ACT III: TRANSFORMATION
"You let him escape! We have failed."
"Perhaps not? How have we not failed? You didn't get anything of his to use in a binding spell, and he didn't drink the sleeping tea."
"But he hasss been away from the Fox Princcessss for nigh on a year. Our ssspy sssays thisss hasss angered the fox. Perhapsss ssshe will be angry enough to leave the Wesst, and then sssshe will be oursss."
"Mine. She will be mine. Just as Inari is my spy, not yours."
"Of courssse, my lord. Asss sssoon as ssshe isss far enough away from the Great Dog, we will ssstrike. Ssshe isss the key. The Sssshikon Jewel hasss alwaysss been the key, and now ssshe posssssesssessssss sssssome of the power of the jewel. Until we have her, it isss too dangerousss to challenge the Lord of the Wessst, but once ssshe issss in our grassssp…"
"He will die."
"Yessss. They will all die. And we will rule."
"I. I will rule."
"Of courssse, Itachiryu."
"Don't call me that!"
"A thousssand apologiesss."
"…When do we go after them? Now?"
"Paitenccce. Wait and work your magic on the ki-pearl. Let them grow lessss vigilant, and give me time to prepare the ssspell."
"I am tired of waiting."
"It will not ssseem like ssso long. At leassst… Not to you."
When Sesshoumaru crashed to a landing in the Inner Courtyard, he was amazed and relieved to find that the shiro had never come under attack during his absence. Not once.
It didn't make sense.
But though his palace was intact and all who dwelled within safe, things were not as he remembered them.
Exhausted from the youki he'd expended during his headlong flight, his aura so diminished that it was doubtful his pack would immediately notice his presence, he first went in search of his pups. When he entered the room where they had their lessons, he was informed that Rin-sama and Shippou-hiko now joined one of the classes of younger warrior trainees in the mornings, and had their other lessons in the afternoon, on the orders of Kagome-hime.
Sesshoumaru went to watch them train and was pleased with their progress. When the weapons master dismissed them, he revealed himself, anticipating their usual warm greeting.
Rin did not disappoint him. She ran to him, stopped to bow just before she reached him, and then collided with his legs as always.
Shippou, however, hung back, a sullen look on his face. When Sesshoumaru raised a brow, the little kitsune he had come to think of as his son sketched a perfunctory bow and mumbled, "Welcome home, Sesshoumaru-sama."
When the pups bustled off to bathe before their afternoon lessons, he heard Rin whisper, "See? Rin told you Sesshoumaru-sama always comes back."
Sesshoumaru decided to have a bath himself before seeking out the rest of his pack. Though he would never admit it out loud, his limbs trembled and he found it difficult to stand. He would not have them see him in such a state, especially as it seemed that the risk he'd taken in expending such a large amount of youki had been unnecessary.
While in the bath house, he could not help but overhear two of the servants speculating over whether 'Sesshoumaru-sama knows about Takeshi.' They left before he could question them.
Had Takeshi been slain?
Once he returned to his room to dress, he discovered Inuyasha's scent all over his balcony. It seemed that the hanyou had been sleeping there, in order to watch over Kagome and the pups in Sesshoumaru's absence.
That was well enough. At least Inuyasha had the sense not to get his stink all over Sesshoumaru's bed. It had taken ages to get it out the last time.
Sesshoumaru stretched out on the soft sheets, inhaling the scents of Kagome and the pups, a contented rumble starting in his chest. He did not try to stifle it.
After some time he felt rested, and summoned Jaken.
The slap-slapping sound of Jaken's feet in the hall and his exultant cry of "Sesshoumaru-sama, you have returned to this one, your most lowly servant!" was, at least, familiar.
Sesshoumaru allowed Jaken to bow and scrape for several minutes, before thumping the imp on the head. "Jaken, tell this one why the palace whispers of Takeshi."
Jaken seemed to shrink in on himself, resembling a turtle more than an imp as he tried to disappear into his robes.
His retainer burst into a monologue of apologies and pleas that Sesshoumaru not punish him for failing to keep 'that disastrously strong-willed Kagome-hime' in line. Sesshoumaru ignored all the blather, focusing instead on the pieces of information that mattered.
Takeshi was a Warrior of the West, bound to Sesshoumaru's service. He was Inari's guard.
And he was courting Kagome.
It is well, he thought to himself as he made his way to the dojo, his feet traveling the path of their own accord. It is the best possible outcome. Now she will not look to this Sesshoumaru for such things, and all can go on as it did before.
A group of Sesshoumaru's warriors greeted him, and he nodded to them each in turn, at last calling for Takeshi to step forward.
"Sesshoumaru-sama," Takeshi bowed. He was a black-haired inu youkai, shorter than Sesshoumaru, but also broader in the shoulder. His weapon of choice was a naginata – a pole-arm topped with a six inch blade.
He is loyal to the West, Sesshoumaru thought, inspecting the other male. Takeshi bore no noble crests that Sesshoumaru could see, though he supposed females could still find Takeshi's countenance pleasing. If Kagome is pupped, it would be a simple matter to bring Takeshi into the pack.
Then he would not be forced to remind Kagome of her promise to stay with him.
"You will spar with this Sesshoumaru."
Takeshi made himself ready. The other warriors formed a crowd around the practice ring and began placing wagers on how long the dark inu would last.
Of course, Sesshoumaru attacked without warning, feinting and then spinning away, drawing his sword with the sound of steel on wood, it would be equally simple to kill him and raise the pup as my own.
Takeshi swung his glaive out and down, seeking to disable Sesshoumaru's right knee. Still weakened, Sesshoumaru was unable to parry the blow and instead caught the end of the glaive before it could connect and yanked it away, uncaring that the blade sliced his hand down to the bone.
Rather than be drawn in close to grapple with a taller and stronger opponent, Takeshi relinquished the weapon.
The battle was swift and brutal from there. Takeshi was no real match for Sesshoumaru, and had Sesshoumaru been at his full strength he would have already won. But Takeshi put forth a valiant effort, striving honorably until he was given no choice but to yield or die. Still, when Sesshoumaru exited the practice ring and Takeshi was carried off by two of his comrades to see the palace healer, Sesshoumaru was certain of two things.
First, he had proven that he was the superior male in every way.
Second, Takeshi would be unable to attend Kagome for several nights to come.
Sesshoumaru chose not to think about which pleased him more.
In the end, Sesshoumaru did not have to seek out Kagome. She came to him.
Her youki announced her presence long before he looked up to find her standing in his bedroom doorway. A fiery churning of anger and resentment stretched out before her.
"Vixen," he stood to greet her.
She marched straight up to him and slapped him across the face. His eyes widened in shock, and then narrowed. A thin line of blood appeared above one of his facial stripes.
"A year, Sesshoumaru. A year."
"Ten moons," he corrected. He would not offer her excuses of entrapment like a whinging pup. He had more honor than that. He had chosen to leave, and in his arrogance allowed himself to be tricked. He deserved her ire.
She slapped him again.
"Did you know that Shippou thought you were angry with him? Because you promised to teach him and Rin the sword, and then you vanished without saying goodbye?" A wave of red moved through her hair, the long mass reverting to its natural color.
"Inuyasha is a horrible teacher. He has no patience, and he yells."
Sesshoumaru blinked. This conversation was not going in any way how he had expected. Pride pricked at him. Was she not happy to see him returned? "Ten moons is not so long. Cease counting time as a human does."
Kagome raised her hand to slap him for a third time. Sesshoumaru seized her wrists. His left hand, wounded in his skirmish with Takeshi, began to bleed anew.
"You will desist."
Kagome snarled, her eyes flashing green.
Sesshoumaru roared, the sound shaking the walls, an anguished release of frustration and a demand that his vixen submit rolled into one.
He was tired. So tired, in body, mind, and spirit.
Kagome went limp, letting herself dangle from Sesshoumaru's grasp. He pulled her more securely into his arms, eager to leave his scent on her skin, little shocks of heat going through him at every point where their bodies touched.
"Ten moons is long enough for your kits to miss you. Ten moons is long enough for the pack to feel the loss of its alpha. Ten moons is far too long for the West to be without its lord," she said against his throat, her voice just as hard as it had been before she submitted.
"It was… unplanned. And all was provided for."
"Damn it, Sesshoumaru!" she pushed away from his chest as far as he would allow. The way she dropped the honorific on his name made his heart skip a beat every time she did it. "We need more than food and shelter and instructions on running the West from you. We need you. I think you know that."
And just like that, the madness Sesshoumaru had been running from, wrestling with and locking away in the back of his head sprang forth, stronger than ever before. It was a disease that he didn't know how to cure, a delirium that could only be calmed by the beautiful creature in his arms.
The beautiful creature who was even now growling at him.
It hurt. It hurt in a way he had never thought to be hurt.
He said it like an order, but they both knew it was a plea.
She cupped his face in her hands, searching his eyes with her own. After what felt like an eternity, she leaned up and ran her tongue along the blood on his cheek.
"Yes," she said. "But you will never do this again. If something's wrong, you'll talk to me. If you have to leave and it's not some world ending emergency, you will tell the kits goodbye. And don't think I don't know about Takeshi. I know, and I don't approve. You severed the big tendon in his leg. It was very petty of you. He'll be at least two weeks healing, and you know he wasn't disputing your claim as alpha. And it wasn't like you were here for him to ask permission to court me. Permission that you will give, by the way."
When he examined his motivations, Sesshoumaru found he had never considered his place at the head of the pack to be in jeopardy. He'd harmed Takeshi purely because the black-haired inu had known the pleasure of Kagome's love.
He wisely elected not to tell her this.
"Now put me down."
He did so, and watched as Kagome imperiously made her way to the door.
"Where will you sleep?" he heard himself ask, then ground his jaw shut before he could curse.
She faced him. "Tonight? With you. But Sesshoumaru… I'm not going to keep myself on a shelf. If I want to date, I'm going to date. But I remember my vow."
He locked eyes with her. Her phrasing was strange – more of her future language – but he understood what it was that she said.
No matter how many other males she allowed to court her, she was still his.
He cleared his throat. "The pups?"
"They're with Yukiko. I didn't want them here for," she made a gesture that encompassed the room, "this. They've been upset enough."
"I'll go get them now."
As soon as the door closed behind her, Sesshoumaru sank down onto the bed and squeezed his eyes shut, all the strength he had left draining away.
He didn't know why it had never occurred to him that Kagome would find another male if he didn't claim her. Or that he would ache inside at the thought of it.
He still wanted her. Wanted her as he wanted no other. And she?
She no longer wanted him.
Truly, he was love sick.
Kagome's relationship with Takeshi lasted for seven more months after Sesshoumaru's return, and ended on a quiet afternoon in the private gardens. Takeshi and Kagome walked, arm in arm, as they often did.
"I'm sorry you haven't seen the kits much." Kagome paused beneath her favorite sakura tree, cupping her hands around a blossom. "Rin's been spending a lot of time with Sesshoumaru, and where she goes, Shippou follows." She tilted her head back, her eyes finding the balcony that led to Sesshoumaru's bedroom.
Takeshi inclined his head, a soft smile on his face. He had a steady, even temperament. In their almost year of courtship, Kagome had only heard him raise his voice once, and that was to shout a warning to a fellow warrior. "It is right. I am only their servant and teacher. Sesshoumaru-sama is their father."
"You're more than that, Takeshi!" Kagome chastised him, turning to look into his face. He was not as tall as Sesshoumaru, but still far taller than she. They'd been told often that they made a handsome couple, with their dark tresses and vibrant eyes. Plain, Sesshoumaru had once sneered soon after his return, until Kagome took him to task for it. But acceptable.
"I am not," Takeshi asserted calmly. "Not to them. And, I think, my lady, not to you."
Kagome felt the blood drain from her face. "Takeshi? What…"
He shushed her, and offered her his handkerchief. "It's alright. It really is."
"It's not. Not when you're saying – when you're suggesting that – "
"Kagome-hime, tell me true. Why do you allow me to court you?"
Kagome stopped and made herself think past the ready answers that sprang to her lips. Takeshi was serious, and so she owed it to him to think about his question, to push beyond the words she knew he wanted to hear and tell him the ones that even she had hidden from. She twisted his handkerchief between her hands, wrinkling it hopelessly.
"Because you're dependable," she answered, shamefaced. "You've always been here when I needed you, and you always will be. You're a very good friend. How can I be any less for you, than what you've been for me?"
Takeshi was silent.
"Is that so wrong?" Kagome asked. Tears of frustration gathered at the corners of her eyes. Her voice broke. "A life together based on mutual respect and friendship?"
"No." Takeshi smiled, one of his brilliant, heart stopping smiles that seemed to brighten the very air around him. He cupped Kagome's cheek, and she leaned into the touch. "Some loves are quiet things. But would you live without passion? A fox with no fire?"
"You're wrong," Kagome protested stubbornly. "I do love you. I do."
Takeshi kissed her lightly on the lips, his hands curled over her shoulders. It spoke of farewell, and Kagome felt nothing but relief.
"I believe you. But ours is a love more suited to siblings than mates, I think," he said in a low rumble once they had parted. "I have asked to become one of the scouts that range through the Western Lands. Sesshoumaru-sama approved my transfer this morning."
"I'll bet he did." Bitterness roughened Kagome's voice, her hair turning red at the tips.
"Kagome-hime… You are angry now, but I have sensed for some time that you stayed with me out of honor and loyalty. That reflects well upon your character, but I do not wish a mate of duty. I do not wish to be the sensible choice, but the only one. And besides," he teased gently, even now the kind man who had helped Kagome through the days when she was a single parent and she and Inuyasha were struggling to learn to rule the West. "What demoness would settle for a soldier when she may have a lord?"
Kagome huffed and shoved Takeshi away, as he no doubt had meant for her to do. "I may not have a lord. And even if I could, I don't want him. I've got too much self respect for that."
"Who are you trying to convince, Kagome-hime?"
The use of her honorific needled at Kagome. It was Takeshi's one fault, that he was so conscious of their difference in status.
"Leave me," she spat at him, hiding behind her temper. A gust of wind blew through the garden, whipping Kagome's hair around her face and sending a rain of sakura blossoms down around her.
She decided to blame Sesshoumaru for this. And why shouldn't she? As soon as she'd laid eyes on him again after his disappearing act, she'd been hurt and angry and sad and scared – but beneath it all was a love that grew through her heart like a choking vine. She still loved him, despite what he'd put her and the kits through. She still loved him, even as she pursued a life with Takeshi, she could admit that now.
She loved Sesshoumaru, as arrogant and inconsiderate as he could be, and she didn't know when it had started, or how to make herself stop.
But how could she, when every day she awoke in his arms and they turned to raise a family and rule a kingdom together? How could she not love the father of her children and lord of her lands?
But she had learned a lesson, these past two years. Takeshi was right. By itself, respect and friendship wasn't enough.
And sometimes, neither was love.
Six years after Kagome saved Jun from Aobozu, on the girl's sixteenth birthday, Kagome and Sesshoumaru returned to her village to claim her. The village threw a feast in their honor, and Sesshoumaru was pleased to see that some of the gold he had given Jun on their first meeting had been used to purchase her a well made trunk full of fine and useful possessions.
Jun still wore her kimono of foxfur, and she had grown into her overly large brown eyes. She was extremely tall for a human woman, her head reaching Sesshoumaru's nose. When he had the opportunity to speak with her, he was pleased to find that she had continued to practice the skills he'd once taught her.
"May I ask what the Fox Princess and her husband plan to do with me now?" Jun asked once they had left the village, her trunk stowed on Ah Un's back. The young woman was seated in the front of the saddle.
"Sesshoumaru-sama does not have a mate," Kagome said, a wide fox-smile stretching her lips.
Sesshoumaru wondered why it should wound him to hear her repeat something he had said so often himself.
"Oh." Jun looked between them. She opened her mouth to ask a question, but Sesshoumaru spoke before she could get it out.
"We travel to the East, to the village of Edo. There you will live with a clan of humans the Lady of this one's pack has chosen to protect. You may train at the school of the tajiya, apprentice to the village miko, or seek to find an acceptable male to wed. The choice is yours."
Jun was silent after that, as it should be. They had given her much to think on.
But it was a long way to Edo. Though Jun rode upon Ah Un and Sesshoumaru and Kagome flew upon his youki cloud, eventually they stopped to camp.
Once on the ground, Jun clambered out of Ah Un's saddle and bowed to Sesshoumaru, her palms against her thighs. "This lowly one would beg for a birthday wish."
Sesshoumaru glanced at Kagome and found her giving him a soft smile, a look that she had gifted him with only rarely since his ten moon exile from the West. "Name your wish," he said to Jun, so that Kagome would keep smiling.
He likely would have granted the human her wish anyway. He had a … fondness for her.
"My wish is for Sesshoumaru-sama to tell me again the story of The Girl Who Fell Through Time."
Kagome gave a little gasp.
Sesshoumaru folded himself down to sit against Ah Un's flank. "I am not certain I remember the tale."
Jun laughed at him. "Yes you do! 'Once, not long ago, a loud human girl fell through a hole in time. She wore an indecent kimono of the future that made her seem a fallen woman, and had hair that stuck out all over her head like straw.'"
"Please Sesshoumaru-sama? For my birthday."
Very carefully not looking at Kagome, Sesshoumaru replied, "Youkai do not celebrate birthdays."
"But I'm human."
Sesshoumaru grew still. Kagome and Rin were human once.
He began to tell the story.
"Once, not long ago, a loud human girl fell through a hole in time. She wore an indecent kimono of the future that made her seem a fallen woman, and had hair that stuck out all over her head like straw."
He cut his eyes at Kagome. Her face was red and her arms were crossed over her chest, the fur of her tails bristling. Sesshoumaru continued. "But despite her obvious flaws, the girl was possessed of great honor and bravery, and a strength of spirit to rival most youkai…"
Kagome sat down across from Sesshoumaru.
They delivered Jun to Edo some days later. Before they departed, she asked, "Will I see you again?"
"What happened to the Girl Who Fell Through Time, after she made the wish on the magic jewel?"
It was Kagome who answered. "We'll tell you when we find out."
A few months after they settled Jun into her place at the tajiya school, Sesshoumaru presented both Rin and Kagome with gifts. For Rin there was a much coveted wooden practice sword. A matching one was provided for Shippou – as part of Rin's gift, so that she would have a sparring partner. Kagome's lips twitched at that explanation, sensing the truth.
Sesshoumaru didn't want one kit to get a gift without the other.
His present to Kagome was a new kimono, more beautiful than all the others Sesshoumaru had ever given her. The first two layers were the familiar fabrics of gold and pink, colors that complimented her complexion and hair. But the top layer of heaviest silk was different. While in the usual shades of green she had taken to wearing since becoming a kitsune, the pattern on the sleeves and obi was of a block of flowers inside geometric borders.
It was Sesshoumaru's crest, the same one that graced Rin and Sesshoumaru's clothes.
When she questioned him, he said only "Are you not the Lady of the West?"
Lady of the West.
She had performed the duties for many years now, but until this moment no one had called her by the title outside of the stories humans whispered over campfires. Even then they were more likely to name her the Fox Princess or the Red Vixen.
"Why now?" she whispered, not realizing she'd spoken out loud until Sesshoumaru answered her.
He studied her with an intensity of attention that should have been disturbing, but wasn't. "It is the anniversary of the day that you joined this one's pack."
And then Kagome understood. His conversation with Jun on the day they took her from her village.
Youkai do not celebrate birthdays.
But I'm human.
Sesshoumaru didn't know Kagome's birthday, or Rin's, so he was instead celebrating the day of their rebirth as youkai. The day of the wish.
It was a concession. An acknowledgement of the customs of their race.
Something he had never done before.
Kagome smiled, and wept.
Sesshoumaru licked the salt of her tears from her cheeks.
Inari's magic was fading. Worse still, her mind seemed to be fading along with it. She rarely had anything good to say about Sesshoumaru, and at times she startled and looked wildly around, unsure of where she was or how she had gotten there. Kagome worried that it had something to do with her lost ki-pearl.
But everything that could be done to find Myobu was already being done. It was as if he'd fallen off the face of the earth. Sesshoumaru had even gone so far as to send a messenger to mainland China on Ah Un, in case Myobu had left Japan.
Kagome only hoped that something could be done for Inari before it was too late. For Inuyasha's sake just as much as the vixen's. In the meantime, Inari's new guard, Shiori, a female bat hanyou Inuyasha had recruited into the West's service, stayed with her day and night.
Kagome always meant to visit her human friends more, but inevitably time would get away from her, and she'd look up to find years had passed.
Time was both slower and faster as a youkai. Her kits and her packmates and she herself had barely aged at all, and yet when she looked into her little circular mirror, she would find that Miroku and Sango had another child, or wrinkles, or grey hair, and off she would go to visit them, remembering Inuyasha's words about spending what time with them she could.
Knowing she didn't stay away on purpose, Miroku and Sango started holding an annual festival in Edo, and sending a messenger – usually Jun, because she wasn't afraid of Sesshoumaru – to the Western shiro to invite Kagome. They called it the Festival of the Fox Shadow.
Every year, Kagome attended in a different guise and frolicked with the villagers. The festival lasted for nine days and nine nights, and was filled with dancing and fun, as villagers wearing kitsune masks and false tails played games and tricks on each other. At night, they left out treats and trinkets, to honor the fox.
The festival got its name the first year it was held, when Miroku and Sango's eldest son – named Higurashi in her honor – spotted Kagome's shadow, and asked her to reveal herself. She had done so, letting her hair flow red and her tails manifest, laughing a fox-laugh to see the villagers so taken with her.
As his reward for being so quick witted, Miroku's son had proven himself to be a chip off the old block, and requested a kiss. He'd thought she was beautiful since he was a child and saw her climbing through his window during one of her visits, or so he said. Flattered, Kagome had indulged him, giving him a kiss that he wouldn't soon forget, even if he found another woman with a fox-face!
The next day, when Sango asked, Higarashi had said simply that Kagome'd granted him a wish for spotting her fox-shadow.
Ever since then, when the festival was held, all the villagers would search for someone with a kitsune shadow, in the hopes of having Kagome grant them a wish. She'd granted around eight or so, so far. One for each year she was caught.
This year, Sesshoumaru escorted her to the village outskirts before taking himself off to the hut where Jun lived, one of the village's most celebrated tajiya. People stopped and bowed as he passed, murmuring respectful greetings. He rarely acknowledged any of them.
Off and on over the years, Kagome had wondered if Sesshoumaru was in love with Jun. She was the only human in the village he ever visited, he always remembered her birthday, and had even introduced her to Rin and Shippou. But as time went on and no hanyou were born, Kagome decided it was unlikely. Jun, in her forties now and heavily scarred from many battles, was another of Sesshoumaru's adopted children, and she loved him as she had been unable to love her own sorry excuse for a father.
Kagome watched Sesshoumaru knock lightly on Jun's door, then transformed herself into a little girl with a pop and ran off to play with the village children.
"Grandmother, grandmother," she called to Sango, running up the steps of the Sunset Shrine to jump into the old woman's arms.
Sango and Miroku had shriveled up over the years, their faces like dried cherries and their hair like grey string. But Kagome still loved them, and they still loved her, their old friend turned guardian spirit. She kept them healthy and gave them what strength she could, sneaking into their rooms during her annual visits to place spells on their pillows and breathe her magic into their mouths.
She made sure to learn all the names of their children, and their grandchildren, determined that she would care for them all, when Sango and Miroku were gone.
It was the fourth night of the festival when a human caught her shadow. This year it was a girl, not one of Sango and Miroku's, and she wanted a spell that would reveal her true love.
Feeling clever, face sly, Kagome presented the girl with a thorn.
"Place this in the bed, and invite your suitors to be a guest in your house for the night. If the man feels the thorn, tell him you have looked and there is nothing there. The one who stays is the one for you."
The girl thanked her, and fled.
Kagome laughed a fox-laugh, bringing the festival to a halt as all the humans stared. She had played a trick of the very best kind! There was no magic about the thorn she'd given to the young woman. Every man would feel it.
But a man who stayed in spite of it would value the girl over his own comfort.
Fifty years after Inari had begun fading, she staggered her way into Sesshoumaru's study in the dead of night. He was awake, unable to lie near Kagome a moment longer without revealing the desire he felt for her. As she had made her choice not to be his lover very clear, he would not dishonor the both of them with his obvious need.
"Inari?" he questioned when the golden kitsune stumbled across the room, her knuckles white as she gripped the edge of his desk. "Where is Inuyasha?"
She took a deep, heaving breath. "Kill me," she begged him before collapsing on the floor. Like the words had taken all that was left of her strength.
Sesshoumaru stood and looked down at her. "You wish to die?"
"Only way," she mumbled. "Inuyasha won't… but you. Please. Can't fight… anymore."
Kneeling, Sesshoumaru turned Inari over and laid his claws against the soft spot beneath her chin. All it would take was one twist, or a moment of concentration to bring his poison to the surface. "This is your wish? Why?"
Inari's eyes fluttered shut. She mouthed the word 'hurt' once. And then again. Hurt.
Sesshoumaru flexed his fingers. If he did this thing, granted this request, Inuyasha would never forgive him. Kagome would despise him. It would tear their pack apart… and yet he had claimed Inari as one of his own. He owed her a duty. An end to her pain.
Sesshoumaru watched Inari writhe on the floor, her tails and hair splayed. Her face was bleached of color, her lips gaping open.
"This one has failed to protect you." Despite extensive searches, they had yet to locate Myobu – though he mysteriously still ruled the East from wherever he was hiding. They had yet to retrieve Inari's ki-pearl.
Sesshoumaru made a decision. "If you still wish this when the sun sets tomorrow, this one will grant you an honorable death."
He would speak to the pack. Make them understand.
But the time never came.
It was as if the night in his study was a turning point. The next day dawned, and Inari greeted it with more color in her cheeks than any had seen in many years. She was lively and talkative, and while not quite her old self, she seemed well again. Even her magic had returned, though she seemed to have lost a great deal of her skill.
Inuyasha was estatic. Kagome's laughter filled the halls.
And Sesshoumaru said nothing at all. He told no one of the night Inari asked to die by his hand, for it was not his to speak of.
"You're trying too hard," Inari said, pulling the spell anchor from Kagome's fingers.
"I've stopped improving," Kagome whined, an ache between her eyes making her cross.
"Don't be so hard on yourself. You earned three tails in your first few years as a kitsune. You should be proud."
Kagome sighed, but bowed from her seat. "It is a reflection of my teacher."
"Keh," was Inari's reply, in perfect imitation of Inuyasha's voice.
"Come, let us walk in the gardens and visit Ah Un. Sometimes the best thing that can be done is to take a break and relax! Perhaps go on a short flight…"
"You know Sesshoumaru-sama doesn't like me to leave the palace grounds without him or Inuyasha."
Inari's eyes flared gold, but Kagome wasn't looking and so didn't notice.
"Speaking of relaxing," Kagome said once they were in the gardens, her arm through Inari's. "Inuyasha has seemed particularly… mellow… lately."
Inari smiled a small, secretive smile. "I am going to give him a riddle. I will tell him that if he gets the answer right, I will be his mate, but he may only guess once."
"Oh, how cruel!" Kagome cried, though she laughed when she did it. "Let me guess: No matter what he says, it will be the right answer."
Inari nodded, her mouth stretching inhumanly wide.
"But what of you, Kagome? Have you any special lovers?"
Kagome shook her head. "I promised Sesshoumaru-sama that I wouldn't leave the pack. And besides," she confided. "I think I spoiled myself for lovers by having Sesshoumaru as my guide in my kitsuneno'otan. There really is no comparison."
"Yes, I remember!" Inari agreed, her tails thrashing.
They weren't to know that Sesshoumaru heard them and swaggered all the rest of the day.
"Is it so hard to admit you want her?" Mother asked, her yellow eyes piercing Sesshoumaru. She held her fan lazily before her face, taking up all the room in Sesshoumaru's study with her mere presence. "You've been pining for her ever since that kitsune sex ceremony, and scaring the servants half to death with your wrath every time another male takes notice of her. Sesshoumaru, my son, you love her."
"Not enough. Not in time," Sesshoumaru repeated words his mother had once said of his father, his face expressionless. Against his will, his eyes flitted to the ink well in the shape of a dragon that sat on the corner of his desk. There was a smooth, shiny spot on the dragon's nose, where he often stroked it with his thumb, that had not been there when Kagome first stole the trinket for him.
"Is it not Kagome who told this one that there is always time?"
"And how often have you said that love is folly?" Sesshoumaru retorted, in no mood to be questioned.
"To love a human is folly," Mother corrected. "But a fox is not sea foam. She will weather the waves."
Sesshoumaru turned his back on his mother, rising from his seat and striding to the window that overlooked the garden, watching his pups play chase with his vixen.
How he wanted to join them.
"And if she were still human?"
"Then I would do what any mother who loves her pup would do," Yukiko casually answered, inspecting her claws as if they were discussing nothing more important than the weather. "I would kill the girl to save you from yourself."
Sesshoumaru attacked faster than mortal eyes could follow, and in the next instant had his mother pinned to the wall, forearm across her throat. His youki was rising – his lips opened wide, showing all of his teeth, eyes rolling red, his ominous silence saying more than words ever could.
They stayed there, frozen, for an instant outside of time, the clashing of two titanic wills.
And then Yukiko roared, her power crashing over Sesshoumaru like a tidal wave. He locked his knees, fighting the urge to submit to her, to whine, to beg for forgiveness. Taking one carefully controlled step back, he released her throat. He would not bow.
He bowed to no one.
But he was humbled. He was the Great Dog, the Lord of the West, and yet he was no match for the inu youkai woman who had birthed him.
There was the sound of glass shattering. Sesshoumaru cut his eyes to the left to see a young cat hanyou – one of the strays Inuyasha collected and brought to work in the West – in a servant's uniform standing in the doorway. The male's spotted cat ears were flat to his head, and there was a tray of broken crockery at his feet.
"Now look what you made me do," Yukiko huffed. "I've frightened this poor kitty into spilling the tea."
Sesshoumaru went back to the window, listening to the tinkling sounds of the cat clearing away the glass, the scent of cat-fear in his nose.
It did not improve his mood.
"I thought it questionable, when I first heard you'd taken kitsune into the pack."
Mother was still talking.
"You remember. But now, I think they've been good for you. You were always so dreadfully serious. No idea where you got it from."
"Is that all, Mother?"
"You'd best act quickly, before another male does!" Yukiko snapped her fan shut, her low growl telling him that she was not above punishing him like a wayward pup. But she left him in peace, at last.
His gaze returned to the gardens, where Rin, Shippou, and Kagome all stared up at him.
"How much longer, Grandmother? Spellcrafting shouldn't take this long!"
"It hasss been a few daysss only. Without ssssomething of the Iccce Dog'sss, it issss all that much more difficult. Jusssst wait."
"I've had enough waiting! If it's difficult, it's your own fault for failing to get something of the Great Mongrel's. How hard is it to snip a hair or get his saliva from a cup? Bah! It's been a few days here, true. But outside your realm, half a century has passed. Each day Sesshoumaru and his ilk live in contentment is an insult to us. To me."
"Peacceee, Itachiryu. All is in readinessss. I have only to prepare the ssssleeping dusssst."
"Don't call me that!"
"Yesss, of courssseeee. Ssssummon a courier through that mirror of yourssss. We ssshall ssssend the meansss to enact our plan to our ssspy."
"Inari is my spy, Grandmother. Just as this is my plan."
What made near immortality difficult, Kagome realized, wasn't living through the passage of time. It was that others she cared for didn't.
Miroku was dead, despite all of Kagome's magic. She'd known of course, that it couldn't last forever. Only a white fox with nine tails could give the gift of life, and Inari said those were so rare that some thought they'd never existed at all.
Kagome looked to Sesshoumaru, at the sword he carried on his hip.
But her alpha shook his head, and she knew he was right. It was Miroku's time, and to call him back would only be a torture for him and his family as they had to watch him die all over again.
They went to the funeral, their whole pack, even Yukiko, and stood openly, undisguised. Kagome wanted everyone to see how special Miroku was, to have so many friends across species.
"Now you see," Yukiko whispered, so low the humans couldn't hear. "You shouldn't love sea foam. It asks only for pain."
Kagome looked at the inu through the tears in her eyes, to see that Yukiko was as haunted by her past as she had been the day Kagome first met her.
"Even sea foam is beautiful before the next wave hits," Kagome whispered back. "And the more precious for its brevity."
"Perhaps," Yukiko grudgingly allowed.
There was a feast in Edo that night, a bittersweet celebration of Miroku's life and a final farewell for his spirit. Tables were pulled from every hut and set up in the village square. Sango, bundled tightly against the cold, face pinched with sorrow, sat in between Higurashi and her third daughter, Mayumi, who had inherited Miroku's spiritual powers and now served as the village miko. Kagome herself had given Mayumi her first bow, one taken from Sesshoumaru's armory of youkai weapons.
Kagome and the other youkai were spread throughout the crowd, easily mingling with the humans. The villagers of Edo were well used to Kagome and Inuyasha and the kits, and even Sesshoumaru; so much so that they didn't react to the additions of Yukiko, Inari, and Shiori. There were some speculative whispers about how Sesshoumaru and Yukiko were related, looking as alike as they did, but those quieted down after Sesshoumaru pointedly addressed her as 'Mother.'
Soon people began to approach Sango's table, telling stories of Miroku's life. The crowd went quiet, the better to hear tales of the man who had been one of their elders, and helped to found the school that made them prosperous.
"He was a dreadful flirt, was Miroku," a washerwoman belted out. "But he never meant nothin' by it. He'd come to bring me the washin' for his young ones, pretty as you please, and be smilin' and wagging those brows o' his at me, and then his wife would walk by and he'd plum forget where he was or what he was doin'. Always said he was married to the prettiest one in the village, an' that's the truth."
"He was kind. And funny. He made me laugh when no one else could," Jun declared. She was dressed in her foxfur kimono, as always, her silvered hair pulled back in a tight bun. Though she'd gone on to become the Head Tajiya of the village when Sango got too old, she never wore armor. Her foxfur kimono was better than any armor that could be made for her.
The youkai went last.
"I never met this human. But I wish I could have."
"I first saw Miroku when he and his friends came to break a barrier I had cast. He was a strong warrior. I remember sensing his spiritual power, and being afraid. But he never hurt me. A lot of humans have hurt me, but he never did."
"The monk," Inuyasha choked. He cleared his throat and started again, tilting his head forward to hide his eyes behind the fringe of his bangs. "The monk was alright, for a human. One strong bastard."
"He always let Rin put flowers in his hair. And he had a very kind smile."
"He was pack," Shippou declared, the dark look on his face daring anyone to contradict him.
No one did.
Yukiko said nothing of Miroku, but lowered her fan and openly studied Sango's face. "There is much that is different about us, humans and youkai. And yet, this Yukiko is also a wife who lost her husband." She bowed her head. "I grieve with you, Sango of Edo."
The first tear Kagome had seen Sango shed creased her weathered cheek.
"Miroku was," Sesshoumaru said slowly, "a human of honor and uncommon wisdom. This one would... call him friend."
Kagome let out a frantic gasp, taking in a large gulp of air and tensing her jaw to fight back tears. Her throat was constricted, a horrible pressure in her sinuses. Sesshoumaru's words… But she wouldn't cry any more today. Not when there was so much about Miroku's life to celebrate.
"I have seen the future," she spoke clearly, looking out at the gathered crowd of humans, hanyou, and youkai, "and I can say that it is better because of Miroku and the life he led." She met Sango's eyes. Her mouth was dry. "Miroku was the Monk Who Carried Wind in His Hand. He was the Monk of the Shikon Quest. And he was a Friend of the West. But by far the greatest achievement of Miroku's life was you. Each and every one of you."
And with that, she turned her face away, her lips trembling. She blinked rapidly to clear her vision, a lump in her throat threatening to strangle her. She couldn't breathe.
And then a large hand caressed the nape of her neck and Sesshoumaru's aura was at her back, steadying her. She swallowed, facing the crowd again, and smiled a tremulous smile.
Inuyasha had moved to take Higurashi's seat next to Sango, and sat holding her hand. Yukiko stood with Jun, her fan a brightly colored butterfly of silk and steel. Rin was in the blacksmith's lap, no doubt trying to sweet talk her way into being taught to forge a sword. Shippou was perched on Mayumi's shoulder, the miko engaged in speaking with Inari and Shiori.
And Sesshoumaru and Kagome, the Lord and Lady of the West, were surrounded by young tajiya, all spoiling for stories of Sesshoumaru's conquests and Kagome's travels.
They were Miroku's legacy.
Sesshoumaru sat reclined against a tree in his private gardens, Kagome a warm weight along his side. The sleeves of their kimonos overlapped one another, the sign of the West marching across the red-orange of Sesshoumaru's sleeves to the blue-green of Kagome's.
He had claimed her, as much as he could.
More and more often these days, his eyes traced her cheekbones, her throat, her forehead, wondering what shape noble crests would take, should she ever acquire any. It was strange to think that he had once fled his own palace in horror at the thought of her – of any female – wearing his mating mark.
Kagome was the Lady of the West, and she wore the crest. That would have to be enough.
It is not enough.
A high pitched squeal brought him out of his thoughts and he looked up to see Rin and Shippou whacking at each other with their wooden practice swords. As per usual, they were playing Lady and Steward, a game of their own invention in which they were enemies until a greater threat forced them to form an alliance. Then they would spend the rest of the day fighting with anyone who would stand in to be their foe (Jaken, more often than not), and declare that they were the most fearsome heroes to ever walk the land, that songs would be sung about them.
The game was obviously based on Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha, and the pups' own expectations of what their future roles in the West would be. Rin took it for granted that as Shippou was her brother, he would of course be her second, and Sesshoumaru had never found any reason to deny that it would be so.
Sesshoumaru's lips twitched in amusement as Rin executed a leg sweep that dumped Shippou on his tail. Squeaking in outrage, Shippou waved his free hand and disappeared with a pop, reappearing behind Rin.
"No fair!" she cried. "No magic!"
They took off across the garden again, and Kagome lifted her face, butting her forehead softly against Sesshoumaru's chin. "They're growing up too fast. I miss it when Rin used to cover us in flowers. Now it's all upholding the honor of the West and sword fighting and learning to ride dragons. In ten years at the most, Shippou will get his second tail!"
That was true. The little kitsune, while still a pup, was at least a head taller than he had been when he first joined Sesshoumaru's pack. "They are young yet," Sesshoumaru said, gently brushing Kagome's hair back from her face. She no longer expended energy on keeping it black every day, and this day it was as red as her tails.
Kagome scoffed, lightly poking him in the side with one claw. "You act like you don't wish they'd stay small forever, but I know you have a flower crown Rin made for you preserved amongst the scrolls in the library."
Sesshoumaru's lips twitched again. "We could have more pups," he said offhandedly.
Kagome went rigid, her claws pricking at his arm.
This was why Sesshoumaru stayed silent more often than not – words had ever been his enemy.
He did not look at Kagome's face. He was sure he would see disapproval there.
Shippou and Rin loudly announcing that they were now allies allowed him to extricate himself from Kagome's grasp. Striding into the center of the garden, he challenged the Lady and her Steward, and prepared to spar with his pups.
Kagome looked on with wide, confused eyes.
To her great frustration, before Kagome could find out what in Amaterasu's name Sesshoumaru had meant by we could have more pups, she was called away to receive a guest. At times, being the Lady of the West was disturbingly like being a professional hostess.
Glaring at Sesshoumaru's back, she pasted on a smile, and went to greet the courier from the Southern Islands who had just arrived. At least, Kagome assumed the lizard youkai was from the Southern Islands. He smelled of the sea.
He said he had a rare tome of magic that Inari had written and asked Kiyohime for, though he would not allow Kagome to examine the wrapped parcel herself.
"Only Inari-sama, those were my instructions, Kagome-sama," he said, bowing low and pressing his forehead to the floor.
"Rise," Kagome told him gently, still uncomfortable with such subservience, no matter how often it happened. She had a servant take the courier to Inari, and thought nothing more of the incident.
That night, Inuyasha asked Kagome to walk with him in the gardens after dinner. She went, shrugging when Sesshoumaru caught her eye. Whatever was bothering Inuyasha, she had no idea. Maybe he wanted to talk about Miroku.
And besides, he might have some insight into just what, exactly, was going through his brother's mind.
When they were in the center of a moonlit path, Inuyasha mimed covering his ears. Kagome's eyebrows arched, but she obligingly dug a silence totem out of the pouch of magical items concealed in her obi and activated the spell. "No one can hear us."
Inuyasha nodded. "Something's wrong with Inari."
Kagome blinked. "What? But she's been so much better. So happy. Her magic never fully recovered, but whatever Myobu did to her ki-pearl seems to have stopped hurting her."
Inuyasha shook his head, his knuckles white around Tetsusaiga's hilt. "She made me make a promise a long time ago. A promise that we'd never get married or mated or anything so long as her ki-pearl was still out there." He met Kagome's eyes. "She just gave me a riddle. Told me that if I could solve it – "
"She'd be your mate." Kagome squeezed her eyes shut, her own problems forgotten in an instant.
"Nari would never. Never. I don't know if it's her way of asking for help cause she can't tell us any other way, or if someone is making her say it but – "
"I understand," Kagome interrupted again, already moving back toward the palace. "I'll do my best. I'll check right now, for any enchantments around her. I've only got six tails, but – "
"So's the Weasel Dragon," Inuyasha reminded her, falling into step at her side.
She gave him a grim smile. "We should get Sesshoumaru."
"Not yet. Find out what's what first. See if it's something that can be fixed or if we have to… If…"
"It won't come to that."
Kagome prayed she wasn't lying.
She made Inuyasha wait in his seldom used study while she entered the bedroom he shared with Inari.
Making herself walk unseen, she became one with her fox-shadow and slipped under the door, reveling in the power of true transformation. Shadow Gliding was a skill she had mastered only after many years of practice. It was a dangerous art, for the shadow form was seductive. Even a few seconds after assuming it, Kagome could feel the pull of the darkness, the thrum of a great heartbeat that wanted her to frolic beyond the edges of light forever. She could be the space between the stars, the curtain among the trees, she could be what lay at the bottom of men's souls, what waited in the deep…
She pushed the haunting whispers back with a force of will, and allowed herself to skitter around the edges of Inari's dressing table, thankful that Inari's magic wasn't as powerful as it had once been. Otherwise, she would already know that Kagome was present.
Inari was seated on a carved chair with a silken cushion, spreading little spell bags out over the surface of her dressing table. Kagome could not detect scents when she was in shadow form – something that had been incredibly disconcerting the first time she assumed it – but she recognized the wrappings of the package the courier had brought earlier in the day.
So it wasn't a tome of magic, but spell bags that Inari had received. Kagome's shadow flickered momentarily, her edges blending with the darkness in the room before she forcibly took herself in hand. She had to stay focused, no matter that dread was starting to claw at her belly.
Shiori was nowhere to be seen.
Not wanting to look, and yet knowing that she had no other choice, Kagome glided silently from her vantage point in the corner to hang in the air directly behind Inari, peering into the mirror that hung over Inari's dressing table.
Myobu's reflection looked back at her.
In a way, it was a relief, Kagome thought even as she was struck with a hundred memories of Inari casually avoiding mirrors. At least she knew that it was not Inari herself who was hiding magic and keeping secrets. It would devaste the pack if the golden vixen had turned out to be their enemy after all. It was bad enough that she was the puppet of one, gripped so tightly that Kagome wasn't sure if there was a way to free her that didn't end in death.
Stunned, Kagome could only watch the mirror as Myobu lifted his eyes to hers. "I see you," he said in Inari's voice, his words oozing over her lips.
Then Inari turned, kimono sleeves flying, and flung one of the spell bags to the ground, just beneath where Kagome hovered. There was an explosion of bright pink light – Holy energy? How? A sacrified miko? – and Kagome shrieked, a long drawn out wail that sounded like wind screaming down a mountain top. Focus lost, grateful that at least she couldn't smell herself burning, Kagome dissolved into so many scraps of grey shadow, carried away by the seething dark of the night.
It took every bit of power she had to remember who she was.
The Shikon Miko.
The Fox Princess.
Lady of the West.
Human. Kitsune. Not a shadow. Not a spirit.
Not a ghost.
"I see you," Inuyasha heard Inari say. He'd had his ears trained on Kagome and Inari from the instant he settled himself on top of the big desk he only used when he had to stamp his seal on stuff.
He was out of his crouch and in the hall in seconds, but it wasn't fast enough. As he watched, plumes of purple smoke poured out of his bedroom, spreading over the palace at an alarming rate that could only be accomplished with powerful magic. It reminded him of Naraku's miasma, fouling the air and making him choke.
His lips went numb. He tried to draw his sword and fumbled, falling to his knees. His eyes felt heavy, his chest constricted. A yawn cracked his jaw.
"I know what you are thinking," Inari's voice came to him. She emerged from the vile fog of magic. "Have you been poisoned again?" She smiled, kneeling to tilt Inuyasha's chin up with one delicate finger. "But poison would not stop the Great Mongrel, and it is him, more than anyone, that I need to stop."
"Oh don't worry," Inari's laugh sounded in the halls. "I'm not going to kill him. Not yet. I want him alive. I want him to suffer, as I have suffered. Kagome's snooping has forced me to act sooner than planned, but that is fine. I was tired of waiting."
"Not Nari," Inuyasha managed to grit out, his vision going black at the edges. In the distance, he heard Sesshoumaru roar, echoed by Yukiko. He needed to answer them. He needed to…
He needed to sleep.
"I haven't been Inari for a very long time."
Shippou was playing with Rin in the big sitting room where the pack went after dinner. They had to play quiet games, because the adults liked to talk about things in the sitting room, and Kagome got mad if Rin and Shippou got too excited before bed. So Shippou was practicing his illusions, hiding in different places in the room and making himself blend into the wall, or look like a seat cushion, and Rin was practicing using her nose to find him.
Shippou was holding his hands over his mouth to keep from giggling as he watched Rin prod all the chairs with her foot, in case one of them was him, when suddenly Sesshoumaru-sama and Yukiko-sama leapt to their feet, their heads turned toward the door and their youki spiking so sharply that it made Shippou's knees weak.
"Father? Grandmother?" Rin sounded scared, which was just bad because Rin was never scared. She was the bravest. "What's that smell?"
Shippou started to leave his hiding place, but a sharp bark from Rin stopped him. She looked right at him, even though he was invisible, and Shippou realized that Rin had known where he was hiding the whole time. And she wanted him to stay hidden.
Rin was Shippou's Lady, and he'd been learning how important it was for the Lady's second to listen to her. So even though he didn't want to, when purple smoke started flooding into the room, and first Sesshoumaru-sama and then Yukiko-sama roared and collapsed, Shippou stayed hidden. In fact, he didn't break cover until Rin's eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed too.
Then he scrabbled forward on all fours, patting Rin's face and sniffling. "Sister? Wake up!"
Rin didn't wake up, but she was breathing.
Taking big gulping breaths to stave off tears, Shippou stepped back and looked around the room, asking himself what Rin would do. What Kagome would do.
He sat down cross legged right where he was standing, his tail sticking out jauntily behind him, and did his best to center himself. Then he expanded his youki outward.
The purple smoke felt like magic. Oily, slimy magic that stuck to everything. Looking at it too long made Shippou's eyes start to droop, so that probably meant it was a sleep spell.
But if it was a sleep spell, how come Shippou was still awake? And who had cast it? It didn't feel like any magic that Shippou knew. It was wrong, like… like Naraku's miasma had been.
It was full of suffering.
The sound of approaching footsteps made Shippou's ears twitch. Frantically, he stood up and grabbed at Rin's obi, using it to pull her across the room and stuff her under a pile of pillows. She might be mad later that he'd messed up her kimono and accidentally banged her head into the table, but he was going to be steward some day, and part of being steward was keeping the Lady safe.
And another part of being steward was making sure that if the Lady couldn't go on to rule the West, that the steward could, so Shippou made himself invisible as best he could and jumped up to cling to a spot on the ceiling.
Shippou couldn't smell who was coming because of all the purple smoke, so when the door slid open and Inari-sama slunk into the room, Shippou's jaw dropped.
That's why the spell didn't work on me. If she'd made it work on kitsune, she'd have put herself to sleep too.
Why that no good, stupid, idiot Inari! How could she do this to them? To Inuyasha? Inuyasha was mean sometimes and he yelled a lot, but he didn't deserve this!
Shippou was getting ready to jump out of his hiding place and call foxfire down on Inari's head, when he remembered about the ki-pearl. Maybe Inari couldn't help what she was doing? If she couldn't, Shippou shouldn't hurt her.
And she had a lot more tails than him. It probably would be bad to attack her anyway.
As Shippou watched, Inari made her way to Sesshoumaru, bending over him and resting her claws on his throat. "Not yet," she muttered to herself. "Get the girl. Lure them out."
She stood back up and Shippou let out a sigh of relief.
But then Inari went straight for the pile of cushions where Shippou had hidden Rin, and Shippou had to stuff his fist in his mouth to keep from squeaking.
Inari delicately pulled a few pillows off of the top of the pile, revealing Rin's face. "There you are."
Bad idea or not, Shippou couldn't let anything happen to Rin.
He jumped from his hiding place with a battle cry of "For the Lady of the West!" and let loose a stream of emerald flames from his fists. Inari turned, batting his foxfire away, and Shippou scampered for Yukiko-sama and pulled her war fan out of her obi, spinning to brandish it at his attacker. The fan was heavy enough that he had to hold it with both hands, his arms shaking.
Inari laughed, and it didn't sound very nice at all. It didn't sound like her.
There was a blur of motion that Shippou couldn't follow, and then he was being held aloft by his tail. He tried not to cry, he really did, but it hurt and he was scared and whoever was controlling Inari was going to get Rin, and what if Sesshoumaru and Yukiko never woke up and –
Not-Inari shook him by his tail. "Cease your sniveling, brat. And know that I spare you only because kitsune have become scarce since the Years of Naraku."
Plucking up his courage, Shippou made a wild slash with the war fan, shouting, "They're about to become a lot scarcer! You're going to die!"
Not-Inari knocked the fan out of Shippou's hands. It landed on the floor with a thunk, the sharp ends of the hidden blades stuck firmly in the wood.
"Don't try my patience."
Going over to the wall, Not-Inari pushed Shippou against it and drew a knife from her obi. Shippou was sure he was going to die, but Not-Inari just used the knife to hang Shippou from the wall with a handful of silk, and muttered a spell.
Shippou couldn't move.
"Good. Now stay there. You're going to deliver a message for me."
Not-Inari told Shippou what to say, then she slung Rin's unconscious body over her shoulder and left.
Kagome didn't know how long it took her to pull herself together. It was still dark, so it might have only been a few hours. Unless she'd been out for a full day...?
She rematerialized on the bridge over the koi pond between the Great Outer Gate and the Inner Gate, and immediately hailed a sentry.
Stumbling a little, white spots dancing before her vision, she made her way back into the shiro.
Every single youkai she encountered was asleep. Some were sprawled on the ground, as if they'd fallen where they stood, others were slumped over in chairs or lying across tabletops. None of them could be woken.
Kagome could feel magic in the air, pressing down on the shiro, a smothering mass that made her vaguely nauseous. But she was too drained, weakened by her struggle to come back from her scattered shadow form, to tell more about the spell.
If she'd thought attack was even a remote possibility, she never would have taken to the shadows. It was excellent for spying, and great fun to skim, weightless, through the night, but she was also very vulnerable. Inari – no, Myobu – had known that all he needed to do was shred her shadow, and it would take ages for her to come back together again, if she even managed it at all. A strong wind could have done just as much damage.
And in the meantime he, through Inari's body, had put the entire shiro to sleep.
Kagome forced herself to run, ignoring the pounding of her head and the way her stomach rolled with every step. She was suffering magical backlash, but she had to get to the pack, had to get to Sesshoumaru if it wasn't already too late…!
She encountered Inuyasha in the hall of the royal wing. He was on his back, his legs tucked beneath him, as if he'd been on his knees and then fallen over backwards. Tetsusaiga was partially pulled from the scabbard, but Inuyasha hadn't managed to draw the sword.
Kagome straightened Inuyasha's legs so that he rested comfortably on his back, and moved on.
She found Sesshoumaru and Yukiko laid out on the floor of the pack's customary sitting room, their clothes tangled around them. It looked as though Yukiko, at least, had been able to put up a fight before the sleeping spell claimed her. Her tessen was stuck firmly in the floor.
Kagome was both relieved and confused at the lack of blood. She'd expected to find Sesshoumaru dead, killed in his sleep because Myobu was too cowardly to face him in battle.
And then her eyes caught on the far wall, where Shippou dangled, completely motionless. She cried out, her eyes flashing and holding a luminous green. She was across the room before she had made a conscious decision, pulling Shippou from the wall and cradling him to her chest.
As soon as she touched him, he started to squirm, and then to cry, clinging to her and burying his face in her kimono. Kagome thought it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever heard, for her senses were still so distorted that she hadn't known, hadn't been sure that Shippou was still alive until he let out that first sob.
Kagome cried with him, comforting him by purring a tuneless little song, running her claws through his hair and fur over and over and over again.
"My precious kit, my little Shippou," she crooned.
"Rin! She took Rin! I tried to stop her," Shippou told her between hiccups. Haltingly, the tale tumbled out of him in fits and starts, until Shippou grew quiet, only the occasional sniffle revealing he'd been crying at all. "When she took Rin, she gave me a message. She said, 'Tell the Fox Princess if she wants to see the heir again, she will come to the place where it all began.'" Shippou's eyes watered, but he manfully swallowed back the renewed sobs that threatened to shake him apart. "I was so scared," he said into Kagome's neck. "Without Rin, I was so scared. The most scared."
"No," Kagome reassured him, even as she made plans. "You were so brave. The bravest."
Tell the Fox Princess if she wants to see the heir again, she will come to the place where it all began.
That could only mean one thing.
Kagome was going to Edo. To the well.
The first thing Kagome did to prepare for her departure was to carry the slumbering inu of her pack to Sesshoumaru's bedroom and lay them out on the bed. She put her lord in the middle and laid Yukiko and Inuyasha on either side of him, the long white hair of the three intermingling.
They were so still. Unnaturally so. Like the ice of winter.
But they were not dead, and none of them would die. Rin would not die. Kagome wouldn't allow it.
At last, she returned to the sitting room where she'd found Shippou, and retrieved him, pulling Yukiko's tessen from the floor as she left. It pulsed with power in her hand, not burning her, but issuing a warning. The war fan was forged with the fangs of the Inu no Taisho for the female who had borne his heir, and the fan wanted its intended wielder.
Kagome hung the fan from her obi.
"There is something very important I need you to do, Shippou," Kagome told her son, even as she hated herself for putting this burden on him. In the years they had lived in the West, Shippou had been able to be a normal kit with no more worries than any small youkai might have. But now… now, Kagome was going to have to ask more of him, as she hadn't since the Shikon Quest.
She carried her little kit to Sesshoumaru's bedroom and placed him amongst the sleeping members of their pack. Shippou's chin quivered, but his eyes were hard and older than their years. "I'll protect them, Mama," he swore, tiny hands curled into fists.
Kagome nodded, heart burning with pride. "I know you will. But that's not all I need you to do."
Reaching into her obi, Kagome pulled out a few flat leaves that she had been imbuing with her youki during odd moments. She always carried such objects these days, for they made powerful spell totems.
She handed them to Shippou.
"I have to go after Rin and bring her home. I need you to try to lift the sleeping curse while I'm gone. Focus on Sesshoumaru first."
Kagome did not say, We may need the Tenseiga.
Shippou took the unformed spell anchors with trembling hands, but he nodded determinedly. "I can do it," he said, trying to reassure himself as much as Kagome. "I can."
"Of course you can," Kagome agreed. She bent and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "I love you." Then she looked at the three sleeping inu, and kissed them as well. She loved them all. She brushed her lips against Yukiko's temple, and Inuyasha's cheek, and Sesshoumaru… Sesshoumaru she kissed on the lips, and did not let herself think about why.
When she rose, she felt a tugging pulse of power from the fan dangling by her hip. It was close to Yukiko and wanted to be reunited with her.
That gave Kagome an idea.
She was still weak from the attack on her shadow form. Her youki was drained, any capacity she had to cast spells not prepared in advance diminished. If she went after Rin like this, it was likely that she wouldn't be coming back. But if she took a weapon forged from the fangs of the Inu no Taisho…
She couldn't wield the Tenseiga, and she wouldn't take the Tetsusaiga from Inuyasha. That left Yukiko's war fan.
Hageshiiha, the tessen whispered its name to Kagome. Fierce Motherhood.
Kneeling on the bed next to her pack elder, Kagome pulled Yukiko's mouth open with her right hand, and with the left ripped out Yukiko's canines, one after the other. "I take your fangs, I take your strength," she intoned even as she cauterized Yukiko's gums with a touch of foxfire, so that she wouldn't choke on her own blood.
Shippou was watching Kagome with wide eyes. Kagome winked at him, trying to project a demeanor of confidence and self assurance.
"Shippou, I'm going to make a charm that can return what I'm borrowing from Yukiko to her. I need you to give it to her when she wakes up, okay?"
Still wide eyed, Shippou nodded.
Kagome took a deep breath. Then she plucked a single hair from her head, and ripped out her own canines by the roots, letting out a high pitched whine at the pain and feeling blood dribble over her chin. Without taking the time to wipe her mouth, she wrapped the hair around both teeth and bathed thing in her blood, before burning the blood away with foxfire. This was a darker magic than Kagome usually performed. Blood magic.
She realized that it was only after Inari started avoiding mirrors that she had taught Kagome this type of spell weaving.
Well, what Myobu had imparted would now be part of his undoing.
Kagome handed the grisly charm to Shippou. "Tell her to break the hair when she wants her youki back," Kagome lisped around her missing teeth.
Then she backed away from the bed, lifted Yukiko's canines, and wedged them into her mouth in place of the ones she had just given to Shippou.
For a second, nothing happened.
Then Kagome's back arched and she screamed, power rushing from her mouth in a burning torment to fill up the rest of her. It was like she'd eaten fire, or was breathing it. She was a volcano, pressed and pulled from within and without until she was almost destroyed with the force of raw nature that she struggled to contain.
Yukiko's power was immense. Kagome would be very, very sorry when it came time to give it back. It stretched her to bursting, and she could already tell that her spirit would never be quite the same shape again. But she couldn't worry about that now. Her eyes were spilling foxfire and her spine was bowing, her knees reversing as she started to shift into her true form. Fur sprouted along her skin, and then disappeared as she fought to hold on to her humanoid shape.
Pack. Kit. Kit. Avenge. Rend. Burn. Kill. Kit. Kit. Mine. Pack. Mine.
She couldn't afford to lose herself, lose her mind to the instincts that were bolstered by her borrowed power. She had to save Rin. Rin. Her kit.
And like that, the beast within stopped gnashing its teeth, allowing Kagome to take in a long, deep breath and let it out. And then again. In. Out.
Her love for Rin was stronger than the instinctual desire for blood.
Slowly, summoning a ball of foxfire in each hand, she found her center. It felt like eons passed. A millinium of fighting within herself, of forging a will like iron, of building a wall between her thinking self and the unreasoning id that wanted to lay waste to the country side.
Her respect for Yukiko and Sesshoumaru, who lived daily with this internal, eternal battle, blossomed into awe.
And perhaps she understood them better now. If a single moment of inattention could result in becoming a slavering beast, Kagome would likely also be reluctant to grow close to others, to tempt herself with strong emotions.
Sesshoumaru and Yukiko were revered throughout the land as beings of immense power. And yet, the greatest marker of their strength was that neither had become slaves to the very power they wielded.
With a final sigh, Kagome straightened, her tails writhing around her and her eyes burning with green flames the color of acid. The Hageshiiha pulled itself from Kagome's obi of its own accord, the base smacking into Kagome's palm.
It accepted her as its master, at least for the time being.
The fur of Shippou's tail was standing on end. He stared at Kagome, open mouthed.
Kagome smiled a wide fox smile. "Remember. Give the charm to Yukiko when she wakes. Tell her to break the thread when she is ready for her youki to return," Kagome said in bell like tones that seemed to echo from one word to the next.
Then she stepped out onto the balcony and took to the air, flying upon a wave of emerald flame.
Jun woke, completely and all at once, the sixth sense honed by years of service as a tajiya screaming at her.
Something was not right.
Quietly, with a minimum amount of fuss, Jun stood and slipped into her foxfur kimono, tying the sash and pulling her grey hair back into a functional bun. Then she retrieved the sickle made from a youkai's rib bone that she used to fight, and a handful of throwing stars that had been a birthday gift from Sesshoumaru-sama and the Fox Princess.
Satisfied that she was as prepared as she was going to get, she stepped out into the night, only to come face to face with Sango.
"Sensei," Jun said, bowing to the older woman. Though her face was wrinkled and her shoulders stooped, Sango carried the Hiraikotsu on her back as if it weighed nothing at all.
"Jun," Sango said briskly. "You feel it too?"
"Yes. Something's coming."
"No," Sango corrected, looking out across the village, her milky eyes unfocused. "It's already here."
Jun blinked, but did not question it. Everyone knew that Miroku had been the one of the school's founders that had otherworldly powers, but then Sango-sensei was very old and wise. Experience was a power of its own.
"I will gather the others," Jun said, moving to do just that.
Sango held up a hand. "No. Miroku… Miroku spoke to me. In a dream. He's waiting." Sango smiled a truly terrifying smile. A smile that spelled death. It was beautiful. "And tonight's as good as any to join him."
Jun said nothing, instead falling into step with Sango as they headed toward the disturbance.
It was coming from the clearing that held the well.
Kagome made the trip to Edo faster than she ever had before, the landscape passing below her in a blur of color. Her borrowed power sizzled beneath her skin, leaving shadows on her bones, her mouth throbbing with the fangs that were not her own, but none of that mattered.
Rin mattered. And Inari, if she could still be saved.
The night grew darker as Kagome passed over the Eastern border. With Yukiko's youki crackling in her veins, she could actually feel the difference between the Western Lands and the East. She was of the West, and there she was welcome, cradled, cherished, a child and protector. The East was… muddled.
She protected the village of Edo, and she was kitsune, and yet she was not of the East. The land felt foreign. Not hostile, not exactly, but not safe either.
The Goshinboku rose up from the swirling mass of trees flowing beneath Kagome's feet, and she brought herself to a halt, landing with a flourish. She did not have the skill to wield this much power gracefully, so she settled for theatrical.
She was a kitsune, after all.
"Myobu," she called out, the stars shining down on her. Sesshoumaru had once told her that the stars were the eyes of the inu who guarded the gates of heaven. Were they watching her?
She strode into the clearing that housed the well. Myobu stood balanced on the well's rim, facing her, looking exactly as he had the last time she saw him in his kitsune form. It was as if not a single day had passed – he still wore his green silk finery from the Feast of Four Treaties, with the sharply pointed collar and equally pointed boots. His hair was still the color of old blood, the top half pulled up in a warrior's knot, while the rest hung to his waist. His tails tumbled around his knees in a tangle, his green fox mask markings making him look more sinister, his teeth bared in a supercilious smirk.
Inari stood next to him, her eyes empty, her body lightly swaying from side to side. Now, with Yukiko's youki bolstering Kagome's kitsune power of Sight, she could see the line of compulsion connecting them. Myobu was wearing Inari's ki-pearl as a hair ornament. It gleamed gold and red in her vision.
"Where is Rin?" Kagome demanded, voice flat.
Myobu cocked his head, and Inari mimicked the movement, an eerie puppet.
"There's something different about you, Fox Princess," Inari and Myobu said together, their voices interweaving. Kagome was struck anew by the family resemblance. Of course, their coloring was completely different, but they had the same fox mask markings, their eyes were the same shape, and there was something about the sharpness of their noses…
Raising the Hageshiiha, Kagome assumed a ready stance, knees slightly bent, the sharp blades of the fan pulled back by her ear and pointed toward her opponent, her other arm extended for balance.
"You are going to return Rin, and free Inari," Kagome informed Myobu.
Myobu opened his mouth to respond, but before he could speak there came the sound of skittering leaves and branches snapping. It was a slithering, insect sound that brought to mind many jointed legs and the creeping prowl of spiders.
A figure emerged from the shadows, a monstrous creature with the body of an enormous centipede and the torso of a woman. The centipede half was so long that it coiled in loops behind the woman's head. She had three pairs of arms, and enormous fangs that jutted over her lips, extending down to her chin. Poison dripped from them.
Kagome gasped as she recognized the first youkai she had ever seen. "Mistress Centipede!"
The monstrous woman held Rin in the grip of three of her arms. White eyes with black pupils met Kagome's in a flat stare. "I wasss called that by the Ssssea Princesssss and her cohortsssss," Mistress Centipede said. "I am pleasssed you have heard of me, Sssshikon Miko, but it issss time we call each other by our true namessss, yessss?" She affected a grotesque bow, never once loosening her hold on Rin. "I am Jisssshinamazu."
"Kiyohime's mother?" Kagome asked, remembering her lessons on the lineage of the four ruling houses. Mistress Centipede is Kiyohime's mother! And she's supposed to be dead! Inuysaha killed her when I first came through the well. What does it mean?!
But Kagome couldn't think. Couldn't concentrate past the terror of seeing Rin in Mistress Centipede's arms, and the alien youki that made her blood boil.
"I am no longer the Shikon Miko," Kagome heard herself say. She was surprised at how calm she sounded.
Mistress Centipede laughed, a noise like serpents on rocks. "Of coursssse you are. The Sssshikon is all. Where do you think your youkai nature came from? Or thisss whelp'ssss?" Mistress Centipede raised Rin higher, a fourth arm reaching up to stroke Rin's cheek. Rin jerked her head away. Kagome growled.
Mistress Centipede smiled, a thing of gaping teeth and thick red tongue. "Each of you holdssss one of the youkai sssspiritssss that made up the jewel. And with a ssssacrifice of your blood and the time magic of thisss well, I sssshall bring the jewel back again."
Kagome felt her eyes widen, her hand tensing on the base of the Hageshiiha.
Of course. Somehow everything always came back to the Shikon Jewel.
"What?" Myobu and Inari spat in tandem, both swiveling to glare at Mistress Centipede, twin expressions of outrage on their faces. "This is not the plan! What of our revenge on the Ice Dog? What of my mating the Fox Princess? Do not forget whom you work for!"
Mistress Centipede scoffed. "Thisss wasss alwaysss the plan, Itachiryu." She sighed. "There isss not enough sssea sssalt in your blood. Not nearly enough."
"I will not let you cheat me!" Myobu declared.
"Then you will die too," Mistress Centipede answered.
All hell broke loose.
With a scream and an expansive gesture from Myobu, Inari flung herself at Mistress Centipede like an avenging goddess, gold foxfire dancing at the ends of her fingertips. Mistress Centipede opened her maw wide, raising Rin to her lips, only to be thwarted by a massive boomerang flying in from the treeline and lodging itself between her teeth.
The centipede woman's head snapped back with the force of the attack, and she went skidding through the sod, dropping Rin.
Kagome spared a look over her shoulder and caught sight of Sango hobbling over. Jun was already running across the clearing and scooping Rin up, scythe in hand. The two tajiya had used old slayer tricks to keep the youkai from knowing of their presence until it was too late.
"Jun will get the little one to safety," Sango said as she drew abreast of Kagome. Her dark eyes glittered, and for a moment Kagome saw Sango as she had once been, young, vibrant, and deadly, full of life. It seemed that Sango shared the vision, because she smiled. "It will be good to fight at your side one last time, Kagome."
Kagome nodded solemnly, a soft, almost human smile on her face. And then she laughed a fox laugh, a ululating cackle that spoke of light and wild things.
Shoulder to shoulder, they turned back into the fray, just in time to leap from the path of Mistress Centipede's tail.
Little paw-hand shaking, Shippou wiped sweat from his brow and gathered himself to try again to lift the spell of sleep. He was sitting on Sesshoumaru's chest, unfolding and refolding one of the leaves Kagome had given him as he searched for the right way to counter Inari's magic.
He huffed a sigh, and sniffled. He only had one tail, so he couldn't force the magic away. His youki just wasn't strong enough. He had to be clever. The cleverest kitsune.
"Dog didn't work," he muttered to himself, turning the leaf over in his hands. "Neither did a tiger, or a dragon."
And then he realized.
His spell needed to be clever. The cleverest.
He folded an origami fox and laid it on Sesshoumaru's forehead.
Please work, please work, he thought over and over, his lips silently forming the words as he focused with all his might and believed with all his heart. His head started to hurt, and tears gathered at the corners of his eyes. It felt like something had a hold on his tail, and was squeezing hard and sinking claws in, but Shippou kept pushing, squirming, wriggling his youki through cracks and crannies, a single bead of blood rolling down his chin as he bit his lip.
The blood dripped off his face and landed on the edge of Sesshoumaru's mouth.
Sesshoumaru's tongue darted out to lick it away.
"P-papa?" Shippou asked in a small voice, holding his breath.
Sesshoumaru opened his eyes, and Shippou flung himself forward, wrapping his arms around Sesshoumaru's neck.
Jun ran back toward the village, ignoring the sounds of battle behind her, even the anguished cry of, "Sango! No!" The part of her that revered her teacher was ruthlessly pushed aside, all fears and sorrow to be felt later. Jun was the Head Tajiya of the Sunset School, and right now she was charged with getting the Heir of the West to safety.
Her years of training stood her in good stead. She was able to run with Rin tucked under one arm and her scythe braced in the other, and was only slightly winded when she reached the village. As she came upon the first line of huts, she caught sight of a shock of white heading in her direction.
"Sister," Rin protested, twisting in Jun's grip, "we have to help Rin's mother!"
The white shape in the distance resolved itself into the priestess garb of Mayumi, the village miko. She was coming up the main village path, her bow in hand, and her brother Higurashi was at her side. Higurashi wore full slayer armor, his mask covering his face from nose to chin.
Jun set Rin on the ground as they approached. "I am going to go back and help the Fox Princess, I promise you, little sister," Jun told Rin. "But you must stay here with Mayumi and Higurashi, where it is safe, or we'll be too worried about you to focus on the fight."
Rin set her jaw, a mulish expression that reminded Jun of Sesshoumaru-sama settling over her features, but at that moment Mayumi and Higurashi reached them and asked what was happening.
"There is a centipede youkai attacking near the well. Your mother and our guardian fox are holding it off," Jun told them.
"Mother!" Higurashi protested, his voice muffled by his face mask.
Jun held up a hand for silence. "Mayumi, please put a barrier around the village. Higurashi, rouse the other slayers. Prepare for a siege. If I am killed, leadership of the school falls to you."
Not giving them time to argue, Jun admonished Rin one more time to stay in the village, and then she turned and ran back the way she'd come.
Shippou watched as Inuyasha paced and Sesshoumaru growled to himself, complaining about disobedient vixen who had the audacity to hide their trails so that their alphas couldn't follow. Yukiko simply sat quietly on the edge of Sesshoumaru's bed, the charm Kagome had left for her cradled in her hands, a thoughtful expression on her face. After waking Sesshoumaru, using the same counterspell on Inuyasha and Yukiko had been easy.
"You're not mad, are you?" Shippou whispered.
His adopted grandmother looked at him, one brow raised. Then she looked back to the charm forged from Kagome's fangs. "Perhaps I would have been, if she had not given me a way to reclaim what she has taken. As it is… she has gone to save my granddaughter in my stead, and I believe… I believe that the Hageshiiha has found a new master."
"My fan, pup."
"You're sure she didn't say where she was going?" Inuyasha interrupted. Shippou jumped. He was still on edge, and would be until the whole pack was together again.
"She didn't say, Inuyasha. Just that she knew where Not-Inari was talking about."
Inuyasha huffed, and then he gave Shippou a calculating look. Shippou whimpered and tried to hide behind Yukiko.
"Oi, Sesshoumaru. Aren't you always saying there are some things only a kitsune can know?"
Sesshoumaru turned red-rimmed eyes on them, pinning Inuyasha with a stare. Inuyasha nodded and grabbed Shippou up by the scruff of his neck, marching him over to the low table with a mirror where Kagome always sat to paint her face. Inuyasha plunked Shippou down on the table.
"Go on, runt. Do the thing."
Shippou blinked. "What thing, Inubaka?"
Inuyasha growled, pulling at his hair. "You know. The thing. The kitsune thing where you look for stuff in the mirror. You can find anything your magic's touched, right? Between the two of them, 'Gome or Rin must have something with your magic on it."
Shippou's eyes widened. Why hadn't he thought of that?
Turning to the mirror, he focused on the flowers he had enchanted for Rin so that they would never die or fade away. She always kept them tucked in her obi, and sometimes wore them in her hair.
A wave of holy power rose up in the mirror, the bright pink light burning Shippou's eyes and making him squeak. But that didn't matter. He knew that power. It still felt like Miroku, even thought it wasn't him. Not anymore.
"That was Mayumi," Shippou said, slumping to one side. He felt himself being picked up, and then passed into Yukiko's arms. "They're in Edo."
Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha were gone before Shippou had finished speaking.
Kagome could tell at a glance that Sango was dead. Her body lay, broken and bleeding, hanging over the lip of the well. She'd been crushed by a loop of Mistress Centipede's coils. A younger Sango would have rolled out of the way in time.
But then, a younger Sango would not have laughed and welcomed death.
Kagome had no time to mourn, and somehow she doubted she would mourn much even when there was time. Sango had lived a full, rich life, and she had chosen to leave it as she had lived it: a warrior. Kagome would not dishonor that with sorrow.
If anything, Kagome was proud. Proud, and grateful that she was able to witness Sango's final moments. She would tell the story to Sango's children, so that it would never be forgotten.
As soon as she managed to kill Mistress Centipede, that is. The youkai woman was stronger than Kagome remembered her being. Faster, too. Inuyasha had killed her when Kagome was first pulled into the past with only his claws and a cocky attitude, but this Mistress Centipede, this Jishinamazu was a better tactician and had a youki stronger than Kagome's, even with her borrowed power.
The Mistress Centipede we fought had been resurrected by the Shikon Jewel, Kagome thought, even as she bounded up and away and sent the Hageshiiha spiraling in an arc of steel and brightly colored silk. It whipped around Mistress Centipede's coils, slicing cleanly through three of her insect legs. Mistress Centipede howled and launched herself at Kagome. Kagome darted out of range of the strike, her fingers outstretched to catch the Hageshiiha as it came back to her hand. Maybe that's why this version is stronger. She's never died. Or else she was resurrected again and has had years to recover.
Myobu and Inari moved in, both of them hurling balls of foxfire at the centipede woman with incoherent cries of rage. So long as Inari was under Myobu's control, she could do nothing but mirror his moves exactly.
"Myobu!" Kagome called to him, sweeping the Hageshiiha in a circle to call up a cyclone of foxfire. She sent it careening toward Mistress Centipede, and then dove out of the way of a bubbling stream of poison shot from Mistress Centipede's mouth. Where the poison landed, it hissed and sunk into the ground.
"I'm a little busssy, Fox Princessss," Myobu shouted back at her, Inari echoing his words. The longer they fought, the more of Myobu's mixed heritage came to the fore, green-blue scales spreading over his cheeks and his tongue growing long and serpentine, so that he lisped when he spoke. He clapped his hands together, and when he pulled them apart again, three of him stood where one had been. Inari had also called up illusory doubles, and as a mob they descended on Mistress Centipede, dancing around her and confusing her.
"You have to free Inari!" Kagome told him, putting on a burst of speed and weaving in between Mistress Centipede's many legs, gouging a long cut in the centipede's underbelly. "We need her to do more than copy you if we're going to win this fight!"
"Ha!" Myobu mocked, revealing which was the real one with his speech. The doubles didn't answer her. "We may be fighting together now becaussse my grandmother hassss no ssensssse of familial loyalty, jussst like all the other dragonsss, but we are not on the ssssame ssside!" Myobu and Inari said as one.
Kagome snarled. "Fine!"
Abandoning her attack on Mistress Centipede, she waited until the real Myobu was occupied with the battle before them, and then she hurled herself at him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and pressing the blades of her tessen into his throat. He tried to buck her off, and she groped for the ornaments stuck in his warrior knot, aiming for the comb that held Inari's ki-pearl.
Prying the arm that menaced him away from his neck, Myobu bit Kagome's wrist, his fangs bearing down to scrape against her bones and foul her tendons, and she yelped, dropping the Hageshiiha, her fingers numb and no longer working. Then Myobu brought his head back with a crack, his skull connecting with Kagome's temple, making her see stars. She fell away from him, landing on her back.
Myobu turned to face her, and his face was that of Old Bozu, the Child Stealer. "I will deal with you later," he promised.
Then, three things happened at once.
Kagome's heart fluttered as she felt something at the edge of her senses. Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha were coming! But they wouldn't get there in time, no not in time…
Jun sprang up from a crouch where she had been hiding behind the well – so good at her profession that even Kagome had not known she'd rejoined the fight – and tried to behead Myobu with her scythe. But Myobu ducked, and Jun succeeded only in cutting his warrior's knot from the top of his head.
The warrior's knot that held Inari's ki-pearl.
Jagged strands of hair fell around Myobu's face even as Inari's eyes filled with awareness.
And then Inari threw herself forward, intercepting an open mouthed lunge from Mistress Centipede that was meant for Kagome, and was skewered on one of those horrific serpent fangs.
Even had the wound not been bad, Inari's lips were turning blue, foaming spittle leaking from her mouth. She convulsed, spasming so hard that she slid off of Mistress Centipede's tooth and fell to rest next to Sango, on the lip of the well.
Kagome recognized the work of the poison that had briefly taken Inuyasha.
It was Mistress Centipede plotting against them all along, using Myobu as much as he had been using Inari.
Inuyasha was going to be devastated.
But Kagome had no time to contemplate that, because the ground rumbled and rolled beneath their feet with a groan that sounded like the very earth was in pain. Kagome found her eyes on the bodies of Sango and Inari, draped over the well, their blood mingling on the stones.
A human and a youkai, their combined lives sacrificed in battle. Such a sacrifice was powerful blood magic. Almost as powerful as…
The Shikon Jewel.
When the ground groaned again, and a vortex opened within the well, Kagome wasn't surprised. She turned over and dug her claws into the soil, scrabbling for purchase, but she might as well not have bothered. Mistress Centipede's tail was caught in the time slip, and she was hell bent on taking Myobu and Kagome with her. She grabbed at each of them with three of her arms, and pulled them along as she was sucked into the well.
Sesshoumaru landed in the well clearing just in time to see his beloved vanish in a glow of blue light.
Sesshoumaru stared at the well.
He stared, unmoving, while Inuyasha jumped into the depths of the portal that had just taken Kagome from them. He stared, unblinking, when Inuyasha howled his rage to the sky at finding the well quiescent once more. He stared, silent, when Inuyasha gathered the mangled form of Inari into his arms and begged Sesshoumaru to revive her. He stared, unhearing, as his arm seemed to move of its own accord to draw the Tenseiga and grant Inuyasha's wish.
The world was muted. Even the voice of his inner beast could not reach him.
When Inari coughed and opened her eyes, offering him tearful thanks and regrets for her unwilling part in this plot, Sesshoumaru did not react. He felt as if carved from stone. He was as cold as the Ice Dog they painted him.
Inari retrieved a small jewel from the ground, and then Inuyasha took her away. The humans came to collect the body of Sango the Demon Slayer. A woman in miko garb pulled a comb from Sango's hair and tucked it into her own, and for the first time since Kagome vanished down the well, Sesshoumaru was tempted to move. That was Kagome's ki-pearl…! His hands clenched into fists. He was tempted to take it, to have it, this small part of her.
But no. Kagome would want it to remain with Sango and Miroku's descendants, as she had intended.
So Sesshoumaru merely watched.
Morning dawned, and still Sesshoumaru stood guard over the well, waiting for Kagome to come back.
Night fell again, and Inuyasha joined Sesshoumaru in his vigil. "Rin's fine. She's stayin' with Jun and Inari. 'Nari got her ki-pearl back."
Sesshoumaru made no answer. He was frozen, within and without.
"She'll come back," Inuyasha offered gruffly. "She always does. It's why we're holding off on Sango's funeral. Kagome won't want to miss it."
Inuyasha left at sunrise, saying he needed to send word to the West.
Sesshoumaru was left alone for eight days after that, though he hardly noticed them passing. He simply stared at the well, paralyzed.
On the ninth day, Jun marched resolutely into the well clearing, and thrust Rin into Sesshoumaru's arms. Automatically, Sesshoumaru's hands came up, cradling his pup to his chest. He looked down into her brown eyes and licked salty tears from her cheeks. She burrowed her face into his neck, and he felt a tingle of warmth, a dart of flame to thaw him.
In front of them, Jun sat on the side of the well, bracing her hands on her thighs in the manner of storytellers. Her foxfur kimono shone the color of Kagome's hair.
"I would tell you the story of The Girl Who Fell Through Time," Jun intoned.
Sesshoumaru folded himself down into a seated position and held Rin on his lap.
Kagome spiraled through a tunnel of darkness and spectral light, wrapped in the grip of a giant centipede, and it felt just like the first time. For a moment, she wasn't sure if she hadn't been falling through the well this whole time, and everything else was a dream.
And then they came to the end, slamming into the packed dirt at the bottom of the well, and Kagome's arm throbbed, sluggish pulses of blood soaking her kimono sleeve. Her vision went white as Yukiko's youki, the power Kagome had borrowed, was ripped away from her, unable to stretch across centuries. Yukiko's fangs were expelled from Kagome's jaw, and now she was bleeding there too, and her ears were ringing. There were stones in her lungs, and her magic was drained to the dregs, her skin crawling and feeling too large after containing an inu's strength. "Dogs and foxes don't mix," she muttered to herself. Her stomach rebelled, and she nearly vomited, but managed to hold her gorge because there was no time, no time…
Mistress Centipede and Myobu were there too, and they were stirring.
Praying to anyone who would listen for a reprieve, swallowing back her pain, Kagome climbed one handed up Mistress Centipede's coils, using insectoid legs as ladder rungs. The youkai woman was so massive that she bulged up and out of the well while blocking the normal ladder. In Kagome's condition, that was the only way that she made it to the floor of the well house.
Hearing a creak of wood, Kagome whirled to face the well, and then staggered and fell, blood loss and sorcerer sickness making her dizzy.
It was Myobu, climbing over the lip of the well, his hand pressed to his nose. He looked as dazed as Kagome felt. "What isss that horrid ssstench?" he demanded.
Kagome blinked stupidly. All she could smell was her own blood. Her senses were dulled to the point of being no better than a human's, worse perhaps. Were they in the future? Inuyasha had always complained about the smell of traffic and factories…
Mistress Centipede's coils twitched, then moved, flowing around until her torso was lifted out of the well. "You!" she accused, as if this had been some plan of Kagome's.
She arced up until she was pressed against the roof and then slammed her body down, arms splayed and lips wide, and Kagome knew that she was going to die.
But then the doors of the well house burst open, and two figures swept in, weapons raised. Befuddled, Kagome dragged herself over to the far wall as best she could, while still keeping an eye on the fight.
The first figure was a dark haired inu female. Tall and lithe, she was all grace and sharp lines. Her black hair was pulled back in a single ponytail that fell to her knees, and she wore a navy colored uniform of some kind. Military, maybe. She wielded an impossibly long sword like a needle, stabbing at Mistress Centipede's eyes, and when Myobu tried to slink toward the doors of the well house, cut off his route with a very familiar youki whip.
The second figure was shorter, but infinitely broader. A male kitsune with a lion's mane of orange hair tumbling over his shoulders, he was well muscled and swinging a massive war hammer. With his bulging biceps and hearty laugh, Kagome couldn't help but think of the god of thunder from Norse legend. Thor. He wore a black t-shirt and a pair of battered blue jeans, five tails spiraling out from the seat of his pants.
"Oh no you don't!" The Thor kitsune exclaimed, going after Myobu. With one heavy blow of the hammer, Myobu was laid out, unconscious on the floor. The kitsune studied him for a moment, and then went over and brought his hammer down on Myobu's head again, grinning at Kagome. "Just in case he's faking," he winked.
"Brother," the inu female called in a voice filled with competent command. "You remember that we are supposed to keep Jishinamazu from breeching the well house."
The kitsune's shoulders hunched. "Right. Sorry, Rin-sama," he said sheepishly, leaping up to help her handle Mistress Centipede.
"Rin-sama?" Kagome whispered, just before her vision greyed out.
When Kagome came to, the male kitsune was tending to her arm, and Myobu was chained in a corner of the well house, the inu youkai known as Rin-sama standing guard over him. Of Mistress Centipede, there was no sign.
"Hey, easy there," the kitsune said when he saw she was awake. His hammer was sitting on the floor of the well house next to Kagome. This close, she could see that there was a series of ki-pearls embedded in the grip of the weapon.
One of them resonated with her youki.
She looked up into green eyes. "S-shippou?" she asked, almost unable to comprehend what she was seeing.
He smiled. "Yep. Me and Rin-sama were voted the best choices to help you, since you already know us and interacting with us at this point probably won't mess up the space time continuum."
Kagome looked down at her arm, non-plussed. "You healed me."
Shippou shrugged and stood, pushing his leonine hair out of his face with one calloused hand. "I'm good at fixing things."
"You are too modest, brother," Rin-sama said, coming over to join them.
She had sheathed her sword and strapped it across her back, and now that Kagome got a closer look she could tell that this woman was definitely Rin. Her features were more mature, though as familiar as Kagome's own face, and there was a metal pin in the shape of the Western Crest fastened to her lapel, in case the crescent moon on her forehead and stripes on her cheeks didn't immediately give away who she was. But most importantly, when Kagome met Rin's gaze she saw a familiar twinkle there. She might be in the presence of Rin-sama, but her little Rin-chan still existed behind the placid mask.
Giving herself a mental shake, Kagome refocused on the task at hand. "Mistress Centipede?"
"We weakened her and sent her back down the well while the vortex was still open," Rin said. "She will appear five hundred and fifty years in the past, where she will be slain by Kikyo and Inuyasha. They will toss her bones into the well, and they will pass through the slip yet again to the present day, where they will lie dormant until revived by proximity to the Shikon Jewel over a period of fifteen years." Rin raised a brow, the corners of her lips twitching. "In a few days, she will pull your human self down the well, and so begin the legend of The Girl Who Fell Through Time."
Kagome winced, pressing the heel of her hand to her forehead.
"Makes your head hurt too, huh?" Shippou said.
He touched her temples with two fingers aglow with cool teal foxfire, and Kagome's pain eased.
"Funny, isn't it?" Shippou went on. "How she keeps trying to kill you, but she's the one who starts it all."
Kagome nodded dazedly. "Yeah. A real trick of fate."
"Come," Rin said, helping Kagome to her feet. "We must decide what is to be done with the Weasel Dragon."
But Kagome's thinking was getting clearer, and she dug her heels in, refusing to be led to the corner where Myobu was chained. "You said 'while the vortex was still open.' Does that mean the well is closed?"
"The well has always responded to the Shikon Jewel," Shippou explained. He reached down and picked up his hammer, and then swung it back over his shoulder, resting it there. "The reason it opened during your fight with Jishinamazu was because a human and a youkai bled into the well at their moments of death. It was a similar enough power that it opened the well for a short time. But yes, now it's closed again. That's part of what we have to decide about Myobu."
Kagome looked back and forth between her two kits, now grown. Now older than she was.
She could still read their expressions.
"Just tell me," she said.
"You must make a choice." Rin stepped over to Myobu and pulled his head back by his hair, exposing his throat. "Either you must sacrifice Myobu in order to open the well and return to the past to bring about a new future in which youkai live openly with humans –"
"Or you stay here in the future as you have always known it. With us," Shippou finished.
She had to kill Myobu in cold blood, a sacrifice in a dark ritual that would power the well enough for one more journey, or leave the life she had built for herself behind.
"Are those my only choices?" Kagome heard herself ask.
Shippou and Rin did not answer her, for Myobu had woken and was struggling in his chains.
"You won't be getting out of those," Shippou said. "I made them myself."
Kagome barely heard him. She was too busy trying to corral her whirling thoughts. They won't tell me what choice I made. Will make. Whatever. Because if they were going to do that, it wouldn't be a choice at all. They'd just tell me what to do. But maybe they'll answer other questions…
"Is Sess – everyone in the pack still alive in this time?"
Shippou opened his mouth, but Rin gave him a quelling glance.
"Keh," Shippou snorted.
Rin stuck her nose in the air. "Hn."
Kagome goggled. "You guys are doing that on purpose, right?"
Shippou raised his eyebrows. "Doing what?"
"Nevermind." Kagome waved a hand in dismissal, returning to her thoughts.
No matter what the cost, she couldn't bring herself to kill even Myobu in cold blood. She was still far too human to – no, mercy had nothing to do with humanity.
She was not just human. She was not just youkai. She was both. She was Kagome. Just Kagome. And she wanted, more than anything, to go home. There was no real question – she wanted to confess her love to Sesshoumaru and watch Shippou and Rin grow into the youkai standing beside her. She wanted to annoy Yukiko and tease Inuyasha and play tricks with Inari. She wanted her pack. And why should Myobu's death power the well, when it had taken a human and a youkai sacrifice to open it before?
Her eyes widened as the truth dawned.
Rin and Shippou were not offering her a choice of how to spend the rest of her life. They were assessing how far she would go to attain what she desired.
This was a test of ruthlessness and compassion, a tail test in which neither option presented to her allowed her to remain true to herself, to the person she had always striven to be. And neither option would truly reunite her with her pack - not in the way she wanted.
So Kagome chose to walk a third path.
She caught Rin's eye. "You said only a sacrifice will awaken the well and let me go home." It was not lost on her that she was referring to the West, to Sesshoumaru and her pack as home even as she stood on the shrine grounds where she'd grown up. "But you didn't say the sacrifice had to be a life."
Rin's lips stretched into a slow, soft grin. "Not all power comes from death," she agreed.
With that, Kagome turned to Myobu, moving to stand over him in a few quick steps. Shippou shifted out of her way, and Kagome knelt to pry Myobu's mouth open, freezing his muscles in place with a muttered spell. Then, a wicked grin on her face that would have made even Sesshoumaru flinch, she yanked out all of Myobu's teeth.
One. By. One.
They fell to the floor of the well house with quiet tinkling sounds, each flashing with foxfire before transforming into ki-pearls of various size and strength. Kagome's aura crackled around her, jade heat lightning making her fur stand on end.
"I take your fangs, I take your strength," she intoned with each yank of her claws. "I take your fangs, I take your strength." Blood poured down Myobu's chin, his wide eyes glassy, his face a rictus of disbelief. A gurgling scream came from his throat, his lips unable to give it shape. The shackles around his hands clanked together, and then stilled at a gesture from Shippou.
Kagome winced, but kept at her grim task.
When she jerked Myobu's last molar free, a ripple went over his body, and he moaned, his skin erupting in putrid green scales. His lush red tails withered away, his features shifting until he had a wide mouth filled with serrated teeth and large reptilian eyes.
Kagome repeated the process on his dragon fangs.
His scales lost their hold and fell from his skin, leaving him as red and soft as a new born babe. His eyes shrank and turned brown, the vibrancy of his hair leeched away as the long mass of it went black as coal. His claws softened, becoming normal human nails.
A sense of presence filled Kagome, a bright light that brought to mind the aura of the Shikon, and words flowed from her tongue that she had not thought, but nevertheless spoke, "You are kitsune no more. No longer may you call yourself Myobu, or rule the East as Lord. I have won that right from you. And I shall choose your successor."
She closed her eyes and saw herself in ancient armor, a red-black kitsune of nine tails meeting Midoriko on the field of battle, an after image that was burned into her retinas. Another blink, and this time she was Midoriko, looking upon her youkai self.
Of course. This was why she had carried the Jewel of Four Souls within her body upon her birth. Miko and youkai. Reincarnation. Holy and demonic.
She was the jewel.
She opened her eyes and gathered up the pile of ki-pearls that had only moments ago been Myobu's fox fangs, and tossed them into the well. One, two, three, four… There were thirty six in total. Her tails twitching at the build up of power, she let the pearls fall down into the deep a handful at a time. Then she did the same with the triangular dragon teeth, and, in a motion that Myobu's newly human eyes couldn't follow, swiped his chest with her claws, gathering an offering of red human blood.
Three drops of scarlet followed Myobu's teeth into the well.
She never heard them hit bottom.
There was a shudder, a low rumbling quake of the earth, and then the familiar glow of time magic brightened the well house.
Kagome looked at her kits. "I'm going back. I want to see you grow up."
Shippou smiled a small, sly smile, and with a shock Kagome realized that he looked very much like Sesshoumaru when he did that.
"Go," he interrupted her. "You'll see us soon. We'll take care of our friend here," he jerked his head, indicating the cringing human man who had once been Myobu.
Then she took a deep breath and jumped into the time slip.
For the final time and the first time, all at once.
The last thing she heard as the future faded away was Rin's voice saying, "By the power vested in me by the Imperial Guardians of the National Police Agency, I hereby place you under arrest."
Sesshoumaru paced, his eyes filled with a swirl of red and gold, fangs bared in a perpetual snarl. Thirty six days and thirty six nights. It had been thirty six days and thirty six nights since the attack on the shiro that had resulted in Kagome being pulled into the well.
He'd stood watch over the time portal for ten days, before being persuaded to return to the West by messages of Shippou's agitation. Sesshoumaru did not want his son to suffer, and he remembered well the way the little kitsune had felt abandoned the year that Sesshoumaru was trapped in Jishinamazu's palace beneath the sea.
Another crime to lay at her door.
Thirty six days and thirty six nights.
It was an eye blink to one as long lived as he. An amount of time almost unworthy of measuring. And yet these days and nights seemed longer and darker than all the other time he had spent walking the earth.
Not just because Kagome was gone, but because he feared she would not return. Certainly he had done his utmost not to let her know why she should never leave him.
He was a fool. He'd sought to keep her from having power over him, and yet she had it anyway.
If she didn't come back soon, he might have to resort to howling at the moon.
In all the years since he'd first accepted her submission, taking her into his pack, he'd had ample time to tell her just what it was she meant to him. But now she was gone, and no one knew where or when, and that thrice cursed well was only so much stone and dirt!
"Are you quite done?" his mother asked, appearing behind him. "You've sent everyone into hiding. Even Inuyasha said… now how did he phrase it? 'Hell no, don't send me in there! Let Kagome deal with his dumb ass when she gets back.'"
Sesshoumaru whirled on her, his face perfectly expressionless, though nothing could be done about the red ring around his irises. A feral voice inside seethed, screaming rejection, abandonment, mine, gone, mate, unclaimed, gone, gone…
"Oh, Sesshoumaru, my son," Yukiko said soothingly. "Stop making that face. It's not as bad as all that."
But it was. Kagome was gone.
And Inuyasha was right. Sesshoumaru was a coward.
There had been nothing to stop him from telling her of the feelings he'd tried to deny having. Nothing kept him from courting her and making her his mate.
Nothing except fear.
Fear of rejection. Fear of admitting that he yearned, just as other creatures did. Fear that allowing instinct – desire – to rule him in this one thing would be the beginning of the end of discipline.
Fear of ruining the happiness he had never thought to have for himself, not since the death of his father. He was not one who easily inspired love in others.
So he'd been a coward, and secured a promise from Kagome that she would stay with him, thinking that would be enough.
"You know the story of the first kitsune, my son." Mother was still talking. "They are always true. She'll return."
Once, he would have said he didn't need to be loved.
Now he squeezed his eyes shut, mine, mate, gone, gone, unclaimed, abandoned, need, need, need, echoing through his skull in time with his heartbeat.
When Kagome climbed out of the well, she had seven tails.
No one was waiting to greet her, so she made her way down to the village, noting as she did so that there was a fresh grave marker out on the hill where the villagers left offerings to the kami.
Changing direction, Kagome went to pay her respects.
Sango's children had placed a shrine for her next to the one they'd built for Miroku, exquisitely carved wooden plinths painted with their names, little stone insets placed in front of them for paper lanterns, incense, and other trinkets. There was a fresh cut flower set on Sango's shrine, and a sachet of Miroku's favorite tea before his.
Kagome knelt at the graves of her friends and summoned up the power of true transformation. Touching a finger to each of the wooden plinths, she turned them into bright white stone, and saw to it that their names were the brightest, purest red. Then she watched as the stone rippled, bubbling and churning until on Miroku's marker there was a bas relief image of him facing Naraku, the Wind Tunnel in full force, and on Sango's a rendering of her final moments, the Hiraikotsu leaving her hand to save Rin from Mistress Centipede's venom.
Satisfied, Kagome assumed a meditative pose and spent the night with Sango and Miroku, taking strength from their spirits. If she had been gone long enough that no one was near the well to greet her, then one more night could hardly matter.
When day broke, she pulled out her little mirror and breathed on the glass, searching for the new bearer of her ki-pearl. When it showed her a vision of Mayumi sweeping the steps of the Sunset Shrine, she knew that all was well, and she could take her leave of Edo for the time being.
She assumed her true form and set off in the direction of the Western shiro. Now that she was a plain kitsune once more, albeit one with seven tails, she could no longer fly, and it would take her the better part of two days to reach the palace even at her fastest speed.
No matter. It would give her plenty of time to plan a trick she could play on Sesshoumaru. Perhaps she would disguise herself as a messenger from the North, or make herself appear human again. Maybe she'd pretend to be the Wolf Princess, Ayame, and declare that she wanted to wed Sesshoumaru. That would certainly send him running! And just when she couldn't hold back her laughter, she'd drop her glamour and watch Sesshoumaru's mouth fall open!
It would serve him right for not waiting on her.
Yes, that was what she would do. Sesshoumaru wouldn't know she was back until she was standing right next to him. And then, well.
She would see.
Sesshoumaru was restless. He paced the floor of his bedroom, certain that he could not be feeling what he thought he was feeling. His mother sat at the low table Kagome used to dress her hair and paint her face. Discomfited by the loss of Hageshiiha, Yukiko had claimed a new tessen from Sesshoumaru's armory, and held it now before her mouth. "She returns, then. You can feel her approach."
"It is a trick of the mind, Mother. The product of desire, nothing more. She is not really here."
"I feel it too."
Sesshoumaru halted in his pacing, turning to face his mother. She arched a brow. "I have been… attuned to her, since the return of the youki she borrowed from me. She is alive, my son. And she is close. I know it."
A slender water hanyou stepped into the room without knocking, a tea tray in her hands. She was likely one of Inuyasha's latest strays. There was something familiar about the way she moved, but Sesshoumaru dismissed it, focusing instead on his mother's words.
"You have never been one to prefer the pretty lie above the harsh truth," he said.
"And it continues to be so." Yukiko folded her fan and accepted a cup of tea from the water hanyou. "Kagome is alive, and she will return to you if you strive to be worthy and wait. This is fact, my son, not some story I concoct to spare your sensibilities."
The water hanyou offered Sesshoumaru a cup of tea, but he waved her away without looking at her. He was too unsettled for tea.
"I should have never left the Bone Eater's Well," he said. His mother gestured for the servant girl to open the balconey doors, to let more light into the room. "I never should have left her," Sesshoumaru went on, this time meaning the day he had fled from Kagome's love after nearly marking her.
The water hanyou opened the right leaf of the balcony door, and a beam of sunlight flooded the room, throwing all of their shadows into sharp relief against the far wall. Sesshoumaru squinted, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Once they had, he turned to dismiss the servant, only to be brought up short by the sight of the water hanyou's shadow.
It was a kitsune, a mass of fox tails twitching playfully around her.
Sesshoumaru launched himself at the girl, sending the both of them flying. They breezed through the open balcony door and struck the railing with such force that they broke through the wood and stone with a loud crack, falling into the garden below. The disturbed branches of the sakura trees sent pink petals raining down on them.
"Sesshoumaru!" Kagome exclaimed, laughing a kitsune laugh at the trick she had played. Her disguise melted away, revealing the sweet curve of her cheek, the red of her hair. The silk of her kimono was bloody and torn, but Sesshoumaru cared naught. He hoisted her up off the grass, his arms around her waist so that he could bury his face in her neck. One of her tails twined around his left forearm. She gently cradled his head in her hands, trying to soothe him.
But he could not be soothed.
"Where did you go?" he demanded, his voice rough. Mine, returned, mine, mate, need, mate, mate.
Kagome told him of her victory over Myobu and Mistress Centipede, triumph making her eyes sparkle and her skin glow. He barely heard her, nose still buried in her neck, unable to stop the half growl, half keening sound in his chest. It was barely audible, even to youkai ears, but it was there.
He'd held onto hope, but in his heart of hearts, he had really believed that it would be centuries before he saw her again, if at all.
Sesshoumaru had taken Kagome's first suitor, Takeshi, as a sign she didn't want him as a mate all those years ago, but had meant to always have her at his side as the Lady of his pack. Had decided that was best. That it was enough.
It wasn't. It never had been. It never would be, he knew now.
It was wonderful and horrible at once, to know that he could feel so deeply. He was the Lord of the West, the Great Dog whose very heart was said to be a glacier.
And yet now he clung to a little slip of a kitsune, the foxfire in her breast burning him from within.
"What's this?" She turned his chin up with one delicate claw, rubbing her cheek against his to comfort him. "You never weep!"
"I am not."
"You can weep without tears, Sesshoumaru."
His heart skipped a beat at her intimate use of his name.
"Now, what is it?"
"This one thought you were gone forever," he told her, forcing himself to look into her blue eyes. She saw things that others did not. He deserved no less than for her to know all of his shame.
"I wouldn't break my promise," she murmured into his ear, running the claws of one hand through his hair. "Kitsune are tricksters, not oath breakers."
"This I know," he returned just as softly. "This one has been foolish, and listened to the whispers of fear."
She giggled. "What could the Great Sesshoumaru-sama possibly be afraid of?"
He closed his eyes, resting his forehead against hers and taking a deep breath.
He placed her on her feet, then knelt before her, his forehead level with her obi. Ignoring her stunned look, he took her hands. "Make to me a vow."
"What vow?" She tightened the clasp of their fingers and tugged, trying to force him to rise. "Sesshoumaru, please get up."
He stayed on his knees. "Be mine."
Mine, mate, need, mark, claim, mine.
Her eyes sparked with foxfire when she smiled, her lips curving like a bow. "Of course I'm yours, Sesshoumaru. I've been yours since the Shikon Wish was made."
Sesshoumaru took a deep breath and let it out in a long exhalation that hissed between his teeth, nearly groaning in frustration. How was it that he, who had brought entire armies to their knees, was laid so low by this one troublesome little fox? How could he make her see? He was not one for grand speeches.
But, perhaps, a grand gesture…
Releasing Kagome's hands, Sesshoumaru swept his hair to one side and let his head fall forward, exposing the back of his neck.
"Then allow me to be yours."
For the first time, he understood how a surrender could be sweet.
She gasped, the scent of lust and tears reaching his nose at the same time. She started to reach for him, and then stopped, hesitating. He couldn't keep himself from flinching, a small twitch of his eyes.
"Would you still love me, if I were human?" she wanted to know, her voice breaking on the last word. He could hear her heart pounding.
Would he love her any less, if the power of the Shikon Wish suddenly ceased to be, returning her to her short-lived original state? A thousand moments flashed by him, not just memories of her youkai self, but her first defiance in the tomb of his father, her unfearing intervention in his bouts with his brother, the way she mothered Shippou and reached out to Rin, the purity of the soul that had shone – and still shone – through her eyes, for though she was youkai now, there was no creature alive that could claim Kagome's purity of spirit, save for perhaps their daughter.
Fox or human, he loved Kagome for Kagome's sake.
"Yes," Sesshoumaru said.
If loving humans was folly, he was a fool.
She caressed his neck with her claws and pulled him to his feet, her tails wildly thrashing. Her obi came unknotted, unable to stand up to the motion. Sesshoumaru caught at her kimono to preserve her modesty, but she batted his hands away, leaping into his arms.
They kissed, and it tasted like splintered wood and stone dust and Kagome's lips, the dearest thing Sesshoumaru had ever known.
The next roar that shook the walls of the Western shiro was one of triumph and joy. The Lord of the West claimed and marked his mate in the light filtering through the sakura blossoms, his teeth sunk into the side of her neck.
She returned his mark, her oh-so-attractive fangs piercing his flesh with a ferocity and passion that surprised him, but should not have. In the rush of their union, their youki spiraled wildly out of control, leaving no doubt to any in the palace as to what was happening when their auras merged.
When they both went still, their breathing slowing, Sesshoumaru gathered Kagome to his chest, gazing at her face and waiting. As he watched, noble markings came into being, curling lines of the same blue as her irises forming a fox mask around her eyes.
"Mine," Sesshoumaru growled into her ear, his entire body thrumming to be finally saying it out loud.
Kagome smiled at him, and then opened her mouth and yipped out a joyous kitsune song.
Love, love, love for my mate, Lord of the West, lord of my heart.
Sesshoumaru added his voice to hers. My Girl Who Fell Through Time, my Fox Princess of Seven Tails.
Welcome, welcome, welcome new daughter, Yukiko was the first to join their pack song, lightly stepping up to the gaping hole in the balcony railing to give them her blessing.
Honored Mother, Honored Father, chorused Rin and Shippou, leaning out of their bedroom window.
Lucky, lucky vixen. Lucky, lucky dog, Inari sang from Inuyasha's balcony.
Inuyasha was last, and he howled only one word.
On Kagome Higurashi's fifteenth birthday, a centipede woman burst from the well house on the grounds of the Sunset Shrine and pulled her into the well's depths, and beyond.
As soon as the lights of the time slip faded, change swept over the world. Like ripples in a pond, it radiated outward from the well house, altering clothing, weapons, buildings, history, and governments until a unified world of magic and technology, humans and youkai, was the only world most had ever known.
Only two remembered both timelines, for they had existed in both: Kagome of the Eight Tails, Lady of the West and Japan's youkai ambassador to the United Nations; and Inuyasha, the Lord of the East and founder of the Hanyou Rights Foundation.
Disguised as a tourist visiting the Sunset Shrine, Kagome – no longer the girl who had been unceremoniously hauled away by fate – let out a sigh of relief. She still had several years to wait before she could reveal herself to her human family, but a few years was not so long.
And now the future she and her pack had worked so hard for was secure.
Turning, Kagome made her way down the shrine steps. When she reached the bottom, she stopped to look at the statues that stood on either side of the shrine's tori arch, guarding all who entered.
It really is a very good likeness, Kagome thought. But it should be. Shippou and I assumed their forms and posed for the statues ourselves.
To the left was a man in monk robes, a staff in one hand and a sutra in the other. To the right of the stairs was a woman dressed as a tajiya, standing in a ready pose, a large boomerang slung across her back.
Sango, Miroku… your legacy lives on.
The tajiya school that Kagome's old friends had started five hundred years ago had flourished, and eventually become the Sunset Academy for Special Forces, where police teams were trained to face youkai and those humans with otherworldly powers. Two of Sango and Miroku's descendants were going to graduate from the next class of agents, one of them the current bearer of Kagome's ki-pearl.
Kagome paid her respects and left the shrine.
Sesshoumaru was waiting for her in one of the many natural parks that had been declared protected land by the youkai royals. He was wearing his dark blue suit, his sash of office across his chest as always. Passing youkai and humans stopped in their tracks to bow to him. He could be mistaken for nothing but exactly what he was.
Kagome let her human disguise fade. She wore a skirt suit of a lighter blue than Sesshoumaru's, with her own sash of office, and a diadem resting in her red hair. The latest fashion for her tails was to drape them around her shoulders and arms, like fur stoles.
"It is done?" Sesshoumaru asked, meeting her eyes. She stood on her toes and slid one arm around his neck to rub her cheek against his in greeting.
"My young human self has gone through the Bone Eater's Well. We are safe," Kagome confirmed.
He rumbled his pleasure, pulling her close and running a fang along her jaw. "Shall we celebrate?"
Their watchers tittered, and Kagome could hear a few cameras snap. No doubt they'd be in the evening news. Annoyed, she pulled a large leaf from her clutch purse and quickly folded an origami box. She inflated the box with her breath, and just like that, she and Sesshoumaru were hidden from view.
"You know we're expected at Inari's charity ball this evening. The East is going to start offering full scholarships to doctors who specialize in youkai health. Especially those who are interested in technomagical techniques."
Sesshoumaru's expression did not change, but so well did Kagome know her mate that she immediately began to argue with him.
"It's a good cause! And it will attract better teachers to the East, which will be very good when Suki is ready for medical school."
Their youngest daughter had been born eighty-seven years ago, a white kitsune of one tail, Sesshoumaru's mark on her brow and healing in her fingers – something no one, not even the oldest among them, could remember happening before. Sesshoumaru had been torn between pride and consternation when Tenseiga had immediately abandoned him at the kit's first cries, making it clear that Sukuna was the sword's new master.
Eventually pride had won out. Suki was Sesshoumaru's darling. Kagome had never thought to see her mate do anything that could resemble doting, but dote he did. Only Suki's natural humility kept her from being more arrogant than her father.
Sesshoumaru stiffened. "Sukuna will attend school in the West, as her brother and sisters did before her."
Kagome laughed. "You keep believing that if it makes you feel better." She put her arm through Sesshoumaru's, leading him to the paddock where they had left Ah Uh. "Now, we are going to this ball." She smiled, wheedling. "The kits will be there."
"The pups," Sesshoumaru corrected, perking up a little at that. But then he frowned. "Is Shippou bringing Otohime?"
"Now Sesshoumaru, stop it. I know Kiyohime is… Kiyohime, but her daughter is a very nice sea serpent who admires our son."
Sesshoumaru scoffed. "Kiyohime used us to destroy her enemies. Were it my decision, she and the snakes she whelped would not be allowed anywhere near our pups."
Kagome nipped his ear. "Shippou is five hundred and fifty three years old, and luckily for him, his father is a traditionalist, which means his mother gets to approve his suitors."
Still bickering, they mounted Ah Un and made their way to the Eastern shiro.
A Naginata, or Glaive: Not to be confused with a scythe, a glaive is a pole-arm weapon with a straight blade, often used by footsoldiers as it is especially useful for fighting a mounted opponent.
Timeline of '49. Years': To preemptively answer any questions, this chapter takes place over a period of 63 years.
Shiori: is the same bat hanyou encountered in the series. Only now she's in the equivalent of her teens, and Inuyasha has given her a job. I don't really mention it as it's not a main plot point, but in my head Inuyasha sort of has a ... Hanyou Outreach Program? He's made it known since becoming steward that any hanyou willing to swear fealty to the West will find food, shelter, and work at the Western shiro.
Sesshoumaru, Kagome, and Rin's modern clothes are based on what the Japanese imperial family wears in the present day. Rin, like many heir apparants the world over, is currently serving in the military, and so her uniform is based on that of the imperial guard.
You may have noticed that the number of days that pass between Kagome falling through the well and returning to Sesshoumaru is the same number of fox fangs Kagome pulled from Myobu. Think of it as his trickster youki's last hurrah. ^_~
To answer some final questions about the nature of Kagome's wish: Essentially, what it did was take the path of least resistance to achieve (eventual) peace and happiness for everyone Kagome specified. For example, Kagome becoming kitsune fulfills wishes/desires for her, Shippou, Rin, Sesshoumaru, Yukiko, and Inuyasha. And it also ensures that Inuyasha and Inari meet, and that Inari is freed from Myobu, because without Kagome needing a teacher she would have never been called to the West. And so on and so forth, ad nauseum.
I have flow charts and everything.