble that had once been a small hut. Rin could see that they were actually tearing it down, saving the still useful wood to use again, discarding the portions that had been decimated to splinters.
 
A few called out greetings to Kohaku’s wife, but the now angry looking young woman ignored them. She made her way straight to a man who was carrying an armload of rubbish and planted herself in front of him like a round and furious hen.
 
“Natsu,” she said, her violet eyes sparkling. “Where the hell is my husband?”
 
oOo
 
Exhausted, Kagome sat down with a groan when Kohaku said they should rest. It was her fault that they were moving this slowly, but she didn’t want Inuyasha to carry her. It wasn’t like they were running for their lives, but you wouldn’t have known that from the tense and worried expression on Kohaku’s face.
 
It would have made more sense to let Inuyasha carry her, but Kagome decided she’d had enough of being dragged around by anyone else. Being carried on his strong back would have been faster, certainly less exhausting. Inuyasha had offered, hinted strongly that it would be better if he carried her, but enough was enough.
 
She could do this. She wasn’t going to be a burden. She could carry her own weight and do what needed to be done.
 
If her feet would stop throbbing because right now, she really wanted to cry.
 
“We can’t stay here,” Kohaku said, looking up at the sky.
 
“She’s tired,” Inuyasha muttered, kneeling beside Kagome where she sat on a fallen log. Gently, he slipped off her sandal and started rubbing the tender flesh of her sole. He massaged her aching heel with the ball of his thumb, stroking the sensitive arch with his fingertips. Kagome wanted to melt, whimpering in the back of her throat when he accidentally brushed against a blister.
 
“We’re all tired,” Kohaku said heavily. “We have to be there before sunset. I told you, it’s the only way she can help us.”
 
Kagome closed her eyes. The only way, he said.
 
When she and Inuyasha had returned to the cave, they’d found Kohaku waiting for them. He’d looked as tired as she herself was right now, worn out and defeated. Thinking that something terrible had happened, Kagome had asked if they should wait to continue on their journey.
 
Kohaku shook his head. “No, it’s now or not at all.”
 
“Why the rush?” Kagome wanted to know. “Are we in more danger than you thought? What about the village, is Shiori…”
 
“Shiori is fine,” Kohaku bit out. He flushed at her look and turned away. “They’re all just fine, Kagome. I went to the village and checked. Rin and Shippou will wait with Shiori until we come back.”
 
“Shippou is awake?” Kagome asked. “Didn’t he want to come with you?”
 
Kohaku shrugged. “I suppose not, I told him we’d return soon enough and he wanted to rest.”
 
“I guess those spiritual wards of yours really took it out of the brat,” Inuyasha said, staring hard at Kohaku. “I thought he’d fight harder than that.”
 
Kohaku didn’t answer, but he kicked the ground hard enough that a small billow of dust settled over his feet. “I didn’t have time to argue,” he said at last. “I went ahead…to make sure that she’ll see you.”
 
“And?” Inuyasha had folded his arms, glaring at Kohaku as if he was ready to pick a fight of his own. “What did she say?”
 
Kagome leaned close and nudged Inuyasha with her elbow. “Kohaku isn’t the enemy,” she murmured. “He’s trying to help.”
 
“I’m trying to save my people,” Kohaku said coldly, returning Inuyasha’s stare without so much as a twitch. “If there’s a way, some way at all that Kagome can help me put an end to this violence…I’ll do anything.”
 
He turned to look at her, Sango’s brother and Kagome’s heart flinched for the terrible burden that had been placed upon his shoulders. “You can do it,” he murmured. “I hope there’s a way you can go home, too. I really do, but right now I have to save my family. You understand, right?”
 
She didn’t want to go home, she didn’t need to tell him again. Kohaku seemed to be pleading with her, desperate. Why was this so important? If this old priestess were as wise as Kaede, as strong as Kikyou, and as powerful as Midoriko herself…why would she need anything from an ordinary woman like Kagome?
 
But then again, Kaede was old, Kikyou gone, and Midoriko…she was the soul trapped in limbo, the one who needed rescue more than anyone. Kagome had put an end to her spiritual beliefs when she’d crawled from her side of the well over ten years earlier. She was nobody’s priestess and nobody’s salvation anymore.
 
Warmth was returning to her battered feet and Kagome opened her eyes. Nobody’s anything, huh? She looked into Inuyasha’s eyes and touched his cheek with her fingertips. His hands were still resting on her ankles and she had the oddest feeling in the pit of her belly. The way he knelt, his love for her shining like the sun, she almost felt like he was offering her his prayers.
 
If Inuyasha believed in her…anything was possible.
 
“I’m fine,” she said, shaking off the bone-deep weariness like all she’d needed was a nap. “Let’s keep going.”
 
oOo
 
“The hell I’m going help them!”
 
Natsu’s bellow carried across the village, drawing frightened stares from women and children. The few men left behind were giving them suspicious looks, muttering darkly as none other than the boss’s pretty wife backed Natsu against a wall. The women whispered to each other while their children started to shuffle nervously.
 
Shiori planted her hands on her hips and stared him down. Natsu was a big man, with heavy hands rough from farming. He’d leveled a baleful glare at Shippou when they’d approached, a sneer for Rin, but he’d flushed dark red when Shiori went straight up to him and poked him hard in the gut with her tiny little fist.
 
“What was that for?” he demanded.
 
“You should be ashamed,” she scolded. “You told me this morning that you didn’t know where Kohaku had gone. You said you knew nothing about it and didn’t see Inuyasha or Kagome when you came back to the village.”
 
“I didn’t see `em,” Natsu protested. He shot an angry glare at Shippou and Rin before shaking his head. “You gonna believe them over me?”
 
“They didn’t tell me anything,” Shiori said, lowering her voice. “I know where they were this morning, Natsu. And I know you aren’t telling me everything you know.”
 
Damn it, he thought, glowering down at her. How the hell did he screw up this time? The boss was going to kill him, he just knew it.
 
“Don’t tell them anything,” Kohaku had said as he disappeared into the forest.
 
Shit. Now the fox demon was awake again and Natsu regretted that he’d not had a chance to beat respect into that boy. And that little girl kept looking at him like he was the monster, the animal, not the redheaded brat. He remembered what he’d said in the village, he’d called her a demon’s whore and never thought he’d regret it.
 
Because what else was a woman who’d live with demons?
 
But looking at Shiori’s furious little face, he found himself a bit ashamed. If that little girl had told the boss’s wife, he’d never be able to look Shiori in the eye and explain himself. When he’d been hurt, sick with misery after watching his wife and son be killed, he’d longed for death in the worst way. It had been Shiori and her kindly mother who had tended to him, listened to him rant with fever and pain. They’d rescued him with their kindness, made him want to get better just to make them happy.
 
Why they’d bothered, hell, Natsu didn’t know. A worthless man who couldn’t even save his own wife and infant son…didn’t deserve to live.
 
When he’d gotten better, strong enough to stand anyway…he’d met Kohaku. The boy had changed him, told him that there was still something to protect. He’d shown Natsu the faces of the women and children whose husbands hadn’t come home, and asked if Natsu thought they deserved to be protected. And Natsu, who had never done more than work the fields since he’d been old enough to pull his first weed, learned to fight. To protect them.
 
Kohaku had taught him that, but he hadn’t taught him how to forget his hate.
 
Looking into Shiori’s clear eyes, he sighed and rubbed his neck. Things hadn’t been right in a very long time. He couldn’t remember the last time that Kohaku had looked easy or comfortable. They’d started out defending themselves and fallen into blood hunters. Some of the men who followed Kohaku now just lived for the kill, the stain of the blood, the smell of death lingering in the air.
 
Some of them had been mercenaries or deserters…not honest men trying to save their families. Enough time around them and he’d become a cruel bastard himself. Made it seem easy, made it seem right to slaughter any youkai for the pure pleasure of killing. Only…he didn’t much like it himself when he came back to the village, drenched in blood, and saw Shiori looking at him with heartbreak all over her face.
 
Maybe…maybe this time the boss was just dead wrong about what had to be done. And maybe this little girl and that fox brat could find a way to stop him before he did something that even Shiori wouldn’t be able to forgive.
 
“All right,” he muttered, not looking at any of them. “You ain’t gonna like it.”
 
oOo
 
Sunset
 

They reached the far edge of the forest. The afternoon sky had gone from gold to rust, bleeding out against the dark line of night approaching. Kagome was tired and sweaty, but she didn’t care anymore. Inuyasha had to almost carry her a couple times, but his strength seemed to seep into her muscles like warm water each time he held her.
 
Best of all, she’d felt no taint of that malevolent presence, no horror hanging over their heads. Even though they’d had to move a lot faster than she was comfortable with, Kagome was glad to have made it to the end. Tattered and sore, maybe this strange feeling in her gut was the only thing that kept her going.
 
The feeling, she recognized it now. It was hope.
 
“Kohaku,” she called as he strode ahead them, leaving them behind in his urgency to get to this mystery woman. “Where is she?”
 
“There,” he said, pointing up the hillside. Nestled against a rocky, eroded hill, she saw an old Buddhist temple. It was falling to ruins, a small stone structure just like so many that she’d seen during her travels in this era. She wondered about the monks that might have built it years ago and thought of Miroku with a smile.
 
I’m doing what you said, she thought. I told him about the baby, I found the strength to forgive what couldn’t be forgiven. I let go of my anger, my shame, and let myself love him again.
 
She didn’t care if she left her old life behind, only felt an ache when she thought of her mother and brother. She could even forgive Scott right now, poor miserable soul. Kagome knew that she had a lot to live with, but she wasn’t going to run away from herself, not ever again.
 
And she knew, for however long he had left, she would spend her life with Inuyasha. That was redemption enough for her sins.
 
She felt his hand on her arm and leaned against him gratefully. Inuyasha was staring at the temple, watching as Kohaku climbed the broken, crumbling steps. There had been a landslide, she decided, looking at the torn and disintegrating terrain. At some point, that modest little temple had tumbled down the slope, barely held together by whatever means it had been made.
 
“I don’t like it,” Inuyasha muttered, his body tense and rigid beside her. “Something…something doesn’t smell right.”
 
Kagome turned to look at him and saw the anxiety in his face, the nervous way his eyes kept moving, searching for something amiss. “What is it?” she asked softly, cupping his hand in her own.
 
“Should be something else here,” he said, his voice sounding like wire stretched too thin. “No animals, no birds. Not even insects…even the grass is dead, the trees are rotten.”
 
She stared around her. What had looked like normal trees, weren’t so normal. They looked sickly, their starved roots poking up from the ground as if they couldn’t bear to touch the earth itself. Under her feet, the grass looked green and healthy, but each time she lifted her foot, she saw the stems had broken like tiny glass shards, and a foul smell drifted up from the dank roots.
 
“Kagome!”
 
Looking up, she saw Kohaku waving from the entrance. “Come up here,” he called. “She wants to meet you.”
 
“What about Inuyasha?” she shouted, finding the air too heavy, as if her words were being blown back into her mouth.
 
Kohaku shook his head. “Wait,” he said, raising his hand. “Inuyasha, wait for us down there. She doesn’t trust youkai.”
 
It made sense, this woman had been helping Kohaku for some time now. Of course she wouldn’t want a demon in her home, especially a powerful demon with a reputation like Inuyasha’s. It might not be easy to convince an old woman set in her ways, but Kagome would do her best to try. Not everything was as it appeared, she knew that better than most.
 
Kagome took a step forward, but Inuyasha gripped her hand tightly. “Don’t,” he said, soft in her ear. “I don’t like it. I don’t like you being that far from me if something goes wrong.”
 
Trust. It was hard to lose and harder to regain, but Kagome knew they had to try. “I know,” she said, comforting him. “But it’s just up the hill. Kohaku is there and…”
 
Her mouth was open, still trying to talk when he suddenly pulled her tight against his body and kissed her. His lips were gentle in spite of his hard embrace, the slick heat of his tongue rocked her senses and she clung to him in response. The kiss went deeper, as if by tasting every crevice of her mouth and nipping at her lips, he could memorize her, save this moment forever.
 
“I trust you,” he whispered, their lips parting with a moist lick. “Trust me too, Kagome. I won’t leave you, I won’t abandon you. Please…believe in me.”
 
She pressed her finger against his lips. “Forever,” she whispered. “You’re the only one in my heart, you’ve always had me…forever.”
 
He let go of her hand, watching as she made her way up the hill. Kagome had time to think about it and carefully searched around her. She didn’t sense any aura, no hint of malignant presence. She let her senses unravel like a spool of thread, tasting the spiritual integrity of the space around her.
 
Nothing…nothing at all to worry about. It was like the world around them had been swept clean, purified…only…
 
It didn’t feel right. Not how things should feel even if the aura of a place had been purified. It felt sterile, dead, as if all presence of life and hope had been banished alongside everything corrupt. There was no positive or negative, no light or dark. No good or evil, no love or hate, no passion or apathy.
 
It was nothingness and Kagome winced, pain filling her head at the yawning, clamoring, howling void of nothing tore at her soul. Her hands flew to her head, pressing against her temples as the presence that was now within her beat its fury against the bones of her skull.
 
“Kagome!”
 
She looked up to see Kohaku running towards her, his face a mask of desperate fear. He stumbled against her, nearly knocked her over before he got a good grip on her arms. “Hurry! You don’t want to be standing there!”
 
Standing…where? Kagome was almost blind with the pain, the empty void ripped open by a thousand trapped souls ate at her. That feeling in her stomach that she’d called hope was gone, only a hard, burning feeling in her chest.
 
She heard Miroku’s voice again, this time it sounded like it had crossed all the years to find her…and another voice, darker than his, answering his words like a burning brand pressed deep into her mind.
 
Aramitama
 
The opposite of courage is…weakness.
 
Nigimitama
 
The opposite of friendship is…greed.
 
Kushimitama
 
The opposite of wisdom is…pride.
 
Sakimitama
 
The opposite of love is…emptiness…
 
Then suddenly…the howling in her mind quieted and Kagome sagged against Kohaku, trembling with relief. She blinked her eyes, trying to clear them, trying to find Inuyasha. She couldn’t see, the sky and earth and landscape all jumbled together in a messy blur. Then, like a sunrise against cold night, she saw him as a flash of red against the hillside, trying to get to her.
 
“Shit,” she heard Kohaku mutter. “She’s coming outside.”
 
Kohaku’s arms steadied her as she turned to face the temple. From the ruined stone entrance, a figure appeared, slender and moving slowly like a ghost. It was a woman, her ragged garment hanging from her body like an afterthought, long dark hair a tangled storm around her face.
 
Her face…oh God
 
“Sango,” she whispered…and felt her heart break.
 
The woman came closer, standing at the steps of the ruined temple. Kagome couldn’t believe what she was seeing…and knew that her friend, her beloved friend, Kohaku’s doomed sister…was no longer alive. As she stared at the pale, thin face, the woman turned her head and met Kagome’s gaze.
 
Those weren’t Sango’s eyes…they were like blood.
 
Not the crimson of an angry demon, but the color of fresh blood. They weren’t like eyes at all, Kagome thought, her mind still rejecting the horror in front of her. This woman with Sango’s face, her eyes were raw wounds…and there was something horrifying looking at her from behind their gory depths. Just for a moment…her heart stopped.
 
Just for a moment, she had looked into hell.
 
And then the woman closed her eyes.
 
“Kohaku,” she croaked, grabbing frantically at his hands. “That’s not her. That’s not Sango! That’s not your sister!”
 
“I know,” he husked, barely able to answer. “Don’t you think I know that?”
 
“Then why…” Kagome trembled and then started to fight him. Silent with horror, desperate now, she fought Kohaku’s hold like she was going insane. He held her tight, his arm around her waist like a steel vice, his other hand…oh God…trying to turn her face away from what was about to happen.
 
“Inuyasha!” she screamed.
 
She saw him, running up the hill with murder in his eyes. Already he’d drawn Tessaiga, it pulsed to life and Kagome felt the ground start to shake with his fury. She knew…deep in her heart she knew he was coming to save her…
 
But she wasn’t the one they were after…hadn’t she known it all along?
 
The woman who was not Sango spread out her arms and a heavy shock of energy ripped over the hillside. Kagome and Kohaku stopped moving, feeling their own hearts stumble as long moments elapsed between each beat. Suddenly the world was made of glass, as if the sweat on their skin had frozen them while between life and death stretched an endless void.
 
She saw Inuyasha freeze where he stood, she saw Tessaiga fall from his hand. His upturned face went blank, all the fury and fear seeping from his eyes like water soaking into dry sand. His expression wasn’t peaceful and Kagome choked to see him suddenly helpless, lost within his own mind.
 
“No…” she said, her mouth twisting around the word. Tears slid over her cheeks and her lips trembled. “Inuyasha…no…”
 
Then Sango…the creature that masked itself with her face, opened the tattered, ragged garment that she wore. Where there should have been only smooth, pale skin, where there should have been a woman’s body, a writhing, seething mass of demon souls pulsed obscenely.
 
Her mouth opened, and Kagome thought she heard an echo of Sango’s real voice, somehow drowning in the torment, as she said one word.
 
“Feed…”
 
The mass of demons and energy burst forth, a ravenous horde that raced straight towards Inuyasha. He didn’t even seem to be aware of them as they overwhelmed him, knocking him to the ground and crashing over his body in a ravaging ecstasy of bloodlust and hunger.
 
Kagome started to scream. Her voice pitched high, shrieking in despair and loss as she watched Inuyasha disappear under the vile horde. She couldn’t do anything but scream, and scream and scream
 
Until at last, out of pity or mercy, Kohaku struck a blow to the back of her skull, knocking Kagome unconscious, and let her drift away into darkest dreams.
 
oOo
 
 
 
ThirtyTwo
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