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Sesshoumaru would always recognise his scent. It was as frustratingly loud as the rest of him—boastful of power he had no right to claim. His entire belligerent existence trapped in a breeze that was tangy with sweat and vaguely laced with the scent of the earth, touched with that unmistakable trace of youki, drowning in the bubbling river of tainted blood.

Inuyasha.

Sesshoumaru watched him, swinging his father’s legacy with the same angry exuberance as a child might fling a toy—and that was all he was, in truth. A child. Still young, if his eyes were any indication. And while he might get older, and – by someone’s grace – wiser, he still seemed. . .hopeful. Of what, Sesshoumaru did not care to know.

It was funny, Inuyasha thought with a wild grin, that when everything was over, there were some things that never changed. His brother’s condemningly cold-eyed stare, for one thing. Another was the fluid unsheathing of his sword, that pure note of metal singing as it slid free, the lethal gleam almost welcome, because it meant a fight. With Sesshoumaru. Against will and outward protestation, there was something exhilarating about fighting his pure-blooded brother. Maybe it was knowing firsthand how strong he was. Maybe it was knowing that maybe this time, he might prove that he was strong.

Maybe it was knowing that during all of their battles with each other, neither of them had struck the final blow.

That was what he couldn’t figure out. Then again, Inuyasha was grudgingly aware that Kagome had always been the smarter one, and could have probably given him a list of psycho-whatever-related reasons why neither had deigned to take that final step. But she was gone now, locked in her own time after the final fight with Naraku. Her home, as she’d stressed so many times in the past. ‘I’m going home, Inuyasha, and don’t you dare follow me!’ She’d say stuff like that when they were hunting for the Shikon shards. But he remembered her tear-filled eyes when she’d looked over her shoulder before stepping into the well that last time, and they both knew how true those words were. He couldn’t follow her, not anymore.

Now, it was like. . .everything kind of bled out. There was nothing to do. Nothing to fight. No one to hunt. And because Inuyasha hated being bored, and idle – it made him pity himself, and if he started he’d never stop until Kikyou was Kagome and his mother had never died – there was one last loose thread to pick at before his existence lost all meaning.

Sesshoumaru was still there. Still looking down on him.

Inuyasha gave a feral grin and tightened his grip on Tetsusaiga.

Some things never changed.




The old saying ‘I can beat you with one arm tied behind my back’ was really starting to echo strangely in Inuyasha’s ears. The real pisser was that Sesshoumaru didn’t even have that arm to tie behind his back, since he’d cut it off ages ago. If only, only Inuyasha could go back in time to when he’d first discovered Tetsusaiga’s power in his father’s grave. . .he would never have cut off Sesshoumaru’s left arm.

He’d have cut off his sword arm instead, because now it was taking all he had to drive his elder brother back. Toukijin had already tasted his skin three times too many, and his own blood was cloyingly strong in his nostrils. Sesshoumaru was as pristine as ever, only his eyes showing any kind of change since the fight began. Where they had been coolly unamused to begin with, they were now narrowed into disdainful slits. He was growing bored.

Blows were exchanged, Inuyasha cursed, Sesshoumaru’s sword shone with the pinkish smear of hanyou blood. On and on it went.

With nothing on the line, no one to save, the fight was empty. What was he really trying to accomplish? Inuyasha didn’t know, but he was sure that he was likely being indulged for the simple reason that Sesshoumaru might just be as bored with the day as he. A slow, dulling sensation of clarity sapped the energy from him, leaving him standing there, resigned and sore as Sesshoumaru attacked again, swift and deadly as ever. Just what was he doing there?

Sesshoumaru noticed. Inuyasha wasn’t one prone to bouts of depression, and was just irritating enough to scoff at the thought of suicide. The act would have saved the youkai lord a lot of hassle, but the fact remained that there were very few reasons why Inuyasha would drop his stance in the middle of a battle, especially against someone who was intent on the kill.

Narrowed golden eyes turned hard, but it didn’t hide the slight change in Toukijin’s striking angle.

Inuyasha couldn’t help but cry out as the blade passed through his chest, just below his right shoulder. Face contorting with pain, he brutally pulled himself off the blade, punching it aside and changing his grip on Tetsusaiga in favour of staunching the flow of blood. It would heal in a while.

“Sesshoumaru, you bastard. . .that was a lucky shot!” he ground out, inwardly reeling that he’d been momentarily distracted in the first place. And, of course, the pain. Bloody fuck, did it hurt.

The youkai frowned mildly at Toukijin, and to Inuyasha it seemed like he was unhappy with the hanyou blood all over it.

“Indeed, Inuyasha,” he said smoothly. “Had the strike been any further to the left, you would be dead. It appears fortune was on your side.” But then, Sesshoumaru reflected, when hadn’t it been? Luck was all that had kept the fool alive all these years, even in an unnatural sleep for half a century. Why he hadn’t been gnawed on by local wildlife in that time was yet another mystery to lay at his feet. Even in this, his rare moment of indulgence when his half-brother had so obviously sought him out to begin a fight, only to lose interest partway through the battle. . .such actions were admittedly confusing, and killing the hanyou would not clear any of that up for him. So for now, he would withdraw. He could be spending his time more fruitfully elsewhere.

“Keh!” Inuyasha was scoffing, raising the fang and trying not to wince as the motion pulled at the wound. “Fighting me, you’re the one that’s going to need the luck. Tetsusaiga and I are going to kick your—what the fuck are you doing?”

Sesshoumaru’s expression didn’t change as he sheathed his sword and turned on his heel.

Then he started walking away.

From the fight.

Inuyasha saw red. “Sesshoumaru! Don’t you walk away from me! Hey! What, are you scared or something?!”

He at least expected some kind of response to such an accusation, but there was nothing but his almost soundless footsteps away from the clearing where Inuyasha stood. Stunned speechless, he stared through dishevelled strands of white hair at the retreating back of his elder half-brother, Tetsusaiga dropping heavily to the grass. He nearly yelled out once more, just to make certain he wasn’t just fucking around with his head, but a strong throb of something like rejection stopped him, made him blink stupidly after him. He wasn’t even worth a fight to him anymore?

“More like he didn’t want to get his claws all dirty,” he muttered to himself, kneeling slightly to pick up and sheath Tetsusaiga. Feeling curiously angry at the world, he began to stomp away, ears twitching madly.

Still, the strange, lingering confusion stubbornly remained.




It hadn’t yet been a month since it all ended.

For more than two years all their lives had revolved around Naraku and hunting the shards of the Shikon no Tama, driven in furious pursuit of their elusive enemy. Now, with his defeat at what seemed like the hands of everyone whom he’d ever wronged – even the mangy wolf, Kouga, had been there – life had ground to a screeching halt. For Inuyasha, at least. Kagome, with her role over, had taken the deadened Shikon no Tama and gone back to her own time. . .a parting that he barely wanted to think about anymore. It was Past. And it hurt like hell.

Kikyou had died with Naraku, what little of her that had still been alive. He’d never forget the grave beauty in her face as she wrapped her arms around the struggling hanyou, her holy powers scoring him even as her body began to crack and fall apart for the final time. They’d used the Shikon no Tama to wish her fragmented soul to a peaceful rest, at Inuyasha’s approval. It had been. . .hard, but it was right. Anything less would be pure selfishness, and he wanted that jewel out of their lives forever.

The rest was history. Kohaku was laid to rest in the taijiya village, before Miroku and Sango left together for whereabouts unknown. Shippou, torn between going with them and staying with Inuyasha, had tried to plead that he come with them. But why the hell would he? The last thing he wanted to do was hang out with them like it was old times, and think about the prayer beads resting around his neck like a shackle that could never be removed. So they’d gone, leaving behind an open invitation and a smile.

It was fine. They were happy, and Inuyasha was used to being by himself. He liked it that way.

Bullshit, some part of him spat brutally. You hated it before and you hate it now. Serves you right for acting so harshly while they were all still there. But now Kagome’s gone and you can’t stand to pretend there’s a chance she’ll come back. You’re alone now, and it’s terrible. That’s why you distract yourself by goading Sesshoumaru into yet another fight that will never be finished. That’s why he walked away, leaving you feeling like an attention-seeking idiot. You’re all by yourself, hanyou, and you’d better get used to it. You’re back to square one, and those last few years were just a dream.

The thoughts buffeted him more harshly than the night winds he was trying vainly to protect himself from, to no avail. This was the one night where he would not sleep, would not be safe. The sky was moonless, it was cold, and Inuyasha was human. Huddled against the sturdy trunk of a tree, hidden in the branches, he cradled Tetsusaiga’s sheath in his lap and tried not to block out the voice of truth that wouldn’t stay silent. Eight hours to go. Just eight more hours before sunrise. Tucking his hands deeper into the sleeves of his haori, he blew a lock of midnight black hair away from his mouth and settled back to wait out the dawn.

A high, frightened scream rent the air, startling him so badly he nearly fell out of the tree. “Shit!” he barked, dark violet eyes peering down at the ground to see where the sound had come from. He couldn’t see a thing with his useless human eyes though, not from his vantage point. Heart thundering, he thought fast. If he got down there—

The scream came again, followed by the snap of twigs and movement of something moving quickly over the forest foliage. Heading in his direction. Unease twisted his insides. He wasn’t weak like this, but. . .aw, hell. Scowling heavily at the inconvenience that something like this should happen on this particular night, he nimbly jumped down to one of the thicker, lower branches, and peered around. He could hear it clearly now, frightened whimpers colouring laboured panting. Small footsteps moving rapidly, cries of pain and snapping of twigs. Then, something that stopped him cold.

“Ss-sesshoumaru-sama! Help me, Sesshoumaru-sama!”

That voice sure as hell wasn’t the green toad, whatever his name was. It was the kid. Inuyasha backed off fast, content now to let her run by. If her being here meant Sesshoumaru was still looming somewhere, he couldn’t give a shit what happened to her. Let the bastard deal with it. Tucking his hands behind his head, he closed his eyes lazily and waited. Jeez, she was noisy. All that rustling was just giving away her position, smearing her scent all over the place. And the crying. . .

He shifted irritably. Man, he hated girls crying.

A short scream, and a hard thump. Closer this time. He imagined that even in this state, he could smell her terror, cold and sharp like ice. Where the hell was Sesshoumaru? At this rate, he’d be picking her up with chopsticks in the morning. Growling in annoyance, he figured that if no one was going to step in, he might as well try and do something. Just to shut her up.

So, when she finally burst through the bushes and started running past his tree, face scratched and tear-stained, Inuyasha leisurely reached down and snatched her from the ground. She let out a wail, legs kicking, before he thumped her down in his lap and covered her mouth. He craned his neck to see down at the ground, curious to see what had been tailing her. He nearly snickered when it emerged.

A skinny old wolf? That was it? Jeez, it wasn’t even a youkai. Why the hell didn’t she just climb a tree in the first place? Dumb kid. He watched as it stopped, momentarily confused as it scented the air. It circled the tree a few times before running off in search of new prey, probably heading for the nearby mountains it had come down from. Grinning, he looked down at the little, girl, ready to give her a tongue-lashing about making so much noise, when his smile slipped and died.

She was still sobbing, albeit silently, hands covering her ears and eyes tightly closed. And shaking. All this over some stupid— He uncertainly took his hand away from her mouth and poked her in the temple. “Oy. Stop it already.”

“S’it g-g-gone?” She asked, stumbling all over her words. Inuyasha resisted the strong urge to reply as if it were Shippou in his lap, certain that she wouldn’t respond too well to a good whack over the head. Damn, she was really making Tetsusaiga dig into his crotch. If she didn’t move soon—

“Yeah, it’s gone,” he snapped painfully, reaching under her to shift the sheath. “It can’t get you up here anyhow.” Oh, that was better.

Suddenly big brown eyes were looking closely into his, and little hands were pulling sharply on his hair for balance. Owfuck. Again, Inuyasha valiantly reigned in his temper. Her eyes were huge and shiny, and he could almost smell the wave of gratitude that was coming his way. Her mouth opened.

“Do you know where Sesshoumaru-sama is?”

His eyebrow twitched.

This was why he didn’t do hero business when he could avoid it. The troubles outweighed the benefits by far. “No, I don’t know where he is. Probably ditched you because you make so much noise. Why the hell are you here anyway? Where’s the toad?”

She’d started sniffling again, but perked up at that last. “Jaken-sama told Rin that Sesshoumaru-sama wanted a five-leaf clover. Rin has been looking all day, but. . .” she started fumbling in her kimono, while Inuyasha tried in vain not to crack a grin. Five-leaf clover, was it? That was one wily toad. Damned if he was sorry he’d never tried that one on Shippou. A hand tugged his sleeve, and he looked down to see her mournful expression as she held out her hand. “All Rin could find were these.”

In her small palm were what looked to be three four-leaf clovers.

Well, shit.

“That’s a pretty crappy haul,” he said lazily. “But it’s okay. You’re a kid, and kids suck at finding things.” Her lower lip trembled a little as she put away her find, and clasped her hands in her lap shyly. Due to the way he’d grabbed her, she was sitting sideways in his lap, legs hanging down and kicking idly at thin air. He was resting along the length of the branch, back propped up against the trunk. Seven and a half hours to go. He was glad that she contained the ability to shut up and not move around much, because it allowed him to forget that she was there for a while. He shifted a little and closed his eyes, knowing he wasn’t going to sleep but hoping it might keep her quiet if she thought he was. His face smoothed out as he relaxed, eyelashes dark crescents on his cheeks, mouth devoid of his usual harried scowl.

A finger poked him lightly in the temple. “Are you sleeping?” She whispered. Inuyasha didn’t reply. She fell silent again, thankfully, and he was about to try to figure out how to meditate when she scooted closer in his lap and lay her head against his chest. Startled, he cracked an eye open and looked down at the top of her head curiously, then opened both. The kid wasn’t. . .was she sleeping on him? She was! Damn it, he wasn’t some kind of pillow for Sesshoumaru’s insane servant girl! He nearly dumped her out of his tree, just for the insult, but lost his bluster soon afterward. She might be nuts, following his half-brother like that, but she was still just a kid. And she must be pretty desperate for company if she followed him around. He could understand being that alone in the world. Though when he’d been small enough and stupid enough to think that his snob of a half-brother might actually help him, his hopes had been crushed quite quickly. Somewhere in between the words ‘filthy’ and ‘hanyou’ had that happened.

But he let this girl follow him around, and even bailed her out of trouble?

After a while, he drew the conclusion that Sesshoumaru was a hypocrite. Inuyasha paused in his thoughts, mentally adding; and an asshole.

“Sesshoumaru-sama. . .” the girl murmured in her sleep, and smiled. Then she stirred a little, yawned, and looked up into his angry dark blue eyes. “Inuyasha-san? Can you take Rin to find Sesshoumaru-sama in the morning?”

He nearly fell out of the tree for real that time. “What?”

“Rin doesn’t really know where he went, and Inuyasha-san is a—”

“How do you know—what makes you think I’m Inuyasha?” he broke in, staring at her in disbelief. They’d met like what, four times, and she could still pick him in his human form?

Rin blinked slowly. “You’re wearing Inuyasha-san’s clothes. And you have a sword like he does. Did you leave Inuyasha-san naked somewhere? Are you a robber?” The colour slowly began to leech from her face. “Are you a bandit?

No, I’m not a damned bandit,” he nearly shouted, strangely feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on. “Leave Inuyasha-san – I mean me – alone.” Thank god in his hanyou form his hair was naturally silver—no one would be able to see all the grey hairs she was most likely giving him. “I’ll take you to my asshole brother in the morning, okay?” At the ass-crack of dawn, if he could manage it. When the first silver strand of hair appeared, they’d be out of there. This kid was a complete pill.

“That, will not be necessary,” a smooth voice replied below them. Inuyasha stiffened, staring straight ahead as panic blossomed beneath his ribs, even as Rin squealed in delight. Oh no. No. Not here. Not now. He barely felt the girl jump out of his lap; his body was too busy humming with fear and shock. If there was one thing he’d kept hidden from his enemies, a secret kept under lock and key, it was the one night he turned human. For years, he’d guarded that for fear it would get him killed, and because of some human brat who was too loud and too annoying, he’d forgotten for an instant that on this one night, he was as easy to kill as she.

And Sesshoumaru had just strolled on up to them, and was presently standing not three feet below him. Close enough to slap upside the head if he stretched. And he was looking at him. He could see that his silver hair was gone, replaced by midnight black. Could see that his vivid golden eyes were dark blue and wide with irrational fear. Could see that his white, triangular dog-ears had vanished from the top of his head, that his claws were gone, that his fangs were blunted into short human teeth. He took it in with one long sweep of his narrow golden eyes.

He knew.

Heart in his throat, Inuyasha thought he might drown in that silence. His hand gripped Tetsusaiga’s sheath so tightly he thought it might crack, but he couldn’t speak. There was nothing to say; even Sesshoumaru knew that, with his lips parted on cold words he wasn’t yet going to voice.

Then, his youkai half-brother’s hand slowly shifted, resting on Toukijin’s hilt.

And the hanyou Inuyasha did the only thing that he could.

He bolted.


 
Chapter 2: New Moon

Running away from a fight was never something Inuyasha was particularly adept at. Which, among other reasons, was probably why Sesshoumaru caught him so quickly.

In truth, the hanyou wasn't sure why he was running. He'd faced worse before – and with the kid watching, chances were that even his bastard brother might pause a little at the idea of killing him then and there. Inuyasha doubted it though. Sesshoumaru didn't explain himself, but it was beginning to seem more and more like it wasn't humans he had the problem with – it was just his half-breed brother. And presented with such a perfect chance to get rid of him forever . . . well, no one could fault him for taking advantage of the situation.

Inuyasha prided himself on being a realist about the truth of the world. And a survivor. So at the risk of being compared to Myouga, and fully prepared to kick his own ass for this later, he bolted through the low underbrush of the forest like any typical human faced with a youkai.

His first problem came when a branch snapped back in his face, leaving a deep scratch on his cheek. The wound felt like a brand of fire to his cold face, the blood an alert to every fucking youkai in the forest that there was food about. He kept running, but his second problem materialised quite quickly in front of him, just as he was glancing behind himself to see if he was being tailed.

Inuyasha was quite surprised to feel a foreign hardness stab hard against his belly, and turned to lookdown in horror at Toukijin's hilt digging into his stomach, connected to a pale, long-fingered hand that if he followed with his eyes would surely lead to his brother's cold gaze. The breath pushed out of already taxed lungs, Inuyasha wheezed and jumped back awkwardly, one hand to his brilliantly aching midsection. Great. He wasn't up to killing him right away.

"Cowardice overcomes stupidity, I see. Has your human form lent you some sense, perhaps? After all, it's human instinct to run from a predator, Inuyasha."

His eyes snapped up at the mocking thread in those coolly spoken words, glaring and defiant. Sure enough, Sesshoumaru stood there with his sword in hand, his white clothing and silver hair standing out even on the night where no moon graced the sky. Inuyasha managed to snort, even as his hand clenched too tightly on Tetsusaiga's hilt, still sheathed. "Good thing, too," he shot back, "because you sure as hell weren't around to help the kid out before. What was that, your answer to survival techniques? At least teach the kid to fight. Next time it'll be more than a half-dead old wolf out to get her, and I've got better places to be." The pain in his ribs fading, and his heartbeat no longer beating out panic's theme song, the hanyou began to feel slightly more daring than was probably intelligent. "Unless you're trying to get rid of her, in which case just kill her already."

His brother's jaw tightened almost imperceptibly, but his voice remained unaffected. "Ah, but then you would be honour-bound to protect her, wouldn't you? Somehow, I believe that on this night, our fight would be more than one-sided. This human guise becomes you, Inuyasha." There was a definite sneer, however, to those last words. And for a moment something like shame flashed through Inuyasha, quickly stifled under two years of knowing just what humans were really capable of. Humans weren't weak, he told himself harshly. And neither was he.

But he was no match for a full-blooded demon when he was only armed with an untransformed sword, and it was that knowledge that had his bravado crumbling with every word. Even at his most alert, he could barely see his brother's claws until they were wrapped around his neck, jerking him up until his toes teasingly brushed the ground. Gasping harshly, he waited for the burn of acid to eat away at his flesh, his eyes locking with narrowed golden ones, rimmed with markings Inuyasha had never inherited from their father.

"Killing you would be pointless," Sesshoumaru said, his eyes travelling over his newly darkened hair and eyes. "You are no challenge to me, little brother. When I sought the Tetsusaiga you were worth my time, but no longer. You may remain the only stain on our family until you die the way you lived - in shame and without purpose. I will not give you the honourable death you seek." He threw the stunned hanyou aside, where he landed roughly in the dirt.

For a moment he didn't move from his landing place, absorbing just what had been said. Back when Sesshoumaru had been seeking the fang, he'd spouted crap like that, about being a disgrace and how he should be ashamed to be alive. In battle, Inuyasha hadn't cared a whole lot about anything his brother said, since when it came to insults he usually gave as good as he got anyway. But this was. . .was. . .fuck. He didn't even know what it was, only that it seemed like Sesshoumaru was blaming him for something.

Setting his jaw, knowing the demon was still there, he spoke. "Do you hate him as much as you hate me?" He looked up at Sesshoumaru, anger vivid in his dark blue eyes. "Or am I just special?"

Standing in the same place he'd been in when he'd grabbed the hanyou, something other than his usual remote, cool expression threatened to usurp his fine features. "Explain yourself, little brother." But there was a rasp of warning anger in the invitation.

Inuyasha didn't do subtle. "Our old man," he said, snorting a laugh as he pushed himself to his feet. "After all, he's the one who decided that humans were a better lay, right—"

Eyes suddenly savage, Sesshoumaru brutally backhanded the slighter form of his brother, fangs bared in a tight snarl. "You know nothing of our father, you disgusting abomination. You're nothing but a mistake father didn't have the time to rid himself of. You and your simpering human mother saw to that."

Angry for reasons he couldn't name - hadn't he always said he didn't care about his father? - Inuyasha wiped the blood from his mouth and shot back a barb that caught both of them by surprise. "Yeah? You sure about that? Where were you when the old man was half-dead, fighting that Takemaru bastard?"

A ringing silence followed, the words hanging between them like the bald accusation it was. He hadn't even thought about what he was saying, but with the suddenly masked expression on his brother's face and the way he didn't just attack like he always did make him wonder. Where. . .where had Sesshoumaru been, that day? Of all the things to come to light from the battle against Sou'unga, no one ever seemed to know. Yet, Sesshoumaru had known Takemaru's name, and everything else that had happened at the castle the day their father had died.

Shakily, Inuyasha continued, unsure of where this was leading. "I mean, hell, you knew about all this before I did, so what was stopping you from going with him? How is it that him dying was my fault, when you just stood around and let it all happen? Seems to me that if it's anyone's fault he's dead, it's. . .yours. . ." That last tapered off weakly, almost asking for something to refute his words. Why, he couldn't say. The hanyou wasn't a thinker, really, but this seemed. . .why wasn't Sesshoumaru saying anything?

Because he was right?

Then the truth hit him like a landslide, and hot anger rose within his chest, his expression mirroring his shock and disgust. "Oh, I get it, you twisted son of a bitch - you wouldn't help because he was going to help a human, right? You pulled your high and mighty superiority shit, and left him to handle it himself. Jeez, you're some youkai, you know that? A real piece of work. I can't believe I ever wanted t—" He pulled himself up short then, for two reasons. One was because he didn't want Sesshoumaru knowing he'd once wanted to use the Shikon no Tama to become a youkai, and also because his older brother's features were beginning to glow in the darkness, surrounded by a shroud of red-glowing youki.

His eyes were turning crimson, animalistic. "You know nothing, Inuyasha!" He snarled, his voice guttural, blending into less sophisticated vocal chords as his features began to shift with an unintentional heightening of youkai power. He was furious.

Even human, Inuyasha could sense the killing aura that was rising off Sesshoumaru in waves. And it didn't take a moment to figure out that he was in very, very deep shit.

But someone gasped softly, a small someone with one messy pigtail and wide brown eyes, shyly peeping out from behind a tree to Inuyasha's left. "Sesshoumaru-sama?" Rin called out trustingly, but her eyes were clouded with confusion. "Sesshoumaru-sama, you ran away after Inuyasha-san and Rin couldn't find you. . ." Her eyes slowly absorbed the scene before her, from Inuyasha's surprise and agitation to Sesshoumaru's powerful fury, which was rapidly dimming under the little girl's uncomprehending gaze. Finally all was dark in the small clearing again, and Sesshoumaru sheathed Toukijin, which had been tossed aside amidst the exchange.

"Rin," he called smoothly, all trace of anger wiped from his voice. "Come." His eyes locked with the dark blue pair belonging to the hanyou youth beside her, eyes that swarmed with troubled anger and barely veiled disgust. And something else he didn't really wish to see, merely because it reminded him of their first meeting as brothers.

"Do you hate me?"

"Yes."

". . .oh. But I don't hate you. Is that okay?"

He'd never answered the child that day, he'd merely pushed him aside and left. The boy was filthy, stupid, and reeked of the humans he'd spent so much time around prior to his. . .relocation by the humans after his mother's illness finally claimed her. Of course Sesshoumaru hadn't heard word of Izayoi's death until months afterward, so when he came across the orphaned hanyou, he was fending for himself in the forest. Their first meeting had lasted mere minutes, and the boy didn't seem to even understand the bitter rage that had steeped the air between them. If he had, he would have turned tail and ran, as he'd done tonight.

Strangely, seeing Inuyasha turn his back and run wasn't as satisfying as it should have been. Perhaps that was why he had followed him. But now it seemed to be Sesshoumaru who was feeling the mortifying, unfamiliar urge to step back. The fool finally understood the anger that he'd held toward him since the beginning. . .only he hadn't expected to have it tossed back in his face this way. It was honourable to allow youkai to fight their own battles. Even had he asked, father would not have permitted his interference in the battle because it would be dishonourable to aid him.

But he'd been injured.

He died protecting Inuyasha and his whore of a mother! It was their fault. Their. Fault.

But suddenly, somewhere in the wasteland of bitterness and cold anger he'd nurtured toward Inuyasha over the years. . .there was a fissure of uncertainty he didn't know how to erase. And the hesitation in him was unacceptable.

With Rin close on his heels Sesshoumaru turned and walked away, leaving the curious sensation of unfinished business still burdening his thoughts.

Inuyasha said nothing to his retreating back. For some reason, there was absolutely no satisfaction to be had in watching his older brother back down. Just questions that only a dead man could answer. . .for Sesshoumaru never would.


Days melted into weeks, but there was no real peace to be had.

"You've got that look in your eyes again, Inuyasha," Kaede said, her back to him as she checked the vegetables in the garden. He had no idea how the old bat could tell, having only one eye that wasn't pointed at him, but he put it down to queer miko powers. Kagome always could tell when he was pulling a face at her. . .and Kikyo had always seemed to know where he was. Scratching at his ear irritably, he scowled at the old woman.

"What look?" He grumped, flicking a piece of leaf off his claw. How had that gotten behind his ear?

Kaede didn't look up from the radishes. "The look that means you're remembering the past. Be it my sister you're remembering, or young Kagome?" She got up with only a little difficulty, though she was probably pushing seventy by now. Inuyasha never failed to find it irritating that he was a good many years her senior, and yet she treated him like an errant grandson. Her one good eye scanned his features. "Or is it someone else?"

Figured she'd ask. After the night in the forest – his forest, no less – he'd gone back to the village for lack of anything else to do, really. It wasn't like he was lonely or anything. Kaede hadn't complained at his return, since he was handy to have around when youkai threatened to attack, but that didn't mean she wasn't about to ask questions. He shrugged jerkily and turned away. "I'm not thinking of anyone," he said shortly. "You're going blind, old woman."

She chuckled, the sound rough but genuine. "Perhaps, Inuyasha. But I'm not blind yet. What's troubling you?" She picked up the flat woven basket by her feet and began heading back toward the hut. "You rarely look so thoughtful."

"It's nothing," he said stubbornly, turning his face toward the forest. He scowled. "Nothing new."

"I see," she murmured, though of course she didn't understand at all. But it was enough for Inuyasha to start on what had been pissing him off for the last few weeks. With nothing else left to ruminate on, his usual simmering resentment toward Sesshoumaru had expanded further than he ever thought it could. Now it was like a fevered knot of confusion and tense anger, coloured only by the unanswered questions that plagued him. He spilled the bare minimum to Kaede, enough to let her know that for once his thoughts weren't on Kikyo or Kagome, for once. Sesshoumaru had effectively eclipsed them from his mind for the moment, which was silent testimony to the impact that short exchange between them had had on him. He didn't like that.

"I find it interesting that you're so curious, Inuyasha. What exactly do you hope to gain by finding answers to these questions?" Kaede asked, her tone mild and unobtrusive. It was her greatest weapon, really. But she knew from past experience that curiosity wasn't always the fastest route to an answer. Sometimes you had to wait it out. When Inuyasha shrugged irritably, she told him just that. He barked a short laugh.

"That's the biggest load of—"

"Osuwari," she said blandly, and every muscle in Inuyasha's body tensed, his jaw snapping closed with a sharp clack, eyes scrunched closed in expectation. But of course, the spell couldn't activate on her command. The kotodama rosary remained deceptively dull and silent around his neck. It was now simply an adornment he couldn't –and wouldn't- rid himself of. When the alarm wore off, anger blossomed.

"That was a dirty trick," he finally grated, teeth clenched. The old miko simply shrugged, and began shuffling back to her hut.

"Sometimes a dirty trick works better than any other, Inuyasha. Keep that in mind if you cannot wait for your answers." He watched as she left, not caring to follow. Whatever she meant by that was her secret alone. What was with her, anyway? Couldn't her advice be a little more specific? But then, in truth, Kaede wouldn't really know how to go about getting an answer from his youkai half-brother, no matter how wise a miko she was. His guess was that no one did. . .though it seemed that if there was one weakness Sesshoumaru had, it was the memory of their father. Why, he had no idea. Which led him full circle back to the source of the problem.

"Shit," he cursed up at the sky, "I really should have killed him back then."


It was dusk, and he was walking. As always, he found himself gravitating to the same place Inuyasha did most nights; the Bone Eater's Well. The last place he'd seen Kagome before she'd returned to her own time forever. He hated that word – forever. There were too many noble actions tied to the events that led to that word, and there was nothing he could do to reverse them. Kagome. . .she'd really taught him what it was like to think about people other than himself, to do what was right even if it hurt. So he tried it on for a while, played hero like he knew what he was doing. Nearly had it all. Now he had everything they'd worked for. . .everything but each other.

In a way, he was glad it had been cut short before he could completely grow to love her—though where his heart had wavered, hers had been endlessly giving. He regretted that most of all. But in that sense, she was safe from him. He couldn't make her cry anymore, wouldn't put that quenched look of pain in her eyes every time they saw Kikyo's soul-stealers in the sky. And she'd be safe. No more danger. It was a good thought.

It had been nearly two months, now.

He peered down into the secret depths of the well, golden eyes searching for a familiar blue sparkling energy he knew he wouldn't find. This was the only place where the stars looked like they were trapped in a land-locked abyss, and he wouldn't be seeing them again. Whatever time-travelling ability the well had, it had been sealed once and forever.

He hated that word.

Just for the hell of it, he threw a rock down there, listening for the clatter of stone on stone. He cursed softly when he heard it. Ears twitching, he turned away from the sight and sat down in the lush grass surrounding the dry well, leaning his back against the familiar wooden structure.

Golden eyes sliding closed, he breathed in the scent of quiet, bland peace. Safety tasted like old parchment in the back of his throat. At his hip, Tetsusaiga too seemed to rebel at the notion that the rest of his life may just be spent absorbing quiet routine, and dreaming about old wells that wouldn't glow anymore. Jeez, he was acting pathetic. Frowning slightly, he put his hand to the trembling blade, clacking slightly in the old sheath. It didn't quieten. Inuyasha's eyes flew open. Tetsusaiga only reacted like this when he was around, and he'd lay a bet that somewhere nearby, Tenseiga was shaking too. Scenting the air, letting his senses locate Sesshoumaru, he was confused when no trace of him could be found. Wary, Inuyasha got to his feet.

"You might as well come out," he called out lazily, the corner of his mouth cocking into a half-grin. Tetsusaiga didn't cease, the minute vibrations running up and down the length of the sheathed blade. No one emerged from the trees. What the hell was going on here? Was the bastard actually nowhere in the vicinity?

Scowling down at his sword, and feeling more than a little stupid, he began to draw the blade when a strange sensation overcame him. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Growling softly, nearly inaudibly, the hanyou slowly turned and looked down into the black depths of the Bone Eater's Well. "What the hell is. . .oh, shit," he gasped out, disbelief colouring his expression. He stumbled back two steps, confusion clogging any thought process that might have spoke reason. No wonder Tetsusaiga was kicking up such a stink, if the thing down there was what he thought it was.

They'd destroyed it. It was gone. Fucking gone! So what the hell was down there?

"This is horse shit," he grated, raking his claws through his hair agitatedly. Tetsusaiga begged to differ. Pacing back and forth before the mouth of the well, Inuyasha tried to think. The well. The well might be active again. No! Of course it wasn't active. Idiot. Okay. Then they hadn't destroyed it back then. And it just happened to fall in the well. Hah. Next idea. Sesshoumaru fell in the well, and it really was him the sword was sensing. Wishful thinking.

Inuyasha paused for a moment, and snickered at that one.

Right, thinking wasn't doing any good. Just get in there and check it out.

Grimacing at the all-too-familiar motions of doing this, Inuyasha vaulted over the lip of the well, falling in silence for a moment. Heart in his throat for an instant, reality returned when his bare feet thudded into hard-packed soil, his legs absorbing the shock. Tense, knowing that after last time, he was being stupid, stupid, stupid, he peered around in the dim confines of the old well, searching.

Vines, check. Dirt, check. Eroded half-buried bones, check. Same old well. But his sword was still shaking like a scared old woman, and it was making him edgy. Sniffing, he could detect nothing more than the usual earthy scent that remained in the well. No new disturbance.

They said they threw it in here to seal the evil no one else could command.

"I'm losing it," he grumbled finally, feeling a little sheepish. Straightening, he decided that in being completely bored off his ass, he was imagining things. And that pissed him off. "Bloody losing it!" Unaccountably angry with himself, Tetsusaiga, and the well, he kicked at the old wall. Pain blossomed in his foot almost instantly, and he shouted a curse that echoed up to the surface. So, in true fashion, he kicked it again—and his foot went through. Something crunched. Caught off-balance, he went down hard, his right foot half-wedged in the wall of the well, flat on his back, staring up at the small square of rapidly diminishing light shining down from the entrance of the well. He grunted and sat up, examined his foot, then fell back to the dirt, his silver hair disarrayed about his body and face. Shit. Had he ever had dignity? Even for a second?

Sighing through slightly parted lips, he closed his eyes and gave up. He couldn't really remember if he'd been this useless before all that mess with the Shikon no Tama, but saw fit to blame all his down-time with Kagome and the others for this new sense of ineptitude now he was by himself. What would Sesshoumaru say if he saw him now?

"Oh no, someone threw Inuyasha-san down the well!"

Nah, that was something Rin would probably say.

His eyes snapped open in horror. Oh, no. Anything, anyone but her. But sure enough, a gaping mouth below wide brown eyes was turned down to peer at him, her brown hair hanging down over her small shoulders. "Inuyasha-san! Don't die! Sesshoumaru-samaaaaa! Inuyasha-san's—"

"Shhhhh! Shut up! Shut up!" He hissed up at her, panicking. He jerked his trapped foot, only to wince as the rocks bit at his foot, something hard weighing on his toes. Hey. . .he wasn't actually stuck, was he? "Rin! Dammit, I'm not dead! Now pipe down, idiot!"

Blinking, she looked down at him, chewing her lip now. "How did you get in there? It looks scary down there. Why's there no water? Are those bones?" Her voice was hushed with fascination.

Inuyasha grinned. This'd freak her out. "Yeah, youkai bones, kid. They say this well eats the youkai corpses that get tossed down here. I just reckon there's a bigger youkai hidden down here, eating 'em as they get thrown in."

Her eyes lit up. "You gonna fight it?"

"Uhh. . .sure," he said blankly, when an idea came to him. "Yeah. I'm trying to draw it out by pretending I'm injured. So get lost, will ya? You're blowing my cover. And don't tell Sesshoumaru I'm here!"

She didn't look too sure about that last bit, but nodded eagerly at the rest, excited as all hell. "Good luck, Inuyasha-san! I hope you win!"

"Just Inuyasha," he called out half-heartedly as her head disappeared from the mouth of the well. "And of course I'll win!" Sucker. He knew he probably shouldn't, but he got a cheap kick out of that kid's gullibility. Someone needed to wise her on up about people lying to her. But between his tight-ass of a brother and a toad with a stick, he guessed her knowledge of 'people' revolved around a fear of fiery retribution and how to translate facial twitches into full-blown sentences. Poor kid.

Not that he'd fared much better, but still. He liked to think he'd come far enough to pity her.

Shaking his foot, which was wedged to the ankle in the wall of the well –maybe Kagome was right about those anger management issues- he gave it a experimental yank and felt something hard drop down onto the top of his foot, within the wall. He wiggled his toes and frowned. It felt. . .

His heart started thudding a different beat, and he glanced at his right hand warily. Of course it had healed months and months ago, but he still remembered the sensation of those tentacle-like parasitic arms sliding under his skin like worms, encircling his arm and his mind. But that was nuts. There was seriously no way that thing was in there. Leaning forward, doubled over, he wedged his hands in on either side of his trapped foot, trying to gain a little more space to remove it. It was almost completely dark now, but he could still see, somewhat. There was complete, solid silence draped around him, making him feel cut off from the outside world. Jeez, he hoped there really wasn't a youkai down there, because that would be sort of embarrassing. But really, there was no room for anything. Any time both he and Kagome had come down here together, they'd been fairly squashed in. Any youkai down here picking the bones clean would have to be. . .well, part of the wall or something. Or maybe it was the wall.

He looked at his foot, still stuck, and thought about it. His eyebrow twitched for a moment, then he started yanking harder. "No damn youkai's gonna eat my foot," he muttered to himself, glancing warily about himself. "I'll kill it if it tries," he said then, his voice pointedly pitched a little louder. No response. Heh. He resumed pulling smaller rocks out away from his ankle.

"I had thought you could not sink any lower, little brother. But I believe I stand corrected."

Startled, his head jerked up to see two faces looking down at him. One, his brother's. The other. . .

"You told!" He shouted at Rin, feeling unaccountably betrayed. That little— His eyes switched to his stoic-faced brother, whose face was unreadable. "What! Can't a person get a little privacy around here?" His cheeks were heating up, and he was steadfastly ignoring the horrified embarrassment trying to rise up in him. This was worse than that time he walked in on Kaede getting dressed. Sesshoumaru was little more than a blur of facial features and some silver hair to him now, with it this dark and him so deep in the well. At his hip, Tetsusaiga began shaking in earnest.

"If you yearn for solitude, I could assist by sealing this well shut for you."

Inuyasha snorted. That was about the measure of his brother's generosity. He'd help him die. "No thanks. You can go now." Pointedly, he resumed trying to free his foot, ignoring Sesshoumaru and his turncoat accomplice. Jaw set, he resolved to just ignore him until he left.

Then a rock hit him on the head.

"What the fuck!" He shouted. That had bloody hurt. His head snapped back to look up at the well. "You did NOT just throw that at me. Your ass is mine, Sesshoumaru." He struggled upright, foot still caught, and clumsily tried to draw Tetsusaiga. But in such a small space, with no room to actually execute a Kaze no Kizu, it was futile. So he settled for shouting a few words that had Rin giggling and Sesshoumaru. . .well, who knew. His eyes glinted coldly.

"Temper, Inuyasha."

"Fuck you."

"I think not," the youkai lord murmured, and the cold note of metal unsheathing slashed across Inuyasha's sensitive ears. "I believe it is time I said. . .goodnight." Toukijin glowed with a red sheen, ready to send a blast that would send him straight to hell. Having seen it once before, the hanyou wasn't sure he really wanted to go there just yet. So, he acted.

"I think Sou'unga's on my foot!" He hollered, waving his arms.

The blow never came. There was a disbelieving silence.

This time his cheeks did flame scarlet, and was grateful for the darkness. "I mean, Tetsusaiga went nuts on me, and you weren't anywhere around—" Only, now it was painfully obvious he had been somewhere nearby the whole time. "I mean, it feels weird, and I got down here to check it out. I'm not nuts or anything!"

"Then you must merely be forgetful. If you recall, I destroyed Sou'unga some time ago."

Inuyasha choked. "That was me, asshole! If anyone's forgetful, it's you."

Rin cocked her head. "Inuyasha-san and Sesshoumaru-sama both beat the bad sword! It was because you worked together, remember?"

"Keh! Whatever," he sneered, though he knew it was true, just as Sesshoumaru did. But it was nothing he wanted to think about. If he wanted to forget about it, fine. It wasn't like Inuyasha cared. He'd never acknowledged him as any sort of warrior before, and he wouldn't start now. Pissed off, he tensed his thigh muscles and hauled his foot out of the hole, gritting his teeth to muffle the cry of pain trapped behind them. It came free with a splintering explosion of pain, some rock shards . . . and something else.

Inuyasha's golden eyes flew wide, and high above him, a breath was audibly sucked in.

She said her ancestors found it in a well, known for its mystical powers.

The Bone Eater's Well.

Sou'unga was here.

"Oh, shit," Inuyasha whispered. He didn't understand that time stuff too well, but he knew that two hundred years ago, his father had died and the sword had been tossed in a well. Five hundred years in the future, it had flown to him in a children's playground, and he'd brought it back with him to the past.

Did that mean. . .there were two? They'd gotten rid of the one from Kagome's time, but here, it hadn't yet been found. Still stuck in the well, waiting.

His head hurt. Staring down at the dusty, sheathed Sword of Hell, he didn't know what to do. What if—what if it activated? Would the future, or, the past be messed up?

"Fuuuuck," he groaned, knowing he had no idea what to do. Inuyasha stared at the dulled orb embedded in the hilt of the blade, remembering the way it had glowed with power, and those mind-controlling tendrils that had possessed him for a short time. Nearly made him hurt everyone. The sword was evil, and worse, he couldn't beat it. Not alone, anyway. And damn, it almost cost him to even think that.

There was a rustle above him, and Inuyasha looked up in time to see a white orb shoot down into the well, lighting up the sealed sword for an instant, before it rematerialised into the taller form of the demon lord, his hair fluttering around him. He assessed the sword with a quick flash of his eyes, but when he turned to Inuyasha his gaze remained longer. He didn't look pleased, which surprised the hanyou, because he'd almost thought for a moment that he would try to take the sword. He still might. "What?" He asked bluntly, pressed against the wall for two reasons. One, his foot hurt like shit, and two, Sesshoumaru wasn't a small youkai and there wasn't much room. As it was his empty sleeve was brushing up against him, clinging to his haori with static from the transformation.

Sesshoumaru ignored this. "You will tell me why that accursed sword is in this miserable well, Inuyasha," he said softly, his eyes hard and dangerous. "You will tell me now."

He stood, undecided, trying to lean as far away from his brother as possible. "Aw, you feeling left out of the loop?" He jeered, determined to milk this moment for all it was worth. This was going to be sweeter than all those times Sesshoumaru had asked him where Naraku was, despite Inuyasha having just realised why it was here himself. His asshole brother didn't know that. "I don't see why it's your business, anyway—"

There was a flash of anger in his older brother's eyes, and his claws glowed green, the scent rising off them enough to make Inuyasha's eyes water.

High above them, there was a squeak of high surprise, followed by a scream as Rin skidded down the tangled vines lining the well's walls, nearly crashing down on Inuyasha's head. She would have, if Sesshoumaru hadn't grabbed her by the scruff of her kimono, holding her aloft at eye level with an expression akin to mild exasperation. Rin looked elated. "You caught me, Sesshoumaru-sama!"

He sighed, making Inuyasha blink in surprise, before putting the small girl down. It was now unbearably cramped down there, and worse, the hanyou was feeling a growing urge to take a leak. With legs and arms squashed in down there, they were an undignified huddle around a sealed sword. Inuyasha scowled and shifted, nearly elbowing Rin in the head. "If that toad wants in here next, I'm outta here," he grunted.

"You mean Jaken-sama?" Rin asked. "Sesshoumaru-sama told him to go look for a ten-leaf clover."

Inuyasha blinked twice, and he turned disbelieving eyes to the older demon, whose poker face was as immovable and emotionless as ever. His mouth worked, but it took a moment before any words could form. "Ten-leaf, huh? That's. . .a bit over the top." He cleared his throat. "Six-leaf, maximum, would do. Anything more than that's an insult."

"Indeed," Sesshoumaru said coolly, but his eyes were slightly crinkled at the corners.

Inuyasha felt the strangest urge to belt his head on the wall. So the bastard did have a sense of humour? Impossible. Well, the hanyou amended, stranger things have happened. . .

Oh, bullshit, who was he kidding?

He kicked Sou'unga back into the cavity his foot had created, and put the rocks back in place as best he could. For some reason his smugness had ebbed somewhat, and he no longer felt like holding out on him. "The sword needs to stay here," he said seriously, kneeling to pack the dirt in around it. It kept trailing out, damn it. He pressed harder. "The well's got some kind of power about it that messes with time. Kagome used it to travel from her time to ours."

"Her time," Sesshoumaru repeated softly. "Am I expected to believe this?"

"I don't give a shit whether you believe me or not," he replied grimly, "but Kagome was from a future five hundred years ahead of us. Her ancestors found Sou'unga and kept it in a shrine. . .that was the Sou'unga we fought. But here, in the past, I think her ancestors haven't found it yet. The seal's still intact." He pressed more debris in around it, and started when a pair of small hands began pushing more in the hole around his. Rin smiled in the darkness, hunched down beside him. She made the space uncomfortably tight, and Sesshoumaru's foot was practically wedged in his ass, but maybe she wasn't so bad. "I think it needs to stay here until all that happens."

There was silence then, and the sound of breathing. Then his older brother laughed shortly, the sound humourless. "If what you say is correct, precisely why would you wish to ensure that the events of Sou'unga's resurrection are carried out? Did you perchance enjoy being possessed by the blade, or trying to slaughter small children like a mindless animal?"

Inuyasha's hands paused slightly, his eyes fixed on the hole he was filling in. His ankle ached. He swallowed and continued his work. No.

A hand fisted in his long hair, yanking his head back until his neck was arched, and he stared up into his brother's face. "Answer me, Inuyasha."

He was too close, his breath on his cheek, his eyes locked and hard on Inuyasha's. The red markings on his eyelids, the stripes on his cheeks. . .he knew where they came from. And the hair that fell forward over both his shoulders, pooled in Inuyasha's lap. He knew, now. The hanyou had to swallow before he spoke. "I guess it's because if it didn't all happen, I still wouldn't know my father's face." A genuine, if self-depreciating smile ghosted over his mouth as he looked at Sesshoumaru. "You look more like him than me."

Impossibly, the words seemed to be a direct hit. Sesshoumaru stared at his half-brother wordlessly for a moment, before his hand slowly relaxed on his hair, freeing him. Inuyasha didn't wait for him to straighten, or laugh, or leave, he just pushed Rin's fingers aside and tried to make sure the future wouldn't change the past. It was probably selfish of him to want it, and he'd always said otherwise to Kagome and even himself, but seeing his father that time was a moment he couldn't quite forget. Hearing him say his name, watching him fade away—

Warmth. Right behind him, and the cool press of armour. Inuyasha stiffened as breath ghosted over his ear, eyes wide. He felt the weight of Sesshoumaru leaning slightly on his back, using him for balance as his sole arm reached around him. He'd kneeled down, and was stretching past Inuyasha for the messy patch job on the well he'd created. "Hey. . ." He started to protest, but was too confused as to why Sesshoumaru, his cold, hateful older brother would have his cheek nearly pressed to Inuyasha's in a dirty old well—and would seal the hole shut with the poison in his claws, melting the stone down over the gap his foot had created. It sizzled and smoked a little, and the acrid smell made Rin sneeze. Inuyasha barely noticed, his confusion warring with old wounds and anger, his face slightly turned to Sesshoumaru's, unable to move, even though skin was too close to skin.

"What're you—what the hell do you think you're doing?" The hanyou blustered, striving to mask his sudden uncertainty. Sesshoumaru didn't help; that just wasn't how it worked. "I can do this myself. Now get off me."

Ignoring him, Sesshoumaru released another wave of poison, truly sealing the sword in the space. Over time the stone would erode away to reveal Sou'unga's resting place, but for now it would serve well. Despite his actions before he truly understood the volatility of the sword, he had no use for the blade that could open the gates of the underworld. His eyes swung to Inuyasha's, only centimetres away. He seemed to enjoy the hanyou's nervousness. "I never knew you were such an ingrate. Manners, Inuyasha. Surely your useless mother taught you at least that much." So close to his ear, the thread of mild disdain in his voice was unmistakable.

Inuyasha's mother was always a touchy subject. He immediately bristled, his head snapping around. "You shut up about my mother—" He started to shout, when Rin shifted against his side, unthinkingly pushing him closer to the youkai than he initially meant to lean. Heads knocked. Lips grazed.

Sesshoumaru stiffened.

It was gone in an instant, that quick moist brush of mouths –not a kiss, no no no-, replaced by a gaping hanyou, golden eyes ruined of anger and filled with mortification. The daiyoukai came to life then, and reacted naturally.

The last thing Inuyasha saw was the fist rushing at his face.



Chapter 3: Deepest Cuts

Waking up in the bottom of a well in the middle of the night was one of those unpleasant, slightly degrading experiences that usually makes a person –or hanyou, in this case- look at the life that they'd led up until that moment.

Inuyasha, however, had found that cursing Sesshoumaru to high heaven was the better way to go. When in doubt about the direction life was taking, blame someone else.

Two days ago he'd crawled out of that pit of memories, the resting place of the Sword of Hell, Sou'unga. The Bone Eater's Well. Two days and he was back at the village, fingering the jaw Sesshoumaru had nearly broken, wondering at why someone so obviously hungry for power and disdainful of Inuyasha would actually go so far as to help him do something that really, served no purpose at all. Had he not known Sesshoumaru's scent inside and out, he'd have decided that the youkai down in the well with him that day had been someone else. But. Being his senses what they were, it was kind of hard to stretch denial that far. So Inuyasha settled for confusion. Irritating levels of confusion.

When Inuyasha was irritated, he liked to destroy things.

Which took him to his current situation.

"Wow, he's strong! Who is that?"

"That's Inuyasha, stupid—he's a youkai! See his ears? They say if you rub them, you get good luck!"

"Eewww! Really? I wanna try!"

"Move along you brats, you've got chores to do. Damn that Inuyasha, flaunting himself indecently like that! If he didn't make himself useful around here, why I'd. . ."

That little snippet of conversation went on for a while. Sure, they were a fair distance away, those damn villagers, but distance didn't matter much when you had even a hanyou –just a hanyou's - level of hearing. A youkai he wasn't. Gossip ran rampant in Kaede's village, and while Inuyasha didn't usually care, he was a little worried that kid back there was actually going to try and rub his ears. He'd bet his Tetsusaiga that Miroku had spread that rumour last time he was in the village. Bastard.

Hauling back the axe for the millionth time, Inuyasha revelled in the satisfying chunk of metal shearing through wood. Firewood, to be precise.

Trust Kaede to turn his urge to destroy into something practical.

He'd been there all day, more or less, and the day before that. So far the whole village had enough to last them through next winter, or thereabouts. Being nearly summer, the air balmy and almost thick with humidity, it would probably rot before it ever reached the colder months. Still, there was something cleansing about hacking the forest he'd been sealed in to tiny pieces. And it was betting than being still and just. . .thinking. Inuyasha hated thinking, and the last few weeks had given him a lot of it to do.

He was still hacking his latest tree apart like it was Naraku's face when he heard a slow shuffling, and the scent of sage and woodsmoke filled his nose. Ears twitching madly, he buried the axe deep into the trunk of the felled tree and pushed his hair of his face, panting lightly. The heat would almost make cutting the lot off worthwhile. "Can't you see I'm busy?" He snapped at Kaede as she approached, her expression as deceptively mild as always. She always seemed to take his angry bluster in her stride, and he let her, with the long-sufferance of two people too long set in their ways to really change now.

She stopped a few feet short of him and eyed the towering pile of neatly chopped wood, stacked high enough that he'd resorted to throwing the final pieces at the top and hoping he didn't overcompensate and hit some kid on the other side. The old priestess shook her head. "You've done a service to the village to be sure, but I'm not sure the youkai who live in the forest are going to forgive you," she said pragmatically. For a priestess whose village was routinely attacked by said youkai, she was all about the circle of life. The hanyou shrugged irritably.

"If they start causing a fuss, send 'em my way," he growled, cracking his knuckles in an old gesture he'd picked up somewhere. "I'll give them something to complain about." Bending down, he picked up his haori and slung it over his forearm, not wanting to put it on while his upper body still shone with sweat. "I'm going to wash. You got any food in your old shack or what? I'm hungry as hell."

"Honest work will give one an appetite," she said needlessly, turning away. "I'm sure I have a few bones you can gnaw on."

The dog reference wasn't lost on Inuyasha. "Hey, keep that up, and it'll be your bones I'll be chewing," he grumbled, stalking off toward the creek. "No damn respect around here. . ."

"Thank you for your help, Inuyasha," her voice called back. He snorted without turning.

"Whatever."

He had no idea why he still stuck around the village, really. In a way it was the only place he'd ever called home, and it had been a base for himself and the others when they'd been hunting Naraku. It had also been Kikyou's home, once upon a time. He supposed that for all those reasons he hung around and made sure no stupid youkai came along to kill his villagers. They could hate him all they liked, but he had first dibs on killing any of them so that meant they were off limits to other youkai. It made sense if he thought about it. Kind of the way he'd be royally pissed if something killed off Sesshoumaru before he'd had a chance to skewer him with Tetsusaiga.

His ears twitched at the mental image. Maybe not stab him through, then. The Bakuryuuha? It was strong enough, depending, but not his strongest attack. Kind of an insult and a killing in one. Why go all out? Back in the day, one well-placed Kaze no Kizu had nearly offed him once and for all. Good times. He grinned to himself and wove his path through the forest, following the teasing scent of water. Somehow, deciding on how he'd eventually kill Sesshoumaru brightened his spirits somewhat. He still owed him for clocking him in the jaw, and he hadn't forgotten. Who the hell punches someone for losing their balance, anyway?

"Asshole," he growled to himself, starting when a snake paused as it crossed his path, hissing. "What?" He kicked the offending serpent out of the way, ducking under a low-hanging tree branch before the forest cleared, revealing the widest part of the local creek. It was damn hard to get to, so humans never came this way. Because, you know, youkai. Taking shortcuts through the forest was another form of suicide. Inuyasha ventured there almost daily, which was obvious from the towel and chunk of soap sitting at the base of a nearby tree. The soap had been a backhanded gift from Kagome, months ago. Actually, she'd thrown it at his head in one of their many arguments, and he'd kept it because it had smelled like her. Not really a feminine scent, it was just the warm, clean scent she'd always worn on her, the only one she'd kept after he'd told her that her chemical perfumes were too harsh for his keen nose. She'd always been funny like that. In a heartbeat she'd go from hurling objects at his head to throwing out half her arsenal of girl products for him.

Throwing his haori down beside it he finished the quick business of pulling off his clothes, still caught in thought. He grabbed the soap almost automatically, his hardened claws sinking into the malleable white substance as he walked into the creek, wading in until the cool water crossed his hips, lapping at his navel. Compared to the heat of the day, it was nearly icy at first, making him wince slightly. "Shit, that's cold," he said with heartfelt discomfort, then sucked in a breath and dropped beneath the water. He hated submerging himself—water got into his ears and was a bitch to shake out—but his hair was sweaty, and the water was shockingly cool, and he wasn't going to be girly about having a bath.

Opening his eyes beneath the water, he leisurely let his body stretch out, sinking to the bottom. The further toward the middle he went, the deeper the water became, until he began to see shapes in the slightly murky darkness. Thinking it a submerged tree branch, he reached out—and touched something that squirmed and slid between his fingers.

Inuyasha freaked. In a manly way.

"GODDAMN EELS!" He roared as his head broke the surface, fist clenched around his struggling captive. Golden eyes wild, waterlogged tendrils of hair clinging to his face, he reared up into a standing position, slung his arm back, and let the damn thing fly.

Right at Sesshoumaru's face.

He didn't know who was more surprised in that split second –probably Sesshoumaru, since Inuyasha was still doing the 'oh god, it touched me' dance of revulsion- but the older youkai caught the offending fish by its head mid-air and crushed it without missing a beat, tossing it behind him where Jaken seemed to materialise out of nowhere. The green youkai looked delighted at the bounty, but Inuyasha didn't exactly notice, instead making a break for the bank. Particularly, where there were no eels and Tetsusaiga would be within his reach. Shit, shit, shit! Sesshoumaru!

There was a rustle in the bushes then, and it paused everyone. "Sesshoumaru-sama, can I go find something for lunch—oh, Jaken-sama! You found an eel!" Rin ambled up to the youkai retainer, eyes wide with delight, sightly out of breath from running to catch up. "We can eat this!"

Jaken scowled. "I know we can, idiot! Sesshoumaru-sama gave it to me. Find your own!"

Inuyasha's mortification rose as the little girl's eyes swung to the creek, trailing over to his half-revealed, and very naked form. The water barely covered his ass. Rin's mouth fell open in a little 'O' of surprise. "Inuyasha-san! You've got no clothes on! And—you don't have a tail! I thought you'd have a tail. Why don't you have a tail?" She actually moved closer to the bank, her brown eyes bright with curiosity. "Did you catch that eel? Wow! Catch me one!"

Inuyasha panicked. Tetsusaiga, or being naked in front of a little girl? Tetsusaiga, or nudity and horrible, horrible embarrassment? She'd probably make a comment on his— Oh, hell. His mother hadn't taught him what to do in these situations, but Kagome sure had. Fingering the prayer beads around his neck, he sank back into the water, his eyes dark gold and hunted. He looked to Sesshoumaru. "Keep your hands away from my sword," he said darkly. He watched Sesshoumaru's expression shift from bored to calculating. "And—and why the hell are you here? If you say chance I'm going to kill you." Did he make a habit of showing up during his most awkward moments, or what? A thought occurred to him. "You're stalking me, aren't you?"

It was obvious enough that the hanyou wasn't at his most rational at that moment, but his reflexes were still quick. He ducked under the water as Jaken's Staff of Heads spewed fire at him, picked up a smooth, heavy rock from the creek bed, and broke the surface again to hurl the rock square at the diminutive youkai's bald head. With a hollow thud the projectile hit home, and Jaken collapsed to the grass, hat askew. The flames guttered and died. "Goddamn toad," he growled, then slashed his glance back to Sesshoumaru. "Beat it, I'm trying to get clean here. I'll kick your ass later." Glancing around, he realised that his soap was missing. His gut clenched painfully for a moment as he realised he'd let it go to grab hold of that eel. Ignoring the silent youkai standing at the bank for a moment, he turned and scanned the water, but saw no telling lump of white. Damn.

There was a small splash, and then Rin was wading into the water, holding her kimono up ineffectually. "Are there really eels in this water?" She asked, her eyes on Sesshoumaru. The youkai took his eyes from Inuyasha to answer the girl's question, his eyes veiled in distaste.

"All manner of filth frequent these waters, it seems." The girl's denial that eels were dirty dimmed in his ears as he waited for the hanyou's inevitable fiery comeback to his statement, but none came. Sesshoumaru realised after a startling moment that Inuyasha wasn't even listening. The youkai blinked before he could school his expression. To his memory, he'd never been ignored by Inuyasha before.

Sesshoumaru had been right, Inuyasha hadn't heard a single word of what he'd said. He was too busy fishing around in the water for Kagome's soap. It was stupid really, and he knew it, but like the prayer beads around his neck, he clung to whatever he still had of her. Memories faded into fuzzy black and white images in the back of his mind, but things—the beads, the soap, her discarded bow and quiver back at Kaede's hut—things were real. As the weeks crept by he was forgetting little things about her, small snippets of memory that slid from his fingers more easily than even he'd feared. If he didn't have something to hold onto, he was going to forget all of her. She'd be a scentless, toneless monochrome girl he used to know, once upon a time. He was already adrift now that she'd gone and the others had left, but even without a purpose he figured he could survive on what had once been. But no.

Stilling in the water, suddenly lost, he felt his shoulders drop out of their arrogant set as he realised what he was doing. He couldn't let go. Because he couldn't go back to how things had been before she'd come through the well and broken his seal. The future stretched out before him like some endless track into oblivion. He knew then why he'd stuck around the village, why he'd protect them. Inuyasha had absolutely nowhere else to go. Cold, hard facts of life.

"Inuyasha-san? Inuyasha-san, are you okay?" Rin called to him from the shallows of the creek, her wide brown eyes worried and somehow, very familiar. He stared at her for a moment, uncomprehending of what she was asking. Glancing back at Sesshoumaru quickly, she took a step forward toward the hanyou. "Inuya—" Her words broke off in a surprised scream as she stepped in a blind hole, and disappeared under the murky water.

That woke him up. "Shit!" He yelped, diving forward even as Sesshoumaru took one long stride to the edge of the creek, his cold eyes scanning the water. "I got her," Inuyasha said, sinking beneath the water and kicking off strongly, his eyes wide and searching for her small form. She'd been right. . .there—he reached out and touched the floating strands of her dark hair, then suddenly there was a death-grip on his hand. If she spent any longer down there, that might be quite true. Bubbles floated up from her mouth as she lost air, and for a moment he didn't understand why she didn't surface—until he saw the exposed tree root twisting around her ankle, freed when she'd stepped into the hole.

Reaching down one handed, he grabbed the root and hauled it free of her small ankle, and pushed her dark head to the surface.

He rose from the water a second after her, hitting her sharply between the shoulder blades to shake loose any water still in her lungs. Rin coughed up a surprising amount of it for a girl that hadn't even lost consciousness, then blinked up at him fearfully. "I fell. . ." She said unsteadily, then her big eyes welled up with startled tears that spilled down her cheeks. Her shoulders shook. Inuyasha couldn't really fault her for crying this time; even he'd been a little worried. But that didn't make it okay for her to bury her face in his stomach and hang on for dear life. He felt that familiar surge of awkward horror rising up again, and decided the only way to get out of this was to pick her up. Or, god, comfort her. What did Sesshoumaru do in these situations? Damn it, this was the second time. Since when had he become her babysitter?

Patting her on the head awkwardly, he bent and hooked an arm under her legs, lifting her up his body so that she was cradled high on his chest in both arms. It was the only way he could spare her an eyeful. Cursing fate, he pointedly ignored Sesshoumaru as he waded out of the creek and onto dry land, the hot wind buffeting him and feeling strange on his cool skin. In his arms, Rin shivered. He wasn't usually this hung up about being naked, but you were supposed to respect women's delicate sensibilities, or something like that. He was going on blind faith in Kagome and Sango's words there. Naked men were bad. He wasn't sure if a hanyou like him counted, but he wasn't going to risk it.

The kid was totally saturated—she'd fallen in wearing what he was pretty sure was her only change of clothing. Damn. Realising her grip had transferred to his neck, he hoisted her a little higher and freed one arm long enough to grab his haori from the grass, shaking it out. "Oi, kid," he said gruffly, "enough with the tears. I'm wet enough already, you know? I'm gonna put you down, and you take this and run into the bushes to put it on. You're gonna get real sick if you stay all wet. Understand?" He dragged the fire rat fur up so that she could see it and take hold of it. Rin blinked tears out of her eyes and nodded at him.

"Okay, Inuyasha-san," she said obediently, then frowned in confusion. "But you'll get sick with no clothes on, won't you?"

"Nah. Too strong to get sick," he said, fighting back a small smirk as she nodded fervently.

"You're Sesshoumaru-sama's brother," she said, like that explained everything. His expression cooled slightly, and he let her down to dart off behind the trees to change. Whatever. To his far right, Sesshoumaru studied him with his usual unaffected superiority, but his eyes held something sharp in them that usually wasn't present.

Feigning ignorance of it, Inuyasha just grit his teeth and began twisting water out of his hair, but paused as he felt water swish in the caverns of his ears. Wincing at the uncomfortable sensation, he shook himself off, shaking his head wildly like a dog shaking water out of it's pelt. He heard a soft growl of displeasure and looked up to see Sesshoumaru step back sharply, wiping a droplet of water from his cheek. He'd been walking toward him. Why? "Uncouth mongrel," he said flatly, running clawed fingertips over the pelt that crossed his shoulder. "Parading about in your skin like a savage, shaking your hair about, you truly have no shame."

Inuyasha bristled, then forcibly calmed himself down and began twisting the water from his hair again. Any excuse for a fight, but this time he was bare-ass naked, and that would mean he'd get cut to ribbons if he attacked. Heh, he was getting smarter these days. "Got nothing to be ashamed about," he shot back, "and besides, I was taking a damn bath. If it offends you, stop looking. Jeez, you're such a girl, Sesshoumaru."

Ah, crap, he realised, probably shouldn't have said that.

He was almost resigned to the feel of claws wrapping themselves around his neck, but the unsettling sensation of being pressed against silk, armour and, well, Sesshoumaru wearing nothing but his skin was just plain wrong. He glared up into eyes the exact shade of molten gold as his, only harder, colder. His claws dug bloody furrows into the striped skin of Sesshoumaru's wrist, to no effect. His vision started to fill with dark spots as air was unable to enter or leave his lungs. His eyes began to water with the pain, and he realised he was going to pass out if he didn't do something soon. He'd probably kill him.

Inuyasha did the only thing he could from the position he was in. He drew Tenseiga from its place at Sesshoumaru's waist, pulled his arm back and shoved it through his older brother's throat. To the hilt. It exploded out the back of his neck, spearing through the fall of his hair, parting it like a curtain.

That close, Inuyasha could see the surprised pain in Sesshoumaru's eyes, but buried underneath it was pure shock. Neither of them had thought Inuyasha possessed the guts to do it. It was a true killing stroke.

If it had been any other sword, that is.

The claws at his throat relaxed and lowered him to the ground, and Inuyasha wasted no time in springing back, kneeling to draw in huge gasping gulps of air. His windpipe had nearly been crushed, he knew it. If he'd been any more intent on the kill. . .

His eyes flashed up to the older youkai, his brother, as he too sank to his knees. Tenseiga was the Sword of Heaven, and it couldn't kill, but it could cut flesh like any other sword. Inuyasha figured that when he pulled that sword out, the flesh would close instantly. Never really seen it in action though. . .but the sword couldn't kill, right? He'd be fine.

But it was in his throat.

Inuyasha felt strangely, crazily, like he was going to throw up.

Sesshoumaru was staring at him strangely. His fingertips were touching the hilt of the sword lightly, but he wasn't pulling it out. His wrist was bleeding, Inuyasha saw, and he felt an answering sting in his neck where pinprick wounds trickled with fresh blood. It didn't seem like Sesshoumaru could speak around the sword, but his eyes spoke volumes. A sword. A sword through his throat, and Inuyasha had put it there.

Ears flattened to his skull, he stared at the sword where it met the pale skin of Sesshoumaru's neck, and in a sudden jolt, he realised he didn't feel anything close to victorious in this mock battle. He felt scared. Unbelievably, Inuyasha wanted to shut his eyes. He'd done worse, damn it, he'd done much worse than this stupid playfight with a sword that couldn't so much as spill a drop of blood. But his eyes were transfixed, and filling with fear. If that sword came out—

He hadn't actually—

Inuyasha's stomach rolled. "Pull it out," he whispered hoarsely.

Sesshoumaru just watched him with those deep, narrow eyes, full of recalculations and knowledge turned on its head. The hanyou's eyes wavered. He'd done something, this time. Changed something. He hadn't meant to. "I said pull it out!" The sharp cry tore something in his tender throat, and a small trickle of blood spilled down over his lower lip. He coughed, the speckled the grass with dark red fluid. Inuyasha barely noticed, since the youkai lord on his knees in front of him had grasped the hilt of Tenseiga, preparing to draw it out.

He didn't have the arm length to pull it out from the hilt, not without grabbing it from the blade halfway to complete the removal of it. That was bad form when handling a sword. Inuyasha saw that in an instant, and found himself reaching forward to take the blade's hilt, nudging Sesshoumaru's hand out of the way. Maybe the sword wouldn't kill him, but it'd make one hell of a mess on the way out before it all healed up. Teeth gritted against the thick tension that seemed to lace the very air he drew into his aching, bloodied throat, the hanyou watched as Sesshoumaru's long-fingered hand fell away from the hilt. He bared his throat to his younger brother, his eyes narrowed and searching. Inuyasha just figured that he should help clean up the mess he made—he wanted to see it for himself. He hoped to hell that the kid didn't come running back in the middle of this.

There was something strange about seeing the pale arch of Sesshoumaru's throat so close to his teeth, and he realised it was because it seemed so vulnerable. Now there was a word that had nothing to do with the youkai lord. Breathing in, he could easily detect the familiar scent of his brother, a mixture of cold-edged youki and the smell of thunderstorms, but this close, there was a hint of some sleek feral musk that reminded him of wild creatures and darkness. It was the scent of a predator. A predator that was baring his throat to him so he could remove a sword he'd placed in his throat. What did that mean?

Confused, and more than a little bothered by it all, Inuyasha started to draw back, realising he'd leaned too far into the scent in an attempt to drink it all in, pale hair that wasn't his brushing his cheek. Shit. Sesshoumaru's eyes tracked him the whole time. Ears flattening again in something like guilt, he tightened his grip on the sword and began the process of drawing it back out.

He kept his eyes on the sword, nothing else. He wanted to just yank it out, but the uncertainty of how the sword worked was enough to stay his hand, coax some semblance of caution from him. So inch by careful inch, he pulled it free of the sheath of flesh, watching the blade draw free tinged with the pink sheen of blood. Spread so thinly, it wasn't red at all. It didn't seem real, but it smelled it. His hand jerked slightly then at the sight of it, and he heard a breath drawn in sharply. Inuyasha let out a low whine deep in his throat before he could stop himself, then bit down on his lips, uncertain at his reaction. So he'd hurt him a little. Sesshoumaru deserved it and more. So who cared?

"Why the hell did you have to show up here, anyway?" He muttered, almost to himself as he watched the blade sliding out of his neck. "And why am I doing this? Why'd you look at me like I'd done something wrong? I save your pet human, you call me a mongrel. Then you try to choke me to death, so I did what I had to do to get free. It's not like you never turned Tetsusaiga on me in a fight."

Burnished gold eyes watched him the whole time, unable to talk or respond in any way. Inuyasha supposed that when someone's controlling a sword in your neck, you learn to be tolerant. He could explain it no other way. Besides, once the sword came out, he'd probably just attack him again, or worse. Resigned to it, he watched the last of Tenseiga's blade free itself from his brother's neck, and the gash closed over and sealed itself up without so much as a red mark for his troubles. All that remained was the tiniest smear of blood—the only evidence that he'd been hurt in any way at all. It was kind of cool, and for the first time, Inuyasha felt a small pang of jealousy. Any sword could kill, sure, but this one was one of a kind. Why give it to someone like Sesshoumaru? It was completely useless in his hands—he didn't want to help anyone but himself. Rin was probably just an accident.

He held the sword in two hands, the blade flat along his palms, and felt no answering pulse to his call. No recognition that he was a son of the Inu no Taishou, whose fang had given the sword life. It just felt cold, and dead. "It doesn't like me," he said in realisation. "Jeez, even your sword is a bastard." His voice broke a little at the exclamation, and he gripped his throat once, more hissing in pain. The taste of wet copper gathered in his throat again.

Sesshoumaru took the blade from his hands and ran it along the grass to clean away the blood, sliding back into place at his hip. When he stood, he seemed to tower over Inuyasha. It came to the hanyou's attention then that he was still naked and sort of defenceless, and he reached out for his hakama, jerking the pants on and tying them hastily, his eyes mistrustful as he watched the silent youkai before him the whole time. Somehow, since the moment he'd stepped out of the water, his world had turned surreal and completely wrong. He wasn't sure exactly what had just happened, but he had a sinking suspicion that it was bad. Very bad.

When the silence seemed to stretch too thin, Inuyasha snapped. "What? If you're gonna kill me –try and kill me-, get it over and done with already."

Sesshoumaru's eyes slitted into shards of frozen fire. "I would not waste my time killing you. You are worthless to me, dead or alive."

Inuyasha's lip curled. "Always a bastard. Maybe I should have picked Toukijin instead," he growled, ignoring the copper taste of fire in his raw throat. Turning away, he nearly missed his half-brother stiffen. He stopped and frowned. "What? I'd think by now I'd be able to handle that possessed piece of—"

"You chose Tenseiga on purpose," he said, slowly, rolling the words as though they tasted foreign. "This, I will not believe."

The hanyou shrugged jerkily, scanning the bushes for Rin. Where the hell had she gotten to, wearing his haori? It wasn't for keeps, damn it. He cursed silently to himself, half his attention on what Sesshoumaru was saying. "Like I care what you believe. I just don't want to give a little kid nightmares for a month, which I would've if I'd half sawn your damn head off right here."

The youkai lord tipped his head back in understanding. "You're fond of Rin."

He shook his head. "Not really. There's just some things a kid shouldn't see." Why was he having this conversation? Shaking his hair back irritably, he backed up a step, turning toward the bushes to look for said kid. But he should have known better than to think Sesshoumaru wouldn't annoy the living hell out of him before he could make a clean getaway.

"When I came across you, you were six years old and trying to dig a grave with your claws."

Inuyasha froze, his features draining of colour. In an instant he forgot all about Rin. What girl? To his eyes, there was only his mother's body wrapped in a shroud, the foul scent of decay already clinging to her corpse. And a hole, a muddy hole he couldn't make big enough to fit her in. He'd been too little, his claws broken off one by one. "No. No, I first saw you in the forest. You weren't there," he whispered, sucking in a breath to hold back the flood of memory. He thought he'd forgotten that day. He'd buried his childhood in that grave, alongside his beloved mother. No, there were some things a kid shouldn't see. "I'd have known."

"You were a child, with a child's senses. I had no desire to make my presence known."

He swallowed. "Maybe you should've just done it then. I probably wouldn't have cared. Hell, the grave had already been dug—"

He broke off them, hurtled backwards against the trunk of a tree, Sesshoumaru's hand splayed across his collarbone. His eyes were full of more wrath than the hanyou had seen in a long time. "You will die when I say so, Inuyasha. Not before," he snarled, his upper lip lifting to reveal the canine fangs that transformed his face into something bestial. Shaken, confused, he found himself swallowed up in that blazing gaze and could do nothing else but nod dumbly, his mind a spinning blank. The youkai before him snarled again, softer now, but it didn't seem a thing like the calm, collected person that was usually his brother. "I am the only one that can kill you."

Inuyasha blinked. Maybe it was just the mood his words had brought on, but he remembered something, then. Sou'unga. The Gokuryuuha. You're in my way! He'd nearly ate dirt from the force of the shove, but Sesshoumaru had taken the brunt of one hell of an attack. Funny thing was, Sou'unga's attack that time probably wouldn't have killed him, and both of them knew it. But he'd been pushed out of the way of the blast just the same. Golden eyes blinked, and something confused stirred inside the hanyou. He felt like he was missing something, but damned if he could figure out what it was. He'd never been a thinker, he just hadn't. "Like I'd let myself get killed," he said finally, pushing that hand off his chest. "I'm not that kid anymore, Sesshoumaru. Haven't been for damn near two centuries. I don't die easy."

This close, he didn't miss the slight smirk, that set tilt of his brother's lips as he drew away. "I believe I will hold you to that. I have no use for the Tetsusaiga at this time, hanyou," he said coolly.

Inuyasha bristled. "Good, because you're not getting it." He would have said more on the subject, probably a lot more than would have ended in bloodshed, but Rin chose that precise moment to come bursting through the bushes, holding something in her hands that made the hanyou and youkai alike tense in recognition.

Rin held up the sun-lazy snake he'd kicked aside earlier and smiled at him. "Snakes are kind of like eels, right? Can we eat this one?"

"No!" he nearly shouted, grabbing the snake off her before it could get it's bearings and decide to strike. "Jeez, can't you be a little more caref—fuck!" The yellow-black striped serpent thrashed in his grip immediately, scenting danger, twisting its head and sinking fangs deep into his wrist. The burn of something foreign in his veins had nothing to do with fangs, and Inuyasha's vision swam with surprise for a moment. Venom. The little shit was venomous.

Of all the. . .

Rin screamed as his knees buckled, eyes wide and full of fear. "Inuyasha-san!"

"Urgh, pipe down, kid," he slurred slightly, pulling the snake free of his wrist, barely minding that it's glass-brittle fangs had broken off in his skin. He threw the furious serpent into the creek and tried to slow his descent to the ground, blinking as the grass seemed to ripple. His wrist was engulfed in fire. "Son of a bitch. . ."

Above him, someone growled in irritation. "Useless. You're useless to Rin if you're this susceptible to danger. . ." The hanyou wasn't really sure who was saying that, he couldn't see them, and the words were wavering in his ears anyway. Sesshoumaru? He tried to squint up at his brother, certain that he should have an eye on him at all times, but not really sure why.

Then he was kneeling in front of him, and it didn't matter much. Almost docilely, he watched claws sink into the snakebite, plucking the ruined fangs from the wound and tossing them aside. Then golden eyes just the colour of his own locked with his blurry vision. The red markings gracing his eyelids seemed to stand out in vivid contrast to his white skin. He'd never noticed that much before. . .strange. . .

"If you survive this, hanyou, you'll be in my debt. How fortuitous. . ." Sesshoumaru murmured, his eyes narrowing in harsh scrutiny. "And that is a very large, if."

The last thing Inuyasha saw before pain engulfed him, were his brother's poison-misted claws sinking into his open veins.

Then his world was nothing but black agony.



Chapter 4: Delerium

Poisoned.

It was as though a network of fire boiled under his skin, tainted and sick and hot. Inuyasha's eyes rolled under his eyelids feverishly, his skin slick with sweat, tendrils of white hair sticking to his forehead. A flash of white as his eyelids parted slightly – but he was senseless; lost in the grip of fever-bright delirium.

Kaede looked down at the suffering hanyou, and felt a soft prickle of pitying acceptance.

Inuyasha was going to die.

Seven days and seven nights, thrashing and shivering and gasping, unable to eat anything more than thin broth; barely more sustenance than water. And then finally, unable to eat anything at all. It was too much, his body pale and thinned with sickness, overwrought with nothing to run on. The bite wound on his arm was angry red and had been slashed open to nearly bare his veins, filled with another kind of venom that the old priestess had no notion of how to treat.

Venom of a dog demon.

She had thought it strange that the youkai lord Sesshoumaru had merely brought Inuyasha to her hut, slung over the back of a two-headed dragon, a young girl nearly in tears running by his side. Nothing was said until Kaede had lowered her nocked bow from its ready position; aimed right between Sesshoumaru's eyes. As Inuyasha had sworn up and down to her in the past that he had no heart, she felt it best to aim for the next vital spot, smiling grimly to herself even as something cold gripped her chest at the sight of what had appeared to be a lifeless Inuyasha. All her faith in the hanyou aside, she knew of the cold youkai's strength.

But the eyes staring down into hers were not presently those of a killer.

"Tend to him." A sharp jerk and Inuyasha tumbled from the dragon, landing hard on his side in the dirt, Tetsusaiga following to land beside him. Sesshoumaru had eyed the hanyou silently for a moment, before toeing him onto his back. Kaede could have sworn his eyes had narrowed in disgust, and that his hand had twitched toward his sword, but a blink and he was staring at her instead, mouth tight and expression a frozen mask.

"I will return in one week. Do not bury him until then."

It was when he had turned to leave that the small girl had run to her, fisting her hand in the white sleeve of her haori, deep chocolate eyes almost black with concern. Words tumbled over themselves out of her mouth; a rush of childish guilt and something like fear. "I-it was a snake, a yellow and black snake, and it bit him and he fell over because Rin was holding it and he took it away and then it bit him, and please make him better, Sesshoumaru-sama said his own poison couldn't or he'd die, and Rin doesn't want him to die—" Her babbling choked and died as a gnarled old hand had rested on her tousled hair, and Kaede had nodded.

"I see, child. I'll do what I can."

They'd left almost immediately, with the girl –Rin- looking back every few feet, wrapped up in Inuyasha's haori, hugging it to her like a blanket. Whatever that fool hanyou had gotten himself into, he'd obviously earned Sesshoumaru's little orphan girl's affection.

But it would do no good, the old woman sighed dully, as the firelight in her hut blanketed the dying hanyou in soft gold. What Kaede could do was not enough. The poison itself would not have been as much of a problem, but infection had set its heat deep under his skin, a sick and vile heat that was burning him up from within. How, she didn't know. The strength of Sesshoumaru's venom was nearly acidic, and should have removed all traces. She could only guess that was the intention of the nearly mauled wound in the hanyou's arm. Either that, or some curious attempt to counteract the poison with something stronger.

All she could do was bathe his skin and try in vain to cool his fever, and feed him. For his pain, there was nothing. No medicinal herbs she kept were potent enough to quell the agony streaming through his body, not with his half-demon roots. In the past he'd always borne the pain stubbornly, she remembered with a resigned shake of her head. Perhaps now he was too far away from consciousness to feel it.

Twisting the water out of a rag, Kaede lay the cloth across Inuyasha's brow, sweeping his hair off his face, where it clung in straggling strands. His cracked lips parted, and shockingly, for the first time in a week, he uttered a single, broken word.

"Mo. . .mother. . ."

Kaede's single eye widened, and a sudden, vicious stab of sadness took her by surprise. Oh, she couldn't deny it, she was very fond of Inuyasha, but she never thought she'd be tending him on his deathbed. Alone. The few that had loved him had gone on, long ago. Smoothing the back of her hand over his hot cheek, she could only be relieved that he would not die alone. No one deserved that, least of all this poor wretch. His intentions had always been good, but to meet an end like this for the sake of a human girl who followed his hated half-brother. . .

A sudden bloom of youki behind her, in the night, was her only warning.

By the time she turned around, he was close enough to kill her.

But again, Inuyasha's half brother did no such thing. Standing in the middle of her hut as though he'd been there all along, his single arm was relaxed and loose by his side, and there was no bloodlust in his frigid golden eyes. There was nothing in his eyes, nothing at all.

Trying to calm her old heart and not quite succeeding, Kaede's hand moved from the small dagger she kept hidden in her sleeve.

"A wise move, priestess," Sesshoumaru murmured coolly. His penetrating gaze slid to Inuyasha's prone form and lingered. "He is close to death."

Letting out a ragged breath, the old woman nodded tiredly. "There's nought else I can do for him. He's half-starved, can't swallow through the swelling in his throat, and the fever has him locked tight in dreams. He is simply growing too weak to heal himself." She paused then, a tickle of recollection as she studied the blades tucked securely at the youkai's waist. "Your sword has the power to heal, I hear. Revive the dead. Is that what you're here for?"

"Tenseiga finds him unworthy of its power," he replied calmly. And that was all. Kaede found it surprising that he made no mention of his own lack of interest in the endeavour. Should there be one. Exactly what was the youkai's game? She came up with no clear answer.

Inuyasha cried out then, his head twisting on the thin pillow as his face creased in pain. His whole body tensed like a bowstring drawn tight, fists clenching and claws tearing through the thin sheet draped over his waist. His shivering began almost immediately, even as sweat still poured off his body in rivulets. Sounds that could only be described as weak whimpers betrayed him, moisture glittering beneath his eyelashes. A dream. Nightmare. Behind her, unseen by the miko, Sesshoumaru's eyes narrowed in silent scrutiny.

"Prepare some food for him. Something that he can swallow," he ordered coolly, stepping forward to brush past Kaede, who stared at him in surprise.

"Don't let his movements fool you, he's completely unconscious. He'll not be able to drink in his state," she argued, frowning. But the look Sesshoumaru gave her was flat and unyielding, and said very clearly that she would obey or suffer the consequences. In her own hut! Grumbling to herself, she rose stiffly to her feet and shuffled over to the pot hanging over the fire, stirring the broth that was heating within.

"Build up the fire."

Kaede sniffed, but grudgingly did as he ordered. If Inuyasha lived, he would be severely in her debt. "Perhaps I should procure some fresh cold water also, if my lord pleases."

Her sarcasm was either unnoticed, or ignored. Sesshoumaru was running his claws around the raised edges of Inuyasha's wound and did not look up. "Do it."

Two sides of the same coin, the old woman thought darkly as she grabbed up a bucket and made her way out of the hut. Inuyasha and his brother were both rude and demanding. Whatever game that youkai was playing, marching into her village and ordering her about, she was certain it didn't bode well for Inuyasha. However, she bore it because if he could save him, she would allow it. Kaede had exhausted all her avenues when it came to healing the sickened hanyou.

But why Sesshoumaru would want to, well, she had no idea.


Inuyasha was weak.

The notion of that, under normal circumstances, usually brought the youkai lord a great deal of satisfaction. But these were not normal circumstances, and Sesshoumaru was angry. Too human for his acid claws to dispel the snake's poison, too susceptible to it for him to burn away the taint of venom with a youkai poison that was latently in his bloodline to accept. If he didn't need the hanyou for his own purposes, he'd have left him to die in his own froth by the riverside. It was demeaning that a son of the Inu no Taishou, their revered father, could be felled by a belly-crawling serpent. Inuyasha, ever the humiliation of their family.

Inuyasha, who was close to death.

Sesshoumaru would not bear this as the last blow the hanyou would strike in this world. Though it was a fittingly pathetic death for a weak hanyou, he still had his uses. To that end, he would ensure that Inuyasha would not draw his last breath that night, despite the damning silence of his father's healing sword.

Narrowing his eyes in disgust at the sight before him, Sesshoumaru tossed wood into the fire with almost bored grace, knowing the hut would soon become unbearably stifling. It was high summer, and the air was humid and thick, but to combat the heat of fever, equal heat was necessary. He strode to the side of Inuyasha's pallet and frowned as the hanyou gasped weakly for air, his eyes barely visible between his eyelashes; blind and unseeing in his stupor. His visage was deathly pale beneath the sun-drenched tan of his skin. To his memory, Sesshoumaru had never seen him so. He found it ill-suiting.

"Sesshoumaru-samaaa," came a soft whisper from the curtained doorway, as Rin peered between a crack in the material, obediently remaining outside as he had told her to. "Can Rin help Inuyasha-san?" She'd reluctantly changed back into her usual kimono earlier that day, holding the fire rat haori close to her chest, folded painstakingly carefully by the small girl. Her eyes were wide and earnest as she stared into the hut, blinking at the bright light of the fire. "Rin will be very quiet and not wake Inuyasha-san."

He debated telling her that he was almost literally sleeping like the dead and wouldn't wake for the end of the world, but the entire past week had been spent ordering Jaken to answer all of her questions about his hanyou half-brother. It would not do to destroy her newly-discovered attachment to Inuyasha just yet. "It will soon become too hot in here for you," he replied calmly. "But you may bring the haori." Beaming, Rin darted into the hut with the article of clothing, spreading it awkwardly in her hands to drape over the senseless hanyou, only to stop dead as she grew close enough to truly see the extent of his illness.

Swallowing hard, she blanketed Inuyasha with the open haori, her eyes haunted as she bent close enough to see the anguish crossing his dreaming face. When Inuyasha's breath hitched and something like a sobbing whimper emerged, Rin's eyes filled with tears. "Poor Inuyasha-san. . ." she whispered, and mopped his forehead with the sleeve of her kimono, heedless of the sweat beading on her own. "Is he going to die, Sesshoumaru-sama?" The quiet horror in her voice displeased him greatly, and he glared at his dying half-brother for causing it. This wouldn't do.

"He won't. Not before I say so," he growled softly, his eyes on Inuyasha with steel promise. "Not before then."

And that was that for Rin. She smiled and wiped her eyes, her energy returning almost immediately. "Will it be all right if Rin helps you, Sesshoumaru-sama? Oh, please? Inuyasha-san saved Rin's life, after all, and if he does die then Sesshoumaru-sama would be lonely."

The child's understanding on the subject of his feelings toward his brother were somewhat skewed, but he didn't correct her. Jaken could inform her of the truth of the matter. "If you recover from the heat every half hour by going outside, you may sit by his side. He will need as much heat as possible," he said smoothly. "Do not take hold of his hands for any reason. His claws are sharp."

"Just like Sesshoumaru-sama's," she nodded, stepping over Inuyasha's prone form to settle against his side. Her cheeks were already flushed from the heat in the hut. "Will Inuyasha-san be upset if Rin lays down?" She didn't wait for his reply, however, instead pushing his brother's hair aside and laying down against him, huddling herself close enough to cling to his good arm. "He is very sweaty, Sesshoumaru-sama. Why does Inuyasha-san shiver like he is cold?"

Explaining the ways of infection and fever to her would take far too long. "Inuyasha's body is confused. More so than is considered normal for him," he said briefly, picking up a wooden bowl of broth and scenting the liquid delicately. Salt and some essence of meat, faint spices. It would not nourish a youkai, however Inuyasha was anything but. Perhaps it could give him enough energy to allow his demonic blood to stave off the infection running rampant in his body.

Silently furious that he was reduced to acting as nursemaid for his invalid, hanyou half-brother, Sesshoumaru took a mouthful of the liquid and held it in his mouth as he lifting Inuyasha's head by grasping the back of his neck, tipping his face up and pressing his lips to Inuyasha's. Under Rin's fascinated watch, he trickled the liquid into the mouth under his, long fingers massaging his throat enough that the broth was swallowed. It was painstaking, debasing work, but eventually Inuyasha had taken more than half the bowlful into his system. Cracking his knuckles as he released him, Sesshoumaru blinked almost hazily against the heat in the hut, feeling sweat beading on his own brow. Rin, who had stayed the entire time, was flushed and sweaty, but staring at him in awe as though she had forgotten everything else in the world. Highly possible with that child.

"How did you do that? He drank it! Like a baby bird! Rin thought Inuyasha-san was a dog hanyou! Do real dogs do that, Sesshoumaru-sama? Rin sees humans doing things like that sometimes, but Jaken-sama said Rin was too young to understand, but they were just feeding each other, weren't they Sesshoumaru-sama? Jaken-sama is so silly sometimes, Rin is glad he is looking after Ah-Un in the forest. Jaken-sama smells funny. . ." Thankful for small blessings, the youkai watched Rin swoon dizzily from the heat and flop down beside Inuyasha, who was almost enviously oblivious to the chatter.

He hadn't moved the entire time, save for his eyes, which had slid closed. In almost dramatic contrast to his silver hair, his lashes were dark and spiky with moisture against his cheeks. Something about the sight of him drew Sesshoumaru's mouth tight, and narrowed his eyes. He was not a youkai who tolerated weakness, but this was something different. This was Naraku's killer, this was the hanyou that had dared cut off his arm, this was. . .this was his half-brother dying by slow inches in some dirty human village. The loud, brash, foul-mouthed idiot was silent and sick, and vulnerable. Sesshoumaru's lip curled.

"Sesshoumaru-sama. . ." Rin said muzzily, "will Inuyasha-san really help Rin, when he gets better?"

He didn't answer, for the old woman had finally returned, a bucket of cold water in her grasp. Her single good eye fell to Rin and lingered for a moment, but she said nothing about her arrival. "If you're to sweat that fever out of him, you'll be wanting to take that girl somewhere else. I know demons burn a little hotter than humans, and she'll be sick if she stays," she said blandly. "We've some spare pallets at the shrine."

The youkai lord couldn't fault her judgement; with Rin sleeping elsewhere he could build the fire high enough to break Inuyasha's fever. Once conscious, he could recover himself. "Rin." He said no more, gave no instruction, but the small girl understood. With a weak nod, she clambered to her feet, nearly tripping over Inuyasha as she stumbled to Kaede's side. The old woman watched him intensely for a moment, but finally fell to Inuyasha and the fire seemed to extinguish in her gaze.

"If you can save him, he won't be the only one in your debt. This village relies on him, whether they acknowledge that –and him- or not."

Sesshoumaru's head whipped around, and he pinned her with icy golden eyes. "Inuyasha is not this village's watchdog, nor its starving stray." The words, spoken with such flat certainty, were not without a certain element of superiority. Kaede understood immediately that his regard for the village Inuyasha had stood by this entire time was very low indeed. For the hanyou's sake, or his own, she didn't know.

Taking Rin by the hand, she left the hut to the two brothers, hoping against hope that come morning, the hanyou would still be breathing.

Beside her, the little girl yawned. "Don't worry about Inuyasha-san, grandmother. Sesshoumaru-sama will save him."

There was something to be said for a child's faith in the goodness of the world. Kaede almost wanted to believe in it, too.


Inuyasha woke sometimes, slowly, as though swimming through thick darkness. In brief flashes, he could almost summon the strength to open his eyes, but settled for small moments of lucidity, locked behind his closed eyes.

When the scent of Sesshoumaru swirled through his senses during one of these moments, the hanyou was sure he was going to die. Too close was his presence, too weak was Inuyasha to do anything more than lay there at his mercy. Unresponsive, but filled with panic. Lucid and unable to move. He was laying on his back, vulnerable stomach bared to the air in a manner he would never have allowed had he been strong enough to do more than gasp weakly, and suffer the freezing burn of his own skin.

But a warm, wet swathe merely ran across his bitten arm, returning again and again in long, soothing strokes over his wound. There was no attack, no sound, no pain beyond what shivered up and down his feverish body. He didn't understand, and for a while, he drifted back into the inky darkness.

He awoke seconds, minutes, years later to liquid flowing into his mouth—water. Cool, blessed water he found the ability to swallow, searching for more with his mouth but finding only a curious warm pressure over his lips. Sesshoumaru's scent still hung in the air, until he wasn't sure what was his and what belonged to his brother. Then it was too hard to try and stay awake, and darkness rolled back over him once more.

Countless times, he woke and slept and woke again, and always there was the presence of Sesshoumaru surrounding him. Why, he didn't understand. All he knew was that his strength was coming back, and that the hands that moved across his brow and the claws that touched his cheek did not harm him.

It was proof enough to Inuyasha that he was very ill indeed, to be dreaming of such impossible dreams.


The fever broke as dawn was creeping over the hills, spreading its orange light across the slumbering village. Inuyasha's chills stopped even as sweat began pouring from him, his battered body suddenly succumbing the stifling heat that hung in the air of the hut.

When his slumber finally released him, drugging fingers retreating from his mind, Inuyasha opened his eyes to find a bowl tipped to his lips and his head cushioned on a white-clad thigh. Drinking down the salty broth automatically, he drew in a long, blessedly painless breath into his lungs. Alive. The word had never sounded so sweet. Still, whatever the hell was in that broth Kaede was making him chug was probably going to kill him again.

"Enough," he was finally able to gasp out, his voice rough and hoarse with disuse. "Stuff tastes like shit." He pushed the hand holding the bowl away from his face, realising too late that the fingers were long and graceful, and tipped with claws. The deep magenta stripes curving around Sesshoumaru's wrist were the final clue. "Holy fucking dog's balls—!"

Lurching away with the minimal reserves of energy his body had regained, Inuyasha made a wild one-armed sweep for the Tetsusaiga, adrenaline pumping through his already abused veins, the world spinning around him. Of course, he came up with nothing. Panting weakly, he attempted to slide free of his brother's grasp, but was stilled with almost laughable ease. All he could to was stare up in mute horror at his captor, and wonder if maybe he'd died and gone to hell, after all. "Did you eat Kaede and move into her hut?"

The flat gold eyes staring back down at him said Sesshoumaru was unamused. In fact, he kind of looked like hell. His usually pristine hair was slightly bedraggled and sweat-damp, his armour actually discarded and neatly stacked against the wall with his swords. He was dressed in nothing more frightening than his white and red silk and his sash. Inuyasha couldn't comprehend the change, or why he was there, and why he was still alive and oh my god he'd been sleeping on Sesshoumaru's leg

"I am in hell," he said to himself, as what remained of his sanity managed to shatter into irreparable shards of incredulity. "I've been very bad and I've gone to hell. But that doesn't explain why Sesshoumaru is my nurse. . .unless the snake got him too—" He was thrown out of his addled ponderings by Sesshoumaru's sudden shifting, which resulted in the renewed realisation that there was something very wrong with the world when his bastard of a brother didn't claw his eyes out for prolonged breathing in his presence. Let alone rampant and wild speculations on his predicament that involved the youkai being killed by a snake. Bewildered, Inuyasha ran out of ideas in a silence that frankly freaked him the hell out. "What's going on?"

The answer wasn't forthcoming right away, as Sesshoumaru seemed to study something in his face before even thinking of replying. Whatever he was looking for came up lacking, as his expression turned disdainful and hard and oh, that was more like it. Familiar territory for the hanyou. "The snake's venom brought you low enough for infection to set into your body. It's been a week since then. You were near death at sundown."

Oh, shit. Inuyasha digested that for a moment, then smirked weakly. "Bet you're disappointed. You were here for the Tetsusaiga if I did die, weren't you?" Was that broth poisoned? He thought about it for a moment, confused. Memories of a fever dream came back to him then, and he glanced down at his wounded arm. The slashed bite mark was still visible, but whatever infection that had been there had vanished. The wound was clean and dry. His confusion grew, and he shot a look at the silent youkai, who was simply staring back at him impassively.

Slowly, suspiciously, Inuyasha raised his wounded arm and lowered his head to scent the wound. Immediately his head snapped up, not believing what his senses told him. Wide golden eyes stared back into their colder narrowed twin. Sesshoumaru's scent was all over his wound. All over him.

He'd been tended to, during his illness. . .by his brother?

The world spun briefly, and Inuyasha's stomach lurched. "Oh god, I'm going to be sick," he gasped out, saliva rushing into his mouth, acidic and nauseating. Pressing the back of his wrist to his mouth, he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to force back the overwhelming urge to empty his stomach. Fresh sweat beaded his brow and he blinked it away from his eyes in time to see Sesshoumaru's hand enter his field of vision. The hanyou sprang away from it, chest heaving, his eyes wide and pupils smaller than pinpricks, lost in the colour of sunlight. His face was chalk white. "Stay away from me, you fucking bastard," he rasped out, horrifyingly close to panic. "Whatever you're after, I don't care, take it and get away from me."

The taiyoukai's eyes narrowed slightly at the sight of his brother nearly flinching away from him like a beaten mutt. He'd never done so in a fight, but the realisation that he'd tended his wounds seemed to send Inuyasha into a tailspin of disgusted, cringing horror. It didn't make sense, but then Inuyasha rarely did. Expression cold and unaffected, Sesshoumaru assumed his cloak of superiority once more. "I see your manners have not improved," he said coolly. "How do you intend to force me to leave, Inuyasha?"

Something almost visibly snapped in the hanyou's wild-eyed gaze. Sesshoumaru's lips parted in mild surprise as Inuyasha found the strength to rise to his feet, stumbling badly out of the hut and into the bright heat of summer.

Nothing made sense, Inuyasha thought blindly, the world around him wavering and darkness crawling in from the edges of his vision. He was missing something, he had to be. He was playing some sick joke on his stupid little hanyou brother; screwing with his head. God, it was working. Staggering and nearly losing his balance, it was sheer brute force of will that kept him standing, the sun beating down on his naked back, his sweat-matted hair. Where was Kaede? Where the fuck was Kaede? Mortified, Inuyasha felt his eyes burn, overwrought and weaker than he could ever remember being in his entire life. Nearly died. Sesshoumaru should have been pissing on his grave, not saving his life.

Inuyasha had no illusions about his older brother's perception of him. He was worthless to the youkai, and he hated him. Blamed him for their father's death—for something. He knew he just needed to calm down and think, but being in this condition with Sesshoumaru only meters away was tripping every silent alarm in his entire body. Run, his blood whispered to his bones, run away. But the ground was spinning and roiling under his feet, rising up to meet his failing body.

What caught his slumped form was not hard-packed dirt, but an arm like an iron bar hooking across his chest, under his arms to hold him aloft. Inuyasha coughed at the pressure, his eyes sliding open as he refused to pass out. "I'm gonna kill that goddamn snake," he forced out weakly, an inane and utterly pointless declaration. "And then I'm gonna kill you, you insane son of a bitch. . ." Raising his head, he rolled his eyes upwards to stare into his brother's impassive face. "What. . .do you want?" That last was nearly a desperate plea, but it was never answered, as golden eyes rolled up and went blank, as the last of Inuyasha's strength waned and he lost consciousness.

The urge to sigh nearly got the best of him, but Sesshoumaru saw the old priestess and Rin heading in their direction and suppressed the desire. Loosening his grip and allowing Inuyasha's body to fold double over his forearm, the tall demon carried the slack form of his hanyou brother back into the hut. Dumping him on his pallet in a pile of limbs and wild silver hair, the youkai lord made the decision in that momentary silence to leave the area for a time. During that absence Inuyasha would get his strength back, and the cycle of things would return to normal. He could then make his demand and watch the furious fire boil again in his hanyou brother's eyes.

He had seen enough of Inuyasha's vulnerability. It was clear now that whatever haunted his half-brother was in part to be laid at his feet, and for a moment, Sesshoumaru wondered if that did not bother him.

Strangely, he had no answer, just a memory of wet eyelashes and firelight, the scent of salt on the air.

Sesshoumaru had no answer, none at all.



Chapter 5: Used & Abused

Time passed, and Inuyasha healed.

Well, to be fair, his body healed. His pride was still in shreds, and he'd been in a funk about it for weeks. When he'd woken up after the altercation with his brother, it had been a whole day later and the bastard had hightailed it out of the area. To make matters worse, it had rained and washed away whatever scent had remained of him. Unable to track him and shred his hide to ribbons, Inuyasha moped and growled and generally frightened the villagers out of their plans to give him a good stoning. Considering the mood he'd been in, it probably saved their lives.

Truthfully, he just didn't know what to think of what had happened. What hazy memories he had of the whole debacle left him with a sour taste in his mouth. Resolving to forget about the whole thing, but not quite succeeding, Inuyasha attempted to get back to his usual daily routine. Thinking too much pissed him off, anyway.

Thinking too much led to questions that had no answer.

But as the days passed, he fell into a comfortable routine of manual labour, sword practice, and his usual daily attempt to scare the living shit out of the village children so they'd stop bothering him. Honestly, being a filthy hanyou sure didn't count for much these days. At least the adults spanked them silly for coming anywhere near him, scrubbing their skin until it went pink just for trying to touch his ears. He was fairly sure that they deserved it, but damned if they didn't keep coming back for more.

So after a few exhausting hours of swordplay to while away the hazy afternoon, enough to make his arms burn and his hair stick to his forehead, he was unsurprised to see a small gathering of kids watching his every move. Briefly entertaining the idea of putting a shirt on, he discarded it and sheathed the Tetsusaiga with one swift movement. His eyes caught the fading wound on his forearm and lingered for a moment. At the rate he healed, it was a surprise it had remained visible for as long as it had. He didn't like the reminder. Running his clawed fingertips over the slightly raised skin, his golden eyes hazy with memory, he didn't see the midget onslaught until they were tugging on his pants.

"Inuyasha, can I play with your sword?"

"Inuyasha, are you hungry?"

"Inuyasha, do you like Suki-chan?"

"Inuyasha, why do you have long hair?"

It was enough to drive a normal person insane. However, being apparently made of stronger stuff than even he'd given himself credit for, Inuyasha had yet to suffer so much as a nervous breakdown. He was fairly sure he was developing a tic in his eye though. "Would you shut up?" He eventually barked, bristling with frustration. "I'm gonna break my foot off in the ass of the next kid who asks a retarded question."

Silence. Then;

"Inuyasha said ass!"

"Inuyasha, you're so cool!"

"I'm gonna talk like Inuyasha from now on! Ass! Ass! Reeee-tarded!"

It might not be enough to drive him insane, but he'd soon be on the brink of infanticide if he didn't get the hell out of there—now. Pressing his hands over the faces of the two kids in front of him, he shoved them onto their rumps and belted it the hell out of the field he'd been practicing in. God, he thought faintly as he ran, as sad as it was he'd actually prefer a few stones to the back of the head over the adoration of a handful of hyperactive human kids. He wasn't used to it. The only kid who'd been like that around him was Kagome's kid brother, and he'd never tried to search his goddamn hair for fleas.

His swift, completely manly escape took him all the way to the other side of the village, where the surrounding trees cleared into another, smaller field, this one rather muddy and therefore less popular to play in. Inuyasha grimaced as mud sank under his toenails, a little grossed out by the sensation. "Damn kids," he muttered, shaking one foot out in front of him. "Chasing me out here. . ." Glad for the sudden silence all the same, he closed his eyes briefly, feeling the wind pick up and stir his hair, smelling of wet grass and the ragged purple wildflowers that dotted the field. He felt the tension in his shoulders ebb and disappear. This was better, getting out of the village, being alone again. He hadn't really realised he was so used to it that after a while the villagers milling about felt almost oppressive. He didn't like it, but he was conditioned to survive by himself. Depending on himself. Living for himself. With the others gone now, it was just the way things should be. When the threat of Naraku had thrown them all together it had been circumstance that had the others travelling with him—Kagome's doing, he supposed. It was only natural that without her he had no reason to cling to them. Not that he wanted to. Humans should go on living human lives. A hanyou, on the other hand. . .

Inuyasha's eyes darkened, his eyes falling to the torn snakebite on his arm. Hanyou had no place in the world to begin with, Sesshoumaru would have said.

Sesshoumaru. He closed his eyes and swore softly.

Kaede had filled him in on what details she knew of the missing week of his life, from Sesshoumaru bringing him to the village to his mysterious return seven days later. The unknown practices he used to heal him, break his fever and halt his quickening descent into death. She'd had no idea why he'd done it, and neither did Inuyasha. He found himself waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some illumination into the mind of his infuriating pure-blooded brother, but he came up empty handed. Only one thing rang clear in his mind.

If you survive this, hanyou, you'll be in my debt.

Hissing a sharp breath, he tossed his head, ears twitching madly. Debt, a debt—he'd never owed anyone a single thing in his life! No one had bothered. But for this, this one time—and it was Sesshoumaru. He had to have done it for a reason, and it sure wasn't out of concern for his hanyou brother's welfare. Dragging in a sharp breath, he tried to quell the urge to snarl his frustration to the brilliant summer morning. Indebted to that pure-blooded, uptight son of a bitch. . .to hell with that, he decided with furious determination. But so lost in his thoughts was Inuyasha that he didn't react in time to the sudden rustle in the long grass behind him.

"A-ha! Prepare to die, Inuyasha!" A voice shrieked gleefully from behind him, and then the air around him exploded in flames.

Swearing loudly, the hanyou dove for the grass, skidding some meters in the slick mud by accident before somersaulting and simultaneously drawing his sword, facing his diminutive, green, and undeniably sycophantic foe. It was Jaken, brandishing the Staff of Heads, thrusting the damn thing at him like an amulet to ward off evil. Fire belched out of the old man's mouth like a jet stream, pointing straight at him. It didn't have much of an effect, to tell the truth, wearing the fire rat fur and all. But when Inuyasha started smelling burnt hair, he darted out of the flames with a fleet-footed movement, appearing behind Jaken to grab the staff and wrestle it out of the imp's little webbed fingers. Tetsusaiga was slid back into place at his waist, being slightly overkill for Sesshoumaru's little fanboy.

"Now what the hell is this," Inuyasha snapped, batting at his face with his free hand. At his feet, Jaken was hopping into the air ineffectually, clawed hands outstretched as he tried to catch hold of his precious weapon. He just hefted it higher in the air. "You nearly burnt off my eyebrows!"

"A hanyou like you doesn't deserve to have eyebrows!" Jaken squawked irrationally. "Give me back my staff!" Then, when the half demon just grinned ferally, his eyes shining gold, Jaken decided to hit below the belt. Literally. He brazenly punched Inuyasha square in the balls.

It felled him faster than the prayer beads ever had. Dropping like a stone, gasping, Inuyasha curled into the foetal position, spitting ineffectual curses like bullets. But he didn't let go of the staff. "Fucking—toad! I'll kill you! Oh my God, you are so fucking dead!" Eyes watering, he swung wildly with the staff, smacking the toad like one of Souta's baseballs and sending him flying into a puddle. He floated there for a while, breathing bubbles as he lay face down. Inuyasha violently hoped he drowned. Groaning furiously, he used the staff to get himself to his feet, covered head to foot in mud, his groin aching brilliantly. "SHIT!" He yelled to the sky, just to let off a bit of steam at his entire crappy afternoon. Rubbing his face viciously, he sifted out the charred ends of his ragged bangs and picked out drying clumps of mud with his claws. It didn't do much for his appearance; he still looked like some kind of vengeful swamp demon.

A high squeal split the air behind him, and Inuyasha near drew his sword again in alarm. But it was just the girl running out from the woods, arms out at her sides and she dashed straight for him, beaming. "Inuyasha-saaaaan! You didn't die!" The closer she got, the more he felt the inexplicable impulse to run away. What was it with kids running at him that scared the hell out of him? Their sticky fingers? Their uncomfortable questions? Or—

"Ooof! Fuck!" Inuyasha cursed, stumbling back and realising exactly what it was. Their random urges to hug him. Staring in horror down at his waist where Rin was plastered, having not slowed in the slightest when she'd run straight at him, he thought of what you were meant to do in situations like this. Duck and cover? Freeze? Play dead? Goddamn it, he couldn'tremember. "Damn it, when did I ever say it was okay to get all—clingy?"

Rin's bright eyes sparkled up at him. "I hugged you when you were asleep!"

Yeah. . .Inuyasha thought blankly, because that wasn't creepy at all. "I'm going to pretend you didn't say that," he eventually said, disturbed. Grimacing in discomfort, he carefully pulled her hands away from his waist and set her back at arms length, sharp eyes scanning the surrounding area for any sign of him. He was upwind of the direction the kid had come from, so no luck there, and he couldn't see anything either. In his grip, Rin bounced excitedly on her toes.

"I'm so happy you're okay, Inuyasha-san! R—I was really worried about you!" She insisted, as though he mightn't have understood the first time. Inuyasha shrugged uncomfortably.

"It's just Inuyasha," he told her with a slight frown. "You can't call me Inuyasha-san after you've hugged me in my sleep. It's weird." He realised something. "How come you're not calling yourself Rin when you talk?"

Rin smiled again, eyes sparkling. "Jaken-sama says I am too old to talk like that, so he taught me what to say instead. Sesshoumaru-sama thinks I am doing very well!" She looked at him curiously. "Inuyasha, do you think I am doing very well? Jaken-sama says I'm doing okay for a stupid human, and you're a hanyou, so you'd know better than he would."

Against his will, a reluctant smile curved his lips. "Better even than your Sesshoumaru-sama, who's not human at all?" He teased.

Rin hesitated for a moment, putting a finger to her lips. "You do talk much more than Sesshoumaru-sama does. . ." She hazarded, looking torn. It seemed to break something in her to do it, but she finally nodded. "Rin thinks you'd know better," she rushed out, as though she was committing a sin just by saying it. "I mean I think so!" She took a big step forward and grabbed the waist of his pants in her small fists, staring up at him with wide eyes. "Don't tell Jaken-sama I said that!"

Inuyasha was grinning. Knew better than Sesshoumaru, did he? Well, shit. Feeling suddenly magnanimous towards the small girl, he reached out and patted her on the head. "Take it easy. I think I killed him, anyway." Looking over his shoulder at the imp, he lazily called out, "you still alive over there, toad?" Jaken had rolled onto his back during his small conversation with Rin, and was currently wringing out his little hat in disgust, mud splashed up one side of his face. The look he shot Inuyasha was pure disgruntled malevolence.

"Stupid hanyou! Rin, get away from him before he gives you fleas!"

Rin ignored him, bouncing on her toes again. "So are you going to help me, Inuyasha? We came back to find you since you were sick before. Sesshoumaru-sama told us to go find you without him, because he thinks you'd just get yourself killed fighting him if he came too. . ." Linking her hands together behind her back, she blinked her big brown eyes up at him. "I don't want Inuyasha to die. I like you!"

He didn't know what the hell to think about all that. Help her? The part about Sesshoumaru killing him was pure unadulterated bullshit, but the reason behind all this eluded him. What the hell did she want his help with? Why in the hell hadn't his bastard brother come to beat the favour out of him, instead of sending his clingy little entourage to burn and hug him into submission? This was clearly fucked up in too many ways to even begin counting. Staring down at the girl, golden eyes serious, he thought of all the ways he could get the hell out of there before she could reinvent the puppy dog eyes and royally screw him once and for all. "Um, no," he finally said, giving an internal shrug at the whole situation. "I'm not helping you. Whatever it is, Sesshoumaru can do it. Tell him to get off his lazy ass and do something. I'm not his fucking servant."

Her eyes had widened long before he cursed, but as he finished speaking her eyes welled up with helpless tears. Her hands fell limply to her sides. "B-but I might die if you don't! I don't want to be a burden anymore! You're half-human, so you can help me, can't you? Oh, please? Jaken-sama has his staff, and Sesshoumaru said he'd kill me if he tried, because he's so tall and strong and his claws have poison in them and he has only one arm to fight with and—and please you have to teach me to be useful!" Screwing her eyes shut and sending tears spilling down her cheeks, she threw herself down into the mud and bowed at his feet. "Please teach me to fight and look after myself, Inuyasha!" Muffled sobs shook her shoulders, tears dripping to the ground. "Please! Rin doesn't want to be left behind!"

Inuyasha stared.

This was what had spurred Sesshoumaru into saving his life?

Teaching his pet human how to save herself?

It had long since been recognised that as brothers, the closest they'd ever some to family unity was the moment they'd defeated Sou'unga. Inuyasha would never admit it, but he'd had a lot to think about after that battle. A hell of a lot. But nothing changed; their enmity stayed the same. It was fine like that – he'd long since accepted Sesshoumaru's hatred toward him. His disgust and disdain. Inuyasha had a thick hide when it came to the sting of glares and insults. To some degree, he returned it a lot of the time; in Sesshoumaru's case he sent it back glare for glare, swordstroke for powerful swordstroke. It just seemed fair when he'd tried to kill him so many times for being some scum-blooded hanyou with a human mother. It was because Sesshoumaru hated humans, after all.

He'd accepted that.

Until a few weeks ago, when his youkai brother had saved his life, merely so he could teach Rin– a human – to survive for herself.

It. . .it had only ever been a whim.

Just a fucking whim.

Why he was surprised, Inuyasha had no answer. Why he was standing before the girl, fists shaking and eyes blazing, he had a very good idea. Gritting his teeth against a fierce snarl, he struggled for some kind of composure. Tipping his head forward, his hair obscuring his eyes, he turned his head slightly and cast his attention to Jaken. "Where is he?" He asked, his voice vibrating with emotion. "If he couldn't even come here himself, where the hell is Sesshoumaru now?"

Jaken scoffed. "You think I'm going to tell you, so you can go and bother Sesshoumaru-sama? As if I'd ever. . ."

He'd only turned his face, just slightly, enough to regard the small youkai with one glaring golden eye. Whatever he saw there, Jaken seemed to blanch a little, stumbling over his words before settling on a simple answer. He pointed. "He's that way," Jaken said, his voice bleached of all his usual contemptuous bravado. "Or he was when we left."

Without another word, Inuyasha walked away from the two, heading into the woods in the direction Sesshoumaru was in. Still streaked with mud, missing his shirt and haori, but completely uncaring as his speed picked up little by little, until he was streaking through the trees in search for the scent he knew so well. If he thought that the hanyou was just going to sit down and take this kind of shit, Sesshoumaru was in for a shock. That smug, arrogant son of a bitch. . . He was furious and he knew it, but this was different to the usual bad blood between them. Mostly because with everything tipped on its head, Inuyasha had no idea what to make of the last two centuries or so of hatred. If he'd done something himself to earn his brother's contempt, then he could accept that. If it was just a general disdain for humans, well, that was all right too. But to suddenly find out that Sesshoumaru would go so far as to nurse him back to health, for some scrap of a human girl. . .just cast aside the past for her. . .when he would have simply let Inuyasha die if she hadn't needed him for this one, tiny thing. . .

Something bitter and foreign bubbled up inside him, and disbelievingly he realised it was dangerously close to jealousy. The emotion was so alien to him that for a moment he almost stumbled in his hasty flight through the trees. Hollow laughter bubbled in his throat, tasting like copper nausea and acid. Ridiculous. If Sesshoumaru gave enough of a damn for the girl to save him just to help her, well, fine. But if there was a debt to repay now and he thought that his stupid hanyou brother was going to roll over for him. . .

Inuyasha had never owed anyone a single thing in his life.

That wasn't going to change, but neither was Sesshoumaru going to get his way.

Not if he could help it.

The brief flicker of foreboding that filled him as the afternoon wore on did not go unnoticed. Tonight was the new moon, but he had no intentions of being anywhere near Sesshoumaru come nightfall. No, he was going to be somewhere else entirely.

It was half an hour before he picked up the scent of his brother, and by the time he did it was because he was almost upon him. Inuyasha burst into a clearing on the bank of a tiny stream, barely stopping himself in time before he actually slammed into Sesshoumaru. The tall youkai was sitting against a boulder embedded in the bank, one knee pulled up slightly, his golden eyes remote as he studied the water. He didn't even glance up. "You reek of mud," he said, his voice empty of inflection. "Or should I assume you're too afraid to bathe in that creek now, Inuyasha." He lifted his head slightly, his face expressionless as he ran his eyes over the hanyou's dishevelled form. His lip curled slightly in disgust, but that was the only movement he betrayed. Then an odd flicker crossed his face. "You've fully recovered, I see."

The reference was enough to have his hackles back up in seconds. His jaw was clenched so tightly that it actually hurt a little to relax it enough to speak. "Enough with the bullshit pleasantries, asshole," he grated, his breath hissing through his teeth. "Tell me just what the hell you're playing at. Sending the kid up to me to try and, what, sucker me into saving you the trouble of teaching her the pointy end of a knife? That's what you lowered yourself into saving me for?" A ugly smile twisted his mouth. "Is that how your pride gets around recognising that you're helping a human girl? By twisting me into a position to do it for you? Go fuck yourself, Sesshoumaru." The acid, poisonous words were spat directly at the youkai, intended to enrage and insult him. Honestly, at that point, Inuyasha could use an excuse to draw the Tetsusaiga on him. But Sesshoumaru didn't take the bait. Oh, fury flashed in his gaze and his expression turned darker than a thunderhead, but he didn't do anything more than flex his hand, the knuckles cracking loudly in the silence after his words.

"Your temper tantrums are unbecoming, little brother," he eventually replied, his voice smooth and even. "So ungrateful, even after I saved your worthless life. You should be thanking me."

Inuyasha paled. "Go to hell." Then, with a deep breath to steady the rage threatening to usurp his reason, "did you really think I'd agree to this? If you think I'm some human-loving saint, you're out of your damned mind. She's your kid. If she dies, it's on you."

Sesshoumaru's mouth curved in a cold smile. "She's quite taken with you," was all he said in return. "A foolish endeavour, I expect, if you care so little of her welfare."

"She's not my responsibility!" Inuyasha said explosively. "Take your fucking guilt trips elsewhere, you son of a four-legged whore! If that was why you did it, then you should have just let me die!"

Whatever trigger was in his foul reply, it cracked Sesshoumaru's cold mask and replaced it with something feral and bloodthirsty. "Watch your mouth, hanyou," he said dangerously, getting to his feet in a fluid motion that reminded him of a snake uncoiling. Which was too close to another memory to do anything other than further fuel Inuyasha's already blazing temper. "I brought you back from the brink of death for a reason, but if you're going to refuse to repay the debt I could be persuaded to simply end your miserable life once and for all. I assure you, no one in this world will mourn your death for long."

Something reckless and wild filled him then, and he laughed, knowing it sounded slightly unbalanced. He didn't care. "You know what? I do. I completely and utterly refuse. So you might as well just kill me, Sesshoumaru. Go right ahead. I'm just a goddamn hanyou. Naraku's dead. There's nothing left to fight, nothing left to do, and I'd die before I ever helped you find a loophole around your fucking pureblood youkai pride. Here," he said, his smile daring and absolutely fearless. At this point, he was beyond caution. Beyond caring in the slightest. He pulled Tetsusaiga from his waistband, sheath and all, and tossed it at Sesshoumaru's feet. "Now I'm unarmed. So why don't you just put me down like the mongrel dog that I am. Then you can take the blade, take your little servants, and live happily ever after." Jaw set, the devil-may-care humour slid off his face as he stepped forward, right over his beloved sword, and got right in his brother's face. "After all, if you saved me on a whim, you can kill me with as little thought. So go on, Sesshoumaru. Here I am, persuading you." Expression grim and eyes steely, but blank of apprehension or unease, he stared up into his brother's eyes and dared him to end his life.

Gazing back down into Inuyasha's face, Sesshoumaru didn't move at first, instead choosing to study the features turned up to his. From his mud-stiffened white bangs, over his dirty cheeks and the twitching muscle in his jaw, Sesshoumaru's eyes grazed over his brother. Down to the exposed arch of his throat, where his pulse beat an unsteady cadence. Back up to the taut line of his lips and onto his mutinous golden eyes, somehow bleaker and emptier than the older youkai could ever remember seeing. Nothing gave away exactly why his younger brother was overstepping such deeply engraved lines in their history. Leaning in just a little, closing the distance between them in the tiniest way possible, he breathed in his scent until it filled his lungs, his throat, lingered over his tongue. Searching. But the taste he found was steeped in dirt and mud, and sweat. Nothing, other than aggression and fury, and the salt of his skin, the blood in his veins. And all the while, Inuyasha did not back down.

It was no bluff, Sesshoumaru eventually realised, his eyes widening imperceptibly. He leaned back slightly. Inuyasha was serious.

While he was not above refusing simply to anger the hanyou, and he knew he could easily take that path, the youkai raised one pale hand and placed the tips of his claws against the jugular vein visible just beneath the smooth skin before him. His claws stirred the drying mud on the skin as Inuyasha breathed, causing it to flake away slightly. The sight of his claws positioned against the vein, in such a dangerous place. . .it didn't invoke any satisfaction in him. His mouth tightened, but he couldn't seem to glance away. Inuyasha was offering up his life; it was his for the taking.

"Go on," the hanyou said eventually, his voice low. "You've wanted to do it all this time, so go ahead. Either kill me now, or see to it we never, ever meet again. I'm not leaving the village—all you have to do is never come back. There's no need for you and I to ever cross paths again. I get that you hate me, that I'm some disgusting freak in the family tree. I get that you think I'm at fault for the old man's death. I'm a stupid hanyou that should have been drowned at birth, right? Right?" Gritting his teeth, he was mortified to feel something sting in his eye. "I was okay with that. You—you messed it all up. You should have let me die, damn you. If it was going to be for something that small. . .god, you should have just finished me off when you came back."

"You're telling me too much, Inuyasha," Sesshoumaru murmured, a strange light in his eyes.

Inuyasha swallowed thickly. "Yeah? So what. You fucking humiliated me, you bastard. I've been trying to figure out why I so pissed off, and this is it. You couldn't give a damn about me if you tried, but you'd spend a whole night nursing my worthless ass back to health so I could play teacher to some orphan human you picked up along the way? Some—some human kid. You'd try to kill me just because of the way I was born, but. . ." Realising Sesshoumaru was right, he was saying too much, Inuyasha reared back, mortified eyes darting away from his brother's. "Forget it. Just forget everything. Forget I exist."

It was enough. Finally, enough. Stepping back, almost stumbling, he shook his head slowly and turned away, feeling hollowed out. Sesshoumaru's hand remained in the air for the briefest of moments, before it slipped back to his side with a whisper of fabric. He just watched Inuyasha as he bent and retrieved Tetsusaiga, sliding it mechanically into place at his hip. Unseen by the hanyou, he rubbed his fingers together as though they itched as his younger brother turned to leave. His expression never shifted by so much as a millimetre.

Head lowered, Inuyasha was almost out of the clearing before Sesshoumaru spoke.

"And if I said she was my excuse?"

Inuyasha stopped dead, his eyes blank and unseeing as he took in his brother's smoothly spoken question. Then he blinked, and with a soft laugh, he turned his head and smiled self-depreciatingly. "But she wasn't, was she," he said knowingly.

Sesshoumaru looked away. His eyes turned to the water once again. He never replied.

Inuyasha's eyes fell to the ground, and he let out a long sigh. "A debt, huh. . ." Then he laughed to himself, shaking his muddy hair back from his shoulders. A debt was still a debt. But he couldn't save Sesshoumaru's life in return. Perhaps though, there was still one thing he could do. It had been a while, a long while, but there was something to be said for the resilience of youkai flesh.

Raising his eyes to the sky, taking in the orange-pink hue of the late afternoon, the hanyou shrugged to himself.

It was worth a try.



Chapter 6: A Dangerous Accord

Good deeds, no matter what form they came in or who they were for, were not Inuyasha's thing. He didn't do good guy that well. He looked after what was his and that was it. And he didn't have anything, he looked after himself.

He looked after himself.

"I'm going to die," Inuyasha muttered to himself, attempting to lighten the situation with a little negative prophesising. He was fairly sure it was a side-effect of his terrified hysteria, which was deeply buried beneath his macho pride, but on the rise. Risking his life for his pride was something he did a lot of, but never, never when he was human.

And to top it off, he was wearing nothing but his goddamn pants.

This was why he should have been left after the snake bit him, the hanyou decided. Being indebted to Sesshoumaru left him nothing more than pissed off and half naked. Dragging his hair over his chest a little to protect it from the low temperature of the night, he crossed his arms and tried not to openly shiver as he made his way through the country. He'd made good time during the late afternoon, but as soon as the sun had gone down his speed had slowed a great deal. But he'd gotten far enough that it didn't matter too much; he was out in the open, where there were less low-level youkai to directly try and attack him. They favoured the woods more than open plains, being the cowardly hunters they were.

The question remained, though. Why was he out in the open on the night of the new moon? Why was he willingly walking on ground level, instead of nestled in the branches of the tallest tree he could find? Well, the answer wasn't exactly elusive – it was his macho pride, out to kill him again. The knowledge of the debt he owed Sesshoumaru was like a lead cloak on his shoulders, heavy and cold with unease. The easy option would have been to give into his brother's demand and try to train that kid of his into holding her own, but actually following that bastard's orders like a trained mutt rankled. No, he sought to regain his pride through another means.

There was one thing Sesshoumaru still wanted. One thing Inuyasha could give him.

Midnight blue eyes sought the familiar sight of the Underworld Spring – the final grave of Sou'unga, the fearsome and terrible Sword of Hell.

Funny, that every encounter with it led him full circle back to Sesshoumaru.

The hole that had closed over when the sword had fell inside, that closed Hell like a curtain passing over the void, it still stood like a silent testimony to something that had felt almost like a bad dream. But it had all been real. It was a natural spring now, almost mammoth in size. It had filled to a deep pool. . .months and months on, it was almost a lake. Nothing grew in it, nothing lived in it. It was his guess that the water was probably tainted with something; no grass grew at its edges. Feeling trepidation skate through his chest, Inuyasha walked to the very edge of the pool, and dipped his toes in the water.

It was almost impossible to feel, eerily the exact temperature of the air. If he didn't know better he'd say the water was something other than what it so innocently appeared to be. The hair on the back of his neck quivered, but he frowned, irritably shaking off the sensation. It was just water. Just a pool of goddamn water, and he wasn't afraid to get his ears wet this time.

Stripping out of his hakama to make sure he wouldn't freeze to death later, he cast momentarily doubtful eyes to the inky water. Even if there was nothing there, he would at least know for sure.

Grumbling at his own insanity, standing there with only the breeze to dress his naked skin, Inuyasha dove into the pool.


It was nearing midnight, the sky black with the loss of the moon, the only light coming from the flickering campfire Rin had created so she didn't grow too cold. Jaken was asleep, propped against Ah-Un, his staff clutched tightly in his hands, as though worried it would be taken from him. He was cursing Inuyasha in the slumber. Rin was, oddly, sleeping once again wrapped up in Inuyasha's haori, claiming she'd found it abandoned in a field. Her kimono was hanging over a branch to dry through the night, having been splashed liberally with mud and in need of a wash.

Sesshoumaru was seated against the base of a tree, his eyes turned to the inky night sky. The only sounds were the crackle of the fire, and the gentle gurgle of the stream nearby. A peaceful night, but he had no use for sleep.

He was wide awake when an uneven pattern of footsteps began to echo in his ears. Laboured breathing, he picked up, relaxing slightly. Just a human. The snap and rustle of twigs and branches as they moved. A missed step; the night traveller had stumbled. A rustling crash; they'd fallen. This close, he heard chattering teeth. The night was far from freezing. An ill human, he decided, fleeing from something. Perhaps a lower youkai. Or perhaps it was a thief, making a desperate flight of passage from the village. Sesshoumaru closed his eyes to concentrate on the sounds. No. The village was in the other direction. This person was heading for them, probably having spotted the firelight.

It was then, when the person stumbled again, that a choked curse was issued and Sesshoumaru's eyes sprang open in surprise.

Wary despite what his senses were telling him, Sesshoumaru flowed to his feet beneath the shadows of the tree.


The forest was out to kill him, clearly.

Unable to see in the almost oppressive darkness, he was relying on his latent sense of direction to get him where he needed to go, but that didn't stop him from tripping on every tree root and falling into every thorny bush on the way back. Twice he'd gotten lost, and twice he'd had to follow the stars to get himself back on track. But Inuyasha could see the firelight now, and mixed relief trickled through him. He was cold, wet and dirty, and bleeding from small scratches here and there. Not to mention exhausted down to his very bones. He was about as fit as a person could be, but his nerves were frayed to the point of paranoia and it was draining to be on ultra-high alert for seven hours straight. Being ground level and alone the night he turned human. . .he was going to give himself a stroke if he didn't find somewhere safe to rest.

Why he saw Sesshoumaru's camp as security in the clinging darkness of the night, he had no idea. Maybe it was just the light. Hopefully he wasn't about to give his brother the weapon he needed to kill him. Reaching up with a none-too-steady hand, he pushed dark hair off his sweat-damp face, his midnight eyes narrowed in resolve to do this and get the hell out of there. Briefly, the idea of just throwing it from a distance crossed his mind, but knowing his luck it'd land in the fire. Water was one thing, but he wasn't sure that his prize would survive a good roasting. Licking his lips, he drew in a long breath and released it—

—and blinked hazily. Had something just moved? It had felt kind of like. . .

Cool breath brushed his shoulder, and Inuyasha yelped, brandishing Sesshoumaru's severed arm like a sword as he spun, nearly blind eyes searching for his attacker. "Who the fuck was that? Show yourself so I can beat the living shit out of you!" Eyes wildly scanning the surrounding trees, he couldn't make out anything definite that would point out his visitor. Had he imagined it? Oh god, had he finally lost it? But something moved again, just a faint rustle to his ears, but it was there nonetheless. Inuyasha swallowed with difficulty and grit his teeth, a frisson of quiet horror curling in his belly. He was almost completely defenceless. Tetsusaiga was just a beat up piece of shit when he was human, and wouldn't do squat against anything that could hide itself this well.

Then he blinked, his expression smoothing out. Straightening slowly, he cast his eyes about surreptitiously for anything that moved. Nothing. He scented the air. Just forest, wood, and damp earth. Smoke. He curled his toes against the ground. Not a single vibration. But something was most definitely there.

He took a stab in the dark. "Sesshoumaru? Stop stalking me, you creepy bastard."

Silence.

Then a hand grabbed him by the throat from behind, pulling him back against thorny steel armour that dug into his bare skin. "Your empty bravado is unimpressive, Inuyasha. I can smell your fear," a smooth voice said beside his ear, breath stirring the hair that fell forward over his shoulders. Claws flexed around his throat, his grip tight but far from lethal. Strangely, knowing it was his older brother actually drained off his feeling of being hunted, somewhat. Not because he wasn't a threat, but because he wasn't a mindless youkai hunting for food. Stupidly, it was that thought that haunted him most, those moonless lights. Coming to his senses, he snorted weakly and grasped Sesshoumaru's wrist, attempting to break the hold. A token effort, but he wasn't going to just stand there like an idiot. Instead, he opted to turn his face to the left slightly, trying not to flinch when his eyelashes brushed the pale skin of the youkai's jaw.

"Let go of me," he said flatly, turning his eyes up to his brother's. "Have you got a thing for my neck or what? I swear, every chance you get—ow." Blood suddenly seeped from five tiny punctures. "Great. I'm guessing you don't want the arm then."

Sesshoumaru shifted slightly as Inuyasha lifted the arm up for closer inspection, hanging limp and pallid in his grasp. It was essentially untouched – perfectly unharmed despite everything. It had taken him over an hour of diving and blind searching before it had revealed itself, nestled in the protective valley between two large submerged boulders. It really had been suspiciously easy to find; he didn't want to think of who might have had a hand in that.

"It's useless," came Sesshoumaru's eventual flat reply, tossing all his efforts back in his face with that one blunt statement. "Severed for over a year, not to mention sullied by that fool of a human, Takemaru. It was Sou'unga's tool. I've no use for it."

Inuyasha stared at him for a moment, then laughed shortly. "Sullied? This from the asshole who attached a human arm and used a shikon shard just so you could use the Tetsusaiga to kill me? You're just scared it won't stick, or whatever. Take the damn thing. I won't do your dirty work, but I'm not just going to forget you saved my ass, even if it was for a goddamn errand. She said you couldn't help her because you only had one arm, well, now you've got two." His expression closed and resolute, the effect of his words was still dimmed slightly by the fact he was unable to storm off in a huff, since he was still being held by the throat.

His brother dipped his head slightly then to meet Inuyasha's eyes, though the hanyou couldn't really see them too well, even as close as he was. "Does your intelligence dim with your powers on the new moon? Or are you simply deaf? The arm is useless. Just because it hasn't rotted down to bone—"

Inuyasha's temper ignited with the frustration at hearing his brother flatly refuse his 'gift'. Growling weakly with a human throat, he twisted around with one painful wrench so he could face Sesshoumaru, raised his arm, and hit him.

With his own severed arm.

Sesshoumaru snarled gutturally as the shock of the impact wore off, his hand tightening around Inuyasha's throat like a vice. But the damage had been done. He'd copped a square slap across the face with his own hand, and it had shocked the hell out of them both. But before even the idea of laughing could cross Inuyasha's mind, the youkai had tossed him back and few feet and struck him viciously across the face in retaliation, his claws catching the fragile skin of Inuyasha's cheek and tearing deep gashes down the smooth flesh. Blood filled them immediately and flowed off his chin, leaving him biting his tongue against a pained yelp. Tossing the arm away, he scrambled backwards, one hand pressed to his face to staunch the bleeding, his eyes wide and wary on his brother. Shit. Shit. He always picked the stupidest times to antagonise Sesshoumaru. Doing when he was human was practically suicide. Subtly, with his right eye closed from the pain of the furrowed wounds below it, he glanced around in vain for an escape.

He glanced back in time to see Sesshoumaru advance on him again, and flinched back reflexively. Blood spilled steadily down his face, over his hand and down his forearm, where it dripped slowly off his elbow. Why did humans bleed so goddamn much? He was going to attract all kinds of predators to the area, with this much pooling in one spot. But for the moment there was only one predator he needed to worry about, and he was currently standing not three feet away from him.

But Sesshoumaru's eyes had fallen to the arm.

Slowly reaching down, he plucked the cold appendage from the forest floor, running his eyes over the flesh that used to be part of his own body. Before Inuyasha had cut it off as his first victory wielding the Tetsusaiga. By rights, that arm was the hanyou's trophy. No other youkai that had challenged him had ever left a bigger mark on him that the one his own half-brother had. A lucky blow, it certainly had been. But true nonetheless that he had been defeated, if only temporarily.

The arm, in the basest terms, belonged to Inuyasha. His prize. Given back as payment for a life saved.

Sesshoumaru could afford to be gracious.

Inuyasha stared as his brother raised his eyes to regard him in silence, his shadowed expression written in lines of deliberation. Warily Inuyasha stepped back to find his back supported by the rough, craggy trunk of a tree, his eyes steady on Sesshoumaru's and unwilling to break and glance away. Then, slowly, the tall youkai reached to his left shoulder and slid aside the soft folds of his haori, carefully shrugging the ruin of his arm out of the material, baring his only flaw to the night air.

And the whole time, his eyes never left Inuyasha's.

Seeing the unnatural stump of his brother's arm made than hanyou edgy. He'd never seen the damage he'd wrought before—after he'd cut it off, there'd just been an empty sleeve to contend with. Not this. . .awkward uneven rounding off, the arm slightly wasted from disuse. The toned musculature that Sesshoumaru boasted was lacking in the bicep, leaving it thinner looking, and weak. Disfigured, down to the knot of scar tissue that had closed over the cracked bone he'd sheared through with the Tetsusaiga. Somehow shamed at the sight of it, he turned his face aside, his eyes seeking the darkness over the flat, unreadable gaze that bored into him.

"Squeamish, Inuyasha?" Sesshoumaru questioned coolly, taking a step toward him. "You should be proud you could inflict such an injury on me. Not even Naraku himself could say he'd done the same."

Inuyasha swallowed, his hand pressing almost convulsively harder to the gashes on his face, the pain distracting him from his confused disgust. "Shut up. You—you got what you deserved. You tried to take what wasn't yours, and what you couldn't get it, you tried to kill me— and you tried to kill Kagome." Bolstering his courage, he turned his head and looked squarely at his brother, his hand falling away from his face. "You got what you deserved."

Even in the darkness, he could still make out Sesshoumaru's face as he absorbed what he was saying, the words tired, but truthful and lacking his usual thoughtless fire. Watched his face melt from cool perfection to. . .well, he wasn't sure.

"Are you trying to convince me?" the youkai lord asked, his eyes now so intense they seemed to shine in the darkness like that of a feral dog. But his brother was no such thing. Then he took a step forward, within touching distance and with Inuyasha pressed against the tree, painfully within his personal space. Shit. He tried not to squirm as hair that did not belong to him picked up in the gentle breeze, flickering across his skin, clinging slightly where his own wet hair dripped paths of water down his chest. Then he was too close, close enough for the hanyou –human- to smell the heady, stormy power that seemed trapped beneath the cloak of removed perfection that Sesshoumaru wore like armour. Strangely dizzy with it, he inhaled, barely noticing that his brother's silky baritone was right beside his right ear, all warm breath and mocking words. "Or is it yourself you desire to convince? You cringe like a guilty mongrel, Inuyasha."

He'd been ducking his head slightly, angry and uncertain, but at those words his head snapped up, sparks flashing in his midnight gaze. "I don't feel fucking guilty," he spat, teeth clenched in a snarl. "Like I care enough to feel guilty. I just don't want to look at the fucked up leftovers of your arm." With that last he deliberately put a sneer in his voice, jerking his chin in the direction of the mutilation. Tried desperately to hide the distraction he'd been victim to just moments before. When Sesshoumaru's expression didn't change, he felt the uncertain bitterness bubble up, and boil over into something corrosive and hateful. "What, you think I feel bad? Think I brought you that arm so I could make amends? You think I give a shit about you? That I wanna be friends?" Barking a short, gruff laugh at the stupidity of it, he pointed to his face, where Sesshoumaru's deep claw marks still dripped dark blood. "This is what you are. And you can save my life for a joke, and I might give you back your arm, but it doesn't mean anything. Because even a stupid hanyou won't go chasing after a kick in the face."

There was a soft thump at his feet at the arm hit the ground like so much refuse, then there were fingers gripping his chin, tilting his head up further until his eyes met his brother's. Sesshoumaru stared at him hard for a moment, his expression blank of the ferocity he'd usually expect after such a tirade. Then brilliant golden eyes skated to his wounded cheek and lingered. "Human flesh is so sickeningly fragile. Perhaps this humanity does not suit you as well as I had originally surmised." And before Inuyasha could so much as pause at the backhanded compliment, Sesshoumaru was gliding his thumb over the curve of his jaw, until he drew it away, slick with blood. "Then again, you survived each new moon just like this." Running his tongue along the pad of his thumb, his eyes narrowed at the insipid taste of blatant humanity, Sesshoumaru asked one question. "How?"

"Wh—" Already reeling from the strangeness of his brother's behaviour, that last completely threw him for a loop. He'd never been asked a question quite like that. The idea that his brother was the one doing the asking was damn near unbelievable. Shifting uncomfortably, he tore his gaze away and stared out at the surrounding trees, the dark night—anything but Sesshoumaru. "Who cares?" Brushing it off was easier than having to think about it. Inuyasha wasn't the type to dwell on his past all that much – there was precious little to look back on and cherish. Kikyou. Kagome. A handful of months with each of them had made a big impact. . .but while he didn't age much on the outside, he'd been alive for over two hundred years. That was a lot of moonless nights spent huddled inside the hollows of trees, staring blindly out at the night, hands clenching his knees to his chest. Nights where youkai had found him, tore into him, nearly killing him before the sun rose and his body could heal like a youkai. Nights of cold tears on his cheeks when he'd been small, still aching from the loss of his mother, desperate for safety and finding none save that which he grabbed hold of with his own two hands.

He liked to think those days gave him character. It certainly gave him the skills to survive alone. How could he tell Sesshoumaru that? Inuyasha didn't advertise his innermost thoughts, his fears – not to anyone.

Certainly not to his bastard half-brother.

"It was. . .difficult, I expect," Sesshoumaru said finally, his eyes turning toward the campfire, which still glowed faintly through the trees. "I know nothing of having to fight merely for the right to live. You do. Rin trusts me to pull her from the path of danger, but before that, I wish for her to know how to save herself. Travelling with me cripples her survival, ultimately. Which was why I sought a method in which to force you to teach her, in my stead."

Inuyasha just snorted softly. "Just stop saving her," he said, somewhat harshly in his confused exhaustion. His mouth pulled in at the corners as something writhed in his stomach. "It should be easy; you're great at ignoring people who need help. She'll learn the ropes eventually."

"I did stay my hand on one occasion, merely watching the entire scene unfold," he replied, turning his eyes back to the hanyou, almost his gaze measuring. "You saved her."

He started, staring at Sesshoumaru with wide eyes. "You—in the woods? When she was running away from that wolf?" Granted, it had only been a starving wolf, weak with hunger but no less desperate for food, but his opinion of his brother suddenly dropped even lower. He'd watched her run for her life, screaming for him with all the breath in her lungs, and he did nothing? "Holy shit, you're one cold bastard."

"I do what is necessary," his brother intoned quietly. "She was never in any real danger."

"Bullshit!" Inuyasha cursed. "I'm fucking hyper-alert on the new moon, and I didn't sense you anywhere."

"You protected her."

"Well what was I supposed to do?" The hanyou finally exploded, glaring up at him. "Let the damn thing rip out her entrails? She's just a fucking kid!"

"Then what happens, Inuyasha, the next time I am genuinely not there? Tenseiga can only revive a soul once. If you refuse to mentor her—I have no alternative but to leave her with the humans," Sesshoumaru almost spat, as though the idea was something filthy. But Inuyasha barely noticed it, still reeling from the surprise of what he'd said just before.

Tenseiga revives only once. . .

"She's already died once before," he said slowly, wondering why the idea of that bothered him so much. A little girl like that. . .too damn innocent, too damn weak. "How?"

Sesshoumaru's eyes narrowed slightly, a knowing smile just barely curving the corners of his mouth. "You've a great weakness for children in need, don't you, Inuyasha. A shame you won't aid her," he said offhandedly. Inuyasha shot him a dirty look, but didn't say anything in reply. Why was he refusing so wholeheartedly? Because Sesshoumaru was trying to manipulate him, he reasoned. But he was doing it so that the kid wouldn't get herself killed the next time he wasn't around to save her. Ultimately, his cold-hearted bastard of a brother was doing something not entirely selfish. Sesshoumaru wouldn't gain much from his help, but the kid –Rin, her name was Rin, he told himself- would. He could always tell the older youkai to teach her himself—but he'd said it himself. Fighting he knew. Surviving. . .for a youkai born with that much status and power, he'd never had to fight to survive. And from the way he'd sliced open Inuyasha's face so easily, maybe it wasn't such a brilliant idea for him to teach Rin anything about fighting. She'd end up minced meat.

Inuyasha fidgeted. "Why don't you just ask Sango? She's a girl, she's human, and she can take down just about any youkai she comes across. She'd be way better at that kind of thing," he hedged, casting about for any other alternative he could find.

Sesshoumaru frowned. "Rin doesn't trust humans," was all he replied with, but there was a strange glint in his eyes. "And she has taken a shine to you, for some unfathomable reason."

Inuyasha screwed up his nose at the blatant distaste in that last comment. He snorted. "Must be my rugged good looks." Actually, he was fairly sure it was his resemblance to Sesshoumaru, but damned if he was going to say something like that.

Before the youkai could voice his inevitable disagreement, there was a crackling of leaves and rustling of bushes, and a little girl dressed in a suspiciously familiar garment stumbled out into their tiny clearing. "Sesshoumaru-sama? Are you here?"

"Dammit, is that my haori?" Inuyasha blurted out once she'd gotten close enough, and her head jerked around to search him out in the darkness. "Where the hell did you find that?"

"Inuyasha!" Rin cried out, running toward them. "Sesshoumaru-sama! I heard voices but I didn't know it was you so I hid but then I heard my name and oh wow is that Sesshoumaru-sama's arm?" Nearly tripping on the hem of his haori in excitement she raced over and bent down, picking up the severed limb in her hands like it was a holy item, her eyes almost glowing with reverence. Then she sniffed it, weirdly, making Inuyasha's eyebrows hike their way up into his hairline. She blinked up at him. "Did you bring this here, Inuyasha-san?"

"Just Inuyasha," he said automatically. "And yeah, I guess. . ." It was too late he realised he should have thought through his response, maybe even denied it, because suddenly the kid was beaming up at him like she'd just realised the sun shone out of his ass. Then her face changed, crumpled slightly, and she hugged the arm to her chest as though it was a pillow.

Her eyes were upset when she looked back up at him. "Is. . .I'm sorry I bothered you before, Inuyasha. Please don't hate me!" She said suddenly, earnest plea written all over her small features. "I really like you! I just. . .Rin always slows everyone down, because I get into trouble a lot—" She darted Sesshoumaru a guilty look then, and lowered her head. Inuyasha had the horrible feeling that she was beginning to cry again, and his gut twisted. Shit. He couldn't be the bastard here.

But he wasn't going down that easily.

"We'll fix that, kid," he said tiredly, turning his eyes up to Sesshoumaru with a silent message in them. Don't think you've won.

Sesshoumaru's lips curved slightly, his eyes relaxing in knowing triumph.

But the hanyou was not finished. Placing a hand on Rin's head as she gasped in delight, he knelt slightly and caught her elated gaze. "I'll teach you everything I know," he said, sincerity ringing in his voice. His gaze rested on the youkai watching the small exchange as he spoke next. "Soon you won't need anyone but yourself. Just like me."

Watching the cool satisfaction in Sesshoumaru's eyes melt into sharper narrowed thought at that last was worth the brief moment of defeat he endured, by far. Because while Inuyasha could show her everything, it would be left to his brother to think on how Inuyasha's own jaded view on the world around him might rub off into the bright-eyed little girl. Would she too, suspect betrayal in every smile, doubt every outstretched hand of kindness? Would she strike out on her own when she grew old enough to handle herself? Would that please her youkai guardian, that cold taiyoukai who despised her entire race, but never hesitated to keep her by his side?

Questions, Inuyasha thought grimly, that Sesshoumaru would find the answer to soon enough.

He'd forced his hand – and he'd pay the price.



Chapter 7: Nature of the Beast

While Inuyasha had all the contempt in the world for Sesshoumaru's plot to guilt him into giving Rin a hand with her training, there was very little he could complain about once he'd actually gotten started. For one thing, it gave him something to do other than practice his swordsmanship and chop wood. And teaching the clueless little girl a thing or two about survival actually felt a little satisfying.

A little like he had a purpose again.

"So, these mushrooms always gave me the runs whenever I ate them. Since you're a human, they'd probably do a lot worse. So stay away from those ones, okay? The big ones are good, but they're kinda bland. Good if you're so hungry you don't care what you're scarfing down. Also, check for bugs. Nothing worse than a crunchy mushroom. You getting all this?" They were hunkered down in the damp earth on the outskirts of the forest, eyeing off different varieties of edible growth and fungi.

Rin was nodding fervently, her eyes bright. "Sometimes if I'm not sure, I give one to Jaken as a present and see if he gets sick. One time he went to sleep for a long time and Sesshoumaru-sama had to wake him up with his foot."

Inuyasha frowned in confusion. "With his foot?"

Rin made a kicking motion. Inuyasha blinked. "Oh. Well," he said, wondering why he'd bothered to question her. "Anyway, if you're clear on what you can eat and what you can't, we can move onto the more important stuff, like what to do when you're coming up against youkai. Since you're a tasty little kid and youkai like squishy little girls, that's probably going to be sometime in the near future. What do you usually do when a youkai attacks you?"

"Scream," Rin said promptly. "And run away."

"What if you can't run away?"

"Then Rin just screams for Sesshoumaru-sama and he saves me."

"What would you do if Sesshoumaru wasn't there?"

"He's always there."

Inuyasha withheld a sigh of frustration. "But if he wasn't? If you were stuck by yourself with no Sesshoumaru and a bad youkai, what would you do besides scream?"

Rin thought on that for a while, straightening up to her unimpressive height and leaning on a nearby log. "Maybe die?"

The hanyou stared at her. "What?"

Rin shrugged. "That's what happened last time Sesshoumaru-sama wasn't there to save me. Except they weren't youkai, they were wolves, and they bit me on the neck."

Against his will, the hanyou felt a stab of pity for the kid. Perhaps it was more like empathy, really, since he could remember all too well the familiar situations in his past that could have turned out just like hers. . .except he wouldn't have been resurrected with the Sword of Heaven. "Well, that's not going to happen again, do you hear me? Next time you come up against something bigger and stronger than you are, you fucking go for its eyes and gouge them right out," he said, his voice hard and intense. "There's damn few youkai that can handle being blinded, no matter how it can track you down. You injure anything soft and vulnerable—don't waste time beating on armoured flesh, shells, hard plates of skin, anything. You hear me?"

Rin's eyes were huge. "I don't think I could do something like that, Inuyasha-san!"

He smiled humourlessly. "You'd be surprised at what you can do when your life is on the line. Just remember what I'm saying. As a general rule, anything soft on an animal youkai is a weakness. Eyes, nose, throat, even ears, sometimes. Hurt them enough to get yourself free and to safety. How are you at climbing?"

"I can climb trees to get fruit, and I've climbed a cliff this one time, except I fell off and then Sesshoumaru-sama caught me," she admitted. Her brown eyes sparkled as she smiled. "But that was a long long time ago! I haven't fallen since, really!" To demonstrate, she was off and halfway up the tree next to him before he could voice a proper protest. Not that he was going to—she was actually a damn decent little climber.

He grinned as she hooked her legs over the lower branch of the tree and flipped upside down to smile at him. "All right, monkey, I believe you," he said, poking her in the forehead with the pad of his finger, mindful of his claws. She giggled as the poke made her swing slightly. "If you're being attacked by a ground-crawling enemy, whether it's a youkai or a wolf, get yourself higher than it can jump and call for help. Remember that night in the woods? You ran, instead of climbed. Panicking will get you hurt, so you gotta keep a clear mind."

The little girl nodded, her face turning red as the blood rushed to her head. "What if it can climb, Inuyasha-san?"

He sighed. "If it can climb, then you run like a sonofabitch. If you don't think it can swim, get to water and dive on in. If you know there's an enemy of it somewhere nearby, head toward it. Few youkai will risk running into a natural enemy of its kind for a free meal, unless it's starving." Reaching out, he gently took Rin by her armpits and plucked her from the tree, letting her blink off the stars she was probably seeing by now. "Am I making sense, kid?"

"Think so," Rin said dizzily, blinking up at him. "You sure know a lot, Inuyasha. Maybe even more than Jaken-sama, and he's very old."

"I'm not exactly young myself," he muttered, making her tilt her head curiously, but to forestall her questions he started out towards the field between the forest and the village, stretching. The sun was beginning to set, which signalled the end of their little lesson. "Time to finish up, kid—"

"Aaah! Inuyasha-san, look! What's that?" Rin squealed, running towards him, pointing at the mouth of the forest. Silhouetted against the dying sunlight was a large huddle of. . .oh, man. Villagers. With pitchforks.

Inuyasha scowled. "It looks like the entire population of the village. Thing is, I can't remember doing anything to piss them off recently, so I'm guessing they're not here for me. . ." Raising an eyebrow, he glanced down at the girl. "Rin, have you been a bad girl? How many times have I told you not to attack the village?"

"I didn't!"

Snorting, he made his way to the fearful group of humans, one arm shielding his vision from the sun. "Just what the hell is going on here? I swear to God I haven't stolen the Shikon no Tama and attacked your priestess. I keep telling you guys."

The huddle seemed to deflate. One of the men spoke up. "It's just Inuyasha," he called to the rest, sounding haggard. "The girl's not our Suki." Muttering to themselves in low, worried voices, they began to move off. But the name had piqued his interest.

"Suki?" He called out curiously. "The little midget with the pigtails? Keeps getting her friend to propose to me for her? I saw her yesterday afternoon with a bunch of brats in the field." Exiting the shade of the forest, he realised that it wasn't all the villagers, simply most of the men, and one very frightened looking young woman, clutching a cloth doll. Half of its head was torn off, straw visible poking out of its neck. He vaguely remembered the girl carrying it around. She alwayshad it with her, come to think of it.

Inuyasha suddenly felt something foreboding drop in his stomach. "Someone's taken her," he realised, his brows snapping together, his levity dropping away. His eyes flashed.

Squeezing her eyes shut, the girl nodded like it cost her to do it. "She never came home from playing in that field," she whispered. "Just this was left behind." She held out the doll to him, its head flopping at a sad angle, almost grotesque in its appearance.

Rin stole up next to him, her eyes wide and scared. "A girl was taken away?" She asked him sadly, tugging his sleeve. He silently placed a hand on her head without looking down at her, his eyes pinned on the doll in thought. He looked to the men, who milled about, trying not to make eye contact with him, except that some of them were, and the look of hope in their faces was enough to tell him that if they would ask for his help, then it had to be a dire situation indeed.

A kid going missing was enough for them to put aside their bigoted hatred of him.

That was enough for anyone.

"Give me the doll," he said roughly, holding his hand out to the girl. She swallowed and thrust it out to him, clumsily brushing his hand in the process. It surprised him, but he put the thought away as he raised the doll to his nose and inhaled deeply, deeply. Closing his eyes, he tried to focus on the myriad of scents that the bundle contained.

"What the hell does he think he's doing?" One of the men said angrily, confused by his strange display. "Goddamn hanyou—"

"—shut up please, Hiroshi," the girl said tightly. "Please."

"Inuyasha-san is a dog demon," Rin piped up brightly. "He can smell things a lot better than humans." There was a sudden murmur of understanding amongst the men, and while that would have usually sparked some kind of satisfaction in him, what he was scenting on that doll was taking precedence over any petty smugness he might have felt.

"Youkai," he growled, his teeth gritted on a snarl. "Something with enough youki that it's clinging to this doll, more than a day later." His golden eyes popped open, flashing at the men. "This is too much for humans to handle. You'll get your asses handed to you if you go after it with a couple of pitchforks."

"I'm coming anyway," the girl said, her eyes wide. "Suki is my sister!"

"Then don't get yourself killed going after her," Inuyasha snapped back. "Because she's going to need you when I bring her back." If she was still alive, a traitorous voice whispered in the back of his mind. "Idiot girl, you're just a human."

"Well—well you're just a hanyou!" She cried out almost crossly, her eyes full of tears. "I won't sit here and—and knit socks while she's in danger."

"Listen to me," he growled, dangerously enough that some of the men started nervously. "I don't know what this thing is. I don't know how strong it is. All I know is that it smells like old blood and youki potent enough to stick to a frigging doll for a day without fading. Now you go back to the village, sit your ass down, and knit some fucking socks. I'll be back before daybreak. If I'm not, then it's not a total loss for you lot, now is it?" His glare sent her back a step, along with most of the villagers.

"The girl is likely already dead," came a cold voice from his far left. "The youkai is a soul eater. Once it has removed her soul and devoured it, it will wear her corpse for up to five days, at which time it needs to find a new body, and a new soul." Sesshoumaru stood between the trees as though he'd been there all along, a stark brilliant contrast to the lush greenery of the surrounding foliage. His narrowed golden eyes flickered to Rin. "You are late."

While Rin was spitting out apologies, her eyes shining with delight at his arrival anyway, Inuyasha was quietly reeling. A soul eater. Shit. Before him, the girl had fallen to her knees, eyes wide and unseeing. The men suddenly looked grey and ill. With those words, they'd already given up hope.

Quitters.

"Well, it's not a total loss," Inuyasha mused. "I'll go after it, grab Suki is she's still in one piece. If she's already had her soul taken, I'll return her body for a proper burial and kill the youkai sonofabitch before it snatches any more kids." It sounded all pretty logical to him. The girl flinched and wiped her eyes, shooting to her feet again and yanking the doll back from him in one fluid movement.

"If she's dead, don't bother coming back," she spat, her eyes streaming. "The only reason we kept you around is because you protected the village—and you can't even do that right! You couldn't even tell there was a youkai in the village, taking my sister! Now she might be dead, with some filthy stinking youkai,probably some relative of yours, wearing her body like a suit! My Suki!" She burst into piteous sobs, her shoulders shaking, clutching the doll to her chest like an amulet. The men tried patting her shoulder in what was probably a consoling gesture, but she shrugged it off angrily.

"How grateful they are for your assistance," Sesshoumaru observed, his eyes hooded and rich with disdain. "Heart-warming."

Inuyasha had been studying the ground, his jaw clenched to stop any stupid words from escaping. The girl was practically grieving already, right, so she'd gone over the edge.

Except no, they all thought the very thing she had the reckless guts to say.

Still.

He swallowed, and lifted his head to stare straight into Sesshoumaru's eyes. "If she's dead, will you use Tenseiga?"

He didn't even blink. "No. I'm less than endeared to these miserable fools. After all," he said, cruelty in his voice as his eyes scanned the huddle, "if they insult the freely given aid of a hanyou, they hardly deserve the strength of the youkai Lord of the Western Lands."

They nearly went into a full-blown panic at those words, as they registered in the eyes of each human there. Youkai. Youkai Lord. Imagining what they saw, a tall, ethereal man who was not a man at all but a fearsome demon who would sooner kill them all than save one small girl. The blood drained completely from already pallid faces.

"She's just a kid," Inuyasha argued. "A defenceless kid. It could just as easily be Rin out there with that thing and you know it. So grow a fucking shred of moral decency and help out for once, if you know so much about this thing. Give me a hand here."

Sesshoumaru stilled, blinking once, slowly, at the unexpected request. Inuyasha was actually asking for his assistance. Over some faceless human girl, he'd give up the pride he'd clung to so fiercely, the same pride that had stopped him from asking for aid when even the very world itself had been on the brink of destruction. His life was not on the line here, yet he still. . .for one thankless task. A fool's errand.

He had hope, the youkai lord decided, that the humans would accept him eventually. Like a pathetic mongrel begging for scraps of attention. Performing tricks for its master. He didn't even realise what he was. What they were. It infuriated him, somewhere cold and quiet, where the steady golden eyes of his half-brother could never penetrate. And he wasn't certain why.

Emerging fully from the shadows he stood in, Sesshoumaru closed in on the humans, ignoring their panicked jostling as he swept past, well out of touching distance. He stared at Inuyasha coldly. "Give you a hand," he repeated, tasting the request in his mouth. Arch humour flickered in his eyes and drained away instantly. "I believe I've given you as many as I can spare, little brother."

Inuyasha almost flushed. He could have worded that better, he supposed, his ears flattening. "Whatever," he muttered, looking away. "Forget it then, it's not like I need your help. I'll just get to her before that thing can eat her soul." Turning away in the direction of the scent trail, he straightened Tetsusaiga at his hip and prepared to leave.

"Wait," the girl said behind him, almost shrill with panic. "Don't go without me. Please. Let me come. I won't get in your way Ipromise."

Whipping his head around, he fought the urge to sneer at the girl. "If you can handle riding on my back, you can come," he said roughly. "But I can't guarantee you won't catch hanyou from me."

As the girl stared at him, stricken, Rin fidgeted at Sesshoumaru's side, looking back and forth between the brothers. "Sesshoumaru-sama," she whispered, "can Rin go with Inuyasha-san and watch him fight the youkai?"

Inuyasha heard that, and turned to shake his head at the girl. "Too dangerous," he barked. "Stay here where it's safe, Rin." Then he added nastily, "just like Sesshoumaru is doing."

Crimson-lidded eyes narrowed into slits. "It is not wise to goad me, Inuyasha," he said, his voice lowering to something like a growl.

"Bite me," he returned with a malicious grin.

"Don't tempt me, hanyou," the daiyoukai replied, lifting his lip slightly to expose a flash of fang, his eyes glittering dangerously. "I know Toukijin especially is simply burning to taste your flesh again."

"Miss me, do you?" He laughed, and without waiting for a reply he extended one hand to the crying girl. "If you're coming, get on. It'll be a lot faster, trust me."

"Trust you," the girl repeated, wiping her cheeks and tucking the ruined doll into her thin kimono. "I'll try anything once." She took his hand and allowed him to help her onto his back, pushing his thick mane of silver hair to one side. Inuyasha gave a fangy grin.

"That's the spirit," he said. "Hold on." Adjusting his grip on her knees, he waited until she'd moved her hands to his shoulders before loping in the direction of the youkai scent, rapidly gaining speed until the countryside blurred past them both, the girl shrieking her head off into the space between his shoulders. Thank god it muffled the noise somewhat, he thought, concentrating on his destination. It took his mind off the nostalgic feeling of having someone riding so closely with him again, a space that had only ever belonged to Kagome in his mind. Now he had some nameless villager girl who hated him clutching to him like a lifeline, because 'some relative of his' had stolen her little sister. It was a sad state of affairs.

He didn't really know himself why he was going out of his way like this. Maybe it had something to do with training the kid. Was he getting attached to Sesshoumaru's little midget human? Or was it because on some level he agreed with the girl? Besides, if he hadn't taken off on the kids like he had, the youkai would never have gotten a chance to take Suki away.

"How you doing back there," he called after the first fifteen minutes, swivelling his ears around. "Still alive?"

"Yes," the girl replied loudly over the wind. "Can't you go any faster? I thought you were faster than this!"

Inuyasha scowled. "Well yeah, but you're heavy! Cut back on the rice when we get back to the village. Your thighs are huge," he informed her, grinning as she started to scream curses at him. At least she wasn't scared anymore, he decided. He preferred the yelling over the crying. Always had, really.

After another ten minutes or so, the girl abruptly shifted, letting out a shrill scream of shock. "There's a falling star following us!"

The hanyou jumped. "A what?" Craning his neck around, he looked to the sky and started in surprise. It was Sesshoumaru, in ball mode. Or whatever it was when he coalesced his entire form into a glowing sphere of light. Inuyasha had seen him do it a couple of times, most notably when he'd cut off his arm in the youkai graveyard. He was shooting through the sky at a speed that was almost unfair. The bastard had too many modes of travel. The pair almost dazedly watched the streaking light pass over their heads and keep going.

In the same direction Inuyasha was heading.

He blinked.

That fucker was going to steal his kill.

"Hold on!" Inuyasha roared, flared his youki, and took off like the hounds of hell were on his ass. "I'm not coming back for you if you fall off, fat-ass!"

"Stupid hanyou!" The girl shrieked, pulling his hair. "Shut up and run!"

They ran.

It was the hardest he'd run in his life, or it felt like it after so long, sitting around doing nothing. His legs burned with every fluid step, muscle shifting and rippling, his heart pounding like a hammer in his chest. Breath tearing in his throat, eyes fixed on one target, one prey. He ran like he'd never run before, and it felt fantastic to be moving again.

It felt like only seconds had gone by before they reached their destination. Sesshoumaru was nowhere in sight, but for the moment it didn't matter. They were standing before a typical youkai burrow, more a cave that had been dug into the rock of a cliff, and something gold-glowing and decidedly insect-like was emerging from the darkness inside. It looked like a praying mantis in shape, with a translucent pouch at its stomach the hanyou could only guess was meant to house the souls it took. It glowed white and full.

Sickeningly, caught in its stick-like feet was the corpse of a small girl, grey-skinned and milky eyed. It was standing in the burst-open spine of the girl like it had been caught undressing from her.

But it wasn't Suki.

"Prey, prey," it hissed, sounding panicked, sounding insane. Its huge red eyes settled on Inuyasha and narrowed into slits. "Thief!"

Thief? He didn't have time to argue the accusation when it suddenly lashed out with its feet, throwing the corpse straight at his head. Leaping into the air, clasping the girl to his back, he got out of range and dropped her on her feet. "Stay here," he hissed, "and don't move until I tell you." His eyes fell to the ruined body of the little dead girl, sprawled brokenly before him. "That thing's crazy."

From the look of still horror on her face, he didn't have to worry about her moving anywhere. He turned back to the youkai, one hand at Tetsusaiga's hilt.

"Where's Kagome's bug spray when I need it," he grumbled, cocking an eyebrow at the thing as it skittered side to side on seemingly unsteady legs. "Where's Suki?"

"Thief," it rasped, like a broken record. "Don't mock me!" Darting forward, then back, but it seemed hesitant to outright attack him. Perhaps it wasn't meant to be out of a body like this for long. Which begged the question, where was Suki? It had a belly full of souls, but where—

A thought occurred to him, giving way to an almost startled burst of irritated approval.

So he didn't trust him to kill the thing and save the girl? Keh.

He drew his sword, the fang transforming into its crackling unsealed form. "Mock you?" He repeated, grinning madly. "I'm going to kill you, you messed up sonofabitch."

Drawing his sword up, he prepared to let loose an almighty Kaze no Kizu, when he realised he couldn't. Decimating everything was probably not the best option, judging by that glowing belly full of Suki's soul. Sheathing his sword, he pulled it from his waistband and tossed it to the girl behind him. "Look after that," he ordered, and cracked his knuckles. His claws flashed. "Let's get down to business."

He attacked.

For a spindly-legged bug, it could move, he grudgingly thought, as swipe after swipe of his claws was met with air. Instead it kept backing up, further and further, hissing furious breaths through its jagged jaws. Further and further, until it was standing at the ledge of the cliff, its back to a drop of what could easily have been seventy meters. Straight down onto jagged rock. Not even a youkai could survive that kind of fall without some serious firepower, something he doubted this body-snatching bug had.

It was all kind of anti-climactic, he had to admit. "Give up already," he said harshly. "You're gonna die either way, so you might as well just let me to it. It'll be quicker than a slow death all squashed at the bottom of that drop."

"The only one going to die here is you," it wheezed, sounding clearly coherent, and downright triumphant. Then it sprang.

It moved too fast.

One second it was in front of him, the next gone and two dagger-like legs were stabbing though his chest from behind. Mouth open, eyes shocked, he felt the great rush of blood filling his lungs moments before he coughed, spraying it everywhere in an attempt to get a breath. But everything was agony, and it was ripping them back out, serrated blades that weren't blades, but his enemy's legs and they shredded his chest as it pulled them free.

He couldn't fight as it kicked him straight over the edge of the cliff. Everything was already going black. But it was a funny kind of black—not death, just agony and a slow-motion fall into something that laughed in a voice too guttural to be his own.

Falling inside his own mind, where a surge of primal rage reached for him.

He reached back.

The world turned crimson.


Sesshoumaru watched the transformation take place in the hanyou, an abrupt thing that soaked the air with his youki, allowed him to flip in mid-air even as he fell off the cliff. He caught the lip of the cliff in his claws and swung his legs around in a spinning motion that carried him back up onto the edge.

His eyes were blank, animal crimson, his fangs elongated and more demonic in appearance. Youkai markings appeared on his cheeks, jagged purple streaks that reminded him too much of their father.

The growl that emerged from the depths of Inuyasha's chest was bestial, low, and deadly.

The youkai never had a chance.

While Inuyasha tore it limb from limb, the tall youkai made his way from his place of observation to the cowering girl, who was watching the display with abject horror and awe. She was clutching the Tetsusaiga to her chest as though it would protect her.

"Give me the fang," he ordered, extending his hand to her.

"What?"

"The sword," he elaborated coldly. A wet, wrenching sound of dislocated bones sounded behind them both, followed by a three-chord scream of agony. The girl went nearly green with nausea, but her eyes lingered on Inuyasha.

"He's going to die," she whispered, handing the sword to him with shaky hands. He took it by the sheath. "Holes, holes in his chest and he's still fighting? Why?"

Sesshoumaru turned slightly to eye the one-sided battle with his usual remote interest. At this point, Inuyasha knew nothing of his own actions. His youkai blood had taken over his mind, forcing him to simply kill anything in his path. He could easily tell the human of the transformation he'd gone through, how in only a moment the soul eater would be dead and he would then turn on the girl. It would be all too easy to ensure Inuyasha would no longer have a place within that filthy little human village.

For some unfathomable reason, he felt an inexplicable urge to do just that. To erase their hatred and venom with the blank terror of natural born prey.

He heard his own voice, distant and preoccupied. "Hanyou do foolish things to be accepted."

He barely saw the girl flinch in realisation, so intent was he on watching events unfold. Yes, Inuyasha did altogether strange things to earn the affection of those useless humans. Risked his life time and again for them, and whether he realised it or not, every step he took was for the approval of people he had no business spending his time with.

And yet. . .of all the people who refused to acknowledge him, Inuyasha had never once attempted to win the acceptance of his own brother. Not once.

Do you hate me?

Yes.

Oh. But I don't hate you. Is that okay?

Sesshoumaru frowned suddenly, shaking off the centuries-old memory as the death rattle of the soul eater vibrated in the air. Clenching the sheath of the Tetsusaiga in his hand, careful not to touch the hilt, he strode forward and disappeared from sight.

Inuyasha had only just settled blood red eyes on the human girl when he was slammed once, brutally, over the head with his beloved sword.

The high yelp that left him unsettled the youkai, who watched him pitch forward into the dirt, unmoving. It was the cry of wounded dog, not a mindless animal, and it seemed to hang in the air in the moments it took for Inuyasha's body to revert to normal. Satisfied with his work, Sesshoumaru dropped the fang at his side and drew Tenseiga, skirting the entrails and severed joints of the soul eater until he was standing before the still-glowing pouch that housed the souls of the two girls it had ingested. With a flick of his wrist, he sliced it open, and watched the two orbs rise out of the mess. One simply flew up into the air and vanished, while the other drifted around the corner of the rocky crag where the stolen child's body lay.

Sheathing the sword, he frowned speculatively down at his younger brother. He was face-down in the dirt, blood tricking down over his temple from the strike he'd dealt him. Claws still soaked in all manner of viscera. Sesshoumaru had never seen him truly unconscious before. Even ill, he'd never stayed still, always moving, whimpering, thrashing about, and trembling. This close, he could make out the shadow of his eyelashes resting against his cheek, his mouth turned down slightly in unrest, his expression no longer filled with brash confidence and bluster. He looked. . .younger.

He looked defenceless. Normally that would have angered the youkai lord, except that he himself had put Inuyasha in his vulnerable state.

"Is he going to wake up?" A small voice asked from behind him as the young child, Suki, approached him, rubbing her eyes. A gasp sounded from his right.

"Suki!" The girl cried in relief and shock. "Oh my god, you're alive!"

"Uh-huh, but Inuyasha—" Whatever else she'd been about to say was smothered by her sister's embrace. The pale youkai tuned it out, pondering exactly what to do with his unconscious brother. Leaving him to his own fate was out of the question; Rin hadn't learned nearly enough in one day, despite her excited ramblings on the subject of edible fungi.

He turned his head and regarded the pair of siblings with a critical gold gaze. "Are you aware of your surroundings?"

The elder of the two wiped her cheeks and peered at him in confusion. "What?"

He fought the urge to sigh. "Do you know where you are, human."

"Oh. Mostly. You aren't going to just leave us here are you? We're—we're girls! We'll get killed! We'll—"

"Silence." Glancing back at Inuyasha, he grit his teeth and had to put some real effort into not beating him over the head again. Taking his shoulder, he shook him none-too-gently, to no avail. He was well and truly senseless.

Coldly furious at what he was being reduced to, he shot to his feet and pinched two fingers between his lips, resulting in a piercing whistle that echoed throughout the countryside. The girls jumped in surprise, the younger plugging her ears at the shrill sound. Her eyes were wide and fixed on him with wonder and a little fear. It seemed she hadn't picked up the village's teachings of hatred toward all youkai. Or perhaps she was simply very stupid. He watched dispassionately as she trotted over to Inuyasha and sat down beside him, petting his hair and pushing it off his back.

He'd braced himself for her shriek of horror when she uncovered his twin wounds. "Ohmigod, ohmigod, Hina, he's hurt! He's hurt real bad! Inuyasha's gonna die! I can't marry him if he's dead!"

Sesshoumaru nearly rolled his eyes heavenward. Was he getting a headache? It certainly felt like it. But a dark shape then made itself visible on the horizon, steadily getting bigger, and satisfaction flickered through him. Ah-Un. The dragon was racing across the skies toward his master's call, thankfully about to collect the humans and get them out of his sight. It wouldn't do to kill them both when he'd just aided them. Bad form, perhaps, and a waste of effort.

Inuyasha began to stir just as they'd both mounted the dragon, both looking inordinately excited. No doubt they'd never seen a dragon before, being the backwater humans they were. He didn't need to give his faithful dragon a word of direction, both heads simply blinked and him and then they were in the air. Watching them go with no small amount of relief – Rin had never been such a handful, had she? – he turned back to observe the hanyou's feeble attempts to push himself into a kneeling position.

He fell forward again, letting out a strangled sound of pain.

Sesshoumaru did sigh then, irritated, and pulled him by the hair out of his own pool of blood.

How he'd managed to survive without him was suddenly a great mystery. Had his life up until now just been one immense game of chance?

He didn't know, but it was beginning to appear that way.


"I have holes in me again, don't I."

They were the first coherent words out of his mouth once he realised how much pain he was in. He wasn't saying them to anyone in particular, but almost immediately his nose caught the scent of his brother, who was strangely sitting beside him, one knee drawn up, propping himself up by his hand. He looked faintly bored.

"You do."

He let out a breath of irritated resignation. "I hate getting holes in me," he slurred. "Do you know how long it takes for them to heal? At least three days. And people are all like, 'hey! Did you know you have holes in you?' and I'm like, 'no shit, really? I just thought it was fucking windy today'." Aware he was being far too chatty to long-time asshole brothers, and deciding to blame it on the punchy blood-loss-induced mood he was in, he pushed himself upright and swivelled his hips to sit straight, panting at that small exertion. He pulled his upper clothing off and examined the damage. Two puncture marks, each the size of a large fist, through his chest just below each shoulder blade. Straight through the meat, thankfully missing his lungs for the most part. Strangely relieved, he cast his eyes to Sesshoumaru. "At least it wasn't as good a shot as you. Remember that time you got me through the stomach? The only thing I could think when that happened was 'am I really going to die hanging on my own brother's arm?' Then I had visions of hanging out in hell, or heaven or wherever, and Mother's scolding me for ticking you off when you're busy." He balled up his undershirt and began sponging the wounds with it, hissing at the pain.

"Brother."

Inuyasha's head came up. "Yeah?"

Sesshoumaru shook his head slightly, his eyes speculative. "You just referred to me as your kin," he stated, with absolutely no inflection whatsoever. Like the question didn't matter to him one way or the other. The hanyou blinked hazily, mouth pulling into a confusion frown.

"What am I supposed to call you?" He scowled. "You call me your brother, sometimes. And you are, I mean, so it's not like it's stupid or anything. But I should have guessed the rules would be different for me. Don't worry, I won't do it again."

Sesshoumaru just continued to watch him with those oddly measuring eyes. Then he blinked, glancing away suddenly. His claws scratched against the stone lightly. "Your head may pain you. I rendered you unconscious when you lost your senses and destroyed the soul eater," he said smoothly, staring out at the deepening evening. "You should be more careful where you leave our father's inheritance lying around in a fight. Or were you so cocky you believed you didn't need it? Or perhaps this was another valiant attempt to have someone end your life for you. I was unable to accommodate you this time." There was a trace of something almost sharp in his voice, something Inuyasha recognised as a rebuke.

He blinked in surprise. "I wasn't trying to kill myself," he said stubbornly. "I just. . .didn't think it could move that fast." Why were they talking? It was the undercurrent thought running below all others. Was he really having a conversation with Sesshoumaru, without insults, and bloodshed? Did something change when he wasn't looking?

"So you were overconfident," Sesshoumaru stated matter-of-factly. The hanyou shifted uncomfortably and looked away, but he didn't miss the youkai's small huff of derision. "Then it was a fortunate thing I was here."

He didn't want to say it out loud, but Inuyasha had to agree. If Sesshoumaru hadn't been there when his demonic blood took over, he'd probably have killed the girl and gone on a rampage. Without Kagome to Sit him when he went berserk, it would have been a certainty that he would have killed a lot of people. "Thanks, I guess," he said wearily, one eye squinting closed in pain as he applied more pressure to his wounds. "Free shot for you. Bet that felt good."

"Ask Tetsusaiga," the youkai replied coolly. "It was your sword I struck you with. The power in the sword that keeps your blood sealed was necessary to immobilise you."

Inuyasha blinked, mystified. "Oh," he said finally, wondering at the explanation. Then he blinked. "Wait a minute. . ." When had the others ever needed to hit him with his sword?

For a moment there, Sesshoumaru's lips seemed to curl upwards at the corners. Inuyasha just bristled with indignation.

"That was for slapping you with your arm, wasn't it," he bit out, angrily embarrassed. "I hope you got your hand burnt off by the barrier, you sadistic asshole." Shifting, he turned to glare at his brother and found himself presented with two unblemished palms. Figured he didn't get hurt by it, the fucker had probably found some way around the barrier or something clever like that. Which was just frigging great.

Suddenly he stilled, his brain relaying something back to him he didn't notice right away.

Two unblemished palms.

Inuyasha's eyes flew wide.

Sesshoumaru had two hands. Two arms, and they were all perfect ivory skin and razor claws, all the way up to his twin-striped wrists and disappearing into his sleeves. Arms. Hands. He was whole again.

"It worked," Inuyasha croaked, incredulous. His hands twitched, once, towards the fingers of that left hand, which had been cold and slack and slightly damp the last time he'd touched them. He could hear the pulse beating in the wrist, smell the hot blood storming those long-disused veins. He lifted disbelieving eyes to his brother's, and felt a slow, triumphant grin part his mouth, indenting his lip with a flash of fang. "It worked."

Inclining his head regally, Sesshoumaru agreed to that much with seemingly easy grace. "It did." His eyes met Inuyasha's, a steady clear shade of gold that owed little to his usual cold demeanour. "Once Rin gave it back."

Inuyasha felt his mouth twitch into a rueful grin. He knew all too well the kid's love of all things Sesshoumaru. Scoring his arm must have been like a gift from god for her. Watching his brother uncoil and rise to his feet, wondering if he had the strength to do the same despite his injuries, he was unprepared to see the hand that was suddenly outstretched in his line of vision. One pale hand was reached out to him, long, elegant fingers relaxed in a way that couldn't possibly be a method of attack.

He looked like. . .he wanted to help him up.

Ears flicking in confusion, the hanyou raised uncertain eyes to his brother.

Sesshoumaru just stared calmly back, and waited.

The fact that it was that hand wasn't lost on Inuyasha. Mouth flattening at the challenge it seemingly presented to him, he soon realised he couldn't do it. He couldn't take that hand and rely on him. Reaching out in trust, expecting him not to deceive him, betray him. . .he'd lost that faith and he knew it. Wanting it, on whatever level, didn't change a thing. Eyes smouldering in defeat, head lowering, Inuyasha summoned his strength and tried to push himself to his feet of his own accord.

He missed the way that hand slowly withdrew, the way eyes the very mirror of his own darkened in understanding.

He'd forced himself to his knees, blood-soaked hakama dragging and filthy. Blood trickled anew from his wounds, burning from the dried gouges torn open again too soon. Gritting his teeth at the pain, at the weakness in his muscles, Inuyasha tensed and shifted his balance, pressing into the hard stone with his palms and placing himself on his feet. Rising out of his crouch, wavering dreadfully, he ignored the dark-bright spots invading his vision at the exertion and tried to lift his head.

When his legs dissolved, and he knew, he knew he was a fool, he fell forward and two arms wrapped around him, holding him aloft against a body that felt like a pillar of armoured stone. Angry with his weakness, his absolute ineptitude seemingly only whenever his brother was around, Inuyasha stubbornly tried to fight the arms holding him up in one piece, mindful of the holes in his body. Claws skated over his sides, but did not slice deep. The scent he'd only ever associated with bad blood and pain surrounded him from head to foot, but he only breathed deeper to trap that memory of storms and leashed youki deeper within his mind. And if he wanted to admit it, that instinct frightened him. What the hell was he doing? He'd barely even relied on his friends, even towards the end, and yet—

"Let me," Sesshoumaru said.

Inuyasha laughed shortly, the sound bordering on a harsh sob more than anything else.

"I don't know how," he said hoarsely, but turned his face to one side, where his cheek rested on silk and his eyes stared out into a thousand silver strands of moonlight as they wove in the evening wind. He barely even started, too lightheaded and thrown by what was happening to react when his brother lowered his head and, jaw brushing his temple, repeated his request against the soft velvet of one snowy ear.

"Let me."

Eyes staring unseeingly into the gathering dark, Inuyasha reached up and curled his fingers in the flowing white and red sleeves that seemed to surround him, pristine against his bloodied, sweaty form. It was the only evidence agreement he gave, that small assent. Perhaps he was just tired of everything, he thought as they both began to shine with brilliant white light, the stormy scent of power rising up in the air tenfold with the bloom of power. Perhaps he too was sick of the same old argument, the same old battle.

That didn't mean he was ready for things to change.

But it seemed they already had.

 



Chapter 8: Turnabout

Kaede's hut really was the most boring place in the universe. And she needed to get that hole in the roof fixed.

Inuyasha had stumbled into her hut three days ago, after Sesshoumaru had transported them both back after the soul eating youkai had been defeated. Well, to be honest Sesshoumaru had all but shoved him in there, his earlier mercy gone without a trace. Which really was how Inuyasha preferred it. With a curt order to resume training Rin once he'd recovered, eyes not even bothering to linger on him, Sesshoumaru had strode out of the hut and vanished into the night. The old priestess had tended to his wounds, pressing healing herbs to the wounds to speed up recovery and stave off infection. He'd slept through most of it, his body sapped of strength as it tried desperately to close the wounds and replenish the blood it had lost.

He'd woken up late the next morning to find Kaede peering out the entrance of her hut, her expression surprised. "The villagers are taking your actions quite seriously, it would seem," she commented.

"What?" He asked, pushing himself into a sitting position. He winced as it pulled at the wounds.

She shook her head. "Never mind, Inuyasha. Stay put until you're fully healed. That means no leaving the hut, do you understand?"

Coughing painfully, he'd nodded. "Whatever. But I'm not gonna be your love slave, no matter what you say."

Kaede had tossed him a dry look. "It's not me you have to worry about."

On that strange note, he'd gone back to sleep, waking only to eat. Once or twice he'd snuck out in the dead of night to relieve himself, and hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary in the village. The idea that Kaede really did want him as her love slave suddenly had more weight to it. Sick old lady, she'd probably been feeling him up in his sleep. The thought had amused him so much at the time he'd repeated it back to her, not understanding why his next meal turned out to be stale bread and tough meat.

Three days came and went, and his body healed. There was now no sign of his wounds, barring a soreness in the muscles beneath the smooth skin. Kaede had washed his clothes for him, and thankfully the fire rat fur had mended itself. The fire rats once had serious regeneration powers, which remained in its hide, meaning that the tears in his clothing he'd sustained over the years actually healed themselves. It was all a little crazy, but as long as he wasn't marching about in rags, he could live with it. Pulling on his clothes and freeing his heavy mane of hair from the collar, Inuyasha raised his head and took a deep breath.

Time to get back into it.


He was halfway through the village on his way to find Rin when he realised someone was stalking him. If you could call their half-assed attempt of jumping between huts to avoid being seen such a thing. Deciding to play dumb and see where it went, he slowed his pace and meandered through the village, mildly perturbed when one set of footsteps became two, then four, and then seven. What the hell was this?

Disgruntled by the idea that they were playing some kind of trick on him, he finally stopped on the outskirts of the village and fuelled himself with enough speed to make it look like he'd vanished. Voices cried out in surprise.

"Behind you," he said idly, scratching his head. They screamed and spun around, wide eyed. It was just the kids, led by Suki, who was pink-cheeked and grinning up at him unashamedly.

"Hi Inuyasha!" She chirped, linking her hands behind her back and rocking up on her heels. It was such a Rin-esque motion that he blinked. But this little midget had two pigtails and muddy green eyes. Her prized doll was mended and clutched tightly behind her. "Are you already healed? You're so cool. I told all the kids what you did, and we're gonna be your helpers from now on!"

Helpers? Well, if that didn't just scream trouble. He frowned. "Help me with what?"

"Killing youkai!" She cried, and the other kids cheered.

He smacked her over the head.

"Dumbass," he growled, ignoring her cry of pain. "You're youkai food, not youkai killers. Now beat it, I've got work to do."

"What kind?" A boy asked curiously. "My dad says you don't do anything useful and just mooch off Kaede-sama for food."

"You're dad's just bitter that your mom wants to bang me," he said, bored. The boy started crying.

He left the disgruntled bunch of kids behind in favour of heading for the forest, not exactly looking forward to the impending meeting. Somehow, he really hoped that Sesshoumaru would be off pillaging and plundering, or whatever it was that he did for fun. That way he could just snatch Rin and bugger off into a field for some practice. He could do with a day markedly lacking in confusion, bloodshed and puncture wounds. All of which he usually received when in the vicinity of his brother, lately. Before it had just been bloodshed and puncture wounds. Inuyasha didn't really know what was going on, whether they'd come to some kind of truce or not, but he was fully aware that something had changed. Before, Sesshoumaru would never have followed him to kill a useless soul eater. Certainly wouldn't have stuck around until he woke up, or helped him get back to the village. Sesshoumaru just didn't help, full stop. For that matter, Inuyasha wouldn't have allowed it, even welcomed it.

He felt a little like he'd lost control of things somewhere, and it pissed him off.

He followed the usual trail to where the trio had made camp, if one fireplace by a stream could be considered such. He could hear it crackling happily despite the fact it was the middle of the day, and not even a little cold. If anything it was uncomfortably hot, tempting him to strip out of a layer or two. Fire rat fur was handy, but not exactly practical in summer. Hooking a clawed finger in the neck of his haori, he pulled it away from his skin slightly to get some air flow. With his other hand, he balled up his mane of hair and pulled it off the back of his neck. If he didn't look like such a girl, he'd probably tie it up more often, he thought sourly. The look sure didn't work for that wanker Kouga. And the fur sweatband? The only thing worse than that wolf's scent was his fashion sense. Sniggering to himself at the mental jab, the hanyou didn't even notice that he'd found his way into Sesshoumaru's camp until a flash of white moved in his peripheral vision.

"Wandering in here so unguardedly is unlike you, Inuyasha," the youkai lord commented, his back resting against a tree.

Tensing, Inuyasha dropped his hands, his hair unravelling heavily around his shoulders. "Wear a little bell or something, would you?" He grumbled, turning his gaze away almost immediately. "I didn't even notice you."

"Hardly my fault. You're not what one would call an astute individual." Sesshoumaru turned his face toward the stream, but his eyes tracked every movement the hanyou made. Currently, he was frowning indignantly.

"Whatever," he muttered, scanning the campsite. They seemed to be the only ones there. Damn it. "Rin's not here?"

"Clearly."

Irritation burned in Inuyasha's stomach. Asshole. "Fine," he grunted, turning around to go. "Tell her to meet me tomorrow at dawn in the field behind the village." Shoulders stiff, he was almost past the bushes he'd burst through when his brother spoke again.

"She's merely fishing upstream with Jaken. She'll be back soon, if you can sit still long enough to wait," his brother said coolly. Inuyasha glanced back and found him watching the stream again, his expression implacable. He blinked. Sesshoumaru was inviting him to wait? Casting his senses about, he couldn't catch a whiff of the girl, which meant she was a fair way away with the toad. Far from keen to meet the damn imp again after the attack last time they saw each other, he decided against tracking them down. Well, it was a twenty minute walk back to the village. . .and if he cared to admit it, he might have been healed but he was far from full strength. There was still a weakness in his muscles that pissed him off. He was spending an inordinate amount of time lately injured and or dying.

"Fine," he muttered again, turning back and heading for a decent place to sit. He ended up plunked down on the boulder half-embedded in the bank, staring at the stream and trying to figure out what was so interesting about it that Sesshoumaru could hardly look away. He couldn't see anything, except for the occasional silvery flash of a fish, and—

He swore, pulling his feet up higher onto the rock. The dark slithering shadow of an eel flickered through the stream and carried on its deceptively merry way. Inuyasha felt his mouth twist into a grimace. Maybe the stream wasn't such a great thing to stare at. Swivelling around, he found himself locking eyes with his brother. "What?" He asked aggressively. "I don't like eels."

Sesshoumaru frowned slightly. "You're frightened of them."

"You deaf?" He snapped. "I said I don't like them. Imagine being bare-ass naked in the creek having a bath, and feeling one of those slimy bastards wriggle around your thigh. They're frigging perverts, is what they are."

Sesshoumaru blinked, his face suddenly smoothing out of all expression. "You believe the eels are trying to molest you?"

"N—" He bit off his words before they could escape, his cheeks flaming red. "I'm not having this conversation with you," he muttered. "Dirt probably doesn't even stick to a pureblood like you, so the concept of bathing is probably foreign to begin with."

They fell into a heavy silence, with no reply forthcoming from his brother. No surprise there. Mentally Inuyasha beat himself to a pulp for even offering up such admittedly strange information. If it wasn't enough being seen as the bad fruit on the family tree, now Sesshoumaru probably figured he had some kind of repressed fish fetish. Which he didn't. Because that would be weird. Scowling, he settled himself cross-legged on the rock and began examining his claws for rough edges and chips. It had been a while since he'd used his claws for fighting, but he knew they had been his weapon of choice when he'd shredded that soul eater. For all that messy killing, his claws were in fine condition. Heh. He was in the process of experimentally pricking the back of his other hand to test for sharpness when a voice caught his attention.

". . .Tanuki," said Sesshoumaru. "They make me suspicious."

Inuyasha blinked hard, then slowly swung his gaze around to his brother. "They. . .they what?"

Straightening from the tree he was reclined against, the proud youkai made what was quite possibly the weirdest frigging admission he'd ever heard. "Their markings resemble a mask," he explained slowly. "It makes me believe they're hiding something."

It took about five seconds for that statement to sink through the hanyou's layer humming incredulity. Then his mouth twitched. "Seriously?" He choked out, raising one clawed hand to hover near his mouth, ready to slap over it should he be unable to hold in his laughter. He'd only just healed.

Sesshoumaru paused, then nodded once. "The last time I saw one, I had Jaken chase it for four miles," he admitted.

Inuyasha slapped his hand over his mouth, hard. His ribs creaked with the effort of holding in what felt like an explosion of howling laughter, gleeful wriggling, and quite possibly tears. His brother noticed, and frowned slightly. "If you wish to laugh, you may," he said finally, crossing his arms and strolling over to the edge of the stream as though he didn't have a care in the world. Pointedly ignoring him, Sesshoumaru proceeded to cup his hands and drink from the stream.

Inuyasha rolled over and died. "Tanuki!" He cracked up, curled up on his side on the rock. Gripping his sides, he laughed until tears rolled down his face. "And you made him chase—! You paranoid fuck!" His muscles ached from the completeness of his amusement, and he wondered with absent concern if he'd piss himself if he laughed any harder. But he couldn't shake the mental image of Sesshoumaru and Co traipsing through the countryside, spotting a Tanuki going about its business, and the youkai lord demanding to know what nefarious plot it was up to. Every time he thought he was over it, and he could get himself under control again, he imagined Jaken chasing one of the little bastards into the sunset.

"I'm okay, I'm okay," he eventually wheezed, pushing himself into a sitting position and wiping his eyes. He pulled in a huge breath and released it in a long rush. "Whew. Tanuki. Oh, man." He couldn't stop grinning. He had no idea his brother actually had a pet hate, even if it was as queer as a vehement mistrust of Tanuki. He snorted and rubbed his face with his hands.

"I'm pleased you find it so amusing," he heard Sesshoumaru say, his voice mild. Then something thumped into Inuyasha's lap, making him blink down in surprise.

"What—oh fuck me sideways," he roared, as a long brown-gray eel thrashed in his lap, sharp translucent teeth protruding from its gaping mouth. Leaping to his feet, it fell from his legs, bouncing off the rock to land in the dirt, where it wriggled and shimmied desperately in some obscene dance. He stared at Sesshoumaru, jaw agape. "Did—you sick bastard!" Leaping gracefully, he cleared about three meters before landing beside the campfire, glaring balefully at his brother. "That was so not funny. You complete dick."

The last shot got its intended response, as Sesshoumaru's expression darkened and he vanished from sight, reappearing to knock Inuyasha to the ground, one clawed hand ready to plunge into his throat. Inuyasha screamed. "Oh god I'm sorry don't kill me!" He begged, hands clasped together as though in prayer. Sesshoumaru's eyes widened, and he actually hesitated. Inuyasha pounced, whipping his legs out from under him by twisting his own around his brother's knees, then threw himself on top of the furious youkai. "Sucker!"

Sesshoumaru snarled gutturally, and the glance he shot Inuyasha through a veil of silver was shot with demonic crimson. "Inuyasha," he growled, "release me."

The hanyou's grin could have split his face. "Say you're sorry and I'll think about it," he said daringly. Then he clenched his knees around Sesshoumaru's hips as he suddenly bucked. "Whoafuck!" Try as he might, he couldn't keep his grip, and managed to get himself sent tumbling into the grass. He sat up, spitting out blades of grass in time to cop a fist to the jaw. He didn't sit up right away after that, instead wriggling about in silent agony, having bitten his tongue. How did he get himself into these situations? Eels, tackles, yet another near-death experience, and now he'd bitten his tongue. He was getting rather used to the taste of blood filling his mouth. Spitting into the grass, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and gingerly prodded his jaw, slightly surprised that was all he'd earned for such a daring move. To his recollection, he'd never dived on his brother's back before. "Good times."

When he didn't receive a response, he squinted over at Sesshoumaru, who was sitting across from him, the heel of one palm pressed against his eye. "Tell me I accidentally punched you in the face," the hanyou said, with little hope. Sesshoumaru grimaced, but didn't reply. Inuyasha frowned curiously. "What the hell's your problem?"

"Nothing you need concern yourself with, hanyou," he said icily. Inuyasha shrugged.

"Whatever. You've got grass in your hair," he said, sticking out his tongue to see if he could see the damage. It had probably healed up anyway. He slid a look at Sesshoumaru again, who was actually beginning to look like he was in some kind of pain. Inuyasha blinked. "You got something in your eye?" He shuffled over to him on his knees and studied the hand covering his eye. "Gimme a look."

Sesshoumaru punched him in the face—again. "Ow!" He yelped, rubbing his cheek. "Fine! Go blind then, asshole."

"Do you honestly think I'd allow your filthy claws near my eyes?" He snarled, one fang glinting dangerously. "What manner of fool do you take me for?"

Inuyasha flushed. "I'm the more trustworthy one of the two of us, and if I say I'm gonna help, then I will! Fuck! You expect me to trust you out of fucking nowhere, why the hell is it different for you to let me help?" He yelled, grabbing Sesshoumaru's wrist. "Now give me a damn look, before you give yourself pinkeye. You've been touching eels, you know."

A small tug-of-war ensued, before Sesshoumaru finally relaxed his wrist and pulled his hand from his eye. Inuyasha sucked in an inaudible breath, his eyes flickering. He knew. . .it was stupid, but. . .

A single drop of liquid was trailing from under the closed eyelid, streaking down Sesshoumaru's cheek.

It was just a reaction from having something foreign in his eye, he knew that, but Inuyasha found himself transfixed for a brief moment, watching that tear slide over his skin. Not daring to comment on it, or make a stupid joke, he rose up on his knees and knelt in front of his brother, one knee positioned between his. Looking down on him, Inuyasha suddenly realised he felt incredibly nervous. "Tip your head up," he said quietly, his hand hovering underneath his chin, not quite daring to touch him just yet. "I'll take a look."

He half-expected the youkai lord to rethink his decision and shove him away, as though his voice had broken the spell. But he didn't. He just lifted his head, expressionless, and looked up at him. His injured eye slid open a crack, slightly reddened and moist with the promise of more tears. Clearing his throat slightly, Inuyasha tried to make it look like an accident when he lifted that eyelid, and his sleeve brushed away the telltale wetness on that cheek. Eyes vivid with concentration, barely breathing, he focussed on the task at hand.

Getting something in your eye wasn't usually a big deal, he knew. Except that like Sesshoumaru, Inuyasha had incredibly sharp claws, which meant that if you copped some dirt in your eye, you couldn't just dig around in there by yourself. Last time he'd had that problem, Kagome had pulled out some kind of water squirting bottle and flushed it free until she could get it out. But there was something undeniably scary about letting someone near his eyes. He wouldn't have been surprised if Sesshoumaru had told him where to go, and let that be the end of it. But he hadn't, and now he had a pretty delicate job to do.

As he searched for the offending particle, he found himself reluctantly noticing small details of the face so close to his. The length of his eyelashes, dark and spiked with moisture. The way the pupil staring up at him seemed to flicker, then expand into a wide pool of darkness, leaving a ring of gold surrounding it, flecked with slightly darker shades of amber. They were the same as his own, he knew. It was the one feature they shared, perfectly identical where their bone structure was different, their hair not quite the same shade of silver. Their pallor was different, also; Sesshoumaru was pale as the moon where Inuyasha's skin tanned with the sun. Small differences, but the flaws in the hanyou marked him as different to the pureblood staring up at him with such silent intensity. Maybe this was weird for both of them.

Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea, Inuyasha reflected as he thumbed down Sesshoumaru's lower eyelid slightly, feeling him tense. He hissed in sympathy when he spotted it. "Don't move," he whispered, as though speaking might dislodge it. "It's an eyelash. I can see it."

"Get rid of it." Sesshoumaru reflexively tried to blink then, forcefully holding it back. His eyelids twitched. Inuyasha nodded, placing one hand on his cheek to steady him, his thumb holding down the eyelid.

"I'm gonna have to get a claw in there," he warned, his eyes fierce. "So don't freak out."

"Just do it," he replied, but his mouth compressed into a taut line, clearly unhappy with the situation.

"Trust me," Inuyasha said without thinking, leaning in until his eye was mere inches from his brother's, seeking out the best way to remove the crescent-shaped eyelash, laying thick and dark against the irritated white of his eye. He didn't want to shove the tip of his claw in there in case he stabbed him in the eye, and it was in there pretty deep. Instead he licked the back of his pinky claw, carefully placing it against the eyelash, drawing it up and out. It came as far as Sesshoumaru's lower eyelid, before falling amongst its still-attached brethren. Inuyasha forgot to breathe, his fingers still flexing against Sesshoumaru's face as they cradled his cheek. "Don't blink," he warned, as his eye watered again, sending a trail of salt-scented liquid dripping down his fingers. With a quick brush of his bent knuckle, he retrieved the eyelash, where it sat balanced on his finger in a droplet of liquid. "Got it."

They both sagged with the release of tension. Sesshoumaru let out a long breath against Inuyasha's throat, fanning warmly. The hanyou jumped minutely, which went unnoticed as his brother rubbed at his eye freely, his frown easing. By the time he opened his eyes again, all traces of redness were gone. He sure healed like a sonofabitch, Inuyasha thought jealously. He pinched the eyelash between his claws and studied his prize. "I think this is the longest damn eyelash I've ever seen. No wonder it was pissing you off."

He glanced at Sesshoumaru in curiosity to find him watching him strangely. "What?"

"Get off me."

Inuyasha blinked hard as he realised he'd sat down where he'd been kneeling—straddling Sesshoumaru's thigh. "Oh." Mortified beyond all possible comprehension and fairly sure his head was going to explode with it, he shifted to one side and sat in the grass, half obscured by the fur that graced his brother's shoulder. Damn it, why hadn't he noticed sooner? He'd been there a good thirty seconds before Sesshoumaru had said anything. Scowling at nothing in particular, he reached up and fiddled with his ear, rubbing the base of one to relieve the slight itch growing there. Something crunched under his fingers, and he drew away part of a leaf. "Why do these things always end up there?" He muttered, perplexed. He flicked his ears madly, feeling blindly for anything else that might be caught in his hair from his impromptu tumble in the grass.

A striped wrist moved into his field of vision, and long fingers fished another fragment of leaf out of his hair. Then his hand paused, hovering, before digging out a twig near his other ear. Too surprised to protest the sudden movement, Inuyasha let him go about his ministrations, holding his breath for some reason. Was he lulling him into a false sense of security before ripping off one of his ears? Sesshoumaru's claws brushed a particularly sensitive spot just beside his ear, and Inuyasha reflexively pushed back against them, angling his head slightly. The hand stilled. Realising what he'd just done Inuyasha froze, stunned at his own actions. He didn't dare look at his brother, instead staring straight ahead, horrified. His ears protectively flattened to his skull. "Sorry," he said woodenly. "Had an itch. Don't worry about the crap in my hair, everything ends up in ther—rrrr-r!" He broke off on an embarrassing whine as Sesshoumaru experimentally scratched his claws along the base of the hanyou's furred ear, his leg twitching oddly as shivers travelled up his spine. His eyelids slid to half mast, hazy with pleasure. He thought he heard his brother make a thoughtful sound, but it was reaching him as though down a long tunnel.

"Are you actually going to sleep?" Sesshoumaru asked faintly. All the while, the attention didn't cease. Inuyasha managed to frown half-heartedly, sliding his eyes to the youkai.

"Not a chance. If I did," he began, his jaw cracking on a sudden yawn, "I'd probably wake up with eels in my pants, right? That just happens to be my favourite scratching spot. 'S why I don't let people mess around with my ears." Even to him, his voice was sounding drowsy. His eyes slid closed. "Makes them think I'm just like a dog, you know, scratching behind my ears. . .Kagome tried to make me fetch a stick, once. . ."

The hand stopped. "What?"

Inuyasha's mouth turned down slightly, but he replied without opening his eyes. "Playin' around, I guess. Threw a stick and told me to fetch it—" He broke off with a sudden chill as youki slid across his skin, and fingers gripped his chin, whipping his head around. His eyes sprang open in guarded expectation for a blow, his forearm up to protect his face, but Sesshoumaru just stared at him with blazing eyes, fury bleaching his lips. "And did you allow such conduct, Inuyasha?" He asked, his voice low, and deadly.

Blinking rapidly, the hanyou tried to figure out what he'd done to make him angry. "What? I yelled at her, I guess," he said, and try as he might he couldn't keep the uncertainty out of his voice. His arm lowered. "It was only that one time." He shifted his lower jaw slightly, trying to pull his chin out of the grip it was in. It wasn't until some of the ferocity in Sesshoumaru's eyes had died away that he was able to do so. The youki hanging in the air around them vanished, leaving behind only the scent of his brother.

Looking away, Sesshoumaru crossed his arms and tucked them into his sleeves, his brow creased in an expression that he could only interpret as angry. "Humans," he snarled, almost entirely beneath his breath. His fangs glinted for a split second before his lips concealed them once more. "Youkai is youkai. Even a hanyou is not a friendly mongrel to humiliate and—tame." He slashed his gaze to Inuyasha, who was frozen, eyes wavering in shock. "You're the son of a daiyoukai. A pureblood youkai you will never be, but if you continue to allow those humans to treat you as something beneath them, I will kill you. I will rip out your throat and kill you."

Inuyasha stared.

He knew. . .he knew he should have some reply to make to that, but he couldn't think of anything. All that ran through his mind was his brother's words. A hanyou. . .even a hanyou shouldn't be. . .? Swallowing, his eyes larger than he could do anything about just then, Inuyasha ducked his head, allowing his hair to obscure them. Maybe he hadn't meant that the way it sounded. He tried desperately to explain away those words, the ones that threatened his eyes with a telltale sting. It almost sounded like Sesshoumaru didn't like the way the villagers had treated him, the way Kagome had made fun of him, even though she hadn't meant it like that. But his half-brother wasn't protective of him at all.

Raising his hand, he rubbed the tip of his ear and wondered exactly when everything he'd trusted and believed about his brother had been turned on its head. He just didn't get any of this. It was driving him insane. The fleeting thought that he'd have some peace of mind when Sesshoumaru finally moved on and disappeared again drew a sudden sharp wave of negation. Like he'd just leave him there, going quietly nuts. He wasn't good with the thinking. Inuyasha preferred being blunt and to-the-point, even tactless if he was totally frustrated.

Maybe he should just say it.

"Do you hate me?"

Sesshoumaru froze, his eyes unseeing as the question rung in the air between them.

Inuyasha was staring blindly at the ground in front of him, the curl of a self-depreciating smile tilting his lips. "Don't take it the wrong way, I'm not having a girl-moment right here where I wanna talk about my feelings and shit. I just want to know."

Memories from over two centuries ago came swirling back to Sesshoumaru. A forest clearing; a dirty hanyou child with too-large eyes and a hesitant smile. And a question; the very same question he asked of him again. His mouth twitched into a displeased line. To ask that. . .

"You should know the answer to that."

Inuyasha stiffened, his head whipping around to glare at him. "Yeah, well I don't anymore!" He yelled explosively. "Are you just—are you just fucking with my head? Is that it? Buttering me up so I don't leave Rin up shit creek to be eaten by youkai? Gonna kick me back into the gutter after your precious human kid is able to defend herself? Because you can save it, asshole. I survived this long without a brother—I don't need you now. So you can just quit—quit whatever it is you're doing." His hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists, digging into his palms, all the confusion and bitter anger welling up in him until he thought he might choke on it.

Sesshoumaru watched him carefully, taking in the turmoil rioting in his eyes, his bitten-down lips, and the tension thrumming up and down every muscle in his body. Inuyasha had no idea what he wanted, that much was obvious. If he were honest, even he wasn't entirely certain of his own intentions. He'd learned, that was all. Brief glimpses over the years, curses, battles and blood; they never showed him anything like what he'd discovered over the past weeks. This brash, cocky hanyou he'd resented for so long was in reality a bruised youth with knowledge of the darker aspects of life that spanned further than even his own. Betrayed, forgotten and scorned for everything he was, yet he still searched for some acceptance, in whatever way he could find it. Grinned that overconfident grin of his and hid his scars, searching for a place to fit. Fought against a monstrous evil to protect a world that didn't even wish him to be in it.

Yet through all of this, the hanyou had never tried to seek his acceptance. The only other person in all of existence who shared his blood. Had his estrangement truly been so complete?

"I'm done waiting," Inuyasha finally muttered, not noticing the sharpening of Sesshoumaru's eyes as he jumped to his feet. "Just tell Rin to meet me tomorrow—uff!" He hit the ground on his back hard enough to knock the wind from his lungs, staring dizzily up at the sunlight pouring between the branches overhead. Sesshoumaru had yanked his sleeve hard enough to pull his haori off his shoulder, but before he could right himself hands were pinning his wrists to the grass, and blazing sunlit eyes were looking down straight into his own. Silver hair that didn't belong to him was pooling across his chest and stomach, and he suddenly felt very, very uncomfortable. "Let go of me!" He growled, fighting against the tight grip on his hands, arching his back and using his shoulders to try and push himself into a sitting position.

Then teeth closed on his ear.

Inuyasha stopped moving.

It was only a warning nip, probably to shut him up. The sharpness of teeth vanished, leaving only the warm pressure of lips as they tugged firmly, shaking his ear slightly. He heard a warning growl growing in Sesshoumaru's chest, and wasn't sure of what to do. Was this a youkai dominance thing he didn't know about? Then Inuyasha realised he was staring straight up at a white throat, bared and unprotected. Without thinking, he lunged up and closed his teeth around the side of Sesshoumaru's neck, his pulse beating hotly in his mouth. He had no idea what he was doing, knowing only that his fangs were a millimetre away from piercing the translucent skin of his brother's neck, severing the pale blue vein that held his life within it.

Yet Sesshoumaru didn't even react. Didn't bite off his ear, claw his sides, or snarl in that voice that meant something was going to die, and soon. He just breathed out and spoke. "You won't," he said, sounding so quietly matter-of-fact that Inuyasha almost wanted to clamp his jaws down to spite him. He trembled with the strain of holding just the right amount of pressure –what the fuck was he doing- and it was then he accidentally nicked his skin with a fang. Sesshoumaru tensed minutely, as though recalculating what the hanyou would and would not do, but Inuyasha's nerve broke as blood spilled across his lower lip and he released the youkai lord, his head falling back to rest in the grass.

"You're fucking crazy," he breathed, feeling strangely out of breath. "I could have killed you." He squinted at the filtered sunlight, closing his eyes briefly and tasting the potent youki-laced blood coating the roof of his mouth. "Your blood tasted like crap though." Just another lie.

"I wouldn't know," was the odd reply, and then he shifted slightly, releasing Inuyasha's wrists. His eyes scanned the hanyou's bewildered expression. "You are the only one who ever spills it."

Feeling a little smug at that admission, Inuyasha turned his head slightly to look at his brother more clearly, a little blinded with the sun—and felt a warm tongue stroke slowly over his lower lip, velvety rough and moist against his mouth. He froze, processing that yes, this was Sesshoumaru. By extension, that was Sesshoumaru's tongue.

Then he nearly had a heart attack.

"Gyah! God!" He yelled, freaking out in the worst way, cheeks flaming. "Holy crap, did you just kiss me?"

The youkai blinked. "Of course not," he said coldly, running a claw along his own lips. "Your mouth was bloody, imbecile. It offended me."

"Everything offends you!" He yelped. "If you went around licking everything that offended you, you'd have to lick every inch of me!"

A sudden, mortifyingly awkward silence descended.

Sesshoumaru just stared at him. "That does make sense," he eventually replied, nonplussed. "Though I'd rather not."

"Agreed," Inuyasha said weakly, contemplating suicide. "Now let us never speak of this again."

"As you wish."

They sat there uncomfortably until Rin and Jaken returned to the campsite, Inuyasha spending the entire time worrying his lip with his teeth, trying to ignore the taste of heady blood and Sesshoumaru that was trying to invade his senses. He sent a promise straight up to god that he was never sticking around the bastard without some kind of supervision ever again. It was bad for his health, mental and otherwise.

During the wait, Sesshoumaru broke the silence to answer a question. "I don't," he said quietly, out of the blue. "Perhaps I never did."

By then Inuyasha had no idea what he was talking about.

 


Chapter 9: Lonely

Inuyasha wasn't quite sure how, but before he realised it, his life had changed.

Not in great leaps and bounds, but in such a way that he'd barely realised it until he caught himself thinking back, back to the days just after Kagome had left. He'd been alone, then.

Now. . .now he had to put some serious goddamn effort in just to take a piss without someone creeping up on him.

He put it down to Suki and Hina, sibling pains in his ass that they were. Apparently they'd told the whole village of his grand heroic deed, probably throwing in a few added details he couldn't remember, because he was fairly sure he hadn't kissed that bugshit little kid or her thunder-thighs sister. Whatever else they'd said, the villagers were suddenly smiling at him and waving—and not in the 'look this way while my friend hits you from behind with a stick of wood' kind of wave, either. It had thrown him off for the first week or so, but three weeks on and he was actually starting to relax a little around them. It was. . .different.

Kind of nice.

Except for that rumour that he had a thing for Hina. That kind of sucked.

For one thing, Suki wouldn't leave him alone anymore. She was the main culprit when it came to people popping up out of nowhere when he was taking a leak. He'd nearly pissed on her head when she'd leapt out behind him, being in the middle of certain things you can't just comfortably halt mid-stream while spinning around. They'd both been kind of traumatised after that, and she'd buggered off for a few days. He could handle it for the most part, but he had to draw the line somewhere. Inuyasha supposed that having some measure of acceptance from the humans that surrounded him did a fair job of placating him.

When he wasn't in the village, he was with Rin. They'd trained together daily for the past three weeks, and she was actually coming along pretty damn well, all things considered. He'd never thought he was anything much of a mentor figure, but the ease with which she picked up on things gave him a bit of a surprise. Then again, she was willing as hell to learn everything she could. Edible food found in the forest, where to strike a youkai to wound it, distinguishing features of human-eating youkai and where to find them, how to defend yourself against a human attacker, what to do if bitten by a venomous creature –he'd stuck that last lesson in as a joke, but like everything else she drank it in, bright eyes sparkling with interest. He found himself growing fond of the kid despite his best intentions. This was Sesshoumaru's human girl, he had to remind himself, and at the end of everything she's going to skip away, following her youkai lord wherever he decides to go.

Still, he couldn't help but like the gutsy little kid. Inuyasha was used to people leaving, anyway. And things weren't so very bad, after all.

Sesshoumaru, he hadn't seen since the day at the campsite, which the hanyou still wasn't entirely certain what to make of. He'd left with Rin a scant hour after she'd returned with Jaken, and his brother hadn't seemed inclined to even glance in his direction, seeming deep in thought. He only prayed that he wasn't thinking about his horrible slip of the tongue. Oh god, now he was making puns in his own head. Which led to another incident he was pretty sure was going to haunt him forever. But absence had done its job, it seemed, and as time stretched on, he found himself wondering if Sesshoumaru had gone completely off his tree from boredom yet. Damned if he was going to go see, though. The toad would probably roast his ass.

So life fell into a pleasant routine, and Inuyasha stopped being bothered by the humans who smiled instead of scowled, and tossed him apples instead of hurling stones.


He'd finished up with Rin for the day, and the two of them were sprawled in the field near the forest, Rin completely wiped out, Inuyasha chewing a long piece of grass, his hands stacked behind his head. He'd been giving her a practical lesson on fighting, using himself as the attacker. She'd actually given him a fair punch in the thigh, but it was his ear that hurt like hell. She'd yanked on it when he'd hauled her over his shoulder.

"Inuyasha," Rin said suddenly, "don't you think that cloud over there looks like Ah-Un?"

"Nah. Looks like a giant snail's head. And those two things sticking up are its little. . .snail. . .pokey things."

"Then where is its body?"

"Got eaten."

"Oh. What about that one over there? It looks like Sesshoumaru-sama's fluffy shoulder!"

Inuyasha snorted. "It's not part of his shoulder, dipshit. He just puts it there so it doesn't drag. And I'd say that cloud looks more like a dog turd."

"Like yours?" Rin giggled. Inuyasha spluttered and swatted at her, intentionally missing.

"I mean a real dog!"

"Do you go around looking at dog. . .turds?" She didn't wait for his reply, instead choosing to crack the giggles at the foul word she'd just used, rolling around on the grass with glee. Inuyasha felt pretty sure she'd been poking fun at him then, and didn't know what to say to that. Instead, he started slightly when she rolled her way over next to him, flipping onto her stomach to stare at him. "Hey, Inuyasha. . ."

"Not chucking that stupid suffix onto my name anymore, I see," he said approvingly. "What?"

"I wish you were my brother," she said earnestly, suddenly.

Startled by the admission, and a little flustered, Inuyasha snapped his eyes to hers and found her expression to be hopeful and sincere. Weird kid. His lips curved upwards, too faintly to be called a real smile. He turned his eyes back to the sky. "Course you do. Dunno what you'd want with me though kid—" He stopped when she threw herself across his torso, smooshing her face into his shoulder in an awkward hug. He sighed. Why hadn't he seen that coming?

Then a shadow fell across them both, and he sucked in a surprised breath.

"Inuyasha, we can't leave you alone, can we? I turn my back for four months and you're already seducing younger women," Miroku said ruefully, shaking his head in mock despair. "I miss those days like. . ." The monk trailed off as Sango joined them, eyeing him suspiciously, before continuing his train of thought. He blinked. ". . .crabs. Yes, glad to see the end of them."

Inuyasha's face soured with disgust. "Shit, Miroku, you don't change." Sitting up, he pulled Rin upright with him, but she didn't seem inclined to remove her arms from around his neck. Her eyes sparked with recognition as she laid eyes on the youkai exterminator and the monk.

"Oh Inuyasha, it's your friends!" She exclaimed, as though he might not have known. Miroku just looked blank for a moment, but Sango cogged immediately, surprise lighting her features.

"You're Sesshoumaru's little girl, aren't you?" When the kid nodded, Sango held out a hand, kneeling down slightly. She was wearing her pink kimono without the green wrap that usually accompanied it, hiraikotsu nowhere to be seen, and it give her a softer aura than she usually carried. "My name is Sango. Nice to properly meet you!"

Amusingly, Rin looked to him for approval first before clambering out of his lap and taking Sango's hand. "I'm Rin! Nice to properly meet you!" She parroted back, her cheeks staining pink when Sango laughed at her antics. Inuyasha hauled himself to his feet and scratched his head, noticing Miroku's slightly thoughtful expression as he watched Sango. He got the feeling that this wasn't just a random visit, but perhaps it was just his paranoia talking.

"So don't beat around the bush," he said casually, glancing off in the direction of the village. "Got something you wanna tell me?"

"Can't we visit an important friend?" Miroku replied innocently. "Sango thought you might have crawled into a hole and died, you know. We'd planned to come back here after six months to see how you were doing anyway—"

"Like I need babysitting!" He interrupted, his face twisting with displeasure. "I dealt with it, okay?"

A hand came into his personal space then, and wrapped around the beads that clinked softly around his neck. "Yet you still wear these," he said, sounding altogether too knowing. The bastard always put that stupid face on, but the hanyou knew better. He snorted and jerked out of his grip.

"Can't get 'em off, can I?" He said, brushing off the comment like it didn't bother him to wear the beads of subjugation long after their user had moved on. "Besides, they complement my eyes."

The monk laughed then, and an almost unnoticeable tension leaked out of Inuyasha. No one had commented on the beads, and he'd preferred it that way. Turning back to Sango and Rin, he allowed himself to smile genuinely, and reached a hand out to Sango. He had missed them, after all. Sango just blinked at his outstretched hand.

"Inuyasha, don't be so distant!" She cried, and wrapped her arms around his shoulders in a quick hug. "We're friends, aren't we?" Over her shoulder, he saw Rin's expression turn speculative. Great. Patting her awkwardly on the back, he disentangled himself from her as quickly as he could, feeling vaguely weirded out. He'd never hugged Sango before.

He turned back to see if Miroku was upset about the hug—then grunted as the monk swamped him from behind in a smothering embrace of epic proportions, his cheek nuzzled against his own. "See? We're all friendly here, Inuyasha—"

"—get the fuck off me," the hanyou yowled, shoving him away, hair frazzled. "Lunatic. Where's Shippou, anyway?"

"Back in the village with Kirara and Kaede-sama," Miroku answered, as though he hadn't just been shoved back three feet under the amused watch of two girls. "I think he was worried you'd be so glad to see him you might just beat him to death."

"Smart kid," he muttered under his breath, then straightened his shoulders. "Well, we should head down there, I guess. . ." his eyes wandered to Rin then, followed by Sango and Miroku's. "You're due back by now, aren't you?"

The small girl looked unhappy. "Yes. . ." She said hesitantly, her expression clearly conveying that she didn't want to leave just yet. "But. . ."

Inuyasha felt it before the others did; his senses were too finely attuned to him now. But he knew the moment Sango and Miroku noticed his brother. A veritable gust of youki blew across them all as Sesshoumaru strode out of the forest, revealing his presence with languid purpose. Sango's eyes flashed, and her forearm twitched to release a spring-loaded dagger, while Miroku just rested one hand against his chest, doubtless inches away from the ofuda he kept tucked within his robes.

Inuyasha just scowled at his brother. "Where the hell do you come from?" He asked grumpily. "I'm starting to think you really are stalking me, you know. Were you up that tree? You were, weren't you."

His brother didn't change expression. "You are late," he stated simply, ignoring Inuyasha's paranoia. "I dislike being kept waiting."

"Deal with it," the hanyou yawned. "Company arrived. You want me to be rude? You're always on about my manners." The youkai lord didn't react to that either, simply sliding his eyes to Miroku and Sango in silent appraisal. Then his mouth twitched, pulling in at the corners.

"Hn," was all he replied with, his eyelids lowering slightly, veiling the brilliance of his suddenly disdainful gaze. "You waste your time with these two, who openly check their weapons at the sight of me?" There was a sharpness in his tone that was unmistakable. The hanyou just shrugged.

"I used to do the same," he said without inflection, then frowned. When had that changed?

His brother seemed to be reflecting upon the same thing, his eyes scanning Inuyasha's face for a hint of his thoughts. Finally he just crossed his arms, sliding his hands into opposite sleeves as was his habit. He seemed to allow the affront to slide in that one action.

"Inuyasha?" Sango ventured to ask. "What's going on? Why is Sesshoumaru here?" She said his name strangely, and it was enough for him to frown and flick his eyes to the youkai lord, who was paying them no mind, his gaze turned inward again, as it had been when he'd last seen him. Irked by it and not knowing why, Inuyasha shrugged.

"Hanging out. He keeps proposing to Kaede but she won't make an honest man of him."

Outraged golden eyes slashed to him, showing he had very much been listening, while Miroku and Sango's jaws dropped to the ground. They knew he'd been joking, of course, but they seemed to think that now his life was about to end. Really, it wasn't stupid of them to think so. Inuyasha just grinned, glad to finally get a decent reaction out of him. "You're gonna hit me for that later, aren't you."

"You are learning," Sesshoumaru replied, one eyebrow slightly raised, mouth pulled into a frown. His eyes flicked to Rin then, who was looking between the two of them with rapt curiosity. His expression didn't change much, but something prickled Inuyasha's instincts as he picked up a telltale flicker in his brother's golden eyes.

"I will return. Rin, you may do as you please." Even to Inuyasha, those words were unspoken permission to stay with him, and not return with Sesshoumaru to that lonely campfire. He must have heard her earlier. The hanyou's eyebrows lowered slightly in contemplation of that. He had no doubt that Sesshoumaru didn't need anyone, let alone a fizzy little girl running about the place. And while he would never outright say he wanted anyone around him, the fact remained that Rin was the only person he allowed stay with him for absolutely no reason. She wasn't the useful sort.

There was no reason to make her stay with him.

Especially not if Rin didn't want to.

I wish you were my brother. . .

Bothered by the sudden, unbidden sensation of something being just outside his grasp, he watched as Sesshoumaru silently turned and began to make his way back into the forest. Beside him, Rin watched the youkai lord go with unsure eyes, but she didn't follow him. Instead, she grasped Inuyasha's fingers and squeezed tightly, as though seeking reassurance that it was all right. He managed a weak twitch of his fingers to placate her, his eyes searching the forest long after the last glimpse of Sesshoumaru had vanished.

"Well, now that he's gone, let's all go into the village, shall we? I'm sure Kaede-sama has something good cooking for us," Miroku said cheerfully. "Rin, I'll introduce you to Shippou. Feel free to braid flowers into his hair. He'll put up a fight, but he secretly likes their scent."

Rin's eyes turned round with solemn understanding. "I'll use boy flowers," she promised. Miroku smiled at her, his eyes turning into crescents of merriment.

"Good girl."

Clicking his tongue angrily, Inuyasha grabbed Rin's hand and yanked her with him in the direction of the village. "Stop using her for your twisted amusement!" He snapped. "That goes for you too, Sango."

"But I only wanted to put makeup on her!" The demon hunter said, offended. The hanyou shook his fist threateningly, then rethought his movements and pulled Rin up into his arms instead, ignoring the girl's whoop of delight.

"Stay away from those vultures," he ordered the girl under his breath. "They're all smiles till you're being accused of being a cheating bastard."

Rin just blinked at him, her small hands braced on his shoulders. He wished he hadn't used that wording. It brought back home the sense of wrongness he'd felt the moment she'd hesitated at the idea of returning to Sesshoumaru. Somehow. . .he felt wrong. When he'd thought about using the girl to get his own revenge on Sesshoumaru for trying to blackmail him, it had only been a passing thought. He'd never really thought about dragging the kid away from his bastard older brother. Now, without any effort on his part, it seemed to be happening anyway.

Or was this what Sesshoumaru had been after?

The thought made him angry. Fobbing the kid off onto him, was he? Sick of her, then? And this whole 'training' thing was just to get her attached to him or something? Sesshoumaru had always commented, since ages ago, that he thought Inuyasha was fond of the kid. Tried to get him to admit it. Feeling out how willing he'd be to take her on full time? Was that it?

No.

Stubbornly, some part of him refused to believe that. He didn't know why, but he just couldn't picture it. The proud set of his shoulders as he'd left earlier wasn't quite. . .wasn't quite the same as usual. Something was off. Something was off, and now it was completely bugging the hell out of him. He shifted his grip on Rin. "C'mon. We'll eat dinner, and after I'll take you back to the camp. We good?"

"We're good," she agreed firmly. He grinned a little despite himself; the midget was starting to talk like him.

"C'mon then."


Dinner was an interesting affair; a sprawl of humans and demons seated outside Kaede's hut in the evening light, laughing, joking, sharing stories. It was a warm atmosphere, something that brought back memories for the hanyou of their days hunting jewel shards. While the keen lack of Kagome did not go unnoticed, it didn't create a damper on things. Acceptance of the way things had to be had never been the problem. Instead, he busied himself pestering Shippou till he bit him on the arm, using the time to steal his hair tie so Rin could properly thread her wildflowers through the orange mop. Seated closer together than they'd ever been on the road, Miroku and Sango looked much the same as they always had, but there was an unmistakable difference in the way they glanced at each other. Or perhaps it was simply the lack of molestation and subsequent concussion that piqued his curiosity. Then again, they were gettingmarried. It'd be weird if they were still beating the shit out of each other.

Married. Heh. He didn't know why, but it somehow seemed like he'd been left behind in things. Not that he was bitter, he had his own places to go, his own space to fit. . .maybe it was all just part of being a hanyou. He'd gone so long without people around him, aging slower than humans, than when he finally surrounded himself with them, he only now realised how much faster their lives seemed to flash by. While he stayed the same. Forever mired in his teens—or at least for another fifty years or so. During that time, Sango and Miroku would be old and grey, if they were even alive at all.

Just one more reason, he decided musingly, that hanyou and humans, demons and humans, just shouldn't fall for each other. He didn't know much about mathematics, but even he could figure that out.

"What has you brooding so, Inuyasha?" Kaede asked quietly over the top of Rin's head, where she sat between them. Her single good eye regarded him with wise gravity, as always. "You'll strain something at this rate."

"Whatever," he grumbled, rising out of his deep thoughts. "I'm not thinking about anything. Gimme more of that stew, would you—" He broke off as a steaming bowl was passed to him before he could finish his sentence, Kaede already having prepared it while he was zoned out. "Huh. Usually I gotta threaten to brain you before you give me seconds. Did you poison it?"

"So I could have your brother sweep down to save you again?" She asked with a snort as he took the bowl and scented it. "The less I see of that frightful youkai, the better. His disdain for this village is more than clear."

That perked his ears up. "Huh?"

Kaede shook her head slowly. "Merely a comment he made he made when you were ill. Something to the effect that you were not a pet of the village," she said. "It may very well be that his attitude toward you has changed, Inuyasha."

Sango, having overhead that last part, made an enquiring sound and leaned forward on her knees. "It did seem that something had definitely changed, Inuyasha. You two were almost. . .well, friendly." Then she wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "Perhaps that's too strong a word. Civil, perhaps? And not a single sword was drawn. Is it only because he needs you to look after Rin?"

Ears flicking nervously, he realised everyone was staring at him, waiting for an answer he didn't have. "Probably," he eventually said, hedging a little. "Who knows with that guy, right?"

Sango sighed a little wistfully. "I think it's sad," she admitted, taking Miroku's hand as he lay his arm across her shoulders. "You're all each other has, but you don't get along. Must be lonely."

At that, Inuyasha felt his pity sensor go off, and he scowled. "Hardly. Can't miss what you never had," he growled, eyeing Sango unfavourably. "Who cares about that bastard, anyway." He dug into his stew, hoping that if he filled his mouth enough no one would ask him any more questions. As it was his stomach was twisting doubtfully. Lonely, huh?

The conversation topic forgotten by the rest of them, the night wore on, until Kaede retired to her hut for the night, while Rin and Shippou fell asleep in a slumped pile inside with her, their heads resting together. Inuyasha just prodded the fire with a stick, lost in thought again, while the couple on the other side of the fire seemed to glance at each other and come to some kind of decision. Miroku smiled and nodded faintly.

"Inuyasha," Sango said hesitantly, her brown eyes warm, "we've got something to tell you. It's why we came a little earlier than we'd first planned."

Drawing himself up, he blinked and tilted his head questioningly. "You guys finally got married?"

Miroku scratched his cheek and tried to look innocent. "No, but it is somewhat related to that issue," he said, his mouth twitching. Sango elbowed him in the ribs, her cheeks flushing pink.

"What our eloquent houshi-sama is trying to say is that. . .I'm pregnant. We're having a baby." Then she smiled helplessly as she waited for his response.

His eyes widened.

"Pregnant," Inuyasha repeated, floored. The first thought that went through his mind was a rather immature recoil from the idea of those two having sex of any kind, followed by the full impact of her words. "Babies. Fuck. You guys are gonna be parents. . .with babies. Fuck."

"That's usually how it happens," Miroku said cheerily, his double entendre caught by the demon hunter and hanyou at the same time. Inuyasha's shock broke apart, and he grinned widely, reaching forward to pound the unsuspecting monk on the back in congratulations.

Inwardly he was reeling. His two friends, starting a family. Had started a family. With kids and a house and parents, husband and wife. . .all those normal things humans did were coming to life before his stagnant eyes. It was great for them, and he was happy they were happy. They deserved peace and a normal life, after everything they'd gone through before now. All the pain and blood and anguish, the loss of Sango's family and her brother, Miroku's inherited curse and his father's death. The torment Naraku has inflicted on them. They'd lost everything; they deserved this. He was happy for them.

So why did he suddenly feel so left behind? Stupid, he thought viciously, behind his smiles and laughter. You selfish fuck. Don't ruin this for them with your own shit.

Swallowing down his whirling emotions, he forced himself to smile and listen to their plans for the future, genuinely interested in everything they were saying. Because they cared about what he thought; his opinion mattered. So while they laughed about Miroku finally scoring on Sango despite her best efforts to wait until they were married, and watching the girl turn five shades of crimson and complain about their crude jokes even while grinning a little herself, Inuyasha let himself forget.

When the pair eventually bade their goodnights, preparing to sleep on the spare pallets in the shrine, when they'd gone and it was just him and the dwindling campfire, he finally allowed his smile to fade. Pulling in a deep breath, he dropped his forehead into the heels of his palms and let out a shuddering sigh. This. . .this was all right too. Things had just been weird lately. This kind of thing went with the territory, didn't it? Aging slower, and being. . .well, his mixed blood was unfavourable to human and youkai alike. The hanyou knew all these things. Families weren't for his kind. Love. . .well. That was something that had only ended in hurt; times he didn't want to remember again.

Must be lonely. . .

Flinching, he cursed Sango's words, pulling his knees up and resting his chin on them. Lonely. He'd think by now he'd learned to get over that. No family to care, no friends to travel with—just a squirt of a kid and a cold half-brother who used him for his own ends.

"Shit, I'm such a fucking girl," he snarled under his breath, his expression twisting with frustration. Knowing he wasn't going to get any rest, he found himself walking through the village, which was silent and dark, the scent of smoke and grass hanging in the air. The stars shone brilliantly overhead, not a single cloud to hide them from sight. It was a nice night, if a little cool. He'd left his haori back with Rin, since she'd latched onto it in her sleep. He'd meant to take her back earlier, but she'd fallen asleep after eating and he didn't really want to lug her sleeping ass through the forest like some kind of child-stealer. He wondered what Sesshoumaru thought of her absence. Maybe he didn't even care. Must be nice to be him, he thought with an inner snort. Maybe he could teach him a thing or two about not giving a shit about anything or anyone.

It came to his attention after a while that his feet were walking the well-worn path he'd wound through the forest to the small campsite, as though his mind was taking him there on sheer habit alone. In the darkness he could now make the trip without losing his footing once, despite the close-pressing greenery and low-hanging branches that marked the path in some places. His memory knew the map of this route like the back of his hand. Pausing, he realised he was three-quarters of the way there. Stupid.

Then he realised he couldn't see the glowing light of the campfire at all.

From this distance, he could usually see. But there was nothing but darkness ahead, and no scent of smoke to tease his nose. Had he—had Sesshoumaru left?

The thought galvanised his feet into action, until he was jogging down the path toward the well-protected clearing by the edge of the stream. Slowing before he actually broke through the leaves, he paused and ran a hand through his hair in agitation. "Stop being a pussy," he lectured himself under his breath, then barged through the bushes. If there was no one there, fine. If he was there, well, that was fine too.

It took him a moment to locate everything in the clearing, and search out a familiar white shape amongst the dark outlines of the surrounding trees. There was nothing.

The campsite was deserted. No toad, no dragon, no Sesshoumaru.

Gone.

Shocked, he fell back a step in denial, trying to refute what his eyes clearly saw.

Hands caught his shoulders, and he jumped with a gasp—he hadn't even sensed—! Jerking his head up, he looked backwards up into the downturned face of his older brother.

"Inuyasha?" From this distance, he could see the slight widening of his brother's eyes as he realised who his intruder was.

"Sesshoumaru," he breathed dumbly, his wide eyes taking in the features he knew so well. "Um." Think, moron! "Rin fell asleep. So. I'll bring her back in the morning." It took him a moment to remember to pull himself out of the long-fingered grasp on his shoulders, and turn around. Shit. For a moment there. . .

"And you came here, at this hour, to inform me of this," his brother said, obviously sceptical of his intentions. He crossed his arms over his chest and regarded him with some suspicion.

Inuyasha opened his mouth, but nothing came out. How could he even explain? He wasn't even sure what the implications of walking here when he was lost in thought were. Had he been worried? It was a little hard to deny now, with relief a calm wave in the back of his mind. Nothing had changed. Hesitating, he eventually let out a breath and shrugged. "I was just walking," he muttered.

"In the middle of the night," the youkai added. "Half-dressed." When Inuyasha didn't reply, turning his face away and scowling, his brother took his chin between two fingers and pulled his face back so their eyes met. "Something, is wrong."

Surprise crossed his face for a moment as he stared up at Sesshoumaru, disbelieving that he could see so clearly. Or that he'd even comment on it like—like it mattered. "Rin's fine," he assured, raising both hands, palms out in placation. "Nothing's wrong with her. Why is no one here? Why the hell don't you have a fire going? Shit, I thought for a second you'd ditched her with me and pissed off somewhere." Pulling himself out of his brother's grip he stomped into the centre of the camp and began kicking fresh pieces of wood into the centre of the circle of rocks that formed the campfire, glancing around for some dry grass and the rocks they used to spark the fire. He pointedly ignored Sesshoumaru as he worked, mostly because he felt like if he didn't, he'd stare right through him and pull out the thoughts he'd been pondering over the whole evening.

"I don't require light or heat to survive, and I know you know this," Sesshoumaru suddenly said, even as he closed in on the pale flames of the burgeoning campfire. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Where's Jaken?" Inuyasha returned, avoiding the question. "Where's that freaky dragon of yours?"

"Why aren't you with your comrades?"

"Why were you sitting in the dark like a loser?"

"Why did you seek me out?"

"Why haven't you kicked me out?"

Sesshoumaru growled with frustration, wringing a fangy grin out of Inuyasha despite everything. "Wretched hanyou."

"Stuck-up youkai." He expected a good punch for that, but found that he was guarding against air when he turned to see Sesshoumaru seating himself in the grass beside the fire, his back to the large boulder embedded in the ground. Inuyasha watched him for a moment, his eyes following the way he swept his hair to the side, how he arranged himself so his armour didn't bother him, how he steadied the fur decorating his shoulder. All that just to sit down. What a freaking hassle.

"You're staring," Sesshoumaru informed him with a frown. Inuyasha blinked and drew himself out of his reverie.

"Why do you wear all that?" He asked, waving his hand at the decorative protection. "Your body's tougher than that brittle armour anyway. And the fur—now I know you can make that disappear. I don't get it."

He was faintly gratified to see Sesshoumaru's eyebrows rise when he commented on the fur gracing his shoulder, and tried to smother the smug grin that threatened to rise. His brother ran his fingers across the fur lightly, then switched his eyes to the fire. "My trappings are customary of a daiyoukai when in my sealed form. Our father wore the same. It is tradition."

"Oh." Inuyasha felt like he should probably backtrack on the subject, since any mention of their old man usually cost him a couple litres of blood by the end of things. "Isn't it uncomfortable?"

"I am accustomed to it," he replied indifferently. Inuyasha found he was able to actually read behind what he was saying, and his mouth quirked.

"Itchy as hell, right? Hot in summer, and probably, from the looks of things, risks poking you in the crotch when you sit down," he said mischievously, making a show of relaxing comfortably by the fire, languorously stretching out on his side and propping his head up on one hand. "Must be hard. Not that I'd know about it. I get to run around half-naked and no one gives a shit. Barefoot, too."

Sesshoumaru looked annoyed, and it delighted the hell out of the hanyou. "Your lack of stature affords you the freedom to do as you please," he acknowledged, but he was frowning as he said it. Inuyasha just flopped over into his back and turned his head to look at his brother, but his face was cast in shadow from that angle, making only his eyes visible as they reflected the light of the fire.

"Hrmph, Daddy's boy," Inuyasha grumbled. "Who are you trying to look good for? In case you hadn't noticed, our old man's partying in that big kennel up in the sky." He yelped as fingers yanked on his sore ear. "Dammit! See, that's called picking on your little brother. Bad Sesshoumaru. Go to your room."

"Imbecile," the youkai muttered under his breath, but Inuyasha could have sworn that there had been a thread of warmth buried in that insult. "Disrespectful mongrel. I do, however, concede there is no one in this backwater territory who will remark upon my attire." There was a rush of youki then, and a splinter of light flashed around Sesshoumaru, making the hanyou blink and flip over to stare at his brother in surprise. Was he actually going to. . .huh. He was. By the time the light died, Sesshoumaru had sealed away the last remnant of his true form; the length of plush fur that he'd never been without in all the years Inuyasha had known him.

Without commenting on it, Sesshoumaru got to his feet and loosened the knot of his obi, winding it around his hand as he worked on the buckles that seemed to actually close from the inside of the armour, since there was nothing visible from the outside. Just smooth black plates that bound his brother from chest to thigh. Pushing himself up onto his elbows, Inuyasha studied the effort involved in taking all that crap off. "Need help?"

At that moment the sound of a buckle popping free was heard, and Sesshoumaru lifted the whole thing over his head on one fluid movement. He placed it on the ground with care, the spiked pauldron glinting in the firelight. It looked huge with no one wearing it.

"You couldn't pay me to wear that thing," Inuyasha said firmly, shaking his head. "Even as often as I get skewered through the guts." Sesshoumaru didn't reply, busy tying his obi in place and sliding his swords into position. When he did lift his head and shake his hair back over his shoulders, the hanyou found himself struck by the difference in the youkai lord. Without the volume of the fur looping over his shoulder and the armour he never went without, there was a marked decrease in size all over that surprised Inuyasha. He was still broader in the shoulders and taller than him by a good measure, but with the removal of the armour the narrow plane of his waist was easily visible; his haori thin enough to cling to the lean muscle of his chest. "Huh," he finally said, mystified.

"What is it?" Sesshoumaru demanded, looking down at himself then back to Inuyasha.

"You look different, I guess," the hanyou replied, which really could have meant anything. His ears twitched, and his eyes slid to one side. "Plus I didn't think you'd actually take that stuff off. You're. . .not as uptight as I thought, are you?"

"I'm certain I am," his brother replied smoothly, seating himself by the fire once again, one leg drawn up. Inuyasha grinned, then nodded and flipped over onto his back, the firelight warming his side. His head was right near Sesshoumaru's knee now, which meant he was in punching distance, so he didn't comment further on his disposition, though it was damn tempting.

They fell into silence after that, Sesshoumaru staring into the flames, Inuyasha blinking up at the cold brilliance of the stars. He wasn't sure exactly when he'd realised, but for an arrogant bastard Sesshoumaru wasn't exactly bad company. In fact, he was hard-pressed to remember why he'd been so torn up earlier. Lonely? He couldn't say he was, not just then. He didn't connect with his brother, not the way siblings should—but there was some bond there that he had no choice but to acknowledge. He didn't hate him, at the very least, but on the other side of things. . .hell, he liked his brother. Down to his blank looks, his surprisingly sadistic sense of humour, and randomly violent tendencies. When he didn't treat him like scum, Sesshoumaru was almost. . .likable.

Inuyasha felt his lazy mood fade into cold clarity. "Rin should be finished her training in another couple days, I guess," he found himself saying. "You won't have to stick around the village anymore." Or me, he thought, but it went without saying anyway.

"She is a quick study," came the quiet reply, cool and composed. "And you? Are you content to rot in this tiny human village?"

Inuyasha shrugged jerkily, resting his arms above his head as he frowned up at the sky. "It's the closest thing I've got to a home," he said, though it didn't really answer the question. He tried again. "No reason to go anywhere else."

"I see."

Another silence fell, this one more uncomfortable than the last. He heard Sesshoumaru shift slightly above him, and didn't jump when a white sleeve brushed his cheek by accident. Pausing at this, the youkai lord spoke again. "What reason would you require?"

Inuyasha blinked, rolling his eyes up to look at his brother, who was gazing just as intently down at him. For some reason, his heart rate picked up, just a little. "Last time it was Naraku. What's that tell you?"

"You are suicidal," his brother replied evenly. Inuyasha accidentally punched him in the thigh as he stretched his arms, and Sesshoumaru pulled out some of his hair. "And too easily provoked."

"You can talk," Inuyasha grunted, swatting away the clawed hand that was yanking his hair. Pinching his leg in revenge, he shifted to lay back down when he was cuffed up the back of the head, none-too-gently at that. "Oh you're going down." He leapt at the unsuspecting youkai, throwing him on his side in the grass. A small scuffle ensued, surprisingly lacking in bloodletting and cursing as they fought for the upper hand, lowering only to punching and the odd kick. It was almost. . .playful. The memory of dappled sunlight and blood in his mouth rushed back to Inuyasha, startling him enough that Sesshoumaru was able to roll him over, pinning him beneath his larger body.

Breathing a little raggedly, hair fanned around him, Inuyasha stared up at his brother. "When. . ." he panted lightly, "did we stop trying to kill each other?"

Sesshoumaru didn't answer at first, and instead gazed down at him, his breath gusting warmly across Inuyasha's cheek. His eyes slid over each shadowed curve of his face before he leaned in, his nose brushing the hanyou's cheek as he drank in his scent. Shifting slightly, Inuyasha just stared up at him with confusion, uncertain but unwilling to betray it. He whined softly in his throat as Sesshoumaru ducked his head, pressing his nose just beneath his jaw, the warmth of his breath a comfort and a warning all at once. He didn't like the comparison, but he felt like he'd bared his belly to a dominant creature. Inuyasha didn't. . .didn't submit like this—

"The scent of humanity boiling in your blood no longer offends me," Sesshoumaru finally said, his voice strangely throaty in such close proximity. Drawing his head back, forearms bracing his weight, he locked eyes with his brother. "And you are not responsible for our father's death, Inuyasha. What reason do I still have to kill you? Hate you?"

"I—I don't—" Realising he was stammering, Inuyasha bit his lip, his expression wide open to reveal the disbelief storming his mind. The sudden, almost panicked burst of joy he couldn't smother with comforting bluster and lies. He didn't know what to do. Sesshoumaru didn't—

Oh, oh fuck.

Mortified, Inuyasha squeezed his eyes shut and whipped his head to the side before the wet sting in them could turn into something else. He didn't care, he told himself viciously. He didn't care if he was hated, he didn't care he didn't care

Gritting his teeth, he tried to control himself. But a single scalding droplet escaped the confines of his tightly closed lids, sliding along the curve of his eyelashes and gathering in the corner of his eye. How long? How long had he wanted to hear that? How long had be tried to pretend it didn't matter?

So intent on gathering control was he that the wet swathe of a warm tongue running over the hollow of his vulnerable eye socket didn't register right away. He belatedly realised Sesshoumaru had smelled the salt of his tears, even if he couldn't see them in the fire-lit darkness. He made a half-hearted sound of annoyance, raising his arms to rub at his eyes. "You just licked me. Again. Pervert," he said, his voice slightly hoarse with the tightness of his throat. "Stop getting all youkai on me."

"Then stop crying," Sesshoumaru replied, drawing back from him to sit up. Inuyasha choked.

"You're not supposed to talk about it!" He said, aggrieved. He sprang up into a sitting position and stared at the ground in quiet horror. Crying. Shit. "There's rules for that kind of shit, Sesshoumaru. Guy rules."

"Oh? That would imply you had some semblance of masculinity."

"Oh my god!" Inuyasha practically howled. "That's rich, coming from you, you fucking she-male. I swear before you pulled off that armour I thought I had a sister."

Sesshoumaru threw him into the fire for that.

By the time Inuyasha had pulled himself out of the coals and built up the fire again, the youkai lord looked like he'd simmered down enough that he wouldn't attack again.

"Ow," the hanyou grunted, sitting down beside him. "I'm calling a truce. Fire-rat fur only does so much for coal-on-ass contact, you know." He wasn't sure, but he might have seen a glimmer of laughter in Sesshoumaru's eyes at that. God, what a night it had turned out to be. He raised his eyes to the sky. It was about an hour after midnight, and he felt like the day had caught up with him at last. Trying to stifle a yawn and failing, he saw his brother glance at him out the corner of his eye, then look away almost immediately. Weirdo. Flopping over onto his side, his head closest to Sesshoumaru so any sound he made didn't disturb him, Inuyasha turned his stomach to the flames and closed his eyes. Like hell he was walking back now.

"You're not leaving." Sesshoumaru's voice was muted as he made the obvious statement. Still, there was a hint of a question there.

Inuyasha heaved a relaxed sigh. "No shit."

And that was that. Lulled by the crackling of the flames, the swirling scent of smoke and Sesshoumaru surrounding him, Inuyasha felt himself drifting into a warm slumber. But before he could drop completely into unconsciousness, the warm pressure of a hand settled on his hair briefly, before it drifted away.

And after that, nothing.

Inuyasha slept.



Chapter 10: Shatter

Inuyasha wasn't exactly what one would call a stealthy individual. In fact, he was more prone to making the loudest possible entrance anywhere he went, whether it was intentional or not. Sneaking about was for losers, he always thought.

Until he woke up on the ground in Sesshoumaru's camp, a bug crawling up his left nostril and no sign of the bastard save the lingering youki that drenched his surroundings. Dawn had broken a while ago, the scent of sun-warmed earth filling his lungs. Twitching his ears against the whisper of grass brushing them, he pulled in a deep breath and sat up, rubbing his eyes. It wasn't like him to sleep so late. Especially when he'd just spent the night belly-up on the ground, sprawled like he didn't have a care in the world. Maybe that suicidal crack Sesshoumaru had made had a bit of credence to it.

When it became apparent that his brother wasn't currently in the vicinity of the small camp, Inuyasha decided it would be a great idea to sneak off before he laid eyes on him. With all the weirdness of the night before, he needed some down time from the crazy sonofabitch before he pulled another embarrassing declaration out of his ass. Didn't hate him; that one was going to be echoing in his ears for quite a while.

Truth be told, Inuyasha didn't really believe him. How could he? Two centuries of hatred didn't just disappear because he did him a favour and trained his pet human, nor because he whipped an eyelash out of his eye. There had to be something else to it. How else could it be explained? No one changed their mind that fast.

Uncomfortable with the thoughts buzzing in his mind, the hanyou hopped to his feet and brushed himself off, plugging one nostril and blowing a ladybug clear out of his nasal passage. It was followed by a rather powerful stream of snot, and he cursed loudly and stomped to the stream to wash his face. Great start to the morning, he thought in disgust. Should have just inhaled and eaten the damn thing. Splashing his face and scrubbing vigorously, the quick routine brought into relief how long it had been since he'd actually washed. Night before last, if he was counting right. Having a sense of smell as strong as his, it was impossible to go for long without having a decent bath every few days. Forced hygiene, Kagome had jokingly called it. Catching a whiff of himself, he grimaced.

Eyeing the stream speculatively, he shook his head. Too shallow; barely up to his ass. Plus, Sesshoumaru would rip his eyelids off for bathing in his drinking water, no matter how free-flowing. Sighing, he stood up and stretched hard, groaning as bones popped and muscles ached in just the right way. Yawning, he turned toward the familiar path back to the village, frowning slightly as he realised it was actually looking well-trodden, the grass flat and ground smooth. Well, he supposed, a few daily trips between himself and Rin would do that. Still, it seemed to bring into relief just how much time he'd spent walking that track, when a few months ago you couldn't have begged him to go hunting after his brother. Whatever.

He'd been about to head back when a gust of unnatural wind blew against his back, and a loud thump grabbed his attention. Spinning back around, Inuyasha stared for a moment, then groaned.

"You touch me with that staff, toad, and I'm gonna ram it up your ass," he warned as Jaken hopped off Sesshoumaru's two-headed dragon and squawked at the sight of him, staff at the ready. The little bastard looked like he was gagging for a good hanyou-roasting.

"Where's Sesshoumaru-sama?" He demanded, bulging yellow eyes darting every which way. "What have you done with him?"

Inuyasha eyed him irritably, then scratched his cheek and shrugged. "Well, we had a fight," he sighed, "and I kind of lost my temper and vaporised him with the Bakuryuuha. It happens."

"You did not!" Jaken shrieked, eyes wide with outrage. "How dare you spout such lies! Sesshoumaru-sama would never be killed by the likes of you, hanyou!"

Inuyasha just shook his head in mock-pity. "No, really," he insisted. "All that was left of him was his armour. See?" He pointed to the spiked pauldron and armoured plates that were still sitting next to the boulder from the night before. "I didn't know what to do with it, so I brought it back here in case you wanted to sell it off—"

Shocked to his disturbing, sycophantic core, Jaken let out a strangled sound and started bawling. Dropping the staff, he ran over to the gleaming armour and threw his arms around it, wailing like, well, his only friend had just died.

Snickering silently, knowing he should feel bad and amused that he didn't, he 'respectfully' left the bastard imp to his grief and resumed his trek back to the village.

It was going to be a great day. He could feel it.


"—so I said to Kouga, I said 'yeah, well I wouldn't talk about being a man if I was wearing a fur skirt and leg warmers'," Inuyasha cracked, watching Miroku burst out laughing. "He then went into this way too detailed explanation of wolf youkai customs and shit, but really, who wears that? Not only that, but he showed way too much leg for a fucking wolf demon. I'm not even gonna talk about the sweatband and high ponytail." Leaning back on his hands, he watched his friend chuckle, his shoulders shaking with mirth.

Wiping the corner of one eye, Miroku shook his head ruefully. "Perhaps he was only ever after Kagome-sama so he could try on her clothes."

Inuyasha gagged. "There's a mental image I could have lived without," he grumbled, but he was grinning as he said it. "So when are you guys heading back? Not that I'm trying to get rid of you so I can return to my harem of little girls, or anything." He jerked a thumb at Suki, who was seated behind him, brushing his damp hair with avid concentration. Since she wasn't keen on leaving him alone, he figured if it'd shut her up she could get rid of the snarls in his hair while she was there. It was always a mess after he washed it.

Miroku rolled his eyes. "You certainly are popular, I'll give you that. I can see I won't have to worry about you being lonely after we leave. I still say you should come with us, but I know better than to push you. This village can survive without you, you know. It handled itself for fifty years while you were nailed to a tree."

"It was a sacred arrow, dumbshit, and I know all that already," he said sourly. "I'm not here because they need me. I'm here because I don't want to be in the same town as two of my best friends, who are currently screwing like a couple of wild animals. Do you know how sensitive my hearing is?" He'd meant to at least rattle Miroku or make him uncomfortable, but all the damn monk did was laugh.

"Well, you know you're always welcome, so I suppose I can't do any more than that. But really, Inuyasha, maybe you should at least guilt the village into building you a hut. Sleeping in the trees is so pedestrian. Don't you get splinters in your—"

"No naughty words!" Suki interrupted, glaring at Miroku over Inuyasha's shoulder. "You're a monk!"

Said monk looked put out. "Inuyasha swore!"

"Inuyasha's allowed."

"What? Why?"

"Because he's handsome, and he lets me put lavender oil in his hair."

Golden eyes widened. "Wha—oh, man!" One quick whiff of his silver mane told him more than he needed to know. "You snuck that in because I was upwind, didn't you? You little shit, get out of here before I spank your ass raw. See if I ever let you brush my hair again." Swatting at the little girl, he sent her on her way, shaking his fist at her when she stuck out her tongue and ran off. He slumped to the ground again after she was gone, depressed. "This stuff isn't going to come out for a few days, is it."

"Probably not," Miroku said placidly. "Lavender. Not exactly what I'd choose, but it does make your hair shine quite brilliantly, I must say. When your hair is brushed properly, you look almost pretty, Inuyasha-chan."

"Go to hell, you corrupt bastard," Inuyasha grumbled, punching him half-heartedly in the stomach. Now that he was focussing on it, the smell was filling his head, sharp and sweet. Admittedly, she hadn't used much, so it wasn't killing his nose, but he knew for a fact he was going to have a headache later. "I guess I should count myself lucky that Kouga isn't anywhere nearby. He'd have a fucking field day."

They talked some more, collapsed under the shade of a tree, watching Sango teach Rin a few tricks she'd learned in her years as a demon exterminator. Figuring Rin would be fine as long as Inuyasha was watching over them from a distance, he'd agreed to take the day off training her so that Sango could pad out some of the blank spots in his training. Right now she was teaching the little girl how to use a tiny dagger to its maximum advantage, attacking a straw likeness of Naraku, of all things. They'd actually done a decent job of getting all that hair of his looking pretty much spot on. Only, Rin had given him a dorky smile and crossed eyes, and earrings made of the inedible berries that dotted some of the bushes in the forest. Currently, Sango was overseeing Rin as she repeatedly stabbed Naraku in the crotch.

"I miss this a bit," Miroku said nostalgically, a faint smile teasing his mouth. "Don't you? The camaraderie, joking around, heading for a common goal. . .sometimes I feel like everything has ground to a halt. I'd never really thought about life once Naraku had been defeated. Actually, I wasn't sure I'd make it before the kazaana shattered and swallowed me whole. It's a bit surreal to think that Sango and I will be married soon, with a child on the way. A child who won't be cursed as I was." Turning to his friend, the monk reached out and pulled on one long skein of hair that fell over the hanyou's shoulder. "Are you listening? I'm pouring my heart out here."

Inuyasha had been listening. Actually, he'd been listening very hard, because Miroku had been saying some of the things he'd felt in the first weeks after Kagome had left. Time had slowed, direction had been lost, and life had been cast adrift. Luckily for Miroku, he had Sango, and a life to lead now. But by the same token, things had somehow worked out for him as well—worked out as best things could for a hanyou. He had something resembling a home, humans who liked him, purpose, and a sense of peace. It was more than he'd ever had, even if he missed the old days sometimes. Things had worked out as best as they possibly could. Lifting his head, he grinned at the dark-haired monk and impulsively threw one arm around his shoulders, jerking him into a quick man-hug.

"God, you do smell nice," Miroku muttered, and buried his face in Inuyasha's hair. Cursing, the hanyou recoiled, shooting his friend a disgusted look.

"All right, that's enough," he growled, shoving the monk back from him. "God, were you always so hands on? No wonder Sango abused you on a daily basis."

"I'm an affectionate soul," was the wounded reply. "I can't help it you smell like spring."

Inuyasha stared for a moment. "Right, I'm gonna. . .check on Rin." Getting to his feet, he jogged down the gentle slope into the field where the little girl was training, Sango looking on fondly. Grudgingly, because he still wasn't sure about the idea of his friends going at it, he thought Sango would make a pretty incredible mother. Not as good as his own, but she'd do all right.

"Inuyasha!" Rin cried happily, brandishing the dagger at him. "Sango-san is going to let me keep this! Isn't it pretty?" It was a ridiculously small knife, so he could understand the demon exterminator being okay with giving it to the girl; it wouldn't damage much. Then again, if an army of straw Naraku's appeared, he was gonna hide behind the kid while she went a-castrating. She was at that uncomfortable height for her age. Taking it from her carefully, he ran the blade along the pad of his thumb to test for sharpness before Sango could protest. Swearing loudly, he watched in horror as the meat of his thumb opened up like ripe fruit, blood welling up immediately in the deep cut.

Mouth agape, he looked at his thumb, then Sango, then his thumb again. "Ow!"

"Well really Inuyasha," the young woman said, upset, "if you're going to play with sharp things, this is what happens! You know I don't carry any dull knives." Reaching into her sleeve she brought out a small container of something that smelled foul. "Give me a look—"

"Ah, get away from me," he warned darkly. "I'll heal. I don't need to smell like ass while I do it." He cast a quick glance down at Rin, who was looking grossed out. Taking the knife back from him, she wiped the blood off on the grass and tucked the blade neatly inside a leather sheath, which she then hid in her obi. Her eyes were alight with excitement at her new present, but there was a sense of edginess about her; she kept glancing toward the trees. Sticking his thumb in his mouth to clean the wound, he could pretty much guess what her problem was. He liked to tease the kid, but he knew she wasn't stupid. She knew that there was no reason to remain in the village now; she'd been taught everything he knew, and even a little he didn't, thanks to Sango. Her brown eyes were darting to the trees because she was watching for her Sesshoumaru-sama, who would no doubt soon continue his journey across the country, wandering lands and paths he'd followed all his life.

It sucked, but Rin would be leaving today. Inuyasha figured he could admit it; he'd miss her a bit. Maybe even miss taunting the toad, who whether he knew it or not brought a smile of pure deviltry to the hanyou's face. As for his brother. . .well, they'd probably meet again here and there. They always did. No sense missing someone who would run into you –or run you through- in another couple of months, maybe years.

It didn't matter. If there was one thing he'd learned, it was that he had to stop watching the people in his life come and go.

"Are you listening to me?" Sango was frowning worriedly at him, one hand coming to rest on his shoulder. He blinked in surprise, and she blew out a small breath. "I said it's probably time we headed back, Inuyasha. We were worried at first, thinking you might need the company, but you seem to be doing just fine. Besides, I have to get back to the smithy pretty soon. . .there's some orders for weapons waiting that I have to attend to, and you can imagine what the villagers are like with their favourite monk gone. The girls will have a fit." She was rolling her eyes at that, seeming finally secure in the knowledge that Miroku understood that if he cheated she'd strangle him with his intestines. Popping his thumb out of his mouth he straightened, nodding at her with easy acceptance of their imminent departure. Two in one day? Son of a bitch. Casting the heavens a dirty look –way to test his resolve then and there- he flexed his injured thumb and winced at the uncomfortable feeling of the skin splitting, and turned to eye Miroku. He, for all intents and purposes, was dozing under the tree. Suki had returned and seemed to be holding a small wriggling animal. Maybe a mouse. Before the trio's amused eyes, she pulled back the monk's robes and shoved the rodent inside, running for the village the moment he sat bolt upright and screamed in horror. Actually screamed. Seconds later, Sango was covering Rin's eyes as he began pulling off his clothes in panic.

"Ugh, my appetite," Inuyasha groaned as he accidentally caught a view of more naked skin than was strictly necessary. He turned away and grabbed Rin, who was trying to peek between the youkai exterminator's fingers. "Quit looking, you little pervert. If you're gonna crush on older men, at least let it be someone whose glowing white ass doesn't wink at distant travellers in the night. Understand?"

"Okay!" Rin agreed earnestly, and he patted her on the head proudly. "I don't like boys, anyway," she continued. "Jaken-sama tells me that boys are only after one thing. He won't tell me what it is though, but I think it must be something bad because he yells at me when I ask."

Unwilling to pursue the subject in case she asked him the uncomfortable question, he decided to change the subject. "So. . .training's finished," he said randomly, as Sango slid her hands from the girl's face. Miroku seemed to have gotten his robes back on, though he looked exhausted and edgy now. Before him, Rin's face fell slightly, before brightening in a too-quick smile.

"Thank you very much, Inuyasha," she said politely, giving him a small bow. "I know a lot more now than I did before. I think I can look after myself now."

Well, there it was. "No problem, kid," he said, and realised he meant it. Despite all the hassle and manipulation that had gone into getting him in this mess, he really hadn't minded his grudging mentor status. If nothing else, he'd had a reason to get up in the morning. "Let's say goodbye to Miroku and Sango, then I'll take you back to the camp. You're way overdue for return, anyway."

Goodbyes were getting easier, he reflected as the four packed their meagre belongings and readied themselves for the trek back to their village. Shippou, for his part, hadn't spent a great deal of time around him during the visit, but he kind of got that. Second only to himself, he'd been damn attached to Kagome. Seeing him probably brought it all back home a little clearer. Inuyasha wasn't an idiot; he knew he wasn't the only one who missed her. It was for that reason he'd eased up on the torment a little, settling only for indulging Rin's fascination with the little fox youkai's hair.

"Take care of yourself," he found himself telling the tiny youkai gruffly, feeling a strange frisson of commiseration. Shippou blinked up at him in surprise, perched on Sango's shoulder with Kirara as they stood on the outskirts of the village. His nose screwed up in distaste.

"Yeah, yeah. Do something about yourself first, Inuyasha. You gonna sit around like a loner forever?" Sea green eyes sparkled at him mischievously at that, and Inuyasha tensed in irritation. Now he remembered why the kid ticked him off. "You can't even do your own hair without help, lavender-dork."

"All right, you can all fuck off now," he said abruptly, annoyed. Shippou made a rude gesture and hid it by running his hand through his hair immediately after. Miroku and Sango just laughed, starting down the road with a casual wave. Beside him, Rin was loosely gripping his fingertips in one small hand, looking awed.

"You just said a really bad word, Inuyasha."

"Sometimes," he said serenely, "it's either that or kill them all. Come on, we've got ground to cover. You wanna ride on my back? It's quicker." Normally he didn't really offer that kind of thing, but he figured she'd probably get a kick out of it. Something told him that she didn't play around too much in his brother's company, and between him and that bastard imp, it was a wonder she was still as cheerfully happy as she was. He couldn't figure it out.

Brown eyes sparkling with excitement, she jiggled his hand for a moment as she started to nod, then a shadow passed over her face that wiped the smile clean off it. "Umm. . .let's walk, Inuyasha! I can ride on your back next time."

He didn't like the idea of giving her false hope. "You know kid, Sesshoumaru's not too likely to come by these parts again," he told her. "You know he and I don't really get along."

She paused at that, then nodded unhappily. "I don't know why," she said softly. "You're nice, and Sesshoumaru-sama is nice, why aren't you friends? Brothers are supposed to like each other! Why do you hate him?"

The hanyou nearly choked at that. Him? "Oh yeah, suddenly it's my fault," he griped. "Listen, kid, I hate to break it to you but he's not that nice. For some reason he just tolerates you more than most people. Why, I don't know, since you're such a chatty little shit." Without warning, he grabbed her and swung her up into the air, seating her on one shoulder, his arm curved up to hold her in place. "Now c'mon. I'll walk, you just hang on—and try not to pull on my ears." With that he set off at a brisk march, or about as close as he could get to one with a giggling little girl attaching herself to his head. It wasn't his most dignified stroll through the village, but he didn't mind it so much now that the women of the village were waving fondly and commenting on his 'soft side', elbowing their husbands meaningfully. Apparently being the adopted big brother of all the kids in the damn place came with its own perks. Then he remembered the lavender in his hair and decided the perks didn't really outweigh the grief he constantly endured.

They moved in silence for a long time, navigating the land and entering the dense earthy green of the forest, the moist scent of growing things surrounding him, the thick lush greenery pressing in like a living blanket around them. It always seemed so much quieter inside the forest, as if taking a step through the bushes granted him entry to another world. The village, only a field away, felt like it was dimensions from where he stood. It wasn't his forest, the Goshinboku was on the other side of the small settlement, but it carried the same sense of ethereal wonder. Used to the bustle and busy energy of the village, just walking through the place made something inside him relax.

Rin spoke occasionally in the hush, usually a random question here and there he didn't mind answering.

"What's your favourite colour?"

"Probably red."

"What do I smell like?"

"You smell like girl. Soap and stuff."

"What does Sesshoumaru-sama smell like?"

"Evil. No, I'm kidding, I don't know. . .it's mixed in with his youki. Storms, maybe. Something sharp."

After that, there was no shutting her up on the subject. Why she was fascinated with his sense of smell he didn't know; probably one of those youkai-loving quirks she had. From then on it was all questions about his damn brother. What did he think of him, what were those markings, how old was he, why did he wear shoes, did he go to sleep, and why did tanuki make him angry? That last one cracked him up to no end.

He was still snickering as they emerged from the trees into the small sunlit camp, the sound of water and the memory of the path guiding him. Crouching down, he slid Rin off his shoulder until her feet touched the ground, then stood up and stretched. Working his stiff shoulder with his other arm, Inuyasha glanced around. Everything was the same as it had been earlier in the morning. Same stream, same dead campfire, same grass, same rock. Same complete lack of anyone in the vicinity, save himself and the kid. Great. While the temptation to leave her there and go flickered for a moment, he decided he didn't have anything better to do even if he did ditch her.

"Wait here," he grumbled, "I'll go and see if I can find Sesshoumaru or the toad in the area." Even the dragon would do, he guessed. "Might wanna catch yourself some lunch while I take a look around."

"Ooh, fish! Okay!"

Leaving the girl to set up the campfire, he carefully made his way up the stream, following the vague scent of his brother that the wind was carrying down to him. It wasn't particularly strong, but it was pretty fresh. With any luck he'd be able to find him and get the hell out in under half an hour. After the way things had been the night before. . .Sesshoumaru had said, honestly said, that he didn't hate him. And as much as he wanted to deny it, it had meant something to hear that from him. It shouldn't, he knew that, not after so many years, so many fights. He thought all the hope had been beaten out of him. Cringing at the memory of his response, the hanyou scrubbed a hand over his face, as though that traitorous tear still lingered on his skin. Showing his face now—what if his brother thought that he'd really taken it to heart? The last thing he wanted was to be mistaken for some born-again worshipper of the bastard. He was not the trusting kid he'd been before, full of awe and ready to follow him at the slightest hint of an invitation. One he'd never received.

Tense now, he felt his steps slow a little as his sense of Sesshoumaru strengthened. He'd told Rin the truth earlier, when she'd asked about his scent. The only thing he could liken the cold tang of his brother's scent was the air before a storm, something crisp and dangerous. The scent of leashed power. Inuyasha wasn't sure what he himself smelled like, but he figured it was probably just sweat. Silently he cursed the kid for getting him thinking about it now; who mused over something as stupid as a damn smell, anyway? Blinking, he took stock of his surroundings and shook off the thoughts that had been bogging him down, realising that he'd travelled further than he'd meant to in his search. He'd also left the bank of the stream, moving deeper into the forest than he'd intended. He'd just been. . .heh, following his nose.

The sound of movement hit his ears then, and the hanyou swung back to the stream. Finally, he thought, relieved and agitated at once as he changed direction. Why the hell did he have to go so far from the damn—

Campsite.

Inuyasha blinked.

And blinked again.

"Okay, I know you heard me rustling around, so don't look at me like I've jumped in here like a depraved bastard," he said defensively, crossing his arms. "And. . .and why are you so stripey?"

Sesshoumaru shot him an unfriendly look. Inuyasha thought it was a valid question, really, because since when had there been striped dogs? Youkai shouldn't be that different.

But perhaps the frown had less to do with his question, and more directed at Inuyasha's unflinching attention to the expanse of skin exposed to his eyes. He'd effectively barged straight out of the bushes and nearly headlong into the stream where the youkai lord was currently bathing. Absently, he congratulated himself on his earlier assessment of the depth of the water; it was barely lapping at the dimpled curve of Sesshoumaru's buttocks, and oh god why was he noticing that.

"You seem to have a problem with staring," the youkai said calmly, turning away from him to wring out his hair. The movement revealed matching sets of magenta stripes curving from his hips around to his back. "The fact that I am nude right now does raise some uncomfortable questions."

Okay, he was pretty sure that was all the blood in his body rushing to his face. Nevertheless, he snorted at the comment. "Asshole. You should be nicer to me, since I'm pretty sure I can piss on your clothes before you can get out of the water. I've had a lot to drink today." He received a dirty look for that, but no reply was forthcoming. Maybe he'd believed him. Folding himself to sit cross legged on the bank of the stream, he turned himself to the side so that he wasn't directly facing his bare-ass brother. Picking up a small pebble, he rubbed it between his fingers thoughtfully as he ran through what to say.

"If you are here in the middle of the day, I can only assume something unexpected has happened."

Inuyasha frowned at the pebble. "Not really," he muttered. "Rin's done. She's back in the camp, setting herself up some lunch." Swapping the pebble to his other hand, he examined his thumb again, scowling. "She also has a sharp knife, thanks to Sango, so don't tick her off. She's a kid on the edge." He held up his thumb for inspection. Sesshoumaru glanced at it and exhaled in exasperation.

"That appears self-inflicted. And if not, I'm certain you deserved it."

Inuyasha threw the pebble at him.

Without missing a beat, Sesshoumaru ducked the small projectile and slung his arm forward, a green whip of energy cracking the shocked hanyou on the thigh. With a sharp wrench, he was reeled straight into the water by that same whip, fully dressed and swearing his damned head off. Hitting the water with an almighty splash, he floundered under the water for a moment, his hair a choking cloud around him before he found his footing on the slippery rocks below. Rearing upright, hair flying in every direction, water sluicing off his body, Inuyasha glared at his coldly amused brother with one visible golden eye. "You got water in my ears," he snarled softly. "I hate water in my ears." Pulling Tetsusaiga and its sheath from his waistband, he tossed it back on the bank, hoping the shield on the blade extended to rust-proofing it as well.

Then he cracked his knuckles, pushed his hair back behind his shoulders—and dove for Sesshoumaru's clothes, so neatly folded beside the water's edge.

He was pretty sure he got at least two droplets of water on them before he felt an arm curl around his waist, hauling him backwards into the water, and against a slippery wall of flesh that didn't yield in the slightest. "Fucking no!" He howled, hands still outstretched for the white cloth. "I'm going to kill you!"

"I've heard that somewhere before," a faintly amused voice said against his temple, warm breath brushing his sodden bangs. "Perhaps you should come up with a threat you can actually make a reality." When he wrenched violently the arm around him tightened, pinning his arms to his sides so he could do little more than thrash ineffectually. This went on for a while nonetheless, until eventually he subsided; a shivering, sodden mass of pathetically furious hanyou. He felt miserable. Getting soaked to the bone was not his idea of fun—getting water in his ears was even worse. It swished around uncomfortably, deafening him by turns. He'd shaken most of it out, but they still flicked and twitched madly. And all this over a pebble.

"What, you gonna drown me now?" He said eventually, when it became apparent that he wasn't being released. "Because you should do something. Having my severely naked brother pinning me against him is raising uncomfortable questions." As far as barbs went, he thought that was pretty good, probably more than enough to gain his freedom. Instead he felt a small breath of amusement gust along his cooling skin, and his brother leaned forward over his shoulder, just enough that Inuyasha could see the curve of his jaw and his lower lip as he spoke.

"You'll retaliate the moment I release you," Sesshoumaru mused. "Don't think I do not know this. And yet, I have no desire to keep you restrained. This creates an interesting predicament."

"Don't blame me," came the offended reply. "I didn't even hit you with the damn rock. This is your fault." Swivelling his forearms, he brought them up and found that his claws could just reach Sesshoumaru's arm, enough to plunge in and easily tear through the veins and tendons there. If he turned his head and exerted enough pressure, he might be able to sink his teeth into his brother's windpipe. These options spun through his head as soon as he relaxed enough, both probably completely successful plans to get him free. And yet. . .

"Hm," his brother said after a moment. "You're not going to, are you?"

Inuyasha tensed, almost cringing as he realised he'd been given those opportunities on purpose. What test had that been? It seemed like the more time he spent around Sesshoumaru, the more insight he had to his thoughts. While that would bother him under normal circumstances, he couldn't help but wonder now just where along the way a youkai lord had learned to think like a hanyou. Or why he'd even want to. Letting out a harsh breath, he dropped his eyes to the water-slicked arm around him and felt the last of the fire inside him extinguish itself. "It's not like it matters," he muttered. "Maybe it's listening to the kid ramble on about you every day, but ripping you open has kind of lost its appeal—even when you'd probably deserve it." Inuyasha felt the arm around him loosen at that, but he wasn't completely released as a long-fingered hand captured one of his and used it to turn him in the water, until he faced those implacable eyes that had never seemed so similar to his own as they did in that moment. Dimly, it occurred to him that maybe even his self-assured, pure-blooded sibling had his own moments of uncertainty.

"What?" He demanded with an unhappy jerk of his hand, which was still entangled in pale fingers. "Let go of me, damn it. Or are you trying to get your final kicks before you leave by pissing me off good and proper? Trying to fuck with my head with a few fun mind games? If you want me to rip your throat to shreds, you. . .you don't have to—ow!" While he'd been talking, filling the air between them with hot bluster and the confusion that seemed to smother him every time they met, Sesshoumaru had very calmly lifted his restrained hand and pressed his mouth to the angry cut on his thumb.

The pressure hurt at first, and he flinched at the raw sting in the wound, but at the warm-wet stroke of a tongue against his injured skin his eyes got real wide, real fast. "What're you doing? It's not—ow, it's healing on its own!" Something mortifyingly close to panic flashed through his stomach as narrow golden eyes settled on his, regal and remote even as his lips moved carefully over the frozen hanyou's skin. Trying to break the connection in that gaze, Inuyasha foolishly lowered his eyes to the movement of his mouth; pale lips and the hint of teeth and a long, wet, rough stroke of heat. He swallowed with difficulty and felt his thoughts crumble into raw sensation.

Just when he thought he might lose all sense of reality and start hyperventilating, his brother drew away, lazy eyes intense and filled with realisation.

"Flowers," Sesshoumaru murmured, his voice threaded with what almost sounded like confusion. "You taste like flowers. How disconcerting."

The words came like a bucket of ice water in his face, and Inuyasha could have howled. As it was, he couldn't contain a visible cringe at the words. "Don't say taste," he said, his voice hushed like he might be overheard. "Suki put some lavender crap in my hair this morning. It's probably spread all over me now. Let go, would you?" Pulling away with more force than he was sure he needed, he quickly waded out of Sesshoumaru's range and headed for dry land. The bastard had absolutely no sense of—of anything. It was getting beyond a joke. Grunting to himself as he hoisted himself up onto the bank, he pulled the fire-rat haori off and let it hit the ground with a wet slap. His shirt was soon to follow. Saturated. Shit. This was going to take days to dry. Would he ever catch a break?

Unhappily committing himself to the task of wringing out his heavy mane, using the repetitive action as a smokescreen to silently freak out inside his own mind, he squeezed as much water as he could out of the waterlogged mass before straightening and pinning Sesshoumaru with a frustrated glare. "You're really messed up, you know that?" He barked, fists clenched by his sides and wet skeins of hair clinging to his cheeks. "How the hell do you go from practically vomiting at the sight of me—to, to sticking my fingers in your mouth? What the hell is it you think you're playing at? No one changes their mind that fast. Not about me." Feeling his frustration and confusion boil clean over into anger, he snatched up his clothes and began twisting the water out of them, his hair veiling his eyes.

"For a brash, reckless creature, your personal opinion of yourself is almost non-existent," said Sesshoumaru. The sound of disrupted water followed the statement, and the rustle of clothing. Inuyasha didn't look up. "Or you would not question me so desperately."

"Yeah, and maybe you've got no idea what you're doing, either." Folding the sodden clothing over his forearm, he straightened and dared a burning look over his shoulder. "Or you wouldn't completely avoid the question." The youkai lord watched him for a moment, expressionless, before turning away with a quiet breath and slipping his swords into his obi, passing him Tetsusaiga in the process. Inuyasha slid it into place at his waist and pushed his hair off his face in time to see an odd expression cross his brother's face as he halted in his movements. Then, with a slow blink, Sesshoumaru turned away and began walking back toward the camp.

"We will depart at sunrise tomorrow," he intoned, glancing once over his shoulder before he vanished into the forest. "Do as you like."

With no reply worth making to that, Inuyasha watched him disappear, and stood there for a long time after trying to decipher exactly what had just happened. How like the bastard to completely ignore his questions and state something completely random like that. Do as you like. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Coming from anyone else, it was an invitation; a careless one. But this was Sesshoumaru, and if he was saying something like that, it probably meant he was leaving him wide open for a kick in the—

Blinking, Inuyasha's mind finally caught up to one tiny detail that had escaped his notice. His lips parted in silent shock, eyes flickering, before his hand slid slowly to the sword at his hip. His sword; the Tetsusaiga.

The fang which rejected a cold heart.

Swallowing, he realised with a jolting tremor exactly what had just happened.

The barrier had accepted Sesshoumaru.



Chapter 11: Bonds

Leaving wasn't even a possibility, Inuyasha thought as he stared up at the Goshinboku. This village, this forest, everything that had ever really mattered to him, had happened here. Kikyou, and Kagome. The bone eater's well. And here, the site of his imprisonment, where the sealing arrow had pierced his heart. Too many memories.

Leave this?

Eyes distant, he lifted one hand and ran his clawed fingertips over the small, indented wound in the tree.

Do as you like.

His hand curled into a loose fist, and he swore softly. This was stupid. What the hell was he doing, staring at the damn tree anyway? He hadn't been back there in ages. It was just a stupid tree. Inuyasha wasn't going anywhere—there was no need for him to stare at it like he was saying goodbye.

Turning away, he scowled at his hand in the dim pre-dawn light. The healing cut on his thumb was just a faint red line now, but it stood out clearly to his sharp eyes. He hadn't slept yet, too unsettled and edgy to do more than pace through his forest, inspecting the markers of his history. It seemed to calm something in him to do it, and after the day before, and Sesshoumaru's confusing parting words, it was no small feat. He felt like there was a choice laid before him, and a risk to take.

Inuyasha was no coward. Risks were something he thrived on, and barrelling headlong into danger was his trademark. Sitting back and pondering his options was something he'd never been good at. Miroku had been the strategic planner in the group; he'd been the brute strength. This though. . .truth be told, half of him was still convinced that he'd misheard. Misunderstood. Heard what it would please him to hear. And admitting that to himself had been the hardest damn thing he'd done for a while.

In the safe silence of his own mind, he could admit. . .that maybe it would be. . .

"Forget it," he growled to himself, slamming the heel of his palm into his temple as though to knock the idea loose. It had to be the lack of sleep talking. Like he'd ever subject himself to the daily insanity that was Sesshoumaru's bugshit little tribe. He'd be dead within a week.

Looking up the sky that filtered in between the canopy of trees, it was with a defeated sigh that he realised the day had moved forward as he'd been lost in thought, and they'd be leaving soon. For once agreeing with his –admittedly rare- better judgement, Inuyasha trudged back toward the village, resigned to another day of comfortable village life. It was really the only option he could take, anyway.

He'd been conditioned by humans. He understood humans. He belonged with humans.

And that, well, that was that.


Life went back to normal in the weeks that followed, or as normal as things could get. Time passed, and it was soon almost like the trio had never even set foot in his village. Despite his own keen awareness of them, the villagers didn't even really recall the little girl that had followed him around so eagerly, probably mistaking her for Suki. Hina had assumed Sesshoumaru was some random friendly youkai, something that disturbed him on a deep and instinctive level. But it was almost enough to convince him those few weeks had all been some insane mushroom dream.

Now his world once again consisted of wood-chopping, the occasional slaying of a low-level youkai, eating, sleeping, and running away from small children. It took him a while to admit it, but he decided he had it pretty damn good. Inuyasha no longer glanced at the area of forest that Rin's campfire smoke used to rise from, and ceased checking the long grass for a familiar angry imp with a two-headed stick.

The scent of an oncoming storm still got him, though. Every time.

And so he passed away his days semi-peacefully, falling into the routine his niche in life had created for him. But there were certain days that were more enjoyable than others, and currently he was experiencing one of them.

"All right," he grunted, shifting his grip, "on the count of three, you guys pull. But before I count, let me just say that this idea is bullshit. Any friction burn you get is so totally your own fault."

One of the men grinned at him. "Remember, if you win, it's all the salted meat you can fit in your belly. If we win, you're searching in the latrine for Suki's doll!"

Inuyasha rolled his eyes. This was almost too easy. "Then I hope you like digging, because the term 'life is shit' is going to have a whole new meaning for you lot when I'm through," he taunted, flicking his wrist and sending a wave down the thick rope. "Now let's do this, ladies." A laugh went up among the men at that, and they got into position.

It was the new game in the village, something they'd come up with once they realised that having a hanyou around was worth more than protection from the infrequent hungry youkai crossing their paths. Placing a bet on his strength, they'd come up with a new challenge. This time, it was a line scratched in the dirt, a huge length of rope, and seven of the village men. The aim was that the team to haul the enemy over the line won the challenge. Except, it wasn't a team, it was Inuyasha versus whoever was dumb enough to think they could beat him.

"All right," Inuyasha said with a feral grin, "one, two. . .three!"

He nearly had all five of them over line on the first yank. Clawed toes sinking into the dirt for purchase, he set his stance and hauled hard, feeling every muscle grow taut and burn with the strain of pitting his strength against seven fully grown human men. Surging forward in shock they cried out as the line grew dangerously close to their feet, one of them yelling 'no, not the poo!' so loudly Inuyasha's grip almost slipped as a bark of surprised laughter escaped him. Using that opportunity, Hiroshi in the front wrenched back, and the game was on.

He had them on the line time and again, but they were persistent bastards. Still, with his incredible sense of smell, no way was he going to be rooting around in a swamp of shit looking for Suki's straw doll. How she lost it in the crapper he had no idea, and it didn't matter to him anyway. All he had to do was win this challenge, and it was free food and dignity, all the way. With that thought to bolster his strength, he let out a guttural growl, switched his grip, and pulled on the rope like the damn thing was the last lifeline at sea.

"Buddha save us!" Hiroshi howled as they all came barrelling toward him, heels digging trenches in the dirt that led to that precious line. The other men voiced similar prayers, impending doom written on their horrified faces. Inuyasha grinned.

"Oh yeah," he grunted, shaking his sweaty hair out of his eyes. "A few more inches and you're mine, assholes." Then he felt the slick burn of friction burst a blister on his palm and he hissed sharply, one eye closing in pain as the rope slid in his grip. Shit! Fucking Buddha, interfering in his fight! The hanyou saw red. "Goddamn. . .stupid. . .I'm not gonna lose!"

"Yes, you are!" One of the guys at the back said desperately, but it was in that moment that Inuyasha set his teeth, flexed his toes, and bodily dragged them all over the line.

The screams were music to his ears.

"Damn your insane strength!" Hiroshi cursed breathlessly, sprawled on the ground somewhere near the hanyou's foot. Inuyasha grinned up at the cloudless summer sky, flat on his back, sweaty and triumphant.

"Take it like a man," he laughed, pressing his dirty foot on the human's cheek. "You guys will never learn." While the older man swore and rubbed the footprint off his face, one of the other men good-naturedly held out a hand to help him up. He took it with only a little hesitation, dusting himself off and wiping his forehead. "Good match. You guys made me bleed this time. Look, a blister." He held up his hand for inspection. They looked inordinately pleased by the oozy little wound.

They weren't so bad, now that they weren't treating him like he carried the plague. They'd never really had any idea what he was, and it was only the oldest of them that had remembered him from the days when Kikyou had been the priestess of the village. No one remembered Naraku posing as him and doing those terrible deeds, but the stories had still been told. Course, the old hag had done her fair share of smoothing things over, with her acceptance of him. They'd all just been taught that he was evil incarnate, that was all. A vicious animal that would turn on them as soon as help them. Mulling that over, he wondered if he set himself up as some sort of god, he could demand food to appease his wild temper. That'd be a sweet deal.

Taking off, after wrangling a promise out of them for the meat – he'd also graciously advised them to search the latrine at evening, when the flies wouldn't be such a bother – he left the village to clean himself up.

The old trail through the bushes and grass to his spot in the creek was getting overgrown. Frowning to himself, he glanced at his sword speculatively, before shaking his head. Don't do it, he warned himself. Cracking his knuckles, he flared his youki and slashed away the overgrown grass and hanging vine-like greenery, clearing the way. It wasn't until blood splashed his cheek that he realised what he'd done.

It wasn't a vine, it was. . .

"Oh yeah!" He crowed, shaking blood off his fingertips as a very familiar snake dropped from the branch over his head, in two pieces. "Take that, you scaly bastard. I said I'd get you in the end, didn't I? God I love today." It was clearly some kind of sign, he thought, cheered by the idea that if there was some kind of heavenly being upstairs, it hadn't forgotten about him completely. Whistling to himself, he practically swaggered the rest of the way to the creek.

Almost expecting his day to turn up that chunk of Kagome's soap he'd lost ages ago, he spent nearly an hour in the water, before deciding it had probably dissolved away. Slightly more subdued with the minor loss, he got out of the creek and dried off, only bothering to put on his hakama since the heat was getting pretty intense. Folding his clothes over his forearm, he decided that he might as well stop in and see the old bag to get some of her herbal whatever to stop the sting in his palm from his blisters. The last thing he needed was his sword hand messed up. With an annoyed squint at the sun, he blew out a breath and trekked back to the village, ears flicking.

An unusual scene met his eyes as he closed in on the old priestess' hut. People were milling about everywhere. Frowning, he jogged over when he spotted Hina. "Oy, why's it so popular over this way?"

She shrugged. "Kaede-sama isn't praying today. We thought she might be in her hut, but she's not answering. Probably on a walk. Moki-san is peeved, because he was next in line to get a good luck charm, or something," she said wryly, waving her hand at the people crowding. "Suddenly it's an emergency. Self-important moron." Her brown eyes fixed on his state of dress then, and she blushed crimson. "You heathen! Put on some clothes!"

He shot her a weird look. "My clothes are made of fur. You want me to die of heatstroke? You're lucky I'm wearing pants, and I'm only doing that because you'll totally stare at my stuff."

"Stuff?" She asked blankly, then screwed her face up. "Ugh." He grinned.

"You want me. It's all right, I would too, if I was a chick. Maybe even a guy." Stacking his hands behind his head, he turned on his heel and strolled off before she could properly form coherent words. He only got about five feet before he remembered what he'd come for. Checking his hand and finding it still sore, he wondered whether or not to just man up and deal with it, or wuss out and get some of her ointment. Figuring no one would really know what he was doing either way, he weaved his way through the muttering crowd and pushed aside the heavy fabric covering blocking the entrance to her hut and slid inside. Wasn't that the one she used at night? It'd be stifling in there when she got back—

His eyes adjusted to the darkness in seconds, but it felt like minutes crawled past as his mind registered what he was looking at.

Kaede, slumped on her side by an unlit fire.

"Oh fuck," he groaned, leaping forward and crouching by the priestess' side. "Oh shit, Kaede, shit!" Propping her up with careful hands, he cradled her body in one arm while he pressed his ear to her chest, completely unashamed as fear suddenly thundered in his own. But there was nothing, not even warmth in her body to tell him that whatever happened, had only just occurred. Instead there was stillness, and an absence of breath. The pallor of her skin told him the only other thing he needed to know.

Stunned, the hanyou slowly drew his head back to stare at the old woman.

Kaede was dead.

But she wasn't allowed to do this, he thought stupidly, as his vision wobbled on the edges.

"Someone help," he said, his voice strangled and lacking strength. Inuyasha squeezed his eyes shut. "Someone get in here!"

After that, his world went curiously silent as sunlight blasted away the shadows of the hut, forms blurring and moving as people lurched back and covered their mouths in horror. Wept. Some fell to their knees. Others just stared in uncomprehending shock. But he was more grateful than he knew how to say when Hiroshi knelt and carefully pulled his hands away from the dead priestess, his eyes avoiding the dark blood that dotted her shoulder from his claws. It didn't flow anymore.

He was led outside somehow after that, into the brilliant summer sunlight. Hina was at his side, her lips forming words he couldn't pay attention to. This was how it always happened, he thought faintly, and something in the back of his mind seemed to fracture. This was how it was going to always happen. To Hiroshi, Hina, Suki, all the other villagers. All the children.

All the humans.

Everyone.

Inuyasha managed to stumble behind the hut before he threw up.


The dark, storm-grumbling afternoon sky was fading into evening when Hina finally found him perched on a bare, thick branch of the tallest tree surrounding the village. Hands on hips, she stared up at him impatiently, and it was almost like she was another girl with dark hair and eyes. "You missed the funeral, but you could at least pay your respects! Inuyasha! She was like a grandmother to all of us, not just you, and we all miss her. How long are you going to pretend you're so very different—"

Inuyasha didn't mean to scare her. He didn't mean to snarl so wretchedly, until the sound rolled through the village like thunder. But Hina jumped back, the cold scent of unease rising up to him. Seconds later, his ears registered the fading footfalls as she ran away. "I'll come back tomorrow!" She called stubbornly. But she left him in peace, and the silence that blanketed him was a welcome relief.

The hanyou's eyes were full of shadows as he let out a soft sound, and leaned against the trunk of the tree. Exhaustion whispered to his bones, but he couldn't really rest. Too much was flooding his head, making it impossible to relax. It had been that way since he really woke up, really glanced around after wandering aimlessly for nearly a day. He'd found himself staring at the Goshinboku once again, and suddenly, in a split second, he'd hated everything it stood for. Time, fate, destiny—all it said to him was that he was going to stand vigil as everyone he cared about either left, or died. The helpless fury it had woken in him was something he didn't want to experience again.

Now that his anger was spent, he finally found himself wishing he'd been able to talk to her—had some warning. She'd been the only voice of wisdom he'd had, for a while there. But it wouldn't have mattered, he thought unforgivingly as he watched distant lightning crawl across the clouds. Old people died all the time. Humans didn't live very long at any rate. But him though—he aged like a youkai, one of the few doubtful blessings he'd inherited from his father. This was just the first time he'd ever naturally outlived someone who had been even slightly close to him. He'd adjust.

A warm wind touched his skin then, and he briefly thought about putting his haori back on, but he wasn't quite ready to jump down and inspect the pile of food and the discarded clothes Hina had brought for him. He barely even remembered dropping them in the hut. Instead, he yawned and let his eyes slip closed, resting his right side against the line of the trunk, letting his legs hang over the edge.

Breathing in the scent of storms, he spoke.

"Whatever you're after, skip the detour," he said, listening to the surprisingly hoarse timbre of his own voice. "Keep walking, Sesshoumaru."

There was silence, broken only by the whisper of wind through trees. "Such a rude welcome," his brother replied, his voice clear even meters below him. "If you won't deign to leave your undignified post, you could at least look me in the eye when I speak to you, Inuyasha."

"Like I care," was the tired reply. The hanyou could almost feel the brief anger rising in the air, before it faded into something unidentifiable.

"Then you haven't seen Rin," said the youkai. "She left with Ah-Un for this village hours ago." The news lifted his eyelids, and for a moment he stared out at the blackening sky as he processed the information. Rin had left Sesshoumaru to visit him? Sesshoumaru had let her? What the hell was he doing if she never arrived? Stopping for a chat?

"So go find her. She never came here."

His brother didn't reply straight away, probably gauging his tone and reading into things, the way he always seemed to before he'd left. Finally he broke the silence, his voice decisive. "Get out of the tree, Inuyasha. You will look at me." But the hanyou never moved, didn't turn to connect his gaze with the one burning into the back of his skull. Of all the nights to appear out of nowhere, he thought humourlessly. It almost made a twisted kind of sense. But it wasn't enough for him to care. "Then I assume you're tired," Sesshoumaru continued, "after the destruction you wreaked on the forest."

Inuyasha's head came up at that, his mouth pulling tight. Sesshoumaru let out a long breath. "Don't think I do not know the shape of the scars your blade creates in the earth. Messy, uncontrolled gouges from the Kaze no Kizu with no specific target. . .yet you seemed to intentionally miss the tree that you were imprisoned on for fifty years." The question in buried in the statement was obvious, but the last thing the hanyou wanted to do was talk about it. Why wasn't he leaving? He had no reason to be doing this, especially not if he was looking for Rin.

Drawing himself up, he twisted at the waist to finally glare down at his brother. "Look, it's none of your damn business! Just get out of here, Sesshoumaru." His claws dug unintentional furrows in the bark as he watched narrow golden eyes rake over his face with cool calculation, and in that moment, Inuyasha knew he shouldn't have looked. Those eyes could pick apart his every thought. Whipping around, putting his back to the youkai lord, he gripped the branch under him and hunched his shoulders. His brother wouldn't bother now, he knew that. A good enough insult and the asshole always turned away—it was the one thing he knew would still work. Nothing was worth the abuse to his stupid noble pride, or whatever it was that fuelled him. And even if he didn't, short of knocking him from the tree, even Sesshoumaru couldn't do a thing to make him listen. How could he tell him that he'd lost control back in the forest, all because of—of how different he was? Sesshoumaru hated the village. Hearing Kaede had—

Stiffening, Inuyasha felt the gathering of youki behind him moments before the tree shook violently, and for one stunned moment, he thought the youkai had actually cut it down. "Shit—!" He turned his eyes to his brother in disbelief.

"That you reduce me to such actions is mildly appalling, Inuyasha," Sesshoumaru said stiffly. Expression closed, he shifted slightly on the branch he now shared with his brother, and folded into a sitting position.

Silenced by the display, Inuyasha glanced down at the ground, then back to his brother. He'd leapt up there in one solid spring, his landing shaking the whole damn tree to its roots. Now, less than a foot away, he was plucking a twig from his sleeve and frowning at it like it had insulted him. It was too bizarre. "Are you insane?" He asked, horrified. "Get off my branch! You want it to break?"

The look he received was unfriendly at best. "How heavy do you assume I am? The tree is sound. Or have you decided that hiding up here like an animal is no longer such a fine idea?" When he didn't reply right away, the youkai released a soft breath and allowed his frown to fade slightly. "Perhaps if you'd merely accompanied me that time, you might have avoided whatever troubles you now. I certainly wouldn't be in this undignified position if you had."

"I didn't invite you up here," Inuyasha muttered, his eyes sliding away. "And accompany you? Why would I? If you need a babysitter for Rin, you're looking in the wrong place. She's a cute kid, but all the flowers and giggling in the world won't compensate for having to hang around you all the time." That was nastier than he'd intended to be, but once it was said he refused to take it back. Shit. He was sitting in a tree, with Sesshoumaru. Close enough to probably shove him right out of it, if the inclination hit him. Close enough to feel the brush of a soft white sleeve against his arm. Biting the inside of his cheek, he looked away.

"I did not realise you still held such animosity toward me." The words were spoken with no real inflection, but Inuyasha's stomach tightened guiltily before he could tell himself it didn't matter. Wasn't it past this already? Why the hell was he doing this? If the almighty Sesshoumaru would lower himself to do something like this, for his sake, what the hell was he doing, trying his hardest to shove him away? Well-schooled in the art of throwing petulant tantrums, even Inuyasha knew that this was probably only going to hurt him in the end. Because the sad fact was, sitting beside him Sesshoumaru was probably the only person he could count on not to leave him in the position Kaede's death had. If anything, Inuyasha would die long before his brother. Faintly, the hanyou wondered if that would matter to him.

Keeping his face turned to the stormy view, he slid his eyes to the side and swallowed. "Kaede died yesterday," he blurted out. "Just old age, I guess. She was the only person who still accepted me, after the seal broke. She helped me, and all I ever did was. . ." His voice died away then, his brow knitting upwards as he stared down at his knees, his hair slipping over his shoulders. "No one ever really died on me, before. Kikyou, maybe, but this was different. You probably think I'm an idiot." It sort of went without saying, he thought to himself. Or it used to. Now, admitting that to his brother, Inuyasha had no clue what he'd say in response. Things just kept on changing—the knowledge that he could open up, even this much, to Sesshoumaru was a massive shift in itself.

"I think you're far too attached to humans," Sesshoumaru replied quietly, "and that it is not so hard for me to understand your thoughts." When Inuyasha looked at him wordlessly, the older youkai reached out and touched two fingers to the hilt of the Tetsusaiga at his hip. The silence in the blade, the lack of so much as a shudder in its sheath from the light touch confirmed what he'd realised at the stream that day. Tetsusaiga had accepted him. But the blade's barrier was based on the heart's capacity to love humans. When Inuyasha had first drawn the blade, it too had resisted him. Not to the extent that it had repelled Sesshoumaru, but enough. He hadn't been able to release it from its stone cradle. Did this silence of the barrier mean that Sesshoumaru had accepted humans? His admission almost seemed to prove it.

Unable to take his eyes off the sight, Inuyasha felt his mouth turn down slightly at the edges. "I wish it still zapped you," he admitted without a trace of guilt. "How am I supposed to go with you now, knowing you might steal the Tetsusaiga while I'm sleeping?"

The youkai lord blinked once, his head tilting just slightly at his words. It was his turn to calculate the weight of the meaning behind them, and take the risk of misinterpreting them. Closing his eyes briefly, bringing the streaked markings across his eyelids into sharp relief, Sesshoumaru's mouth twitched at the corners. "I believe you will simply have to trust me," he said, his tone almost dry. "Or at least trust that I would kill you in an honourable manner before making the sword my own."

That pulled a laugh from the hanyou. "That's more like it," he said with a snort, shaking his head. "Now, you want to tell me why we're sitting in a tree like a couple of lovebirds, instead of looking for Rin?"

"Because you insisted on clinging to this branch like a feral cat," was the pointed reply. "And you reeked of misery. I grew curious. I had thought there was no one left here to cause you such pain." Before Inuyasha could reply to the disturbing admission, his brother dropped from the branch, his heavy mane settling around him like a mantle as he landed on the ground with a light footstep. Inuyasha peered down at him with a slight frown.

"Feral cat? You're the one with markings that look like whiskers."

Lifting one eyebrow, Sesshoumaru spun and slammed his fist into the base of the tree. Something cracked. Then as the tree shed just about every leaf on its boughs, the hanyou swore and leapt down to earth. "You crazy asshole! I liked that tree!" He complained as he saw the huge fissure in the wood his brother's fist had created. "If it dies, I swear to God I'm gonna rip you a new one. . ." But the threat was markedly lacking sincerity, and might have been called weak to anyone who might have overheard. Because as he'd spoken, Sesshoumaru had inspected his knuckles with a surprised frown, finding blood on them. "Huh. Yeah, I forgot to tell you. Kaede used to sit here and pray with the kids. Guess some of that priestess juice soaked into the tree." Resisting the urge to cackle at the annoyed youkai, he stepped forward and gripped his fingers, pulling the injured hand down so he could get a look at it. "Ugh, holy priestess splinters, Sesshoumaru. They're gonna sting."

Eyeing him, Sesshoumaru blew out a quick breath. "Actually," he said shortly, "they will poison me. Get them out."

Inuyasha bristled. "You get them out, tree-killer! Besides, the only decent way to get them out is with your teeth, everyone knows that."

"Why is that relevant to this conversation?"

What? "Because I'm not sucking on your hand, you lunatic!" Why was he having this conversation? Was Sesshoumaru being deliberately stupid about this, or did he really just not get it? Then again, he admitted to himself, the bastard had always been kind of weird about personal space. Was it a dog thing? Or just a youkai thing? Or, god help him, maybe it was just a Sesshoumaru thing. Frowning speculatively, he watched as the youkai in question withdrew his hand, blinking at the blood welling in the wounds, and the splinters caught within like they were something foreign. Then again, this guy didn't exactly bleed often. What a princess. Rolling his eyes, he held out his hand with a long-suffering sigh. "Fine, give it here."

"You've made your feelings on the matter clear," was the cold reply, as his brother turned away. "You are far too human, Inuyasha."

"No shit," he shot back, not about to let that become an insult. "Who's to blame there? You treated me like I was so much garbage since day one. The old man was dead, my mother didn't know much—fuck it. I don't even need to explain it to you, you sulky bastard. Just gimme your damn hand before I rip it off." His temper quickly turning foul, he jumped in front of Sesshoumaru, snatched up his hand, and pressed his mouth to the wound.

He was rougher than he needed to be, putting the sudden tension in his brother down to that. Forcefully gentling the pressure, he let his hackles relax and stared at the stripes curving around his brother's wrist like they were something fascinating, while his tongue sought the foreign wooden shards buried just beneath the skin. This was by far the fruitiest thing he'd ever done, he thought, the knowledge curling through his mind as he swept his tongue over the wound. Anyone walking by would see him to all appearances kissing Sesshoumaru's hand, long fingers clutched loosely in his own. How embarrassing.

Well, no, he amended. The naked thing in the stream had been pretty bad. Seeking the sharp edge of a splinter, he nuzzled his mouth closer to it, his teeth closing on the tiny edge with blind precision. The fingers in his twitched, but he ignored it as he drew his head back, turning to the side to spit the offending piece of wood to the ground. One down. Tasting charged blood in his mouth, he wiped his lips and ran his tongue over his teeth, shooting Sesshoumaru a curious look. "Hey—your eyes are turning red." It was true; crimson was bleeding into the whites of his eyes, and the gold that matched his own was darkening into something else. It was turning almost blue. Was he going to transform? Youki was rolling off him in waves, prickling the hairs on the back of Inuyasha's neck in response.

"A mere minor reaction to the intrusion of miko powers in my bloodstream," he said smoothly. "It is of no consequence." Still, the colours didn't fade any, and the power emanating from him was actually beginning to sing low in Inuyasha's ears. Bothered, the hanyou lowered his head once more, noting that the magenta stripes on that pale wrist were losing their sweeping curve, becoming rougher, wider. Closing his eyes, he fixed his lips over the next piece of wood, tongue curling over it in an exploratory sweep. It was in deep, he realised with an annoyed spark. Nipping the skin around it, he sucked hard, hoping to draw it out a little. Above him, a guttural sound left his brother. He ignored it, wondering that if he prolonged this any, would he soon be holding a paw? It was obvious Sesshoumaru was having youki issues, trying to overcompensate for the polar opposite in his power. Man, how hard had Kaede prayed at that tree for it to be bothering a daiyoukai like this? Then again, maybe it didn't matter how strong it was—he himself remembered the flare of his own youki when Kikyou's arrow had punched through his ribcage, entering his heart. If it hadn't been a sealing arrow, he would have transformed on the spot, he knew that. Everything just rebelled instinctively. The idea of low-level power like that becoming a poison wasn't hard to believe.

Sighing inwardly, he closed his teeth on the second splinter and pulled it out. Maybe he did act too human for a hanyou. Half of him was still youkai, after all. Spitting his prize to the ground, he licked his lips and raised his eyes to see how Sesshoumaru was faring. "That's it, I think. . .oh hey, you totally fanged yourself." The lengthening of his incisor teeth during that brief spike of youki had caused the tooth to prick the fragile skin of Sesshoumaru's lower lip, a deep red bead of blood welling there. "Get it together," he muttered with a slight head shake, reaching up to thumb away the evidence. "Even I don't do shit like that when I transform."

His thumb was already back in his mouth before he realised the strangeness of what he'd just done. Sesshoumaru's eyebrows had risen marginally skyward, but he didn't comment immediately. Frozen, with the tang of youki-soaked blood still rolling over his tongue, Inuyasha tried to think of the best way to backpedal his way out of the situation. His ears flattened to his head as the seconds stretched, and he began to feel more and more mortified. What the hell? He growled at himself. Touching his brother's mouth? Shit, he was still holding his hand like a girl. Springing away, a miserable flush cresting his cheeks, he scowled and turned to collect his clothes from the base of the tree. Suddenly he felt strangely naked. Yanking the shirt and his haori on, grateful for the encroaching darkness, he tucked some of the dried meat Hina had left for him into his sleeve and tugged his hair out of his collar. Yet again, he thought moodily, the insanity that only Sesshoumaru can summon from him rears its creepy head. What was it about the bastard that made him feel like it was okay to do completely random, touchy things like that, and not expect to get a claw to the face?

The knowledge that Sesshoumaru had often done the same?

Probably.

He was fiddling with the prayer beads when he felt a firm tug on his left ear. Not enough to hurt, but a definite squeeze as the furred point was tugged back upward. Biting back a sound, he spun around to stare at Sesshoumaru—but he was halfway down the road. Unsure, he raised one hand to his ear, swivelling them slightly. What. . .

"Are you coming?" The command in his imperious voice was obvious, making it less of a question and more of a hurry up. Blinking, Inuyasha lowered his hand slowly, trying not to look as mystified as he felt.

Then with an inner shrug, his ears pricked up and he started down the road after his brother.

Why not.

 


Chapter 12: Instinct

"So. . .no sleep, huh. Not that I'm complaining about not having slept in two days, and now we're walking in the dark and I just stepped on a frog."

"You stepped on a frog."

"Yeah. Poor bastard's stuck between my toes."

Sesshoumaru slowed his pace and cast him a regal look over one shoulder. In the moonlight, his pale colouring made him look like a ghost with reflective eyes. "Clean yourself off," he advised, tugging his sleeve over his wrist. "I thought I scented something."

Naturally, he doesn't mention it, Inuyasha thought, pissy with the idea that his brother might have thought it was just his bad hygiene. Finding a decent patch of grass just off their trail over the open countryside, he set about repeatedly wiping guts off his foot. Casting his eye about for water, he spotted a muddy-looking puddle and hobbled over to swish his foot around in it. It would have been almost funny if he hadn't been the one to do it, he thought tiredly, yawning and wiping his watery eyes. "So, remind me again why we're not panicking about Rin?"

"Jaken and Ah-Un are with her," was the curt reply. "They know the consequences if anything should happen." There was little doubt in the hanyou's mind exactly what consequences Sesshoumaru was referring to. "In addition, your time spent with her should be worth something."

At face value, it was a compliment to his skills. Snorting softly, the hanyou shook his head. "I taught her how to survive on her own," he said flatly. "But up against a dangerous youkai? If she's got nowhere to run or hide, she's still just another dead human kid. Even I can't turn her into a hanyou—and that's what kept me alive. I can't turn her into some kind of one-brat army. She doesn't even have the spirit for it." Facts were facts, in his head. He wasn't some stupid idealist that thought that a positive outlook and determination could get you through a bad situation. It took brute strength, and more often than not, a really sharp sword. But the more he thought on that, the stronger that irritating twist of unease in his stomach became. Could the kid actually have gotten herself in that much trouble? The toad had a stick that breathed fire, sure, but it wasn't really a threat to anything with half a brain. The dragon, well, he didn't really know. It was just another dumb youkai beast of burden.

Glancing up, a little angry for talking up the situation and worrying himself, Inuyasha suddenly stilled as his eyes met Sesshoumaru's.

"If your words are true, you may be more useless than I first surmised," the youkai said coldly. There was a layer of ice that seemed to crawl over the hanyou's skin as their eyes remained locked, and he felt the unfair bruise of his brother's words. Wordless, he stared, waited, but nothing further came from him. There was just the stiff set of the youkai lord's shoulders, the raised and regal tilt of his head, and those chilling eyes. Silent, Sesshoumaru then turned and continued his path, leaving Inuyasha frozen in more ways than one.

What. . .what the hell. . .

Was Sesshoumaru going to blame him if anything happened? This was shit! The bastard had to know that he couldn't—couldn't—

Gazing ahead at his brother, his fists slowly clenched, and he started after him, bristling with anger. "You asshole," he bit out. "So I'm the easy target, right? Anything goes wrong, blame Inuyasha. Fine. But fuck you, Sesshoumaru. Useless? You want useless, take a look in the fucking mirror; you can't even keep track of one goddamn human girl." Jaw clenched, eyes blazing, he spat the words at his brother's back like darts, too angry to even think about tempering his words. This was just too perfect. He knew it wouldn't last. The only thing under the surface of Sesshoumaru's so-called change of heart was just another set of circumstances to look down on him for. Well he could go to hell. Once again, all it came down to was Rin. He didn't know what she'd done to win Sesshoumaru over like she had, but facts were that she meant a hell of a lot more to the bastard than he could, now or ever. When it really came down to it, Rin was the only creature with human blood the daiyoukai could bring himself to stand.

As if to prove it, Sesshoumaru whipped around, his expression darkening with fury. "Watch your mouth, hanyou."

Hanyou. A word that had always dripped disdain when spoken from his brother's lips. Inuyasha laughed, once. "Sure," he agreed easily, his eyes hard. "Whatever. See you around." With that, he changed direction and split his path from his brother's, heading out into the long grass covering the field. Head down, hackles up, he shoved aside the long stalks that barred his path and got the hell out of there. The new moon was one night away, anyhow, he reasoned stiffly. It was stupid in the first place to just take off, whereabouts unknown, because of some stupid whim. The others in the village would be wondering where he got to, probably. He wouldn't be adding anything new to the search for Rin—nothing Sesshoumaru didn't already have in spades. Shit. Hanyou.

Inuyasha had said before, that even a stupid hanyou wouldn't go chasing after a kick in the face. But that was exactly what he'd done, in the end.

He made the mistake of looking back, from halfway across the field. Just a glare, a mutinous glance that said exactly what he thought of his brother. A glare that crumpled into confused frustration when instead of a proud youkai, he saw something that for a moment, he couldn't reconcile with his cold half-brother.

Eyes strangely fixed, Sesshoumaru's gaze seemed to blindly search the sudden expanse of distance between them, like he didn't know how it had gotten there. The anger was gone from his expression; his malevolent aura vanished. By his sides, his fingers twitched, his lips parted, but instead of words there was just a soft exhale of breath, and his head lowered almost imperceptibly. Then it was gone, and he was turning away. It dawned on Inuyasha that as much as he didn't want to see the discord written all over his brother's pale features, it seemed like he couldn't help but read him that much more clearly, these days.

Inuyasha realised then that he just might be a complete sucker.

"Oh, goddamn it," he muttered in disgust, raking an agitated hand through his hair. This was in no way going to benefit his mental state. Turning back, he stomped angrily back to his frozen brother, pissed off, hurt, and more than a little angry with himself. "Let's just find Rin. You can apologise later." The words were sharp and caustic, and the hand that gripped Sesshoumaru's pale wrist and tugged him into motion was rough. It was obvious now that despite the fear-driven protection from Jaken and the dragon Sesshoumaru knew Rin would have, he was worried. Since it was pretty much impossible for him to admit it, maybe he'd just lashed out. It wasn't so crazy to think of—hell, Inuyasha did a bit of that himself. It didn't change anything, though. They were going to find Rin, and after that, he'd take off. He'd been kicked in the face once too often.

"Are you going to release me?" Even Sesshoumaru's words were lacking his earlier fury, like it had all drained off and vanished. "Or do you plan to persist in dragging me behind you like—" The youkai lord didn't even get to finish before Inuyasha released his wrist, eyes staring straight ahead, expression flat and unforgiving. Behind him, he heard the shifting sounds of sudden movement, but he ignored it.

He just ignored everything.

Another hour passed in complete silence as they trekked through the countryside, their path lit only by the weak moonlight and their own sharp eyes. Sesshoumaru had drawn even with him in pace a while ago, his golden eyes sliding to the side when he thought Inuyasha couldn't see. There seemed to be something agitated about the way his eyes kept returning, as if he didn't know exactly what he was looking at anymore, and couldn't figure it out. Was his refusal to acknowledge him that annoying? Probably, Inuyasha thought nastily, considering he was accustomed to being treated like the centre of the universe. Served him right. The thing was, he knew if he spoke he'd end up spilling way more than he intended to ever let his bastard brother know about. Why give Sesshoumaru more weapons to stab him in the back with? Knowing the extent of the damage his words had caused—that would just make him look like a pussy if the bastard knew. Inuyasha shouldn't even care anyway.

Except, a traitorous voice taunted in the back of his head, you're too soft not to. Weak little hanyou boy, you're still just the dirty-faced child in the forest, asking if it's okay not to hate him.

Mouth compressed into a severe line, he willed his ears to remain pricked and alert, despite his instinct to flatten them to his skull. He just had to find Rin, and go. Just to make sure it couldn't have been his fault.

It couldn't be his fault.

But maybe, he found himself thinking, if she hadn't gotten so damn attached to him. . .she wouldn't have come back to visit. The thought bothered him more than he wanted to admit. Lifting his head, straightening, he shook off the heavy thoughts and drew in a long breath, seeking to find to resolve. What he met with, the scent floating on the night breeze, stopped him dead.

The wind carried the scent of youkai blood, drenched in the familiar feral musk of a dragon.

Rin's dragon.

"Oh, no," whispered Inuyasha.

The change in Sesshoumaru was incredible. Eyes blazing as the heavy scent of his dragon's blood hit him, his youki exploded around him like a storm. Cursing, Inuyasha leapt back, but a clawed hand shot out and snatched him back by his collar, reeling him straight into the crackling red aura of raw youki. Striking his unarmoured chest, Inuyasha gripped the edges of Sesshoumaru's kimono and stared up at him in shock. He only caught a glance of a fury-twisted mouth and lengthening teeth before both their forms condensed into light, and shot high into the sky.

Wherever his heart was in this form, it was pounding hard enough to burst. Shapeless yet still aware, Inuyasha knew he'd never get used to travelling like this. Last time he'd been badly injured and passed out halfway; this time he was wide awake and something short of horrified. The world rushed by beneath his eyeless sight, surrounded in the protective cocoon of Sesshoumaru's power as they blazed a trail through the stars, hunting down the scent of death. That's what it was, the hanyou thought with a sick pang. Nothing lost that much blood and lived. It was old blood, cold blood, and it meant that maybe Inuyasha had been useless, after all.

Was that why he'd been brought along? He thought suddenly, wildly. If Rin was dead, Tenseiga couldn't revive her again. They know the consequences. . . She meant that much to Sesshoumaru.

But if she was dead, he might just accept those consequences.

His thoughts were forgotten as they abruptly dropped from the sky, plummeting and transforming so fast Inuyasha barely had time to find his feet –literally- before he dropped at a run straight out onto a flat cliff-top, where two dead youkai lay tangled in a pool of congealed, sticky blood.

A snake youkai, coiled loosely about a two-headed dragon. . .or what used to be one. Punctured all over, one head missing, the other firmly wedged between the dislocated jaws of the massive serpent, they were frozen in a tableau of death.

Inuyasha felt the faint flutter of fear sour into dread. "Oh, shit," he whispered, too low for his brother to hear. Oh god, where the fuck was Rin? Inside that thing, that goddamn snake? Turning to Sesshoumaru, he saw only rigid control superimposed over animal rage. The hanyou turned back and forced his feet into action, heading for the ruined carcass of the dragon. He'd pull it out and go in there after her if he had to—no way was he gonna let that be her grave.

"Sesshoumaru-sama?" A trembling voice said from behind the youkai. "S-sesshoumaru-sama!"

Inuyasha stopped.

He'd know that voice anywhere. Rin stumbled out from her gory hiding place, blood splashed up one side of her face and down her arm; not hers. Dragging an unconscious Jaken by one leg, she eventually lit eyes on them both and released the imp in favour of running straight to her guardian. "Sesshoumaru-sama, I knew you'd come!" She cried, losing her respectful composure for the first time since Inuyasha had met her, barrelling straight into the youkai lord's legs and slinging her arms around them. "I waited and waited, and I hid because Inuyasha said blood lures things—a-and I'm sorry, Sesshoumaru-sama! Ah-Un is dead, and it's because of me! I'm so sorry!" Sobbing unashamedly, her little hands clenched in the loose silk of his hakama, Rin apologised to Sesshoumaru for surviving the attack. Chest constricting at the sight, Inuyasha looked away.

"Ah-Un was protecting you," Sesshoumaru said quietly, one hand settling on the top of her head, smoothing over the blood-stiffened locks of hair. "As I had ordered. Do not think this is your fault." While the girl continued to cry, Inuyasha walked away from the pair to inspect the remains of the battle. He felt like he shouldn't be watching the tiny reunion. From the way the ground was stirred up, and the colouring of the snake youkai, it had been nesting nearby, camouflaged. Likely they'd landed on the flat rock of the cliff to rest, or relieve themselves, and it had struck. Over twenty feet long, wide enough dislocate its jaws and try to swallow a lesser dragon whole, it was a hell of a youkai. Shit, he was really starting to hate snakes. It was probable the dragon had died from the venom long before it had begun to be devoured from the head down. Yet. . .

The serpent was dead. The dragon must have unleashed some kind of attack, but there were no wounds he could see. Confused, Inuyasha skirted his way around the other side of the youkai, where Rin had been hiding—and stopped dead.

"Holy fuck."

There was a stick—more like a branch, really—and it was shoved halfway into the eye-socket of the snake. He hadn't seen it with the dragon in the way. Disbelieving what his eyes clearly saw, he gripped the stick and hauled it out. Three feet of gore-covered wood emerged before it came free. Three goddamn feet of a thin branch had been lodged deep in that snake's head; into its brain. Eyes wide and flickering with shock, he slowly turned to look at the little blood-spattered girl. "Rin?"

Rubbing her eyes, she sniffled and seemed to really see him for the first time. Then her eyes swung to the stick. "Was that what you meant, Inuyasha? It was the only soft place I could find."

Soft place. . . The lesson rushed back to him. Stab it somewhere vulnerable. Avoid hard plates and scales. Attack like you'll die if you don't use your last ounce of strength. Swallowing with difficulty, he looked back to the snake, and the dragon half-jammed in its mouth. Rin had to have waited for it to fill its mouth, crawled onto the dragon's corpse, reared up and rammed that branch home straight through the serpent's right eye. The sheer impossibility of it, and the knowledge that he'd taught her to do it, rocked him on his feet. She could have been killed—it was too reckless—

—and exactly what he would have done in her place.

Holy god, Rin had killed a youkai.

And he'd taught her how.

"Guess I'm good for something after all," Inuyasha said, a little floored. "I don't know how you worked up the guts or the muscle to punch that stick through its eye, but you saved the toad and your own ass when you did it." Watching her uncertain expression melt into a trembling smile, he tossed the stick away and knelt down just as she came ambling over to him. His mouth kicked up at the corner in a crooked smile. "So, wanted to see me that badly, huh? Didn't expect you to go on the warpath just to make sure of it, but—hey, hey, quit with the crying," he said gruffly, wiping her face and grimacing as the moisture stirred the dried blood on her cheek. Sniffling wetly, Rin nodded and rubbed at her eyes.

"I'm sorry," she said sadly, "it's just that Ah-Un is behind you—"

Oh. "Shit," he muttered, and pulled her up into his arms. "Sorry, kid. C'mon, you don't need to look at that." Ignoring her blood-laden scent as it surrounded him, he carried her down alongside the length of the snake, shooting a pointed look at his brother. Or rather, his brother's sword. He received a long look, and a small nod in reply. Drawing Toukijin first, Sesshoumaru slit open the side of the snake's mouth, reached inside, and calmly removed the severed head of the dragon. Then, with a yank of the tail, he pulled the carcass free. Making sure Rin's face was pressed into his hair as he observed, Inuyasha watched with rapt curiosity as his brother lined up the body and the second head, and drew Tenseiga with a singing note of metal sliding free.

It was then that Sesshoumaru paused, his eyes settling on the sword like it displeased him. Then, with a clear throb of power, the blade seemed to come to life somehow, though it never changed form. It was just a pulse, the way Tetsusaiga did sometimes. With a graceful swing, the youkai lord cut through some foe visible only to him, and suddenly the dragon's flanks were trembling, swelling with a long breath. The punctures were gone, the head was reattached.

It was alive.

Inuyasha was so full of awe at the sight, he didn't even notice the sudden shudder of the serpent's body until the tail swung straight at him.

He barely had time to turn, to shield Rin from the impact. But it was as the hanyou did that he realised he was on the precipice of the cliff. Too far, he thought blankly, as the tail slammed brutally into his back, sending them both over the cliff.

Death drop. Let the kid go. Save yourself. Grab the edge.

The thoughts were instinctive, primal, flashing through his head in the instant that the impact hurtled them out into the darkness of mid-air, too far, too far for them both to survive.

But there was only one of them that really mattered. Inuyasha knew that there was no other choice. He closed his eyes as a lifetime of memories burned out into clear, steely resolve.

There were worse ways to go.

Inuyasha opened his eyes.

Twisting in a move that no human could accomplish, Inuyasha grabbed the girl and threw her, as hard as he could. Tossed her high in the air, screaming, back across the drop and hard onto safe ground.

Then Inuyasha fell, wide-eyed at the stars above.

And Sesshoumaru jumped after him.

It was too fast for transforming, for thought, for anything other than instinct. Inuyasha saw the white shape plummet with him into the dark drop, saw an expression raw and open with white-faced resolve the instant before arms grabbed him, twisted him, and they slammed into the craggy cliff wall with Sesshoumaru taking the full impact. Blood spattered Inuyasha's cheek, and a sound of pain might have touched his ears, but he couldn't see anything but white, white—

The arms were like iron around him, as they dropped in a full, seemingly endless freefall to the hard bedrock below. Again, a twist of lithe power, blind and dizzying, and Inuyasha was staring at the sky as they slammed into the ground.

Crying out with breathless agony, bile rose in the back of the hanyou's throat, choking him for an instant, and everything began to grey out. But the arms that had held him in place from behind were slipping limply away from his stomach, and something like terror ripped through his pain-wracked body, adrenaline chasing off the encroaching darkness in his head. Groaning, he rolled to the side, off his brother's body. Sesshoumaru didn't move. Inuyasha dragged himself upright, ignoring the dark-bright spots circling his vision, and reached out to place the palm of his hand over his youkai brother's heart.

He couldn't tell, he couldn't—

Realising he was shaking, he lowered his ear to Sesshoumaru's chest instead, listening to the muted heartbeat there, his nose dull with the scent of blood. Not dead. If he wasn't dead, he couldn't die. Not from that. Oh, shit. Crawling up to run a hand beneath the dishevelled hair fanned across the stone, he felt his way up the warm nape of Sesshoumaru's neck, over the curve of his skull as he searched for blood. The boneless slide of his brother's face into the palm of Inuyasha's hand as he drew away might have been the most frightening thing the hanyou had ever witnessed. He hung there a moment, frozen and staring with wavering vision at the bead of blood that ran from Sesshoumaru's nose, pooling in the hanyou's palm as it completed its journey over the pale curve of the youkai's cheek.

Sesshoumaru was unconscious.

Sesshoumaru was hurt.

Because he'd jumped over that cliff after him, even when he knew Rin was safe. He'd used his body as a wall of flesh and muscle between him and the unforgiving ground. There was no mistaking that snap and arch of his body the moment Sesshoumaru had gotten a hold of him. He'd used it himself more than once, when the frailty of his friends' bodies had startled him into blind action; he'd used his body as a stronger shield. But that he had. . .what the fuck had that arrogant bastard been thinking? No one walked away from a drop like that! Not even a daiyoukai. Not when he was unarmoured, when he was forsaking all defense just to catch Inuyasha in time. It might not have killed him, but the crunch and slam of the impact, doubled by the hanyou's weight above and the stone below. . .

"Are you stupid?" Inuyasha whispered, gritting his teeth against the strange ache in his throat. "No one does that kind of thing." Not for me. Lowering Sesshoumaru back to the ground with careful hands, he found the world spinning away from him strangely, darkness encroaching and retreating like the waves of the ocean. It occurred to him then that he wasn't quite all right, himself. His ribcage and back throbbed in agony, and one of his ears was torn and bleeding down the side of his face. It was his own goddamn blood he'd smelled, not his brother's. Painful relief flooded him and he laughed almost drunkenly, sliding a hand over his face. Shit. Sesshoumaru takes a swan dive over a cliff and doesn't even scratch, and he gets a free mattress to land on and bleeds like a stuck pig. Inuyasha laughed until tears swam in his eyes, and he didn't even bother to think about why they remained long after his mirth had died.

Dragging in a long breath, he tipped his head to squint up at the precipice of the cliff, where a dark head was carefully peering down, unable to see in the dark but assured in her faith in Sesshoumaru that both of them were absolutely fine. "Rin, we're okay," he lied up at the blurred shape. "Stupid snake thing was just in its death throes, probably tried to regenerate after I pulled that stick out. It's dead, right?"

"Right," she called down to him, unperturbed. "Kind of like how Jaken-sama kicks air in his sleep. I hurt my knees when I landed but you saved me so I'm not going to cry or anything, Inuyasha. Should I make a camp tonight?" There was a pause, and then, "it's very late and Jaken-sama is still sleeping after he hit his head. I'll take Ah-Un and make a camp, okay? We good?"

Against all the pain and turmoil rocketing through his body, Inuyasha still managed to huff one more laugh. "We're good," he called up to her. "I've uh, I've hurt my foot, so we'll come up when it's healed. Don't worry about us." Hoping to hell she wouldn't question why Sesshoumaru would wait if Inuyasha was the one injured, he listened for the sounds of her gathering up the newly-revived dragon and the toad. She bought it. Well, he reflected, the kid thought Sesshoumaru was some kind of benevolent force of good, so it didn't really surprise him that she was so damn gullible. It served his purposes anyway; he didn't want to deal with Rin if she got a good look at her beloved Sesshoumaru-sama now.

Unwillingly, Inuyasha cast his swimming gaze back to his brother, twisting his hips so he could painfully drag himself closer to his side. Everything abruptly spun and wobbled then, and with a soft sound the hanyou collapsed for a moment beside Sesshoumaru's arm, his cheek pillowed by the spread silk of one wide sleeve. Breathing in short puffs, he willed the sudden, oily bout of nausea back before it made even more of a mess. Had he hit his head? He'd smashed his ear pretty good, he knew that. . .there was something to do with balance there, but damned if he could remember. So he just lay there, golden eyes heavily lidded and sick with pain and vertigo combined. He stared unseeingly into the blanket of hair around him, and the dirt-dusted silk that covered Sesshoumaru's side.

Reaching out unsteadily, he brushed at it, and then paused as the warmth from the skin beneath soaked into his hand. He'd almost expected his brother to feel cool, like he was made of ice. But he was flesh and blood, and warm like living beings were meant to be. Unsure why it surprised him, he pressed lightly, his fingers finding the slope of muscle and shallow dip of his ribs, counting down the rigid indents. Must really be out of it, he decided with absent concern, to not even flinch.

Bothered again, he pushed himself up with aching arms and braced himself on his knees, and looked down into Sesshoumaru's face.

The blood annoyed him. It was only a trickle from one nostril, but the contrast it made against that pale skin was shocking. Leaning in slightly, Inuyasha bit his lip in hesitation, then shrugged to himself and wiped it away with his sleeve. His knuckles accidentally ghosted over Sesshoumaru's cheek then, and he stopped with a strange pang. That the hanyou could reach out and do something like this, touch him so freely and find no response. . .it was unnatural. His eyes flickered over the sleeping features below him, taking in the curves of jaw and mouth and nose, the black lashes resting beneath red-streaked eyelids and an indigo crescent moon he didn't understand. Holding his breath, Inuyasha reached out carefully, slowly, and touched one fingertip lightly to the symbol. It was warm, like the rest of his skin.

He was pretty sure that if Sesshoumaru was awake he'd probably be dead by now, or at least be missing a few fingers. Feeling like he was breaking some unspoken law by so much as touching his face, Inuyasha drew back suddenly, not sure why he felt so guilty. It was only—it was just curiosity. The same stupid fascination people had with his ears, that was all. But the feeling didn't fade until he drew away, glancing off into the darkness with one pricked ear, the other limp and sagging from the tear to the fragile tissue.

"You should probably wake up soon," he told his brother without looking at him, pulling his knees up to his chest. Shit, that made his back hurt. "I don't think I can haul you anywhere, and somehow I don't think you want Rin and the toad to see you so messed up. I should get them—this is your own fault, you know. Your own stupid fault for jumping after me. I don't know why you did it, but hell if I'm going to ask like it matters one way or the other. You'd never tell me the truth, besides."

There was no reply from the unconscious youkai, not that Inuyasha expected one. His mouth pulled into an unhappy scowl. "You'd better not die. I'll totally steal your swords. Maybe even your clothes. And I'll bury you in cat territory. That place is like one big litter box." This time the silence just made him angry, made him helpless. What if he never woke up? Don't be an idiot, he snarled at himself silently. You shouldn't even give a shit anyway, right? The plan was to leave as soon as Rin had been found. Well, here's the fucking chance. Leave.

Turning he glared at the prone form beside him, then swore softly. Leave? "Yeah, right."

Reaching out, Inuyasha spread one palm over his brother's heart, felt the steady cadence there, and closed his eyes. He shouldn't be so freaked out, he knew. You couldn't kill Sesshoumaru that easily. If there was one thing he could say about his bastard older brother, it was that he could take a hit and still come up swinging. Then probably insult your mother, as he seemed to like doing. He was tough.

He was also the only family Inuyasha had.

The—the only anything Inuyasha had.

And he'd just saved Inuyasha's life.

Letting out a shuddering breath, he felt the truth of that admission wash over him leaving his head feeling light and his chest constricted. His strength crumbling, his arms turning to rubber, the hanyou pulled back dizzily, but lost his battle with vertigo and felt his cheek thump down awkwardly on Sesshoumaru's stomach, just as the world flew from his grasp and winked out of sight.

Maybe. . .he'd just rest a minute. Just. . .until he woke up.

 


 

Sesshoumaru's eyes opened to the night sky above, and a bone-deep ache in his whole body. Perhaps he'd slightly overestimated his own resilience, this time. Feeling a warm pressure against his stomach, he raised himself up slightly until his eyes lit on Inuyasha.

Inuyasha, who wasn't moving.

He was breathing evenly, but the blood crusted down the side of his face said he wasn't entirely uninjured. Clenching his jaw against the grind of broken ribs, he pulled himself upright, panting lightly at the strain. This level of injury was unacceptable. The last time he'd taken a blow so heavy. . .well, Inuyasha had caused that, too. Under entirely different circumstances.

Now, instead of a silent human girl to tend him, he found his half-breed brother collapsed bonelessly in his lap. He would not have survived the fall alone. Reaching down, Sesshoumaru's expression did not change as he turned Inuyasha over, pulling his body closer to inspect the damage. It wouldn't do if his efforts had been in vain. Recalling the sight of that flash of red plummeting downward, the choking moment of realisation, of I won't allow it, and then the blur of his own movement as he leapt down into the abyss. It had been an impulsive, uncalculated move. Completely unlike him. However, he acknowledged that when it came to his foolish, stubborn half-brother, it almost seemed normal to behave on instinct alone. Perhaps he was picking up unhealthy habits.

Cradling Inuyasha in one arm, he slid his palm over the hanyou's cheek, underneath the heavy shock of white hair that spilled over his forehead, stiff and matted with his own blood. Satisfied there was no head wound, merely a ragged and abused ear, he allowed his fingers to travel back over the paler-than-normal planes of Inuyasha's face, stroking over the curve of one dark eyebrow, a sweat-damp cheekbone, the corner of parted lips as air escaped them in soft puffs.

So quiet, so unwillingly trusting in sleep. Sesshoumaru reflected upon the difference between the loud and boastful hanyou he'd spent his years detesting with all his being, and the younger brother who lay cradled in his grasp. He could not reconcile the two, and yet, nothing had really changed about the reckless idiot. Perhaps it had merely been his perception that had altered over time. Inuyasha had always displayed an almost suicidal tendency to sacrifice his own safety for the wellbeing of others—the fact that Sesshoumaru himself had just done the same spoke loudly of how things had changed.

Risk his life for Inuyasha? This Inuyasha?

Preposterous.

His eyes remote, he watched almost indifferently as his clawed fingers slid over that parted mouth and the curve of his chin, down to the pulsing blue vein visible in that arched throat. Even a light press of his claws would suffice. . .

Inuyasha's breath hitched then, as dreams swivelled his torn ear of its own accord, and his expression crumpled in pain. Sesshoumaru lowered his mouth to the wounded triangle of fur which was almost comically wilted, and breathed warmly against the injury, allowing the heat to remove some of the sting he was likely feeling even in his senseless sleep. Forgotten, his hand relaxed against the warm pulse beneath his fingertips, and Sesshoumaru decided that to undo his work now would be the height of foolishness.

The youkai lord chose not to dwell on the ease in which he had convinced himself of that.

 


 

Waking up in Sesshoumaru's arms should have been one of those horror moments a person has nightmares about for the rest of their lives. But rising out of the troubled swarm of his dreams and finding himself encased in silk-draped arms and warmth, a mouth breathing comfortingly against his hurt ear and a careful hand curved around the side of his neck. . .it wasn't bad. It was weird, and he briefly wondered if maybe he was hallucinating, but he wasn't as bothered as he thought he probably should be in this situation.

Maybe because it meant Sesshoumaru was okay, if he could be bothered looking after him.

"I knew you had a thing for my ears," he said groggily. "No one can resist their fuzzy allure. You even jumped off a cliff for them. Don't think I didn't realise." He was faintly gratified to feel a quick, hard exhale against his ear—one that might have been a laugh.

"You mustn't be overly injured, if your warped attempt at humour is anything to judge," Sesshoumaru said dryly. "And your absurd ears are of no particular interest to me. Can you sit up, or do I need to persist in supporting you?"

"I think the term is 'cradling me like a girl', Sesshoumaru," he replied with a soft snort, rolling his eyes upward to look his brother in the face. "I'm not the one who recently became the filling for a delicious hanyou-bedrock sandwich. Thanks to some crazy youkai, I've only got a smashed ear and a sore back."

"Your gratitude is overwhelming."

Inuyasha grinned briefly, before his mouth relaxed into a thoughtful curve. "I'm not great with the gratitude," he said after a moment. "But—yeah. I'd be dead now if you hadn't. I'm surprised you aren't, you know. It was a hell of a drop."

Sesshoumaru shrugged. "I had anticipated Tenseiga's intervention, however it chose not to this time. My back broke, but my bones fuse faster than—" He broke off as Inuyasha bolted upright then and tried to struggle out of his grip, but was held in place easily as the scenery spun wildly at his abrupt movement. Groaning, Inuyasha slumped back and threw a hand over his eyes. Sesshoumaru paused, then placed a hand on his brow. "Imbecile. You took a solid blow to the head when you injured your ear. Remain still."

"You—you broke your back?" The hanyou said through gritted teeth, trying to get his nausea under control. "What else?"

"Three ribs, and my skull may have fractured, I'm not certain. I heal much faster than you, Inuyasha. I would not have made the leap if I was as easy to kill as you. I insulated your fall, and slowed it down when I threw us into the cliff wall," Sesshoumaru told him, a trace of irritation in his words. "I did not anticipate that youkai's death throes. Tenseiga's activation so close to its corpse may have triggered something."

Well, that explained it a little better, Inuyasha thought faintly, removing his hand from his eyes. "So you're healed now, right?"

The youkai paused. "More or less," he conceded. "The bones are no longer broken." Which was really an evasive way of saying he was in a fair bit of pain, Inuyasha deduced, unimpressed.

"Why'd you jump?" He finally asked the blunt question. "It's not like you to get yourself messed up for anyone, let alone me. Rin was already heading for the ledge by that point. Don't tell me you've got some new and improved scheme to keep me alive to play a part in."

Sesshoumaru just looked at him.

The silence that stretched in that moment seemed heavy, making the air around them thick and caused Inuyasha's heart to pound harder than usual. He didn't know why. Maybe it was because he was still sprawled in the cradle of Sesshoumaru's legs, the arm around his shoulders the only thing propping him up. Maybe it was the glint of moonlight off the single fang visible between his brother's lips, which were slightly parted now. Or maybe it was the strange light in his eyes as he watched him, a glance that was no longer questing or amused, but some eerie mix of intensity and hesitation as he scanned Inuyasha's face. Finally he blinked, and something shattered between them. The air became air again.

"No," the youkai lord said quietly. "There is no ploy here to manipulate you, Inuyasha. You may leave as freely as you decided to join me."

Inuyasha swallowed. "That doesn't answer the question."

"I have no answer to give." When Inuyasha rolled his eyes at the convenient answer, a clawed hand settled under his chin and jerked his head back to connect their gazes. Sesshoumaru frowned. "It became apparent that your death would not please me," he bit out. "What answer would you find more palatable? That I did have an ulterior motive? I did not."

"It'd make sense," Inuyasha admitted, his mouth turning down unhappily, his scorn dripping away. "Especially since you got so hurt."

"My injuries are not your concern."

"But they're my fault—"

Sesshoumaru snarled at him. An honest to god snarl; one of those threatening, rasping rumbles that emerged from the very back of his throat. "Mind your words, Inuyasha. No one guides my actions. Least of all you." The impact of his words was followed by a stare so icy that the hanyou nearly quailed. Instead, he stiffened, drawing back instinctively to break away from his close proximity to the source. He wasn't scared, he wasn't a fucking coward, he just—

Letting out a low breath, Sesshoumaru released his grip on Inuyasha's chin and leaned down until he buried his nose in the tangled hair of the hanyou's crown. Rubbing his cheek there briefly, almost in apology, he waited until Inuyasha stopped struggling and simply froze. Then, when nothing further happened, he relaxed, just a little.

"I knew I shouldn't have asked," he grumped. "Are you going youkai on me again? Just don't bite me."

"I alarmed you," Sesshoumaru stated, for once using some tact and avoiding the obvious definition for the hanyou's instinctive reaction. "I did not intend to. Inuyasha, you did not force me to go after you. My injuries were the result of my own actions. I am not blaming you." Each statement was careful and precise, as though he was trying to hammer the point home to someone who was a little slower than the norm. Normally Inuyasha would have been offended, but caught in the net of his brother's long limbs like he was, it actually helped.

Tipping his head back again, he squinted until he found the curve of Sesshoumaru's jaw. "I need a bath," he said finally, dismissing the whole thing. "One side of my face is stuck in a frown from all the blood. I feel like a stroke victim."

Sesshoumaru's reply was to lave a single stroke over his bloodied cheek, catching Inuyasha's eye on the process. "Augh, sick! My eye was open, you bastard. You licked my fucking eyeball. That was not the kind of bath I meant, you creepy—stop it!" He yowled as another wet stroke ran along the slope of his nose, then over the corner of his mouth. "God damn it, that one was almost a kiss!" Reaching up, he placed a hand over Sesshoumaru's face and shoved him away, literally crawling to freedom. Collapsing somewhere near his brother's booted feet, Inuyasha let out a mournful sound as the world proved once again that it was in fact made of dough, and decided to sink and rise while he lay there. "I feel sick," he groaned. "I think I'm gonna puke. God shit damn, my back hurts. And my ear hurts. Put me out of my misery."

"I'd like nothing more," Sesshoumaru said stiffly, running a hand through his own hair as he brought himself back into some semblance of order. "However, due to the sheer amount of effort I exerted in keeping you from death's grasp, it would be counterproductive to then kill you. Wretched hanyou."

"Stuck-up youkai," he shot back automatically, his voice muffled through the weight of the hair curtaining a good portion of his slack features. Sour saliva rushed into his mouth, and he swallowed it back desperately. "At least don't let me puke in my own hair." He closed his eyes to concentrate on the task.

Shifting sounds reached his ears, and he felt hands grip the front of his haori. "If it is a choice between your hair or my kimono, you can choke on your own vomit," he was informed regally as he was then hauled into the air, and over a shoulder that felt like a marble fist in his stomach. "Prepare yourself."

"For what—" Inuyasha had time to rasp out, before the world and his own existence condensed into light.

It was as they left the cliff base far below them than Inuyasha decided that maybe ball mode wasn't really that bad after all. Sure, it meant giving up all control of his movement, and Sesshoumaru gave him almost no warning when he used it, but at least when he finally did empty his phantom stomach in that saturating light, he managed to get the majority of it on his brother.

Good times.



Chapter 13: Misinterpretation

"You know, I think I really might have hit my head," Inuyasha mumbled blearily. "I feel weird, and it's not going away. Do you think I hit my head?"

"Your inability to stay silent for more than three seconds does bring head injuries to mind," Sesshoumaru agreed, but Inuyasha thought there was something funny about the way he said it. "Grievous head injuries indeed."

Oh, so he was still mad about the vomiting thing. Tripping on a tussock of grass, Inuyasha wobbled and lurched forward two steps, bringing him accidentally in line with the irate youkai. "Sweet mother of god, you stink," Inuyasha gagged, rubbing his nose to try to dull the acidic stench of his own bile. It saturated a yellow streak down half of Sesshoumaru's back. "Jeez, and I didn't even have anything to eat—"

"That will be quite enough," Sesshoumaru bit out, his expression rigid. "Speak another word on my scent or the manner in which my person was defiled, and I will rip off your jaw. Do you understand?"

Inuyasha stared at him for a moment, his hand slowly falling from his face. That was it? "Aren't you going to, uh. . .hit me or something?" He asked, failing to mute the scepticism in his voice completely. "Or are you gonna just strike when I least suspect it, that kind of thing. I did just kind of paint your back with my stomach juice."

The look his brother shot him was disgusted. "Your short memory is exceeded only by your obscene choice of words," he replied in distaste. "If I decide to retaliate, I assure you, you will be the first to know my plans."

"That's comforting," Inuyasha muttered. Somehow though, he didn't feel overly worried that Sesshoumaru was going to spring some secret vengeance on him while his back was turned. Stuck up, powerful, and violent as he was, sneak attacks had never been his style. Trickery, and taking advantage of opportunity, sure, but in some ways he was almost as forthright as Inuyasha was. Hell, even his attacks were usually preceded with a 'die, Inuyasha' in there somewhere. Despite himself, the hanyou snickered a little. Yeah, Sesshoumaru was anything but sneaky.

It got him thinking, in his sudden pondering mood, if he'd always been a stuck-up youkai lord. Had ever been a dumbass kid eating worms and getting busted for tracking muddy footprints inside? Somehow he couldn't picture it. Bet he was one of those snooty loner types, Inuyasha thought, wrinkling his nose. Someone who wouldn't have given the kid he'd been so much as a second glance. Mulling it over, the hanyou decided that a kid version of Sesshoumaru would have been exactly the type he would have spent his every waking moment tormenting. Probably until the bastard cracked and started bawling.

Glancing up and eyeing the vomit-streaked youkai in front of him, Inuyasha felt his mouth kick up in a faint, almost fond smile.

They didn't speak until they reached the source of the scent they'd been tracking, and Inuyasha found himself staring down at the wide curve of a stream deep enough to bathe in. It was clear enough, and trickled off into a noisy vein somewhere in the reeds where it turned shallow, but recent events that had occurred in water had him hesitating for the briefest of moments. Scrunching his face up, the hanyou sighed and started pulling off his clothes, trying not to wince as the muscles in his back groaned, pain reaching around into his ribs. "Where's a hot spring when I need one," he muttered to himself, rubbing the back of his neck. He was untying his hakama when he paused and shot a look at Sesshoumaru, who seemed at a loss. "It's easier to wash clothes when you're not wearing them, you know."

His piece of casual advice earned him a flat look. Reaching for his obi, Sesshoumaru deftly untied the knot and placed the length of silk at his feet, but froze oddly at the first movement to try and shrug out of the red-patterned white kimono. Then, with a set expression, he jerked the material free of his hakama and pulled both layers off in one sharp movement. It stirred the hair away from Sesshoumaru's back, and with the hanyou's keen eyes it didn't take him long to realise what he was looking at.

From the nape of his neck, blossoming out slowly into an almost diamond shape before vanishing into the white hakama, Sesshoumaru's entire back was one pulpy purple bruise. Hissing in sympathy, Inuyasha stepped closer to get a decent look at it. Shit, no wonder he hadn't kept him slung over that shoulder for long, he thought. The muscles looked like they were tense from the pain, bordering on cramping. And that bruise. . .that was a hell of a lot of bleeding under the skin. Their landing had done that, he thought sickly. Sure the important shit healed, like the bones, but this was. . .

Inuyasha swallowed and straightened up. "So you can bruise, too," he observed with a sudden, interested squint. "Can I poke it?" Reaching out, he hovered one fingertip over the mottled flesh beneath his brother's shoulder blade. He feigned innocence as he was levelled with a glare, only to yelp and stumble back a step as a bundle of white was thrust into his face.

"Clean that."

Inuyasha stared blankly at the outer layer of his brother's kimono for a moment, before he realised what he'd just been ordered to do. "I'm not your laundry woman! Clean your own damn clothes. I warned you I was going to throw up, but did you listen? No, like always, you fucking ignored me, so this is your fault, so you clean it." With that, he balled up the red-white bundle of silk and lobbed it at his brother's head. Just because the bastard had a decent bruise didn't mean Inuyasha was going to roll over obediently.

He caught it, of course. But golden eyes lit with anger for an instant, and suddenly Sesshoumaru was striding stiffly toward him, clothing clenched in one clawed hand. "I believe," he said, his voice deadly, "that you neglected to warn me of your intentions to do away with aiming and simply leak your stomach contents down my back like an infant pup—making this your mess." The clothing was thrust into his stomach, barely padding a well-aimed punch from the fist holding it.

Inuyasha grunted from the solid hit, doubling over briefly and shooting his brother a dirty look, the soiled kimono reflexively caught in his grip. "I didn't ask you to haul me up over your shoulder!"

"That is irrelevant—"

"It's not like I couldn't have climbed out without your help—"

"—in an addled, rambling daze? I see now I should have stayed my mercy and let you pursue such a foolish avenue," Sesshoumaru retorted scathingly. "How imprudent of me to offer you assistance. Should I have also let you fall to your death? Certainly you would have found a way out of that, being the self-reliant hanyou fool you are." Turning away from his brother, the fuming youkai lord stalked back to his original position and removed the rest of his clothing.

Unable to form a decent comeback, and a little perplexed by Sesshoumaru's outburst, Inuyasha petulantly tossed the bundle of material at his brother's feet and yanked off his hakama. "I'm not one of your servants," he said harshly. "Doesn't mean I'm not grateful just because I won't worship the damn ground you walk on." He strode straight into the water, stifling his recoil as the sudden shock of cold hit his heated skin.

"I don't believe I ever asked you to." Refusing to look at Inuyasha, Sesshoumaru bent and grabbed the kimono in one ungraceful movement, his expression tight with strain. His entry into the water was similarly jerky, but the hanyou refused to care. Golden eyes dropping to the inky water, he released a sharp breath and turned away altogether.

For a few long minutes the only sound breaking the silence was the trickle of water over skin and the stuttering song of crickets in the summer night. They'd come out far enough looking for water that he couldn't smell Rin's campfire, or sense the girl and her two youkai. Somehow, it made him very aware of Sesshoumaru at his back.

The longer the silence continued the more uncomfortable Inuyasha became. His pride wouldn't allow him to come out and say anything, however. That was practically giving in. There was nothing wrong with what he'd said, besides; he wasn't one of Sesshoumaru's pathetically grateful entourage, ready to wash his clothes and comb his hair or whatever else he wanted just because he'd given enough of a shit to save his life.

The hanyou glared at the water, seeing nothing but the rippling reflection of the moon looking back at him. Save his life. By his sides, his hands fisted, claws pricking his palms painfully. Okay, he could admit it. Had admitted it. He'd be dead now if Sesshoumaru hadn't jumped after him. For whatever reason he'd done it, facts couldn't be changed. And there Inuyasha was, being an asshole about it.

But what else was he supposed to do? He'd thanked him, which was more than he'd offered most people in the past. Except this was Sesshoumaru, not Miroku or Sango—or, or anyone else. Who the hell knew what had been going through that bastard's head. Just then he was probably thinking he shouldn't have bothered. The thought didn't sit well with him. Ears flicking unconsciously as he pondered the easiest way to smooth things over without compromising his pride, Inuyasha soon found himself growing frustrated with his inability to think of anything. He was a doer, not a thinker. Not that there was anything he could do, either. Why the hell was he even bothering, anyway?

Cursing under his breath, Inuyasha dove beneath the water. Scrubbing at his hair with his bare hands, he decided that cleaning the blood out of the matted mess was good enough to take his mind of the stupidity that was playing 'what's up with the youkai bastard now?' for the hundredth time. Of course, water rushed into his ears and drove him insane, soon forcing him to the surface again to shake it out with such ferocity his entire upper body twisted with the motion. Droplets of water scattered in every direction, and his now-clean hair whipped wildly in the air, slapping painfully against his cheeks and shoulders. His injured ear twinged, but he ignored it.

Behind him, Sesshoumaru growled warningly. "Must you persist in shaking yourself off like a common mongrel?"

Inuyasha turned to see his brother wiping the back of his hand over his cheek, where water had struck him. The hanyou glared and replied with automatic churlishness. "You're hip-deep in a fucking stream and you're at me because you got a few drops of water on your face? If you've got a problem with it, move further away." A voice immediately warned him that inflaming Sesshoumaru's temper now wasn't a great idea, and that he was probably making things worse, but he just couldn't seem to stop himself. The bastard had a way of making Inuyasha feel like his every breath was offending him. It wasn't something he was about to put up with, even after the shitty night his brother had.

The violent splash of disrupted water was his first cue. The hanyou turned to see his irate brother striding through the water toward him and reflexively tensed his body in preparation to deflect a blow—one that never came as instead of striking him, Sesshoumaru grabbed a handful of his hair and began doing. . .something that tugged and pulled on the long strands.

Speechless and bewildered, he allowed his head to be jerked back with the pressure while his mind tried to process just what the hell was being done to him.

Voice tight with quenched anger, Sesshoumaru didn't leave him guessing. "If you haven't even the presence of mind to bind your hair before shaking the water from your limbs, be thankful I am lowering myself long enough to assist you." Punctuating every emphasised word with a sharper-than-necessary tug on his hair, the youkai lord scraped together all the sodden strands and wound them together down his younger brother's back. "Foolish hanyou."

His usual retort flickered briefly in his mind, but for once Inuyasha's lips didn't speak the very thoughts that rose in response to Sesshoumaru's words. In fact, he couldn't really hold onto his annoyance, either. Eyes fixed, Inuyasha just stared down at the water in silence while deft hands tended to the tangled wet nest of his hair. His shoulders drooped. It was in those moments that the hanyou realised he was feeling guilty. He'd expected a punch in the face, or for his brother to tell him to get lost – that he'd had enough of him. But for the first time Sesshoumaru hadn't responded with equal anger. Well, sure, he was pissed. . .but it was different.

Maybe he's just too damn tired to bother, Inuyasha thought briefly, but it didn't seem to fit. Then again, it sure as hell wasn't like him to be so docile. Why couldn't he seem to find his feet around Sesshoumaru these days?

With a final tug on the bottom of his hair, Sesshoumaru released the plaited length and turned away sharply, giving the hanyou no chance to speak. Not that he could have found anything to say, anyway. He just watched his older brother sweep through the water with sharp, pained movements, creating a rippling distance between them even greater than the first.

Safe in the knowledge that Sesshoumaru wouldn't look at him for a while if he could help it, Inuyasha grabbed the woven length hanging down his back and pulled it over his shoulder, studying the heavy braid of wet hair. Which was exactly what he'd done, of course. He'd braided his hair like a girl. Under normal circumstances, Inuyasha was pretty sure he'd be furious with this kind of treatment – from anyone else. Clenching the length in his fist, he eyed the unfettered ends of his hair and thought about unravelling it all. Surely he'd end up with stupid waves in his hair if he left it, anyway. Who the hell wanted to look like a girl?

His jaw clenched briefly, but after a small pause his hand slid away, flicking his hair back behind his shoulder. Thinking too much like this wasn't going to get anyone anywhere, and there was no point in starting another fight when it just seemed stupid now. The whole fucking night had turned to shit, in his opinion. Not that it had ever been great, but—but oh hell, he didn't even know anymore.

"I know I'm kind of an asshole," he heard himself saying clearly, his back to his brother. "But you can be too, so I'm sure as shit not gonna apologise for it." It was as close to a truce as he knew how to offer.

There was an almost surprised silence behind him, as the sound of movement in the water abruptly ceased. Setting his jaw, the hanyou refused to peek, even as his toes curled in the sediment at the bottom of the stream as the silence continued. Then Sesshoumaru released a breath.

"I asked for no apology," he replied, his tone still fraught with irritation. But that was okay, because it wasn't fury, or hate, or disgust. Everyone got irritated with Inuyasha, at one time or another. So at Sesshoumaru's reply, something relaxed a little inside him, as though a fist had loosened inside his chest. Well. Okay then.

"Good, because I'm not apologising," the hanyou said firmly. "So—so there."

"Fine," Sesshoumaru said, his irritation deepening.

Inuyasha fidgeted. "Fine," he agreed.

Definitely annoyed now. "All right then."

Was he trying to have the last word? Inuyasha felt his lip twitch.

"Good."

"Inuyasha—"

He laughed then, turning to see his older brother almost cracking a tooth with the pressure in his clenched jaw. "Don't burst a vein or anything, jeez," he teased, as Sesshoumaru took an aborted step toward him, his golden eyes alight with the burning fuse of his temper. For a moment he just glared lethally at Inuyasha, before closing his eyes for a moment and biting out a term that softened the hanyou's grin.

"Wretched hanyou."

His fang caught the corner of his lower lip as he smiled. "Stuck-up youkai. C'mon, I'm pruning up here. How long does it take to wash puke out of a kimono, anyway?" Swishing through the water, he strode over to his brother's side and pulled the sodden silk from his grasp, searching the material for any stains. Thrusting the cloth under the water, he rubbed it together brutally for a few seconds, knowing it was made of youkai spider-silk and therefore wasn't about to tear under his attention. Pulling it up to examine under the weak moonlight, he repeated the motion a few more times, as to all appearances he enthusiastically did his brother's laundry. Refusing to feel stupid about it –after all, if he left it to Sesshoumaru they'd be there all night, the freaking princess– he finished up in record time, wrung it out decently, and offered it back to the youkai lord, who was staring at him oddly. "Here. Tallying up your tab, you now owe me one apology for earlier and a fight in the near future. It's the going rate for my cleaning skills."

Sesshoumaru's gaze immediately sharpened. "A fight," he repeated guardedly. "I fail to see what manner of reward you class that to be. Do you enjoy pain? How depraved."

Offended, Inuyasha scowled, his ears flicking madly. "I'm not a pervert, damn it! Sorry for finding the idea of beating the daylights out of you appealing."

"Perhaps not depraved, then," was the murmured reply. "But certainly deluded if you think you can defeat me, Inuyasha." Leaning down slightly until they were eye-to-eye, the hanyou caught the glitter of arch amusement hidden in those similar depths. "But if it is what you wish, I can certainly oblige by spreading pieces of your overconfident carcass about the countryside."

Snorting, the hanyou levelled his brother with an amused look. "I know it's good to have goals and everything, Sesshoumaru, but at least keep them a little realistic, okay?" He actually reached out and clapped his shoulder encouragingly. "Less disappointment in the end, you know."

"Blustering idiot," Sesshoumaru growled, eyeing him dangerously. "Fine. On one condition."

Grinning widely, Inuyasha leaned in slightly. "Oh yeah? What's that?"

"Hand to hand. Single combat."

Startled, Inuyasha's smile began to fade. "Wait, you mean. . .no swords?"

Nodding, the youkai lord reached out and clapped him on the shoulder. His mouth curved upward slightly, satisfaction lighting his eyes. "I will completely understand if you would like to use this moment to scream like a woman and beg for a reprieve."

Pissed off and embarrassed, Inuyasha still couldn't hold in his grudging laugh of disbelief. He shook his head, punching his brother in the arm. "If you weren't half crippled right now, I'd beat the shit out of you for that." Then he frowned, pondering. "And you know, if we weren't bare-ass naked in the water. Seriously, why are you so stripy? I don't have any stripes." Suddenly unsure, he twisted and tried to look at his back, just to be sure there hadn't been one or two there hiding all along. Inuyasha paused. "Well, not that I want to look like you."

His brother eyed him with consideration for a long moment, seeming to come to some conclusion. "You do possess those particular physical youkai traits. The markings appear when your youkai side takes over," Sesshoumaru said calmly. "I have seen two on your face, at the very least." Reaching out, he took Inuyasha's face between his hands, his thumbs streaking wet trails along the edges of his cheekbones, just beneath his eyes. "Here. . .and here."

Mystified, Inuyasha reached up and touched the wet lines on his face, trying to picture real youkai markings in their place. With those, he'd look like a pureblood youkai, wouldn't he? Preoccupied by the thought, the hanyou didn't notice the way his hands were covering Sesshoumaru's, effectively holding them against his face. "That's crazy," he breathed. "No one ever told me. What colour are they? Are they like yours? How come I only get one on each side? You've got two. Is—is it because I'm a half-breed?"

"No," Sesshoumaru said, almost sharply. "You inherited the same markings our father had. The only difference of note is the colour; his were blue, while yours are somewhat mauve." The similarity didn't seem to anger his youkai brother the way it might have in the past.

But strangely, Inuyasha looked horrified. "Purple? They're purple? I'd look like a girl!" The idea was mortifying. Had he been snarling and growling and killing things in a manly fashion, and all the while his face had looked like he'd fallen into Sango's makeup bag? This was worse than having no markings at all. Great, he thought, impossibly annoyed. Perfect.

Then he started as Sesshoumaru abruptly gripped his hands and pulled them up to press against the twin stripes on his own cheeks, ignoring the sight of the hanyou's claws so close to his eyes. "And these? Make no mistake, Inuyasha, my markings are indeed a shade of pink. Pink," he repeated, the word almost a snarl. His fangs glinted dangerously. "If you complain about one set of mauve markings that only appear once in a blue moon, I will claw the skin clean off your cheeks." His fingers clenched warningly around Inuyasha's wrists before letting go, leaving his hands pressed against his face, appearing defiantly unconcerned with the contact. In fact, he actually looked pretty pissed off, Inuyasha realised. It occurred to him then that maybe all those pureblood markings weren't wholly badges of honour to Sesshoumaru. Did—did he really think. . .was he jealous? Of a hanyou?

The angry glint of his eyes and the flat line of his mouth said yes.

"They're not pink," Inuyasha argued, warm pooling in his stomach. Stretching up, he slid his hands down over cool skin to get a better look, leaning in until his eyelashes were almost touching them. "No, they're closer to reddish purple. Besides, I think they're cool." He leaned back and grinned at the surprised youkai lord. "I'd trade you. Idiot. I mean, sure, I'll be the big tough pureblood lord and you can be the outcast hanyou with purple markings."

"You don't have the poise for it," Sesshoumaru murmured, but his eyes had warmed slightly.

Inuyasha poked him in the cheek.

Sesshoumaru snapped his teeth at him.

"Yeah, because you're so poised," Inuyasha snorted, as fangs narrowly missed the tip of his nose. "Tanuki-hater." He received a dirty look for that. Snickering to himself all over again, Inuyasha drew away with the intention to get out of the water –preferably before Sesshoumaru threw another revenge-eel at him– but was stopped when two fingers caught the tip of his ear in their grasp. "Hey!" He complained. "Don't just randomly ow-ow-ow—quit it!" His protest ended on a yelping sound of pain, as Sesshoumaru inspected his torn ear by completely straightening the furred triangle, which pulled at the wound. "All right, all right, I'm sorry! Just let go!"

Making a small sound of annoyance, Sesshoumaru ignored him, instead tugging his hair away from the base of his ear. "This will not heal properly if left alone. Would you prefer to have a crooked ear for the rest of your life?"

"No," Inuyasha replied mournfully, one eye scrunched shut against the sharp stinging pain.

"Then do be silent," his brother muttered, leaning in until his chin brushed the hanyou's temple. It was the only warning he received before his sore ear was roughly tended to by an obscenely wet tongue.

Every hair on the back of Inuyasha's neck stood on end. His eyes rounded like saucers. "Hey—!" The remainder of his protest was silenced by a hand covering his mouth, complete with the warning jab of claws against his cheek. Shuddering at the next swipe of wet warmth over his ear, Inuyasha gripped the hand over his mouth and pulled it down desperately. "What are you doing? That's my ear! Don't put it in your mouth, you creepy pervert! I have rights!"

Sesshoumaru's response was to give the wound one more punishingly intimate lick, one strong enough that Inuyasha could feel the fur on it sticking up in the wrong direction. He'd had enough. "Why the licking? Why?" He demanded wildly, shoving his brother away and turning to face him aggressively. "Okay, you're a youkai, you have weird instincts, whatever – but how come you're never off licking Jaken's creepy little head? Why is it always me?"

Sesshoumaru stared at him like he'd grown a third ear. A decidedly less tasty one. "Surely you cannot be this ignorant. Or this ungrateful," he frowned. "Cleaning your wound in that manner accelerates healing. Your squeamish reaction is unreasonable." When Inuyasha continued to stare at him in confusion, he blinked as though something unpleasant had just occurred to him. "You find this act repulsive. Of course. Humans naturally do not practice such methods of healing. Youkai have. . .different customs amongst their own kind. The dog clans are no different." While his tone was even and his words were reasonable, there was a strange light in Sesshoumaru's eyes that said Inuyasha's reaction had not been well-received. It made the hanyou feel inexplicably guilty. Which was stupid. He was the one always getting molested, right?

Except he wasn't, to a youkai lord. It was. . .what? Looking after him? "Well, well what about before? After I woke up? I get the healing thing, but my face wasn't hurt. What kind of custom was that then, genius?" He asked, almost accusingly. Crossing his arms defensively, he studied his youkai brother as he straightened up stiffly, something like a door slamming shut in his golden gaze.

"It was one that shall never be repeated, I assure you," Sesshoumaru said coldly, turning away. "If you are quite finished with your outburst, I must return."

Frustrated with the lack of an answer but realising that he'd pushed too far, the hanyou shrugged jerkily and headed for the bank. "Whatever. Suppose I should say goodbye to the kid and piss off, anyway. My vision's not doubling anymore." Wading out of the water, he didn't bother to dry himself properly before pulling his clothes back on, fixing his hakama into place and brushing the dust off his upper garments, noting with small satisfaction that they had come out of the fall unscathed. Securing Tetsusaiga at his waist, he pulled the kotodama rosary out from under the material, realising as he did so that his hair was still bound together and not tangling in the beads like it usually did. Hesitating for a brief second, he shook his head and went about releasing the damp rope of hair back into its usual untamed style. No point in leaving that in like a sentimental loser, he told himself with a frown. He probably couldn't offend Sesshoumaru any more than he apparently already had. Nothing new there.

Inuyasha felt suddenly tired; a deep, bone-aching tiredness that reminded him just how little sleep he'd gotten in the past few days. In fact, he hadn't really slept well since before—

Kaede.

Something cold and painful gripped his chest as he realised he'd forgotten. How had one single fall jolted her death clear out of his mind? And he was going to say goodbye to the kid and merrily walk back there. . .back to grave markers and an empty shrine, to a dry well that Kagome no longer climbed out of and a sacred tree with the timeless wound of an arrow reminding him that time didn't touch him, not the same way it touched humans.

Turning slightly to look over his shoulder, he watched Sesshoumaru through the overlong fringe of his hair. Walking stiffly, still favouring his bruised back and shoulders, the daiyoukai strode to his clothing, clawed toes careful not to dig into the moist earth. Striped calves, striped thighs, striped hips. Biceps and forearms. Cheeks. Long white hair, limp from the volume of water that was being twisted out of it by clawed fingers. Golden eyes watching Inuyasha watching him. Flushing, the hanyou started, but Sesshoumaru just shook his head.

"I hope for your sake you were studying my markings," he said darkly, but didn't comment further, or attempt to embarrass Inuyasha. He seemed resigned to it. Or maybe he was used to being stared at.

"I was thinking," Inuyasha said faintly, his expression unsure, "that maybe. . ." Maybe what? Maybe he didn't want to go back to the village just yet? Maybe he wanted to pathetically cling to the company Sesshoumaru seemed unconcerned with offering? He'd be turned down flat. Especially after pissing him off about the licking thing. His wavering hope suddenly sank and drowned in the reality of things. He'd been lonely before. He'd grieved, before. The village wouldn't be so bad now that the humans didn't hate him. Hina and Suki would welcome him back, at the very least. They'd explain to the others that he hadn't meant to destroy half the forest, hadn't meant to scare anyone. Hiroshi wouldn't turn him away, not while his strength was so dependable.

"Maybe what?" Sesshoumaru asked, his voice muffled as he fastened his boots, the second layer of his kimono and hakama back in place. Without the splash of red from the outer kimono layer, he looked like a pale ghost, the markings on his face standing out more than ever. He reached for his obi, but paused to glance at the pensive hanyou when no answer immediately came forth from him. "Inuyasha."

But Inuyasha had drifted away again, lifting one hand to touch his injured ear, something wistful crossing his face. Then he blinked, clearing his throat and glancing away awkwardly. "Nothing. Sorry. I'm going on ahead." He turned to get the hell out of there, hoping it would stop him thinking useless thoughts.

"There is no need," came the unaffected reply, and with a few deft motions of Sesshoumaru's wrist the obi was expertly tied in place. Inuyasha vaguely wondered how he'd managed that when he'd only had one arm. The idea of Jaken helping him seemed hilarious—and disturbing. "Now answer me. What were you going to say, before you lost your nerve and aborted the comment?" Picking up Tenseiga and Toukijin, he kept his eyes trained on the fidgeting hanyou as he slid them in place.

Turning away, Inuyasha started to backtrack over their scents and follow the trail back to Rin's camp, wholly unsurprised when a blur of white matched him pace for pace. Shit. "Doesn't matter," he grunted, cursing when his foot scuffed over a rough stone hidden by the tussock. "I was just thinking out loud—and you know what, maybe you can just tell Rin I said bye, and I'll just head home from here—" His sudden about-face was met with a sharp look from Sesshoumaru, who had grown oddly tense. The click of claws striking each other in a clenched fist met his ears and Inuyasha slowed a little, breaking off his hasty goodbye. "What?"

"Home," Sesshoumaru repeated sourly. "That dank little village? Enlighten me as to what is so compelling about it that you must all but run from my side in a split second. Or have my actions offended your delicate, human-bred sensibilities so very deeply?" The startling bite of venom in that sentence was unmistakable. Had he hurt his weird youkai feelings? Inuyasha wondered, a little wide-eyed at the idea.

"Nah, I figured you'd had enough of me anyway," the hanyou mumbled, suddenly mesmerised by the star-blanketed night sky. He thought he spotted a shooting star for a moment, but his attention was diverted by a gusting sigh. Inuyasha glanced over in time to see Sesshoumaru rubbing his temples in a way that suggested he was getting a headache. "Haven't you?"

Inuyasha watched his brows knit together slightly, and received a look that was impatient and appraising all at once. Then his brother just glanced away with a small shake of his head. What was that supposed to mean? The hanyou might have pursued it further, but fate chose that moment to put a shallow hole in his path, pitching him forward onto his hands and knees with a surprised curse. His back snarled in pain as the sore muscles pulled taut, stealing his breath for a moment. "Are you a fucking bad luck charm?" He asked his brother in a muffled voice, his head down as stars sparkled behind his tightly closed eyes. "Every time I'm with you, I end up bleeding, poisoned, or otherwise nearly killed. Now my foot's stuck in a hole."

Ripping his foot out of the tangle of weeds it had ensnared itself in, Inuyasha was just about to push himself painfully to his feet when the earth in front of him burst apart with a crack of thunder, throwing him back on his ass. Dragging his hair out of his eyes, Inuyasha stared in shock at what seemed to be a ball of lightning, crackling right in front of him with a blinding radiance.

Above him, Sesshoumaru abruptly drew Toukijin, levelling it at the ball of light. The blade glowed crimson with the promise of pain. "Inuyasha, remove yourself from its vicinity."

He glanced from the light to his half-brother in confusion. "Why—"

"Move!"

The snarl was bestial in its ferocity. Inuyasha scooted himself on his ass back a good meter or so before he realised he was moving. Realising what he'd done, heat flooded his cheeks, embarrassed at his own surprised obedience. "Just a goddamn minute," he said angrily. "How about first telling me what the fuck that thing is?"

"I'm a youkai, obviously," said the glowing ball. "Sesshoumaru-dono, if you kill me she will chase you down herself. I'm very important these days. Not that you'd know that, prodigal son." The light faded abruptly, dimming to a vaguely incandescent glow. The youkai was a—

"You're a little dog," Inuyasha said in disbelief. "How are you a youkai?"

The fact that the animal was speaking really did give it away, he supposed, but it still didn't look anything like a real youkai. It wasn't even a foot tall, with a long white coat and a tuft of hair tied with a blue ribbon sticking straight up on the top of its head. It looked like one of those yappy dogs rich asshole nobles kept on their grounds to alert for burglars.

Liquid dark eyes stared at him, unimpressed. "Who's the mongrel?" He asked Sesshoumaru, who still hadn't sheathed his sword. "Smells like you, except—" The lesser youkai stopped to sniff the cuff of his hakama. "Huh. Hey, kid, get down here for a second. I need a good look at your face." Prancing on the spot slightly, it looked like it was suddenly interested in him.

Inuyasha was actually halfway to leaning forward on all fours when a fist clenched in his hair and yanked him upright. Growling, he raised his eyes to Sesshoumaru's snarling face. "Ow, jeez, let me the hell go—"

"Silence, hanyou. Keep your tongue in your mouth and your eyes on the ground. Disobedient cur." The fist in his hair yanked his head back further, nearly arching his neck with the force. But it was the words that stunned him into silence. Sesshoumaru hadn't talked like that since the days he'd been after the Tetsusaiga. On his knees beside his brother, bent into the most humiliating position he'd ever been in with a fist in his hair like a hand on a leash, he felt every inch the low-bred animal. Gritting his teeth, he reared up, only to be shoved back down. Claws scraped his scalp warningly, then tapped strangely against the back of his skull. Inuyasha's hand just twitched toward his sword.

"Huh," the dog said again, seemingly unimpressed with him now. "Looks like this one's only alive on your good graces, Sesshoumaru-dono. You always did have a taste for stray animals." It sneezed abruptly, as though ejecting his scent from his very nostrils. Inuyasha barely noticed, his vision wavering on the edges with pure humiliated fury. Looked down on by a fucking stuffed toy? What the hell—

"He has his uses, Inotoki," Sesshoumaru said smoothly. "Insignificant though they may be." The fist in his hair tugged warningly.

Inuyasha saw red.

Claws flying out in five golden arcs, he snagged the youkai dog by the scruff of its neck and tossed its yelping weight as hard as he could at Sesshoumaru's stupid noble face, using the momentary surprise attack to sink his teeth deep into his brother's thigh. With a snarl the hand in his hair abruptly vanished, as did he in the next second, rolling to the side and flowing to his feet with murder blazing in his eyes. With blood seeping down the corner of his mouth and a vicious growl threatening to burst from his chest, Inuyasha was ready to kill someone.

"Treat me like that again," he said softly, his eyes on his furious brother, "and you can forget about your fucking arm. I'll cut your head off." His feral gaze switched to the stunned animal now perched on Sesshoumaru's shoulder. "And you, you fuzzy little piece of shit, I'm gonna jam Tetsusaiga up your ass if you so much as blink at me wrong, and then I'm gonna punt you back to whatever mangy bitch you crawled out of. Got that?" Breathing hard, his jaw clenched, it took him a moment to actually move his hand away from the hilt of his sword. Fucking—nobles. Stupid dogs, and stupid youkai, and their stupid hoity-toity bullshit. "Now what the fuck is going on?"

The stiff aristocracy seemed to drain out of him then, and Sesshoumaru slowly closed his eyes. "Inuyasha, why must you persist in your unrelenting misinterpretation in my actions?" He asked, but it didn't seem like he actually wanted to know the answer. On his shoulder, the small youkai barked.

"Inuyasha? Tetsusaiga?" It said excitedly, jumping off his shoulder. It began running in circles around him, now actively dragging his scent into its tiny lungs. "This disobedient cur is Inuyasha? Sesshoumaru-dono, I'm hurt that you attempted to deceive me so. I thought you smelled familiar, you mouthy little pup. Accuse my mother of mange? You have no shame. My lady will be interested in you, yes she will indeed. She's been looking for you." This went on for a while, the dog now chattering its damn head off. Inuyasha ignored all of it, his unforgiving attention reserved only for his older brother.

His jaw worked soundlessly for a moment, before he sneered. "You really can switch that big brother bullshit off whenever you like, can't you? Go to hell." Spinning on his heel, he stalked away without another second glance, his lip curled in a ferocious snarl.

Sesshoumaru let him get about a hundred feet away before he moved. Inuyasha realised he should have seen it coming, as an arm hooked around his stomach and yanked him back, pinning him like a steel bar. But not even steel could have stopped him in that moment, and as it was the youkai lord actually had to strain to hold him back. "Inuyasha," he growled against his uninjured ear, before pinching it painfully between his teeth. "I have mere seconds before Inotoki finds us. He will make you an offer. You will decline it. Kill him if you like; it matters not to me—"

"—let me go—"

"—I will not," was the snarled reply, and for a moment something genuinely urgent entered his voice. "That lesser youkai is my mother's most trusted vassal. If she has an interest in you, it cannot be for anything innocent. The woman is mired in mysticism and manipulation—" He broke off on a growl as Inuyasha broke one arm free of his hold and blindly clawed for his face, finding only hair and breath as his quarry. "You thrice-damned hanyou, will you listen? I am trying to warn you!"

"I don't need anything from you!" Inuyasha roared straight back, twisting around and slashing as viciously as he could.

Blood flew from his fingertips.

Sesshoumaru released him.

Panting heavily, adrenaline storming brutally in his veins, Inuyasha watched four bone-deep gashes split apart Sesshoumaru's flawless face, slanting from the top of his ear to the corner of his mouth. It was hideous. Bloody bone and the hint of exposed back teeth glinted back at him in the split second it took for a pale hand to fly up and press against the wounds, his brother's eyes wide and wavering for the barest instant.

Then they turned ugly.

"I should have let you fall," he spat venomously as blood poured over his fingers. "You filthy little animal."

Inuyasha's heart stopped. The world turned again.

"Yeah," he whispered back, his voice shaking with rage. "Maybe you fucking should have. I'll tell your mother you said hi."

Inotoki padded his way through the underbrush, panting happily and complaining good-naturedly about being left behind. He didn't seem to even notice the scene he'd trotted into. Inuyasha didn't bat an eyelid, bending and grabbing the lesser youkai by the scuff of its neck and tucking it under his arm. "Let's go, furball," he said jerkily. "Anything to get the fuck out of here."

The hanyou deliberately turned away from Sesshoumaru, his head lowered over the excited dog in his arms. Hidden from view, his mouth trembled violently, eyes fixed on the blood soaking his claws. But Inuyasha refused to look back in the instant before they cracked out of sight, leaving no more behind than a smoking crater and a youkai lord who didn't know how to take it all back.

 

Chapter Text


Chapter 14: The Distance to Here

Blood.

Spilled by Inuyasha. Again.

Sesshoumaru pulled his hand from his face, staring at his palm. Soaked in it, he noted blankly. Disfigured, yet again, by his hanyou half-brother. No matter.

His face wouldn't leave his memory. Such pain.

I'll tell your mother you said hi.

It seemed he'd managed the exact opposite of the outcome he'd intended to produce. It was. . .vexing.

The fool didn't have the defences to be able to evade his mother. He could think of only one use she might have for him, and his every instinct rebelled against it. If Inuyasha had just played the stupid hanyou pet for a moment longer—

I don't need anything from you!

Then the cringing whelp deserved everything he got, Sesshoumaru thought viciously. Straightening, baring his slashed face to the cool night air, the youkai lord turned and headed back to the camp.

It seemed his time with Inuyasha was at an end. His mother would twist him, use him, and the fool would walk willingly to his end.

And Sesshoumaru could no longer bring himself to care.

I should have let you fall.

There were no second chances.


"You know, to be honest you don't look like much," the dog was saying as he trotted through the grass. He craned his neck to look up at Inuyasha. "For a moment there I thought you were just another pathetic piece of trash Sesshoumaru-dono had picked up along the way."

Inuyasha flinched imperceptibly.

"But you're Inuyasha," Inotoki crowed with delight. "Triumphing over that dancing spider Naraku, vile abomination that he was. Your strength caught our lady's eye." The dog made it sound like a great honour.

Inuyasha didn't bother to comment. He'd been walking for what seemed like forever after they'd reappeared in an unfamiliar field, the chill air sweeping into his bones. Something about spells and wards and barriers—whatever. It was nothing new to him. It seemed every youkai and their dog –literally– had a barrier over their castle these days. He just wanted to get over there, find out whatever the hell it was the woman wanted, and get the hell out again. Not back to the village; somewhere else.

As far from Sesshoumaru as he could possibly get.

You filthy little animal.

"Despite what her honoured son thinks, my lady is to be respected and admired," Inotoki went on, jumping nimbly over small patches of tussock. "They had some manner of disagreement a few centuries ago. Sesshoumaru-dono holds a grudge that would put a cat's vengeance to shame. Vile temper on him, that one. Never went home after that, decided to wander the country of his father instead, searching for power." The dog made a small clucking sound of pity. "He has a disagreeable nature. Got it from that father of his, no doubt."

Inuyasha's eyes sharpened slightly. "My father. You knew him?"

Inotoki sneezed and shot him a strange look. "Not really. Met him a few times when he came to the castle, back when Sesshoumaru-dono was small. Kicked me through a wall, the rotten flea-bitten—well. I suppose I did cock my leg on his boots. It was no less than he deserved, trying to snatch my lady's precious only son from her grasp. Honestly, I don't know what it is. . ." The lesser youkai continued to ramble after that, his inane chatter becoming nothing more than white noise in the hanyou's ears. He just didn't really care enough to listen.

Inuyasha just didn't care, period.

They eventually stopped at the outer rim of a massive dome-like barrier, wobbling and radiating rainbow hues like the skin of a bubble. There was nothing but more trees behind it—or so it seemed. More than likely when that thing popped like overripe fruit, there'd be an entire fortress beneath it. It was how Naraku had usually hid himself, anyway. Inuyasha always had hated barriers.

"Well, you'd better pick me up," Inotoki said abruptly, standing up on his hind legs and putting his front paws against the hanyou's leg. "You won't get in here without me, pup."

The red blade of Tetsusaiga might have something to say about that, Inuyasha thought without heat, but picked the dog up in silence anyway. They stepped through the barrier without incident. On the other side, Inuyasha blinked and took in the scene before him.

It was massive.

Built on a steep hill, flowing from the crest of the hill clear to the base, a huge castle had been built. It was traditionally built of several dwellings with curved roofs and a long, wide staircase of stone, dotted with armoured sentry-men on either side. They were too far away for him to tell what type of youkai they were.

"Incredible, isn't it?" Inotoki said proudly. "Built nearly nine hundred years ago. The moon clan have held this territory strong the entire time. Come along then. It's not wise to keep my lady waiting." He trotted over to the base of the stairs and began the ascent. Inuyasha watched him for a second, a thought pushing unbidden to the front of his mind. My lady this, my lady that, the damn thing sounded like Jaken talking about Sesshoumaru.

That lesser youkai is my mother's most trusted vassal—

I should have let you fall.

Fists clenching by his sides, Inuyasha steeled his expression and leapt after the dog. Whatever Sesshoumaru had been playing at, it looked like it was all over now. So he didn't want him to meet his mother. Big fucking deal – it was probably just the asshole trying to control him. Inuyasha could handle himself against some youkai woman—

A youkai woman his father had dumped for a human. . .his mother.

"Wait a second," he barked, grabbing the dog. "Wait a second, furball. Why the hell would Sesshoumaru's freaking mother want to meet me? If she's anything like him, shouldn't I be heading up there with my sword drawn? I'm a hanyou, if you hadn't noticed." He might not be a genius at family stuff, but even he could see there was a pretty big flaw in this happy little meeting. A sudden cold weight dropped into the pit of his stomach. Had he stormed off, so intent on getting the hell away from Sesshoumaru, that he'd run headlong into a trap?

The back of his neck prickled. Fine, he thought dangerously. The mood he was in, he could use a good fight.

But Inotoki just laughed. "You are a hanyou, yes you are. But your father broke the mould with you, he did. What's a little human blood against the destruction of a tainted creature not even Sesshoumaru-dono himself would defeat? I can promise you now, my lady does not share her ill-natured son's views on mixed bloodlines. Now put me down, you're messing up my coat." Inuyasha complied with a frown, the dog's words running through his head. Had they even seen Sesshoumaru lately? If they had, clearly they'd never seen Rin running after him with handfuls of flowers. Why had the dog been after him in the first place, before he'd realised Inuyasha was beside him?

It was a question for later. He didn't want to invite a conversation about his brother with that thing; there was something about it he didn't like. Something about the way he talked, the way—

The way everything he said about Sesshoumaru was an insult, Inuyasha realised with a hard blink. Politely and neatly delivered, but Inuyasha could spot a slur like that miles away. So the bastard and his mother had a falling out, and the dog obviously took the woman's side. Who honestly gave a shit? The furball could curse a blue streak about Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha wasn't obligated to care.

They'd reached the top of the stairs while he'd been thinking, and it took him a moment to study the castle grounds from a new perspective. Here, the buildings were taller. But there didn't seem to be anyone around. It was completely silent. Peering back down the stairs, he spotted the sentry-men and felt something turn cold inside him.

Kugutsu, he realised. Puppets. Those men weren't men at all.

Puppets and barriers.

Slowly, Inuyasha discretely cast his eyes about for the least exposed exit. To his relief, the place wasn't guarded at every turn; obviously the mistress of the fortress thought she had all the firepower she needed right there on the stairs. Slightly mollified by the knowledge, he decided it was just careful youkai planning. The parallels to Naraku were just getting his back up, probably.

"Wait here, I'll need to report in before we go anywhere with you. Sit somewhere quiet and don't go wandering," Inotoki advised, giving him a mistrustful look that said he expected him to do just the opposite. "I'll be back quite soon."

"Whatever," Inuyasha muttered, walking to the stone railing that overlooked the land. The sky was lightening from the pure darkness of night, melting into a vivid blue with at the edges of the horizon. Great. He'd been up all night. What a goddamn couple of days they had turned out to be. Turning away from the view, the hanyou sat down with his back to the stone, releasing a sigh that seemed to rattle his entire soul. He felt like shit, pure and simple. Now he was hanging out in some creepy magic castle, no idea where he was or what direction he had to take to get back, because he'd taken off with some kind of teleporting rat-dog that didn't age.

He really knew he didn't have to wonder how he got himself into situations like this. Temper. Blind, hot-headed temper. Kagome had been right; he did rush into shit without thinking. But he'd just been so damn—so—

So what? Inuyasha thought bleakly, covering his face with one hand. Propping his elbow up with one bent knee, he raised his hand to rake through his thick hair, dragging his bangs off his forehead tiredly. Golden eyes trained on the dried blood stuck to his fingers and claws; black in the dim light. He'd completely torn open Sesshoumaru's face with those claws. Had he deserved it? The hanyou wasn't entirely sure anymore. His temper cooled and his mind clear, he honestly couldn't say just what had gone on back there. What had he misinterpreted? All he saw was his brother going from halfway decent to a righteous asshole as soon as an old face had appeared. All it had looked like to him was an 'I swear I wasn't treating the hanyou like an equal' with a hand forcing his throat bare – forcing him to his knees like a subservient mutt.

Inuyasha was only good enough to talk to while ever no one was around to witness the youkai lord slumming it with his half-breed brother.

You filthy little animal.

He squeezed his eyes shut.

"Who's over there?" A voice asked from a distance, alarmed and curious. A woman's voice. "Who let you in?" The sweep of cloth over stone soothed his ears as she came closer, but suddenly he didn't want to see her face at all. What he wouldn't give to be able to jump up and run for as long and as far as he possibly could. This had all been a mistake. All of it.

Hands closed on his wrists. Cool hands, soft like his mother's had been. She did not use weapons. "What have you lost, to merit a sad face like that?" A smell like powder and soap, and flowers. Irises, he thought belatedly. Youki like a cool blue wave.

Inuyasha opened his eyes and looked at Sesshoumaru's mother.

He nearly flinched back in dismay. She looked just like him—sort of. There was an air of fragility around her, of femininity. But she had the same white hair, fine features, same length of pristine fur draped around her shoulders like a wrap. But her eyes weren't clear gold; they were the same cool blue of her youki, pale like winter ice, and they were wide pools of surprise as she stared right back at him.

"I know those eyes," she said softly, her eyes searching his features with an intensity that made him almost blush. "You're the other one, aren't you?" Leaning forward, she delicately sniffed, her elegant brows creasing upward in consternation. He found himself noticing the deep red markings cresting high on her cheekbones, just under her eyes. They were slightly jagged. And a crescent moon on the centre of her forehead, the same as Sesshoumaru's.

"I'm Inuyasha," he said quietly, instinctively knowing what she meant by other one. "Your dog brought me, I guess."

Her face changed, a small smile touching her painted mouth. "That would explain why you smell so much like my perfect son," she said dryly. "Inotoki was sent to convince him to return, not fetch a treat. But what a treat you are, Inuyasha. I've wanted to meet you for a long time." Straightening from her kneeling position in front of him, she gestured for him to stand. She was smaller than he was, he realised with a strange pang. He'd thought she'd tower over him like some kind of vengeful queen. But she just looked like any kind of noblewoman, even if she was a youkai. Dressed in an expensive white kimono patterned with deep blue and printed with butterflies, a large stone hanging around her neck like an amulet. . .this was not what he'd pictured at all.

"I don't know why I'm here," he said slowly, feeling like his perceptions had been thrown for the last time. "What do you want me for?"

But her eyes had found his hand, and more importantly, the blood crusted in his claws. Her mouth opened in a soundless 'o' of surprise. "Goodness," she breathed. "Fighting with your claws like an animal. It will take more than claws to defeat Sesshoumaru. What were you thinking? Come along; let's get you cleaned up."

"No, I—" But she had already taken his hand in hers, pulling him along toward the main house with a pleasant determination. "Wait," he said suddenly, his voice stronger now. Putting force against her tugging, he jerked them both to a stop. "I want an answer."

Blinking, she frowned slightly, and the resemblance sharpened in that moment. "I wanted to meet you," she explained. "Isn't that enough?" Something about her voice suggested it usually was enough for anyone who asked. Inuyasha just shook his head, his eyes deep and heavy with shadows. He could barely stand to look at her, for some reason.

"Just tell me whatever it is you want, and I'll go," he said, glancing away from her startled face. She didn't speak immediately, and when the hand gripping his vanished, he thought maybe he'd pissed her off. It didn't matter to him, he decided, it just meant he could leave without complaint.

"You can go if you like," she said carefully, "but I really wish you wouldn't. Frankly speaking, you look like you need a hot bath, a good meal and a soft bed. But perhaps that's my maternal side speaking." She laughed lightly, but there seemed to be a note of sadness buried in there. "It's been a long time since I've had an interesting visitor. My son has refused to acknowledge me for the last two hundred and fifty years. His father has been dead just as long. Can you begrudge me the curiosity I hold for you? Inotoki is a lovely companion, but. . ." Stopping herself then, she smiled faintly, raising one clawed hand to her cheek. "Never mind, Inuyasha. It was a pleasure to meet you. Follow the stairs to the bottom and keep walking straight. The barrier will not stop you from the inside."

Inuyasha stepped back and turned toward the stairs, his eyes speculative. He could turn and go in that very second, she'd said as much. But where the hell was he going, in such a goddamn hurry? He was tired, sore, he felt like shit and the entire night had sucked all the life out of him. He needed to get the blood off his hand before the memories the scent rose in his mind drove him insane.

Besides, he thought, sneaking a look at her. She seemed. . .kind of lonely. Stuck up here with that dog and an army of kugutsu statues. Whatever fight she'd had with Sesshoumaru had nothing to do with him, he decided finally. The way he saw it, if you weren't fighting with Sesshoumaru over something or other, the natural order of things was off.

Skirting the stairs, he padded over to her. "I guess I can stay for a while, if you want. No one's waiting for me or anything," he admitted, biting down a yawn. "I'm not good company, though."

Sesshoumaru's mother smiled. Reaching out, she patted his shoulder, her cool blue eyes suddenly sparkling. "And I am not a good hostess," she said with a rueful shake of her head. "I think if you can tolerate my rudeness, I can overlook yours."

Against his will, the corner of his mouth kicked up. "All right, deal."

It was not how he'd pictured things, Inuyasha admitted as he allowed her to tug him inside the building. But it might be what he needed—a distraction from the shit-fest his life had abruptly come. So what if he was spending a bit of time cheering up a lonely widow? His mother wouldn't have approved of him just ditching a refined lady like her, he knew that much. It was just good manners.

After all, it wasn't her fault she'd spawned such an asshole of a son.

"Which would you like to do first?" She was asking. "Eat, sleep, or bathe?"

Inuyasha pretended to think about it, his eyes lowering to his hand.

You filthy little animal.

"Bathe."


Rin was dispirited.

It wasn't difficult to notice; the girl had grown oddly silent, her sunny smile reserved for Sesshoumaru only when he spoke to her. She'd also taken to carrying a large stick with her now. Jaken had protested such a thing, naturally; he felt that she was mocking the Staff of Heads. The imp had refused to believe Rin had actually saved his life, deeming it nothing more than the luck of fools.

Their combined shock at the sight of him upon returning to the campfire without Inuyasha had been an irritation. While the bleeding had stopped reasonably quickly, four vivid red lines still marred his cheek more than five days later.

Sesshoumaru had kept his own counsel over the matter. Rin did not need to know their origin. Jaken, who despite popular opinion did indeed have a brain inside his head, had understood at once but had wisely kept silent.

Assuming the matter of the hanyou could be ignored and by extension, his existence forgotten, the youkai lord had made no more mention of him and carried on their journeys.

Until Rin requested another leave of absence.

"Sesshoumaru-sama, would I please be able to ride Ah-Un to go visit Inuyasha?" She asked, two weeks after the incident on the cliff. Her bright eyes were looking decidedly dull, and Sesshoumaru found his arsenal of legitimate reasons for declining her request vexingly empty.

Jaken thankfully intervened. "Stupid girl!" He squawked, waving his staff. "Do you remember what happened last time you went to visit that hanyou? You nearly got us all killed! Take it as a sign of fate. That mouthy fool is a bad influence; you shouldn't be consorting with the likes of him. He probably thinks you're a nuisance anyway." He continued on that path for a while, until Rin's thin shoulders slumped sadly.

"You're probably right, Jaken-sama. Rin did get Inuyasha hurt."

Walking a small distance ahead of them, Sesshoumaru's mouth tightened. Rin had slipped back into her old speech patterns, something she did when feeling upset. It was one of many small tells she displayed at the mere mention of the hanyou.

Five nights since he'd vanished with Inotoki.

Five nights under his mother's dubious care.

Five nights and Sesshoumaru could not forget the betrayal in that face.

What foolishness.

But the days passed without further incident, and the youkai lord eventually decided that it was too late to take any decent course of action. It was not his business to care about Inuyasha's menial affairs. He had made his own decision to leave, whether it was out of spite or cowardice to run from him.

But the matter was brought back into sharp relief when Sesshoumaru caught Rin staring at his face late one night, her sad expression illuminated by the firelight. He allowed his gaze to pass over her without any discernable reaction, but still she stood up and walked quietly to his side, kneeling down closer than her usually respectful distances allowed. Keeping his eyes trained on the firelight, he deigned to ignore the strangeness of this display. If she missed Inuyasha, that was her own business. But Sesshoumaru had no replacement for the roughhouse hanyou's freely-given smiles and affection. It simply was not a quality he possessed, and if the girl wished some form of comfort, he was not the one to give it to her.

But her fingertips hovered in the air over his cheek, a fingertip poised where each long gash had been. Healed now, they weren't visible to human eyes, but his sensitive fingertips could still sense their mark. Sesshoumaru felt his mouth compress into a tense frown as she slowly mimed the drag of claws down those near-invisible lines. Perhaps he had underestimated her acuity, then. "Rin."

She removed her hand, but her brown eyes remained on his face. "The sun isn't supposed to set on a fight, Sesshoumaru-sama," she said earnestly, sounding like she was quoting someone else. Then she added, "your face makes me sad."

Pity from a human child. Pity and advice.

He waited for her to say more, but her limited knowledge had exhausted itself with that single piece of wisdom. Or perhaps she knew when silence was a more effective tool to use with him. He reluctantly acknowledged that the child had picked up on some of his traits over the time she'd travelled with him. A blessing and a curse.

How strange that Rin could understand such things, when his own blood could not even see the ruse his actions had been to turn Inotoki's attention away. The fool hadn't even realised he was playing the youkai false.

Inuyasha hadn't trusted him. When all was said and done, Inuyasha still looked at Sesshoumaru and saw nothing more than the sword he'd drawn and placed in the hollow of his throat.

I don't need anything from you!

That stupid, blind, wretched fool of a hanyou.

Stuck-up youkai.

Sesshoumaru closed his eyes. It should not matter to him. It should not matter to him.

And yet, it did. Somehow, his fury and pride could not erase that face from his mind. That cruel whip-crack of comprehension that had struck his startled features. Hard eyes that widened into pure defenceless gold. The upward curve of his brow; the speechless parting of his lips. Blood dripping from his claws.

Perhaps he had been. . .cruel.

But did it matter enough for him to return there? That place he'd sworn to never return to? Once upon a time, he'd sworn that nothing would be so important that he would willingly look upon his mother's face in this life again. That he would be manipulated by no one. Forced by no one. Or owe a single thing to a single creature in this world, save himself.

Inuyasha was not worth the sacrifice of his own pride, to see the satisfaction in her eyes when he returned, for power and purpose and you'll come back, my perfect son, I've seen it.

There was no harm in Inuyasha's time spent with his mother. She would not kill him. Use him, definitely; bend and break him to fit the purpose she desired, but if the hanyou could not find his way out of that nest of lies, it was his own fault. He did not require any manner of recue; there was no reason for him to break his self-sworn oath.

Except that face. Every time he closed his eyes, that face.

Opening his eyes, he turned his head slightly and regarded Rin with a long look.

"The sun has already set," he said with finality, and turned his eyes back to the fire.

"It did set," she agreed, so cheerfully he wondered if she had already forgotten what he was referring to. Clenching her hands in the cloth of her kimono, she leaned forward, brown eyes bright. "But it'll rise again, Sesshoumaru-sama."

Troubled by the implication, the youkai lord lifted his head and watched Rin mutely as she hopped to her feet and danced over to Ah-Un, tending to his reins and stroking the dragon's mane. His brow creased in a frown. It was one of the many perplexing qualities the girl had; her innocent, unfettered view of the world. Sesshoumaru fought the urge to sigh.

Leaving business unfinished was undesirable.

Perhaps, on this occasion, his interests would be better served if he, in fact, did bring the hanyou to bay. Eyes hooded, Sesshoumaru lightly pressed two fingers to the faint ridges evident on his cheek.

Even if it was only to return the favour.


Inuyasha wasn't at all sure about this.

"This is a mess," the youkai lady said, dumbfounded. "What have you been doing to it?"

"Nothing," he replied quickly, and a touch defensively. "Look I told you not to bother—"

"Nonsense," she said calmly. "I like a challenge. Now sit there and be quiet."

So Inuyasha sat there, and was quiet—at least until the wide comb caught in the tangled mess of his hair for the hundredth time. Stifling a growl, he rested his chin in his hands, hunched forward on the hearth rug. "Ow. Why don't you just rip it all out?"

"Because," she said regally. "It's been so long since I had a chance to tend to anyone, that I plan to thoroughly enjoy myself now that I have you right where I want you. Now stop complaining, it's unbecoming."

"But—"

His shoulder dipped suddenly as her chin dropped onto it from behind. "Shut up, Inuyasha," she said pleasantly, and with such steel he knew he'd lost. "You're not so old that I can't turn you over my knee, you know."

There was a thought that disturbed him on all kinds of levels.

Inuyasha shut up and went limp, allowing the youkai woman to have her way with him.

"Good boy," she murmured, and resumed combing his hair.

Inuyasha, despite appearances, knew when it was more fruitful to stop fighting and just get it over with. There was just something off-putting about arguing with a youkai woman who radiated strong mother vibes. Not that she clucked over him and fussed or anything, and she sure as hell wasn't nice, but she had a hell of a Look whenever she disapproved of something. It made him feel like a kid again; one that was about to get a spanking.

Tsukiko, as he'd come to know her, was bored off her lily white ass, and had been for the last decade. She didn't talk a lot, and she was prone to reading scrolls in the library when she wasn't lounging in the marble throne outside. Inotoki ran around the place fetching shit for her most of the day, Inuyasha had noticed, and the damn furball seemed happy to do it. For his part, the hanyou had spent the last few weeks relaxing in the sun, eating his weight in meat and rice, sword-fighting with an enchanted kugetsu –he'd named it Naraku for his own purposes- and attempting to sleep in a real bed. That last one he was having trouble with, but he was willing to work on it.

If something like that was the major problem in his life, Inuyasha decided, he had it pretty damn good.

The only real hiccup so far had been the night after he'd arrived at the castle. Stranded on the inside of a barrier with the new moon about to rise, he'd awoken after spending the entire day in the dreamless slumber of the exhausted. Spying the reddish cast of the afternoon sunset, Inuyasha had barely remembered in time to be able to barrel into the forest and leap into the tallest, leafiest tree he could find before the change had occurred.

Stuck in unfamiliar territory, human and alone, he'd spent a sleepless night enshrouded in the damp cold of the forest canopy. He had almost left because of it, but come the dawn and the restoration of his powers, he'd crept back to the castle grounds to find the youkai woman anxiously scouting the grounds with her kugestu guards, actually wandering through the long grass looking for him.

Mystified by the thought of someone like her actually worrying about him, he'd decided a few more days couldn't hurt.

The rest was history, pretty much. There didn't seem to be anyone else on the grounds except for the servants, who looked oddly wooden and never spoke a word. They bore the fangs and eerie eyes of lesser youkai, but they were all blank-faced young girls and kept their eyes on the floor. If he thought about it, he could admit he found them a bit creepy.

As far as resting places went, this one didn't do too badly. But the longer Inuyasha stayed the more he realised that he didn't belong. It was too silent, too clean, too—empty. There was no one to fight with, no fizzy little girl begging for a ride around on his shoulders, no villagers laughing and waving in genuine welcome. It had nearly been a month, and Inuyasha was missing home, just a little.

But it didn't mean he wanted to go back.

Besides, Tsukiko liked having him around, for some reason. A few nights in the week she'd invite him down to the library and she'd ask him all the questions under the sun about himself. At first he'd been reluctant to talk, suspecting some kind of trick or ploy, but even when he mentioned Sou'unga and seeing the ghost of his father, her avid curiosity hadn't sharpened into anything else. So little by little, it all came spilling out of him. All of it. His life, in halting, hesitant sentences. Everything.

Everything except Sesshoumaru.

Except Kikyo. Except Kagome. Except the new moon, except his wild youkai side, except his childhood. There were places even Inuyasha couldn't go. But that side of him wasn't interesting to her anyway, he soon realised with no small amount of relief. She wanted his battles, his triumphs, the levels of his power and the effort it had taken for them all to kill Naraku. Tsukiko wanted grand tales of victory and triumph over unstoppable odds. Well, Inuyasha had those in spades.

So they'd talk in the flickering light of the fireplace, sipping her strange tea while he crouched on the rug, she in her high-backed chair, legs folded carefully in front of her.

But eventually, he knew he had to ask.

"You still haven't told me what you want with me," he said, his voice lazy and eyes filled with firelight. At his back, the comb was travelling smoothly through his hair, her nimble fingers making quick work of his knotted mane. "I mean, you said the furball was angling to bring Sesshoumaru here, not me." He tilted his head to the side slightly as a slim white hand reached over his shoulder to gather up more hair.

A resigned breath gusted along the back of his neck. "Sesshoumaru has been running from these lands for so long I believe he does not know how to stop," Tsukiko said evenly. "Every ten years I send a request, and every ten years my son refuses to answer. He hates me, and he hates these lands. They represent shackles to him, and he has long since relinquished all notions of home and fealty. My perfect son turned rogue, scattered his duty to the four winds, and followed the path of conquest."

Conquest, Inuyasha thought, unsettled. "Why?"

Sesshoumaru's mother didn't immediately answer. But the comb was still running through his hair, so he waited. He counted four more strokes before she spoke, her voice low and quenched of emotion. "He took it badly when his father died. Died and left him with what he deemed to be the weakest of the three swords. Tenseiga. Sesshoumaru felt slighted; that as the heir to my lands where diplomacy was valued over one's ability to defeat an enemy, I had somehow earned him this insult. Who, after all, wanted a weapon that could not kill?" Her chuckle held no humour. "When he confronted me for an answer, all I could tell him was that he would come to understand, in time."

The comb stilled in his hair then, and he glanced back over his shoulder to see her smiling ruefully, the pain of hundreds of years crossing her face in a split second. Then it was gone, and she was cold again, detached. "Oh, he spat and snarled and paced like a wild beast; one of the few times I'd seen my perfect son lose control. He was grieving then, I suppose. But there were no tears in him; not for the father that had pushed him aside for a half-breed child who did not even know his face. So, he renounced his own mother, cast himself in ice and swore he'd never set foot in these lands again. And to this day I have not looked upon my son's face."

She continued combing then, but by that point his hair was shining and tangle-free; embarrassingly so. But the hanyou couldn't bring himself to stop her, his eyes returning to the fire with a kind of absent disbelief. Not even Myouga or Toutousai had been able to tell him that. Maybe no one else had known. Was that where it started? The hate? The bitterness? The day he'd been born, the day their father had died, leaving his eldest son a weak, unreliable sword that he couldn't use. While a squalling hanyou baby got the almighty Tetusaiga, sleeping patiently in the Inu no Taishou's tomb until the day he came to claim it.

Inuyasha's fists clenched loosely in his lap, the corners of his mouth pulling in. For that, Sesshoumaru had abandoned. . .what? Had he been supposed to stay here like Tsukiko, shackled to the earth he'd inherited? Stuck in this weird and silent castle, with its statues and shadows and—

Did he agree with what Sesshoumaru had done? Inuyasha didn't know.

Maybe he could understand.

But if all his bad treatment, the fights and the bitterness, the slurs and the sneering—if it had all started from something like that, something that had Sesshoumaru refusing to so much as set foot in these lands. . .why had he, even for a short time, have treated Inuyasha with something other than hatred? Why treat him like a real person, and stop hunting the Tetsusaiga, if he was still never going to even talk to his own mother again?

Why save his life? Why actively save his life, put his own fucking safety at risk—

I should have let you fall.

Inuyasha flinched, shaking his head rapidly as if to dislodge the memory completely. Sesshoumaru could have taken the Tetsusaiga straight from his fresh corpse, and maybe even gone back to the Bone-Eater's well and collected Sou'unga for good measure. But he hadn't. It was like he didn't even give a damn about the swords.

Frustrated, the hanyou could only guess that he was missing something.

He was forcefully pulled from his thoughts when, patting his shoulder gently, Tsukiko rose to her feet and sighed. "If there is nothing else, I believe I'll retire for the night—"

"What the hell does licking mean?"

They both froze.

Inuyasha started; he hadn't meant to ask that, he was supposed to ask about the—about Tenseiga or something. Not that. But Tsukiko was slowly kneeling back down again, her cool blue eyes steady on his. Her lips pursed in thought. "What a strange question. Licking, you say?"

'Yeah," he said, his expression creased in a frown. "Is that something that youkai. . .do? To each other?" Play the stupid hanyou, he thought rapidly, watching her head tilt in thought. Don't make this question fucking weird. Against his will, he moistened his lips as though just talking about it was prompting some kind of movement. "I just, I dunno about all that youkai shit, and. . ."

Luckily, he didn't have to go so far as to lie when the youkai woman smiled faintly, shaking her head. A long section of white hair tumbled over her shoulder, woven with strands of something that shined like silver. "Calm down, Inuyasha. You're getting flustered." Reaching out, she pressed her palm to his flushed cheek. He hoped futilely that she'd think it was just hot from the fire. "Haven't you ever noticed instincts that mark you as different to the humans you were raised amongst? Certainly the dog clans have a few that mark them as different – wolves share some of these too, I expect. Our clans were descended from the same great gods, after all." There she hesitated a moment, before continuing on. "I don't know much of humans, but the saliva of a youkai like myself, and yes, even you, has healing properties that can lower infection in a wound and prompt it to heal faster."

That part he already knew, he thought, oddly frustrated. "So that's the only time that kind of thing is done? If you're bleeding or whatever? Seems kind of gross," he added, his ears flicking. Tsukiko laughed, giving him a brief flash of the sharp canine teeth she was usually so careful not to display. It lent her a decidedly feral appearance in the firelight, and he had to remind himself that she was probably a powerful youkai in her own right.

"That is the most practical use, I suppose," she said, amused. "But hardly the only one. Haven't you ever felt the urge to display affection toward someone you cared for? Frequent touching, or hugging, perhaps? Displays of that sort are shared by many races, youkai and human alike. To the dog clans a warm stroke of the tongue is only a natural extension of that. You might find it revolting, I understand, but in reality, if you find yourself on the receiving end of such a display, you're really a very lucky—"

Inuyasha stood up abruptly.

"I've got to go," he said, his voice strained. "Goodnight."

Tsukiko's eyes widened in surprise. "But Inuya—"

"Sorry." Unable to say more than that, he nearly ran for the fragile sliding doors of the library, bursting out into the dark hallway and slamming them closed behind him. His wide eyes stared blindly out through the shoji doors on the other side, partially open to allow the night air to flow inside.

Affection. No, he thought vehemently, shaking his head to punctuate the ridiculousness of the very thought. That was just—she had to be wrong. Sesshoumaru could barely even crack a smile; the bastard spent more time insulting him and scowling like he'd personally offended him than he did fucking breathing. So why would he do something like that? Had he been trying to trick him or something? Inuyasha slapped a hand over his face, rubbing his eyes and temples as if physically trying to clear his mind. Bullshit. It was all bullshit.

Hearing sounds of movement inside the library, he silently leapt down the hall in rapid bounds, the sleeves of his haori billowing behind him. Inuyasha turned corner after corner blindly until he was on the other side of the building, safely tucked behind the sliding door of the room he'd been using. Only then did he allow himself to stop, and relax. But not think, oh hell no. If he had his way he'd carve Tsukiko's words right out of his stupid curious head.

It was all just a mistake. No one would say the things Sesshoumaru had said to him, if they cared.

Stripping down to his hakama, Inuyasha threw himself down on the futon that had been prepared for him, breathing in the slightly acrid scent of the lamp burning in the corner of the room. He didn't know why whoever it was that prepared the room kept lighting it. Sitting up, he padded his way over to the flickering flame and blew it out, wrinkling his nose as smoke drifted up into his face. Better to just try and get some sleep, he told himself stubbornly, and forget about the whole thing.

Turning back, his sharp eyes momentarily blinded by the sudden darkness, Inuyasha heard the rasp of the outside door to his room sliding open.

Shit—

Throwing himself hard to his right, the hanyou felt the hard wind of something coming at him fast. The wall at his back shuddered under a sudden impact but he was already moving again, leaping straight for the side of the futon where he'd placed Tetsusaiga.

A bloom of youki washed over his bare skin, making him gasp, and Inuyasha glanced over his shoulder too late to deflect the blow that caught his side, brutally knocking him facedown into the futon, the air pushed from his lungs.

How could he have been so stupid, the hanyou thought wildly, his teeth bared in a snarl as he felt a knee dig painfully into the small of his back, hands like steel manacles pinning his arms to the mattress. Stupid trusting bastard—you put down your sword and now you're dead. Wrenching his head to the side, hair splayed in his eyes, Inuyasha fought for a breath deep enough to curse.

Then a breath gusted over his ear, scent surrounding him like a storm, and he went still.

"It would be wise to cease resisting me," his attacker said, right against the tip of one flickering ear.

Inuyasha closed his eyes, the name forcing its way past clenched teeth.

"Sesshoumaru."



Chapter 15: Tough Love

"What the hell do you want?"

Inuyasha thought he sounded quite calm for someone who had just spent the better part of ten minutes thrashing around on his stomach like a fish out of water. Which was exactly what he'd done the moment he'd realised who was holding him restrained. But with his beloved sword out of his reach, and his claws rendered useless with his arms pinned to the futon, Inuyasha eventually exhausted himself and resorted to his emergency back-up plan: thinking.

If he was honest with himself, he was too confused to react more violently. He was stubborn, and hard-headed, and god knew he'd rather fight for hours on end than talk. . .but Tsukiko's words were still echoing around in his mind, drowning out the memory of the voice that had so coldly turned him aside for no other reason than to deflect some stupid mutt's interest in him. Sesshoumaru was supposed to hate this place, hate him, but here he was. . .and the hanyou didn't have the faintest idea why.

Inuyasha couldn't seem to summon the unforgiving fury that had engulfed him for the first few days after he arrived at Tsukiko's castle. The only thing left was confusion, and a disquieting sense of unexpected relief at the sight of him. But it was locked down, hidden, and Inuyasha was damned if he was going to be glad to see the bastard before he'd played his hand and admitted what he was there for. Missing home was no excuse to be happy to see him, not after—

The memory of Sesshoumaru's face that night flashed through his mind. Dripping with dark rivulets blood, his cheek slashed to the bone. Maybe he'd come for revenge. Now there was something that made sense.

He was so intent upon the thought that the first light touch against his back actually startled him into stillness, his mind blank even as he felt one of his arms freed, the tingling rush of sensation as blood rushed back into the limb making him wince. Biting his lip, he felt the tip of a claw drag his hair off his back in a careful, precise sweep, drawing it back like a curtain.

Inuyasha swallowed. "What the hell are you doing?" He croaked out, masking his uncertainty with gruffness. "Get off me."

"You appear unharmed," Sesshoumaru murmured, but the hanyou got the impression he wasn't replying to his question. Fingertips brushed over his shoulder blades, his arms, the nape of his neck. Light, barely-there touches that explored his skin with clinical, detached efficiency. "You are here of your own accord, then."

Inuyasha's mouth thinned. "What, you thought I didn't come crawling back to apologise because I was stuck here? Don't make me fucking laugh. Get off my back and get the hell out." Then, because he was curious for a response, he added, "you're not wanted here, you know."

The weight holding him down vanished so abruptly he thought for a moment Sesshoumaru had actually left. But as he rolled over, he found the youkai lord standing by the open door, staring out at the hills surrounding the castle. Getting up slowly, eyes never leaving his brother, Inuyasha reached out and gripped Tetsusaiga. If Sesshoumaru noticed, he gave no indication of it.

"I suppose with you in the territory, you are correct," Sesshoumaru said softly, his eyes narrowing at the thought. "She has become resourceful. I am not wanted here. For that, perhaps you have my gratitude. If you are indeed here of your own accord." Clear golden eyes slid to his then, and lingered.

It might have been his imagination, but Inuyasha could have sworn there was a threat in those words, one that didn't seem to be directed at him. Shaking his hair back behind his shoulders, eyes mistrustful and mouth tight, the hanyou got to his feet and backed up against the wall. Arms crossed, the sheath of Tetsusaiga held deceptively loose in one hand, he tried to summon a reply. Was he there of his own free will? Well, that was a no-brainer. He wasn't anyone's prisoner. Hell, the entire time he'd spent at the castle had been like a vacation from his own life. Tsukiko was a quirky, easily amused woman who looked at him fondly and spoke to him as an equal. She liked him. She liked him and respected his strength and the trials he'd overcome. Sure, she got the major shits when he got into the bath without washing off first, and kept trying to make him use a napkin when he ate, but. . .

But she never made him feel like he was less.

You filthy little animal.

The words flooded back to him, clear and brutal with the complete disgust that had saturated them. They'd come from his mouth, and now he was acting like he gave a shit if he was a—a fucking prisoner there? Like he cared?

Inuyasha's mouth flattened into a ruthless line. This time, he was long past caring.

"I like it here," he said flatly. "And if it's a choice between you or her, I'm choosing her. Tsukiko's a good woman, and she doesn't deserve you for a son anymore than I deserve you for a brother."

Sesshoumaru's head snapped around, his eyes stunned. "Deserve me?" He repeated. Then, just like that night, the open disbelief in his expression twisted, becoming coldly furious. "That you do not, hanyou. What you do deserve is to be left to your own godforsaken fate here, something I had endeavoured to spare you! You pitiful, infantile fool, throwing your pathetic tantrums; I saved your worthless life and yet a few false words would have you doubt me?"

Inuyasha didn't have the time to open his mouth before he was slammed hard against the wall he had leaned on, a crushing grip on his throat—a grip that began to smoke and burn with the acidic stench of his brother's poison. Eyes watering with the sudden pain, the hanyou had to drop his sword just to be able to loosen the grip enough to breathe, as his other hand was slammed back into the wall at an angle awkward enough to nearly dislocate his elbow. But Sesshoumaru didn't seem interested in his pain-filled expression or the blood dripping from beneath his searing palm.

His words were as unforgiving as the hand at Inuyasha's throat. "Perhaps I should give credence to your mistrust, if I can do nothing to erase it."

"Go on then," he rasped, "you two-faced sonofabitch."

Strangely, Sesshoumaru's eyelids flinched at the blatant challenge, and in the next moment Inuyasha was free—free to punch the bastard in the stomach as hard as he could. Snarling, he propelled himself off the wall he'd been pinned to and reversed their positions, barging the youkai lord into the opposite wall as he struggled to take a breath. Restrained with his wrists pressed to the wall, Sesshoumaru bared his teeth and growled, but he didn't fight the hands gripping him. No, as if it didn't matter to him one way or the other that Inuyasha was bodily pinning him; he simply stood there and seethed.

It left Inuyasha strangely at a loss for what to do. His throat was stinging in the night air, and the scent of blood was in his nostrils, but Sesshoumaru wasn't fighting him. The urge to start something right there in the bedroom flickered through his mind, but why the hell should he even give the bastard the satisfaction of being able to land a few more blows on him?

Why the hell should he even waste his time now, trying to figure out what to say or do, still stupidly hoping that he hadn't just been spinning lie after lie—

"Such conflict," Sesshoumaru said, breaking into his thoughts. Golden eyes were raking over his face in the dark, the moonlight cutting across his cold features. "Such anger, and yet you will not attack. Tell me why."

Because you didn't hate me, for a second there. And it mattered.

Inuyasha smiled bitterly, his eyes lowering, finding a middle-distance as he scorned himself for still being such a trusting moron. "I'm not wasting my time on you." Releasing his brother, he stepped back, eyes darting about the room, on anything other than Sesshoumaru's face. "You shouldn't be wasting yours, right? On a—a filthy little animal." His voice did not crack, but for one mortifying moment his words dried up in his throat. Stupid. "So get lost already."

"You are content here." The words held some faint note of disbelief, as though Sesshoumaru couldn't comprehend the notion. If Inuyasha was honest, no, he wasn't content, he was hiding and goddamnit he knew that, but it was easier to lie and cover the holes in his defences than it was to give his brother yet another truth that he could turn into a blade.

Jaw tight, Inuyasha nodded once. "Yeah. I am."

There was a long stretch of silence, one that held an undertone of unspoken emotions and soon grew thick with tension, until Sesshoumaru broke it.

"You are lying," he said suddenly, his voice tight and threaded with something Inuyasha didn't want to identify. "You would not let your guard down here. You would not like the peace, the silence, the constant cloying taste of magic in the back of your throat. You would notshow your weaknesses here, and you would not sleep well. Do not lie to me, Inuyasha."

The hanyou nearly went rigid at the assessment, silently reeling. His jaw worked soundlessly, helpless anger flaring up inside him. Because Sesshoumaru had to be guessing. That bastard didn't know him, didn't know how he thought or reacted; how dare he fucking act like he knew what was good for him? How could he still act like he gave a shit, after telling him straight to his face that he wished he'd let him die? That he was still, after everything that he thought had changed, that he was still nothing but a dirty-blooded mongrel piece of shit to him.

How the hell could he stand there like it was nothing? Like he was the idiot for going against Sesshoumaru's orders –as if he could be ordered- and leaving with Inotoki. Turning up like he was all put upon, coming to collect his stupid hanyou half-brother. Like he should be grateful, and just give the hell in.

But no. Sesshoumaru had never said any such thing, had he?

He laughed; and the sound was cold, almost alien coming from him. Inuyasha shook his head slightly and lifted his eyes to meet his brother's, which were narrowed and guarded. "Are you deaf?" He sneered. "I like it here. Tsukiko doesn't give a damn about my hanyou blood, she doesn't grab me by the throat every time I piss her off, and she never once called me an animal, even when I was a rude asshole. I get to do whatever the hell I like, and I sleep just fine in that fucking huge bed behind me, every night. So don't go projecting all your bullshit onto me, because we're not the same. You don't know shit about me, Sesshoumaru, and you never will."

Inuyasha watched his brother's expression flow from tense to unreadable to—something. Denial, maybe. Or it could have just been anger. But then his narrow golden eyes lit with triumph, and Inuyasha had to take a step back as his personal space was intruded upon when Sesshoumaru leaned forward, his face inches from Inuyasha's. His eyes glinted. "Everynight, Inuyasha? Somehow I doubt that. You are predictable enough that—"

"—yeah, the new moon was a few weeks ago," Inuyasha said flatly, riding over the top of his words. "But you're right, I didn't sleep that night." He waited for the youkai lord's expression to melt into grim satisfaction before continuing. "And neither did Tsukiko; she stayed up with me."

The lie tasted bitter on his tongue, but it was worth it in some petty, sick way, just to watch Sesshoumaru's expression break apart. To watch him rear back and stand rigid and speechless, his eyes wider than Inuyasha could ever remember seeing them.

Instinct had told him this would wound Sesshoumaru somehow, but seeing the impact right in front of his eyes like that actually shook him a little. Instead of sneering at him for being a trusting idiot, or anything else Inuyasha might have predicted, he watched Sesshoumaru's face turn white with restrained fury, a terrible anger that was tainted with that same emotion from before. But there was no attack, no scathing reprimand. There was just. . .nothing, for almost too long.

Composure returned to the youkai lord by slow degrees, as the fierce anger faded and became a mantle of ice. His expression flickered and died into cold resolve. The eyes that settled on Inuyasha's were clear and somehow blind as they looked at him. Like a veil had dropped between his gaze and his thoughts.

"You would entrust her with such a grave weakness; your only true weakness," he murmured, his voice empty. "Mere hours after arriving. Yet you would shun me for a handful of words spoken in anger. . .mere hours after I willingly broke my own bones to protect you." Shoulders straightening, Sesshoumaru regarded him coolly.

Inuyasha tensed, feeling the punch of guilt low in his belly. But why the hell should he? "Handful of words? You—"

"Enough, Inuyasha," he interjected harshly, stepping back as though he could no longer stand the proximity. Sesshoumaru's gaze was now dispassionate, and icy. "My interest in you has waned."

The hanyou blinked, wary and confused. "What?"

But Sesshoumaru was already walking to the door. "You have proven yourself disappointing," he said calmly, as though discussing the weather. Certainly nothing so important as the complete disownment of his younger brother. "Do as you please, Inuyasha, and risk all you dare; it no longer matters to me."

You no longer matter to me.

Inuyasha watched in disbelieving silence as his brother walked through the open door and vanished into the night. No attack, no insults, no emotion.

He didn't even look back.

Moving automatically, the hanyou slowly walked to the door and stared out into the night, finding no trace of his brother lingering there. This was what he wanted, he told himself brutally, raking a hand through his hair. Wake up to yourself. So Sesshoumaru's gone. And he's not coming back. It's not the end of—

He wasn't coming back.

That was what he wanted, how it should be, Inuyasha told himself furiously, scanning the room as though invisible eyes were accusing him. So the bastard finally got it through his thick head that Inuyasha didn't want him, need him, or—

—but he'd lied

It didn't matter. He was gone now, he wasn't coming back, and that mattered.

"It serves you right," he whispered, but for a moment he didn't know if he was talking to Sesshoumaru or himself. Lifting one hand to his throat, feeling the drying blood stick to his fingertips, he let out a shuddering breath and stared at his hand. He breathed in the scent of his own spilled blood and the poison that had mixed with it, and swore softly.

For just a moment, Inuyasha thought that maybe he hadn't gotten what he wanted.

That maybe instead, he'd gotten exactly what he deserved.

Maybe he really was just a wretched hanyou, after all.


It was an outcome he should have predicted. And yet on some level it had shocked him, right down to his bones.

Inuyasha would never trust him. Perhaps he simply could not, after so much history and bad blood. He had thought that if he was able to put aside the hatred and simply reach out, the offer would be gladly accepted. For a time, it had appeared that was exactly what would happen.

He had not anticipated that the situation would be so irrevocably reversed, and now he found himself to be the one refused.

So be it, Sesshoumaru thought, his earlier frustration and fury evaporated to leave behind a curious sense of detachment, of acceptance. Perhaps it was all simply a lesson learned.

And yet. . .

Slowing his pace, Sesshoumaru turned to look back at the castle, the home he had avoided for more than two centuries. It was just as he had remembered, eerily silent and empty, looming at the top of the hill in a great malevolent sprawl. After countless invitations to return gone unanswered, promises made to himself that the moon clan's stronghold would be one place he would never set foot in again, that was exactly what he had done in the end. To satisfy his own curiosity, and to ascertain his mother's plans for Inuyasha. To ensure the hanyou was. . .agreeable, to the situation.

It was clear now that he was. To trust that woman to such a degree—it was far more faith than he would ever have placed in her son.

The hanyou fool deserved whatever fate came to him.

Sesshoumaru's mouth set. He had decided upon that once before, and somehow he had still found himself travelling the skies, slipping unnoticed through the barrier he had navigated as a child. Stealing up to the softly glowing room, where he found his stubborn half-brother's silhouette backlit through the thin sliding door. Unthinkingly pulling the scent of salt and earth and strange blood into his lungs, the tang of Inuyasha's essence so close by loosening something unidentifiable inside him. Finding him safe and unharmed; almost insultingly so.

His purpose had been to ensure he was not being held against his will. No more than that; Inuyasha was far too obstinate to be guided anywhere, he knew that now. And yet he had lost his temper in the face of his mutinous disgust, his scathing rejection, his refusal to admit he hated it there—

Because he did not find the territory unpalatable, as he had. As he still did. Perhaps he would be the better choice, had always been the better choice for his mother to cultivate into the willing Inuyoukai she needed. Hanyou or not, he would still do an admirable job. . .

Cutting his previous ties should not be difficult, knowing Inuyasha would not be treated badly.

Hatred and estrangement had always been the easy option between them, he reflected. It was only natural to return to what was comfortable.

Yet instinct railed at him, leaden in his stomach as he turned away to leave. If acceptance of the situation was in his grasp, why did he still have the sense that he was discarding something vital by departing? That he was missing something amidst the anger, the lashing out, and the galling realisation that perhaps he was at fault. His pride refused to allow him to apologise –that was beneath him, after all- but beyond the spite and snarling, there was the sense that his mother was scheming something. That woman was not pleasant unless it was necessary for her plans. And Inuyasha, who had lost his own mother so young—he would not see the deception.

Sesshoumaru hadn't seen it either, until it had almost been too late.

Letting out a breath, the youkai lord lifted one hand to his temple, pressing lightly against the ache building there. Life used to be simple, he thought dismally. Golden eyes slid back to the now-darkened room at the top of the hill.

Then again, he reflected, it also used to be quite boring.

Certain that his actions were bordering on the masochistic, Sesshoumaru turned and headed for the barrier, the memory of his father's voice ghosting over his ears.

"You've got a lot of your mother in you, boy. Same cruelty, same damn desire for power. But whatever she offers you, don't you ever go walking back into that snake pit unless you've got a damn good reason. One day I won't be there to haul you back out when you're neck deep in blood ritual, and about to sell your soul."

Inuyasha had a knack for leaping headlong into a battle without knowing the stakes involved.

Perhaps an evening of the odds was in order.


"All right, I've had it. Get off my land, and don't let the barrier shock you on the way out."

Inuyasha started, his eyes popping open. "What?" He croaked, sitting up from his position on the wall. "Why?"

Tsukiko shot him an unfriendly look. "You're depressing to look at," she sniffed, pointing one clawed finger at him. "Sprawling all over my wall, too. If you're going to sulk and mope about the place, at least have the decency to do it where I can't see you, if you won't tell me about it." Lifting her chin, she turned her face away from him and began to rise from the throne-like chair at the top of the stairs, the afternoon sunlight making her silver-dressed hair shine like platinum.

"I'm not sulking," he denied. "And I don't mope."

"Then what is this I see? Irritatingly self-pitying introspection?"

He scowled. "That's the same thing!"

Tsukiko smiled. "Well at least you're fighting back now," she said fondly. "Come now, tell me what's ailing you. You're not very bright, so I don't expect you're going to solve the problem on your own." Striding over to him, her expression serene and dangerously no-nonsense, she flicked the tip of his nose so hard tears sprung to his eyes.

Yelping, he batted her hand away and swung his legs over the edge of the wall, but before he could make his escape she fisted a hand in the collar of his haori and dragged him back. "Let go," he growled, levelling her his most dangerous glare.

Her eyebrow barely twitched. "Is this anything to do with your embarrassed departure from my library last night?"

Inuyasha felt his cheeks flush miserably. "Hell no. I'm just—in a bad mood."

"You haven't eaten anything much today," Tsukiko stated, seemingly at random. "You're not talking, you won't stop sighing, and now you're turning pink before my very eyes. Inuyasha, what have you done to look so unerringly guilty?" Her pale blue eyes narrowed. "And why won't you tell me how you hurt your neck? For goodness sake, I can't help if—"

"I don't want your help," he said quickly, knowing she was too damn cunning to be kept off the track for long. If she got one good look under the bandage on his neck. . . "Stop acting like my mother."

Tsukiko recoiled, blinking in surprise. "Well I was hardly doing anything of the sort," she said curtly. "Rude boy."

Now he felt guilty. "Sorry," he muttered, because if he knew anything about the woman it was that family was nearly as touchy an issue for her as it was for him. "But I'm fine. Just. . .thinking, I guess."

Watching Inuyasha settle himself back down and stack his hands beneath his head, Tsukiko leaned her hip against the low stone wall separating the dais at the top of the stairs from the expanse of land below it. Her pale eyes were thoughtful as she watched him, one hand reaching out again. But this time she only brushed his hair off his face, the motion seeming awkward and unfamiliar to her.

"Do try not to strain yourself," she advised, turning away. "And you're welcome to stay as long as you please. I was also. . .quite rude."

"Did you strain something, admitting that?" He teased, his lips twitching. "Besides, I'll leave when I'm good and ready, lady." It was so much easier to talk to her, he reflected, something like relief unwinding in his chest. Tsukiko could shoot a good verbal barb when she wanted to, which made her damn good company for him, considering he spent a good part of his time pissing off the people around him. Plus she was tough—she didn't take any of his shit, but neither did she put him in his place like she meant it.

How the hell could she be Sesshoumaru's mother? They were two completely different people. Was his father the one who turned him into such an asshole?

"You could stay here a lot longer, if you wished it," Tsukiko informed him, looking slightly uncomfortable. "I certainly wouldn't mind the company, and this territory needs someone who truly wants it for a home." Her tone, while cool and her words composed, gave Inuyasha a moment of surprise. Sitting up on his elbows, he eyed her speculatively.

"What are you talking about?"

This close, it was easier for him to read her expression, watching how it flowed from uncomfortable to anxious. With a small shake of her head, Tsukiko drew back and returned to her stone chair. "Forgive me, Inuyasha, I shouldn't have brought it up," she murmured. "It's not something I should burden you with."

Frowning, he sat up completely. "You don't like it here? Seems like an all right place, from what I can tell," he said gamely, not really sure what her problem was but keen enough to leap in headfirst. It wasn't like she'd ever told him a heap about herself, after all the long-winded stories he'd been spilling to her. "Tell me what you meant."

For a long moment it seemed like Tsukiko wasn't going to say anything at all. Carefully folding her hands in her lap, she gazed out at the flowing hills, her eyes tracing the line between the long grass and the wild forest that surrounded the hill. A spasm of something like grief flashed across her face, and the hanyou saw her hands clench in the fine silk of her kimono.

"Do you know how long I've been here, Inuyasha?" She asked suddenly, her lips compressed into a composed line. Her eyes did not find his. "For almost six hundred years I've ruled this territory, if you can call this place such a thing. There is no one to rule, here, merely land to protect. The only land our clan can still call its own." Her eyebrows drew together slightly, cresting upward in consternation. "This territory requires life and care I am unable to give, and yet I cannot relinquish my ties to it."

Inuyasha's ears twitched in confusion. "If you don't like it, just leave," he shrugged. "There's no one here to stop you."

Tsukiko laughed, but the sound was almost brittle. "The notions of duty, of fealty, they are lost on you. I am trapped here, Inuyasha, as surely as if there were chains and shackles binding me to the earth." She turned to him then, and her smile was the saddest thing he'd ever seen. "For a time, Sesshoumaru was to be my successor, but you already understand why such a thing is impossible. It doesn't matter now; I've long since given up on him, as he has given up on me."

She might have said more, but Inotoki came running up at full speed then, tiny claws clicking against the stone. "My lady, the kugutsu—one of them has crumbled to dust!" Screeching to a halt, the youkai dog turned in a couple of anxious circles, pawing at the air just clear of Tsukiko's kimono. "I think the protection spells are finally weakening. A few of the others are cracked from head to foot, and from what I can smell the internal barriers surrounding the castle are in a similar state. Magic just doesn't feel as. . ." The dog trailed off with a whine, seeming lost for words."

"Magical?" Inuyasha suggested, earning an irritated look from the vassal. "What the hell do you need guards and shit for, anyway? No one comes here."

Inotoki sneezed. "Because, thanks to our protective magic, no one can find here. But my lady, this brings me to another alarming point. A mixture of human and youkai scents lie just outside the barrier."

Leaning forward in her chair to better see the upset dog, Tsukiko raised an eyebrow at this news. "A mere hungry youkai, finding a helpless meal? Hardly worthy of note."

Inotoki shook his head. "Evidence of a fire, and no blood to be seen," he said grimly. "If I thought it possible, I'd suggest the human scent to be. . .with the youkai group. I couldn't discern what manner of youkai it was, but my nose tells me that at least one of them was a meat-eater. What make you of this, whelp?"

Surprised at being addressed, Inuyasha tried to play dumb. Whatever he thought of Sesshoumaru, the scent Inotoki had picked up had to be Rin and Jaken. Probably the dragon, too. "Dunno," he shrugged. "Sometimes youkai find a use for humans, right?"

Tsukiko laughed. "Yes, but it rarely ends well for the human," she told him, as though he might be a little slow. He just raised one dark eyebrow and spread his palms.

"Sometimes it's the other way around," he said pointedly. Inotoki let out a great yipping bark of laughter.

"Very true, whelp," he said approvingly. "I assume you're referring to that father of yours. Now, my lady, if you would like to accompany me to the site, I've managed to nudge aside most of the kugutsu remains. . ." The dog trailed away then, his liquid black eyes confused. "My lady?"

Tsukiko was stock-still in her chair, her eyes huge as she stared out across the grounds. "Oh, shit," she blurted out, her voice a fierce whisper. "What in the world. . ."

Disturbed, Inuyasha jumped up from his position on the wall and approached her, his hand reaching out to settle on her shoulder. "Oy," he said roughly, ignoring Inotoki's growl at the impropriety of it all. "The hell's wrong with you? I've never heard you—" Breaking off abruptly, he tensed as a soft white hand rose to clasp the one gripping her shoulder, feeling the faint tremble in it.

"I can hardly believe my eyes," Tsukiko whispered, and for a moment the hanyou thought he could see the sheen of tears in her eyes. Gone was the cool composure, the easy amusement and affection that usually warmed her gaze. In its place was a shaken, vulnerable-looking youkai lady, fingers raised to anxiously touch her red-painted lips. She swallowed and drew in a deep breath, then patted Inuyasha's hand and pointed out at the grounds. "Over there, Inuyasha."

Somehow, he knew what he was about to see. After all, in his limited experience there were few things that could get a proper lady like her freaked out and swearing.

Sesshoumaru was enough to make anyone want to swear.

His chest tight, the hanyou clenched his jaw and his fists and turned, his sharp golden eyes seeking out the familiar shape of his half-brother.

It was like time had rolled backwards. Striding with the easy purpose of a predator, Sesshoumaru traversed the long grass surrounding the base of the castle in a straight, unwavering line. Black plates of armour obscured him from chest to thigh, the silver pauldron gracing his chest and encircling the top of one arm glinting coldly in the afternoon sunlight. It was the light off it that had caught Tsukiko's eye, Inuyasha guessed faintly. He hadn't seen Sesshoumaru wearing his full armour in. . .how long had it been? Ages, it seemed. Coupled now with the heavy pelt of fur, Tenseiga and Toukijin slid into place at his hip, Inuyasha was reminded all over again just how much Sesshoumaru was every inch a youkai lord.

Turning away, his eyes hardly seeing the hurried stumble of Jaken far behind his brother, Inuyasha relaxed his hands before his claws could slice into his palms. What. . .the hell. . .

"Well now," Inotoki said, his gruff little voice almost soft with awe, "the young lord has returned home at last. . .but why? Why now?"

Wetting his lips, Inuyasha stared at the ground, steadfastly ignoring the old servant's question like he had no right to answer it. Hell, he didn't. Inuyasha had no idea why he was coming back, in full sight of his mother and the furball, after sneaking up last night. After telling him he didn't interest him anymore. Like he was a hobby, or a. . .or a lying sack of shit that had finally accomplished exactly what he thought he'd set out to do.

Catching his lower lip between his fangs, he turned slightly and stared at Sesshoumaru's approaching form. He was close now, nearly at the stairs.

Their eyes met—

—no, they glanced off each other. Sesshoumaru's expression was rigid and impassive, disdain radiating off his entire being. Deceptively relaxed in posture but still upright, regal, powerful. He looked like he used to, Inuyasha realised with a stupid pang. Like everything was beneath him. Like he'd sooner wipe his boots on you than lend a hand.

Like nothing mattered. Like everything he looked at was shit.

Inuyasha felt sick.

Whipping back around, he dragged in a harsh breath and froze as he met Tsukiko's calculating gaze. She glanced at her son for a moment, then back at him. Some kind of comprehension lit her gaze, followed by an emotion bordering on compassion. "Inotoki told me he was treating you poorly, when he chanced upon you two," she murmured. "If he is here for you, will you join him once more?"

The hanyou nearly laughed. "He's not here for me," he said bitterly. "Not unless he's here to kill me."

Tsukiko stood up swiftly, nodding decisively. The palm that cupped his cheek was gentle, but her eyes were knowing. "Then I will defend you," she said calmly. "Because I certainly doubt my perfect son has returned here for anything good."

Eyes wide and uncomprehending, Inuyasha watched her go through the faintly complicated motions of binding her kimono sleeves back, revealing a single crimson stripe on each of her pale forearms. Striding to the top of the wide staircase, Tsukiko stared down at her son with the imperious regard of a queen surveying mere ants. So what's where he got it from, the hanyou thought absently.

"State your business, Sesshoumaru, and step not one foot further in this direction," Tsukiko said coolly, and Inuyasha could have sworn he saw the heavy amulet around her neck flash.

Unable to help himself, he glanced down at Sesshoumaru, who simply ignored her order as though she hadn't even spoken. Each footstep closer to the dais echoed in the hanyou's ears. Why the hell was Tsukiko being like this? It was like she hadn't just talked about him like he was god himself coming towards her, like she hadn't missed him like hell. Was it for him? Or was it just to protect herself? Inuyasha knew better than anyone that baring your weakness to Sesshoumaru was just asking for trouble. Bothered, he watched Tsukiko, his fingertips creeping to the hilt of his sword. If she pushed him too far—

Then Sesshoumaru's booted foot touched the final step, bringing him onto equal ground with his mother.

Shit, Inuyasha thought, tensing. Tsukiko was so much smaller than him; what the hell did she think she was doing? If Sesshoumaru hated her as much as he claimed to, he could break her in half without batting an eye. She had to know that he'd do it, too. But there she was, staring up at him, barely half a foot of distance between them. Delicate and unarmed against her son's deadly strength.

"Hello mother," Sesshoumaru intoned quietly, and inclined his head in greeting.

Tsukiko seemed to refuse to take so much as a half-step backward. She had to crane her neck slightly to look up at him from such a small distance, but she did it. "You appear to have difficulties hearing, my son," she said, her tone dry and unaffected. "Or does your persistent rebellion extend to even the smallest of instructions?"

"Rebellion implies you have some manner of influence on my actions."

Tsukiko laughed shortly. "And that would indeed be a foolish assumption. Why are you here, Sesshoumaru? Is it for your hanyou brother? Or is it for revenge? Don't try to tell me you're here to take power." If her hands twitched slightly at her sides when she spoke that last, Inuyasha wouldn't mention it. The quiet click of claws over stone alerted him to Inotoki trotting up beside him, looking tense and disturbed. Reaching down reflexively, he grabbed the small youkai and tucked him under his arm.

Sesshoumaru didn't even seem aware of his presence beside them. His eyes were stony as he stared down at his mother. "I am simply here to ascertain whether or not you are still controlling the territory," he said implacably. "Or if you have indeed found another avenue through which to. . .escape."

Tsukiko flushed slightly, and she glanced across to Inuyasha. Her lips pursed as she flicked her gaze back to Sesshoumaru. "How amusing of you to even ask after such a topic, Sesshoumaru. I rule this territory still."

Tilting his head ever so slightly, something seemed to thaw in the youkai lord's gaze. His overall posture seemed to lose a little of the tension it had been holding. Inuyasha frowned in confusion as Sesshoumaru's hands rose, moving to gently cup either side of his mother's face. Tsukiko's expression sprung wide open in shock as her son pressed his lips lightly to the crescent moon on her forehead.

"You will forgive me if I do not believe you," Sesshoumaru whispered against her skin, and wrenched her head around with a splintering crack of bone.

Inuyasha roared wordlessly and lunged at Sesshoumaru, but it was too late. Dropping the dog, he barely managed to catch Tsukiko's body as it was casually slung at him like a broken doll. Falling to his knees, the hanyou trembled as he stared in horror at the boneless splay of her limbs, the unnatural loll of her head. She was dead—Sesshoumaru had killed his own mother, right in front of him.

Staring into her empty, vacant gaze, he felt the agony of childhood loss all over again. "You killed her," he whispered, voice thick with pain. "You killed her."

Sesshoumaru didn't so much as blink. "It was necessary."

"Necessary—" He snarled, hate blazing to life inside him, but stopped with an unintelligible sound as the body in his grasp suddenly squirmed irritably.

"For goodness sake, Inuyasha, my legs are showing," Tsukiko snapped, sitting up in his arms. "If you're going to cradle my corpse, at least make sure I have a little dignity left when I revive." Whipping her head around in the direction opposite to the one her neck had been broken in, Inuyasha heard the sickening crack and pop of bones settling back into their rightful place. "Good of you not to ruin my kimono with any blood, Sesshoumaru. You always were an efficient killer."

What in the blue fuck was going on here? Inuyasha watched Tsukiko get up out of his lap and put herself to rights, looking completely at ease with Sesshoumaru despite the fact he'd just spun her head around the wrong way and dropped her like a stone. For his part, the youkai lord just flicked his hair back behind his shoulders, and their conversation continued in muted tones, as they moved away from where he knelt on the ground.

It occurred to him then, that there was something fundamentally wrong with that family.

Beside him, Inotoki sneezed violently. "Sometimes, I think there's something wrong with their family," he said in disgust. "She should have at least nipped his ears for that."

Slowly, Inuyasha got to his feet, strongly suspecting his mind had just broken into little pieces. Feeling the intrinsic need to be away, now, he wandered off in no particular direction, his thoughts spinning in a thousand different ways. The only thing he could coherently think was a thought that was familiar and comfortable to him—usually when dealing with Sesshoumaru.

What the shitting hell just happened?



Chapter 16: Lockdown

Inuyasha had seen some pretty weird shit in his life. Mushroom weird. And yeah, the dead coming back to life shouldn't really have surprised him as much as it did. But watching Tsukiko get up and brush herself off like it was nothing, no spells, no shrieking vengeance after she revived, that was the straw that broke the hanyou's back.

He was sprawled on his back in the grass, a red star of bafflement amongst the lush greenery, when Inotoki found him.

Inuyasha's eyes slid toward the dog as he padded over to him, panting lightly, his pink tongue lolling out on display. "You look broken. Is your stare always so vacant?" the old vassal asked as he stretched out beside him, head on his paws. "Don't take what happened back there to heart; Sesshoumaru-dono knew quite well that my lady would not die from such a thing. The fact that she permitted him to do it at all is what makes my hackles rise. She was always too soft on that son of hers. Let him do as he pleased as a child, and what did she receive as thanks? Centuries of silence and solitude as he up and left, deserting her and his duty. Broke her heart, he did."

The clouds were drifting slowly overhead, huge puffy clouds that looked thick and soft. Inotoki liked to talk, Inuyasha decided. Fucking dog never shut up, actually. But even if his peace had been completely destroyed, at least now he might be able to get some goddamn answers.

"Is Tsukiko immortal or something? Because I heard those bones in her neck crunch—that shit practically echoed," he said, the corners of his mouth turning down at the memory. "And if she is, why the hell didn't anyone tell me?"

"Oh, because you're so important," the dog said, sounding irritable. "You're just some fleeting charity case my lady has an interest in; some pale replacement for her son. Well, he's back now, isn't he. So don't be thinking thoughts above your station. Insolent whelp."

Despite everything, that stung. Inuyasha wasn't a complete idiot, he got it – there was more to this whole stupid family drama than he'd been told about. It was obvious. Hell, Sesshoumaru had thought he was being held prisoner, Tsukiko was asking him about staying forever, and through it all necks were being broken and no one elseseemed to think that was even a little messed up. And if the dog was right, and he was just playing his part in entertaining Tsukiko, well hell, why even bother staying around for the finishing act?

Inuyasha closed his eyes, not bothering to call Inotoki on his pissy mood. "I really doubt Sesshoumaru is sticking around for the long haul," he muttered, lifting one hand to scratch his cheek where a long blade of grass was brushing it.

"Pah! Acting like you have the slightest idea of what's going on. You can't fool this old youkai, no you can't," the dog scoffed. Irritating little shit, the hanyou thought darkly. "Anyone can see that Sesshoumaru-dono can't stand you—it disgusted him to so much as cast his eyes in your miserable direction. Though I am surprised he didn't kill you for what you did to his face the night we met."

Inuyasha's eyes popped open. At his side, Inotoki was gnawing on his claws, or trying to. He paid the youkai little attention, his thoughts delving back to that night. Before, Sesshoumaru would definitely have tried to kill him for splitting his face open like that. He wouldn't have wasted his time bitching about how he wished he'd let him die before. He'd have just done it. But not only had he simply shot him down in flames with some seriously scathing insults, Inuyasha hadn't even thought for a second that his life might have been in danger.

It. . .really hadn't occurred to him. Hell, he hadn't even meant to actually slice him up like that. An unhappy sigh gusted out of him. Maybe it was all his fault. If he hadn't freaked out, all pissed off and hurt pride, maybe Sesshoumaru wouldn't hate him now. If he hadn't lied about trusting Tsukiko with something as important as the one night of the month he turned human, if he hadn't pulled some incredibly stupid self-sabotage, and torn to shreds any chance he had of being something other than. . .of mattering to Sesshoumaru, things would be different. Better. But whatever that bond had been, all it was now was a poisoned blood tie his youkai brother would probably jump at the chance to get rid of.

"I'm a real idiot," Inuyasha said softly, his eyes on the sky.

Inotoki let out a whuffing sigh beside him. "You're not completely without sense," the dog said, sounding grudgingly sympathetic. "There's decency in you, and you treat my lady with warmth and respect. You also had the good presence of mind to break ties with that son of hers. He's a cold, ruthless snake when he wants to be, let me tell you. I only hunted him down at his mother's request – I never liked what he grew up into, or his penchant for hero-worshipping his promiscuous fool of a father. Rutted with anything, that blasted—" Whatever else he might have said was abruptly broken off, as Inotoki put some nervous distance between them. "Ah, perhaps that was ill-assumed of me."

Inuyasha realized he'd gotten pretty good at shooting a stone cold death glare. Heh, he thought with absent humour, at least he knew now the little bastard had a healthy appreciation for his own physical wellbeing.

"Did you ever tell Tsukiko you'd rather take a piss on Sesshoumaru than serve him now?"

"I like my balls where they are," the dog said bluntly, surprising a laugh out of the hanyou.

"Yeah, that's probably about right," Inuyasha said, some of the life returning to his gaze. His mouth quirked up in a crooked smile. "All right furball, since you know everything answer this for me: what do you think he's back here for?"

The youkai managed to shrug, blinking his liquid eyes at Inuyasha. His long whiskers twitched. "If I had to take a guess, he's here because of you." But before the hanyou could open his mouth, Inotoki went on. "He didn't want this land or his titles, but now that you're here and to all appearances my lady is giving the impression she'd be pleased to pass the duty to you, he's having second thoughts. You can't undo what's been done – not when it comes to the blood rituals."

"Blood rituals?"

"Nothing!" The dog barked, alarmed. Inuyasha closed his eyes for a second, wondering how much trouble he'd get in with Tsukiko if he punched her vassal in the back of the head.

"So these blood rituals are the things that make you the leader here, and immortal, right?" He asked, keeping his voice calm and patient.

Inotoki stood up, stiff-legged and aghast. "Who told you?"

This time Inuyasha did hit the dog; a hard rap of his knuckles on the top of its furry head. "How stupid do you think I am?" He snapped, pushing himself up into a sitting position. "I figured it out. You know, if I wasn't such a nice, even-tempered person, you'd be a goddamn rug by now. You really do think I'm a moron, don't you?"

"Yes," the dog replied without hesitation, a complete turnaround on his earlier comment. "I think you're nothing more than brute muscle and dumb luck, and even if you were a full youkai, it still wouldn't be enough to—what is that?"

Inuyasha glared as the dog suddenly stretched his neck out in the direction of the trees. "Go find out," he growled, as he grabbed the dog, hauled his arm back, and launched it at the dense forest. Yelping in panic, the small dog flew through the air, sailing straight into the thick underbrush with a snap and crunch of plants and branches. "Asshole dogs always land on their feet, right?" He called out in the direction he'd fallen. A stuttering howl of outrage was his only reply. Feeling slightly better about things, Inuyasha let himself fall back into the grass, resting his forearm over his eyes.

Then Inotoki snarled – short and feral.

"Intruders! Intruders in the domain!"

The following crack of youki was sharp, acrid and violent to the hanyou's senses, and it had him on his feet before it fully registered that he'd moved at all. Intruders? What the hell could get through that barrier—

A young girl screamed shrilly, surprised and frightened. A crunch and then the thump of wood hitting the ground. Inuyasha's hackles rose.

Rin.

Protective rage flared in him, launching him forward into the dense forest-line, bushes and shrubs whipping and snagging his hair and clothes as he ran. "Inotoki!" he yelled. "Stop!" His order went unheard as a flurry of deep barks exploded ahead of him, and a large plume of fire shot straight up into the air. Goddamnit. Was that the dragon's doing? Hadn't Jaken (followed Sesshoumaru up to the castle?

Breaking through the underbrush, Inuyasha nearly ran headlong into a white dog the size of a small pony, hackles raised and crimson eyes feral with territorial rage. "Holy—!" He barely managed to leap over it in time as he spotted Rin flattened against a tree, brown eyes terrified, the splintered end of a stick held uselessly in her bleeding hands.

Blood, Inuyasha realised as he turned and faced the youkai. It had ripped that stick out of her hands and splintered them up. Unnoticed by him, his upper lip twitched into a snarl as he sank low and raised his claws – he didn't need Tetsusaiga for this thing.

"Intruders!" it snarled at him, guttural and bestial – and familiar.

Inuyasha stiffened. "You have a sealed form?" he asked Inotoki, incredulous. "Goddamn, furball, I was about to take your head off! You—"

Inotoki lunged forward, dripping teeth bared as he snapped his jaws at the small girl cowering wordlessly behind Inuyasha. Rin screamed, the sound high and piercing to the hanyou's ears.

And one name flew from her lips.

"Inuyashaaaa!"

Memories flared behind his eyes, his heart dropping to his feet at that familiar tone, that urgency—and it was his, his name, she was counting on him—

Inuyasha leapt at the transformed Inotoki, for a moment seeing only an enemy, and something that threatened what was his to protect. This he was good at, when he couldn't do anything else right.

His youki speared from the tips of his claws, slashing Inotoki and throwing the youkai back through the trees, howling, his face and shoulder torn open. He impacted with a shuddering thump, skidding through the dirt and leaves, rolling until he finally fell still, and silent. Breathing rapidly, Inuyasha snarled and twitched the blood off his claws, willing the clamouring instinct in his head back into submission.

Then small arms wrapped around his waist from behind, and a face pressed into the small of his back. Tensing, he felt small tremors run up and down the little girl's arms, and wondered all over again just why she'd been left all on her own. Untangling Rin's grip on his clothes he faced the frightened girl. "Hey," he said gruffly, "you're not crying, are you?"

She looked up at him, her brown eyes spilling big fat droplets down her cheeks. "No," she denied, her voice choked and squeaky with restraint. "But he broke my stick. He just bit it, and it snapped! And now my hands hurt." Holding them up, Inuyasha felt like ripping the youkai open all over again as she showed him two small friction-burned palms, each with a decent amount of splinters embedded in them.

"He ripped it out of your hands too, huh?"

She nodded miserably. "Was that a wolf, Inuyasha? Why do they hate me?"

Shit. "That was just a guard dog, and a pain in the ass as well. He doesn't hate you," he said awkwardly. "I think he's just trained to attack anything that isn't supposed to be here." Probably. Looking over his shoulder before he could stop himself, his eyes darkened slightly as he realised then that Sesshoumaru hadn't acted on the girl's scream, hadn't come running to rescue her like—the way she'd always believed he would.

Inuyasha knew he could handle this all himself. Knew it. But realising Sesshoumaru had probably heard her up on the hill, and done nothing, well. . .the next thought to whisper deep in his mind was a disturbing one.

That maybe he wasn't the only one Sesshoumaru no longer found interesting.

The thought burned its way into the back of his brain, sitting there like a glowing coal as Jaken came running through the long grass, squawking about wandering off alone, being stupid, and oh great now you're injured, you silly girl, Sesshoumaru-sama's just going to love this

Inuyasha left Rin with him, feeling strangely detached from the moment as he grabbed Inotoki and hauled him up over his shoulder as best he could, opting to make sure Tsukiko didn't kill him outright when she smelled her vassal's blood all over his hands.

Better to just get it all over with.


Tsukiko stared at him.

Inuyasha stared back.

Tsukiko stared at Inotoki.

Inotoki coughed up some pink foam, and bled a little. The youkai lady huffed angrily.

And laid her perfect white slipper clean into the potentially dying dog's ribs. "Get up, you old fool," she snapped. "I won't tolerate you making a mess of my marble floors. Get some salve on those wounds." Painfully, Inotoki wheezed and obediently struggled to his feet.

"Many. . .apologies, my lady," he choked out, and with a crack of youki-based lightning, vanished from the dais. Cool blue eyes settled on him again, and narrowed.

"Inuyasha, you stink of blood," she informed him with a wrinkle of her nose. "Go take a bath and have your clothes washed. I'll send for some clothing you can wear in the meantime."

This wasn't the reaction he'd expected. "But—aren't I in trouble?"

Her expression very clearly said yes. "I don't have time to lecture you right now," she said crossly. "I'm in the middle of fortifying the protective spells around the castle and lands, and you're being a bother. Bathe, eat, and for goodness sake, stay out of Sesshoumaru's way. He's in a terrible pique. Leave the strays he's picked up to wander the grounds unheeded. Inotoki won't challenge their presence again—not after that reprimand you gave him." With that perplexing explanation, she shooed him off inside the castle, looking harried and if he thought about it, a bit stressed out. Maybe this spell thing was serious business. Or had Sesshoumaru's arrival done that?

He thought about going back to question her on the blood rituals that Inotoki had been talking about, but eventually decided to do as she said. There just seemed to be too much shit going on for him to understand just yet, and something told him to try and exercise some caution, if it was within him to do it. So he followed the narrow winding corridors to the bathhouse, looking forward to getting the stink of the furball's blood out of his nose as soon as possible.

It wasn't long before he was washed clean and soaking in the large wooden bath, which was clearly designed for public use—if the castle had been fully occupied, instead of abandoned like it was. It left him with his own personal pool, but in his current subdued mood Inuyasha did little more than hunker down in the corner of the bath and submerge up to his nose, his hands passing a rough ball of soap between them, watching the strange spicy lather fog the water. He wasn't supposed to bring it into the water with him, but he doubted Tsukiko was really going to care.

He sat there for a long time, eyes tracing the ripples of the water spreading away from his body, the steam rising up into the air, the aqueous scent that calmed his senses. For the first time in days, he felt the tension seeping out of him. Sure, he had questions, and it seemed like everything had turned into one giant clusterfuck, but for a few precious minutes it didn't matter all that much. Like always, Inuyasha would deal with problems as they came. Worrying wasn't going to get him anywhere fast.

Blowing out a quiet breath, the hanyou tipped his head back against the rim of the back and let his eyes slide closed. He was tired. Sesshoumaru had been right about one thing at least; he wasn't sleeping well. Beds were a rare luxury for him, and he knew he should be revelling in the idea of a comfortable sleeping place, but damned if he could manage to stretch out in that room, and last night had been no kind of rest. Not with Sesshoumaru's dismissal echoing in his ears, a perfect counterpoint to his own scathing conscience, reminding him what an idiot he'd been to lie about the last new moon.

Counting the days for the sake of it, Inuyasha knew he'd have to pull some fancy footwork in a few hours, because the moonless night would be upon him again. It wasn't a big deal, really—he'd just wade into the river that circled around behind the castle at the base of the hill, and swim downstream so his scent would be lost. Then it was just a matter of climbing a suitable tree and waiting for sundown. Tsukiko wouldn't notice his disappearance – he did it enough that she wouldn't find it strange even if she did. And Sesshoumaru. . .hell. He was the last person who would search him out now. For such a pain in the ass night of the month, it was something he knew how to take care of relatively easily.

Assuming he didn't fall asleep in the bath first, he thought drowsily, forcing his eyes to open. If he tried to nap in his room now though, he'd probably be less exhausted later on. He never slept on the night of the new moon, but he sure did get a bit fruity when he was exhausted and clinging to a tree trunk for hours. Twisting around, he lobbed the soap into one of the buckets lined up against the wash area and levered his body out of the bathing pool, sitting on the edge for a moment as he twisted the water out of his now-clean hair.

When the doors slid open behind him he didn't react immediately, assuming it was just one of the servant youkai bringing his replacement clothes. Turning around to find Sesshoumaru nearly startled him back into the water. Instead his heart jumped into his throat, but all he could do was stare at his brother in wide-open surprise, his lower lip caught between his teeth.

Oddly, the youkai lord seemed similarly frozen for a moment, though his face reflected no emotion. Neither said a word, but as their locked gaze broke apart Inuyasha's ears flattened tellingly against his skull. He turned away to cover the small tell, staring at the water as his fists clenched reflexively around his wet mane of hair. If he didn't say anything, if he didn't do anything, then Sesshoumaru wouldn't have anything to pointedly ignore. He told himself that as the sudden brush of disrupted air cooled his shoulders, and he had to stop himself from glancing around again. Instead, he pulled his towel toward him and got to his feet, wrapping it securely around his hips.

When his willpower snapped and he finally looked around again, his curiously darting eyes dulled with disappointment.

Sesshoumaru was gone. Well that figured, he told himself harshly. He hated him now – why would he willingly stand in the same room as him? It was a huge concession for him to breathe the same fucking air. Angry now, angry at himself for caring more than anything, Inuyasha gave up on waiting for his clothes and stalked out into the hallway, towel clenched at his waist in one fist and his eyes burning mutinous gold. At least if he was in his rooms he couldn't be avoided like the fucking plague.

"Well, at least you're wearing a towel," Tsukiko said dryly, her voice carrying from the other end of the hall. Glancing up sullenly, the hanyou saw something dark blue bundled in her grip, but his attention was immediately snatched away by her suddenly casual appearance. Well, casual by her standards. The silver strands that usually dressed her hair were gone, the white silk of her hair pulled back from her face in a practical braid that took years from her. The sleeves of a simple red kimono were bound back, but the colour made her look tired and pale. All in all, she looked drawn and unwell.

It look Inuyasha's mind off his own troubles for a moment. "Is all this magical stuff making you sick?" he asked doubtfully, slowing his pace. "You look like ass."

"Charming," she replied, her nose wrinkling. She glanced down at herself and shrugged. "The usual pomp and ceremony of my attire doesn't serve me when I am working on the protective barriers and fortifying my kugutsu. You see me with no more glamour than my own skin affords, albeit with a good pint of blood missing. I expect that's what you're referring to." Hefting her cloth bundle into one arm, she showed him a long, deep gash in the soft flesh of her inner wrist. "Blood magic, Inuyasha, is rarely without its own cost. I decided to take a break and bring you your new attire. It clashes terribly with your colouring, but it's all I have unless you want to wear some old clothing of Sesshoumaru's—"

"No thanks," he said hastily. The youkai lady nodded knowingly.

"I thought not." Passing him the clothes, she used the opportunity of occupying his hands to lean in and cup his jaw in her hands, forcing him to meet her eyes closely. "He is only here for a few days," she said quietly. "If that, I'd wager. Do not fret, Inuyasha. I don't have the heart to forcefully banish him, but I also don't want you to be unhappy. It's selfish of me to want you both here when you clearly don't get along, but I haven't had guests in so long. Not since your father was alive."

Inuyasha gave her a put-upon look. "Is this a guilt-trip? I'm feeling a strong guilt-trip vibe, here."

She smiled, her delicate fangs glinting. "Is it working? It never worked on Sesshoumaru. But then I suppose you actually have a soul, don't you?"

Inuyasha nearly dropped his towel. "That's nasty," he said, awed. "True, but nasty. Since I've actually seen our old man's soul before, I guess he gets that from you, right?"

Tsukiko let go of his jaw, but not before she slapped him playfully on the cheek. "See? I would miss these verbal sparring matches if you left. You're a boorish, crass young man, but you do grow on a person. A little like a fungus, actually."

He snorted. "An amusing, roguishly appealing fungus," he insisted.

Her face clouded with doubt. "You're labouring under the impression that you are attractive? Oh, you poor deluded thing."

Inuyasha glared. This was like talking to Miroku and Sesshoumaru's love child. "Look, as much as I'd love to do this all afternoon—"

"—we both have places to be," she finished for him, her tired eyes now gleaming with amusement. "Do make sure you eat something, Inuyasha; you've been a bit strange today but I at least want the certainty that you're not going to faint from starvation. You are half-human, after all." She shook her head slightly, her mouth turning down at the corners.

Inuyasha just blinked at her, shifting the clothing in his grip. "You never had a problem with it before," he said slowly.

"And I still don't," she replied promptly, looking him in the eye. "After all, you're more youkai than human, really." Patting his arm, she turned away to head back up the hall. "I mean no insult. Nobody knows better than I that you cannot help the unfortunate circumstances of your birth."

Surprised and more than a little insulted, he opened his mouth to call her on the most likely unintentional slur, but snapped his jaw shut as he saw a familiar figure in white striding down the hall past Tsukiko, giving her no more than a cursory glance despite her full-body turn to watch him walk past. Seeing him standing there, Sesshoumaru's eyes flickered disinterestedly over the hanyou's near-naked form; a strange counterpoint to the intense look a moment ago.

Then his mouth curved in a sneer as he glanced back to his mother, a single eyebrow arched. "I did wonder why you kept him around like an errant pet," he murmured, his voice cold. "I suppose he's good for little else to you." At that, disgust ran in a thick dark vein through his words, and the youkai lady and hanyou alike went rigid with the meaning of his words. Inuyasha was thunderstruck.

"Now wait just a goddamn minute here," he started furiously, "you can't just—"

"Inuyasha, no more," Tsukiko interjected calmly. "Don't give him the fight he's looking for. Casting improper aspersions will get you nowhere, Sesshoumaru. Besides," she added, a wicked curve to her mouth, "his blood is too different for my tastes."

Sesshoumaru's eyes slitted. "I suppose the taste of human blood would be unpalatable to you, mother. How unfortunate it was that my father did not share your opinion."

Ouch. Tsukiko's pale cheeks flushed crimson with anger, but rather than get into a snarling argument with her cool-eyed son she simply turned on her heel and stalked away, her small fists clenched so hard Inuyasha actually caught the tang of fresh blood in his nostrils. Bastard, the hanyou thought unforgivingly, turning away to reach for the door to his room. He'd intentionally said it to insult them both at the same goddamn time, hadn't he? Leave it to Sesshoumaru to verbally kill two birds with one stone.

"No arguments, then," Sesshoumaru said deliberately from behind him. Trying to provoke him. Inuyasha had just pushed open the door when he stopped on reflex, glaring at the youkai lord over his shoulder.

"Go to hell, Sesshoumaru," he said clearly and for once, his words weren't infused with a thousand other thoughts and feelings that confused him. There was just this. "I'm done with you, and all your bullshit. You don't get to treat me however the fuck you want—and if you so much as open your mouth in my direction again, I'll cut your fucking tongue out. But you shouldn't need to, right? Because your interest has waned. So just ignore the dirty hanyou, Sesshoumaru, and walk away." Tossing his clothes inside the door, Inuyasha shot him a flat look of disgust before he stepped over the threshold, and slammed the door closed in his brother's curiously blank face.

Despite his initial unrest and aggravated pacing, in the end Inuyasha decided to take a nap, of all things. After pulling on the borrowed clothes Tsukiko had given him, finding the dark blue sleeves hung slightly past his fingers and the wide legs of the hakama pooled around his feet, he'd decided wandering around in public looking like a kid playing dress-up wasn't the best idea. It was a similar style to his fire-rat clothing, but the kosode beneath was a crisp white, and the hem of the hakama didn't bunch in around his ankles. To his amusement, despite being unused for years the material only smelled like the dried lavender that had been pressed in with it to stave off moths. He smelled like a girl again, but all in all, he could have done a lot worse.

Jerking the sliding collar of the haori up over his shoulder, Inuyasha circled on the futon a couple of times before finding a decent spot to sit. Better to get some rest now, he thought darkly, while he still had the luxury. Shifting his shoulders against the wall, Tetsusaiga braced across his knees, he tipped his head back and closed his eyes.

For once, the echoes of Sesshoumaru's voice didn't replay in his mind, there were no haunting thoughts or anger or. . .well, anything really. For once Inuyasha felt like maybe he really didn't care about the shit he'd said. Sure, things had been completely screwed up, and he still wasn't sure if he was sorry or not, but he'd done pretty well for himself long before Sesshoumaru became a constant in his life, and he could do it again. He just didn't need him.

The thought was confident as he slipped into a dreamless sleep. It was strong and real, and if he realised it with a stab of sadness, it didn't register before the world around him turned soft and dark.

Inuyasha slept.


Sunset was turning the light coming through the outside shouji door a brilliant orange when Inuyasha's eyes popped open. Rubbing his eyes, he gave a jaw-cracking yawn, feeling hungry and a little weird from sleeping during the day. Groggy and disoriented, he struggled to his feet with far more effort than he usually needed when an instinctive fear suddenly gripped his chest like a cold fist.

Sunset.

"Oh god," Inuyasha whispered, lurching forward and nearly tripping on the hem of his pants. Dropping Tetsusaiga, he dove for the outside door and wrenched it open, watching with horrified eyes as the bloody orange sun slipped full and lazy behind the hill. No time, he thought wildly. Minutes at best—minutes and the scent of a human in the castle would slip down the halls like smoke, luring Tsukiko, Sesshoumaru, Inotoki to find the weakness he couldn't bear to let anyone see again. They couldn't be trusted. No one could. Not here, with the magic and the secrets and blood, his blood was too different, too insipid, too filthy—

Letting out a shuddering breath, the hanyou swore silently, trying to get his clamouring instincts under control. No need to get fucking hysterical, it was only the new moon, he told himself harshly. He just needed to be out, now, and the faster he got into the forest the better. He'd have to forgo the scent-masking, but if he was careful—

Leg muscles bunching, Inuyasha leapt out into the bleeding red landscape.

And hit a sizzling wall that threw him back so hard he slammed into the door on the other side of his room, limbs askew and senses blank with shock.

The air outside the door wobbled and shimmered slightly, before the effect vanished.

"What—" A spell was on the door? Hoisting himself up, breath tearing in his chest, he ran for the invisible wall once more. Again, he was thrown back like a magnet trying to touch its polar opposite. Approaching it slower this time, an alien sound left his throat as he reached out one shaking hand to the spelled door, his palm feeling the tingle of magic a hair's breadth away. He swallowed convulsively as he saw his claws thinning, turning softer. Soon they'd begin to retract back into blunt human nails. Minutes, he had minutes. He had to move. Now.

Find another exit, he thought, mentally coaching himself. Head for the dais, it's the main entrance, no spells there—

Tsukiko was there.

He stilled, his heart hammering in his chest. He hadn't turned yet. A panicked exit would definitely look weird, but she wouldn't know why. She'd just think he was nuts. The whisper of a voice asking him if he should trust her was crushed almost immediately. Sesshoumaru had been bad enough—with him around he couldn't stay in the castle even if he did tell her, which every drop of blood in his veins was howling at him not to.

He was prey when he was human, Inuyasha thought sickly. Prey did not seek refuge with predators, no matter what. No matter what.

The hanyou whirled around and ran for the internal door, throwing himself out into the hallway and lurching down the hall at a dead run. Left, left, right, through the second door, he chanted inside his head, his chest loosening as he realised he couldn't scent Inotoki or Sesshoumaru down this way. There was just her up ahead as he burst through the main door of the castle, as the sun dipped dangerously low on the horizon—

Just Tsukiko standing at the top of the stairs, blood-slick palms raised to the setting sun, dense youki radiating off every inch of her form.

Turning slowly, the youkai lady locked eyes with him – eyes that were as crimson as the blood staining her hands.

"Inuyasha," she said throatily, an almost imperceptible chord rising in her voice, almost like twin voices were speaking at once. "I'm afraid you won't be leaving any time soon—" She broke off on a slightly feral growl of strain as she snapped her hands back up into place; and where her bloodied palms touched the barrier, it became visible, like a dome-shaped prison just for him. It stretched like glass over the entire castle, sealing every exit, protecting and imprisoning everything within it.

Behind Tsukiko, the sun slowly vanished from the sky.

And with it, so did the hanyou Inuyasha, as his youkai blood died in his veins.



Chapter 17: Sleep Not

Inuyasha bolted.

Hide, his brain screamed at him as he turned and darted back into the castle. Get back in your room and push everything against the doors. Tetsusaiga was no good on the new moon but it was still a sword – not that it was going to seriously damage anyone.

Running down the halls, his knees turned to water and the hanyou nearly collapsed where he stood as his youki began to evaporate inside his body. Not here, he thought wildly, not yet. Not where anything could walk by. Not where the scent of his human blood would sweep through the castle like a warm wind. What would happen when they knew? Tsukiko, with her spells and blood magic, her laughing eyes and sharp smile – what would she do once she realised her hanyou guest turned human one night of the month? Would Inotoki release his sealed form and tear out his throat? The castle wasn't for those without the blood of the dog clan in their veins.

Soon he'd be one of those intruders the dog had so mercilessly tried to hunt down. Only there would be no one to step in for him.

There was nowhere for him to go if he was human, Inuyasha realised with a cold stab of fear. Nowhere to hide. They'd smell him, they'd find him, and all the tolerance in the world for his half-breed blood would evaporate – they used to eat humans, didn't they? Or had she been joking?

Breathing raggedly, Inuyasha slumped back against the wall, sliding down it in a dizzying rush that was a little like passing out. Bringing shaking hands to his face, he watched his claws beginning to shift, his vision blurring as his sharp golden eyes no doubt began to darken. The sun had barely set, but the reddish cast of the sky wasn't enough to spare him the change. With no moon, nothing to rouse his demon blood. . .

This was pathetic, Inuyasha thought blindly. He didn't just give in – he'd never just given in to anything and his own blood wasn't any exception, this or any other time. Gritting his teeth, feeling his fangs beginning to blunt down and vanish, Inuyasha closed his eyes and began to do something he hadn't tried since he was a boy.

He fought the change.

It was stupid, it was stubborn and he knew, he knew he was only delaying the inevitable, but reaching inside himself the hanyou gripped onto every feverish thread of his vanishing youki, clutching it with every drop of willpower he possessed. He dragged it deep, deep inside himself where it couldn't leave him—not right away. It wasn't without consequences; after all, it was an unnatural cessation of a change his body was adapted to undergo. Pain immediately raked through his body like serrated claws and he stifled a grunt, pulling his knees up and slamming his head back against the wall to distract himself from it. The world spun and shimmered as if the spells on the castle had contracted around him, and for a moment he nearly lost his senses completely.

For a long minute he sat there, crumpled in on himself, frozen and stagnant in the change. With blunt claws and golden eyes shot with midnight, strands of his hair shockingly black in the snowy silver mane – Inuyasha hung poised, tense and trembling with the strain of shackling his diminishing youki to his weakening body.

Breathing laboured, whistling through his gritted teeth, Inuyasha knew he'd pulled off what he could. Only now, bordering on the change, every drop of his strength put into remaining that way. . .he couldn't move. This wouldn't fix things – hell, it wouldn't do anything

That was the sad, stupid truth of it.

Inuyasha would be found, sooner or later, caught in the agony of his pathetic last-ditch effort to protect his secret; a secret that might not even mean the end of his life if he was found out. But he couldn't stop. It just wasn't in him to give in, and let them all see. . .he'd had enough of sneering and disdain, of laughter at his 'unfortunate circumstances'. The sad fact was that Inuyasha just couldn't do it, even when the strain of it, the pulsing pain of gripping onto his youki as it slipped like sand through his fingers told him that soon he'd have no choice.

It was almost funny, he thought bitterly, hunched there in the lonely twilight. Singe-minded determination, the refusal to quit – hadn't that always been his one shining quality? A quality that always ended in pain for him, without fail. Hilarious. Still, there was no humour in him, not when his claws had vanished, the myriad of scents in his nose dulled to nothing more than faint incense and dust. A human's feeble senses.

But even his muffled human sense of hearing could pick up the decisive footsteps coming down the hall.

Sweat was trickling down his spine, his rapidly-blurring vision fixated on his feet as he sat in the shadows, listening to the presence coming closer. His breath escaped in a shaking rush. Tsukiko, coming to find him. Tsukiko, with her damned curiosity and her spells. Deciding to fortify the barriers on the one day he needed to be out—what if it wasn't just a coincidence? What if she'd found out somehow? Did Sesshoumaru tell her, thinking she already knew? His fists clenched in the fabric covering his knees, his breath tearing in his throat. He knew he was beginning to hyperventilate, that he was losing control, but the echo of those footsteps became a heartbeat in his ears—or maybe that was just his panicked trip-hammer heart telling him to move—now

The footsteps stopped, right in front of him.

Inuyasha couldn't look, shuddering under the pressure, his hair falling in his eyes, silver shot with black. Can't lie now, a voice whispered to his pain-locked control. You're done, human.

"Your penchant for crouching in strange places appears to have reared its head," said a flat voice. "You're in my way."

His heart stopped.

Sesshoumaru.

His shock was enough to jerk his head up, to meet the cold narrowed eyes fixed on his hunched form. Enough for his control to splinter to the point where a stifled growl of pain was torn from him, and he sank his teeth into his wrist to stop it. His shaking he could do nothing about, but damned if he was going whimper like a bitch in front of his brother.

Above him, Sesshoumaru's eyes were suddenly filled with calculation. "You are changing, aren't you? I hadn't thought it would cripple you so completely," he murmured, but there was no sympathy in his voice. Just the detached curiosity one would spare for a particularly interesting insect. "Or take so long."

The youkai lord took a step forward, close enough that his booted foot was nearly touching Inuyasha's toes. He resisted the urge to pull his feet in further, instead pinning his eyes to the ground in humiliation. He'd get bored, he thought desperately, hopelessly. Sesshoumaru might get bored and just leave him there. It was the best he could hope for now, but even that was dwindling as with each gasping breath he pulled in around the skin clenched in his teeth, the pain was intensifying, his strength dissolving with it.

"No better than an injured mongrel seeking refuge in solitude," Sesshoumaru observed, his voice as empty as the gathering shadows. "Suffering in the dark, crippled by your very existence. Tell me, Inuyasha; are you ashamed? Is that why you cower here alone?"

No, he snarled silently, his eyes closing in anguish. It was never shame. It was survival. That's all it had ever been.

But he was ashamed, then, unable to lift his head and look his brother in the eye. His brother, the powerful youkai lord. The one who belonged in the castle, who was supposed to rule it; the proud, cold daiyoukai of the western lands. Who looked down his nose at a suffering hanyou, caught in the grip of his own stupid decisions, his own burning blood. Yes, Inuyasha was ashamed.

"Inotoki," a faint voice was calling, from the other side of the castle. "Inotoki, where are you? Sesshoumaru? Inuyasha? Where is everyone?" It was Tsukiko, sounding weary and annoyed. Inuyasha's eyes snapped open wide, pupils contracting in shock. Above him, Sesshoumaru inhaled sharply.

"Inuyasha, you—" He started, then abruptly stopped. When he spoke again, his tone was wary, and as close to confused as he'd ever get. "You. . .are doing this on purpose."

The hanyou couldn't reply, swallowing convulsively as his brother scented the air again. Go away, go away, go away.

"What have you done?" Sesshoumaru breathed.

It was already over. By that point Inuyasha could barely move, his entire being focused on holding himself still against the pain and just breathing. So when a clawed hand gripped his chin and yanked his face up to the dying light, his eyes sprang open like two startled pools of fear – uncanny eyes, more midnight than sunlight; torment roiling in their depths.

Narrow eyes widened, raking over his features once, twice. Sesshoumaru's lips parted as though to speak, but another voice trailed down to them, impatient—and closer than before.

"Inotoki! Hello? For goodness' sake, the one day I actually need help around here. . ." Tsukiko snapped, voice fading out again. Doors slid open and closed in the distance. Then, footsteps.

Inuyasha tensed, eyes darting away.

And Sesshoumaru understood everything.

"You lied to me," he snarled softly, fangs glinting. "You told her nothing of the new moon. You lied to me and look at you now, you cowering, infuriating—" He stopped himself suddenly as Inuyasha started struggling, head snapping back against the wall.

"Get—back," Inuyasha wheezed dangerously, but even that effort cost him. Pain ripped viciously through his body again, only this time his human ears began to emerge, his skin rippling as the triangular white ears atop his head began to revert back into his skull. Had he cried out? Inuyasha didn't know, instead feeling nothing but the roaring pain, his ears ringing and eyes blurry. Everything he saw was white—just, white. For one terrified moment he thought he was going to pass out. But his confused mind caught up eventually, and he found himself jerked to his feet, clawed fingers wrapped around his biceps tightly, holding him aloft.

"You're injuring yourself, aren't you?" Sesshoumaru scathed, something twisting in his expression. "You stubborn fool. You will kill yourself." He glanced over his shoulder at the darkened hallway where Tsukiko's voice had come from, his mouth thinning in anger. Then he gazed back down at Inuyasha, who was fighting a battle just to keep his feet under him. "Complete the transformation."

"I—can't," he gasped out, sweat dripping into his eyes and making them burn. "Won't."

"You have no choice," Sesshoumaru hissed. "Once your body is human enough the youki you're hoarding will poison you. Why do you think you are in pain, you fool? Complete. The. Transformation." The repeated words were enunciated with the brute force of his brother's will behind them, harsh and demanding.

But Inuyasha wasn't sure if he could, anymore. His muscles began to cramp, black streaks bleeding down the length of his hair as his skin burned with a dry heat, and he realised he wasn't sweating anymore. Fever? Maybe Sesshoumaru was right. He sure hadn't held on this long before. . .

"Change." The order came again, pitiless and wreathed in terrible anger.

Inuyasha suffered. "No. I'm not—prey. I'm not." Was he even making sense now? His vision began to dissolve into glittering darkness, and maybe it was a good thing if it hid all of Sesshoumaru's disgust and fury from him. He felt the hands on his arms tighten to the point of pain, but his youkai brother didn't answer. Instead, the world whirled around him into a smear of shadows and firelight, and he felt himself moving.

The hiss and slam of a shouji door opening and closing. A screech of furniture moving over stone. An arm like a band of steel curled around his ribs, tight enough that he hung nearly senseless above the ground. Warm silk against his side. The scent of smoke and wood drifted in the air. The information came to him in snatches of insight, before the pain returned like a cresting wave, raw and hot and tearing through his insides like nothing he'd ever felt and stayed conscious for. Youki poisoning, he thought faintly. It wasn't the change that hurt—it was what he'd done. He was killing himself by slow degrees, and now he didn't know how to make it stop.

For one brief, frightening moment, he wondered if that was so very bad. If everything just stopped. If he, the hanyou Inuyasha, stopped.

Then it didn't matter as the world tilted and spun, and the steel arm was at his back now, leaving him slumped backward over it, arched bonelessly, throat exposed like a dead thing. Broken dolls, he thought crazily, thinking bizarrely of Suki's straw doll. Only all my torn pieces are inside.

". . .uyasha. . ." The voice was fading in and out oddly. Human hearing was pathetic, wasn't it? His eyes slit open a crack, but all he could see was gold and red and it was almost like the pain was leaving at last. He'd be okay, he thought sleepily, content. Like always, he'd survive.

"Inuyasha!" The voice again, sharp and tense, and the world blurred and darkened. Fingers on his jaw, sliding up and tangling in his hair. Pain. "Release the youki. You're killing yourself." His cheek met something smooth and warm, his ear squashed against it. A rapid drum beat in his ear, and it took him too long to realise it was a heart. A scared heart, some part of him whispered knowingly. There was some significance to that, he was sure, and it was enough for him to stir the last vestiges of his conscious mind. His limp legs firmed and his feet found solid ground, pushing him up until his face slipped into the curve of a warm pillar he soon realised was a neck. Hands on his back shifted immediately, steadying his balance so he could lean on the—on him. Panting wetly, Inuyasha tried to open his eyes next.

"Don't bother with moving," he heard someone say. "Just complete the damned change. I have you." The words were clipped and abrupt, the order clear. But it was the promise that caught his attention most of all.

"You have me," Inuyasha repeated hoarsely, finding his voice at last. He needed to change now, he thought hazily. But he changed so often, he was always changing, didn't anyone see that? Why didn't anyone see him? No one ever saw. . .

"I see you, brother," the voice said, sounding tired. "You delirious fool, you've never been out of my sight."

Brother. . .

Brother.

Like sunlight searing through the fog of his thoughts, his mind came spinning back to him, a little more of reality snapping back into place. Inuyasha remembered narrowed gold eyes, a quiet voice, a blue crescent and red stripes—remembered blood and pain and fighting. Swords and claws, snakes and helping hands and foolish hanyou.

"Sesshoumaru."

The name was like a magic spell of its own, for with it the hanyou felt his senses return, just a little. His eyes slid open and focused slightly. "Don't—can't be human. Not safe. Can't be human here. . ." Vision obscured by a long fall of white hair, Inuyasha absently realised he was slumped against his brother, his chin resting heavily on his shoulder. There was something wrong with that, he knew that much, but just then the reason for it escaped him.

Breath blew warmly against his ear suddenly, lips brushing the human evidence of his warring blood. "You are safe," Sesshoumaru said, his voice strangely gentle. "You can be human now." The arms circling his back shifted awkwardly, a hand gripping his hip while the other cradled the back of his skull, shifting him until he could see his brother's eyes. "You are safe."

Safe. Sesshoumaru was telling him he'd defend him, the one night he had trouble defending himself. Did that make him safe?

He thought that maybe it did.

Swallowing, Inuyasha found he couldn't look into those eyes for long. Switching his gaze to his brother's mouth, no, to his striped cheek, the hanyou nodded mutely and clenched weak fingers in the sleeves of his brother's kimono.

Then, closing his eyes, he searched for his resolve. With the last ounce of strength he could still lay claim to, Inuyasha shattered the self-imposed prison he'd placed around his youki.

Safe, he thought desperately as the demonic energy left his body in a furious rush, acidic and blistering in its intensity. Too strong for the weak flesh that housed it, it railed against his veins and pierced through the pores of his skin where it could while the rest just died inside him, thinning and vanishing along with the last vestiges of his silver hair and golden eyes.

The entire time Sesshoumaru watched him, eyes blazing and intense.

Breathing hard, his entire body throbbing with pain, Inuyasha knew the moment he had turned fully human.

It was right around the same time that everything spiralled into darkness.


Upon waking up, Inuyasha quickly realised three things. First, he hurt. His muscles ached like he'd just had a throwdown with the entire Shichinin-tai. Second, he was sitting slumped in the furthest corner of what seemed to be Sesshoumaru's personal bedroom, if the extravagant raised bed and actual fireplace were anything to go by.

And finally, Inuyasha realised that he remembered most of what gotten him there, and the acute embarrassment and uncertainty he felt was all-encompassing.

Almost against his will, his eyes sought his brother, who was seated before the crackling fire—and pointedly ignoring him. Sesshoumaru had taken off his armour and boots, his swords mounted on the wall above the mantelpiece. It was weirdly casual for him. Then again, Inuyasha admitted, he didn't have a lot to fear from one human. Looking down at himself, he noted his softer palms and blunt fingernails, and bringing a lock of hair over his shoulder confirmed it was black as night with not a strand of silver to be seen. Huh.

He felt like a moron. What the hell had he been thinking, trying to stop the change? He might as well try to stop the sun from setting, for all the good it did him in the end. Not only did it magnificently not work, he nearly offed himself in the goddamn process.

Except that Sesshoumaru had stepped in. He'd pulled him out of the hallway and into his room while he was completely out of his brain and verbally slapped him until he realised what he was doing to himself. He'd probably saved his life. The only question was why. It was only hours ago that Sesshoumaru had given the impression that if he found Inuyasha in trouble, he'd be all too happy to leave him to bleed to death inside his own skin.

Now here he was, human and alive—and pushed into the corner furthest away from his brother, who looked deeply unhappy with life in general, glaring furiously into the crackling fireplace.

Wracking his scattered brain for something worthwhile to say, the hanyou came up empty. Was he supposed to shut up and sit there the whole night? Why the hell had he been shoved in the corner? The thought annoyed him in its selfishness, but soon realised that being human, his scent wouldn't be exactly pleasant to his brother. Was that it? Rin was human, he reminded himself, puzzled. Why was he different?

"You lied to me." The flat statement startled Inuyasha, and caused something to shrivel up guiltily inside him. He managed to refrain from ducking his head and looking away, but it didn't matter. Sesshoumaru wasn't even looking at him. "You knowingly and purposely led me to believe my mother was aware of the night you transformed."

Well, he wasn't unhappy, Inuyasha amended. He was downright pissed off.

"Yeah," he admitted, his voice raspy. Coughing, he tried again. "I did."

Sesshoumaru looked at him.

It shouldn't have been a big deal, meeting those eyes. But damned if Inuyasha could remember the last time he'd been made to feel so guilty. Maybe it had something to do with the complete lack of condemnation in his brother's eyes. There wasn't much of anything in his expression either; no anger now, just a clear acceptance—and a dismissal. Inside his overlong sleeves, Inuyasha's fists reflexively clenched.

The youkai lord had saved his ass, but he was still lower than dirt to him.

Turning his eyes back to the fire, Sesshoumaru didn't speak again. Silence fell between them, uncomfortable and thick with tension—at least, it was to Inuyasha. His brother was doing an amazing job of imitating a wax doll, his expression empty and somehow deadened. Glancing down at his hands, he relaxed his fists and uncurled his fingers, covering his face for a moment before rubbing his eyes roughly and blowing out a frustrated breath. He just couldn't do awkward silences. Since he couldn't bail out, he had to think of something to say. Not just to fill the silence, but maybe. . .to fix things. To stop feeling so damn low whenever he looked at Sesshoumaru.

Where to start though, he thought grimly, mouth compressed into a thin line.

"When Inotoki showed up that night, I. . .didn't understand what you were doing," he said slowly, swallowing. Apologies weren't his forte. "I thought you were just putting me down for kicks, and it—"

"I have no need for your explanations," Sesshoumaru interrupted harshly, fangs glinting dangerously. "Sit there and be silent. I may not wish you dead but I certainly have no desire to hear your voice." Tearing his furious gaze from Inuyasha, he glared back into the fire, a muscle jumping in his clenched jaw.

Shut down in the middle of an apology. Inuyasha felt his ears burn and he crossed his arms defensively, embarrassed and hurt. Fine, he thought angrily, pinning his eyes to the wall ahead of him. In fact—screw it. If his existence was such a pain in the ass to Sesshoumaru, he'd do the polite thing, and get the fuck out of his way.

Tsukiko's reaction to his transformation would be a breath of fresh air compared to this.

"What are you doing?" The sharp question came as soon as Inuyasha had managed to get his feet under him, and using the wall for support, hoisted himself to his feet. There, that wasn't so bad, he thought triumphantly. Bit short of breath, bit sore, but he could walk the hell on out of there. His tolerance for youki while he was human was probably inherited from his dirty blood, but it sure helped.

"I'm getting out of your way," he said flatly. "You sure don't want me around, considering. Dumped in the corner and told to shut the hell up? Kind of a dead giveaway." He began crossing the room, making sure he kept a wide berth around his brother, who was staring at him with disbelieving anger.

"I put you there, with a wall at your back and a clear view, so that you would not balk at my presence the moment you awakened," Sesshoumaru spat, surging to his feet. "And I have no desire to once again be subjected to an explanation of just why you believe me to be a soulless, morally deficient plague on your existence. I am well aware of your opinion of me."

Inuyasha stumbled back as the furious youkai advanced on him, stunned and pissed off. "My opinion?" he repeated, incredulous. "You're the one who said I was boring and useless, which just so happened to be some of the first words you'd tossed at me since you flat out said you wished you'd let me splatter myself on the rocks—"

"You sliced open my face," Sesshoumaru raged back, eyes slitted and fangs out. "I had barely healed from using my own skin as a cushion for your wretched, ungrateful carcass, and you split me open from ear to mouth—"

"—after you, without any warning, shoved me down at your feet like some fucking lapdog!" the hanyou yelled, storming up to his brother and getting right in his face. "Did you think I might be a bit angry about that? How the hell was I supposed to know what you were doing—"

"—you should have trusted me!"

"I didn't know I could!"

Their words hung in the air between them where they stood, chest-to-chest, both breathing hard, flushed and as the seconds stretched, a little startled by everything that had been said.

Then something scratched at the door.

"Sesshoumaru-dono," Inotoki said tightly, "I must respectfully ask you to keep your voice down while—"

"Fuck off, would you?" Inuyasha snarled at the closed door, head whipping around. "We're having a goddamned discussion here!"

Even his poor sense of hearing could pick up the choked sound of indignation the self-important vassal let fly. "Why you impudent little mongrel! Sesshoumaru-dono, is that hanyou causing you trouble? I'll have him removed! I'll—"

"You seem fond of your ability to talk, Inotoki," Sesshoumaru said softly, his eyes like cold mirrors. The deadly youki radiating from him was unmistakable. "I should hate to find myself depriving you of it over an easily-remedied issue of manners."

Inuyasha decided he was getting better at deciphering hoity-toity threats when even he paused at the implication of what Sesshoumaru was saying. A curious sense of smug pride filled him as the dog went deathly silent on the other side of the door. The mild worry that the dog could smell him from all the way over there faded; there was too much pissed-off youki radiating from his brother for that.

". . .I understand, Sesshoumaru-dono," the dog finally said, sounding stiff and subdued. "Please accept my humblest apologies. I meant no disrespect."

"Leave us."

"As you command, noble son."

Inuyasha couldn't help but roll his eyes. "Kiss-ass," he muttered unkindly, but relaxed slightly as the rhythmic click of claws over stone told him the dog was indeed leaving—fast. His anger effectively diffused by the interruption, he turned to Sesshoumaru. "That little bastard doesn't like you either, you know."

"It is a common opinion," the youkai lord replied wearily, the angry tension leaving his shoulders. Inuyasha watched as he rubbed at his temple like he had a headache, gave him a considering glance, then stepped around him to sit back on the large hearth rug, seeming to dismiss the whole freak-out argument they'd just had. Hesitating for a moment, Inuyasha shifted his weight from foot to foot indecisively, before rediscovering his balls and painfully lowering himself down right next to Sesshoumaru.

To be fair, he'd aimed for the spot right beside Sesshoumaru, but his equilibrium hadn't asserted itself properly by then. Instead he found himself painfully breaching a daiyoukai's personal space, effectively slouched against his side. "Goddamnit," he blurted out, glancing up into his brother's confused gaze. "Sorry."

When Sesshoumaru just blinked at him, Inuyasha realised that maybe his brother had different ideas on personal space, after all. All the same, he made to shift over a little, but was stopped as fingers lightly pinched the shell of his ear. Gasping a little, he switched his gaze back to his brother, who was frowning as his fingertip brushed the rounded curve that was so different to the pointed arch of his own.

"It's called an ear," Inuyasha informed him, his mouth kicking up hesitantly at the corner. "They're for hearing stuff."

Eyebrows drawn together slightly, Sesshoumaru met his gaze with a world of reservations filling his usually remote expression. "Indeed," he said finally, and his fingers slid away.

Momentarily disappointed, the hanyou looked into the fire, feeling the heat radiating from it soak into his aching body. He wouldn't sleep tonight, as always, but at least he was warm and reasonably comfortable.

"And this?"

A tug on his hair, as pale fingers wrapped around one of the dark locks that usually fell over his shoulders. Hope bloomed inside him and Inuyasha had to bite his lip on a grin, fixing his eyes on the fire. "It's my hair. It's for. . ." Huh. Good question. "It's for stopping my hanyou ears from looking stupid."

Sesshoumaru released a breath through his nose. "A noble purpose," he decided. "What do you do for the rest of your body?"

Inuyasha had driven his elbow into the youkai lord's ribs before he stopped to think of the consequences. But aside from a rough shove that tipped him over onto his side, there weren't any. Pushing himself back upright, he shot his brother a curious look. Were they over being pissed at each other? Somehow it didn't sit right with him, that it was that easy. Staring down at his feet, which were level with Sesshoumaru's ankle, he flexed his toes idly while he thought about things.

"I'm sorry I clawed your face." He felt more than saw his brother's gaze switch to him, heavy with disbelief. "I was. . .yeah. I mean, if you didn't want me to go with Inotoki, why didn't you just tell me not to? I'm not great with subtlety, in case you didn't notice." Smiling a little self-deprecatingly, eyes on his sleeves as he worried the material between his fingers, he gave a shrug. "I would have listened to you."

This was as honest as he knew how to be; and could be, when it mattered. He wasn't smart, didn't pick up on the little details Sesshoumaru had probably been feeding him at the time. Instead his temper had exploded all around him, shocked and hurt—and the chain reaction had led them all the way down the gauntlet to where they were now, sitting in front of the fire. . .a human and a daiyoukai, as different as two siblings could be. Inuyasha couldn't quite pinpoint when it had become vitally important that he make Sesshoumaru understand, but sitting there, the feeling was nearly overwhelming. He didn't want to be abandoned for a second, third, fourth time by someone he cared about.

The hanyou stilled, stunned and a little sobered by his own thoughts. Someone he cared about. Maybe that was just the sad, twisted truth of it. Was it the height of masochism to want so badly not to be alone, that he'd try anything to make sure Sesshoumaru remained a constant—even if that constant was nothing but arguments and poisoned memories, just one mistake after another?

Shit. He'd never realised he could be such a needy little woman, thinking about his feelings. Kagome would be having a field day if she could witness this.

A shoulder purposely bumped his then, jerking him out of his thoughts. He looked up to find Sesshoumaru watching him pensively, eyebrows knitted together in a frown, like he couldn't quite decipher what was going on inside his head. Inuyasha blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

"Thanks for before, by the way. I was completely off my rocker," he said bluntly. "Took me a while to even realise you were talking to me. Who knew youki poisoning could make you so mental? I was having the weirdest thoughts, about dolls and death and stuff. I am such a fucking wreck sometimes. Stopping the change nearly killed me, and if it wasn't for you I think I was gonna let it." Seeing Sesshoumaru's expression flare with shock, he scrambled to clarify. "I'm not suicidal! I was just—I was messed up. I didn't know how to finish changing."

Apparently accepting his explanation, his brother's mouth flattened into a tense line. "I did speculate for a moment what I'd do if you died in my arms, as you nearly did," he said, voice low and even. "I came to the conclusion that I would employ the use of Tenseiga."

Inuyasha stared. "You'd use Tenseiga for me? On me?"

Sesshoumaru looked at him like he was stupid. "Yes."

"Oh. . .after the last month I didn't think you liked me enough to bring me back from the dead," he commented, then started at the dark look he received. "Now don't go taking it back by saying you'd just kill me again for being the idiot who accidentally killed himself."

Sesshoumaru didn't respond, but he did look a shade amused, his eyes sliding away in what could only be considered a shifty look. Inuyasha found himself shaking his head, smiling a little unwillingly. Feeling the weight in his chest lighten, the hanyou stretched his arms over his head and flopped back onto the rug, not caring that his hair was fanned out haphazardly under him. He stared up at the ceiling, feeling tired and sore, but better about things in general. So much better that even when Sesshoumaru picked up his foot and began examining it, he didn't freak out and kick him in the head.

"Those are toes," he snorted openly, squirming as a fingertip pressed against his little toe. "What the hell, seriously. Are you trying to play doctor with me? Pervert. I knew you had weird fetishes. What happened, Sesshoumaru? Did a tanuki break your heart? Is that what happened?"

Looking up from his squared-off toenails, Sesshoumaru shot him a dirty look. "Foolish hanyou. You can keep your unsavoury speculations to yourself." He paused. "I am simply interested in your human body."

At that Inuyasha cracked up, slapping a hand over his eyes as though that could somehow hide his hilarity from his brother. "Yeah, you're not a pervert at all," he laughed, wiping the corner of his eyes. "Oh, man. I'm out of here the second I find one of my toes in your mouth."

Dropping his foot unceremoniously, Sesshoumaru growled. "I see you putting up no resistance, despite your insistence that I am doing something depraved," he noted. "Coupled with your continued insistence that marine life is out to molest you, of the two of us I am clearly not the pervert." While Inuyasha was thinking up a decent comeback to that Sesshoumaru deigned to join him on the floor, following his gaze to the ceiling. In silence they stared contemplatively up at the wooden roof as though they could see the stars overhead.

"Ensure you do not leave this room during the night," Sesshoumaru murmured at one point, and Inuyasha was startled to realised his eyes had been drowsily sliding shut. Whoa. "The entire castle is laid with spells and traps keyed to remain dormant for inuyoukai blood alone. No one will try to enter these chambers without my permission, making it the safest place for you until the sun rises."

The way he said that made Inuyasha nervous. "Are you going somewhere or something?" Where could he go, if the castle was locked down while Tsukiko recharged the protection spells? He turned his head to see his brother more clearly, causing his hair to slide forward, brushing his mouth and jaw. Sesshoumaru watched the motion for a brief moment, before shaking his head.

"I require sleep," he admitted, sounding somewhat resigned to it. "If you will permit it."

Pushing his hair away from his mouth, Inuyasha grinned. "You mean, you want me to shut up and not move around? I totally permit it. But are you sure you want to sleep with me in the room?"

His question was pointless, since Sesshoumaru's eyes had already slid closed, revealing the reddish markings lining his upper eyelids. The hanyou frowned speculatively, thought about it, then licked his index finger and stuck it straight in Sesshoumaru's ear.

The youkai lord vanished.

Inuyasha stared at his finger suspiciously, completely weirded out. Then he heard the shift of cloth behind him, and sat up to find his brother on the complete other side of the room, one hand clapped to his ear, his expression appalled. Slowly, a massive shit-eating grin began to spread across the hanyou's face. "Looks like I finally found your personal bubble."

It seemed to take a second for Sesshoumaru to string his words together into a coherent sentence. "You just defiled my ear," he said, one eyebrow twitching, "immediately after I requested peace and quiet in order to sleep. Explain yourself."

Inuyasha's smile dimmed, but didn't disappear completely. "I'm not letting you sleep on the floor when there's a massive bed beside you," he explained, shrugging. His mouth twitched. "So I woke you up." Arranging his legs under him the hanyou got to his feet, feeling stiff and sore. "You shouldn't sleep on stone, even if it is covered by a rug. Puts a wicked chill in your bones."

Sesshoumaru's expression called bullshit. Inuyasha silently spread his hands, his mouth shrugging. He was the picture of innocence. Feeling eyes following him, he padded over to the bed, which was raised off the ground on a wooden frame and nearly as high as his waist. Covered in furs and blankets, it looked like something fit for royalty. Inuyasha, despite being adverse to his own bed, found himself wanting to try it out. Even if he wasn't going to sleep, sprawling out on this thing would be the next best thing for his youki-abused body.

Inuyasha's human-dark eyes gleamed as he looked to his brother. "On second thought, this bed's no good at all." With that, he clambered up onto the mattress, and walked on his knees to the centre, where he sprawled face-down amongst the pillows. His muscles almost creaked in relief. "Holy crap," he moaned. "I'm sleeping here from now on."

"I doubt that," muttered Sesshoumaru, and the bed dipped sharply. "Move over, imbecile. Who gave you permission to put your scent all over my bed?"

Inuyasha lifted his head slightly and cracked open one eye just as the youkai lord got into bed beside him, looking extremely put out. He seemed to be also keeping one eye on his hands – or more specifically, his fingers. That made him smile. Budging over, he graciously made room for Sesshoumaru's larger frame, flopping over onto his back. Then he yowled as the bastard laid down on his hair, sparking a minor scuffle amidst the blankets after he brained his brother with a pillow.

It ended when Sesshoumaru bit him on the ear, but Inuyasha could handle that—well, until his brother shoved his goddamned tongue in it. That little piece of retaliation had him rolling around on the mattress with his head covered protectively by a pillow for a good five minutes.

"You are sick," Inuyasha swore. "And a hypocrite. All that talk about the perils of inter-species canoodling, lies! All of it! If I'm pregnant, seriously, I'll kill you. Just so you know. Augh, my virgin ear."

"Shut up," Sesshoumaru muttered, rolling onto his side and putting his back to the distraught hanyou. "I appreciate your wild speculations, however I am not that virile. Go to sleep or die quietly, I do not care which."

Inuyasha snorted. "Actually, I'm going to watch you sleep and breathe on your face for the rest of the night," he said, and jerked one of the furs out from under Sesshoumaru, wrapping himself in it.

He heard his brother give a jaw-cracking yawn. "Do it in silence, and I do not care," Sesshoumaru informed him tiredly. The hanyou smiled at that; was he rubbing off on his stuck-up older brother? It was a nice thought. Feeling slightly more charitable, Inuyasha stared at the mess of soft white tangles Sesshoumaru's long hair had snarled into and gathered it up in his hands, smoothing it down into one long tail so he didn't get it caught when he moved during the night.

Despite his threat, Inuyasha rolled over onto his side and put his back to his brother, content to spend the remainder of the night listening out for anything that signalled trouble, and the steady breathing that said maybe after all was said and done, things really had finally worked out between them.

For perhaps the first time in his long life, Inuyasha discovered he was painfully glad for the new moon.

In fact, if this sudden sense of belonging lasted past tomorrow's dawn, he'd never complain about it again.



Chapter 18: A Gracious Hostess


The night wore on slowly. Unable to sleep in his human form, Inuyasha instead allowed his midnight eyes to follow the flickering shadows the firelight cast across the ceiling, lulled into a foggy kind of contentment by the sound of even breathing gusting across the space between himself and Sesshoumaru.

It was kind of bizarre, the hanyou reflected. It should be strange and awkward and unnatural, but it wasn't. The relief that saturated him from head to toe, born of knowing that they didn't hate each other, didn't like being at odds the way they had been – it was like a physical loosening in his chest. Something that had sat heavy and tight and sore inside him had vanished, and that made it okay to lay less than two feet from his brother, who trusted him enough that he could sleep soundly in his presence.

That was the real surprise, and something that hadn't really hit him until he'd watched his brother relax into true slumber, unguarded and loose-limbed with nothing more than a veil of white hair separating them. Before that night, Inuyasha had, to his shame, assumed Sesshoumaru didn't really need proper sleep. Some youkai didn't, the older they got. Tsukiko herself had admitted to going up to a month with only meditation and ten minute naps here and there to keep her recharged. It made him wonder when Sesshoumaru had last been able to lay down and sleep like the dead. Something told him it had been a long time.

It was a strangely lonely thought. Turning his head Inuyasha let his gaze roam over his brother, studying his flickering eyelashes and the twitch of his fingertips as he slept. Was he dreaming? Inuyasha dreamed, sometimes. Weird shit, mostly, because nine times out of ten he was sleeping sitting up or in a tree and you just didn't really relax properly when half your brain was still keeping an eye on your balance. The last vivid thing he could remember dreaming of was one of those goddamn monkey spirits giving him a tail to match his paws—paws he didn't have. Inuyasha had woken up in a blind panic wondering how he was going to be able to eat ramen with dog paws, and Kagome had 'sat' him for waking her up in the middle of the night.

It was funny how those little memories no longer felt like a kick in the stomach to him. Lifting his hand, he reached beneath his collar for the kotodama rosary, letting his fingers gently trace the glossy curve of each individual bead that hung on it. Kagome had wanted to take it off him before she left, and he hadn't let her. He still remembered the day they'd met—the day the beads had flashed through the air and settled around his neck like a shackle. It was a strangely galling realisation that he'd been conditioned to accept what was in essence a leash to keep him under control. The damn thing had caused him nothing but pain, really.

Pulling it out from under his clothing, he squinted at it in the dying firelight.

"What was the word of power?"

Inuyasha's lips curled slightly at the question. "'Sit'. Except I didn't really sit; I face-planted into the ground. No one ever saw it because of my hair, but the back of my neck would bruise up pretty good from this thing jerking me down."

Sesshoumaru released a long breath through his nose and rolled to face him. "Yet you are sentimental over it," he observed, his voice sounding a little rumbly from sleep. "When you could have simply killed her while she slept on the first night."

Inuyasha shot him a startled look, meeting slumberous golden eyes. "I needed her help to put the Shikon jewel back together. Otherwise, I might have. Well. . .maybe not," he admitted. "She did look a hell of a lot like Kikyou."

"Kikyou," Sesshoumaru repeated. "The dead priestess who sealed you to a tree for fifty years. I am beginning to understand your trust issues." The words were faintly reproving, but there was nothing in his voice to make him feel like he was being made fun of. Still, Inuyasha felt a small part of him draw back from the conversation.

"You should go back to sleep," he told the youkai lord, stuffing the beads beneath his clothes again. "Sorry if I woke you up." But even as he apologised, something tickled in the back of his memory. Hadn't Sesshoumaru said that sleeping in the castle was difficult for him? Not directly, but when he'd been listing reasons why Inuyasha would hate it there, that had been one of them. He had been talking about himself then, hadn't he? Maybe not, the hanyou decided as he watched Sesshoumaru's eyes slide closed again, still facing him on his side.

"Good night," Inuyasha said suddenly, and turned his eyes back to the ceiling. There was a surprised silence, and the hanyou thought about being embarrassed, but the moment passed and then long fingers tangled in his sleeve, jerking his attention back to his brother.

"When the sun rises. . ." the youkai lord started, then trailed off as though he'd forgotten what he'd meant to say. Curious, Inuyasha waited, but his brother said no more. Instead his expression, half-lit by the dying flames of the fire, clouded as he gazed back at him. The grip on his sleeve abruptly vanished and Sesshoumaru rolled onto his other side, presenting Inuyasha with the broad expanse of his back once again.

Mentally shrugging, Inuyasha figured he could let that bout of weirdness slide for the night. Then, with a jolt, he realised what Sesshoumaru had been about to say. Turning slowly to eye his brother, the hanyou wondered when exactly Sesshoumaru had gone from being utterly disgusted by his younger brother's mixed heritage, to so fascinated he wanted to watch as he transformed with the rising sun.

But, thinking about it, maybe it wasn't that weird. Sesshoumaru turned into a massive poison-drooling hound—and he made dog noises. Given half a chance to witness that when he wasn't being eyed off as the latest chew toy, well, that would be slightly incredible. Sesshoumaru almost never changed, from what he could tell. For someone as proud as he was to be a daiyoukai descended from the dog clans, it was kind of strange. Maybe the flea youkai bugged him.

Snorting softly to himself, Inuyasha turned away from his brother and stared at the far wall, content now to wait out the dawn.

And if he accidentally kicked Sesshoumaru awake just before the sun rose, well, that was just good timing.


It was late morning by the time Inuyasha had transformed, gotten changed back into his usual clothes and napped in his room for the better part of an hour. It wasn't much after spending the entire night awake, but he could hold his own in the sleep-deprivation stakes.

For his brother's part, after studying his brief transformation back into his hanyou form, Sesshoumaru had wordlessly left the room, destination unknown. Mostly unknown, but considering his hair was tangled and his clothing rumpled, Inuyasha placed his bet on the bath house.

After wolfing down a massive breakfast courtesy of the silent and inherently creepy lesser youkai servants, the hanyou decided it was time to face the music and see what Tsukiko had to say about last night. There was only so much peculiarity he could blame on his heritage.

"The bar-ri-ers are back doooown," Tsukiko sang cheerfully, weirdly, as Inuyasha stepped out onto the dais, arms outstretched before him like a blind man. The last thing he wanted to do was splatter his face against the damn thing again and go flying backwards. "Fully recharged and better than ever. I feel slightly strange from the blood loss and the healing tea I made myself because Inotoki was still licking his wounds and couldn't do it thanks to you, and because I couldn't find you last night, but we all survived, and I'll say no more about it. Except that my wrist hurts worse than that time your father bit me for yanking his hair too hard. But that's another story, oh my."

Inuyasha stared at her for a long moment. "Tsukiko, are you high?" he asked finally.

Tsukiko beamed at him. Her pupils were massive black pools that scanned him hazily. "Yes, I may have overdone the herbs a little. All in all, I still possess most of my wits. Enough that I can smell my perfect son all over you. Inotoki told me you were fighting last night. You don't smell like blood though. Heavens I'm hungry. Would it be incredibly remiss of me to just. Leave you here and hunt down a deer? I miss hunting. Being a daiyoukai in my own, albeit deserted territory should mean I can do as I please, shouldn't it?"

Realising that yes, Sesshoumaru's mother was a little bit stoned, and the aforementioned youkai lord was checking on Rin and Jaken, Inuyasha decided to make the most of the opportunity the gods had granted him and get some answers. Her hilarious behaviour was just the bonus, really. Walking over to the dreamy-looking woman, who despite looking amused with life in general was still a sickly shade of pale from the blood loss, Inuyasha sat on the low wall closest to her marble throne, and faced her.

Her pale blue eyes scanned him again, slightly unfocussed but sharp enough to unsettle him. "You look tired, Inuyasha. Were you up all night too?"

"Yeah, I guess," he said with a shrug. Tsukiko blinked.

"In Sesshoumaru's room all night," she murmured to herself. "What on earth for?"

Uh-oh. ". . .Talking? About stuff. You know."

The youkai lady smiled strangely. The stoner tea she'd been drinking was definitely having a weird effect. "But Sesshoumaru doesn't. Talk. Not to me. He hates me so much. As he so eloquently put it, I am a twisted, manipulative wretch with no care for kinship beyond that which I can use for my own ends." She paused. "He's right, you know. I'm a terrible. . .I'm a terrible mother." Clarity seemed to return to her face then and she blinked, realising what she'd said. Her delicate features screwed up in surprised displeasure, but she didn't appear able to laugh it off.

For his part, Inuyasha just felt awkward. It didn't feel right to pump her for information when she was like this, but how was he ever going to get it? Never mind that he was feeling a bit like one of the village jerks that took advantage of drunken women. An opportunity like this one might never come along again. Hell, he might even find out more about Sesshoumaru while he was at it. Even a snooty prig like him had to have some embarrassing baby stories. Shaking off the latent mischief in that last thought, Inuyasha got back to the matter at hand.

"So uh," he cleared his throat, "what exactly did you do that was so bad he doesn't talk to you anymore?"

For a long moment she stared at him, but her pale eyes seemed to be lost in the past. "It was. . .you have to understand, I was desperate at the time. Furious and wild, trapped into a forced marriage with a daiyoukai I despised." Tsukiko's pale face twisted then, turned dark with disgust. Inuyasha found himself holding his breath, straining forward to catch her every word.

Then she smiled, and it was a twisted, bitter thing. "He was no one special, did you know that? He was common born. But we had so few pureblood men, and he was so strong. More to the point his children would be strong, and I needed heirs. But he hated mysticism, hated the rituals and the blood magic our clan had been built on. Him! When he ordered his own fangs to be bespelled and later given to his sons as magical weapons. Inuyasha, he didn't understand what it was all for. The line was going to be broken forever, don't you see? I had to do it." Shaking now, looking distraught beyond all measure, she buried her face in her hands, dragging in deep gasping breaths to try and reclaim her composure. "But in the end it was all for nothing. The clan died out. They're all dead and buried, and only I remain to guard their bones."

Inuyasha felt like shit. Great, he'd sent her off the deep end, and he still had no fucking idea what the hell happened. Nice going, asshole.

But then she continued, and the hanyou felt his insides turn to dust. "That man twisted my son's perception of me, made him hate me, when Sesshoumaru was all I had left in this world. You should hate me too, Inuyasha."

Her eyes were bleak and desolate. "I killed him, I killed him. My lord husband, who loved his human woman."

Inuyasha stared at her blindly, disbelief and shock buzzing behind his eyes.

It was impossible. Takemaru had. . .

"No," he said hoarsely. He didn't want to kill this woman. "No. You didn't kill him. Ryukotsusei wounded him. Takemaru finished the job. I know this for sure. You're just—you're out of it right now, okay? Go sleep it off or something, you—"

"I wanted him to lose what was important to him. Because it was never Sesshoumaru, let me tell you. He thought he was too much like me," she spat, her voice turning vicious and icy. "Too cold and heartless, too focussed on power and conquest to appreciate life and love. He wanted a son he could be proud of, one who possessed compassion and kindness, who could walk the path of both worlds and make up for all his piteous mistakes. You, Inuyasha. And what he loved, I wanted to destroy." Rising to her feet in a jolting rush, the youkai woman swayed, tears glittering in her eyes.

Inuyasha was trying to keep up with her distressed ranting, but the more that spilled out of her mouth the less he wanted to hear. Was Sesshoumaru somewhere listening to this? What did she mean their old man never wanted him? Sesshoumaru had fucking idolised him, hadn't he?

"I had Inotoki search out her location, his human lover. He found her the night she was to give birth. Under my instructions my vassal told a man named Setsuna no Takemaru the truth of the child's parentage – or at least told him that it was a youkai abomination that would eat her soul upon birth and damn her to hell forevermore." She laughed humourlessly, her hands clenching and unclenching by her sides. Now that she'd started confessing she seemed unable to stop, the truth gushing out of her like someone had finally pulled the stopper on her conscience.

"It was a simple plan but it went awry, as all dark deeds usually do. She died, of course. But Tenseiga never cared much for the rules of life and death, and then she was breathing again, running into the night with her newborn – and the human fool who had finished her killed him instead. After fighting Ryukotsusei for so long I honestly didn't think he'd be in time, but. . .well. Love makes us do the strangest things."

For a split second, Inuyasha thought he might throw up. But all he could do was stare at her with burning, disbelieving eyes, even as the truth rang clean and sure through his very bones. "Did he know?" he asked hoarsely. "What you were trying to do?"

Bitterly she nodded. Her eyes weren't so muddled now, and bit by bit the coldness was gathering around her. Cold and pitiless, not asking forgiveness. "Somehow," she said. "Somehow, he knew, and he went running to her side. You know the rest. I had meant to orchestrate your death, and the night ended in his." Mouth trembling, she lifted one hand to her lips and gave a half-hearted shrug. "Honestly, I never meant to. If you seek revenge I have no quarrel with that, but you'll find it a hollow attack. I cannot die. The land will never let me. I am. . .sorry, Inuyasha."

Eyes flickering, the hanyou came back to himself the moment he felt the frayed hilt of Tetsusaiga, sure and firm in his palm. He couldn't remember when he'd gripped it. His father's fang. This bitch had killed him, just as surely as Ryukotsusei had.

Tsukiko had the sheer fucking gall to look sad.

"Why did you tell me this?" he heard himself ask, voice distant and quaking with rage. "Why now?"

"Why not now? Do I have something to fear from you?" she shot back as she sat down, resting her cheek in one palm. "Even if you could somehow break the spells on the land, I still hold the Meidou stone. And even without that, I'm a pureblood youkai, and older than even your dearly departed father. Inuyasha, you're an impressive young man, and quite strong – but even you must know when it's hopeless."

Nothing was making sense, he thought rapidly, breathing hard. She'd been nice to him. She'd been weird and kind of a bitch, but she'd never—where had it all come from? Why now? Because Sesshoumaru was back? Because the barriers were strong and she was immortal? Because she looked at him and saw a strong young man—but still a strong hanyou and if she could arrange for the old man to die, what kind of danger was he, really?

Was this the truth of it? Sesshoumaru hated her, body and soul.

Inuyasha finally knew why.

Because she'd told him. Sesshoumaru never had.

And that hurt almost as much.

Backpedalling away from her, from her dispassionate gaze and all that it meant, Inuyasha vaulted over the wall behind him and vanished into the green expanse of the land, just a red-white blur of confusion and pain.

Vengeance never did him much good, in the end. It was always for all the wrong reasons. But this...was this worth it? She'd tried to murder him in the womb, tricked Takemaru into killing his mother. And when dear old dad had found out and come running to the rescue, the entire burning castle had collapsed on him. He had burned to death in that fucking castle because of her.

And Inuyasha had never known.

He ran. Ran until his lungs felt like they were going to burst, until his feet bled because the pain of the rocks and thistles and broken branches didn't even register until he saw the barrier up ahead, the glowing terrible thing that he'd passed through on that first night. The barrier enclosed the entire territory, tricked and beguiled anything that came close into thinking there was nothing beyond but dark forest. She'd said it wouldn't hold him inside.

If he just walked through, he could leave the whole place behind. Because he'd never be able to kill something like her. Did he even know how to kill, like that? His father had meant little to him.

But what about Sesshoumaru?

Sesshoumaru could take care of himself. If he'd known, all this time, if he'd known Inuyasha and his mother weren't responsible for his death, that it had been Tsukiko'sdoing—

Breathing raggedly, painfully, Inuyasha reached out to the barrier with one shaking hand.

The jolt of power ran up and down his fingertips, strong and tangible. Then the hanyou stepped forward.

The crackle of power that burned up his arm and threw him back into the trees wasn't a surprise, but when he landed Inuyasha found he could only lay there, staring at the canopy of the trees as the sunlight shone down, dazzling his eyes.

Trapped.

She hadn't been strengthening the kugutsu at all. She'd been modifying the magic to no longer let him out.

Sprawled there, the hanyou started laughing, the sound mirthless and painful to hear. Tsukiko had him right where she wanted him. No wonder she felt like she could tell him anything. He was such a gullible bastard, and now he was probably going to die because of it.

He really should have listened to Sesshoumaru.

"Fuck."


Sesshoumaru found him more than an hour later, probably having followed his scent the entire way. He hadn't exactly been following a beaten track to his particular resting place when he'd taken off. Inuyasha had propped himself up against a tree and was studying the chipped and time-worn blade of his sword when he heard the telltale footsteps.

He didn't look up. "You know, next time there's some kind of horrible danger, it would be really awesome if you'd. . .oh, I don't know, fill me the fuck in? Something along the lines of 'well, Inuyasha, don't go visit my mother because she's really great at spinning bullshit and magical barriers, and probably wants to eat your brains with her weird druggie tea'. That would have done real nice. Direct, straight to the point. I'd have listened to that." He gripped the rusted blade of the sword too tight then and the damn thing managed to nick his finger. Great. "And now I'm going to get tetanus. Fuck this day, seriously."

"Inuyasha said a bad word," Rin observed. "Twice."

Inuyasha hardly spared her a glance before his eyes fell to his sword. "Bullshit is a bad word too. Unless you're Sesshoumaru, and then it's just an art form. Did you inherit that skill, you bastard?"

Rin gasped, making his ears twitch.

"I perfected it," Sesshoumaru replied immediately, seeming unconcerned with his black mood. "But precisely which intentional deception are you referring to?"

Inuyasha gritted his teeth so hard he thought he might crack a couple. Tetsusaiga trembled in his grip, just on the verge of transforming. "Kid, go for a walk," he said, his voice low and even. "Just for a bit."

Instead of obeying right away Rin ambled closer to him and dropped a white daisy into his lap. "I'll pick some more for you," she said stoutly. "I'll pick happy flowers, okay?" With that she scampered off into the underbrush, hopefully not five seconds away from blindly falling in a ditch and breaking her legs. He glanced at his bleeding finger blankly, watching a large bead of crimson drip onto the flower Rin had given him. He carefully put it on the ground beside him, and when he looked back Sesshoumaru was kneeling in front of him, his gaze intent. Inuyasha reflexively averted his eyes again, feeling bleak and wretched.

Somehow, honestly, he didn't think Sesshoumaru really knew about what his mother had done. Would it have been better for him, if instead of losing a father he'd simply lost a brother he never knew? Of course it would have been. He'd spent so much time hating Inuyasha, blaming him, before finally coming to terms with the way their father had died. Maybe. . .maybe it was better if he never knew about Tsukiko's plotting, all those years ago. Wouldn't it just rip open all those healed wounds?

Inuyasha didn't even know what pain and grief could look like on that expressionless face. Maybe it would just be rage, black and maddening.

If he told Sesshoumaru, he'd try to kill Tsukiko. And she might just return the favour—and succeed. Unlike his mother, Sesshoumaru could still die.

That was one grave Inuyasha never wanted to dig.

Hunching in on himself, head bowed, Inuyasha realised he didn't know what to do.

"If you. . .if you could go back in time, if there was some other Bone Eater's Well out there and you could go back and save our old man from dying that night, but it meant I'd never be born, would you do it?"

Sesshoumaru shifted in front of him, hands reaching out to take Tetsusaiga from his grasp. Pulling it from his waistband, the youkai lord slid the blade back into its sheath and lay it at his side, right next to the bloodstained flower. Inuyasha's dull eyes followed the movement, tracing the long fingers wrapped around the sword the youkai lord had coveted for so long, how he now held it like it was so much scrap metal to him now. Everything had really changed.

"What a question to ask," Sesshoumaru said without inflection, his eyes on the ruined flower. "With such a mournful face, do you honestly want to hear my answer?"

Inuyasha swallowed. "No," he whispered. "But I need to. If you'd had the choice back then...it would have been him, wouldn't it?"

Sesshoumaru made a thoughtful sound in his throat, but didn't reply right away. Instead, he pulled Inuyasha's hand out of his lap and inspected the cut on his finger.

"Why are you always injured or bleeding?" he murmured, seemingly expecting no reply. It wasn't like Inuyasha had one to give. He just watched, his eyes curious and intense as his bleeding fingertip was enveloped by a warm mouth, cleaned by a slightly rough tongue. It reminded him of when he'd done the same thing to Kagome, at the base of the Goshinboku. He hadn't thought much of it at the time, but being on the receiving end was weirdly intimate.

Somehow, he felt like if he opened his mouth and told Sesshoumaru all the things he knew, the quiet concentration and calm on his brother's face just then might be the last time he ever saw him at peace.

Inuyasha couldn't do it. Didn't want to, not when things had only just. . .he couldn't go back to how things had been before. The blame, the sneering. The loneliness of knowing his only blood hated him, body and soul.

Looking up with miserable eyes, he realised Sesshoumaru had been watching him intently, silently studying the play of emotions on his face. Then those compelling eyes glanced away, and the warm pressure of fingers wrapped about his injured hand squeezed, almost chidingly.

I'm right here, he seemed to say with the motion, before his hand slid away and left the hanyou cold and raw.

Then it was too much, to keep in the truth and watch his brother right there, in front of him, open and unguarded. So it was with a jerky, sudden movement that Inuyasha lurched forward and yanked Sesshoumaru into a rough embrace, burying his face into his brother's hair and gripping him so tight he thought his arms might forget how to let go.

Rigid with shock, Sesshoumaru was like stone against him. "Inuyasha, what—"

"Nothing," the hanyou replied fiercely. "Just shut up. I just. . ." Just want this before you realise he's dead because she thought he'd love me, when he couldn't love you. But how could he say it? Everything would come undone. All of it. An involuntary shudder ripped through him at the thought, scaring him with the intensity of his misery.

Sesshoumaru had gone silent, but at the reflexive movement he voiced a rumbling sound, more like an animal sigh than anything else. Then, his arms lifted and encircled Inuyasha; long, strong arms that felt like they could loop around his body twice and squeeze the breath out of him.

"If Jaken sees this I'll have to kill you," Sesshoumaru said against his ear, hardly a breath of sound. "You have no idea how much I indulge you, hanyou." But for all his protesting he didn't let go – if anything he seemed almost pleased with the contact. Inuyasha just breathed in his scent and committed it to memory, his cheek pressed into the warm column of Sesshoumaru's neck.

They stayed like that for a long, quiet moment, and Inuyasha couldn't manage to summon the strength to let go. Not right away. After a small silence, his youkai brother began to speak.

"To answer your question," he said quietly, "I would not save our father. He did not need it – he was already dying by the time he travelled to the castle. Myouga had rushed to inform him that the samurai guarding your mother's castle had discovered that her lover was a youkai, and were planning on killing her and her unborn hanyou child. I saw father just before he left to go to her. It was clear nothing could have stopped him, and it was not my place to try." Sesshoumaru lapsed into a thoughtful silence then, seeming to ponder the past. He didn't seem aware that his fingertips were languidly tracing the shallow line of Inuyasha's spine, or that the hanyou had gone almost slack with relief against him. "Not to mention that I nearly killed him for Tetsusaiga and Sou'unga before he left."

Inuyasha jolted with surprise, snapping his head back to stare at Sesshoumaru. "You what?"

"I nearly killed him," the youkai lord repeated, slowly and clearly. "I made my intentions clear, at least. I was an enterprising youth; he was weakened and I wanted what he possessed. It made sense; more so when he refused to give them to me. He thought my thirst for power was too great, that power should only be used to protect those you care about." A note of disdain had entered his voice; a startling counterpoint to the careful brush of his cheek against Inuyasha's compulsively flicking ear. "You said once that I physically resemble him more than you do. In spirit, I believe the reverse to be true. I do not hesitate to kill my enemy. You attempt to befriend them."

Outraged now, the hanyou struggled with his tongue to find the appropriate response to that. "I do not!" he eventually protested, breaking contact and shuffling backwards to glare at his brother. "Did you ever see me having a fucking tea party with Naraku?"

Sesshoumaru just lowered his arms, giving him a patient look. "How many times have I fought and nearly killed you, Inuyasha?"

Well, he knew where this was going. "You're—different. You've always been different," he said stubbornly.

"Why?"

Inuyasha looked away. "I guess. . .I understood why you hated me. I didn't like it, and I didn't like you, but you were one up on every other bastard who tried to kill me because I got why you were so angry."

"You didn't," Sesshoumaru said quietly. "You could never have understood. You were a mere newborn the day I came to realise my father would sooner die than acknowledge my strength – die for his hanyou son when he could hardly stand to look his firstborn in the eye."

Those quiet, calm words resonated too closely with Tsukiko's confession for Inuyasha to completely conceal his stricken reaction. But Sesshoumaru didn't seem to notice it, instead turning away to scan the trees for any approaching sounds. Rin was still picking flowers, most likely. Happy flowers, the hanyou thought, and snorted. We could all use a few more of those.

Shifting in his crouched position, palms pressed flat to the leafy foliage covering the forest floor, he studied his hands for a moment before finally looking up and asking the question. "Why couldn't he look you in the eye? I thought you and him. . .I don't know what I thought," he admitted. Inuyasha had always just guessed from his brother's high regard for their father that they'd been close when he was alive. But maybe that hadn't been it at all. "Did you do something wrong?"

As he spoke that last, he saw Sesshoumaru's lips twitch, almost in amusement. But that wasn't it at all. He carefully rose to his feet, pushing his hair back behind his shoulders in a slow, regal motion. He didn't extend a hand to Inuyasha, but the hanyou hadn't expected one. Matching his movements, sparing a hand only to grab Tetsusaiga and slide it back into his waistband, he looked up at his brother expectantly. "Sesshoumaru?"

"I expect that like you, some things can be blamed upon my birth alone," the youkai lord said as he stared into the trees, back in the direction of the castle. "After all, as he always said, I am my mother's son."

Inuyasha's hands flashed out and gripped his brother's wrists, squeezing hard enough to cut off the circulation. "You're nothing like her," he snarled, tense and full of too much anger to know how to tamp down on what he was saying. His eyes blazed. "And if he thought so, then to hell with him."

Sesshoumaru went still; a cold, quiet stillness. "He gave his life for you and your mother," he said softly, dangerously. "You will speak of him only with respect—"

"Screw. Him." Inuyasha spat the words at his brother, furious now. How could he stand up for him? "And screw your twisted bitch of a mother, too – it was their bullshit feud that got him killed! Don't you get it? Who the hell would have told those samurai my mother was in love with a youkai? I'll give you a clue; she's locked us the fuck inside this barrier!" Throwing his arm out recklessly, the hanyou punched the wavering barrier he'd been tucked beside for the entire conversation, this time absorbing the magical backlash that swarmed and sparked up his arm, rejecting his blood and his passage.

Realisation dawned in Sesshoumaru's eyes, slow and stunned. Inuyasha held his breath as his brother slowly and almost disbelievingly reached out in kind, his smooth palm hovering mere millimetres from the barrier.

Their eyes met and locked as clawed fingertips closed the distance to the barrier—

"Oh, you don't want to touch that, Sesshoumaru-dono," said an amused voice. "Inuyasha's dirty blood earns him a good jolt, but you'll burn to a cinder. Takes a hundred years to heal from that, oh yes it does."

Ice formed in the pit of Inuyasha's stomach as Inotoki walked into the clearing in his true form, looking less like a shaggy pony and more like a hound of war this time. Sharp-spiked blue tassels were woven throughout his long white coat and a silver crescent moon hung on a tight collar around his neck. The mark of the moon clan, the hanyou's brain told him wildly, as it tried to avoid the obvious shock of wet crimson staining the youkai dog's manic grinning mouth.

Blood.

Sesshoumaru took in the sight with a dispassionate gaze. "If you have touched what is mine, Inotoki, I expect you have made your peace with this life."

Inuyasha's head was buzzing. A deer, he thought rationally. Tsukiko had wanted meat. He'd hunted a deer.

The dog laughed roughly, the yapping servant dog of before gone to reveal the savagely delighted beast beneath. Because they all had one, even the ground crawling lowest of the low. There was always that side, even beneath the civil pleasantries and human disguises. The two legged youkai were just clever, that way.

"Sesshoumaru-dono, please," the dog said with a shake of its large head, "you always think the worst of this poor vassal." Sighing heavily, he turned his feral gaze to Inuyasha. "But I simply can't resist a game of fetch – and my lady's kugutsu really sent that small girl flying into the barrier. See? See? I only brought her back, Sesshoumaru-dono." Dancing about, pleased in its half-maddened completion of its duties, the youkai grabbed a scrap of yellow-checked cloth just outside the bushes, and dragged its quarry into view.

Inuyasha saw only the exposed bone through the bite in her skinny little leg and reeled, turning away. Oh god, he thought blindly. Oh god, Rin.

Sesshoumaru just stared at the broken body of his young ward. Unblinkingly, he studied her blood streaked limbs, the bites in her legs, her torn kimono and sudden, horrible silence. Sick with the injustice of it, Inuyasha knew the exact thought that was going through his brother's mind.

Tenseiga only revives once.

Inotoki's tongue lolled out happily. "My lady now kindly extends her true hospitality to her noble son and his halfbreed brother.

"Please make yourself at home."



Chapter 19: Sacrifice

Sesshoumaru stared at the small body, his eyes remote and distant. His posture was relaxed and his expression was almost bored as he studied her. He looked like—like it didn't hurt at all to see Rin's broken form laying haphazardly in the dirt, bloody and silent and empty.

The girl was dead, but if he cared, Inuyasha couldn't see a single sign of it.

For his part, the hanyou wanted to kneel down, to cradle the girl and wipe the dirt from her face, to do something, but as surely as Sesshoumaru was masking all of his emotion Inuyasha didn't know what would happen if he acknowledged his own.

She was just a little girl. Just a little girl, picking flowers to cheer him up.

Squeezing his eyes shut abruptly Inuyasha turned his face away, trapping his breath in his chest until he was certain it wouldn't come shuddering out of him.

Why Rin had to die, he didn't know. The girl's only crime was her innocent adoration of Sesshoumaru. All he could think was that nothing was making sense. None of it. Tsukiko's random confession, Rin, the barrier locking them in. . .weighing it against the lonely youkai lady he'd first met, it just didn't make sense.

He was pulled out of his thoughts by the sound of a sword being drawn. Inuyasha watched as Sesshoumaru held Tenseiga surely in his grip, hovering just over the girl's body. His expression was so calm and collected that for a moment a wild hope bloomed inside Inuyasha, that maybe he'd lied about the sword's capabilities. That he had the power to resurrect Rin.

But the silence. The growing silence as nothing happened. Sesshoumaru's knuckles were white and strained as he gripped the hilt of the Sword of Heaven hard enough to make the blade tremble finely. All the while, his expression never changed.

He couldn't do it, Inuyasha realised, the impact of it dull and sickening in the pit of his stomach. Sesshoumaru—he was trying anyway.

Damn it. Damn everything to hell.

Inotoki laughed then, the sound gravelly and distorted. "Do you really think that'sgoing to work on her? Those blades were forged from his power. Your illustrious father was just a one trick mongrel." Whatever the youkai vassal was thinking, it wasn't anything intelligent, for when he said that Sesshoumaru's tenuous control of his emotions began to fracture. The air went cold around him as his eyes swung to the bitterly amused dog, and between one blink and the next Tenseiga had been sheathed and Toukijin was out, cracking with lethal energy.

With a manic grin, Inotoki threw himself backwards through the forest, lightning crackling over his beaded fur. "Come and try!"

Without so much as a word or a glance in Inuyasha's direction, Sesshoumaru attacked. Venting his grief and his fury, the youkai lord left him there with the task of seeing to the little girl's body. Inuyasha cursed him softly, bringing one hand to his eyes. Scrubbing them viciously, unable to get the smell of blood out of his nose, the hanyou stepped forward and knelt by Rin's side, keeping his attention on her face, and not her mauled leg, or the blackened burns the barrier had scorched up one side of her body. Just. . .her face, and her closed eyes. Her dishevelled and slightly singed hair.

Mouth turning down with sadness, he took her shoulder gently and rolled her onto her back. His fingertips trembled slightly as he pushed the hair off her dirty face.

"He was supposed to protect you," he whispered, his throat aching. "I was supposed to protect you. Oh fucking hell, you're so tiny. . .what were you thinking? Didn't I teach you to run?"

Harsh wind buffeted his back as blast upon tremendous blast of youki went off, reflecting off the barrier in front of him in swirling colours of blue and white. He hardly registered it, instead creating a living shield for the girl as leaves and grass sprayed against his back; backlash from someone's attack.

Momentarily blinded by the showering debris, he rocked forward slightly, hands splayed out for balance. Feeling something soft under his palm, Inuyasha blinked dirt out of his eyes and stiffened almost guiltily, realising he had pressed her limp hand beneath his own. Shit, he thought helplessly, the kid wasn't even cold yet. His eyes absorbed the sight of his hand covering hers, large enough to dwarf her entire hand, his clawed fingertips resting against the fragile, pale flesh of her inner wrist. So small, so easily damaged. She should have been dropped off at a human village, not allowed to roam around the country with a fucking youkai, of all things. Powerful youkai attracted powerful enemies – why had Sesshoumaru let her come with him? It was just too dangerous. Obviously, he thought, running a fingertip down the tendon in her wrist. All the training in the world couldn't have saved her from this.

What a waste.

Crouched there, with no idea what to do or how to even bury her in what could only be unholy territory, cursed like it was, Inuyasha just stared at the lifeless shell, his eyes dark gold with grief. Sesshoumaru could burn off his sick guilt and rage by tearing Inotoki to pieces, but mostly Inuyasha just felt tired. Tired of innocents paying the price for the sins of others. All of the fighting and the manipulation and lies, they should have all been over with Naraku's death. It seemed he'd been the naïve one after all. There was always something new out there. He just wished it hadn't been Tsukiko. Not because she was ageless and powerful, or because she was Sesshoumaru's mother, but because he'd liked her. Inuyasha had respected her, laughed with her and sympathised with her, and now he wasn't sure how to hate her.

He was so deep in thought he almost missed it. A faint, barely-there fluttering. At first Inuyasha thought he'd imagined it. But with slowly widening eyes and a truly painful tightness in his chest, the hanyou leaned forward and concentrated.

There.

His jaw dropped.

Rin still had a pulse.

"Oh fuck oh shit oh fuck," he stammered out through numb lips, joyous and appalled at once. She wasn't breathing. How could she be alive if she wasn't—but the blood and—

Do something!

"Oh shit on a fucking brick, what do I do?" he hissed at himself, panicked. He cast his mind back. Kagome. Kagome had been telling Kaede about something. A—a healing technique? Or a spell? It had sounded like one, he remembered desperately. Because it put the breath back inside a dead body. What had it been. . .he'd sneered at it, he'd told her he wasn't going to put his mouth on a corpse—

Kiss of life, his mind echoed back in a cacophony of realisation. It had sounded like a spell because he hadn't known what it did. Eyes huge and stomach almost rigid with tension, he realised he was going to have to breathe for her, until she could breathe on her own.

Unless her heart stopped first. That weak fluttering, the sluggish push of blood through her battered body was the only thing keeping her alive. He had to move, now.

Sending an awkward prayer up to whatever might be listening, Inuyasha blocked out the sound of the battle behind him and bent over Rin, hesitating only briefly before tipping her head back by her chin and opening her mouth, pinching her nose shut with his free hand.

Then he began.

Of course, he had no idea what he was doing. Inuyasha just knew that he had to try, now, and know that if he failed he'd done everything he knew how to do. Because Sesshoumaru was going to eventually finish with Inotoki and return to Rin's side, and Inuyasha didn't want to meet his gaze if there was a chance he could do it, do it and tell him she was breathing again. . .for however long he could make her.

Hell, Inuyasha. . .Inuyasha just wanted her to live.

So he quashed his uncertainty and his dread and breathed deep into her tiny lungs, his ears picking up the rush of air filling them, occasionally flowing into her stomach before he realised he was doing it wrong. Again, again, again. Neck tense with strain and ignoring the sweat tricking down over his temple and the snap and thunder of jyaki and youki clashing against each other behind him, Inuyasha desperately breathed life back into the young girl's torn-up body.

He couldn't even remember when he stopped listening for her heartbeat, giving it up in favour of pushing all his senses toward the sound of her breath catching in her throat. Inuyasha couldn't recall how long he'd been breathing for; the seconds warped strangely against the rapid gallop of his own heart.

It was as his hopes finally sank and he placed a palm on her still chest that her body went rigid with agony and a shallow, ragged gasp of air was pulled into her body of its own accord. Brown eyes rolled beneath their lids and slitted open under Inuyasha's incredulous gaze. Unable to focus on him, Rin's usually sparkling brown eyes were glazed with pain and incomprehension.

"Rin. . ."

That was all he got to say before her eyes slid shut again, her body going limp.

But she breathed, and kept breathing, and Inuyasha realised that he'd just brought her back from the brink of death. Him. His breath had gone—gone into her and she'd come back. It was like magic, he thought in awe. But all his efforts were going to be for nothing if he didn't help her fast—she was still bleeding too much for a human child to be able to survive long. Tenseiga couldn't do anything, he'd done all he knew how—

Like magic, he thought suddenly, terribly. What he'd done had only sounded like a spell. But there was a powerful youkai who knew more than a few tricks. . .who might know what to do.

Inuyasha swallowed. Reflexively he looked around for Sesshoumaru, for assurance of some kind that he wasn't about to make things worse. But if Rin was alive, now, and there was a chance she could be healed. . .he couldn't not try. Even if it meant going against everything Sesshoumaru had warned him about when it came to his treacherous mother.

With that, he made his decision.

"Hang on, kid," he said fiercely, and lifted her into his arms. "You just keep breathing. I'll do the rest."

Skirting the entire battle going on in the lower forest Inuyasha flew through the trees like a red and silver blur, the girl cradled safely against his chest. He left Sesshoumaru and Inotoki behind him, still locked in their useless battle – why Sesshoumaru was even bothering with the youkai dog wasn't even the point now, Inuyasha guessed. Maybe a few years ago he'd have done the same thing, but he'd had more experience with losing people close to him. Aside from their father's death, maybe Rin was it for Sesshoumaru.

And maybe Inotoki was stalling, giving Inuyasha time to climb the endless stairs to the castle, while the small human child in his arms dragged air into dying lungs. The idea that this was just a trap to bring himself or Sesshoumaru back to Tsukiko was a bright spark of anger in his mind, but he couldn't turn back because of that. Because if Rin died, she died because she'd followed Sesshoumaru here. To find him.

So as he reached the dais at the top of the stairs, his golden eyes fixed on the marble throne there with resolution burning bright and hard in his gaze.

For her part, Tsukiko jumped slightly at his abrupt entrance, stiffening out of her relaxed pose. Her expression immediately shifted to guarded and cool, but her nostrils flared, taking in the scent of spilled human blood. Her eyes flickered.

"So Sesshoumaru tired of her at last?"

Inuyasha snarled. "Save the bullshit – your kugutsu did this to her. Now I want you to fix it." Carefully, he knelt down and lay Rin out on the stone, and she looked for all the world like an offering to the youkai lady seated above her. Still breathing, he noted with some relief, placing his palm on her chest. Still alive.

"If the kugutsu attacked her, it's because she got to close to them, nothing more. My perfect son should have warned her of that much at least," she said dryly, relaxing again. She rested her chin in her palm, elbow propped up on the armrest. "Remind me why you're seeking my aid? I can't imagine how you came to the conclusion I was any sort of benevolent woman. Humans mean little to me."

Shit. She was going to make him beg?

Standing slowly, he stepped around Rin's prone form, placing himself between child and youkai like a living shield. Looming above the seated woman, who just gazed back blandly, he placed a palm on either armrest and leaned forward, putting himself nose-to-nose with her.

"She didn't deserve what's happened to her," he said, struggling to keep his voice level. "And you won't lose anything by helping her. The kid means a hell of a lot more to Sesshoumaru than he'd ever let on, and she's nearly dead. I got her breathing again – but I don't know shit about healing and you're a hellraising bitch when it comes to magic; the barrier upgrade taught me that much. If you don't have the power to do it, say so. Otherwise get off your lily-white ass and do something good for that son you say you care about so much." Breathing shallowly, staring straight into her narrowed eyes, his claws scratched against the smooth marble as he waited for her response.

Her crimson painted lips curved up slightly. "You are hopeless, Inuyasha. Where does all this faith in me come from? I'm just a spoiled, manipulative youkai bitch," she said easily, without a trace of scorn. "I know barrier magic because I spent centuries looking for a way out of this prison." Reaching up, she patted his cheek in a gesture too motherly to sit right with him. "What is she to you? Or is the simple knowledge that she is dear to Sesshoumaru enough to push you into thoughtless action?"

Pushing himself back from her curious eyes, the hanyou swallowed and knelt down by Rin's side again, absently tugging the sleeve of her kimono down into place. Blood was pooling sluggishly beneath her mauled leg. His mouth compressed into a flat line of pain. All of this for nothing.

What should he do? Sit there beside her quietly, and wait for those heartbreakingly weak breaths to stop lifting her chest? For the silence in her veins? Sit there, and watch her die in front of him again?

He couldn't. Not for Sesshoumaru, or even for himself. For the kid who had the stupid misfortune to cross paths with their cursed family.

And maybe he was just a sucker, after all.

Inuyasha looked up into Tsukiko's luminous gaze.

"Save her and I'll do the ritual. I'll set you free."

She stared at him; her eyes growing slowly wider as the colour ran from her face. Her lips parted, but nothing came out. Inuyasha just waited, kneeling before her, the expression in his eyes clear and determined. Because this wasn't death—the ritual would hold death off for as long as the magic was binding. But he would be trapped there. Still it was, as Sesshoumaru might put it, an acceptable loss.

Tsukiko read the solemn honesty in his eyes and slapped him. For a split second he felt the throat-clenching fear of loss closing like a cold fist around him, choking him. He'd have to bury Rin, Inuyasha thought slowly, and the memory of his mother, of his claws snapping off one by one, rushed back in a mud-scented drift of cold grief.

Then the youkai lady's hand returned, soft now, and gentle; her palm cupping his cheek. Reality swirled back to him with that one careful touch, and he looked up brokenly to find her stone-faced – almost condemning of his offer.

"You're a fool, Inuyasha," she said finally, but her eyes had a suspicious shine to them. "Who are you doing this for? Sesshoumaru? Where is he while you sell your soul to me? Isn't this his young pet, dying on the stone in front of me? He wouldn't make this sacrifice himself, Inuyasha, and he certainly won't thank you for doing it in his stead—"

"Rin is in this state because she followed Sesshoumaru here," he said fiercely, his fists clenching. Tsukiko had to understand. . .that this wasn't Inuyasha's generosity, or a good deed. This wasn't to score points or cheat death. "And Sesshoumaru came for me. Because I couldn't trust him when it counted. Now he's trapped in here, and Rin nearly died, and—and I'm going to fix this. So if you know how, fix her. Heal her. And let them go."

For a moment, a strange look passed over her face, something wondering and afraid. Her fangs glinted slightly as she sank them into her lower lip, almost like she was stifling another argument.

Then she bowed her head.

"I agree to your terms," Tsukiko said formally, and then she paused. "I am sorry—"

"No, no you don't get to be sorry," he spat, relieved, furious and despairing at once. "Be proud. Gloat. It all played out like you wanted. So, magic. Now."

She nodded silently, her hand lifting to grasp the large stone that hung around her neck. The Meidou stone, she'd called it. It swirled and glinted and reeked of the grave, of clean white bones and starlight above barren earth. Lowering herself to her knees beside Inuyasha, he watched as she removed it from her neck and placed it over Rin's head, the stone resting above her heart.

Then she stopped, her eyes closing briefly. "Inuyasha."

"What?" he asked, his voice rough.

"I can only bring her back, whole, from true death. Your human child is still breathing."

Inuyasha stared at her, uncomprehending, and Tsukiko took the moment to break Rin's neck in her delicate soft hands.

"You—" But he couldn't go any further as the stone suddenly glowed blue-white and cold, and an aura of power ignited around Rin's broken body. Brighter, brighter, until the hanyou couldn't even see the girl inside the light, and Tsukiko's eyes seemed to flash golden and exhausted for a single moment.

Then it was all gone. The magic, the power, and the trick of the light he'd seen in her face—

Rin started coughing; deep, hacking coughs that only someone with real strength in their limbs could manage. She bolted upright the moment Tsukiko removed the Meidou stone from around her neck, her wide brown eyes startled and confused.

"I was—I was. . ." Rin trailed off as she looked down at herself, at her torn, singed kimono and the blood that soaked the bottom of it. When her eyes lifted to Inuyasha's, they were mournful – and knowing. "But. . .where is Sesshoumaru-sama?"

"Tarring and feathering Inotoki, I presume," Tsukiko replied tartly before Inuyasha could open his mouth. "He'll find that a useless enough endeavour, and grow bored before long. I expect then that he will find his way here." Turning to glance her over shoulder slightly, Sesshoumaru's mother snapped her fingers imperiously.

Two young youkai servants were at her side almost immediately, their flat, emotionless eyes staring straight ahead. "Take the young human and see she is cleaned up and given something to wear," she said smoothly, her mouth pinching slightly in disgust. "All this human blood in my nostrils is ruining my appetite."

Rin scooted closer to Inuyasha. "I don't want to go with them," she whispered, her fingers reaching for his sleeve. "I want to stay with you."

Normally Inuyasha would have stuck with the kid, made sure she didn't leave his sight. He'd spent enough time looking out for her that it was becoming almost second nature. But Tsukiko gave him a meaningful look and murmured something to the second servant, and he realised then that distracting Rin would be a good thing, just then.

After all, he had a ritual to complete.

"It's okay kid," he said slowly. "Sesshoumaru's mother healed you up just now. Say hi, and then go with the servants." Despite the circumstances, he had to hide small amusement as Rin's eyes got huge, and she looked at the youkai lady properly for the first time.

Tsukiko was rising to her feet when Rin executed a clumsy, if painfully grateful bow before her. "Thank you, thank you honoured mother!" she cried, joy and awe thick in her voice. "Thank you for saving me!"

Shooting him a bemused look, to which he nodded, the youkai lady stared down at the bloodstained human girl and sighed. "It's a sad state of affairs when a human is more polite to me than my own blood," she mused, but it was obvious she was pleased. "You may call me Tsukiko, I suppose."

Rin's head popped up, her eyes shining with pleasure. "Tsukiko-sama," she said, testing out the name on her tongue. She beamed. "Thank you. You are even more beautiful than Sesshoumaru-sama!"

Inuyasha snorted before he could help it. For her part, Tsukiko blinked in surprise, then smiled widely, her fangs shamelessly on display.

"Oh I see why he keeps you around," she said on a laugh. "Such guileless praise. Be sure to tell my son of your opinion someday, young one." Inuyasha watched her carefully guide the girl into the care of the servants, making sure not to actually touch her in the process. That struck him as odd, but he didn't comment on it, putting it down to scent marking and all those strange territorial rules he knew jack shit about.

When they were gone, she hovered momentarily at the door, her face troubled. Inuyasha set his jaw and returned her look, his easy mood fading the moment Rin disappeared from his view.

"Get things ready," he said flatly. "Or whatever. I'll wait out here." When she hesitated still, he huffed a breath. "Or are you scared I'm going to make a break for it? Oh wait a second, I'm locked in anyway."

"Inuyasha, this was never my intention—"

"Oh, bullshit," he snarled, overriding her tentative apology. "Seriously, credit me with half a fucking brain. You set us all up real nice, youkai. Doesn't change anything. I'll find a way out of here, ritual or no ritual. This shithole can't hold me for long." Not when the red Tetsusaiga could punch a hole through any barrier it came across. But putting the ritual on himself meant it would break the spell on her. Then she'd just be another youkai bitch in his way. And if something in his stomach soured at the thought of that, he crushed it with the image of Rin's crumpled body at his feet; of Tenseiga shaking finely in Sesshoumaru's hand.

"I'll come for you when it's prepared," she said finally. Inuyasha didn't watch her leave, instead his eyes fixed on the clouds of dirt rising from the far field. The harsh snap and groan of trees falling met his ears as an arcing blue light shot up into the air. Sesshoumaru's, probably. Maybe. The hanyou knew he should really let him know that everything was okay, that Rin was alive, but to do that would mean telling him what the cost had been. And then, later, telling his brother goodbye.

He'd never been the one to leave first, he mused. Always in the past it had been others that had left him. This time Inuyasha had made the decision, and even though technically he was staying behind the truth was undeniable – he'd be travelling with Sesshoumaru no longer. But it was on good terms, this time. They were okay. So his uptight youkai lord brother would leave with his dragon, his crazy imp and his human girl. Being him, he'd probably come back, probably visit if Inuyasha took too long finding a way to break the spell. If only to tell him what an idiot he'd been.

Walking to the low stone wall, he leaned against it, staring down the steep hill the castle rested upon, his eyes darting from one kugutsu to the other. Those fuckers could go first. Creepy zombie servants next, because no one needed that shit sneaking up on them in an old castle. Though maybe they'd go when Tsukiko did. He hoped so.

Inuyasha was so deep in thought that he didn't notice the sudden silence down in the forest until Sesshoumaru was ascending the stairs.

Glancing up, he stilled as Sesshoumaru reached the dais, his eyes clear, his face a perfect mask as he studied the pool of drying blood where Rin had lain only moments ago. Again, the hanyou found he couldn't read him, like everything had been stuffed down so deep that maybe even Sesshoumaru couldn't see that he was grieving. Slowly though, the youkai lord turned to Inuyasha with that empty gaze, and without understanding why the hanyou took a reflexive step forward. Then, almost flinching, he stopped. Sesshoumaru wasn't—he didn't need that

"She's not dead," Inuyasha blurted out, struck by how hoarse his voice sounded. "Rin's fine. She's alive."

Without replying, his brother studied the bloodstained marble again.

"I know."

Inuyasha blinked. "You do?"

"The Meidou's light is unmistakable." At his sides, Sesshoumaru's fingers twitched oddly.

Inuyasha didn't understand. Why was he still—wasn't he happy? Not that he expected his brother to suddenly burst into relieved tears or anything, but shit, from what he'd seen earlier, a little relief wouldn't have gone astray. Something, anything other than this unaffected bullshit he had going on. Annoyed, tense and unhappy, the hanyou turned away from him and faced the view again, palms flat on the low wall, shoulders stiff. Tsukiko would be back any second to tell him the ritual was ready to be performed, and then what would he do? Maybe he could get her to release the second barrier on the territory so that Sesshoumaru and the others could leave, first. Maybe he could trick them into leaving—

Yeah, like that was going to work.

Still, and he knew it was cowardly of him but he didn't really want to see Sesshoumaru's face when he realised he'd done the one thing the poor bastard had done his damndest to prevent. Maybe Inuyasha really was just a stubborn, reckless asshole.

Still. He had the feeling it was worth it.

Hands came down on his shoulders then, hands with long fingers that fitted over the curve of muscle and bone. Not to crush or claw or harm, no; they just rested there, firm and strong. A long-held breath was exhaled behind him, blowing past his ear in a hot rush, making the furred point twitch. Inuyasha wondered at it all, but didn't move. Didn't want to, really.

"Must you," Sesshoumaru started, only to stop strangely, and Inuyasha felt warmth and something pressed against the crown of his head. "Must you defy me at every turn?"

The words touched the hair falling down his back, and the hanyou realised with a stab that Sesshoumaru was—leaning on him. His forehead, resting on the back of his head, face half-buried in his hair. But it only reached him distantly, because the defeat in Sesshoumaru's voice was the only thing Inuyasha could really focus on. He sounded tired. Tired and maybe even sad. Which really, could only mean one thing.

Still, Inuyasha forged on. "I don't even know what you're—"

"Inuyasha," Sesshoumaru said wearily, "I know what you have done." His hands released his shoulders then, but only to slide down and grip his upper arms, squeezing like maybe he wanted to break them, but gentling just before the point of pain. "You did just what she expected you to do, you fool."

Swallowing, Inuyasha shrugged jerkily under his brother's hands, glaring out at the hills. "You always said I was attached to the kid. Guess you were right."

Silence then; a long and drawn out painful thing. Inuyasha just stood there, breathing, and somehow trying to staunch the sudden panic of what have I done that was rising in the ache of his throat.

"And I am to simply abandon you here."

Inuyasha blinked hard, mustering his strength, his bravado—whatever it was that could keep him going. "Now don't go thinking I'm going to miss you or anything, asshole. I don't regret what it took to help the kid. So you just go do whatever you want, like always. It'll be just – like before."

Sesshoumaru released a breath then, and the words that escaped with it were ragged. "You foolish hanyou."

His hands disappeared then and Inuyasha turned around curiously, but stilled at the close proximity since his brother hadn't actually moved away. They were close enough that their breath was humid between them, but the hanyou barely noticed.

Because Sesshoumaru's eyes were full of light, almost gloriously gold as they stared down at him. Like he'd just discovered something impossible, something confusing and tangled up and none of it mattered just then, not a single thing.

Inuyasha drowned in it, that strange, almost wild emotion that was directed at him, hot-bright and raw. When the youkai lord leaned in and pressed lips and teeth and the rough stroke of a tongue the corner of his mouth, reality pulled itself apart in long unravelling strands but Inuyasha tilted his head anyway, eyes wide and startled at the warm slant of lips meeting lips and he really hadn't meant to but then the knot in his chest unravelled, aching and wounded as his eyes found Sesshoumaru's amidst that slick-soft contact and he saw—

Grief—

"Things will never be like before," Sesshoumaru whispered against his mouth, his poison-soaked hand punching through Inuyasha's stomach.

Crying out with hoarse agony, stunned and betrayed, Inuyasha stared up at his brother as he sank from his grip, landing on his knees before he fell forward, the hot gush of blood spreading out all around him.

The next few seconds were caught in snatches of awareness, as he tried to fight the encroaching darkness eating away at his consciousness. Tsukiko, running toward him with eyes full of horrified tears. Sesshoumaru, snatching her back by her wrist. A bowl, old and copper and round and she'd bled all into it, Tsukiko had.

Then there was Sesshoumaru, drawing his sleeve back to reveal his unblemished wrist, an ornate dagger in his hand—

Oh no no no no no. . .

His eyes were on Inuyasha as the knife sliced deep, dark crimson blood welling up and running over his pale skin, dripping steadily into the bowl. The hanyou wanted to scream, to pound the marble beneath him into dust but all he could do was watch through blurry eyes as blood met blood and light blazed between mother and son—

Blue eyes turned gold and gold turned blue and Inuyasha passed out to one calm directive ringing in his ears.

"Take him outside the barrier when you leave.

"That hanyou does not belong here."



Chapter 20: How to Save a Life

When Inuyasha woke, he didn't open his eyes right away. Mind swimming upward through layers of ache and dark fog, through memory of what had happened before. . .before. He knew what had happened long before his eyes opened and drank in his situation.

Because there was scent. The scent of his blood; metallic, dry and old. The pungent tang of crushed herbs and the cool trace of water close by. And living scents – the smell of young girl, of sweat, of feral youkai and strange perfume. Smoke.

There was noise. The crackle of fire, and the low murmur of voices he didn't care to focus on. The faint gurgle of water. Birds high above, calling out to their brethren in long, cracked-sounding cries. Heavy movement of something large and four-legged.

Taste. Blood, heavy and foul in the back of his throat. And something else, something like the flavour of herbs trapped behind his teeth.

Touch. Thick grass beneath his fingertips, the heavy-soft brush of his own hair coiled about his neck and shoulders. The warmth of sunlight and the cool caress of wind against his face.

Sesshoumaru wasn't there.

There was no stormy scent of dormant power, no scent of poison and hot blood. No smooth low voice, cultured and measured in its tone – unless he was angry, snarling rough and wild and real. No hands to grip his shoulders, no bursting agony of his stomach ripping open around the hand that had plunged through it, rending muscle and organs, narrowly missing his spine as claws dripping poison had torn him apart—

No, there was none of that now. Because it had all happened already, and could never happen again. Because Sesshoumaru had grown a heart at the stupidest possible time, and sealed himself inside a kingdom of kugutsu and blood magic. Handed over his own freedom in exchange for Inuyasha's. For his hanyou half-brother.

Inuyasha didn't want it.

He'd made the decision. He'd fucked everything up. He didn't need or want or deserve to be bailed out, whether it was fair or right or anything else that might justify why he was free, and Sesshoumaru wasn't. The decision had been made already, he'd—it would have been fine.

He didn't—Inuyasha hadn't been saved. Not like this.

And I am simply to abandon you here.

You foolish hanyou.

Things will never be like before.

The hanyou's eyes sprung open, and he was immediately dazzled by the brilliant afternoon sunlight as it filtered down amongst the thick canopy of trees overhead. Blinking rapidly, he sucked in a breath and planted his palms against the ground, pushing himself upright in one punishing surge. His stomach flared with pain, but surprisingly it was only the disquieting ache of an old wound, and not the bright agony he had been expecting. Just how long had he been out?

"Inuyasha! Oh Inuyasha, you're awake!" Rin's high voice was saturated in painful relief, but by the time she ran to his side and knelt down her eyes were brimming with moisture. Squinting at the kid, he frowned tiredly. She looked like she hadn't slept in days, her eyes tired and her face drawn even as she smiled at him. Her small hands patted his shoulder hesitantly, before reflexively crimping his haori in her grasp. "I was really scared. Tsukiko-sama said you'd be asleep for days because of the herbs, but you slept for a whole week! Y-you might have died, and. . ."

Inuyasha watched her wordlessly as her breathing hitched once, twice, and the little girl pressed her small fists to her eyes, shoulders shaking. He thought about offering some kind of apology, but they both knew whose fault his injury had been. Sesshoumaru had given it to him for the express reason that he wanted him fully incapacitated when he did the ritual. So he couldn't interfere.

His mind frantically rewound then, and his confusion cleared enough for him to ask, "Tsukiko. . .she's out? Are we out? Where are we?"

"You stupid hanyou, of course we're out of that blasted land!" a voice snapped harshly, and Inuyasha searched the large clearing for Jaken, who was huddled on the far side, webbed fingers clutched tightly around his staff. "It was his mother who hastened us out of the barrier with her kugutsu soldiers. But you," Jaken said accusingly, "Sesshoumaru-sama hung you over Ah-Un and led the beast toward the barrier himself. You! Who got him into this in the first place, you miserable wretch! He's as good as dead now, and it's your fault!" In his grip the staff shook and a small plume of fire belched from the old man's mouth, reflecting in the small imp's eyes. With a wooden clack the jaw snapped shut again, and Jaken huffed a furious breath and turned away from them both.

"Jaken-sama, you know Sesshoumaru-sama did it because he likes Inuyasha!" Rin insisted, her voice stronger than it had been a moment ago. "You heard what Tsukiko-sama said!"

"Stupid girl, don't you know she was lying through her fangs? We should never have followed the hanyou!" he yelled back. Then his eyes switched to Inuyasha. "You filthy half-breed, we'll never see Sesshoumaru-sama again because of you! I hate you!"

The declaration was almost childish, but Inuyasha had the impression the damned toad would start crying if he didn't keep yelling obscenities at him. At his side, Rin just seemed to crumple in on herself a little, her fists clenched where they rested on her knees. Her head bowed.

"It's not your fault, Inuyasha," she whispered, darting him a furtive glance. "Jaken-sama is just upset and doesn't like you. I think he is jealous of you because Sesshoumaru-sama is so kind to you."

Kind. Inuyasha might have laughed, if he didn't feel just then like maybe nothing would ever be funny again.

"Kind of him to punch a hole in my guts, sure," Inuyasha agreed, his eyes hard. "The fucker had no right to step in like he did. No right. I had everythingunder control. Now instead I'm stuck with a huge debt to repay, when–damn it–I never asked for this!" Gathering his feet under him, the hanyou forced himself to his feet, shaking off vertigo as he did. Rin pulled his hand and put it on her shoulder for balance, like maybe she had the strength in that skinny little body to hold him up.

Across the clearing, Jaken glared at them both. "Well, what does it matter anyway," he said bitterly. "He's gone. We can't get back in, and he can't get out. I might as well just throw myself into the river. My existence no longer has any meaning if I can't serve him." Even as he said that, his fingers clenched around the Staff of Heads like he was trying to forget how to let go. Inuyasha wondered if Sesshoumaru had entrusted it to him. It sure didn't seem built for someone of Jaken's size.

"Poor Jaken-sama," Rin whispered. "He thinks that he doesn't have anyone now."

The sight of that hunched over, lonely little youkai actually instilled a sense of pity inside Inuyasha. It doused some of his offended fury and hurt pride and made him think, and absorb, exactly what all of it meant.

They'd given up.

Given up on Sesshoumaru. They were talking about him like he was dead already.

Well not him. Inuyasha didn't just give the hell up when the going got tough; that kind of shit got you killed. Besides, Inuyasha had a bone to pick with his precious big brother, the shining saintly martyr that he was.

Perhaps unfairly, Inuyasha was angry. Furious, really. But it got shit done and kept his head clear, so he was going to let it fuel him for as long as he could. Maybe, after he'd done everything he knew how to, he could afford to feel helpless and a little like Sesshoumaru had wrenched something out of his chest instead of punching through his stomach. But until then, he was sticking with anger.

"Which way leads back to the barrier?"


Trapped in a prison of his own making. Sesshoumaru had always known that one day his path would lead him back to his home; perhaps he had even known that he would never leave it. But what he could never have anticipated was that he would choose it. Of his own accord, Sesshoumaru had instigated his own complete and utter defeat.

For that was what it was, in essence. With a slice into the meat of his wrist and a splash of blood in a magical vessel created to bind his blood into the very earth, the trees, he had truly been defeated. He could never leave, he could never die, and for all the world he couldn't understand why he had forced himself between Inuyasha and this fate.

The fool had wanted it. Sesshoumaru had spent his entire lifetime trying to forget it.

However, it was now far too late to bemoan his circumstances. Or, truly, perhaps he had plenty of time later to be indulging himself so. For the moment Sesshoumaru just stood at the base of the castle steps, and watched flare after flare of power bloom against the barrier, climbing the dome-like obstruction in shifting rainbows.

Inuyasha.

Likely wasting all his energy and tearing his wound open again, the imbecile. Unleashing his many attacks, no matter how powerful, was useless. The barrier had been forged with the ancient bones and blood and sinew of the first Inuyoukai to enter the land and found it as a stronghold for their kind. It was their immortal will to protect it that sustained the magic; it was not something that a petty display of power could shatter.

All the same, Sesshoumaru watched that reverberating dance of youki climbing the barrier, and wondered. Had anyone, in all the centuries of their clan, ever fought so hard to free the master of the land? It was unlikely. The clan had only finally died out during his esteemed mother's reign of the land; before that the barrier was looked upon as a blessing. The dog clan's children and elderly alike had a safe haven. The women who were with child had a place where they could bear their children without fear of hungry youkai chancing upon them. The place had once been a paradise. Now it was nothing more than a barren hell.

It was just another kind of graveyard. A fitting place for Sesshoumaru to be locked in forevermore, if only he could lie beneath the bones of the earth with his brethren. Instead he was its gatekeeper, its guard, and its king.

And he was alone.

A crawling, horrified desperation clutched at his throat, his chest and for one chilling moment Sesshoumaru understood exactly why his mother had once been so desperate as to cut open her own adoring child's hand, ignoring his wailing as she sought to catch his blood in a copper bowl. He had been young, and trusting, and he'd never understood in all his years what had driven his lovely, doting mother into a crazed harpy that would doom her only son for a single chance at freedom.

He understood, now. God help him, Sesshoumaru understood.

It had been one week. Tsukiko of the Moon Clan had endured it for over eight hundred years. With only an insane dog for company and an army of lifeless soldiers at her beck and call. Served by a handful of youkai vassals who had been the sons and daughters of slain enemies, killed and raised again by the meidou's power, minus their souls.

Sesshoumaru was not his mother. The first point of business had been to methodically destroy every last kugutsu and servant in the land. As old as they were, at the point the magic gave way they were nothing more than a pile of desiccated remains for the wildlife to take.

Inotoki, however, was nowhere to be found. Likely he had left with his mistress; the dog was no fool. Sesshoumaru was not prone to forgiveness simply because a mistake had been undone. Rin might live, but Inotoki had touched something under his protection, and his life was now forfeit. That might have meant something terrible for the youkai vassal, once. But Sesshoumaru could not hunt him from within a cage.

He should have let Inuyasha do the ritual. He wouldn't have had to endure this if he had let Inuyasha go ahead with it. He would have been free to hunt Inotoki, perhaps ever free to kill his wretched mother for orchestrating the entire mess this had become. Inuyasha had said it – things could have simply gone back to how it had been before. Mayhap he could have simply forgotten about the hanyou. Their enmity had spanned centuries; it wouldn't be hard to return to those old feelings, those old thoughts of superiority and pure bloodlines that needed to remain intact. That had been sullied. He might have been able to simply go on as he had, without that foolish hanyou to challenge him and change him, as he had been so artfully doing.

The only flaw in everything was the one truth that Sesshoumaru had acknowledged the moment he'd followed Inuyasha over a cliff, uncertain if he would survive the fall, only knowing that the hanyou would. And not caring, no, he hadn't cared one whit.

Inuyasha had become someone Sesshoumaru wanted to protect.

When it came to that infuriating, mistrustful hanyou, Sesshoumaru found himself becoming reckless and emotional, making decisions that—that were selfless and damaging to himself, because he no longer knew how to walk away from the moron. It was appalling, when he allowed himself to think about it. Inuyasha was a powerhouse of destruction in his own right, when he cared to utilise the strength that lay dormant in his bones. He didn't need anyone's protection, and certainly did not appreciate the efforts Sesshoumaru had gone to in order to keep him from harm's way. The youkai lord had strong doubts that Inuyasha could even trust him for more than a few hours at a time before spiralling off into his own deluded fantasies where Sesshoumaru was evil incarnate and was going to hatch a terrible master plan at any given moment.

What an awful feeling it was, he reflected, to give everything and receive nothing. Selflessness was for fools and women. At least he'd managed to put a decent hole in Inuyasha's stomach before he'd made such an insane sacrifice.

Still, through all his dark thoughts and regrets, Sesshoumaru's eyes never left the barrier. The attacks hadn't stopped once, the entire time. The hanyou's ingrained stubbornness rearing its head. The youkai lord wondered how long it would take before he passed out or gave up. It couldn't be much longer; he had been blasting away at it all day. When would it dawn on him that this was not an enemy he could chip away at, not even by the slowest of degrees?

Sesshoumaru found himself wondering what Inuyasha would do when it did. Return to his village, most likely. He would take Rin with him, and he would go back to protecting his human herd, spending his days teaching its children about the dangers of youkai, sometimes sleeping in the trees, always getting himself filthy and injured and loving every moment of it with all that fierceness the hanyou reserved especially for the things he considered his own.

Inuyasha would be fine. That much he did know. The fact of the matter was that Inuyasha was conditioned to survive anything alone. The loss of a brother he had only really had for a handful of months would heal easily enough. The sooner he realised his own limitations and gave up on the barrier, the better.

For both of them.

Sesshoumaru was so bleakly fixated on the barrier's movements that to his chagrin he did not hear the footsteps in the grass until they stopped right behind him.

"He's a reckless moron, that one," said a familiar voice. "But lovable, in his own roughhouse, passionately earnest way."

Sesshoumaru didn't react at first. Certainly he didn't look away, didn't turn to give his attention to his mother. Of course she would tease the barrier with her free passage now, having been released from its spell. Of course she would cross inside just to prove she no longer feared it.

Had she returned to mock him?

"He won't ever stop," she continued calmly, drawing even with him so that they stood side by side. He absently noted that the top of her head barely came up to his chin. It hadn't been that way the last time he had been home. She had been a towering force of nature then, her strength iron and unyielding, her eyes wild and streaming tears; her claws dripping blood. His.

He felt her gaze lift to fix upon him, shifting into something unreadable.

"Sesshoumaru. This was never my intention. Know that much, at least. I'm sorry it ended like this, I truly am."

The youkai lord didn't move. "Your utter lack of emotion truly underscores your sincerity, mother," he said. "I am suitably touched."

She laughed, but the sound was hollow and strange. "Why haven't you tried to kill me yet? You're immortal now, not I."

"That would be redundant. You raised me to be an expert in poisons, after all. I can smell it on your breath and skin. Your time is short."

"Clever," she said softly, chuckling. "And efficient. No wasted movement. A perfect killer. But what is a natural assassin, a brilliant strategist, a powerful daiyoukai, like you, doing throwing your life away? For a hanyou that I knowyou've spent most of his lifetime hating? What changed?"

Flash, flash, flash. A thousand flares of youki rippling the barrier. Kongousouha. It would take more than diamonds and determination to pierce the magic. Sesshoumaru watched the widening circles of impact coalesce with each other and shimmer with a multitude of colours. It was beautiful, in its own way.

Tsukiko sighed ruefully, the sound ending on a rasp that hadn't been there before. "He changed you," she said matter-of-factly. Then she paused. "You love him, don't you?"

Sesshoumaru didn't blink. "I love nothing."

"Liar," she countered. "You two are tangled up in each other's lives; you always have been, for one reason or another. Fates, crossing paths over and over and over. I've been watching you and him for years. Even when the hatred was gone, and all that animosity, you still couldn't help but be drawn to one another. Not through your father's will or the twin fangs, through sheer need. You need each other, Sesshoumaru. You've always needed one another, whether it be as an enemy, a rival, a comrade, a friend or brother. . .or even a lover."

Sesshoumaru jolted. "Surely you jest," he said, his tone dripping with disgust.

"Do you think I didn't see that socially awkward moment before you disabled Inuyasha? You don't even touch people without a good reason, Sesshoumaru. But with him. . .all bets are off, aren't they?"

"Absolutely not. We are kin."

Tsukiko rolled her eyes. "We're purebloods, Sesshoumaru," she said with heavy emphasis. "How do you think we stayed that way? Youkai don't go. . .strange with the mixing of close blood, not the way humans do. Goodness, if I hadn't been an only child they'd have married me off to my brother instead of your esteemed father. Luckily you don't need to consider things like heirs and whatnot. Indeed, I find it interesting your only complaint is that he is your half-brother. That speaks loudly—"

"Of nothing," Sesshoumaru said coldly. "And your continued persistence with the subject is pointless. As you have so masterfully arranged, I shall never again lay eyes upon the hanyou. Cease your speculation on the subject. Perhaps you would like to spend your last breaths on a more meaningful topic of conversation."

He turned his attention back to the barrier, just over the tree-line where it shimmered still. Idiotic, persistent, stubborn fool. Did he even know how to give up? When all was lost? For that matter, why was he trying so hard when the odds were so stacked against his success? Perhaps lost causes just appealed to him now; after all he did spend most of his life as one.

Tsukiko coughed suddenly, and the tang of blood filled the air. Sesshoumaru looked down to find her staring at her blood-splattered palm with a shaky smile on her too-crimson lips.

"Death. How mundane," she said wryly. "And naturally I only have access to the one poison that leaves me bleeding from the mouth before I expire. Cruel fate. My kimono shall be ruined." She looked up at him then, and finally catching his eyes, her smile dimmed into something sad and searching.

He realised what it was, then. His eyes. Gone was their golden hue; instead as he'd found in the reflection of his sword they were the same cold pale blue he'd always seen in her face. Now with the power in his veins, Tsukiko had her natural eye colour back, and it was the same gold he'd seen in his reflection all his life. She resembled him more now than she ever had. Her markings, the crescent moon gracing their foreheads, the same silk-straight hair. The same natural talent with acid and poisons.

And she was dying by slow degrees, by her own hand, because even life couldn't offer her the freedom she sought. Sesshoumaru didn't feel pain at the notion of her death, but there was a strange hesitation at the idea of watching her choke on her own blood. She was right; it was undignified, and messy. Because whatever else she was, she was his mother and the last surviving pureblood, aside from himself.

"If you ever do find Inotoki, you might want to break the amulet around his neck," she said after a long moment. "It has a piece of the first failed meidou stone inside it. It essentially ensures his immortality while he wears it. What he doesn't know is that breaking it will devour his life force and boil his brains inside his skull. I'm sure you can guess how we came to realise that."

She smiled suddenly, her fangs indenting her lip slightly. "The stink didn't come out of the smithy for days. Your father was furious. He'd lost a good craftsman and gotten brains in his hair all at once. Of course he made me wash it out, the filthy brute. I got it all under my claws. . ."

"I understood you hated him," Sesshoumaru said, then mentally berated himself for speaking. This would do no good. But he would never again have a chance to ask. "You did bring about his death, after all."

Tsukiko frowned up at him from where she was bent over, wiping her hand on the grass. "That was an accident. Besides, he used to kill me at least twice a week, did he ever tell you that? Took it for granted that I couldn't die. We fought terribly, and about everything, and he was always so sweaty and loud. . .but I never hated him in all our time together. Our marriage was arranged, but it wasn't awful. Just twisted. Then of course I ruined everything." The look she darted him was rich with guilt. Old guilt.

"When you tried to force the blood ritual on me," he said dispassionately. "And father stopped you."

"In my meagre defence, it would never have worked," she said with a shake of her head. "The ritual only works when the blood is freely given, never taken. But what I did was atrocious – I was no mother to you after that night. I hated him for taking you, hated him. He stole you from my arms and took you far beyond my reach. . .and then he all but ignored you and took up with that human woman. Sired another child to replace the disappointing killer with his mother's ruthless intent. He took from me the only thing that mattered, and then he threw it away."

Choking a little then, she pulled a white scrap of cloth from her sleeve and dabbed at her mouth. The colour was gone from her face, but her eyes blazed up at him.

Sesshoumaru found himself at a loss for words. He hadn't known that the ritual would only work with his consent. Perhaps his father hadn't, either. His mother had been no danger to his freedom.

"If it was doomed from the start, why did you spill my blood?"

Her head lowered, avoiding his eyes completely. "Desperation," she answered simply. "Fear. He was coming to take you anyway; the sentry guards had notified me earlier in the night. You will still so young. Always wanting a story from me, a little afraid of sleeping by yourself, forever tattling on Inotoki. . .you'd barely learned how to use your poison claws. I wanted you with me. I was your mother." Her eyes glittered with tears. "But in the end I was just selfish. I tried to force the ritual so you would never leave me. I deserved what I got."

A great wracking cough left her then, spraying dark blood from her lips. Sesshoumaru found himself turning toward her, with no idea why. He stilled as she sank to her knees in the grass, braced forward on her soft white palms, hands that had never seen work or direct sunlight in all their days. Now they caught the blood that dripped from her mouth, and the tears that fell from her eyes. Lady Tsukiko of the Moon Clan looked. . .broken. Pathetic.

Sesshoumaru didn't like it.

Then she sniffed. "This is dreadful," she said with feeling. "Bleeding! Pain! I'm not accustomed to this at all. Now I'm covered in blood and I'm grass-stained—"

"I will end it," the youkai lord said quietly. "If you would prefer."

Her eyes widened, something soft and vulnerable visible in their golden depths for the briefest of seconds. Then she reached out and pinched his leg hard.

"Don't show me any mercy, you horrid son," she said tartly. "I don't want to spend my last moments sobbing into my sleeves. We're not that kind of family."

Sesshoumaru stared at her. "I'm offering to kill you neatly," he explained, like perhaps she was missing the point altogether. "The blood is disconcerting. Also, you sprayed some on me."

"Stop worrying about your clothes," she shot back. "There's no one here to impress."

Realising what she'd said they both stopped then, and in the sudden silence Sesshoumaru realised he could no longer hear the dull boom, boom, boom of power hitting the barrier. He turned back to the tree-line. The barrier was invisible again, unmarred by any kind of disturbance.

The silence was complete.

Inuyasha had finally given up.

Sesshoumaru convinced himself that he was relieved by that. He forced his attention back to his failing mother, who was now bleeding from one ear and the corner of her eye in a most disconcerting way. She looked miserable.

"It's like I'm leaking," she muttered to herself, sounding baffled. "I stop one and two more start! So much for my graceful and dignified pass over into the next life. At least he got to go in a very literal blaze of glory. All flames and noble sacrifice and battling to the end. What do I get? Surprise haemorrhaging."

Realising his eyes were on her, she seemed to compose herself a little. But there was little that could hide her bloodless pallor nor her faintly trembling hands. Whatever poison she had hastily taken, it was nowhere near as refined as the ones she used to make. But it was doing its job most admirably, all the same. Her eyes turned to the same section of the barrier his had focussed on, and she sighed.

"You know, I never even wanted for. . .oh, never mind," she said, looking cross with herself. "I'm not one for deathbed confessions. Just—have faith, Sesshoumaru. I know it's hard, especially when you're faced with how long I was trapped here for. But I never – had – anyone – on – the other side, fighting to get me out. You d-do." As she'd been speaking her breathing had abruptly shortened, making her gasp between words as she fought to speak. Then of all things she tried to get to her feet again, as though she'd forgotten her muscles were all but sapped of strength.

When she swayed forward dangerously, Sesshoumaru caught her.

"Can I take you u-u-up on that offer now?" she gasped out, staring through huge pupils, though Sesshoumaru wasn't certain she could see anymore. His eyes travelled over her features. She was hanging like a crushed flower over the crook of his arm. He hadn't realised—she was fragile. Small. This was his mother—

"You can," Sesshoumaru replied quietly. Jerking spasmodically in his grasp, she managed to smile.

"It's vexing; I-I suddenly wish I h-had more—"

It appeared that Sesshoumaru had no need to intervene for her. Her breath hitched once, twice; then with a sigh too long for anything living to express her body went limp in his arms, her eyes staring blankly up at the sky.

For a moment he just stood there, feeling oddly bereft.

Then he realised he was probably going to have to dig a hole to bury her.

"Wonderful."


Stabbing Tetsusaiga deep into the ground, Inuyasha braced himself with it and blinked sweat out of his eyes, breathing hard.

The red Tetsusaiga had failed.

Scratch that; it hadn't even been a threat to the barrier he was up against. It didn't repel his attacks, it didn't act like a barrier. It just took everything he threw at it, and absorbed it clean into the entire sparkling mass. Every attack he'd ever developed for the Tetsusaiga was useless as well.

He just. . .nothing was working. He'd been trying for hours and hours and maybe he could go on forever hacking at it but what was the point, what the hell was the point it none of it did any good?

But he couldn't just leave. He couldn't just give up.

Inuyasha wasn't ever going to give up. He knew that much was true. The asshole might have chosen this himself but he wouldn't have wanted it. Maybe he'd just briefly gone insane. Hell, he'd almost kind of kissed Inuyasha a moment before he did it – wasn't that proof right there?

Or had Inuyasha kissed him? Honestly he wasn't sure; it had all been a very confusing life-or-death moment for him. Things had gotten. . .tangled up. Whether or not he was okay with that, Inuyasha had no idea. He just needed to see him, tell him he was a moron and just what kind of uptight pain in the ass daiyoukai seals himself inside a barrier, anyway?

Wiping his forehead with his wrist, he flicked stray strands of hair off his face and tried to straighten up again, tired and more than a little disheartened. The burning in his eyes was either exhaustion or sweat or something else entirely, but his surroundings doubled a little before settling back into normal vision.

"Great," Inuyasha laughed bitterly, fists clenching tightly. "The hell am I fainting out here like some girl." The sting of his claws piercing his palm woke him up again, and he opened his palms to see four shallow cuts on each palm, filling immediately with blood. Brilliant. Fucking brilliant.

Tired, furious and so fucking sick of it he could hardly breathe, Inuyasha's control finally splintered apart.

"Could someone just cut me a little goddamn slack here, please?" Grabbing Tetsusaiga, he wrenched it from the earth and threw it with a shouted curse, watching the useless blade transform back into rusty nothing as it sailed into a tree with a dull thump.

"What good are you now?" he roared at it, feeling the ache in his throat transform. "You—you piece of shit sword, you can't protect anything." He started to falter, his face falling as it finally dawned on him. "I'm. . .I can't do anything. He's stuck. He's really stuck."

Sesshoumaru wasn't ever getting out of there.

Centuries, probably even thousands of years of barrier magic, and who was Inuyasha? Some dirt-blood hanyou. Who was he to be able to stand up to it? Wanting it and screaming for it and beating on its walls wasn't going to change a damn thing.

"I can't walk away," he whispered miserably, turning his overbright gaze up to the silent wall. It loomed in semi-transparency like it was judging him. "I'm sick of it, I'm so fucking sick of everyone leaving—you think I'm going to do it to him? I don't even know how!" He was starting to sound insane in his desperation, he knew it. Talking to no one, railing and raging and he might as well accept it at this point – there was no saving the day this time.

Inuyasha walked up to it, his eyes searching the surface of it. It wasn't the destructive barrier Tsukiko had overlaid over it – it was just a wall, obstinate and immovable as a mountain. Somehow, that made everything worse.

Rearing his arm back, Inuyasha drove his fist into it as hard as he could.

It didn't even hurt. It just absorbed the impact, returning to perfection the moment he pulled his fist out. Son of a bitch.

Closing his eyes in defeat, Inuyasha leaned his forehead on the surface and wondered if this was what giving up felt like.

"I don't know. . .what to do," he admitted, pressing his palms against its smooth surface. "How do I get him out?"

Heat.

Inuyasha yelped loudly as the barrier suddenly flared burning hot, and he leapt away from it in time to see the entire surface start to brim with a blinding white light – far too bright—

"The key is already in your hand."

The voice was booming, ominous and knowing at once. Inuyasha's eyes widened in shock. Somewhere to his right, Tetsusaiga began to rattle in its resting place.

Then—then came another.

"Thank you for that brilliant pearl of wisdom, you moron."

Upon the surface of the barrier two familiar faces were staring back at him.

"The barrier has my blood and soul tied into it," Tsukiko said kindly, and shoved her elbow into her lord husband's side. "He's just a tagalong. But essentially for once having you bleed a great mess everywhere has done some good.

"Now let's try to break that barrier, shall we?"



Chapter 21: The Exception

Days passed.

It seemed Inuyasha had indeed given up.

Moved on, likely. Nothing really phased the hanyou for long; Sesshoumaru's voluntary imprisonment was no exception. He was born to adapt to change, thrive on it – Sesshoumaru could appreciate that now, when nothing would ever change for him again.

It was quiet, beneath the barrier. Peaceful. Sesshoumaru had longed for peace when his travelling companions consisted of a complaining imp and an excitable human girl, both of whom enjoyed bickering and asking him pointless questions. He'd thought he would be pleased to have some solitude, until it became apparent that solitude was all he would ever have.

He had buried his mother at the base of the hill, where the ground was soft and even. There had been nothing to mark her grave, and it felt too much like sentimentality to want to find something, so Sesshoumaru had simply sprayed a brilliant haze of poison across it, so thick that his fingertips glistened with it and the earth would never bear fruit there again. It was a morbid tribute, but nothing else seemed more fitting.

There had been silence ever since. Bleak, empty silence.

On the second day after Inuyasha had given up, Sesshoumaru had walked the entire perimeter of the barrier, following it until he'd come full circle. There was nothing to see on the other side – the magic was a curtain drawn across the outside world as much as it was a wall. He saw nothing but trees; the same trees repeated over and over like they were painted there. Illusions of false freedom, trying to convince him to reach out and discover the lie. Sesshoumaru had returned to the base of the castle steps after that, feeling pinched tight and ill to the very pit of his stomach.

On the fourth day after Inuyasha had given up, the sun was pouring thick and hard over the youkai lord's skin when he recalled the words of his mother. With no one to lay eyes upon him, with no point to any of it, Sesshoumaru had grit his teeth and thrown off his armour – the symbol of his daiyoukai birthright. Useless trappings he would never need again.

Standing there, staring at the discarded plates of armour, the sunlight glinting off the pauldron that usually adorned his shoulder, he felt lighter. Colder.

Sesshoumaru had later removed his boots, and he thought of Inuyasha as the grass crushed beneath his bare feet, cool and rough against his skin. He stared at his clawed toes for far too long, wondering why something so utterly inane should leave him feeling so bereft.

Along with his swords and the length of fur, Sesshoumaru had placed the lot of it in the carved chest in the corner of his chambers, slamming the heavy lid down with a sense of finality. He could admit that it was difficult to look fondly upon trappings that only served to remind him of the past, and had no desire to spend the endlessly stretching remainder of his life pondering over his regrets and past conquests.

Instead, he spent most of his time in the library. Lost in the history of his clan, of the scrolls and old letters and spell books his mother had owned, it was easy to forget for a while that he was never going to escape. Though Sesshoumaru strongly suspected he was going to go brilliantly insane when he finished the last book in the library, he kept reading.

Sleep was difficult, even as little as he required. The one occasion he'd managed to doze for the better part of a night, he'd awoken to notice a long dark strand of hair on the opposite pillow. Inuyasha's; fallen out on the new moon. Trapped in its human guise forevermore. Sesshoumaru threw it into the fire with more difficulty than he'd anticipated, and couldn't explain why he avoided his chambers after that.

Time began to stretch and blur to him. The library had solid walls and no light penetrated its space, leaving only the crackling firelight as flames tirelessly devoured wood that was spelled to never turn to ash. There Sesshoumaru had sequestered himself, and there he intended to stay.

He supposed he could survive in this manner. But all his living had been finished with the moment he had emptied his veins into the bowl and taken on the curse.

Action and consequence had never seemed so jarringly unfair. But of the two of them, it had been Sesshoumaru who deserved this fate. Inuyasha had been dragged into it, tricked into it, and despite his impassioned and reckless heroics he was not the one who was destined for this life.

It was better this way – no, rather, it was meant to be this way.

That was the truth of things.

Reaching up to the shelf, Sesshoumaru silently pulled down another book and began to read.


The ground didn't feel so steady under his feet anymore. Inuyasha swallowed hard, not trusting his voice to form words instead of one long sound of furious agony.

Lifting shaking hands, stomach roiling with nausea, he tried to focus on the damage. His mouth soured with saliva as he took in the sight of his palms, stripped clean of skin, blistering painfully and crusted with dried blood. Beneath his sleeves, his forearms were slashed up and down, still sluggishly dripping blood. As they had been for days upon days now. Shit, what a mess.

"This had better work," he said thinly. A moment later his eyes rolled up into his head and Inuyasha toppled into the bushes.

When he woke up it was hours later and his palms were tender, but they had something resembling skin again. Rin was smoothing something pungent made of crushed herbs on his hands under Tsukiko's limited direction from the barrier, while his father simply stared at him intently, his features set into a frown that looked like it had been chiselled onto his face.

When Tsukiko led the girl away to identify some herbs she could see from another section of the barrier, the daiyoukai lord spoke.

"You are putting yourself at risk with this endeavour, my son."

Inuyasha just shrugged. "I have to do it."

"We both know that isn't true."

"I don't expect you to understand. But if you aren't going to help you can piss off." The words were intended to send his father on his way, but all he got was a long, hard look in return.

"This is reckless and foolhardy, Inuyasha. You will not gain Sesshoumaru's favour by doing this," he said gravely, his gaze softening. Filling with pity. "You may free him, but he won't thank you for this. It will simply be a source of shame to him, being saved by you. If you should overexert yourself, at least know you would be sacrificing everything for nothing."

It was a simple and genuine imparting of knowledge, spoken so calmly and easily –like it was a simple fact of life that Sesshoumaru wasn't worth the trouble– that for a moment Inuyasha wanted to punch him, as hard as he could.

Twitching his sleeves back instead, the hanyou stared at the angry red lines on his forearms, where he'd slashed through the skin so he'd have enough blood to paint upon the barrier. Because his blood was the key. Still, Inuyasha hadn't been prepared for exactly how much he'd need to use.

It had taken him nearly ten days to paint a line of his blood the entire way around the barrier; the magical wall that blazed white-hot each time his bloody palms were dragged across it. After a while it had stopped feeling like real pain and instead just felt like the burn of ice before numbing up completely. . .until the scorched nerves healed, and all the agony came rushing back in again. Too much pain. But the blood had to be laid there by his own hand, and the sacrifice was only temporary, really.

If he didn't do it, Sesshoumaru would never get out.

And if there was ever a chance to pay him back for all the life-saving bullshit the bastard had been pulling since that day by the river, this was it. But if Inuyasha was honest with himself, squaring his debt to his brother wasn't the reason he was going through all of this.

The simple truth was that he missed Sesshoumaru. Kind of desperately. It hadn't even been all that long, and there sure hadn't been many good times to go off, but they were all he had and they were precious in a way that had nothing to do with—with battles won and victories claimed. This was just a handful of small moments and shared looks, a few not-smiles and good-natured insults. It was the bottom of a canyon and waking up to a mouth against his ear and limbs tangled around his. It was a silent vigil by his side as he woke up to agony after a mindless battle with his own demonic blood. It was an eyelash balanced on the tip of his claw and the depth in Sesshoumaru's eyes as he watched him. It was firelight and the glint of fangs and fighting in the river over who had the manlier markings. It was belonging.

Tiny little moments, all of them, but pieced together and held up to the light they made a word so much bigger and more important than favour.

Letting his sleeves fall back into place, Inuyasha finally lifted his gaze to his father, feeling the weight of Tetsusaiga at his hip – feeling it tremble in his presence. The great general of the western inuyoukai clan. The daiyoukai that had died saving Inuyasha and his mother. That had left twin swords to his sons in the hope that they'd realise they were stronger together than they were apart.

Who thought that Sesshoumaru wasn't worth the effort. That Inuyasha was trying too hard, for too little in return.

Drawing the fang, the hanyou's gaze briefly turned to the almost completed ring of blood, where two ends were waiting for the final key to make the circle whole and burn the magic away.

He smiled faintly at his father. "I've always wanted to say something to you, you know."

The Inu no Taishou blinked, leaning forward slightly inside the surface of the barrier. Inuyasha hefted the Tetsusaiga, watching the wide blade begin to bleed red from hilt to tip.

"Tetsusaiga's size. Three swords."

The hanyou slowly reared back the Tetsusaiga as his smile split into a wicked grin.

"Compensating much?"

Inuyasha had the immense satisfaction of seeing his father's jaw drop with outrage before he drove the crimson Tetsusaiga clean through the barrier, completing the blood circle and finishing the ritual at last.

As the dome distorted and the band of Inuyasha's dried blood spread to turn the entire barrier a wild shocking red, the hanyou finally allowed himself to think about how many holes he was going to put in Sesshoumaru for horning in on his heroics and stealing his thunder.

But really, as he watched the barrier finally dissolve into a shower of red sparks and reveal the forest and castle beyond, Inuyasha just felt like he could finally breathe again.

Then, sheathing his sword, he stepped over the line scorched into the earth and started walking into the forest.


The fire in the library was flickering.

Distracted, Sesshoumaru glanced over at it, displeased by the shifting shadows it cast across the walls. It settled after a few seconds, and the youkai lord slowly turned his attention back to the scroll he'd been studying.

Then he saw it, in the corner of his eye.

Sparks, sifting down the chimney. Brilliant crimson sparks.

The moment they hit the flames in the hearth, Sesshoumaru's skin began to glow with the same unnatural blue that saturated his eyes. Uncoiling from his seated position the youkai lord stared at his hands and arms as the pale blue light began rising off his skin. A magical reaction, undoubtedly, but there was no trigger to speak off. Nothing but the mess in the fire—

His thoughts stalled as his skin abruptly turned feverishly hot, and sweat broke out on his brow. His breathing shortened and he found himself panting slightly in an old, instinctive reaction that had nothing to do with his current form. This was. . .unexpected, to say the least.

As he watched, the glow began to change, turned red as his skin flushed with colour, and the humming sensation that had overtaken his body when the ritual had been performed returned in full force. Only this time there was a knife edge of pain, shocking and bright like something had splintered inside his chest, tearing at his skin from the inside with scalding claws.

Rigid with breath-stealing pain, Sesshoumaru grit his teeth and tried to focus as he began burning from the inside out.

When the rug-covered floor began rushing up to meet his gaze, it wasn't until his knees hit hard that he realised he had been in the process of collapsing rather gracelessly. Was he going to die? Had the ritual rejected him? The thoughts were fruitless and he could find no answer as he braced himself there, the world spinning in and out of focus while his skin burned and his body shuddered, and crimson light began pouring from his body as though it was burning its way out through the very pores of his skin, like he might break apart into great crimson shards of light.

It wasn't a pleasant thought, but then it was a most unpleasant death, if it was indeed happening.

When his vision blackened and with eerie certainty he realised he was about to lose consciousness, possibly for the last time, the youkai lord found himself wondering why he could hear footsteps slapping over stone, and a voice desperately calling his name.

After that, there was nothing more.


When Inuyasha tracked Sesshoumaru's scent to the library and wrenched open the door, he wasn't sure of what he'd find.

All the same, he was pretty sure that a room full of fading red light and the youkai lord crumpled unnaturally on the floor was not it.

Inuyasha's throat caught oddly at the sight, his claws digging into the wooden door frame. The idea that the magic breaking apart might hurt Sesshoumaru had never once crossed his mind.

"Sesshoumaru?" he called, once, and stepped slowly into the room. Could he hear his breathing? His heartbeat? Or was that just the splutter of the fire? "C'mon, Sesshoumaru. Don't. . ."

Don't do this,the hanyou thought painfully as he knelt down by his side, his sore palm catching his shoulder and pulling Sesshoumaru toward him, turning him onto his back. With an ache in his throat Inuyasha reached out and carefully pushed the heavy curtain of his hair off his face.

Sesshoumaru's eyes were gold and open, but they didn't see anything.

Something inside Inuyasha began fracturing in slow degrees, until his hand slid down to the corded column of Sesshoumaru's neck. There he found a steady pulse, beating strong and heavy beneath his fingertips. And then, the minute shifting of his brother's chest as he pulled in air.

He was alive. Inuyasha hadn't killed him.

The barrier was broken, and Sesshoumaru was free. Everything was all right.

Swallowing hard, the hanyou allowed himself a moment of sheer, painful relief.

"You freak," he muttered, scowling down at him. He carefully thumbed his eyelids closed, fingers fanning over his still features. When Inuyasha's hand grazed his lips, Sesshoumaru's breath was a warm comfort against the sensitive skin of his palm. "Who the fuck passes out with their eyes open? Nearly gave me a goddamned heart attack."

It had been a good idea to leave Rin on the other side of the dead barrier after all; magic had a way of surprising you at the last second and he hadn't wanted her in the crossfire if it did something unexpected while it unravelled. Maybe the old man had been right to hate it so much. But not even Tsukiko could possibly have known it would have this effect, or she'd have told him. Probably; she might have all kinds of guilt when it came to Sesshoumaru but she was still kind of a heinous bitch, hatching her evil blood ritual plans.

Gazing down at Sesshoumaru, Inuyasha was trying to think of what to do next when his brother twitched slightly, pulling in a sharp breath.

Despite all the angry and resentful stewing he had been doing, the moment the youkai lord opened his eyes and focussed on him, Inuyasha's grin nearly split his face. He was proud of himself.

"Hey," he said simply, as Sesshoumaru slowly pushed himself up into a sitting position, never once taking his eyes off him. There was something weird about the way he was looking at—

"Whoa!" Inuyasha yelled, catching the fist that came rushing at his face. The impact made his palm sting viciously but he didn't have time to think about it as Sesshoumaru launched himself bodily at the hanyou, sending him backward in a sprawl of claws and fangs and snarling. "Damn it, Sesshoumaru! Get it together!"

When his protests earned him nothing more than a rage-filled snarl, Inuyasha's good mood frayed into knots of stunned irritation. So it was like this? Fine. Bringing his knee up, Inuyasha drove it into Sesshoumaru's unarmoured stomach before hooking his leg around, flipping them over and punching the bastard in the jaw, as hard as he damn well could.

"Calm the fuck down," Inuyasha barked, pressing his claws to the youkai lord's throat. That oughta shut him up, he thought grimly as Sesshoumaru froze warily, shaking his head slightly to remove the strands of hair caught across his eyes. It didn't really work.

Growing in frustration, Inuyasha reached out with his free hand and drew them away with a quick brush of his fingertips.

This time when Sesshoumaru blinked and stared up at him, there was a dawning realisation in his eyes.

"Inuyasha," he murmured, and a thin trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth. He'd clocked him pretty hard, the hanyou thought with some degree of satisfaction. But what was more important was that Sesshoumaru recognised him, and to all appearances had only experienced a brief lapse in sanity.

"Who else would bust in here to rescue your sorry ass?" he replied, pissed. "And what do I get in return? Frickin' attacked."

Sesshoumaru didn't respond immediately. Instead he pushed Inuyasha's hand away from his neck and sat up warily, his expression unreadable. Ungrateful pain in the ass, Inuyasha thought unkindly. Not even bothering to move, the hanyou sat back heavily on the youkai lord's thighs, feeling belligerent and pissy as he crossed his arms. His expression was unfriendly, at best.

Of course, his mood was lost on Sesshoumaru, who never really gave a shit one way or the other. "How did you get inside?" he demanded, a frown prickling his brow. "What did you do, Inuyasha?"

"I walked in," Inuyasha said shortly. "After I tore down that stupid barrier."

Sesshoumaru didn't blink. "Impossible. You couldn't."

"Fuck you," Inuyasha returned crossly, and flashed up his mutilated arms. "It just took a bit of effort. And when I say effort, I mean about two thirds of my blood supply, every day, for the past week and a half. And considering the last thing you did before you got locked in here was punch a hole through my stomach, I'd say that pretty fucking generous of me."

Inuyasha probably would have vented a little more on the subject but Sesshoumaru had taken his wrist in one hand and was carefully drawing his sleeve back to his elbow so that all of the wounds were displayed. He even uncurled his fingers so that his palm was visible. Again, Inuyasha couldn't decipher the look on his face as he took it all in.

Finally, Sesshoumaru looked up at him, and there was something breakable buried behind all that controlled calm.

"You were supposed to give up and move on," he said slowly. "When your wound healed, you were supposed to take Rin and go. Not this, Inuyasha." His fingertips ghosted over the healing redness of his palm, claws careful to avoid the tender skin. "Why did you go to such lengths?" The fingertips strayed over his wrist, avoiding the slices in his skin, but Sesshoumaru's mouth tightened as his fingers avoided three, four, five, more of them until he reached the crook of Inuyasha's elbow, pressing into the soft skin there.

For his part, Inuyasha just watched the care Sesshoumaru was taking with his arm, and could only remember what their father had said, right before he'd destroyed the barrier.

"If I'd trusted you back when Inotoki first appeared, none of this shit would have happened," he said simply, and then hesitated as disbelieving eyes met his. "But I guess that's the easy answer. I just. . .got used to you. Barely. And then this all just—happened."

Inuyasha knew he wasn't making sense, but words had never been his strong suit. Biting his lip in frustration, he tried to think of a way to explain. Sesshoumaru just watched him silently, curiously, still cradling the back of his wrist in his hand. Inuyasha watched him back, his eyes finding the straight fall of hair as it obscured one striped cheek. He pushed it away with his free hand, and Sesshoumaru let him. Small touches that would have earned him recoil and disdain, once.

"You remember when you jumped off the cliff after me? I think it was kind of like that," he said, and sighed heavily. "I guess. . .I wasn't ready for you to disappear just yet."

Sesshoumaru's lips parted in surprise, and Inuyasha nearly cringed.

"I mean, unless you want to disappear. Which is totally fine by me. I just figured you'd rather be out of this bullshit place, at least—" His verbal backpedalling was stopped in its tracks the moment he saw the ghost of a smile curve the edge of Sesshoumaru's mouth, his eyes lighting with high amusement.

"You're accustomed to my presence," the youkai lord deduced, some of his confidence and snooty pride returning like an invisible cloak. "Why Inuyasha, how positively clingy of you."

Inuyasha turned red, his ears flattening dangerously. "You're such a fucking jerk, Sesshoumaru." He started to get up, ready to stomp clear out of the territory and head back to his village, when long arms caught him around the waist, hauling him against the warmth of a firm chest. Alarm bells rang. "No way, you're not fucking hugging me into submission, asshole—"

"I am very accustomed to you also," Sesshoumaru murmured against his ear, and all the elegant wording in the world couldn't disguise the affection in his voice.

"Don't make fu— oh." Inuyasha grimaced as a wet tongue ran across his temple and over his cheek, catching his eye, his nose and part of his mouth in its possessed trail. It was gross and left his face all damp, but he figured that now he knew what it all meant, he supposed could put up with it. In fact, after a few more moments he felt comfortable enough to grin wickedly up at Sesshoumaru. "Tsukiko totally told me what all the licking was about, you know. You like me, you big freak. That's okay though – I'd like me too. I'm awesome."

A sound of profound displeasure rumbled in Sesshoumaru's chest, and unsurprisingly the treatment ceased altogether. The arms that were wrapped around him, however, they didn't budge. Inuyasha's grin softened a little, and he tipped his head back to look up at his brother. Scowling again, he noted, and not looking at him. Good.

Stretching his neck up, Inuyasha shifted awkwardly in Sesshoumaru's lap – just enough to drag his tongue over the line of the youkai lord's jaw, and partway up his cheek.

Unexpectedly, Sesshoumaru went rigid at the contact, a growl tearing from his throat. His eyes, when they slashed back to Inuyasha's, were disapproving. "Don't."

"What—why not?"

"You are not youkai," Sesshoumaru said stonily, and let go of Inuyasha. "You have no connection with our customs, nor should you. But you've made it perfectly clear that you believe some of them to be repulsive to you. Emulating them like—"

"That's bullshit! So, what because I'm not a full blood youkai I can't use the customs of one? What am I supposed to do then? Behave like a human? Is that what you want?"

"You were raised as one," Sesshoumaru said indifferently. Inuyasha saw red.

"I wasn't raised as anything – my mother died when I was five years old, remember? And—goddamnit, Sesshoumaru, you make it really fucking hard to like you," the hanyou spat, wrenching away and getting to his feet. "Maybe you should have explained earlier that I need to be a pureblood to fucking show some kind of affection. Would have saved a hell of a lot of hassle!" Turning on his heel Inuyasha stalked out of the library, fuming.

What a load of shit, he thought angrily, adjusting Tetsusaiga at his hip. As if he'd known it was some kind of youkai-only thing. If he had Inuyasha sure as hell wouldn't have bothered. He'd just wanted to show the asshole he wasn't grossed out by it—that he understood what it meant. So much for that – guess his dirty blood and the way he'd grown up meant some other stuff to Sesshoumaru, as well. The bastard had said before that Inuyasha had no idea how he indulged him, with the touching and whatever – maybe that was what he'd meant after all.

Well, forget it. Inuyasha wasn't going to so much as breathe on him from now on—

A footstep behind him was the only warning he got before a hand grabbed his shoulder and he was spun heavily into the wall, Sesshoumaru's other hand splayed across his sternum, pinning him there.

"You misunderstand me," the youkai lord said. When Inuyasha refused to look him in the eye, jaw tight, he let out a frustrated breath. "I was not implying you need to be youkai to do such things. On the contrary; I do not like to be touched at all whether by youkai, hanyou or human."

Well that didn't make any sense. "But you're always touching me. Even when I'm human, you touch me." Was he contradicting himself on purpose?

"Yes," Sesshoumaru agreed, and this time Inuyasha's eyes lifted to meet his. "It seems you are the exception to every rule I have. Which is why you do not need to act like anything other than what you are, you foolish hanyou." Releasing him, Sesshoumaru seemed to consider him a moment before adding, "I will not be offended if you do not share that sentiment, however. Some youkai traits can be strange even to our own kind. I never indulged in that particular display of affection until you wrung it out of me."

"Oh, so now it's all my fault," Inuyasha mumbled half-heartedly, knowing his face was burning. "But—and this is a huge 'but', what if I actually wanted to lick you for the hell of it? Like, not as a custom. Then what?"

Sesshoumaru's eyes flew wide. His lips parted as though to speak, but nothing but a startled exhale emerged at first. Inuyasha just waited, fascinated by seeing his older brother lost for words for once.

"I do not know," admitted Sesshoumaru. Then he blinked curiously. "I can't imagine why you would want to."

"Me either," Inuyasha replied honestly. "But then, I think I might have sort of kissed you before you punched a hole in my guts, and I don't know why I did that either."

Sesshoumaru stared at him. Then his mouth compressed into a taut line, and his eyes slid away to study something down the hall, before shifting back to Inuyasha with an odd resolve.

"It is of no consequence," he said dismissively. "The situation was dire, and a distraction was required whilst I disabled you in order to take over the ritual." Inuyasha's hand went reflexively to his stomach at the memory of that poison-soaked fist bursting through his stomach, which had given way with as much ease as overripe fruit beneath Sesshoumaru's strength. A disturbed chill worked its way up his spine as he recalled the shock of it—and the raw agony that followed.

"Yeah, thanks for that," the hanyou said distractedly. "Good plan. You know, we should get the hell off this land already. . ." he trailed off as he got a good look at Sesshoumaru's face. A strange ripple of emotion was ruining his detached expression. His eyes were fixed on Inuyasha's stomach, right where his hand had gone through.

"Did it heal well?" The question was abrupt, almost brusque. Inuyasha just shrugged.

"About as well as a poison-lined hole in your guts is supposed to," he said shortly, his mouth turning down. "I was unconscious for a week or so. Tsukiko healed it, using her herbs and stuff. I don't remember much."

Sesshoumaru just nodded, drawing back from Inuyasha. If it hadn't been for the way his fingertips were twitching inside his sleeves, fists half-clenching strangely, Inuyasha would have gotten the impression that he didn't give a flying shit about what he'd done.

"I could have rendered you unconscious through other means," Sesshoumaru said quietly. "I wounded you terribly for a reason, Inuyasha. You weren't supposed to forgive me for that. You were supposed to leave me here."

He said it with complete calm. Sesshoumaru had fully expected Inuyasha to wake up and decide to leave him there to rot – to live forever locked inside a barrier meant for protection, but had turned into a barren prison. Like Inuyasha could ever have done something like that.

"If you wanted that, you should have killed me," the hanyou said roughly. "Stupid. I've done dumber things for people that meant less, and you know it. What the hell happened to you while you're in here? You're acting weirder than usual, and that kind of says—hah. You total girl." Those last words were muffled against silk and the curve of his brother's neck, but Inuyasha honestly couldn't say he minded a bone-crushing hug after everything that had gone on before. Slipping his hands around Sesshoumaru's ribs, the hanyou sifted his fingers through cool strands of hair and gripped him right on back, just as hard.

"This is lame. We are so lame right now."

"Shut up, imbecile. Put up with it."

Grinning to himself, Inuyasha turned his face a little and licked a wet stripe over Sesshoumaru's pulse. He tasted like salt and electric youki. "Put up with that."

He expected retaliation, but all he got was the sweep of a palm over his back, falling until it came to rest against the place where Sesshoumaru's hand had punched through. Inuyasha felt his brother's chest swell on a deep sigh.

"For not abandoning me here, when you had every reason to. . .you have my gratitude, Inuyasha. Thank you."

And there it was.

Thank you.

As easy as that.

"Whatever, princess," Inuyasha replied, sounding bored. "Don't say I never do anything for you."

He heard Sesshoumaru exhale an annoyed breath, and he knew that his brother probably thought Inuyasha didn't think he meant it. But Inuyasha knew he did – knew it all the way down to the marrow in his bones. But if he acknowledged it properly, with the echo of everything their father had said in those last moments before the barrier came down. . .well. It would be an embarrassing scene to say the least, and they were being freakishly mushy as it was. So he brushed it off for now.

But later, when it was dark and no one could see, he'd turn those words over and over in his head, and let it mean everything.

"Let's get out of here."



Chapter 22: Release Me

Inuyasha couldn't get out of the territory fast enough.

Sesshoumaru, on the other hand, wouldn't be rushed, and it was making him antsy as hell. He knew he'd broken the barrier fully and completely – the damn thing had disintegrated in front of him – but that didn't stop the land from creeping him out, with its complete lack of game in the area and the sting of magic in his nostrils. Even without the barrier, there were still spells and traps woven into the area; things to keep away other youkai and humans alike. Inuyasha doubted anyone would be moving into the castle any time soon.

He really couldn't blame them.

"C'mon already," he called from the edge of the forest, watching Sesshoumaru pause at the base of the hill. "I'm getting grey hair here." He picked up a long strand of hair. "Look at this shit! Look at it!"

Inuyasha couldn't see for sure, but it looked like Sesshoumaru was rolling his eyes. Still he didn't pick up the pace, instead circling a dead patch of earth, his hand on Tenseiga.

Drawing the sword, Sesshoumaru leisurely cut through the air above the scorched earth. Inuyasha just rolled his eyes.

"The flowers are dead, man, it's the circle of life—"

The ground burst open in a shower of dirt and rocks, and Tsukiko crawled out, punching the wall of her grave in to collapse it and gain a ramp with which to escape.

"I'm filthy!" she was shrieking, her voice croaky with soil and shock. "And—alive! Sesshoumaru, you rotten little pup! I knew I should have drowned you at birth! Wicked son!" Similar ranting continued on for a while, interspersed with wet hacking and spitting of dirt as she crawled to freedom on her belly, her beautiful kimono covered in dirt.

Inuyasha stared. Sesshoumaru calmly sheathed his sword and began walking toward him, his expression placid.

"Should we. . .help her?" he asked dubiously as Sesshoumaru reached him—and kept right on walking.

"No."

Inuyasha shrugged. "Okay. Stay classy, Tsukiko!" With a vague wave in her direction, he turned around and followed Sesshoumaru into the forest. "Why'd you bring her back? Were you feeling bad about it?"

Glancing over his shoulder, Sesshoumaru quirked an eyebrow at him. "I did not kill my mother, Inuyasha. She took her own life."

Huh.

"You didn't kill her?"

"No."

"Really?"

Sesshoumaru glared at him.

Inuyasha thought about it as they walked. "So you just brought her back to basically get her really dirty and make her kill herself again if she wants to stay dead. You know, suddenly the whole 'fake-mother wrapped in chains' plot to get the black pearl in my eye doesn't seem so randomly out of character. You're kind of sadistic."

Sesshoumaru ignored that last, instead diverting his path over to where Rin's excited form was jumping up and down in the distance, waving madly. Good girl, Inuyasha thought fondly, watching as she steadfastly remained on the other side of the scorched earth where the barrier had died, even though her beloved Sesshoumaru-sama had come into view.

"Where is Jaken?" the youkai lord intoned quietly as they neared. Inuyasha shrugged.

"No idea. Probably face down in the river by now. He was pretty cut up about the whole barrier thing," he explained, receiving a quick glance in return.

"He wouldn't dare die without my permission," Sesshoumaru replied matter-of-factly. "More likely he has journeyed back to the waterfall to return the Staff of Heads."

Inuyasha had no idea what that meant, but didn't care enough to question it. Whatever the toad had decided while he was off crying himself to sleep didn't interest him. What was occupying his mind though was what he was going to do now they were free, and to all appearances, not fighting any longer. He'd been gone from the village a long time – too long, really, when he hadn't said goodbye, paid his respects to Kaede's grave, anything. The villagers probably thought he had left for good, that with her death he had nothing back there.

Did he have anything back there?

Well, he couldn't just follow Sesshoumaru, he reminded himself. The village was his home, and the humans there he'd come to think of as his to protect. Without Kaede there, with no priestess to ward it from danger, it was ripe for the picking should any youkai with an empty belly come past it. He was responsible for them now, and they'd depended on him. Hina, Suki, Hiroshi, the gambling morons that tried to win against him at tug-of-war, all of them. He'd carved out a place in the world, a place of his own in that little village, and he wasn't going to just throw it away and leave it behind. Too much had happened in that place, and he felt like he belonged there.

Still. . .it would be weird, going his own way and watching Sesshoumaru go his. Unnatural, almost, after they'd spent so long together, whether they were fighting or not. But, maybe it would be okay this time, because it wasn't on bad terms.

Not even close to bad terms.

"Sesshoumaru-sama! I've missed you!" Rin cried as they stepped over the dark line burned into the ground, signifying the territory border. "I just knew Inuyasha would save you!" Her eyes were shining with happy tears and her whole face glowed with adoration as she stared up at the youkai lord. Cutest damn thing he ever saw, Inuyasha caught himself thinking with a grin.

Sesshoumaru watched her run forward only to stop at the last possible second, rocking up on her heels excitedly. His expression didn't change, but his eyes were pleased. "Rin."

"Yes, Sesshoumaru-sama?"

"Did you behave yourself in my absence?"

Rin's eyes sparkled. Oh crap, Inuyasha thought, alarmed. He could tell where this was going.

"Yes! I took very good care of Inuyasha, too, like Tsukiko-sama asked me to. He kept falling over a lot and he went very pale so I made him eat lots and made sure he didn't hit his head on rocks or anything when he—"

"Rin, damn it," Inuyasha groaned, refusing to glance at Sesshoumaru. "What'd I tell you about making me look bad?"

"You said I shouldn't embarrass you because boys don't like girls who make them feel bad about themselves, and if I want to get married one day I should shut my word hole and make some food," Rin parroted back dutifully, tucking her hands behind her back with a smile.

Inuyasha nodded approvingly. "Right on, sister."

Sesshoumaru glared at him. "Perhaps I should have been asking her if you'd behaved," he said disapprovingly, brows knitted in a frown. Then his expression flickered. "You frequently lost consciousness?"

"No," the hanyou snorted, "but she disappeared to find me food every time I faked it." He received a long look for that, and a slight shake of Sesshoumaru's head.

"Lies do not sit well with you, Inuyasha," was all he said. He turned his attention to Rin. "We will make camp here tonight and set off to retrieve Jaken in the morning." He walked away without another word, and from the way Rin skipped off to follow him, the matter of what they were going to do in the immediate future was settled.

Inuyasha followed more slowly, lost in thought. He remained distracted until afternoon melted into twilight, still trying to decide how to tell the youkai lord exactly what his plans were. But really, why did it have to be so hard? Sesshoumaru wasn't going to even comment on it - that wasn't his way. Whatever he thought about Inuyasha going back to the village would probably be layered underneath some insult about the humans, but he wouldn't freak out or anything. So why, then, did he feel like he was about to deliver some really bad news?

Stop being a pussy about it, he told himself sternly, prodding the fire with a stick Rin had picked up earlier. She seemed to think he needed something to do with his hands, like maybe if he wasn't moving he'd go quietly nuts. Just go ahead and tell him what you're going to do in the morning, and that will be the end of it.

It wasn't as though Sesshoumaru wouldn't stroll past now and again, like he always seemed to - and always at the worst possible time for Inuyasha. By the same token, Inuyasha wasn't shackled to the place. But he did need to return, needed to make sure everything was okay. Even when they'd been hunting Naraku he'd felt the need to touch down there every few months, even if it was just to piss off Kaede and bare his teeth at the other humans, before they'd actually realised he wasn't just some vicious stray.

"Inuyasha?" Pulled from his thoughts, he lifted his head and looked up at Rin, who was fidgeting by his side. "I'm going to sleep now."

He nodded once. "Okay."

Rin just looked at him. Across the fire, Sesshoumaru was watching them. Inuyasha darted him a quick look, then frowned at the little girl.

"What? I'm not kissing you goodnight kid, no matter what you say."

"Not that!" Rin protested, her nose scrunching up. "I would like your haori!"

Inuyasha's eyebrows shot up. Okay, this was getting weird. He knew kids sometimes got attached to random objects, but what the fuck was he going to do in winter when she kept stealing his clothes?

It occurred to him that it didn't matter; after dawn came, he wasn't going to be around for her to steal his haori.

"You want the clothes off my back? What happened to looking after your sickly, blood-deprived charge? Some goddamn nurse you turned out to be," he grumbled, but he was already shrugging out of it, the fire-rat fur appearing even more crimson in the firelight. He handed it to her with a disgruntled huff. "Don't complain to me if it stinks like sweat."

Rin beamed at him, clutching the haori to her chest. "I like the way it smells!"

Inuyasha stared at her. "Get outta here, you little pervert. Don't dream about me, or I'll know."

"Okay!" With that, she scampered off to the dragon's side, where it was resting on the far edge of the clearing. Why she favoured that thing over the campfire he had no idea. That said, it wasn't exactly cold, even if he was feeling a little chillier than usual. Once his body managed to replenish the blood he'd lost he'd go back to normal. At least he wasn't passing out in the bushes anymore, he thought cheerfully. That had just been embarrassing.

"She will pine for you when you're gone, no doubt," Sesshoumaru commented after a moment, his voice low. "Be sure to say a proper goodbye."

Inuyasha started slightly, then peered at him curiously across the fire. "Okay, now you're just plain creepy. How did you know?"

Golden eyes seemed to gleam at him for a moment, brilliant with firelight. "I know you, Inuyasha."

"Freak," the hanyou replied, but his voice was lacking heat. Well, that solved the problem of having to tell him his plans, but why didn't he feel any better about it?

Shifting a little, Sesshoumaru reached over and tossed a piece of wood on the fire. With no breeze to sway the smoke, and only the crackle of the flames to colour the silence they sat there for a long moment together, lost in thought. Then the youkai lord spoke again.

"I can take you as far as the other side of the forest bordering the village. It is somewhat on the way to where I will locate Jaken."

Inuyasha snorted softly. "You aren't scared I'm going to throw up on you again?"

"Rest assured I will simply drop you out of the sky if you do," Sesshoumaru said smoothly, not looking up.

Grinning a little, the hanyou stirred the coals at the bottom of the fire, blowing quickly on the stick he held when flames caught the end of it. This silence was heavier with unspoken thoughts and unanswered questions, but damned if he could think of an easy way to ask his half-brother if he was going to see him again anytime soon after this. That with everything said and done, with their reconciliation being the end result of all that had gone on. . .was this it? Joking banter and exchanged glances when they managed to accidentally cross paths in the future? Or maybe, if they were lucky, a shared goal that required them to team up for something. Was that all they were going to be now?

It wasn't enough. It didn't feel like enough to Inuyasha. But what did he want, when he already had his brother back?

What more did he want?

It didn't matter, really. Sesshoumaru had already accepted that things were changing again, that they would only cross paths on rare occasions, that their closeness and understanding had knit together those frayed family ties and could be discarded, having done their job. They could, and would, part ways again.

Annoyed by his depressing thoughts the hanyou shook himself off, rubbing the back of his neck irritably. One darted look at Sesshoumaru revealed he was as calm and unreadable as ever, his eyes turned to the darkening sky. The moon was waning heavily; in another week or so it would be gone altogether. Inuyasha wanted to be back in the village for that, at least.

Trying to think of something to break the silence, Inuyasha wondered if he should tell Sesshoumaru about seeing their father in the barrier. Not about his so-called advice, hell no, but just maybe to distract them both and making him stop feeling so damn low about leaving in the morning. But what good would it do, really? He'd been no help whatsoever and Sesshoumaru would probably use that creepy sixth sense he seemed to have now to figure out he wasn't telling him the whole truth. It was kind of unfair, really - his pureblood brother was still a mystery in so many ways to him, with his emotionless expressions and blazing eyes he still couldn't decipher. He'd never seen Sesshoumaru look at anyone the way he looked at him sometimes.

Then again, Inuyasha thought suddenly, maybe even Sesshoumaru had no idea. He'd said himself that Inuyasha somehow had a free pass to break all the rules Sesshoumaru had. The touching thing, for one. Sesshoumaru didn't even touch Rin, not really, and saving the kid from random danger was like his secret hobby. Jaken. . .well, he didn't really want to picture that at all, but he'd definitely never seen that. Was it because he was blood? The hanyou really didn't think so. It seemed that somewhere between snake bites and leaping off cliffs, the touching had become commonplace. Sesshoumaru had become. . .affectionate. Thinking about it, Inuyasha wrinkled his nose slightly. That word just didn't sound quite right applied to his youkai lord half-brother, but he couldn't think of any other way to put it.

Did that mean, really, that Inuyasha had permission to touch his brother? That he'd welcome it? Lifting doubtful eyes to study Sesshoumaru again, the hanyou went still as he found the youkai lord watching him carefully over the flames. Again, there was that same unaffected expression. But his eyes. . .well, Inuyasha didn't know what was reflected in them. But it was as bright as the fire crackling between them, and strangely empty. Fingers reflexively curling in the sleeves of his kosode, Inuyasha just held that strange gaze and wondered why his stomach clenched painfully at the sight of it. Maybe he was feeling the same as Inuyasha; full of jagged indecision and emotion he wasn't completely sure how to name, and resigned to do absolutely nothing about it.

Maybe their eyes looked exactly the same.

Inuyasha jumped to his feet, feeling agitated and unsure, just knowing that he couldn't sit there and look at Sesshoumaru any longer. It was doing his head in; the silence, the staring, the stillness. It made him think, and there were enough unanswered questions inside his head to drive him insane.

"I'm going for a walk," he muttered, brushing his hair out of his face with clawed fingers. This time, he didn't meet his brother's eyes. "Need some—some air or something. Seeya."

Then, feeling the burn of his ridiculous excuse in his cheeks, Inuyasha got the hell out of there.

If pressed, Inuyasha couldn't really say why he couldn't bear to sit there any longer. He just knew that his gut was telling him away, now and so he found himself creating new paths in the forest, heading away from the camp and the abandoned territory - out towards the scrub where the forest gave way to flat land and grass lush with the promise of water nearby. He remembered walking through this area when Inotoki had led him to see Tsukiko. It felt like a lifetime ago now. Inuyasha wondered if the bastard mutt was still alive. He hoped he was - Inuyasha wanted the pleasure of tearing his head off personally if he ever found him again.

When he reached the wide river that ribboned through the land he slowed, wondering if he should bathe while he was there or not. Maybe; it wasn't as though he'd really bothered with it while he'd been trying to bust down the barrier. But his forearms were still tender from the cuts there and he felt weirdly cold, so he ended up sitting there on the grassy bank, aimlessly watching the weak moonlight reflecting off the water. It was almost full dark now, and all his senses could pick up was the sound of cicadas chirping nearby and the faint hint of smoke overlaying the fresh scent of water surrounding him. It was peaceful, but damned if he was feeling it.

He hadn't been this messed up and restless over someone since. . .

Okay, bad example, he told himself sternly. Really bad example.

But now that the thought had entered his mind, Inuyasha found himself remembering them. Kikyou and Kagome. The priestess and her reincarnation from the future. The two women he could honestly say he'd ever really cared about, if he took a clear look at his feelings for them. But in the end he'd cared about them enough to let them go, knowing that was just how things went for him. Kikyou had gone back to a peaceful rest. Kagome had returned to her own time, where she had a family and a life to live. The well had been about to close over after the Shikon jewel had granted its unselfish wish, and he still remembered the look in her eyes before she stepped backward into the darkness, vanishing from his life forever.

Lifting his hand to the kotodama rosary, he touched his fingertips to the beads that hung around his neck, silently mapping each rise and dip in the holy necklace. He'd wanted to keep it so he would remember her, long after she'd left. Miroku had thought he was being creepy and sentimental about it, when really the damn thing had been the bane of his existence up until Kagome left. It was harmless and silent around his neck now - just a memory hung about his neck like a collar of ownership. Unbidden, a smile curved the edge of Inuyasha's mouth as he thought about what Sesshoumaru would say about it. To his knowledge he'd never commented on its purpose, though he knew exactly what it did to him.

Then again, Kagome was gone now, five hundred years ahead of him in the future. He probably wouldn't live long enough to see her again - hanyou just didn't, the same way they didn't have kids or transform at will. Kagome was gone. And Inuyasha. . .Inuyasha had let her go. Because he'd accepted that everyone left, eventually. Left like Sesshoumaru would leave tomorrow, once Inuyasha reached the village.

Maybe it was time he put up a fight for the things he wanted to keep. Sesshoumaru would probably vanish if he let him, but Inuyasha couldn't picture his old life anymore - not without him in it. And he knew, he knew how that sounded even in his own head, and he realised with a sudden jolt that it was true, and furthermore, that he was utterly screwed.

"Messed up," he muttered to himself, scrubbing a hand over his face. "I am so fucking messed up in the head."

Falling backward to stare up at the sky, the hanyou wondered if he'd been dropped on his head as a kid. It would explain a lot, really. If his ghostly experiences kept up and he got to see his mother at some stage, he'd have to ask. For the moment, he just closed his eyes and lay there, breathing in the scent of the deepening night and wondering if there was any normal way to tell someone like Sesshoumaru that he needed him around.

Inuyasha must have fallen asleep at some point, because between what felt like one blink and the next the moon had risen in the sky, and more importantly, there was a blurry white figure kneeling over him.

"Sesshoumaru?" he mumbled drowsily, blinking up at his brother in the darkness. "Why are you out here?"

The youkai lord just gazed down at him, that familiar unreadable expression somehow strained. But he was close and radiated warmth, even if he was being strange and silent in a way that made the hanyou's stomach tighten all over again.

Inuyasha reached up toward his brother, letting his fingers brush the long strands of hair falling over Sesshoumaru's shoulder, the curve of his jaw, and the smooth plane of his cheek. Just a light brush of his fingers; it would take less than a twitch for the youkai lord to pull himself out of range of that careful touch.

He didn't. But the motion stirred him to life again, and he blinked slowly, seeming to shake off his thoughts. It made Inuyasha wonder how long he'd been watching over him.

"You seemed agitated when you left earlier. Now I find you asleep in the grass like an exhausted child," Sesshoumaru eventually said, nonplussed. "How you managed to live this long is a mystery I may never understand."

"I manage okay," Inuyasha replied. "There's nothing out here I couldn't take on in a fight and win."

Sesshoumaru just stared down at him wordlessly, not bothering to rise to the obvious bait. Instead he caught Inuyasha's wrist and brushed aside his sleeve, bringing the gashes in his skin into view. Even in the near-total darkness, they were seven visible slashes in his otherwise unblemished arm. The hanyou immediately tried to pull his arm back, embarrassed by what they represented, but Sesshoumaru wouldn't let go of him.

"Rin said you began more than ten days ago to anoint the barrier with your blood," the youkai lord said, seemingly at random. "Several cuts to each arm would have healed well by the next day. You clawed open your healing wounds to keep the blood flowing freely, didn't you? Otherwise you would have had far more than these few. At the rate your skin heals, compared to the rate your blood would have replenished its reserves, I assume you would have opened them up again while you still hadn't fully recovered from the day before." His golden eyes were hard as he stared down at the hanyou. "Had you kept this up any longer, Inuyasha, you'd have rendered yourself too weak to heal again."

The hanyou sat up at that, shaking his wrist out of Sesshoumaru's grip and yanking his sleeve back down.

"Doesn't matter," he said with an indifferent shrug. "It's not like we'll be seeing each other again anytime soon. You won't have to feel weird about me cutting myself up for you."

Sesshoumaru drew away slowly.

"I suppose that is true," he agreed without inflection, eyes flat. "By your logic, your good health will indeed be assured by my departure."

Feeling like he'd said too much, or not enough, Inuyasha glanced away out toward the water, his jaw tight. Misery rose inside him, sharp and aching. Why did he always manage to say the wrong thing, or take things the wrong way when it came to Sesshoumaru? Why was it always so hard with them? Getting to his feet Inuyasha walked away from his brother, heading for the river. There at the edge, his toes just touching the water, he stared out at nothing and began to speak.

"It's just. . .the way I see it, tomorrow things are just going to kind of go back to the way they used to be. You know, before Rin needed a hand with her training and stuff. Running into each other once in a blue moon - or a new moon," he said with a soft snort. "Except we won't be pissed off with each other, I guess. It's not like you'll just wander into a human village for the hell of it, and that place is the only home I've got, really. So I figure this is kind of it. So long, and all that." Turning slightly, he glanced over his shoulder to see Sesshoumaru on his feet now, but unmoving as a statue. The hanyou turned away with a bitter smile.

"C'mon, you knew it was coming," he said softly, his eyes fixed on the waning moon. "You're the youkai lord who travels around to avoid your home; I'm the hanyou who just wanted one. Do you really see us crossing paths more than what, once, twice a year?"

Inuyasha listened to the faint rustle of footsteps behind him, coming closer until Sesshoumaru stood by his side. He stared out at the river with eyes like golden mirrors, his face a porcelain mask of neutrality and calm. Always half a head taller; always just a little broader in the shoulders. He'd left his armour behind at the castle and the lack of it made him seem somehow more real - a slightly more touchable creature, if something like that could ever be seen amongst all that iron pride. Inuyasha saw it though, and he wanted to remember it, in case when they found each other next, everything had changed all over again.

"I suppose you are correct," the daiyoukai murmured. He didn't look at him. "This is indeed goodbye, however temporary."

Goodbye.

Hearing that finally brought it home for Inuyasha, and he knew he'd been subconsciously waiting for Sesshoumaru to deny it, or get angry, or start another fight. Instead there was just cool acceptance, and what could he say to that? Sesshoumaru was dealing with it, in that weird repressed way of his. Anything Inuyasha said to the contrary would just look like an immature tantrum.

When all was said and done, they were still leading two very different lives. It was time to accept that.

But there was one more thing Inuyasha wanted, before he could.

"Can you. . .do me one favour?" he asked quietly, gazing up at Sesshoumaru. "If you can, I mean. It's no big deal otherwise, I guess."

The youkai lord frowned slightly. "Name it."

Inuyasha bit his lip in hesitation for a moment, before he steeled his resolve. Reaching up, he hooked a finger beneath the kotodama rosary and lifted it, just high enough that the pink hue of magic flared softly, preventing him from moving it further. Sesshoumaru's eyebrows slowly lifted in surprise and question. The hanyou let out a long breath.

"Do you think you can help me get this off?"

Even though Sesshoumaru had probably seen it coming, something like wonder passed across his face as Inuyasha held up the rosary for his inspection. If the hanyou's hands weren't quite steady, neither of them commented on it. Carefully the youkai lord curved long fingers beneath the dark beads, lightly brushing the faintly glossy surface of them. The eyes he raised to Inuyasha's were serious.

"Which priestess placed this on you?"

"Does that matter?" Inuyasha asked, blinking.

"The dead priestess and her twin possessed considerable power," he explained simply. "Not enough to injure me if I do this, but I must expend equal and greater youki to splinter the kotodama's spell. I'm sure you recall what happened when Sou'unga's influence met with the command from your Kagome."

"Kagome told me, but I was completely batshit at the time," was the frank reply. "Don't remember a thing. Kikyou made the rosary, but Kaede spelled it on me. Kagome was the only one who could use it though."

At that new information, Sesshoumaru looked pissed. "Reckless fools," he growled softly. "The magic is unstable unless the three actions are committed by one person, and one alone. I'm surprised it didn't blow your foolish head from your shoulders the first time it was used." His grip tightened on the rosary hard enough to make the beads creak with the pressure. "Kotodama is powerful magic, and when used to subjugate a hanyou. . .it is quite fortunate the old priestess did not possess the same level of holy power as her sister. I had wondered why it threw you to the ground so violently when used. Traditionally the word of power should only bind your movement, not physically injure you." He lifted the beads high enough to activate the magic, his eyes narrowing against the light as he studied the reaction.

Inuyasha was absolutely horrified. "Are you telling me this thing is defective? That it's not supposed to—holy shit Sesshoumaru, get it the fuck off me!"

Despite the hanyou's obvious panic, Sesshoumaru actually looked a shade amused. "I thought it was an item of great sentimental importance to you. You must know it will likely completely shatter when it does give way."

"Yeah well, Kagome never wanted me to keep it on anyway, so do your goddamned worst," he replied fervently. "And—how do you even know all of this stuff, anyway?"

"One must know their enemy," Sesshoumaru said cryptically, and then his hands began to glow with youki. Powerfully concentrated in just his hands, Inuyasha had to slam his eyes shut against the glow, his head buzzing with the intensity of it. His nose filled with the crackling tang of ozone and thunderstorms, and he felt the beads flare hot against the back of his neck. Then Sesshoumaru pulled in a sharp breath, and the kotodama rosary activated.

Inuyasha went down hard, but it wasn't the earth he hit - it was Sesshoumaru's chest as they both collapsed, his brother's hand cradling the back of Inuyasha's neck; shielding it from the restrictive yank of the rosary. He'd remembered, Inuyasha thought, something startled and warm pooling in his stomach. Sesshoumaru had remembered what he'd said in his chambers that night, about the bruises it had caused. Despite the uncomfortable situation, when Inuyasha lifted his head he was smiling, just a little.

"It's like that every time?" Sesshoumaru asked incredulously, with the barest edge of a wheeze in his voice. "The pull is that strong?"

Inuyasha nodded. "Pretty much, yeah. Much softer landing this time though," he said with a grin. "I actually landed in an anthill once. Kagome didn't use it for a week after that, since she had to rub lotion all over me from all the bites I got." He was jostled abruptly as Sesshoumaru sat up, something furious and terrible blazing in his eyes.

"You should have—"

"Killed her? I know, you said before," Inuyasha reminded him wearily.

The youkai lord shook his head sharply, his expression tight. "You should have come to me."

That earned him a knowing look. "Don't be stupid," he replied almost fondly. "You would have sooner stuck the pointy end of your sword through my guts than help me get it off back then. We hated each other, remember?"

Sesshoumaru glanced away, his mouth compressed in a tense line. Inuyasha was right, and they both knew it. It was just bizarre to think back to those times and remember how cold and hateful they'd been to each other. Sure Inuyasha had only given as good as he'd gotten, for the most part, but he'd still been a right bastard. They both had been.

To go back to that. . .it would never happen.

Inuyasha reached over and plucked a blade of grass out of Sesshoumaru's hair, then unceremoniously shoved it in the shell of his ear. "Quit moping. Hey, maybe we should try it in the water this time, so you don't get squashed again."

"Certainly. I sincerely hope you get eaten by eels," the youkai lord growled as he tried to shake the offending greenery out of his ear. "Then I shall make the Tetsusaiga my own and rule the entire country in a most villainous manner."

Inuyasha snorted loudly. "Boring," he announced. "At least bring me back to life and keep me chained in your evil lair for kicks."

"Your penchant for bondage worries me," Sesshoumaru told him as he dusted himself off, heading for the water. "What makes you think I would be bored without you?"

Inuyasha waded into the river alongside him, completely ignoring his arrogant tone. "Sesshoumaru, you hang out with a little girl who likes sweaty clothes and a frog that wants to dry-hump your leg. If you're not bored with them you're nursing some pretty weird kinks."

Thigh-deep in the water, Sesshoumaru froze and stared at him in appalled silence. Inuyasha just grinned at him, fangs shamelessly on display. Oh, he was going to miss this.

"If it is a choice between being bored or aghast for the majority of my lifetime, I stand by my decision," was the muttered oath as Sesshoumaru waded in toward him, tugging the beads around his neck upward into view again. "Also, Jaken is not a frog."

Inuyasha was still sniggering to himself when he heard the silky rasp of a sword being pulled from its place at Sesshoumaru's hip. His grin slowly fading, he looked from Sesshoumaru to Toukijin, which his brother had angled to rest dangerously close to Inuyasha's throat.

"If I can counteract the kotodama magic from both sides with two different forms of potent youki, it should shatter immediately," the youkai lord explained calmly. "I ask that you don't distract me, lest I accidentally slit your throat."

"I'm gonna haunt your ass if you do," Inuyasha warned, but stood obediently still as Sesshoumaru crowded gently against him, slipping the blade of the sword between his throat and the necklace.

Holding his breath for reasons he couldn't name, the hanyou tried not to start at the cold shock of the metal brushing his skin, the warm breath fluttering the hair at his temple, or the accidental brush of claws against the rapid pulse in his neck. It should have been far too much dangerous sensation so close to his throat – should have triggered his instinct to flinch back or bite, for his hackles to rise, but there was nothing beyond his curious interest in the unfamiliar sensations.

Then a careful thumb traced its way down a corded tendon in his neck, warm against his cooler skin. It wasn't until it followed the same slow path back up that Inuyasha realised it was exploring his skin on purpose, and he glanced up at Sesshoumaru, a little dazed by all the contact – and his own enjoyment of it.

Surrounded by the scent of him, feeling the careful push of his youki lapping at his entire body in slow waves, Inuyasha felt almost drunk off the close proximity to the power he'd only ever felt in a real battle. Split-second touches and strikes blurred by adrenaline and anger. Standing like this, feeling it surrounding him, trying to soak into every inch of his skin. . .his heart was thumping almost painfully hard beneath his ribs.

"Are you ready?" Sesshoumaru said quietly, his voice a low roll of sound in the mere inches between them. "I will make it as quick as possible, but it may hurt if it activates again."

Inuyasha gave him a look. "You just get out of the way if you feel it lighting up." He tipped his head forward and rested his chin on Sesshoumaru's shoulder, his fingers finding purchase in the warm silk clinging to his brother's waist. "Now do your worst."

Sesshoumaru sighed and tugged the beads taut in his grip. "Not a chance."

Then he changed his grip on the sword, and Inuyasha's world exploded in a wash of light and power and sound. His neck felt like a noose of fire had been tightened around it and his eyes were rendered useless against the supernova of youki that pounded against his skin, pushing the air from his lungs. The air he desperately pulled back in tasted like lightning, like malevolence and holy fire and maybe he couldn't stand it after all—

"Hold on," came the throaty order, voice guttural with too much power. Shuddering beneath the onslaught, Inuyasha pushed his face into the warm crook of Sesshoumaru's neck, and hung on.

It must have been mere seconds, but it felt like a lifetime crawled by in the time it took for a piercing resonance to emit from the kotodama rosary, one that shrieked higher and higher in his ears until he wanted to scream and claw them off. He could only imagine what Sesshoumaru was feeling.

Inuyasha started to tell him to stop, that it wasn't worth this just to have the damn thing off, when Sesshoumaru jerked Toukijin outward and twisted the hilt, and the kotodama rosary snapped in his fist.

The world went abruptly silent as the energy disappeared, and Inuyasha's eyes snapped fully open to see bright green splotches staining his vision. It turned the receding crimson glow of Sesshoumaru's eyes a muddy brown when he drew back to get a good look at him.

"You okay?" His voice sounded hollow in his ears, which still had a dull ringing in them. Sesshoumaru didn't reply, instead angling Toukijin back from where it was still held at Inuyasha's throat, slipping it back into place at his hip. In his other hand, the broken kotodama hung in a limp line of beads, dropping slowly into the water as they fell off the blessed sinew thread.

Struck by a thought, Inuyasha straightened out each finger curled around the rosary, and immediately hissed in a sympathetic breath. "Goddamnit, Sesshoumaru. You should have stopped."

The beads that had been clenched in his grip had burned into his palm in a way they hadn't even touched Inuyasha. Marching across the pale skin was a raised line of painful blisters. But the youkai lord just held out the broken necklace for him to take, like the burn was nothing more than a minor hindrance.

Giving him a frustrated look, Inuyasha pulled the necklace from his grip and dropped it in the water before turning back to examine his wounded palm. Long fingers twitched in his grip as he ran his fingertips lightly around the burned area, wondering if Rin still had some of that stuff for his burned palms left. Not that she'd mind making more, but in the time it took Sesshoumaru might have healed already.

"You don't wish to keep the beads," Sesshoumaru said quietly above him, a not-quite question buried in the statement. "I had thought. . ." His words trailed off as Inuyasha glanced up, giving him a reproachful look.

"They're just beads. Looks at this fucking mess right here. Just look at it," he said in disgust, shaking Sesshoumaru's palm in his own face. The youkai lord ignored the burn, his eyes fixed on Inuyasha's with something like resigned confusion.

"You're amazingly inconsistent for a sentimental moron," he said finally.

"Shut up," Inuyasha replied shortly, and yanked his hand down to hold it beneath the water, soothing the burn. "Is that better?" He didn't wait for a response, instead lifting it back out to study the blistered skin, wondering if that whole saliva and licking thing healed burns as well. Probably not as well as cold water would, he decided finally, and sank it back under the water, fingers tight around Sesshoumaru's striped wrist.

"I believe I can manage this myself."

Inuyasha blinked and glanced at Sesshoumaru, whose eyes were on the fingers encircling his wrist. His expression was completely unreadable.

"Oh." Feeling stupid, the hanyou let go and straightened up awkwardly, his eyes darting off to somewhere to their left. "Of course you can, right." He heard the drip of water hitting water as Sesshoumaru slowly straightened up, probably staring at him like he was an idiot. It was just some dumb burn, hardly even worth mentioning really. . .

Wet fingers grazed his neck, and Inuyasha jerked his head around to watch Sesshoumaru's hand pushing his hair off his neck, sliding the collar of his kosode back over his shoulders to get a better look at where the rosary had been pressed. There were no burns that Inuyasha could feel, even though it had gotten kind of hot at one point. It hadn't been touching his bare skin the way it had been touching Sesshoumaru. Still, those fingers traced a careful line over his skin, his other hand warm where it tangled in his hair.

"You will take care of yourself." The words were spoken with heavy, simple meaning, and they struck Inuyasha right in the chest. "I would ask that you stay out of trouble, but I understand what a challenge that is for you." Deft fingers pulled his kosode back up into place, releasing him from their grip. When Inuyasha lifted his gaze to meet Sesshoumaru's eyes, for the damned life of him he couldn't think of a single smartass comment to make.

Because this was Sesshoumaru, asking him to stay safe. Asking him because he wouldn't be around anymore to call him a moron when he did stupid shit.

Ears sinking flat against his skull, Inuyasha felt something wounded and aching tighten in his chest as he stared back at the youkai lord. It wasn't like it was going to be forever, he told himself silently. And maybe it would be a good thing; surely it wasn't good for him to stay this attached to Sesshoumaru. The distance would help him pull back a bit—

Except he didn't want to pull back. Not even a little.

Not even an inch.

Because Inuyasha liked knowing he could reach out and touch Sesshoumaru. Liked having him close by. Liked his scent, his myriad of scornful expressions and his stuck-up asshole vocabulary. Liked the way his hands gave his emotions away when his face didn't. Liked his careful scrutiny when he thought Inuyasha wasn't watching. He liked his too-many stripes, his hatred of tanuki, the way he accidentally bared his fangs when he was especially pissed off. The way he was a total girl about getting sprayed with water. The constipated expression he got when Inuyasha had done something he didn't want to find amusing. The banked warmth that was behind every measured touch.

All of it.

All of him.

Inuyasha had known he was going to miss Sesshoumaru, but he hadn't thought for a second that it was because he'd fallen in love with the bastard.

But he had, all the same.

Rocking back on his heels, Inuyasha stared at his brother in abject horror.

"Son of a three-legged bitch."

He was completely fucked now.



Chapter 23: The Inevitable

"I take it you will not tell me what troubled you back at the river. Am I to guess?"

Inuyasha ducked his head slightly, prodding the campfire with more force than was strictly necessary. A small shower of sparks flew up into the air, shielding him briefly from Sesshoumaru's gaze.

Hell no he shouldn't guess, the hanyou thought, feeling edgy and hyperaware of his presence, even from the other side of the fire. Not that he ever would.

Sesshoumaru could never know Inuyasha's feelings.

Feelings. Even the word sent shivers of mortification crawling up his spine. Feelings were what he'd had for Kagome, for Kikyou. Feelings were something he shouldn't have for a youkai lord, especially not one who was his very own half-brother. Maybe they hadn't come from the same womb, but there was a bond there that wasn't supposed to get mixed in with things like—things like—

Things like the way Inuyasha had nearly leaned into him at the river and done something monumentally stupid, even for him. Until he'd come to his senses and lurched back, far out of reach and stammering about leaving Rin asleep by herself at the camp.

Sesshoumaru had no idea, and Inuyasha couldn't tell him. If he lost what he'd finally found here, over something stupid like a confession of—of love, stupid, useless love – he'd never forgive himself. He'd done some dumb things in his life, but this wasn't going to be one of them.

But Sesshoumaru had been staring at him ever since they'd gotten back to camp. Ever since Inuyasha had purposefully placed himself across from him with the fire between them, instead of beside him as the youkai lord had so obviously expected. He probably thought Inuyasha was having another weird separation crisis or whatever.

But now for the hanyou, the sun couldn't rise fast enough.

Weird, how things could change with a simple revelation.

Simple like the complete destruction of everything Inuyasha had thought he'd known about himself. Yeah. What a fucking mess.

Dropping the stick into the fire, he leaned forward and put his face in his hands, letting out an exaggerated yawn. It wasn't too far from the truth of things, though; Inuyasha was feeling the last week and a half catching up to him fast. Sleep would do him some good, clear his head a little. Make the time pass faster.

"Inuyasha, come here." The words were even and calm, and very much an order. Inuyasha lifted his head and stared at his brother, who was watching him far too carefully for his directive to be a simple whim. He frowned back at the youkai lord.

"What for?"

"Because I wish it."

Inuyasha didn't budge. "Whatever. I'm fine here, thanks."

Sesshoumaru's eyes slowly began to narrow. "Shall I come to you, then?"

When he placed a bracing hand to the ground and began to unfold his limbs to stand, Inuyasha's ears instinctively flattened against his skull, his expression flickering with unease. Across from him, Sesshoumaru nodded almost imperceptibly, and returned to his seated position.

"As I thought. You seem to have fostered some odd aversion to me somewhere between the river and the camp. Would you care to address the issue?"

Again, not really a request. Stomach twisting, Inuyasha looked in the direction of Ah-Un and Rin, who were both sleeping soundly. The fire had mostly dried his wet hakama but he was still damp and chilled, and he knew that with his thin silk clothes Sesshoumaru was warm and dry already. Leeching some warmth from the body heat he so readily gave off would be easy. But he couldn't, now. Even if Sesshoumaru allowed it, like he allowed so much when it came to the hanyou.

"I just want to sleep," he said dully, and turned his eyes to the nearest tree that could support his weight. It had been a while since he slept in the boughs of a tree, but it was better than being at ground level, steeped in the scent of stormy youki and brewing anger.

"Your village is eight days walk in that direction," Sesshoumaru said abruptly, lifting a hand to point with one clawed finger. He didn't look at Inuyasha as he spoke, but his voice was cold, almost bitter. "You could follow the stars tonight, if you so chose."

"What?" Inuyasha said, blinking stupidly. "What, are you kicking me out? The hell did I do—"

"Or you could take Ah-Un and simply fly there," Sesshoumaru went on to say, his expression perfectly composed – and his hands clenched at his sides, knuckles pale with strain. What was. . .? "The beast can find its way back to me perfectly well. By no means, Inuyasha, must you endure the rest of the night in my presence, if you find it so abhorrent."

Oh, Inuyasha thought guiltily. Sesshoumaru was. . .he'd hurt the bastard's feelings, is what he'd done. Not that he'd ever own up to that, but Inuyasha could see it clearly enough. Sesshoumaru didn't have a clue about his actions – all he saw was his brother being a moron and treating him like he had the plague all of the sudden. Well, hell.

"Don't be stupid," Inuyasha grumped, picking up a twig and throwing it at him. It sailed through the flames and bounced off Sesshoumaru's booted foot. Picking it up, the youkai lord threw it back into the fire, his mouth tense. Inuyasha rolled his eyes and got to his feet, brushing off the dirt and grass that clung to his damp clothes and walking over to his brother. Looming over him, Inuyasha stared down at the crown of his head while Sesshoumaru pointedly ignored him.

It was on the tip of his tongue to ask his brother if he was sulking, but that would only end in yelling and possibly bloodshed. Instead Inuyasha shrugged to himself and sat down beside him.

"Don't force yourself," Sesshoumaru said, rigid pride in his voice.

Inuyasha replied by budging over, close enough that his brother's arm was a warm line against his own. That arm; the one he'd given back. Felt like so long ago, lifetimes ago. His and Sesshoumaru's. He hadn't wanted to alienate Sesshoumaru with his own weird shit, and he was still so touchy about being refused any kind of contact. In his own way, Sesshoumaru was as stingy with his affection as the hanyou was, and it wasn't offered lightly. That Inuyasha had experienced so much of it, when even Rin only got a fond pat on the head after nearly pushing up daisies. . .it said more than he'd ever verbally made known.

Sesshoumaru really cared, Inuyasha realised slowly. That in itself wasn't really something new, but that the youkai lord was so protective of the feeling itself, to the point where he'd shut down at the slightest hint of hesitation in Inuyasha—that was what made it real.

And it sure made Inuyasha feel like a right bastard.

After a long stretch of awkward silence, he tried to think of something to say.

"How's your hand?"

"Healing."

Inuyasha frowned. "Lemme see."

He reached out to turn his palm over, mindful of the burns there, but Sesshoumaru shifted his hand away, refusing to look at him. Stung, the hanyou's ears drooped, and he pulled his own hand back and looked away, scratching his forearm absently under his sleeve. Okay, still angry then.

Inuyasha was contemplating moving back to his original spot when Sesshoumaru spoke.

"I don't suppose father had anything of interest to say, when he appeared to you."

Inuyasha froze.

Oh god. Oh, shit. What had Rin told him? What had Rin heard?

When he didn't reply right away, Sesshoumaru finally deigned to turn his head and look at him.

"Why didn't you tell me? I'd have thought you would be falling over yourself in your excitement," he said softly, bitterly. "Yet you say nothing, and I find out from Rin, who was quite surprised to find that you had not felt me worthy of the information. And now this. . .strangeness from you." He shook his head slightly, and turned away once more.

Inuyasha's mouth worked a couple of times before he could think of a reply. "Why didn't you ask me before? At the river?"

"I followed you for that very reason. However, I found you sleeping." And I didn't want to wake you remained unsaid, but it was there. When he'd awoken, Sesshoumaru hadn't asked him about it. Maybe he'd been waiting for Inuyasha to bring it up. . .and he hadn't.

"You have a lot of respect for the old man," he eventually said, feeling sick to his stomach. "We. . .disagreed on some stuff. I figured you'd be angry if I mentioned it. You always have been before." Fidgeting a little, he chanced a quick glance over at Sesshoumaru, and saw his faint frown.

"I am still interested to know what he spoke to you about."

"Really, it's nothing," Inuyasha insisted, feeling quiet panic unfurl in his stomach by slow degrees. "I don't even know why he appeared. It was like he just showed up to piss me off. Tsukiko was the one that came up with the blood idea, anyway. He just stood around watching everything."

The best way to throw Sesshoumaru off the scent of deception was to give him something true. But what Inuyasha couldn't throw him off was the instinctive urge to defend their father. . .and that hurt.

"That he even went to the effort to appear to you, Inuyasha, is something you should be grateful for. Crossing the threshold between worlds unaided is something only the strongest of daiyoukai can do." The faint rebuke in his voice didn't go unnoticed by Inuyasha, and he could only shrug helplessly.

"I wish he hadn't bothered."

Sesshoumaru stared at him wordlessly. Like he couldn't even believe that someone might think badly of the Inu no Taishou himself. Talk about hero worship, Inuyasha thought bitterly, ears flattening in resentment. The daiyoukai had done jack squat for his oldest son, except pull him out of Tsukiko's territory when he was a kid. Big deal.

"This is why I don't tell you this kind of thing," the hanyou muttered. "You think I'm just a selfish bastard because I don't sing his fucking praises like everyone else does."

"You think him unworthy of respect?" Sesshoumaru asked, his voice hard.

Inuyasha sneered. "Oh he kicked major youkai ass when he was alive, there's no doubting that. He also left me a sword that would conveniently stop me from going on a frothing mad rampage every time my life was in danger." He paused then, and swallowed with difficulty. "But he—him, the real him. . .as his son, I'd have been happier if I hadn't known him at all. Get angry if you want, I don't care—"

"Why?"

The question was so stark and filled with such confusion that it cut across Inuyasha's defensive muttering, leaving him floundering and at a loss for words. Sesshoumaru was supposed to get angry, to yell at him for disrespecting their father, not. . .try to understand. Not that. Inuyasha didn't have a plan for that.

Slowly, he turned toward his brother, looking up to meet his eyes with tired sadness. Something hesitant flickered in Sesshoumaru's expression, as it slowly seemed to dawn on him that this was something he perhaps didn't wish to know.

"The truth, Inuyasha," he said gravely, even as his eyes darkened.

Inuyasha's fists clenched tightly inside his sleeves for a long second, before he nodded slowly.

"Before I broke it, the barrier. . .the old man tried to talk me out of it," he confessed, dread spilling through his chest like icy water. "Said it was too much effort—for nothing in return."

Sesshoumaru blanched, turning slightly to face him head on. Searching for a lie, maybe. Inuyasha wished he could have bullshitted his way out of it, but he didn't have the skills for subterfuge. All he had was a burning need to make it okay, to stop his brother's eyes from filling with the realisation that their father had tried to convince Inuyasha to abandon him.

But he knew all too well that in these situations, he only made things worse.

So he sat there and lowered his gaze, trying in vain to ignore the scent of poison in the air; released from claws prepped instinctively to defend. That was how much it had affected Sesshoumaru, those words. But there was no defence from someone already long dead, no attack that could touch their father. There was just Sesshoumaru, and his bereft golden gaze that Inuyasha couldn't bear to look at again. He just sat there with stinging eyes and a set jaw, his eyes on the dirt, and waited.

"There is something almost poetic about it," Sesshoumaru said woodenly. "Everything I ever desired has fallen effortlessly into your lap, and you do not even want it. Worse, you openly spurn our father's concern like you are doing me some manner of favour."

Inuyasha looked up at that, aggrieved. "Sesshoumaru—"

"I don't blame you, Inuyasha," he said softly, his eyes empty. "I envy you. Merely that. Without trying, you manage to obtain the one thing I could never acquire. Not with strength, or skill, or loyalty—"

"Shut up! Just stop talking!" Inuyasha said desperately, his voice ragged with the ache in his throat. He didn't care if it woke Rin, he just needed Sesshoumaru to stop. "Envy me? Are you fucking insane? He doesn't even know who I am. Maybe he just said it because I'm his bastard hanyou son, and he thought I'd fail. Who knows? But he sure as hell doesn't know me, or he'd never have told me to back off and leave you behind. Don't you get it? Me and him, we're strangers—"

"Enough, Inuyasha." Sesshoumaru's face was pale, and his eyes wavered where they stared into the flames. At the sight of his stupid brave hurting face, something inside the hanyou began to crumble apart. Ignoring the wet blur of his vision, Inuyasha shook his head wildly, getting up on his knees and turning his brother's face to stare directly into his own.

"It's not enough until you get it through your head that he's wrong," he said fiercely, not caring that his fingers trembled against his brother's jaw. "He doesn't know me, and he doesn't know you. So whatever he thinks or says—none of it matters. We're what matters. If he doesn't get just how fucking incredible you are, or how much of a mind-fucked pain in the ass I am, then tough shit for him." Blinking to clear his vision, he tried to catch Sesshoumaru's eyes, but all he could see were walls and masks and hell no Inuyasha wasn't letting that happen.

Shifting around to kneel in front of him, not even caring that he was in the cradle of his brother's legs, Inuyasha wound his arms around Sesshoumaru's neck and rested their foreheads together. Noses touching, breath mingling, this close there was no way his brother could ignore him now.

Sesshoumaru just closed his eyes. "Release me, Inuyasha."

"I won't," the hanyou swore quietly. "Not ever. I—I know that you always pick him over me. But I chose you over him. Not because you're some jerkwad pureblood lord and you're strong as hell. Not even because after I first met you all I wanted was to be like you. I busted you out of there because I know you—all the bad shit, all the messed up twisted things you've done over the years, all the stupid suicidal brave things, even down to the really dumb shit like the way you hate tanuki and me sticking my goddamn wet finger in your ear."

He huffed a small, self-deprecating laugh, but it faded as he saw Sesshoumaru's eyes begin to open again.

Inuyasha nosed at his cheek affectionately, and closed his eyes. "I know you, you stuck-up youkai bastard. All of you. And to me you were worth the effort." Sifting his fingers through the fall of Sesshoumaru's hair, he let out a long sigh. "But it's a small consolation, I guess."

Sesshoumaru didn't reply, and for a long moment the only thing that splintered the silence was the occasional pop and crackle of the campfire. Neither of them moved so much as an inch, until Inuyasha's eyes opened and found their twin staring right back at him, overbright but completely unreadable. Then Sesshoumaru sighed.

"Not so small," he replied finally, and Inuyasha felt the sudden catch of fingers against the small of his back. Just touching him, warmth seeping through his kosode. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that father gave you such advice. At the time of his death I was everything that you should have left behind."

Inuyasha gave him a disgruntled look. "You realise you're still sticking up for him, right?"

Sesshoumaru gave him a level look. "That bothers you."

Inuyasha raised a disbelieving eyebrow. "Um, yeah." Then he shrugged. "But whatever, as long as you don't hate me I guess I can deal with it." He was drawing away from Sesshoumaru when the hand at his back went rigid, stopping him from putting any more distance between them. He glanced over his shoulder briefly, then back at his brother in question.

"I do not hate you," Sesshoumaru said patiently. "Quite the opposite. It's vexing, but sometimes I find I'm unable to recall. . ."

"What things were like before," Inuyasha finished quietly, his heart hammering in his chest. "Yeah, I know. We used to be enemies. Sometimes we worked together, but. . .we've come a long way, huh?"

They'd come too far, in his case. Somewhere along the way Inuyasha had stopped needing him as a brother, or a friend. It had all changed around, until he'd just needed him. It wasn't even some kind of stupid crush, or some kind of crazy attraction. Inuyasha, for better or worse, just wanted to dig his claws into Sesshoumaru and never, ever let go.

Maybe, just maybe for all he'd gained in the last six months, he had to know there were still some things that were going to always be out of his reach. One of those grounding life lessons Miroku was always on about, when he wasn't grabbing asses and scamming people.

Maybe he was just being greedy.

"I kissed you," Sesshoumaru said abruptly, scaring the hanyou out of his thoughts. "On the dais. Not the other way around."

Inuyasha blinked slowly at the youkai lord.

Then, just as slowly, he sat back on his heels.

Sesshoumaru was glaring at the fire again. "In the spirit of honesty, I felt I should clear up your misunderstanding." Then he paused like he was about to say something more, but fell silent, mouth tight and brow furrowed.

Inuyasha scratched his head and shrugged jerkily. "I guess that makes more sense, since you did it to distract me. No big deal." He then started a little as Ah-Un snorted quietly across the clearing, ears twitching toward the sound. Both heads were still asleep. Against its flank, Rin stirred beneath his haori, but didn't wake. Kid slept like the dead, he thought numbly.

When he glanced back cautiously, Sesshoumaru caught his eyes. He didn't say a word—didn't have to, really. Instead of his gaze reflecting dry humour at the whole stupid confession, or giving him a quick-witted insult that he'd gotten it so confused in the first place, there was something else. Something tangled and torn up and layered beneath so much confusion and dismissal and—and denial

It was the dais all over again, and an urgent goodbye that hurt too badly, too suddenly. That was what it was—that was what Inuyasha saw in his eyes.

And then Sesshoumaru, the great youkai lord himself looked away, like he couldn't stand to meet his hanyou half-brother's gaze.

Inuyasha swallowed, releasing a breath that tried to shudder its way out.

"Well, it was a bit of a. . .weird moment," he said uncertainly, his attention turned down to stare wide-eyed at his hands. What the hell was happening? What the hell was happening? "That's kind of a free pass, right there. No need to—freak out about it, if it was an accident."

Self-sabotage. The thought flickered up in the back of his mind, fluttered down to the depths of his stomach where it sank like a stone. Convince Sesshoumaru he could laugh it off, bury it deep—whatever he wanted. Because he didn't want Inuyasha, he'd just. . .

He'd just kissed him, the hanyou thought, and despaired. Stupid, stupid. Of all the things for Sesshoumaru to own up to, right after Inuyasha had just dealt with his own unwelcome revelation. Right before they were about to part ways, for however long that was going to be.

And it seemed, Inuyasha thought as he watched his brother's expression turn shuttered and unreadable, that even in his attempt to preserve things and keep them how they were supposed to be, he was ruining everything. How the hell was that fair?

"I'm tired. I can't think and I'm tired," Inuyasha muttered, pressing the heel of his palm to his temple and shutting his eyes briefly. He realised he was still facing Sesshoumaru, back to the fire, sitting between his knees and effectively stopping him from going anywhere. Judging by his expression, the youkai lord wanted to be anywhere else. But his eyes lingered on Inuyasha, and he sighed in resignation. That was something, at least.

"Rest. We will set off when you wake." As he said that, his fingers twined around a lock of hair falling over Inuyasha's shoulder, and tugged sharply. Grimacing at the small pain he levelled a look at his brother, whose gaze was intently fixed on the way the hair ribboned around his clawed fingers.

He was still staring at it when Inuyasha leaned in and kissed him.

Sesshoumaru went rigid for one still second of shock, and in that second the hanyou's lips trembled, and he braced himself for the push that would send him backwards; send him away for good.

Because Inuyasha didn't have the excuse of extenuating circumstances to explain this one away. It was just—him, being a fool. So with his eyes closed tightly, he waited for the inevitable.

It came.

The long fingers in his hair pulled sharply, the mouth below his opened, and—Sesshoumaru simply kissed him back.

For a single, stunning moment there was just sweet need and a tight ache in his chest that unravelled by slow degrees, a mouth that moved against his in small, careful touches. . .and the scent of stormy youki, of a thousand bloody battles and his youkai brother—

He would never—

Inuyasha panicked and spasmodically jerked back, panting, his eyes filled with fear.

He didn't get far. Long silk-draped arms quickly snagged him and dragged his trembling body forward despite his skittish resistance, which was directionless and ruined with his own disbelief as Sesshoumaru pulled him flush into his arms, pushing Inuyasha's face into the crook of his neck before the desperate breaths tearing through the hanyou's throat could turn into sobs.

"Sorry, I-I'm sorry," he gasped against warm skin, even as a clawed hand swept up over the curve of his skull, the other splayed against his back. "I don't even know why I. . ."

"I do," Sesshoumaru murmured against his hair, sounding even more shell-shocked than him, if it was possible. Were they both shaking? Inuyasha couldn't even tell. He just hooked his fingers in the shoulders of his brother's kimono and held on for dear life, trying to get his spinning thoughts and ragged breathing under control.

At the same time Sesshoumaru's grip on him was almost crushing, like he thought Inuyasha was going to bolt at the first chance. Which in its own way, was sad and hilarious and oh, god, really fucked up.

It was also exactly what Inuyasha needed.

"I totally kissed you just then," he whispered in stark disbelief. He could taste Sesshoumaru on his lips.

"Yes."

"And you—you didn't push me away."

A pause.

"No. I did not." As clipped and cool as the words themselves were, Inuyasha could hear the frantic beat of the youkai lord's heart. It made him feel a little better.

"We're so fucking weird," he breathed. Sesshoumaru huffed a small breath.

"Don't lump me in with your lot. I was minding my own business when you thrust yourself upon me."

"Bullshit! You were playing with my hair like a girl, for one thing," Inuyasha protested, pulling himself back to glare at his brother. "And—and don't say thrust. There was no thrusting of any kind."

The hanyou heard a soft snort at that, and for a moment he was amazed by how normal everything was. Inuyasha had just kissed Sesshoumaru, and they hadn't killed each other, cried like little girls or tucked tail and ran in the opposite direction. If he took an honest look at himself, there was quiet surprise that he hadn't done all three. His life was weird, but this was a previously undiscovered level of Batshit Crazy.

But. . .it was okay.

Arranging himself carefully so he could sit up and look Sesshoumaru in the eye, Inuyasha realised there was still one thing that needed to be said. The last thing he wanted was to stupidly see more than there actually was in what had just happened.

"Hey, I know I just—did that," he said gruffly, fingers absently twisting in the silk beneath his fingers. "But if it wasn't—uh, if it's not. . .wanted, just say so. We'll just call it even for the thing on the dais, or blame it on my blood loss and you having no self-control. Easy."

While Sesshoumaru quickly levelled him a nasty look for fabricating that last part, the expression faded to be replaced by something filled with deep thought as he studied the hanyou's slightly upturned face. Inuyasha knew he had an embarrassing flush cresting his cheeks and his ears were drooping like any common mutt waiting for a blow, but if the rejection was going to come he'd rather it sooner than later.

Rejection. Heh. He was old friends with it, really. But he still felt like a piss-poor excuse for a hanyou just thinking in those terms. What he should be doing was brushing the whole thing off and making a quick exit so he could slam his head against the closest sturdy tree. But as he met Sesshoumaru's gaze, his bluster and bravado flagged and died. This wasn't even anywhere close to his comfort zone.

"Wanted," the youkai lord eventually repeated, lifting one eyebrow. "You ask me that. Inuyasha, do you even know what it was that you wanted? Because I will wager you haven't a single idea. Perhaps you need to find that out, before you question me."

The words were delivered with the same quiet assurance Sesshoumaru always used, and it rankled. Indignant, Inuyasha thought about telling him exactly where he could stick his assumptions, until he felt once more the steady thundering of the heart beneath his hand. Calmer than before, but. . .different. The scent that Inuyasha breathed deeply of was edged with salty-warm affection and a tang of sharp unease, and something smokier than he'd ever scented on his brother. Which was the thing about having the senses of a youkai and the knowledge of a human, really. Scenting emotion had never been his strong suit, so he'd never delved into it beyond the basics. But knowing something new was there—well, it made him wonder. And that was enough for him to tread carefully.

"I don't really know," he admitted, ducking his head to hide his scowl. "Just that I wanted to do that. And I don't want you to disappear because I might have screwed up when I did it."

Instead of replying immediately, Sesshoumaru simply shifted his grip on the hanyou and guided him back down to his shoulder, where Inuyasha buried his face and for a few honest minutes he just closed his eyes, and breathed.

They stayed like that for a while, each a long line of warmth against the other, both reluctant to let go. Sesshoumaru's face dropped down to press into the thick fall of Inuyasha's hair, a furred ear twitching occasionally against his cheek. His claws pricked tiny sharp points against the hanyou's back, almost catlike with their reassuring pressure as it came and went with the swell of his breathing. He probably didn't even know he was doing it.

For his part Inuyasha actually started drowsing against the youkai lord after a while, lulled by the pattern of their breath, the warmth, and the fatigue that had slowly been trying to creep over him for the last week. He fought it once he realised what he was doing, stirring and lifting his head to gaze at his brother with slumberous golden eyes.

"Time," Sesshoumaru murmured, tipping his head back to the night air and closing his eyes briefly. "To think. Return to your village, Inuyasha. Clear your head. I must retrieve my vassal and settle some matters, and then we will meet again. Perhaps we will both have a suitable answer when that happens. As things stand, I honestly could not say." Opening his eyes slowly, the youkai lord studied the hanyou's upturned face with quiet contemplation. "What would father say to this, I wonder?"

The question was purely rhetorical, but Inuyasha barked a short, wicked laugh.

"Probably something about my sword not fitting in its—fuck it, never mind. I'm going to sleep."

As the hanyou rolled, still sniggering, out of his brother's grip and stretched out on the grass, part of him couldn't help but wonder what the distance between them would bring. Questions, probably. More questions than answers, if life continued its popular trend of driving him nuts. But he'd gotten one definite answer to the one question he'd never bothered to ask.

Sesshoumaru was going to come back, after he found Jaken. Not in three, six or twelve months.

Just then, that knowledge was all the hanyou needed.

He could figure the rest out later.



Chapter 24: Thirteen Days

"Guess this is my stop."

By Inuyasha's estimate dawn had broken an hour or two ago, though he couldn't be too sure. Travelling as a spinning ball of light with his essence tangled up in Sesshoumaru's youki had left him a little disoriented. Why his brother had decided to use that particular trick again the hanyou had no goddamn idea. Maybe the threat of being vomited on left him feeling like he lived on the edge.

Looking around him at the familiar terrain surrounding the edge of the forest relaxed something inside him, despite knowing he was about to ditch Sesshoumaru for a while. He couldn't help it.

It was home.

"I won't linger here," Sesshoumaru said quietly. He'd been kind of odd since Inuyasha woke up by the dying campfire, to be honest. But that wasn't really a surprise - Sesshoumaru was at least a varying degree of strange and/or creepy most of the time, and kissing him last night probably hadn't done much to fix that.

Inuyasha cringed slightly under the burn of embarrassment that thought evoked. He'd been trying to ignore what had happened, with only limited success. Not that he wanted to forget, or—or take it back or anything; it was just something he wasn't ready to think hard on. Not when Sesshoumaru was studying him so intently, like his gaze alone could pick apart Inuyasha's thoughts and reveal everything he was thinking.

"No I get it, go find your frog or whatever," Inuyasha replied, toes curling anxiously in the grass. He shrugged jerkily. "I'll see you around."

"Jaken-sama isn't a frog!" Rin cried out as Ah-Un landed with a soft thump behind Sesshoumaru. The kid was already half off the dragon before it stopped moving, running up to him. "And you forgot your haori! You won't look like Inuyasha without it."

Taking the crimson bundle from her, he raised an eyebrow at the beaming girl.

"What, you done sniffing at it? Little creeper." He was kind of going to miss the kid, if he was completely honest. Despite her occasionally disturbing statements and her infatuation with Sesshoumaru, she was all right. Reaching out, he hesitated only a moment before patting her on the head, watching her curious brown eyes roll almost up into her head as she strived to get a look at what he was doing. Sesshoumaru sure had picked up a strange one when he found her, he thought with a flash of a grin at his brother.

Sesshoumaru didn't bother to give him an answering glance, instead fixing his attention on the small display of affection. His eyes darkened slightly at Rin's sudden delighted laugh as she pushed her head up into his hand. Inuyasha had seen that look on the youkai lord's face before, and he knew exactly what it meant.

"Rin."

Spinning around at Sesshoumaru's beckon, she beamed up at him. "Yes, Sesshoumaru-sama?"

"You may remain here until I return, if you wish."

And there it was, Inuyasha thought flatly. Whether it was insecurity or jealousy or something else altogether, Sesshoumaru seemed to think that Rin preferred to be in his company now. Maybe it was the training he'd given her. Maybe it was their time outside the barrier. Whatever it was, the hanyou wasn't about to put up with it. Especially since he'd feel like a right bastard if he just stood there and watched his brother leave with nothing but a two-headed beast of burden. Didn't he get that—that Inuyasha didn't want to take from him, he. . .

Oh, goddamn it.

"I can't have a kid tagging along behind me and getting caught underfoot," Inuyasha said brusquely. "She's better off with you anyway. I'm bound to leave her in a tree or drop her on her head."

Sesshoumaru's expression didn't change. "The choice is hers to make."

Gritting his teeth to forestall a growl of frustration, Inuyasha watched Rin and wondered how to make her choose Sesshoumaru without making it glaringly obvious he was doing so.

But Rin just ambled straight over to the silent youkai lord.

"I'll go with Sesshoumaru-sama."

Inuyasha stared. "You could have at least agonised over the choice a bit!"

Then Sesshoumaru's mask of calm faltered just enough for a gleam of smug satisfaction to shine through, and the hanyou rolled his eyes hard enough to strain something.

"Screw you both, I hope you crash into a ditch. Goodbye!"

Kids were shallow little bastards, Inuyasha thought with irritated amusement as he made his way through the forest. One moment they're beaming with adoration and stealing your clothes, then out of nowhere they ditch you for the brooding silent type and leave you with—with—

Long-fingered hands gripped Inuyasha's shoulders, scaring him out of his inane thoughts and pulling him up short.

"Shit, Sesshoumaru!" he yelped, going rigid with fright. "Wear a little bell, would you? And if you're just following me to rub it in, I don't want to hear it—"

"I am merely saying goodbye," Sesshoumaru interrupted smoothly, overriding him. "You didn't give me time to before you stormed off so impressively." The hands on his shoulders squeezed sharply, wordlessly conveying Sesshoumaru's thoughts on his dramatic exit.

Inuyasha snorted. "Oh, now you want to talk to me?" he said wryly, glancing up over his shoulder. "I'm not pissed off or anything. If you've got places to be, go. I'll see you later, anyway."

Sesshoumaru didn't reply immediately, instead frowning pensively as he studied Inuyasha's expression. It gave the hanyou enough time for a sobering thought to enter his mind.

"You are coming back."

"Of course."

Inuyasha nodded shortly. "Then quit with the goodbye stuff. Pansy."

The hands on his shoulders squeezed again at the insult, but there was no anger in it. Instead Inuyasha felt long fingers slip under the weight of his hair, moving along his shoulder blades and up to the nape of his neck.

"Is your neck healed from the pull of the rosary?"

So that's what the attention was for, the hanyou thought in amusement, his eyes slipping closed as cool fingertips explored his skin. It was like he needed to give him a once-over before he went. Figured. Sesshoumaru wasn't really one for goodbyes either.

"Good as new," he replied, ducking his head slightly away from the careful touch. Sesshoumaru just skated his palms across the curve of Inuyasha's shoulders and down his arms, his chin resting on the hanyou's shoulder as he took his wrists in a loose grip.

"And your arms? Show me." Sharp claws hooked in the sleeves of his kosode and dragged them back slightly as Inuyasha lifted his arms with a grumbling sigh.

The cuts were well on their way to being fully healed; the once-raw gashes marching up his inner wrist to his elbow now the shiny pink of newly healing skin. They wouldn't scar; nothing ever did. Sesshoumaru let out a long breath through his nose and swept his fingertips over those too. It didn't hurt. Inuyasha took the opportunity to tilt his head and knock it gently against the youkai lord's.

"Do you need to check my teeth next?" the hanyou said with a snort. "Don't coddle me, Sesshoumaru, or I'll kick your ass. I'm fine. You know I'm fine."

"I know."

Inuyasha blinked. "Then why—"

"An excuse."

"For what?" Inuyasha asked, baffled. Then on the heels of his exclamation he understood. "What, you wanted to touch me?"

"Perhaps."

A sense of profound embarrassment warred with wonder inside Inuyasha at that forward admission. The idea that Sesshoumaru had used his healing injuries as a ruse to—well, to put his hands on him was almost too hard to believe. For one thing, Sesshoumaru always did whatever he wanted. Since when did he give a shit about being careful about it? Did he think it wasn't welcome? After last night?

"I'm not going to scream if you touch me, moron," he said crossly. "It's—it's not like I hate it or anything. You're the one that wanted time, remember?"

Stilling at that, Sesshoumaru didn't reply immediately, instead turning his face enough that his nose brushed Inuyasha's jaw.

"Is that your tacit approval then?" His breath was warm against the hanyou's neck, and the rush of it prickled goosebumps across his skin. Inuyasha's thoughts scattered.

"I. . .I guess so," he replied, turning his head toward Sesshoumaru. "Why are you asking now?"

"So you cannot complain," the youkai lord replied simply. "As you so often do. You make it quite difficult for me to put my scent on you, you realise."

Inuyasha blinked, startled. "You've been marking me? What the hell?"

"You're not my property, imbecile," Sesshoumaru said flatly. "I simply wish to make it known to any youkai that I. . .that I have a vested interest in you. Since you are, obviously, about to leave my side, it was the only avenue I could think to take." Even as he was saying that, Inuyasha could feel Sesshoumaru tense slightly against his back. It belatedly occurred to the hanyou that he'd been leaning back against his brother for some time, and the heat Sesshoumaru radiated was all but soaking into him through the thin fabric of his kosode.

After a moment of deliberation, Inuyasha shrugged. "I guess I'm just glad you're not more dog than you are youkai." At Sesshoumaru's frown he elaborated with, "I don't want you pissing on me."

"Certainly not," Sesshoumaru replied, disgusted. "Not in this form."

Inuyasha had a sudden, horrified mental image of a transformed Sesshoumaru pissing acid on him. But upon turning around to face the youkai lord, he met a strangely guarded golden gaze with his own.

It was then that Inuyasha realised he had been thinking Sesshoumaru was marking him for protection, when in fact those eyes were saying something else altogether.

Sesshoumaru was—

"You're trying to stake a claim on me, aren't you?" Inuyasha accused, jumping back a step. Sesshoumaru's hands twitched reflexively, but betrayed no other movement. A muscle in his jaw twitched, and the hanyou knew he was right.

"But I'm a guy, you can't—wait, hang on, don't go doing shit like that if you haven't even made up your goddamn mind!" His tone fairly vibrated with indignation, and Sesshoumaru caught every nuance of it.

"It was merely a precaution," the youkai lord replied stiffly, looking away. "I'm not certain how long I will be gone for, and—"

"It doesn't matter how long you're gone for," Inuyasha barked. "No one's going to want me in the meantime, you idiot. Youkai don't want hanyou, unless it's to eat—"

"I do," Sesshoumaru spat, "and so might another. You're a soft touch for anything that looks at you without hatred—"

"I don't want anyone else, stupid!" Inuyasha yelled furiously. "I just want you!"

And that was the heart of the matter laid bare; a raw wound of truth Inuyasha really hadn't meant to say.

Sesshoumaru stood speechless, his hackles lowering, fists unclenching by his sides. Inuyasha just looked away, swallowing hard against the urge to try and take it back. He'd meant it; he'd stand by his words. But he couldn't quite meet that gaze anymore.

"But you run," the youkai lord said after a moment, voice oddly thick. "Away from me. You take everything I say the wrong way. You doubt my word. Two hundred and fifty years of estrangement and fighting, forgotten in a matter of months? It isn't possible, Inuyasha, and whatever you believe you feel now. . .it may fade. This is why I asked for time. So that you might realise this." Taking a long step forward, the youkai lord pressed a fingertip beneath Inuyasha's jaw, turning his head back to meet his eyes.

Inuyasha slapped it away roughly, meeting Sesshoumaru's eyes with a brilliant golden gaze. His smile was pure bitterness.

"If you don't want me, you just go right the fuck ahead and you say so," the hanyou said fiercely, his throat aching. "But don't you try and convince me I'm going through some fucking messed up phase so I'll save you the hassle. I'm not going anywhere this time."

They could fight even when admitting feelings like these, Inuyasha thought humourlessly. Maybe some things would never change. Maybe Sesshoumaru didn't think it was worth it.

And maybe he was completely wrong, Inuyasha thought as the remote distance in the youkai lord's eyes fractured, baring stormy gold and sheer tremulous want.

"You are destroying me, Inuyasha," Sesshoumaru said hoarsely, his eyes sliding closed. His voice was one long, tired ache of defeat. "And Gods help me, I want you to."

Then Sesshoumaru kissed him.

It was more than a mere touch of lips; it was a torrent of stunning hunger and blissful surrender that seemed to thrum in every fibre of Sesshoumaru's being, pouring into Inuyasha in taste and touch, breath and youki. It was a silently aching sigh of finally neither of them had acknowledged before. Inuyasha's tension shattered under the urgent crush of Sesshoumaru's mouth on his, of warmth and wetness and painful need. Because Sesshoumaru was kissing him like there was nothing he'd ever wanted more – and like he'd been wanting it for longer than Inuyasha had ever dared to wonder.

He really—he actually wants me. . .

Just as much as I want him.

The simple knowledge of that was gloriously heady, left him burning dark and craving more. Arms lifting to pull him closer, Inuyasha shamelessly slid his tongue into the heat of Sesshoumaru's mouth, his gut tightening at the frayed groan that single curious stroke earned him. His taste alone was something wilder, something more electric and feral than Inuyasha had ever imagined. Daiyoukai, the hanyou thought hazily, barely feeling clawed fingertips skate dangerously across his back, seeking purchase in his skin.

Inuyasha didn't care; he was too intent on wringing another reaction from the youkai lord to mind his clothes or skin. Panting between each hungry kiss, he slid a hand into Sesshoumaru's hair and tugged him into the perfect angle for Inuyasha to press biting, suckling kisses to his throat, feeling his hot pulse racing beneath his stroking tongue.

Hissing a surprised breath in through his teeth Sesshoumaru pulled him even closer, and Inuyasha lost his breath at the hard line of desire stirring against his groin. Sesshoumaru's hand began to slide over his hip before suddenly stilling, aborting its own movement and clenching in the folds of the hanyou's clothes.

"No more," Sesshoumaru said raggedly, breathing hard against his ear. "Inuyasha. Rin will be curious about the—at the delay." Despite his words, his lips still traced breathy, humid lines over Inuyasha's cheek and jaw as the hanyou lifted his head and looked up, eyes dazed and wanting. But the sight Sesshoumaru made was almost enough for the hanyou to lose it all over again.

Gone was the composure, the remote gaze, the faint frown that usually pulled his features into lines of seriousness. Instead Inuyasha saw an expression torn between hunger and propriety, his lips parted for each panting breath, hair dishevelled and pale skin flushed. His eyes were like molten gold as they flickered over the hanyou's features, and Inuyasha suddenly wondered if he looked similarly undone. Probably worse, he thought ruefully, licking his lips and straightening up, wincing slightly with discomfort. Shit. It had been a while since that had been an issue.

"I did not intend for that to get. . .quite so out of hand," said Sesshoumaru, looking decidedly shaken. But his eyes were level and sincere as he added, "If I spoke out of turn earlier, I apologise. It is just that. . ." Sesshoumaru's brow creased in consternation as he seemed to look for a way to explain. He exhaled slowly and gave a minute shake of his head.

"What is it?" Inuyasha asked, ears swivelling nervously. Sesshoumaru watched them for a moment, lifting his hand to brush his fingertips lightly over their furred points. There was something almost vulnerable in his eyes.

"I will not let you go." The statement was so plain that for a moment Inuyasha didn't understand what he was saying. "For that reason alone I simply wanted you to be sure." His hand dropped back to his side.

Inuyasha rubbed his ears absently, staring at Sesshoumaru all the while. Did he really think that Inuyasha had done any of it on a whim? For kicks? That he was going to just change his mind one day? Or was he thinking that they'd have another infamous argument, or claw each other's face open again and he'd go running off to Tsukiko's castle to lick his wounds? They'd come further than that. That was past. Inuyasha would sooner discard Tetsusaiga than exile Sesshoumaru from his life. No matter what happened. He trusted him now. And as for the rest. . .

"You're talking forever, aren't you?" Inuyasha said abruptly. "No messing around. You're all in. That's why you're being like this."

"I am." There was no hesitation.

"And you think, that even though I've almost cursed myself forever for you, almost bled to death for you, that I might still change my mind about wanting you."

"Yes."

"And even though I've experienced all your bad qualities, been ripped up by you, saved by you and I've seen you bare-ass naked on more than one occasion, you thought I might still not have all the facts here?"

Something was dawning on Sesshoumaru's face, and it looked a lot like embarrassment. "Well, I. . ."

"You're an idiot," Inuyasha said flatly. "You know that, right?"

The youkai lord sighed. "It would appear so." The admission came with an expression bordering on pained. Inuyasha's annoyance faded slightly, and he punched the youkai lord in the arm.

"I'm sure," he said firmly, staring Sesshoumaru down. "I crossed the line first, asshole, thinking I'd get nothing in return. How stupid would I be to back off now that I've almost got you where I want you?" Honestly, was he brain damaged? You didn't just start a—a thing with your youkai half-brother for the hell of it. Inuyasha might be impatient and reckless, short tempered and kind of a jerk sometimes, but when it counted? Sesshoumaru was stuck with him and he didn't even realise it yet.

A slim eyebrow arched at his words, but Sesshoumaru's eyes promised mischief. Leaning in slightly, almost nose-to-nose with the hanyou he replied, "And where, precisely, is it that you want me?"

Despite the temptation of his nearness, Inuyasha just gave him a shit-eating grin.

"I'll be telling you that when you get back. Now get the hell out of here, I've got a village to shake up. I'm giving you two weeks before I go searching for your corpse." Backing up two steps he was gratified to see a flash of Sesshoumaru's disgruntled scowl before it was masked, but the annoyance remained in his eyes, right where Inuyasha could read it. Heh.

"For that, I will return in thirteen days," he replied, apparently just to be a pain in the ass. Then with a graceful swish of hair and silk he turned and started off back to where they'd landed. "Do try not to become sealed to any trees while I'm gone."

"Real cute, asshole. Make sure you don't get stuck behind any barriers," Inuyasha shot back with a fangy grin. He saw Sesshoumaru's spine stiffen as the teasing barb hit home.

"Goodbye, you foolish hanyou."

"Later, stuck-up youkai."

It wasn't a hard goodbye when it was only a temporary one, Inuyasha thought as he started in the direction of the village, his ears picking up the muted footsteps that signalled his brother walking away. Especially when he could annoy the hell out of Sesshoumaru.

Thirteen days. Not so long after all. Maybe less, if Sesshoumaru got bored. It'd be just like him to show up like a freaky bastard in the dead of night. Snorting to himself at that mental image, Inuyasha picked up the pace.

Wonder if anything changed while I was gone?



 

Thirteen days.

More than enough time to do what needed to be done, Sesshoumaru thought grimly, his expression rearranging into something colder, something predatory.

Inuyasha expected his return in two weeks time, giving him a perfect window of opportunity to act. He would send Rin and Ah-Un to collect Jaken while he headed in the opposite direction, to his former prison.

It had been a spectacularly well-placed barb Inuyasha had levelled at him, and for a moment Sesshoumaru had wondered if the hanyou had suspected his intentions. But to all appearances it had been a coincidence and nothing more.

Unlike himself, some inuyoukai wouldn't readily leave their territory for long. Inotoki would be somewhere close to the moon clan stronghold, of that he was certain. Once he was found, it would take almost no effort to kill the cur now that he knew the secret to his borrowed immortality.

Inuyasha would likely have no quarrel with his hunt, but there was no need to have an audience for this deed. Inotoki was a cunning foe, and likely knew the secret of his amulet quite well. He would not allow Sesshoumaru to take it easily.

All the same. He had touched something under Sesshoumaru's protection, and for that he would pay with his life.

Thirteen days was more than enough time.


When Inuyasha entered the village for the first time since Kaede's death, he wasn't exactly sure what to expect. For one thing, he'd been a basket case halfway up a tree the night he did leave, and that was after destroying a good portion of the forest surrounding the area. It had been a month and a half since then. It wasn't much of a stretch to think that maybe Hina, Hiroshi and the other humans living there might have returned to their fear-driven animosity in the time he'd been gone.

In that respect Inuyasha was fully prepared for the worst. Especially since Kaede was gone now. She'd been the one to welcome him back into the village after Naraku's defeat, after all, and without her Inuyasha didn't even know if he had a place there among them.

All the same, he had ties to the damn place, and he was going to make sure everything was as it should be - even if they didn't much care for him to do so.

That, and Sesshoumaru was coming back. He couldn't exactly ditch the place, or the bastard would probably lose his shit when he came back to find Inuyasha gone.

The sky was a brilliant blue overhead, the lack of breeze and bright sunlight promising a clear and crisp day. Summer had faded, leaving behind dying heat and the promise of cooler weather carried in on the wind. Caught between seasons, the village crops were prospering and the humans were going about their daily routine with cheerful enthusiasm.

Entering the village proper, palm up to block the glare of the sun Inuyasha's eyes were immediately drawn to a new wooden dwelling on the edge of the village. It looked like it had only been completed recently, from what he could tell. It still smelled like sawdust and the tar-like stuff the villagers used to stop water and drafts creeping into any cracks.

Halting just in front of it, Inuyasha stared at the large hut with its large windows hung with herbs, and realised exactly who it was for. The village couldn't be without a priestess for long. Especially not when Inuyasha had been traipsing around the countryside with Sesshoumaru, leaving them all to fend for themselves.

For a moment he caught himself wondering what she'd be like. Probably some old bag like Kaede, he thought with an inner snort. Only probably a lot less tolerant of him. Definitely no Kikyou; she'd been one of a kind. Well, almost. Had they built the place in preparation of her arrival, or was she already there? The thought didn't settle well with him. If she banished him from the village, he'd have to go. Fucking around with priestesses was real bad for his health, and he had promised Sesshoumaru he wouldn't get sealed to any trees.

Mouth curving in a sardonic smile, the hanyou took a step back from the hut and rammed into something that fell over with a thud.

"Ow," the boy said, too stunned by the sight of him to properly turn on the waterworks. "Inuyasha? You came back? My dad said you ran away to mooch off strangers for food scraps now that Kaede-sama was gone."

"Yeah, well your dad's a moron," he said with a shrug. The boy started crying. Rolling his eyes, Inuyasha reached down and lifted the kid into the air, setting him back on his feet. "You seen Hiroshi or Hina around the place?"

"It's headman Hiroshi-san now," the boy scolded, wiping his snotty nose on the back of his wrist. "Gee Inuyasha, how stupid are you not to know that?"

"Fuck off, I've been away," the hanyou said defensively. "How the hell did Hiroshi become headman?"

"You can't swear like that! I'm seven!" the kid insisted, looking horrified. "And Kaede-sama always said that the headman would be whoever the women decided on, since they're the only ones who have any sense. My dad was really mad he didn't get picked. Said it's because he's already married, and Hiroshi-san isn't." Looking around guiltily, the boy flushed pink and added in a loud whisper, "Some of the women wanted to pick you. But no one thought you'd come back."

Rocking back on his heels slightly, Inuyasha digested that new information. Someone wanted to pick him as headman? How fucking nuts was that? If there wasn't an age limit on which females got to decide, he'd bet it had been Hina's bugshit little sister Suki.

Oh well, he thought, slightly cheered by the prospect anyway. Hiroshi would do all right, he had that leader quality about him. He could use the popularity with the women, anyway.

"You've got big ears, kid. Thanks." Giving the aforementioned ears a hard tug he stepped around the boy and continued walking toward the centre of the village.

"My name's Kurosuke!" the boy called out behind him. "Retard!"

"What—" Whirling around in indignation Inuyasha opened his mouth to cuss the little bastard out, but he'd already darted off behind one of the huts. "Respect your elders, shithead!" Yelling at empty air made him look a little nuts, probably, but it made him feel better nonetheless.

"I think you taught him that word, actually," an amused voice said, and Inuyasha spun back to see Hina jogging down to greet him, a basket loaded with vegetables in her arms. "Did you just get back? Oh, everything's changed! Are you staying? Wait until Suki sees you! She cried for a week when you vanished; she only stopped when Hiroshi made her a new doll. Which reminds me, he's—"

"Headman now, I know," he interrupted, then grunted as Hina shoved her basket into his arms to carry. "I just got back now, yeah."

Wiping her perspiring brow, Hina shot him a faintly reproving look, then flicked the tip of his nose sharply. "You scared me, you dumb brute," she muttered, her brown eyes dark. "Everyone figured that Kaede-sama was the only reason you stayed in the village, and then you just vanished. . .plus the forest was a mess! Was that you?"

As they spoke, the wide dirt road they followed passed the entrance to the shrine where the Shikon no Tama used to be housed. The hanging scent of incense and wood smoke that surrounded it brought back all kinds of memories. Ears flicking, Inuyasha studied the old building even as he nodded hesitantly.

"Yeah, that was me. Sorry."

Hina just shrugged at the confession. "It doesn't matter. We chopped up some of the trees you knocked over and made new huts, and we've been eating chestnuts with just about everything." Her eyes glinted with mischief. "Can you have another mental breakdown in the new planting field? The ground is kind of hard-packed and difficult to ploughoww!"

"Serves you right," he grumped, kicking her again. "I don't go insane on demand."

"Stop it!" she yelped, jumping away from him. "Your toenails are disgusting! You're so gross, Inuyasha. Give me back the vegetables. I'm cooking Hiroshi and his guests lunch today; I guess I'll have enough for you too." Taking the heavy load back from him, she stopped in front of a pleasant-looking hut with a pot of herbs on either side of the door. "Go wash up first, it won't be for another hour or two. You stink like man sweat."

Scowling at her back as she ambled into her hut –since when was there a difference in the smell of sweat on a man or a woman?- Inuyasha shrugged and decided he'd do a quick circuit of the village before heading off to the river.

The trip took longer than he expected, with people waving him over to give a quick hand with this or that, and ask him where he'd been, and if he was well. It was all a little bit strange, to his mind, but Inuyasha didn't dislike it. Feeling appreciated and, well, missed was kind of nice. Not that he'd ever admit it to them. So he carried a few baskets of washing and pulled some kid's leather ball out of a tree; no big deal.

Still, when he wandered away holding a plum and a small bundle of freshly roasted chestnuts given as thanks for his help, he couldn't help but think it was good to be back.

Then he got to the river.

Utterly lost in his pleasant thoughts, Inuyasha's keen senses didn't pick up a thing until he broke through the bushes surrounding his favourite bathing spot.

"Right there! Yes! Ohmygod I'm—I'm—!" A long, exultant cry of completion.

"Sango!" Miroku tossed his head back, mouth open and eyes scrunched closed, hips jerking beneath the water. In his arms, Sango sagged backward with a low, sated moan.

Inuyasha was horrified.

"What have you fuckers done to my river?"

They both took one look at his livid face, screamed like girls and disappeared under the water. But that was all right, Inuyasha thought furiously. They had to come up for air sometime.

True to form, they did; two heads bobbing out of the water and not much else following. Sango was bright red, but Miroku was smiling beatifically. Even so, his eyebrows were doing some kind of manic dance of uncertainty.

"Ah, Inuyasha my good friend. We weren't expecting you!"

"No shit!" he snapped back. "You realise I have to burn the entire river now, right? I don't even know how the hell to do that! There—there needs to be prayers and exorcisms and—"

"We're very sorry," Sango said mournfully, pressing her palms to her burning cheeks. "Could you turn your back so I can get out?"

Scanning the grass on the bank, Inuyasha quickly spotted their clothes laid in a neat pile to his far right. Miroku saw his eyes wander there and went abruptly ashen.

"Inuyasha don't do it I love you—"

Quick as a flash the hanyou grabbed their clothes with one wide sweep of his arm and ran into the bushes, leaving them screaming their heads off behind him. Served them right; he'd never be able to bathe there again without the nauseating image of his best friends having river sex popping into his head. The water would feel forever tainted.

"What the hell are they even doing here, anyway?" he wondered aloud for the first time as he scattered their clothes on the low hanging branches of the trees he passed. He made sure Sango's pink kimono was the first thing he hung though – he wasn't that much of a bastard. It was that horny bastard Miroku's fault, anyway. Probably.

His vengeful deed done for the day, he circled back around and headed further upstream to wash, reluctantly acknowledging that he was starting to smell a bit ripe.

So Sango and Miroku had returned to the village. What for? To see him, or pay their respects to Kaede's grave? That was something he hadn't done yet, but he would. There was freaking out and running off with your half-brother to have confusing adventures, and then there was being a jerk and avoiding reality altogether. She'd been a constant figure ever since Kagome had broken his seal; a home base for them to return to while they'd been hunting for the shards. He might have given her hell and made a lot of old lady jokes at her expense, but he'd miss her cranky face and the advice she'd always given without him ever needing to ask.

And the food. The food had been good.

He returned to the village just in time to again be lumped with carrying shit to Hiroshi's place, which was now a large, if unfinished construction in the centre of the village. From the looks of it, it was going to be something with paper screens and lacquered floors, something classier than the huts everyone else lived in. Seeing it reminded the hanyou that the village was growing, and would probably continue to do so.

He dumped an armful of clay bowls down beside the pot Hina had been cooking in just in time for a shrill squeal to scare the ever-loving crap out of him.

"Inuyasha!" Suki barrelled into the back of his legs at full speed, unfortunately knocking his knees and sending him sprawling to the mats. Not that she cared; the kid just crawled up his legs and sat on his back like a feral cat, all high-pitched noises and clawed, grabby fingers. "I missed you so much, I really, really did!"

"Ugh," he replied inarticulately, spitting out some of his own hair. "You gonna get off so I can stand?"

"No!" she replied delightedly.

"Fuck." Pushing himself up Inuyasha hauled himself to his feet with the giggling girl still attached to his back. He made sure to slap her in the face with the entire length of his damp hair, though. Goddamn brats. Nothing but a source of pain and embarrassment.

"Come on now, Suki, he only just arrived," Hiroshi said as he entered the kitchen area, looking sheepish. "Didn't I send you to water the herbs at the empty hut?" Nodding to Inuyasha in welcome, he reached around and plucked Suki from his back in one smooth motion. The hanyou didn't miss the way Hina's cheeks pinked as she watched the new headman take charge, making a mental note to ask about that later.

"Thanks," Inuyasha grunted, brushing himself off. He followed Hina's pointed finger to where some woven mats were laid out for them to eat. He sat on the one closest to the door, waiting for Hiroshi to join him before speaking. "I'm guessing Sango and Miroku are those mystery guests you're having."

"Indeed. They arrived three weeks ago to pay their respects to Kaede-sama's grave and visit you, but decided to stay once they realised you were gone and we had no holy person to carry on Kaede-sama's work." Hiroshi's smile was brilliant. "Miroku-sama and his intended kindly offered to stay a while."

Inuyasha nodded. "That was decent of them. So when is she due to arrive?"

Hiroshi blinked. "Who?"

"The priestess. There's gotta be one, right? I passed the new hut as I came into town," Inuyasha explained, his expression clouding with uncertainty as Hina and Hiroshi exchanged a quick glance. His stomach swooped with alarm. "What?"

They were interrupted as a familiar pair entered the hut, looking decidedly meek and apologetic as they bowed to Hiroshi and joined Inuyasha. Trying to stave off flashbacks, he just frowned moodily at his friends.

"Hey," he grunted.

"Hello Inuyasha," Sango said, her voice strangled with embarrassment. Miroku smiled wickedly and gave him a great dirty wink.

"Why hello, Inuyasha!" he said merrily. "I take it you have. . .seen the sights?" He might have said more, but Sango chose that moment to stretch and 'accidentally' belt him in the head with her elbow. That made Inuyasha feel better about things. His eyes dropped to Sango's abdomen, which was slightly distended as her pregnancy progressed. Her scent had changed somewhat too, but maybe that had to do with. . .other things.

"Ugh," he blurted out, jerking his head back. They stared at him. "I mean—what took you guys so long?" Heh. Hina seated herself beside Hiroshi and started serving lunch, glancing between the three of them curiously.

Miroku wasn't fazed. "I was dashing naked through the trees actually. Some foul-smelling mutt stole our clothes while we were bathing, would you believe it? My darling Sango nearly went into labour!"

"Your darling Sango is going to render you unconscious," she replied pleasantly through clenched teeth. Then she laughed. "I think we scared the mutt more than it scared us, actually."

Hiroshi was frowning. "Should I have some of the men check the surrounds for this dog? The last thing we need is for it to dig up our crops, or for one of the children to get bitten. What if it brings fleas?"

Sango was in gales of laughter after that. Inuyasha turned red. Miroku just slung an arm about his shoulders and sighed in contentment.

"Oh I've missed you, my bad-tempered friend."

"I hate your face."

Sango just patted his hand. "I think we're all even now, don't you? Let's enjoy our lunch. I want to hear about where you've been all this time."

"Us too," Hina said interestedly. "Especially since you were asking about the hut." Hiroshi brightened at that, and Sango and Miroku watched him carefully. Inuyasha just sat back a little, frowning as that feeling of strangeness came back. Was he missing something?

"What's so good about it?" he grumped, feeling like he was being left out of the joke. "I figured it was for the priestess, but with these two here. . .could someone just fucking explain instead of staring at me?" Glaring as the silence progressed, he crossed his arms over his chest in tense expectation. Who the hell was coming to the village? What the hell was going on?

Finally Hina lost her patience, thumping down a steaming bowl of stew in front of him.

"Don't be so dramatic," she said crossly. "And if you don't like it—well, fine. But the hut isn't for a priestess, Inuyasha. It's for you."

"Me," he repeated dumbly. His eyes widened as it sunk in. "You built a hut. . .for me. In the village."

Hiroshi leaned forward and clasped his forearm with a calloused hand. "We thought it was time we gave something back to you. You have a home here, Inuyasha, with or without Kaede-sama. The village isn't the same without you, and we all know it." His brown eyes were earnest and warm; as warm as the hand that gripped him like a brother.

A brother.

Sesshoumaru.

"The question is, will you stay?"



Chapter 25: Where The Heart Is

Stay.

They said he was part of the village. Because he had helped them, protected them. Looked out for their kids. Knew their names; said hello as he walked among them. He'd been changing them long before he even realised he was doing it, and now they'd built him a home within their village. A place that was his.

They wanted him to stay.

Live among them.

Belong.

"Worst timing ever," Inuyasha whispered as he stood in front of the empty hut, not daring to go inside. He felt like maybe if he touched it, it would crumble into dust just like the fragile dream he'd buried so long ago. Of a home. People who cared. Acceptance. Until reality had set in and life had taught him those things didn't exist for an orphan with mixed blood.

Only he'd been wrong. He could have it. All of it.

Except he couldn't.

Lunch had gone by in a stunned blur after Hiroshi had told him about the hut, that they'd built it for him while he was gone. It hadn't been part of Kaede's last wishes, either—maybe the old bag had known he wouldn't take anything out of pity. Sango and Miroku hadn't said much on the subject or tried to convince him to do anything over the course of the meal, but their careful glances made him skittish. They knew him pretty well, but they didn't know the biggest reason for not taking the hut. Not taking it yet, anyway. Inuyasha wanted it, kind of desperately, but. . .

Sesshoumaru.

Sesshoumaru, who had the worst case of wanderlust Inuyasha had ever encountered. Who would never stop more than a night in the presence of humans—humans that weren't Rin, at least. Who never understood Inuyasha's connection with that part of his heritage, even though intelligently he knew why it was there. If Inuyasha stayed, he'd never see Sesshoumaru.

Making a home in the village was out of the question, if it meant he had to give him up. That was just how it had to be.

And if the knowledge was a hollow ache in the bottom of his heart, well, he was just going to put up with it.

"It's a nice place, don't you think?" Miroku melted out of the twilight, his even footsteps muted by the chiming of his shakujou. "And big. They were proud to give this to you, Inuyasha. Yet I suspect you see it as a mixed blessing." He stopped at his friend's shoulder, and together they stared at the wooden structure looking for all the world like a couple of homeless strays. Inuyasha's mouth curved slightly at the image they made. Miroku noticed.

"Would you like to see inside?" he asked kindly, leaning slightly on the staff. Swallowing, Inuyasha nodded slowly.

"Yeah, but. . ."

"Good," the monk said cheerfully. "So do I. Can I go first?" Not waiting for the hanyou's permission he slid open the wooden door and vanished inside, leaving Inuyasha floundering and uncertain. Shit, hell if he was going to look gutless in front of Miroku. He followed through the open door, noting the rolled up bamboo screen above the door on the inside. For the summer heat, he realised. Turning around, he squinted into the dimness of the hut just in time for Miroku to grab his wrist, pulling him clean into the depths of his could-be home.

"It's got windows you can close against the rain – just wooden shutters, really, propped open by another length of wood. They planted the herbs by the door and hung them from the windows so the breeze wouldn't carry bad scents to your nose. Lavender, I believe, since everyone knows you love it so dearly." Amusement was plain in the monk's voice. "Thatched bamboo mats to cover the hard-packed earthen floor here, where you can cook and have guests. I of course, have to be the first you invite in." There was a low clang as Miroku rammed his shin into the iron pot that hung above the unlit fire. "Fffff—!"

"You can swear, you know," Inuyasha said faintly.

"It's not befitting of a monk," Miroku said weakly. "Though it fucking should be. God, my shin."

That made him laugh, and the tense knot in his chest loosened some. "Well now you're going to hell."

"I'll keep a seat warm for you."

Snorting, Inuyasha stepped up onto the raised wooden floor, pushing another hanging bamboo screen out of the way to see what was behind. His eyes were keen in the dim light, and once he saw what was in front of him his shoulders slumped in shock.

Such a small thing, really, but seeing it made Inuyasha's throat tighten. Scowling, he switched his gaze to the wall and cleared his throat. He had to get a hold of himself. Miroku might be weirdly understanding at the moment, but if Inuyasha got choked up he'd never hear the end of it.

"Oh yes, I saw them making this," Miroku commented. "They didn't have enough wool to stuff the whole futon, so the bottom layer is straw, and the wool is over the top. Between the two is some duck down, I believe, and dried lavender again to keep it smelling fresh. Hina-san approved the final attempt before they sewed it up for you. What do you think?"

"It's a bed," he replied gruffly. "It's fine, I guess." Was he supposed to tell Miroku he'd never had one of his own before? When his mother had been alive he'd always slept with her, since the servants and nobles were bastards and she'd never trusted them enough to give him his own room. After that. . .well. The forest had been his home, and that had been fine. Tsukiko's place had been too different, too eerie. But this place? This home they'd given him? Everything was his, and they'd carefully built every part of it with his hanyou heritage in mind. With his own preferences driving their design. The location, on the edge of the village, would give him privacy and peace. The herbs on the windows and outside the door, to mask the scents of the village so it didn't bother his nose. Secure windows and a door he could bar shut. A village to disappear into on the new moon.

A real home.

Watching him carefully, Miroku gave him a good shove onto the futon. Cursing, Inuyasha managed to break his fall with his palms, but was too late to retaliate as the smiling monk quickly claimed the empty half of the bed.

"Oh hell no," the hanyou blustered, "we're not lying here together like a couple of—"

"Friends?" he replied cheerfully, stretching out like a long shadow in the dimness. "Fear not, Inuyasha, I have no designs on your body. You've too much muscle for my taste. My, this is rather comfortable, don't you think? Not too firm, either."

Scowling ferociously, Inuyasha threw himself down on his back and glared at the ceiling, knowing he wasn't going to be able to move the holy bastard without bodily throwing him out. As tempting as the thought was, he just didn't feel lively enough to actually do it. Instead he crossed his arms and tried to ignore the shoulder brushing his. Stupid handsy monk.

"Would you like to tell me why you're not going to accept this wonderful gift?"

Inuyasha tensed. "Who said I wasn't going to?"

"I did," Miroku replied calmly. "Contrary to popular belief, I do occasionally think about things other than women. And I know you better than you think, my friend. What's troubling you about this? Does it have something to do with why you vanished for weeks on end and scared the life out of everyone, myself included?"

Somehow Miroku could work a guilt trip as well as any woman, and Inuyasha's ears lowered as the words sank home. He was right, of course. But to explain something like Sesshoumaru to his friend. . .Inuyasha didn't have the words to do an explanation justice.

Still, he knew he owed him that much.

"On a completely different topic, can I just say that this is the first time I've been in bed with a hanyou? You're officially taking my hanyou virginity. No one will marry me now."

Inuyasha punched him in the arm. "There are certain things I don't want to hear when I'm lying on a bed with a monk. That was one of them."

Miroku's smile was a flash of white in the gloom. "I like to shock you. Where is the kotodama rosary?"

Shit. Inuyasha's hands were at his neck before his brain had consciously thought about doing it. Of course, there was nothing there. He didn't miss it, surprisingly, but the feeling of nakedness was still new and a little strange. He'd. . .well, he'd forgotten about it. It had been less than a day. The same time yesterday, he'd been glaring into a campfire and cursing his own feelings. Now he was laying on a futon with maybe his best friend and the world had gone and changed on him again.

"I had the rosary taken off," Inuyasha said finally. He turned his head to face Miroku who had rolled onto his side, obviously expecting a story.

"Taken off?" he repeated. "The beads of subjugation were created with powerful kotodama magic, Inuyasha. Only a priestess of considerable strength could have. . .did Kagome-sama return? Is that where you've been?"

Inuyasha jolted. "What? No! The well's sealed and dead, you dumb shit," he snapped, unsettled. "Sesshoumaru broke it."

Miroku blinked and settled back, nodding slowly. "I see. You were fighting again? I had thought you were moving past that, after the last time I saw you both."

Frustrated, the hanyou scratched his head and sighed harshly, trying to explain. "No, it—we did. Move past that stuff, I mean. When I left the village, it was because Sesshoumaru kind of asked me to go with him. I was sort of messed up about Kaede, and I needed to get away from the village for a while." He shrugged, trying not to meet Miroku's wondering gaze. "We worked shit out, you know, so we're okay with each other. He broke the rosary because I couldn't get it off myself. So. Yeah. That's—that's where I've been." Hunching his shoulders he waited for the deluge of lectures on trust and friendship and irresponsibility to rain down on him, but all he got was a long exhale from Miroku and a thoughtful 'hmm'.

"Well, if you and Sesshoumaru have indeed settled your differences I can only be pleased for you, Inuyasha," he said thoughtfully. "For all your fighting and bad blood, the two of you always did work remarkably well together when it counted." He paused. "Still, that doesn't explain why his youki is clinging to you like a second skin."

Inuyasha's heart stuttered in shock. "What—no, it's not!" Sitting bolt upright, he patted down his clothes, sniffing them for any trace of his brother. It was there, but—

"It's all over your back, Inuyasha," Miroku said helpfully. "As a monk, I have a natural affinity for detecting these things. But Inuyasha, how did you not notice?"

"I'm gonna fucking kill him," the hanyou groaned, fisting his hands in his hair. "Son of a bitch. He said it was his scent! Fucking youki." That devious bastard. He'd known Inuyasha would just bathe and his scent would fade almost to nothing. But the traces of youki would have to fade all on their own—they were energy, and the daiyoukai that had put it there was powerful enough that it wouldn't vanish anytime soon. He was effectively branded.

Miroku was frowning now, his brow furrowed as he studied his fuming friend. "Now I'll admit to some confusion, but one thing I do know is that you would have had to let Sesshoumaru get extremely close for him to secretly put that much youki on you." His tone shifted into careful curiosity, but his dark blue eyes already knew the truth. "Inuyasha, exactly how close are you two now?"

Deny, deny, deny. That was Inuyasha's first instinct, and he very nearly went with it and lied right through his fangs. But Miroku's expression wasn't condemning or horrified – he looked confused and disbelieving, which Inuyasha couldn't really fault. He had trouble believing it himself. Thinking through his options, the hanyou eventually just blew out a gusting sigh and flopped back onto the bed.

"Let's just say you're not the first guy I've been in a bed with."

Miroku's eyes bugged. "What? Really? Really? You and—but he's your half-brother! More importantly, he's Sesshoumaru. How do you even manage that without getting frostbite? I have so many questions—"

"I didn't mean—I meant literally in a bed, you fucking lecher. Goddamn," Inuyasha replied in disgust. Then he frowned moodily. "And he's pretty warm, actually."

The silence following that tidbit of information was bordering on awkward, but that was mostly because Inuyasha couldn't fucking believe he'd just admitted that. Miroku, on the other hand, looked like he was mentally collating a few scrolls worth of questions and categorising them by how personal, embarrassing and/or perverted they were. Steadfastly refusing to say anything more on the whole subject, Inuyasha just crossed his arms again and scowled defiantly at the ceiling.

"I'm a little miffed that it's him you picked. Statistically, I feel the best male friend is usually the more likely to be the subject of a male crush. My pride is hurt," the monk announced. "Was it the hole in my hand that turned you off? It was, wasn't it. Shallow hanyou."

"It was your face, actually," Inuyasha shot back, unfazed. "Your face, which I've openly admitted to hating on so many occasions."

"Really? I only counted one."

"So many occasions," he repeated. Falling back into another silence, Miroku studied the palm of his hand in the growing darkness. Inuyasha grudgingly watched him from beneath his lashes. Somehow, he got the feeling his friend did that a lot, when no one in particular was looking. Checking for cracks, fissures in the skin that might tell him the kazaana was returning. But Naraku was dead; the curse was broken. The kid they had wasn't going to bear it, either.

"Why Sesshoumaru? Why not someone else? He certainly deviates from your usual. . .type." Still studying his hand, the question was almost casual. Almost.

"Why Sango?" he replied uncomfortably. "I don't know why. He just—gets me. It's crazy just how much more he is under all that crap. The more I learned about him the more I liked, till I realised that I even liked the shit I really fucking hated about him. I know it makes no sense. We spent so long hating each other. You probably think I've gone crazy."

"You don't need to justify it to me," the monk replied simply. "But I do have trouble visualising a Sesshoumaru that tolerates you, let alone likes you. Not that you're unlikable. I confess I'm quite fond of you myself." Dropping his hand back down to his side, he looked at Inuyasha seriously. "But I think you spent a lot of your life wanting acceptance from him. Is it possible you're confusing that for something it isn't?"

Inuyasha stared at him for a long, tense moment. Then without another word he rolled off the futon and stalked outside, shoulders stiff and chest tight.

"Inuyasha," Miroku called, "I'm only asking for your sake. Just be sure."

"Whatever," he tossed back over his shoulder. "I'm going for a walk."

Advice from a womanising monk, Inuyasha fumed. What the hell did he know about Sesshoumaru, or even him for that matter? Kagome had been the only one he'd really ever confided in – everything Miroku had learned was from observing him and what Kagome had bothered to repeat. Hearsay. He didn't really know. And sure, okay, maybe he was just being a good friend and weighing in on the subject, but now he had Inuyasha feeling sick to the pit of his stomach. Not because he was doubting everything that had gone on, but because. . .well, Sesshoumaru had kind of said the same thing. A soft touch for anything that looks at you without hatred. Did they think he'd just throw his lot in with the first person to treat him like he mattered? If—if that was the case he had his pick of the village girls now, and wasn't that all he apparently needed?

Of course it wasn't. He hadn't hero worshipped Sesshoumaru, and he hadn't jumped to any conclusions when they'd started to see each other in a different light. He'd still give Sesshoumaru hell if he was being an asshole, and he wasn't afraid of the unholy arguments that would ensue. Mostly because he knew they would still be fine by the end of it all. There was an unshakable bond there now. They'd gone ahead and done all the terrible things to each other before all of this had started – there was nothing Inuyasha or Sesshoumaru could discover about each other that would destroy that.

Inuyasha walked the length of the village and circled it in the darkness, the familiar sights around him and the soft lamplight from the surrounding huts easing the tight knot of unhappiness that had gathered in his chest. The talk with Miroku had managed to simultaneously make him feel better and worse about things, but he hadn't had a chance to talk to him about the heart of his problem. The choice he had in front of him. The village, and everything the village represented to him, or Sesshoumaru? At first the choice had seemed black and white – of course he wasn't going to stay if it meant that Sesshoumaru would leave him there and vanish. He still stood by that, but the more he took in the sights and scents of the place the harder it became.

He eventually stopped by the tree he'd been sitting in the night Sesshoumaru had come to the village looking for Rin, and had found him grieving instead. Where would he be right now if Sesshoumaru had never arrived? In the village, or somewhere else? Maybe it would have been the push he'd needed to join Sango and Miroku in the village near Sango's old compound. Where he'd have spent his time feeling ancient and jealous, distancing himself from the humans he knew were simply going to get old and die on him. Who knew exactly where he might have ended up without Sesshoumaru?

"Anywhere," he murmured, reaching out to touch the splintered gash in the trunk of the tree, where a certain youkai lord's fist had punched through to scare him off his branch. The tree hadn't died in the meantime, but the wound in it was still horrendously obvious. Some memory of a turning point in his life, he thought with a small huff of laughter. But he'd take what he could get.

He lingered there a while, but eventually his path took him to the shrine. He usually avoided it there, but there was still meaning in the place and he had someone to visit there. So he ducked under the arch and entered the darkened shrine, trying not to sneeze at the lingering incense in the air. He stopped when he reached the small altar, his eye on the simple, but well-made clay urn that held Kaede's ashes. She'd been cremated like her sister.

He still remembered the day he'd been sealed; when he'd been dodging the attacks of the villagers, clawing through their nets and avoiding their spears. They'd been scared of him back then, and he'd laughed at it because he'd thought he'd soon be one of them. Then he'd busted through the roof and stolen the shikon no tama, and the woman he'd stolen it for had stuck him through the heart with a sacred arrow. To think of what might have happened if Naraku had never intervened. . .he'd probably be dead by now. Or just really fucking old. Would he have had kids? Probably, but he couldn't see Kikyou as a mother, nor himself as a father. It was too surreal; the whole idea of it rankled. To have missed out on so much by discarding his heritage to try and be something he wasn't, to live in a world he'd only ever have one foot in. . .somehow, guiltily, he felt relieved something had stopped him – even though that thing had been Onigumo, with his covetous human heart and his deal with the youkai hoard.

"Well you look like you're thinking some deep thoughts," a soft voice said behind him. Inuyasha didn't turn to greet Sango as she walked up to stand beside him, a small candle in her hands. She set it down beside the ashes and said a small prayer, before giving him a rueful smile. "There was no more incense to light here, I think the villagers used it all already. I hope the light doesn't bother her too much."

Inuyasha hadn't brought anything with him to leave as an offering. He didn't much get all the fuss people made about graves – he hadn't visited his mother's in at least a year. He'd marked it with a stone and left flowers when he passed by, but it was more to make himself feel better than anything. All this incense in the air, the candles, the ashes. . .it didn't suit him.

"If I manage to croak before you do, just bury me and walk away," he said suddenly. "None of this shit. Just plant me and go." He felt Sango's eyes on him, watching him with quiet reserve. She didn't have the gravity that Miroku could sometimes pull out, but there was something in her brown eyes that hit him in the loneliest corner of his chest sometimes.

"My whole family is dead," she replied evenly. "Kagome-chan, who I loved like a sister, is back in her own time. Now Kaede-sama is gone too. Inuyasha, if you should die before me I will drug your brother, steal his sword and resurrect you myself." At his look of surprise she added, "Provided he isn't already trying to do the same thing."

Inuyasha turned back to the shrine offerings. "Miroku told you," he said flatly.

"Some," she agreed, giving him a sidelong glance. "I won't ask any probing questions, Inuyasha. As long as you were genuinely happy, I honestly wouldn't mind if you were taking up with Jaken."

Inuyasha blanched. "You're a sick bitch," he swore, shuddering. Sango laughed.

"At the risk of sounding like an overprotective mother hen, I hope you know I still have a variety of youkai poisons and tranquilisers at my disposal. Remind him of that if he gets out of hand." Smiling at his unnerved stare, she linked her arm through his and squeezed it against her side. "If Shippou were here instead of doing his kitsune training, I'm sure he'd offer his unique services as well."

Inuyasha snorted softly, but the corner of his mouth unwillingly kicked up in a smile. "Like I'd need any of you," he replied, rolling his eyes. "I kick more ass than all of you combined, and everyone knows it. But. . .yeah. Thanks. I guess."

"You're so gracious," she said wryly, giving his arm one more squeeze before letting him go. "I did want to discuss one thing with you though. It's about the place Kaede-sama left in the village. They need a priestess, Inuyasha."

"Yeah, I figured as much. Have they got anyone in mind already?"

Sango nodded uncertainly. "Well, yes. In a manner of speaking. You see, Hiroshi-san's message wasn't only to inform us that Kaede had passed away. It was also an invitation to Miroku."

Inuyasha's eyes widened. "He wants Miroku to take up Kaede's role permanently? Can he even do that?"

"Yes, it was decided upon the same day they determined who would be their headman. But we haven't accepted the invitation yet. We decided we would talk to you first, since it would mean we would live here permanently," she said earnestly. She was wringing her hands anxiously as she spoke. "I needed to finish up things with my family's taijiya compound, which was why we originally stayed in the village near it. But the payment they're offering Miroku for his services here should mean the baby will be well provided for when the time comes, and—"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Inuyasha interjected, waving his palms at her in a bracing motion as her eyes glossed with tears. "Shit, Sango, you don't need my permission! Just—don't cry or anything, fuck. Why would you think I wouldn't want you both here?"

"I don't know," she said, gulping. "You never visited us after we left. It wasn't a stretch to think you didn't want to see us much, since we would remind you of Kagome-chan."

He flinched guiltily, crestfallen as his friend's eyes filled again. He was sure it was just some kind of emotional pregnant woman thing, but her words were right on the mark. And that hurt.

"I guess it was, at first," he confessed, not meeting her eyes. "But not the whole time. It's been almost a year now since Ka—since she left, and I'm okay now. More than okay. I guess I just got caught up with training Rin and helping the village, and then with Sesshoumaru. . .shit, I'm sorry. I'm kind of dumb sometimes. You guys are the only real friends I have."

Sango started outright sobbing after that, her eyes surprised and mouth smiling. Inuyasha had no fucking idea what to do. Was she happy? Sad? Freaked out? What the fuck

A little terrified, he hesitantly opened his arms to her, and watched as she stepped straight into them and proceeded to squeeze his lungs up out of his mouth with the force of her hug. But then, the way she'd lugged Hiraikotsu around with her most of her life, she would have arms of steel inside those kimono sleeves. Inuyasha just tried to breathe and patted her back awkwardly, feeling out of place. Affection he was okay with, but doling it out while people cried all over him was difficult. Plus Sango was a girl, and as hard as she was hugging him. . .well, he was now well acquainted with her chest and her rounded abdomen. He felt like anywhere he put his hands might be wrong.

"You're so awkward," she sniffled as she drew away, smiling. "It's adorable. Thank you, Inuyasha. I'll go tell Miroku the good news – oh, are you still angry with him?" Patting her cheeks with the sleeve of her kimono, she wiped her eyes and straightened his clothes for him in a worryingly motherly fashion. Inuyasha just shook his head.

"Nah, we're good. Are you two staying in Kaede's old place?" That would be a bit weird for them, but it was the best place for the villagers to go for any holy advice and help.

"Yes. Are you coming for dinner?" she asked suddenly, brightening. "I've invented a new recipe for my stew. More meat than the lunch stew Hina-san made." Sango voice dropped to a whisper. "She's lovely and everything, but Hiroshi-san isn't going to marry her for her cooking, if you know what I mean."

Smothering a bitchy snigger, Inuyasha pretended to think about it. "Shit, I dunno, stew twice in one day. . .can you beat Rin's rabbit stew? Because damn. Just, damn."

Sango's smile was brilliant. "Let's find out."

Letting her grab his wrist and pull him out of the shrine, he felt a real smile tug at his lips and decided that the twelve days left weren't going to drag at all – not when he had his friends around. He'd try to make up for the past, and remind both them and himself that there were some things distance just couldn't mess with, and their friendship was definitely one of them.

Then, when Sesshoumaru returned, he would tell him everything and they could figure things out from there.

It was a good thought.


"I knew you'd be back to finish the job, yes I did. The perfect son; a perfect killer hoping for a perfect corpse."

The old vassal's voice dripped with scorn and amusement by turns, drifting down to Sesshoumaru as he calmly ascended the stairs to the dais of his mother's abandoned castle.

Almost abandoned. Inotoki was sprawled on his belly at the top of the stairs, chin on his paws. Still in his unsealed form, his large shaggy bulk was a quietly menacing silhouette under the fiery orange sunset. A guard dog with nothing left to guard.

It had only taken two days to locate the inuyoukai once he'd returned to the territory. He'd been deliberately slow, methodical and careful before stepping back over that threshold, which had burned the soil black where the magic had once shone bright. But there was no trap for him waiting there – nothing at all, really. There was simply Inotoki resting at the summit of a long trail of marble stairs, like a tired sacrifice waiting to have its throat slit.

"Predictable whelp," Inotoki goaded. "Where's your pet hanyou? Or did he tire of you already? Loves humans, that one. Loves them more than us youkai, yes he does. Probably at his village with his humans, covering himself in their scent."

Sesshoumaru's expression hardened, his eyes turning lethally cold. But he had expected this, too. His mother had made no secret of her surveillance of them both, using her magic to spy on the world outside her prison. The fool dog would know just as much.

Step, step, step. His booted heels made little noise as he ascended the stairs one after the other. There was no need to hurry, this time. He could take his leisure here. The beast was immortal, but it was ungainly and easily beaten. Its only merit was it could rise again and again from the blood and ashes of its defeat.

"Your Lord father loved him best, you know. Hated you, with your machinations and lust for power, your greed. Disappointing firstborn, he'd say. Should have left you behind the barrier, he said. Blight on the humans is all you'd amount to. Now, Inuyasha. . .he'd defend them to the very end and you know it, yes you do." Cackling hoarsely, throaty tones vibrant with devious delight, Inotoki raised his head and pinned him with an ancient golden stare. "What's he going to choose then, hmm, what's he going to choose when they want him for a proper guardian? When they've been building him a home in their folds? Not you, perfect son. You'd just remind him of what he'd rather forget – all that nasty youkai blood."

Step, step, step. Making no reply, Sesshoumaru continued up the stairs, ever closer to his prey. Inotoki was already in his death throes, and he didn't even realise it.

Getting up on stiff legs, Inotoki shook himself off and grinned with far too many teeth. "Sinful instinct and lust and all those dark deeds he can't remember, when the claws grow long and the eyes turn red. Savagery has no place in civilisation, and you can't stop walking for fear your shadow will speak to you – speak to you of all the filth in your dark black ragged soul. What's a bright-bright hanyou hero to want with the worthless remains of the unwanted oldest son? Who stands tall, of the two of you? We know. Who breaks upon the lightest truth? Not him, young master. Not him."

Reaching the top of the stairs, Sesshoumaru slowly wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword, his eyes blank and grim as he watched Inotoki lift his head and bare his throat, his demented grin all lolling tongue and razor teeth. Happy to die. Happy to end it, it seemed, but not before firing a few sharp barbs before he went. No matter. Lifting the sword, Sesshoumaru prepared to complete his self-sworn duty. One strong stroke of Toukijin to break the amulet, and then another if the dog's head didn't blow apart at the first.

"Last words, vassal," Sesshoumaru said, speaking at last. "Make them count."

Letting out a high-pitched yip of laughter, purely animal, Inotoki lifted his muzzle and his eyes to fix the youkai lord with a gaze of dancing gold glee.

"You left your heart wide open in a human village, yes you did. I know just where to strike, and you are too far away to stop me."

Sesshoumaru's vision ribboned out into crimson strands of rage, and he snarled with fangs sharp enough to outstrip the most dangerous of predators. Toukijin sliced down in a movement to fast to see—

—and struck sparks off the stone as it burst through nothing more than a ball of youki-based lightning where Inotoki had stood.

Gone.

Sesshoumaru stared at the vacant spot with vision that wavered with shock, his hands shaking with directionless adrenaline.

Heart wide open in a human village. . .

Sesshoumaru went cold.

Inuyasha.

Inotoki was going to kill Inuyasha.



Chapter 26: End

He would never make it in time. Sesshoumaru knew this.

Inuyasha was fiercely powerful; he had the strength of a daiyoukai and the selfish, dogged tenacity of one who had everything to gain and nothing to lose. He needed no protection. Sesshoumaru knew this, too.

Still he took to the sky in a blazing sphere of youki, forcing every ounce of his energy into pure speed. Because Inotoki was cunning like only the lowest cowards could be, and Inuyasha was too forthright for his own good. Inotoki would use every weakness and take every chance if it meant he could deal Sesshoumaru a devastating blow. The mere thought of it sent vicious rage seething through his veins, reddening his eyes and sharpening his fangs.

That he would strike at Inuyasha to wound him – that he should even know he could do that—

But there was fear, too; in the deepest corners of his mind. Fear that if something were to happen. . .there would be no making it right again. Not for Inuyasha, and certainly not for himself. He had deceived the hanyou and now Inuyasha had no way of knowing what was heading his way. Perhaps, should he survive, Inuyasha would not forgive him the deception.

But if Inuyasha survived, if he won the battle Sesshoumaru would take the burden of his fury and bear the weight gladly.

If Inuyasha didn't

But he would.

Doubtless, he would.

Flaring his youki in a brilliant supernova of light, the youkai lord flew faster.



Inuyasha was dozing in the shade of a tree when the howling started.

Long, deep, chorded howls that resonated in his bones like an eerie call to arms. Skin prickling instinctively, his eyes snapped open and were momentarily blinded by the bloody sunset engulfing the village. He'd been sleeping too long—the howling was too close—

Whipping his head around Inuyasha saw Miroku striding over to him, grim alarm written across his face. His hand was pressed to his chest, inches from the ofuda he kept tucked in the fold of his robes.

"Sounds like trouble," Inuyasha said flatly, adjusting Tetsusaiga at his hip. "Ring the bell and get everyone inside the shrine. Sango too. I can handle this."

Miroku blinked, his hand falling to his side. "Be sensible. This thing is obviously not afraid to be noticed. That's the howl of an incredibly confident foe, Inuyasha. I'm coming with you."

The hell he was. "You're not the travelling monk anymore," Inuyasha said fiercely. "You protect the people that live here now. So get them to safety. That howling is just the crazy asshole calling me out for a talk." And shit, did Inotoki like the sound of his own voice.

"Talk? Inuyasha—"

"Just go already!" he snapped, heading for the field on the far side of the village. Judging by the direction of the noise, he was in the lower field where the ground was slick and muddy. Perfect. Picking up speed, Inuyasha raced through the streets, leaping between houses where needed, hand steady on the hilt of his sword. As if anything was going to touch his village. If Inotoki was there it wasn't for anything good, but at least he could count on the focus of his interest being himself alone. The humans wouldn't need to get involved.

That was what he thought, until he arrived at the field and found Suki sprawled over the transformed youkai's shaggy white back. Larger than Kirara with canine teeth longer than Inuyasha's hand, Inotoki was a feral beast of war – and there was a human girl sitting on him, heedless of the danger.

"Louder!" she was giggling, tugging at his fur. Her gaze switched to Inuyasha and lit up. "Inuyasha look what I found! Isn't he the best?"
Inuyasha felt dizzy. Oh god. Not again. Slowly he advanced on the pair, extending his arm out from his side as he heard rapid footsteps behind him. "Stay back, Hina."

"Suki you come down this instant!" she called from behind his shoulder, her voice shrill with fear. "That's dangerous!"

Inotoki just turned his head and grinned, pink tongue lolling out of his mouth. About his neck, the amulet of the moon clan glowed like burnished gold in the dying sunset.

"Suki," Inuyasha said in controlled tones, "get off the youkai." The girl's face fell slightly, her muddy green eyes darkening with disappointment.

"But he's really tame!" she insisted. "Like that dragon that took us home when I got taken. Hina, tell him it's okay." On cue, Inotoki whined deep in his throat like any obedient dog begging for food. But the flat feral gaze he levelled at Inuyasha was pure knowing delight. Because he had a nice little human shield on his back now, and damned if he didn't know Inuyasha couldn't attack now.

"Real clever, you sonofabitch," the hanyou seethed, baring his fangs in a snarl. "Does Tsukiko know you're out here?"

Throwing his head back, Inotoki laughed, and the sound rumbled in animalistic chords. Suki gasped, unease dawning on her young face. Because not all youkai were friends, and she should have learned that already. Goddamnit, Inuyasha thought helplessly. One twist of his neck and he'd have her in his jaws, and there was no meidou stone, no Tenseiga to bring her back if that happened.

"Come, come, what use has my lady for eyes and ears when she walks the land? None for me, no she doesn't," Inotoki said in amusement, but there was something dark crawling behind his gaze now. "Vassal without a mistress is not much of a vassal, and even less when a dog with the nature of a snake is hunting me to ground." Turning in a jaunty circle with no mind to the pale-faced child gripping his fur, the inuyoukai servant tipped his head and gazed at him with delighted golden eyes. "Where is the young master now, hanyou? I can tell you where. The old land's magic caught fire and burned to ash his cage, but he went back quite readily, yes he did."

Inuyasha was too busy assessing how best to get Suki off his back for the words to sink in immediately. The insane mongrel talked in riddles and knots when he was in that form, like his mind was struggling with feral instinct and cunning intelligence. But it didn't take long for Inuyasha to piece it together, and he didn't like what he was hearing.

"Sesshoumaru went after you," he said slowly. Then he frowned. "Bullshit. He'd have killed you if he had."

"Oho, such faith!" he crowed, his muzzle twitching in contempt. " If only he had the same in you, halfbreed. But all those heartstrings knotted about you are in pretty little bows, and the honoured son cuts loose what drags him down. He left his burden here to come find the one who touched his girl, forgetting old Inotoki walks like lightning across distance untold." Giving Inuyasha a long, warning look, the inuyoukai abruptly sat down on his haunches, allowing Suki to slip backward to freedom. Hitting the muddy grass on her rump, the wide-eyed girl ran straight for Inuyasha, who caught her and quickly passed her shaking form to Hina. He didn't have time to lecture her; he just wanted them away.

"Find Miroku," he said in a low voice. "Get somewhere safe and don't come out until I say. Go." Nodding, Hina turned and hurried back toward the village, feet spraying mud in her wake. With them gone, Inuyasha turned back to Inotoki and drew Tetsusaiga.

"No good deed goes unpunished," the vassal quipped, his eyes on the fang. "Then again, if you're anything like—" The youkai vanished in a crack of lightning just in time to avoid the ground-eating claws of a kaze no kizu, reappearing to the far left of the attack. "Impatient cur! I was still talking!"

"I get it, you hate Sesshoumaru," Inuyasha ground out. "Fine. But I'm not gonna stand here and listen to you spin your bullshit all day. You're gonna tell me why you're here, before I skin you alive." There was also a not entirely insignificant part of him that wanted to punch Sesshoumaru in the face for daring to leave him out of his big revenge adventure. Now Inotoki was treating them like some kind of package deal – was he trying to punish Inuyasha for Sesshoumaru coming after him? What kind of sense did that make in his bugshit little mind?

"Why I'm here. . .why am I here?" Inotoki asked himself, tilting his head in mock-thought. "I'm here because with my lady's dismissal I am not tied to her will and now I can finally take her beloved son to pieces. Starting with his living, breathing heart." Grinning again, Inotoki's entire body flashed bright with youki-fuelled lightning, crawling over him like a net. "It's nothing personal, Inuyasha. You were simply unfortunate enough to have caught the young master's eye. She'd never take this revenge herself, but five hundred years overdue it is, yes it is. You should have left him inside the barrier, halfbreed."

Inuyasha switched his grip on the Tetsusaiga just as Inotoki flashed out of sight. Instinctively the hanyou threw himself forward and to the right, knowing he was teleporting forward to attack. Shit, this was going to be fucking hard, he thought furiously. Insane speed was one thing, but teleporting was just bullshit. He'd never be able to protect his blind spot every time. Spinning hard, he turned back to see the youkai snap its teeth around empty air. Hah.

"You're a piece of shit, Inotoki – you want Sesshoumaru but you can't beat him, so you think you'll come after me?" he sneered, barking a short laugh as the dog's head swung around to glare at him. "I hate to break it to you, but I'm the only one who ever beat that bastard's ass into the ground! Kongousouha!" Shooting off a round of razor-sharp diamond spears, he used the distraction to gain more ground, leaping high over the spears and slashing down toward Inotoki. But the cunning bastard just vanished with a crack of lightning, leaving him striking into soft muddy earth. Inuyasha knew he'd have to work something out soon, before he tired himself out chasing phantoms.

"I could have Sesshoumaru-dono if I wanted him dead," the youkai said gutturally, grinning with too many sharp teeth. "Your death will only be the start of that. I am the justice the Lady of the West will never take. You broke the barrier – he got off lightly. I won't have it."

And the battle continued. Again and again Inuyasha came within an inch of slicing him open, but every time he vanished before he could try. A particularly close call tore out a hank of his hair as sharp teeth missed his face, leaving hot blood running down the side of his neck. Somehow, he'd gotten it into his head that Sesshoumaru had to be punished for Tsukiko's sake, and hurting him meant killing Inuyasha. It made no sense to the hanyou, but he didn't have time to dwell on it as he fought off attack after attack when Inotoki abruptly went on the offensive.

Way
on the offensive.

Slashing claws and snapping teeth appeared on all sides of him in a flurry of lightning-fast brutality, and hot fetid breath filled his nose. Inuyasha could keep going for a while longer, a lot longer, but he needed a goddamn strategy. He needed—

"Hiraikotsu!"

The rhythmic whistle of wind was all the warning Inuyasha needed to throw himself belly-down in the mud, covering his head as Sango's boomerang met its target with a wet crunch and kept right on going. Blood rained down on him, but it was the sharp cry of pain the hanyou was really waiting for. Gritting his teeth, he didn't bother getting up; instead he swung his sword hard and flat in front of him, arc-like, shearing through the insane dog's front legs in a spray of bone and blood, and lightning-dusted fur suffocated him as the youkai toppled forward.

Inotoki's roar of agony and rage was deafening, but Inuyasha's victory was short-lived. He had a bare instant to glance up and see Miroku's ofuda snapping through the air at the youkai, and then monstrous jaws closed hard over his shoulder, grinding deep into bone. The pain was intense, but adrenaline was keeping the worst of it at bay. He could still move, and goddamn it, he was going to. Because while ever Inotoki had him, he wasn't going to teleport.

Strike while the mouth is full.
It was Rin's old trick with the snake, but he hadn't thought he'd ever use it himself. Snarling as he felt his ribcage begin to collapse, vision blurring out with shock, Inuyasha swung Tetsusaiga again, his grip slick with blood. This time, he dragged the tip of the sword up to the old vassal's neck, bracing it with his other hand. Now he'd show the youkai just who he was dealing with.

Then Inotoki snapped his jaws shut.

There was a wet crunch of cartilage and bone breaking in his chest, and he stared wide-eyed up into the sky for a single, seemingly endless moment.

It didn't hurt this time, he thought faintly, surprised. Everything was numb. He could barely feel the sword in his hand—

Tetsusaiga.

Sorry old friend. . .but just this one time. . .

His youki flaring higher in a triumphant haze, Inotoki laughed around his crushed chest, and he knew what those ancient eyes were saying.

You're too late.

Inuyasha spat a mouthful of blood in his eyes.

"See you in hell," he rasped, dragging one last gurgling breath into collapsing lungs. It was exhaled as one single word, spoken like a malediction.

"Bakuryuuha."

Inuyasha's vision whited out as vicious stabbing serpents of youki devoured each other and ignited, and Inotoki's entire body exploded into shards of bone and shining, star-dusted stone. A trailing scream of denial touched his ears, and—

Inuyasha never felt the fang that pierced his heart.

Then he was over.

Everything was. . .over.



Sango made it halfway to Inuyasha before her knees gave way and she landed hard in the mud, Hiraikotsu by her side. Sour saliva rushed into her mouth, all the warning she had before she threw up amidst pieces of the youkai that had killed him.

And it had; Miroku was standing over Inuyasha with blank shocked eyes and an expression still too incredulous to be anguished. Because it just wasn't possible.

"He's. . ." Miroku started, his throat bobbing as he swallowed thickly. Sango struggled to her feet, leaving her weapon behind, staggering over toward him. "No, Sango, dearest—you don't have to—"

"I won't look away," she said brokenly, wiping her mouth with a muddy hand. "I can't look away from him. I tried, Miroku, I tried to help but I'm—I'm out of practice and my balance was off, I missed the heart, I-I-I—" Gasping for air, each breath turned hot in her chest and transformed into panicked sobs as she got close enough to see Inuyasha's lifeless staring eyes.

"He's gone. He's gone. Oh god." Falling to his side, she heard Miroku's protests from a great distance as she reached out, closing her friend's brilliant golden eyes. He was warm; still warm and it was almost like he wasn't—

"Where the hell is that useless youkai when we need him?" Sango screamed, lifting wild brown eyes that spilled tears like rain. "You find me Sesshoumaru—he's not staying like this, Miroku. I won't let it, I won't do this again, I won't—" Her throat closed up after that, aching and swollen with too many pleas and prayers and Inuyasha was dead, he was really dead and she'd missed the youkai's heart when she threw.

I can't bury you. Not you too.

Crumpling in on herself, Sango touched her forehead to a blood-soaked crimson sleeve and wailed.

"Wait." Miroku's voice was hoarse, but there was a new note in it. Something taut and sharp and maybe. "Sango, Tetsusaiga hasn't transformed back."

"What?" she said thickly, her breath coming in short, hitching gasps. "Tetsusaiga?" Wiping her eyes, she looked to the sword. It was true; clasped loosely in one pale hand was the fang, still faintly crackling with the aftershocks of the bakuryuuha.

Miroku's blue eyes were wide. "The sword has no master. How is it still transformed?"

"Look!" Sango cried, pointing to the blade. "Right there. What's stuck in it?" Embedded in the sword were tiny shards of black stone, but they were strange. . .the more she stared at them the more they seemed to look like the night sky was reflected in each jagged facet. Even stranger, it looked like Tetsusaiga was absorbing them, as one by one they vanished into the blade.

Tetsusaiga; the youkai sword that takes the power of each powerful foe it defeats.

What had that youkai been?

Something crunched sharply, scaring Sango's attention back to Inuyasha's body. Her stomach lurched again as she took in the state of his body. His chest had been broken inward on one side, leaving it misshapen and crushed. His heart would have been smashed under the pressure of the ribs, she thought numbly. It would have been fast, but—

Another crunch, this time wet and slick-sounding. The sound was coming from Inuyasha's body. Aghast, she scrambled backward into Miroku's arms, breathing hard. Trembling there together, they watched the unthinkable happen to their hanyou friend's body.

It was like time was rewinding in the most gruesome and horrifying way. One by one Inuyasha's ribs punched upward, filling out into a proper chest cavity instead of the flat mass of gore it had been. Then a muffled crack of cartilage and bone, and the sucking pull of his lungs as the blood ran out of them. Sango had to look away for a moment as his spinal column reattached, and he twitched and jerked like a puppet on invisible strings. It was terrifying and hideous, but with each backward step from death his body took, Sango was seeing Inuyasha's skin flush with colour.

With life.

"Is he. . .he's coming back, isn't he?" Miroku said faintly, shaking almost as hard as Sango was. "The sword is doing it somehow."

Silently she nodded and then, unable to help herself she reached forward and pulled open Inuyasha's shredded clothes, gasping at what she found. Whole. He was whole. No punctured skin beneath the slick blood that painted his chest, just a broken off canine fang resting above his heart. Sango knocked it away with more force than she needed, placing her palm against his chest in its place. Searching for the sign she needed.

That was about the time Sesshoumaru blasted down into the field in a crackling storm of power, shaking the ground itself with his force.

Eyes pure crimson and fangs bared, with his nostrils flaring at the heavy scent of blood and viscera that painted the grass in a dark star of death, Sesshoumaru looked nothing like the expressionless youkai lord that had always sneered down at them. To Sango, he looked like he was ready to tear the world itself apart with his claws and teeth alone. Until his eyes focussed on Inuyasha, his keen ears probably picking up exactly what Sango could feel beneath her palm.

Nothing.

Inuyasha's heart hadn't started.

"Sesshoumaru-sama," Miroku said shakily. He swallowed as if to say more, but the youkai lord didn't even spare him a glance. No, Sesshoumaru only had eyes for the blood-soaked body of Inuyasha. With each step forward his fangs shrank back into his mouth, his eyes clearing into too-bright gold. They were same colour as Inuyasha's, she noticed for the first time. Different pupils, and narrower, but the same colour. Jaw stiff and fists clenched far too hard by his sides, Sesshoumaru walked until he was standing over his brother, staring right down into his blood-spattered face.

From her angle Sango saw the sickened jerk of Sesshoumaru's mouth, witnessed the stunned dilation of his pupils. Sango realised in that moment that Inuyasha's eyes had partially opened again of their own accord, and the youkai lord was effectively staring into Inuyasha's lifeless gaze. Breath hitching, she reached out to close them again, but the short snarl Sesshoumaru issued stopped her in her tracks.

"Don't touch him," he said softly. Slowly, his hand lifted to his waist, where Tenseiga was sheathed.

Hope leapt in Sango for one joyously painful moment, until Inuyasha's body violently twitched once, twice—and sat up in time to spray Sesshoumaru's feet with blood and bile as Inuyasha coughed up everything that had been trapped in his lungs and throat.

Sesshoumaru went white, taking a step back and staring down at his feet and then back to Inuyasha, who was still heaving and shaking. Out of sheer panicked instinct Miroku threw an exorcism ofuda at the gasping hanyou. It hit his cheek and fluttered harmlessly to the ground.

Everyone looked at it, including Inuyasha, who had enough presence of mind to frown at the monk.

"Seriously?" he rasped. Miroku actually flushed.

"I apologise."

In the meantime Sesshoumaru had knelt down by Inuyasha's side, now seemingly uncaring of the gore he'd been sprayed with. His usually cold gaze was fractured and deep with something Sango couldn't reconcile with any single emotion. All she knew was that it was an expression she never thought she'd see on the great and noble Sesshoumaru's face. Then it was carefully veiled, the youkai lord simply sighing deeply and pinning the hanyou with an unreadable look.

"Destroying me, indeed. Have a care for my blood pressure, Inuyasha."

Inuyasha just gave him a bloody-mouthed grin and flicked a piece of eyeball jelly off his shoulder. "Thirteen days my ass. You lasted two. Lame, Sesshoumaru. You're so needy."

Exchanging an alarmed glance with Miroku, Sango glanced discreetly over her shoulder for where she'd left Hiraikotsu. Just in case.
But there was no need, as before Sango's fascinated eyes Sesshoumaru shook his head at Inuyasha in quiet disbelief and plucked Tetsusaiga from his grip, sliding it back into its sheath and hauling the hanyou to his feet in one strong movement.

"Come along, you foolish hanyou," he murmured. "Your stench is making me dizzy." Holding the sagging and boneless mass that was Inuyasha against his side, he flicked them both a quick assessing glance.

"When we return, you will explain to me in detail what went on here."

Sango shrugged. "Well actually we're not really—"

Sesshoumaru's eyes slitted.

"In detail, yes," Miroku said hastily, wrapping an arm around Sango's shoulders. "Terrible, terrible detail. As soon as you return. But might I ask where you're taking. . .all right, never mind." Smiling ruefully, Miroku watched them vanish together into a glowing ball of youki and shoot straight into the sky. At his side, Sango sighed and leaned against him.

"He still hates us, doesn't he?"

"I think so," Miroku said cheerfully, watching the light of them streak through the sky like a comet. "But did you see his face when he thought Inuyasha was dead?"

Sango made a soft sound. "Of course I did. Did you notice—"

"That he touched Tetsusaiga? Mm. Curious, isn't it?" Miroku mused, then sighed. "Whatever Inuyasha's gotten himself into, he obviously isn't in it alone. What I'm more interested in is how you managed to let fly with Hiraikotsu so easily. 'Bringing it with me for sentimental reasons', you said. Lies!"

Sango's eyes lowered demurely. "I'm only a few months along, you know. And it is a long-range weapon. I was perfectly capable of wielding it."

Miroku sighed. "You're going to slap me if I argue this subject, I just know it." He squeezed her shoulder. "Let's get back to the village then, before the population suffocates in their own incense. Did you remember to open a window when you locked them in the shrine?"

She blinked. "Actually, no. But I'm sure they're fine. Mostly." Her brow furrowed. "Miroku, why did Inuyasha heal like that? Of all his injuries he's had in the past, nothing like that has ever happened before. Was it those strange youki crystals the sword absorbed?"

The monk shrugged, getting to his feet. Taking Sango's hand they both stood, slipping a little in the gore-slick mud.

"I can only guess," he sighed. "Still, I can't tell you how relieved I am that Inuyasha's alive. All the same though. . ."

"What?" Sango asked curiously. Miroku looked away.

"I really wanted his new hut."



Something was wrong with Sesshoumaru.

Despite feeling depleted of strength and more than a little off-balance Inuyasha couldn't shake the quiet whisper that something was definitely wrong. Mostly because Sesshoumaru had barely said a word since they blazed off out of the field, leaving Sango and Miroku staring after them in wonder. Inuyasha had at least expected some kind of good-natured slur on his fighting skills, or something involving a bad-tempered inventory of any wounds he had. Something other than the way he'd been summarily dumped on his ass the moment they landed and left to peel off his blood-stiffened clothes, trying to not stagger as the world wobbled at the edges.

Sesshoumaru had taken him to a natural hot spring buried in the wilderness somewhere – it was dense and unfamiliar, wherever it was. To wash off the blood and guts that saturated him, Inuyasha supposed. He had no way to tell how far they'd travelled in ball-mode but it was the last thing on his mind. Instead, he was preoccupied with examining the unblemished skin on his chest where he knew, he knew that Inotoki had bitten his way through and broken his entire chest almost in half. He'd been shattered. You didn't just miraculously heal from that.

Flaking off the dried blood on his chest, he stared at his dirty claws as a horrible thought jumped to the forefront of his mind.

Had he actually died? Had Sesshoumaru used Tenseiga – was that why he was acting so weird? Hell, he wouldn't even look at him properly anymore; turned away to stare into the dense forest that surrounded the steaming water, shoulders rigid and spine stiff. Pushing aside the dull pang of hurt the sight elicited Inuyasha shucked his reeking clothes and dropped them on the smooth rocks, sliding into the hot water with a hiss. Fuck, it was hot – too hot for humans to bathe in, that was for sure. But after the initial burning sting of it Inuyasha was able to relax enough to move through the water, feeling the muck painting his neck and face start to dissolve away with the motion.

"Can you manage yourself?" The question was clipped and bloodless, but Sesshoumaru had turned toward him slightly, a single golden eye visible as he watched Inuyasha. Threading his fingers through his hair to sift out some bone shards, Inuyasha just nodded.

"I can manage," he replied, mouth turning down at the edges. "Why, you got somewhere else to be? Wait, wait, don't tell me – you actually do have to go collect Jaken this time. Hey, don't let me stop you."

Sesshoumaru flinched. "That's—"

"What?" Inuyasha challenged, glaring up at him unhappily. "You fucking lied to me for no goddamn reason. Did you think I was gonna care if you wanted to go kill that bastard dog? That I was gonna stop you? I wouldn't have given a shit, Sesshoumaru. You can handle yourself. But if I'd known—if I'd expected him I could have been prepared. If you'd told me he could teleport in battle—"

"I know." Whipping around, Sesshoumaru stalked to the edge of the pool and knelt down, his eyes absolutely sick with guilt. "I made a mistake in not telling you of my intentions. All the more because Inotoki only struck at you to punish me, Inuyasha. What happened to you was my fault."

Well that explained his weirdness, Inuyasha thought unfavourably. Sesshoumaru probably wasn't used to feeling bad about anything he did. Hell, that he was even admitting he fucked up was probably costing him big time. Which meant, really, that what had taken place had hit him pretty hard. His downturned face was wracked with barely-restrained emotion; his eyes dark with it. Chewing his lip in thought, Inuyasha floated over to him and stared up into his face.

"Say you're sorry," he ordered, then paused. "No, say 'I'm really fucking sorry, Inuyasha. I totally suck balls.' Okay?"

Sesshoumaru's expression tightened. "This isn't a joke—"

"What, you're not sorry?"

"Of course I'm sorry!" Sesshoumaru snarled helplessly, fangs glinting and eyes tormented. "If I hadn't lied to you—"

"Boring," Inuyasha yawned, and pulled the youkai lord headfirst into the water, swords and all. When Sesshoumaru emerged spluttering in shock, hair plastered over his face and eyes wild, Inuyasha just smiled beatifically.

"I forgive you."

Sesshoumaru stared at him with an expression the hanyou could only call constipated. Torn between dramatic guilt and black murder, he looked like he was about to burst a vein somewhere important. Inuyasha splashed him and swam backwards in the water, resuming his bath. He tried not to grin as Sesshoumaru slowly pulled his swords out of the water and put them on the rocks, followed by his boots and clothes. Well now, that was better, he thought cheerfully.

"Do I have intestines in my hair? I think I can feel something squishy," Inuyasha said, pulling a face. "The furry little fucker popped like you wouldn't believe. Guts everywhere." He felt Sesshoumaru grudgingly glide closer to him to inspect his hair, but the moment he came within range Inuyasha grabbed one striped wrist and reeled him in close enough to touch. This close, he could see a surprised kind of vulnerability in his face at the contact. Like he wanted it, but couldn't stand it at the same time. Reaching up, Inuyasha pushed aside the wet curtain of his hair to lean in and press his mouth against the notch of skin just below one pointed ear. Exhaling roughly, Sesshoumaru leaned into the contact almost helplessly.

"You were dead," he whispered. "Dead because he knew you were important – so important to me. You did not see yourself, Inuyasha. But I did. I looked into your empty eyes and I knew it was my fault." The pain in his voice was almost too hard to hear – too alien coming from his mouth. Because Inuyasha had known he mattered to Sesshoumaru, but he'd never contemplated just how much it would hurt his brother to lose him. It was enough for him to slip his arms around the curve of his ribs and grip him tight.

"It sounds bad, but I'm kind of glad he came after me," Inuyasha confessed into the curve of his neck. "If it'd been you. . .hell no. He was so fucking fast, Sesshoumaru. I had no way of keeping up with that. Just a piece of shit youkai dog, but I had no idea where he was going to come at me from. I got saved by a pregnant woman, and then he crushed me anyway." He laughed humourlessly. "Fucking embarrassing. I'm glad you brought me back just so no one has to tell the story of my stupid death to the villagers."

Gentle claws stroked feather-light trails down his back. "I didn't use Tenseiga," Sesshoumaru admitted. "I believe you owe your resurrection to Inotoki's shattered meidou stone."

Inuyasha's heart thudded in alarm. "Meidou?" he repeated, lifting his head to stare at him. "You didn't bring me back? What meidou stone?"

"The one that kept Inotoki immortal," was the patient reply. "It had shattered all over you. I'm assuming the residual energy of the shards healed you—"

"Inotoki was immortal?" Inuyasha interrupted, freaked out. How had he missed that?

Now it was Sesshoumaru's turn to stare.

"Then how did you know to strike at his neck?"

The hanyou shook his head, baffled. "I didn't. It was just the only place I could reach while he had me on the ground."

Sesshoumaru just slowly closed his eyes in disbelief. "Had you struck anywhere else he would not have died. You truly have the luck of fools, Inuyasha."

Inuyasha opened his mouth to protest that, but his words were stopped up by a hard kiss and oh okay that was Sesshoumaru's tongue in his mouth, wasn't it? That he could get on board with. Letting his eyes slip closed and the kiss deepen Inuyasha spent long seconds reacquainting himself with the taste of Sesshoumaru's mouth, the warm wet pressure of it and the feel of his fangs as they nipped at his mouth in quick barely-there darts between kisses, like he wanted more of Inuyasha than a mere kiss could provide. Like he was hungry for him. The thought gained credence as Sesshoumaru pulled him flush against his chest, tongue lapping over his jaw and neck in long, rough strokes.

Tipping his head back, his fingers sliding around the back of Sesshoumaru's neck Inuyasha made an embarrassingly ragged sound as teeth closed over the curve of his collarbone, lips sucking harshly at his skin. It was easy to press himself closer into that desperate exploration – almost instinctive to press every inch of his flesh against the hard lines of Sesshoumaru's body. It took almost nothing to shift into a position that tore a gasp of surprised pleasure from his throat. Sesshoumaru went rigid against him for one long second, eyes open and staring blindly at Inuyasha's throat, before glancing up with a question in his eyes.

"Whoops," Inuyasha said, his cheeks flushing. But even as his eyes darted to the side, his hips rolled against the answering hardness he could feel brushing his thigh. No point hiding it now, he thought as he shuddered against Sesshoumaru, feeling the cool rush of air against his throat as the youkai lord exhaled in a trembling gust at the sensation. Hand sliding down over Inuyasha's hip to his thigh, Sesshoumaru swallowed and jerked the hanyou's legs up around his waist in one decisive movement. Legs clenching instinctively, Inuyasha stared in shock at Sesshoumaru, fangs sunk into his lip in a last-ditch effort not to make a sound that might embarrass him later. God, he could feel him. . .but not enough. He wanted more.

"I can hear your heart beating," Sesshoumaru whispered, his eyes nearly molten gold – reflecting light almost like a feral animal. "So fast and heavy. I want to sink my teeth into you and taste it beating through your skin." Claws raked against the arch of his back, sliding low and running over the muscle of his thighs as Sesshoumaru's tongue returned to lave the throbbing pulse in his throat. Fangs and claws so close to the most fragile expanses of skin, but all Inuyasha could do was press himself closer to them, grip tighter and close his own teeth over the soft lobe of one pointed ear, letting his tongue dart behind it to travel up over its warm salty curve.

"You taste so fucking good," the hanyou breathed into the thoroughly debauched ear, fascinated by the way Sesshoumaru's eyes closed, by the way he rocked forward into the cradle of Inuyasha's hips. Muffling his soft groan in the curve of his shoulder, Inuyasha returned the movement, squeezing harder with his legs, his heels finding purchase in the muscled curve of Sesshoumaru's buttocks. "Touch me."

It was more order than request, but Sesshoumaru took no offence as he slipped his hand between their sliding bodies, wrapping his fingers around Inuyasha's achingly hard length. Tensing at the first firm, exploratory stroke, the hanyou couldn't help the thready sound of want that tore its way out of his throat any more than he could stop the rhythmic buck of his hips into the calloused hand that was working him so carefully. God, just his hand and Inuyasha could already feel heat prickling low in his spine, a tease and a warning all at once.

"C'mon, you—oh, god, you're not gonna make me come all by myself, are you?" Inuyasha forced out, rocking up as Sesshoumaru's strokes became sure and steady, fingers working over every throbbing inch of him. Squeezing, stroking him, Sesshoumaru's gaze was luminous and starving with desire as he watched Inuyasha steadily fall apart beneath his hands. Pressing a slick, biting kiss to the hanyou's panting mouth he seemed wholly unprepared for the ravenous enthusiasm Inuyasha met him halfway with – and even more stunned by the grasping hand that wrapped around the length of him in return, mapping the rigid heat of him and pumping tight and strong even as the hanyou's teeth locked over the curve of his shoulder and bit deeply, a ragged half-stifled moan his only warning as Inuyasha shook himself apart with his release.

Sesshoumaru met each stroke with a rolling thrust of his own, and Inuyasha could feel the tremors wracking him hard. The sounds that escaped him were half-guttural with pleasure and need.

"Yes, that's—" A low, broken cry left the youkai lord, smothered almost immediately by Inuyasha's mouth as he came hard, lips parted and eyes stunned with pleasure. There they both stayed for a long minute, just touching, shifting against each other, stroking hair away and running fingertips over exposed skin. Breathing in each other's scent and exchanging the same quietly wondering glances. Inuyasha wasn't sure if he could move right away, seeing as how he'd been a little off-balance before, but he knew that he couldn't keep clinging to Sesshoumaru all night. He pointedly pushed aside the part of his mind that thought that was a good idea all the same.

"I think my right ass-cheek is about to cramp," he complained half-heartedly, trying to unlock his legs from Sesshoumaru's waist. "Next time it's your legs around me, got it?"

"That's presumptuous of you," the youkai lord murmured a little unsteadily, helping his legs extend out and down to support himself. "Especially after you bit me, you savage."

"You brought it on yourself," Inuyasha replied, then nearly disappeared underneath the water as his legs refused to lock. "Whoa, okay. Little help?" He grabbed Sesshoumaru's arm and used it to propel himself to the edge of the spring, watching enviously as said youkai lord simply pulled himself straight out of the water in one fluid motion, water sluicing off his pale skin as he stood. Pausing to wring a torrent of water out of his hair, Sesshoumaru peered down at him with smug golden eyes and extended his hand in offering.

"Or are you content to dissolve away in the water?" he questioned as Inuyasha hesitated with a contrary scowl. But they both knew he couldn't get out without help. Whatever the meidou stone had done had used his own energy to bring his body back to full health, and he was all but useless. Rolling his eyes, ears pricked in interest, Inuyasha reached up and took the extended hand.

"Show off," he muttered as he was effortlessly hauled up onto dry land, feeling flushed and shaky. The air was shockingly cool on his overheated skin. "Ah, shit. I need to wash my clothes before I even think of putting them back on." He stirred the red material with his foot and grimaced.

"I'd rather not spend hours here waiting for them to dry." Sesshoumaru twisted water out of his own clothes and snapped them out, glowering at the red and white silk like it had personally offended him. "If you hadn't yanked me into the water I could have at least given you something to wear. No matter."

"Yeah maybe, but you'd also still be wearing the clothes," Inuyasha replied with a crafty smirk. "I like my plan better." Picking up Tetsusaiga, he used the sheath to hang his clothes down into the steaming water, where he could actually see the blood disperse in a pink ripple around the fire-rat fur. A few minutes in there would get the worst of it out, he decided, resting the sword across his knees. Sesshoumaru, finished with glaring his clothes into order, came back to his side and sat down next to him with a grumbling growl.

"You hair is a knotted ruin," he said with a frown, gathering it back and starting to twist the water out of it. "Have you no pride in your appearance?"

"Why is everyone always on about my hair? It's just hair. I don't give a shit about it." What he was more interested in was the warmth radiating off Sesshoumaru, who was pressed against him in a long line of bare skin from knee to shoulder as he worked on his hair. "You have some seriously gangly arms. They're a fucking mile long."

"So is the rest of me," Sesshoumaru said indifferently, sorting out the tangles in the ends of Inuyasha's hair. Then he paused, blinking. "Though you don't do too badly."

Inuyasha flushed crimson with indignation. "Did you just make a dick joke?"

"Uncouth mongrel," the youkai lord replied disapprovingly, but his mouth was curving up at one edge. "Such things are beneath me."

Inuyasha's ears twitched. "The hell they are," he muttered, rolling his eyes. He pointedly ignored Sesshoumaru when he kissed his shoulder, flipping the now much neater tail of his hair back where it belonged. Still, he missed the heat of him as Sesshoumaru stood to pull his clothes from the water, wringing them out and flicking them over to join his own. He seemed completely unashamed with his nakedness – not even a little uncomfortable with Inuyasha's curiously roaming eyes. He'd been right – now that he could look properly, Sesshoumaru was all long lean lines of muscle, legs and arms and the strong arch of his spine. Narrow hips and a hard stomach, gracefully clawed hands and long elegant toes. Inuyasha thought maybe he'd wander around naked all the time if he looked half as fucking perfect as Sesshoumaru did.

"You're staring at me again."

"You're naked."

"So are you."

Inuyasha frowned. "Well yeah, but I'm not going to stare at myself, am I?"

"If this is about my stripes again, I will drown you—"

"No I'm not staring at—well, yeah I am, but only because they're awesome, not. . .I mean, I just like looking. Fuck, you're so touchy." Swivelling around on his rock, Inuyasha pointedly faced in the other direction. "Happy now?"

"Not particularly," Sesshoumaru informed him, sounding snippy. "Your gaze is distracting, you blasted hanyou. If I stared at you with half as much intensity you'd likely combust on the spot."

"Well, sorry."

A cranky silence followed, and Inuyasha busied himself by inspecting the hilt of Tetsusaiga, rubbing his fingers of the frayed hilt and sweeping down the lacquered sheath. Everything seemed okay after such a close range bakuryuuha, but then the sword had been through worse. Settling back in satisfaction, he stroked his hand down the length of the sheath and felt himself calm a little. Maybe it was time to get back to the village – they couldn't spend all night out in the wilderness, after all.

It was just as he opened his mouth to say just that that Tetsusaiga gave one clear throb of power where it rested in his loose grip. And not just that—

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Inuyasha blurted out in alarm as the sheath crackled silver with a frighteningly familiar web of charged lightning. "Holy fucking shit, what the fuck is going on?"

Sesshoumaru was at his side in an instant, the crackling tang of ozone making his nostrils flare. His eyes were fierce. "This is Inotoki's power."

"But he's dead, I—oh, shit!" the hanyou crowed, suddenly and impossibly excited. "Does this mean I can fucking teleport now? Tetsusaiga took the power from him when I killed him? Fuck yeah!" Who the hell was going to be able to beat him in battle now that he was a lightning-fast powerhouse of awesome? No-fucking-one, that's who. Inuyasha grinned at Sesshoumaru, who looked peeved.

"Oh, certainly," he muttered crossly. "Because you couldn't possibly have enough powers in the sword already." Was that a note of jealousy in Sesshoumaru's voice? Inuyasha thought maybe it was, which made everything so much sweeter.

"I am a god," he announced solemnly. "A hanyou god. Worship me. Hey, do you think this means—oh, grab the clothes, I have an idea!"

"Don't order me around," Sesshoumaru said flatly, but grabbed the sodden bundles of clothing anyway. "Now what could you possibly—"

With his hands full, Inuyasha leaned over and kissed the youkai lord soundly on the mouth just as he drew Tetsusaiga, lighting them both with a crackling web of lightning. With his destination firmly in mind, Inuyasha felt a vibration along his skin that spread up through his hands and into Sesshoumaru, and the world around them cracked out of sight.

When he blinked next, he was inside his hut back at the village, and Sesshoumaru was right there alongside him.

They stared at each other in surprise for an instant, until Sesshoumaru jerked away angrily.

"Perhaps some warning before you attempt teleportation for the first time," he snapped, eyes searching the dimness, nose scenting the air. "Where have you dragged me?" Turning to scan the dwelling, the scowling youkai lord took in the high roof and spacious interior, the unlit fire and hanging bamboo screens that separated the main area from the rest of it. But his eyes were cold and uninterested, and Inuyasha's stomach clenched a little in uncertainty.

"Sorry," he muttered, ears lowered and eyes downcast. "I guess I got a bit excited about the sword. We're just back at the village, that's all. Not far." He hadn't meant to piss Sesshoumaru off this badly—but he could teleport now, and. . .and well maybe Sesshoumaru was a bit envious. But it was going to make things so much easier, didn't he get that?

"And where is this place in your human village?" Sesshoumaru asked stiffly, before his body crackled with white youki and a huge length of fur appeared around his body, almost cloak-like in its size. Summoning part of his unsealed form, Inuyasha knew – he'd been the victim of that fur once before. But he hadn't seen it in a long while, and somehow witnessing the daiyoukai trapping filled him with a strange sense of distance.

"It's on the edge of the village," Inuyasha replied, sheathing Tetsusaiga and taking his clothes over to the rack near the wall. It wasn't a clothesline by any means, but they'd dry there once he lit the fire. "You don't have to worry about anyone showing up – it's been empty for a while. They built it for me."

Sesshoumaru went still in his appraisal of the home. "For you," he repeated, his eyes now fixed on Inuyasha as he struck a fire using the old kindling that had been placed in waiting for him. Weird thoughtful shit like that, Inuyasha absently noted. All he had to do was live there – they'd really thought of everything when they built it for him. He looked around for a blanket or spare clothes once the pale flames had caught, suddenly uncomfortable with his nakedness.

"Yeah," he replied, distracted as he pushed aside the hanging bamboo and disappeared behind it, locating some large baskets lining the back wall. "They want me to live here. I guess they kind of had a change of heart while I was gone. They even thought of stuff like putting herbs nearby so I didn't have to smell them all the time. It's crazy." Finding a soft thin woven blanket, and beneath that, some clean hakama and kosode, Inuyasha quickly pulled on the outfit. When he was finished he frowned curiously down at the blue and white ensemble. Had they belonged to Hiroshi?

When he appeared on the other side of the screen, Sesshoumaru was pulling his clothes on.

"Aren't they damp?" Inuyasha asked uncertainly, watching him straighten out his billowing red and white sleeves.

"Youkai spidersilk dries extremely fast," Sesshoumaru replied tightly, not looking at him. "I am pleased you found a place here at last, Inuyasha. The village will prosper with your protection, I am certain."

Something cold and alien dropped into the pit of Inuyasha's stomach as he watched Sesshoumaru fit his swords into place at his waist, pulling his hair out of his collar and straightening the much-diminished length of fur that rested over his shoulder. He wasn't just getting dressed, he was leaving. Inuyasha felt a wave of rejection crash over him so hard he was almost breathless with it, and knew his face was reflecting his devastation, every goddamn bit of it.

"But. . .do you really hate them that much?" Inuyasha asked, ashamed of how small his voice was. He stepped slowly down onto the thatched floor, feeling the hard ridges of the mats under his toes. "I wasn't going to make you choose or anything, but at least I thought you might. . .put up with it, sometimes."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Sesshoumaru reached for his boots next, but Inuyasha grabbed them before he did. It was stupid and juvenile, but he couldn't just let him leave, not without hearing him say it straight out; that Sesshoumaru wouldn't have him if it meant spending any time in the vicinity of humans. That his youkai pride meant more.

If he could say that to Inuyasha's face, then Inuyasha would let him leave. He'd have to.

"I just thought, it's big, you know. . .and neither of us really had a home that was worth much of anything. Sure it's near the humans but—fuck, Sesshoumaru, one night of the month I'm human, too." His throat ached with a completely stupid lump of emotion that rose in it. Gritting his teeth, he fixed his eyes on the fire and shrugged. "I guess I thought you'd put up with it sometimes. For me. Don't worry about it. It's fine."

Inuyasha clenched his hands into fists inside his sleeves and tried to think. Okay, so he still had to go see Sango and Miroku about what had happened, and they probably wanted to test the Tetsusaiga for any more of that meidou shit that had brought him back – oh, and he'd have to have a talk with Suki—

The dull clang of two swords hitting the ground jolted him out of his thoughts. Inuyasha looked up with dull eyes and blinked as the boots were ripped out of his hand and tossed on the floor, and then Sesshoumaru pulled him into a crushing embrace.

"I understand now, I—for a moment I thought you. . ." Sesshoumaru's voice actually wavered unsteadily and trailed off, and he pressed his face into the startled hanyou's neck, kissing it desperately. Confused beyond all measure Inuyasha automatically lifted his arms to return the embrace, and then he got the sudden and terrifying impression they'd just had a colossal misunderstanding.

"Wait, did you think I'd picked them over you?" Inuyasha breathed in disbelief. "That I was going to stay and let you leave? Are you crazy? I fucking love you, you stupid bastard. Why would I let you go anywhere without me?"

Sesshoumaru didn't reply, but the reflexive squeeze of his arms and the galloping beat of his heart said more than enough to Inuyasha, who just closed his eyes and ducked his head slightly, pressing a warm kiss to the point of his ear.

"I was thinking maybe a seasonal thing. Three months here, three months wherever." His claws sifted through Sesshoumaru's hair in long, gentle lines, listening to his breathing. "I'm only saying that because I can't think of anything worse than sleeping in the snow. I don't have shoes, you know. Snow hurts. Besides, Rin'd get a kick out of teaching Suki all about youkai, and Jaken could start a pretty mean bonfire with that stick of his. Not that I want that pyro fucker around, but if you two are a package deal. . .I'll live. I guess." Letting his rambling thoughts spill out between them was weirdly cleansing, but mostly he just wanted Sesshoumaru to know, really know, that any plan Inuyasha had included him. That was just how it was going to be.

"Generous of you," Sesshoumaru said eventually, a thread of amusement returning to his voice. "Do I get a say in any of this?"

"I'll take any concerns into consideration," was the pompous reply. The youkai lord snorted loudly and lifted his head.

"Foolish hanyou," he muttered, but with so much affection in his voice it was almost like an endearment. Sesshoumaru then sighed deeply and drew back to look Inuyasha in the eye, and the light in his eyes was incredible to behold.

"I accept your terms."

Eyes lighting up in return, Inuyasha leaned in until their lips brushed.

"Deal," he whispered into Sesshoumaru's mouth, and kissed him, long and deep and perfect.

It was probably going to be one of the few perfect moments they'd have, being a hanyou and a daiyoukai lord of the west. Inuyasha didn't have illusions about the future being stuffed full of flower petals and fluffy romantic shit. Most likely there was going to be more rocks in the road than flowers, and there was always something new and freaky out there waiting to start some shit with them both. They were going to argue and fight and it was fairly certain that Inuyasha was going to meet with another eel or two at Sesshoumaru's hands. But that was okay. That was them.

If they were in it together, Inuyasha could handle just about anything.

Which reminded him.

"I forgot to mention," he murmured as they broke apart, his eyes gleaming with mischief. "Miroku has this friend named Hachi, and he's probably going to visit sometimes."

"All right," Sesshoumaru replied cautiously.

"Yeah, he's—he's kind of a tanuki youkai. That's not going to be a problem for you, is it?"

Yeah, that sealed it, Inuyasha thought as the colour drained out of the youkai lord's face.

They were going to be just fine.


.E N D.

 

Chapter Text

 

"Wait, what? He's never told you he loves you?"

"Nah."

"Ever. Not even after you've, uh. . ."

"If you do that hip thrust thing at me again I'm going to break them both. Fair warning, you bastard monk."

"All right, all right." Miroku shook his head in resignation. "I'm just saying, it's odd. Freakishly so. Wait—have you ever said it to him?"

"Well. . ." Scratching his cheek, Inuyasha avoided his friend's curious gaze. He coughed. "Maybe."

Flicking a pretend tear away from the corner of his eye, the monk slung an arm around Inuyasha's shoulders as they wandered through town.

"You're adorable. So mistreated. So unfair. Shall I call him out on his neglect of you?"

"Fuck off," the hanyou grunted, embarrassed and irritable. "It's not like I care or anything."

Miroku looked at him in disbelief. "You deceitful swine. Don't think you can lie to me and get away with it. You always pull an unfortunate face and your cheeks go all red." He'd probably have continued in that vein for a while, but someone grabbed his attention. "Hina-san! May I borrow your wisdom a moment, please?"

"Of course, Miroku-sama," the girl said with a smile. Her eyes swung from the monk to Inuyasha and back curiously. "Have you been embarrassing Inuyasha? He's all red."

Goddamnit. Slapping the arm away from his shoulders Inuyasha turned to return to his hut, but Miroku was faster and snagged his sleeve before he could make a clean getaway.

"Hina-san, I have a hypothetical question for you," the monk started pleasantly. She nodded. "Say you're in a relationship with a man. Not just any relationship mind you, but a. . .ahem, intimate relationship. For some months now. But the male in question has never vocalised his feelings toward you."

Hina frowned. "Are you having marital problems with Sango-san? I don't like her much but I still don't think you should be talking to me about them."

Miroku stiffened. "Not me—hypothetical question! Don't they teach you anything in this damn village?"

Inuyasha started smiling. "Yeah Miroku, sure. Don't go projecting your insecurity or anything."

"Big words, Inuyasha. You're probably exhausted now; go have a lie down."

"You're such a dick."

"You two!" Hina snapped, scowling now. "What did you want? I have things to attend to. Hiroshi-san needs the bread baked by sunset, and I'm already behind! Make it fast!"

The monk huffed. "All right!" he snapped back. "If for the last eight months you've been having frequent sex with a man who won't tell you he loves you, what do you do?"

Hina's jaw dropped. Then after a second's consideration, she blinked suspiciously. "Well—well if he hasn't married me, and doesn't love me, what am I doing having sex with him? I'd have no more to do with him! The horrid brute. Good afternoon to both of you." With that she stomped off, clutching her sack of grain to her chest like it was her virginity to be prised away at any given moment.

Turning back to Inuyasha, Miroku crossed his arms in satisfaction. "This is why I'm concerned. That—that youkai is manipulating your tender feelings in order to freely plough your—"

Rolling his eyes, Inuyasha struck the monk's windpipe hard enough to make him choke on his words, and walked away.

Really, what the fuck was the big deal? Neither of them were into that touchy-feely shit where they talked about their feelings all the time and got all sappy in public. It wasn't Sesshoumaru being an asshole or anything.

Grumbling to himself, brows drawn in a scowl, Inuyasha tucked his hands into his sleeves and marched over to find Sango. She'd give him the truth.


"He's never said it? Ever? Not even during. . .you know, sex?"

Inuyasha silently counted to ten before replying.

"No Sango, not even then."

She made a thoughtful sound in her throat and adjusted the blanket around the sleeping child she cradled. "Well, he's not exactly talkative, I suppose. Is he. . .well, is he attentive in bed?"

Inuyasha blinked. "Attentive—you mean. . .? Ah fuck, Sango, what does that have to do with anything? Yes! Fuck!"

"Fuck indeed," Sango replied, and laughed right in his face. "Just checking. Look, if it's not a big deal to either of you, it shouldn't be anyone else's business. Let my dear husband think what he likes."

Inuyasha's ears flicked uncertainly before he confessed, "Hina said she'd get rid of a guy who didn't tell her. I don't know about relationships and stuff." After a few seconds of silence, he burst out with, "When did Miroku tell you?"

Sympathy showed in her soft brown eyes. "There's no guidebook on relationships, Inuyasha. What's all right for one might not suit the other. Personally I don't think Sesshoumaru would ever get involved with someone he didn't care deeply about. It seems like it'd be a waste of time and effort otherwise. Am I correct?"

Inuyasha nodded jerkily.

"There, then," she said kindly. "But you could always just ask him, you know."

He snorted at that. "Oh yeah, looking forward to that discussion. And—and I don't even need to hear it, anyway. This is all Miroku's bullshit he made up in his own head."

Sango nodded and easily went along with that, but even Inuyasha in his limited understanding of women could see the glimmer of concern in her eyes when he left to head home. Was it some weird insecure human thing? No one had ever told Inuyasha they loved him, except for his mother when he was young. He'd gotten along just fine, hadn't he? Some things you just don't need to hear.

Except, apparently, for when you did. When without the words it was. . .it was like to them it was only real when those words were exchanged, or something.

That didn't sit well with Inuyasha at all, and it wasn't until hours later that he finally asked himself the question at the heart of the matter.

What if Sesshoumaru. . .didn't?

He cared, cared about Inuyasha more than anyone. He knew that better than he knew his own name. But love? Maybe that was something else. Sure, they'd kind of been through hell, and nearly killed themselves trying to save each other on a few occasions, but that just went with the territory. Inuyasha knew how he felt, but beyond that first time he'd never told Sesshoumaru again. Didn't seem like there was any point, really.

Sesshoumaru had never said a word about love. Or, really, not even caring. It was always just actions before words. Until then, Inuyasha had thought he didn't need them.

He stayed up well into the night, hunched up near the fire in his hut, lost in thought. He was alone; Sesshoumaru had gone to get some kind of youkai whetstone for his sword from Toutousai and wasn't due back for another day or two. There'd been no reason for Inuyasha to go as well, and he had his own shit to take care of, anyway. He, Rin and Jaken had been planting wards and activating spells around the village outskirts for Miroku all day. It had been at the end of all that when the monk had asked the question.

Eventually tiredness won out over his brooding, and Inuyasha staggered off to bed, not even bothering to crawl under the blankets. He just turned his head to the side and watched the flames flickering through the woven bamboo slats of the curtain, breathing in the fading scent of the youkai lord that still clung to the blankets.

It did occur to Inuyasha some time before he dropped off to sleep that he was pining like a total girl.

He still swapped his pillow for Sesshoumaru's.


Inuyasha half-woke from a troubled sleep to the sensation of hands pushing at his hips, feeling the blanket being tugged from under his stomach.

Grumbling sleepily, he gusted a huge sigh and let it be taken from him, instinctively budging over as a large, warm mass settled in against his side with the ease of familiarity. The thick blanket then settled over them both.

"Sesshoumaru," he murmured, already sinking back into sleep. "You back?"

A huff of amusement. "It would appear so," he whispered. "Go to sleep."

Turning his head, Inuyasha felt the smoothness of Sesshoumaru's cheek brush against his lips. "You said you'd take longer."

"I was in a hurry to return," was the low reply, arms encircling Inuyasha's waist. Long fingers stroked his stomach in a soothing, rhythmic motion that had the hanyou dozing again almost immediately.

"Missed me," he breathed sleepily, a ghost of a smile curving his lips.

"My instincts told me to make haste. Miraculously, you aren't injured or dying." The dry humour in Sesshoumaru's soft explanation didn't quite hide the relief beneath it, nor could he hide the need to press his hands to unblemished skin, assuring both of them that they were together. Healthy, whole, and safe. It would take them both a while before they could let go of that particular instinct.

Inuyasha just gave a slumberous sigh and pushed his nose into Sesshoumaru's hair, feeling an icy foot sneak its way between his ankles to leech his body heat.

"Safe and sound," he agreed, his hoarse with sleep. "You?"

"No trouble. Go back to sleep, foolish hanyou. We can speak in the morning." The gentle rebuke was tempered by the press of a warm mouth against his; a soft, sleepy reassurance. Inuyasha liked it enough to pull Sesshoumaru completely against him, pressing his cold nose to the steady pulse in Sesshoumaru's neck.

"You missed me," Sesshoumaru murmured back in the darkness, pleased.

"Mmm, yeah," was the lazy reply. "I might've."

"Is that why you are sleeping on my pillow instead of your own?"

"Oh yeah. . .swap back." Inuyasha lifted his head groggily, but was pressed back down almost immediately.

"Keep it," Sesshoumaru breathed against his temple. "Sleep well."

They both settled for the night, sharing scent, breath and warmth; limbs tangled beneath the blankets. Just another night really – nothing special about it. But it was as Inuyasha sank almost entirely into dreams that he found himself whispering three little words into the darkness.

"You love me."

There was a surprised pause before Sesshoumaru snorted softly, and Inuyasha felt the long sweep of a warm tongue cross his cheek and temple.

"Very observant of you," he murmured, tender in the warm darkness. "Might I be so bold as to assume—"

"You know I do, dumbass. More than anything." He immediately scrunched his face up in emotional discomfort. "Augh, fuck this touchy-feely shit. Go to sleep."

Inuyasha was rewarded with a soft huff of amusement, but Sesshoumaru didn't reply, instead obediently sinking down into the blankets and pulling him close. So close in fact, that Inuyasha had to shift his head back a little as the youkai lord greedily stole half his pillow, discarding the other one entirely so he could eliminate all distance between them. What a sap.

All the same, Inuyasha's mouth curved upward in the darkness as he drifted off.

Maybe he preferred actions over words, after all.