"Become cold – colder than even your heart, dog prince."
One could always tell a genuine enchantress from an imposter. Their sense of irony was unmistakable.
It was, however, decidedly more difficult to tell an enchantress from a fatigued old woman that had collapsed in a snow drift.
Not that Sesshoumaru would have actually aided an enchantress; likely he would have given her a wide berth. Much wider than the one he had given the blasted creature when he thought she was merely an elderly woman – one he had simply walked past without a single break in his stride.
Should have killed her, he thought crossly hours later as he watched frost climbing over the pale skin of his hands, unnatural frost that spilled into the hot spring he'd halted at to bathe. Fur pelt and armour at his side, he knelt there a moment, both hands submerged in the steaming pool of water. It was excruciating, with his skin so chilled – a bone-deep cold that seemed to be spreading from his chest as though a chip of ice had been wedged inside.
Perhaps it was his heart, he reflected with absent amusement, remembering her damning words. It would do him well to remember this in future, he decided. Even a daiyoukai was not resistant to the old magic. Bespelled by a faerie. If anyone other than himself had witnessed the scene he might be tempted to be embarrassed.
However, embarrassment was the last thing on his mind when he lifted his hands from the water and watched the frost simply begin to dust his skin again, this time freezing the droplets of water that clung to his fingertips. This was no childish prank, the youkai lord observed, mouth thinning into a forbidding line. At the rate it was spreading, deepening into muscle, blood and bone. . .
Until his body stiffened and froze. A living statue? Or a dead—
"Unacceptable," he growled, instinct pushing him to his feet. Jaken had to be informed before it took hold completely. And it would, for the price of a cold heart was steeper than Sesshoumaru had ever anticipated.
Abandoning his armour and pelt, he forced his freezing limbs into motion, shaking off the ice gathering in his clothing. Time was of the essence. Jaken and Rin were taking shelter from the approaching snowstorm in a cave to the far east, and he had not spoken of where he had travelled. He had assumed he had no need to do such things.
Despite the crawling, numbing cold forcing an ache through his body, turning his breath colourless as the heat was drawn from his blood, Sesshoumaru managed to break into a dead run – if he had been human. But it was enough to carry him through the white-dusted forest, past startled wildlife that watched silently as the youkai lord flashed past, frost and ice glittering like diamonds as it fell from his hair.
He made it to the centre of an unnamed field before his legs completely froze.
Some unidentifiable emotion clutched at his throat as he stared down at his traitorous limbs, his golden eyes narrowed and jaw clenched tightly. Not only had the spell worked with impressive haste, he was now about to become the most powerful scarecrow in existence. If he had been a lesser creature Sesshoumaru would have sworn colourfully and with deep frustration. So deep that it felt a little like despair.
Not in the glorious heat of battle, as he'd always assumed. Defeated by a forest myth and his own selfish heart. It was almost poetic. Sesshoumaru could give credit where it was due, even despite the blistering agony that speared through his body as every part of it turned hard and cold and immobile. At least he would be remembered by someone who had looked upon him fondly. Circumstances could be worse.
It was as his eyes closed and every part of him went cold and dead and still, that Sesshoumaru had one single thought.
Perhaps this was how Inuyasha had felt.
"I'm picking up good vibraaaations," Kagome sang cheerfully, bobbing in time with whatever insane tune she'd come up with. It wouldn't be nearly so irritating if she wasn't doing it while clamped to Inuyasha's back like a bare-legged barnacle. "Hey Inuyasha, how much further is it? I'm going all blotchy from the cold."
Puffing out his cheeks in annoyance, he hefted her a little higher and picked up his pace slightly. "About another half hour till we reach the next village. Maybe you should have changed into the miko outfit when we passed through Kaede's village. It would have been a lot warmer."
The hanyou heard Kagome suck in a sharp breath, and he realised he'd said the wrong thing. Again. But she was riding on his back to escape the snow, so she couldn't very well 'sit' him, whether she wanted to or not. Inuyasha's mood lifted slightly, but he didn't attempt to carry the conversation further.
They hadn't seen Kikyou in weeks, and while Inuyasha was concerned from time to time, things had been quiet lately. Naraku was still out there, but seemed to have gone into hiding for the time being. Inuyasha was using that time to hunt the shards with the others, to try and get ahead of the bastard as best they could by the time he surfaced again.
That was what had led to them trekking through the snow as what weak light they had began to fade from the sky. It was going to start snowing again soon, he could feel it in his bones. Craning his neck, he glanced up to where Kirara was keeping pace in the sky, Sango and Miroku perched safely on her back with Shippou taking point on the fire cat's head.
"You lot see anything interesting ahead?" he called. "Take a look would you? Last thing I want to do is accidentally slide down a cliff trying to wade through this frigging snow." Watching them pick up speed and charge on ahead, Inuyasha felt Kagome's fingers clench a little tighter against his shoulders. In a voice meant only for her, he added softly, "and if I do I'm taking you with me."
"You wouldn't," she said firmly. "You'd find a way to save me, and die horribly in the process."
"The hell I would!" he protested. "I'd land on you so I didn't die is what I'd do."
Kagome laughed. "Then I'd—I'd shoot you with my bow on the way down!"
"You'd still die," he scoffed. "And your aim isn't that good."
They traded good-natured threats as they slowly made their way up a snow-covered hill; Inuyasha's feet working double-time to make sure they didn't both go tumbling backward when he slid occasionally. The imaginary cliff turned into an imaginary hill, and Kagome declared that if he broke his legs when they fell that she'd feed him ramen every day until he recovered. Inuyasha liked the sound of that.
Their banter was interrupted as they neared the top of the hill, and Kirara came racing back fast enough that they were nearly blown backward. Swearing loudly, Inuyasha barely had time to drop Kagome on her ass before he slid backward down the hill a few feet.
"Holy shitting hell, where's the damn fire—" the hanyou started sourly, until he got a good look at Sango's face. "Shit. What is it?"
Licking her lips, Sango's face creased into lines of sadness, even as Miroku reached down to lend Kagome a hand up. "Inuyasha. . .there's something you should prepare yourself for."
She was dead, he thought numbly, as he stared up at the youkai exterminator. His brain stuttered. More dead. Fully dead. There was no one else he gave a shit about that could put that look on Sango's face as she faced him. He knew that look; he'd worn that expression himself more than a few times. It was the face of Bad News.
"Where," he said dully, not even a question. His eyes were dark as he met the pity in Sango's gaze.
"Down in the field," she said softly, and Miroku nodded silently behind her. "Just—in the middle. You'll see."
Setting his jaw and steeling his resolve, it still took him a moment or two to gather the courage to continue trudging the rest of the way up the hill, feeling Kagome hesitating behind him and not caring whether she followed or not. Leaving the decision up to her, he crested the hill and stared down into the snow-covered field on the other side.
His eyes widened slowly, until they were round pools of shock in a face drained of all colour. "Oh—"
It's not her-not-her-not-her-not-her—
Inuyasha bolted down the hill, long sleeves billowing as he raced and skidded dangerously on the steep curve, hardly caring as he streaked across the snow like a bright splash of blood—running towards him.
When he was within touching distance the hanyou came shuddering to a stop, breathing hard even though he wasn't anything close to tired. Inuyasha stared up at the statue in front of him.
"Sesshoumaru," he breathed, but the name came out ragged and half-undone with horror. "Sesshoumaru."
It was his youkai half brother. Not Kikyou. Not the miko he'd automatically assumed, because it couldn't be him. Because there wasn't a force in the universe that could kill Sesshoumaru. The big bad youkai lord that had looked down on him all his life. Who tried to kill him, steal from him, who insulted him at every turn and who'd never, ever allow himself to be taken down by anything.
But there he was. Standing there like he was asleep, his armour missing and frost making his skin shine almost luminously to the hanyou's eyes. Arms at his sides, shoulders back and spine straight, he looked like he was simply standing there.
With no movement.
And ice—all over him, covered in jewel-like shards of ice that clung to his hair, his clothes, his clawed fingertips. Sesshoumaru would never have put up with looking anything less than perfect.
The hanyou's fingers had twitched toward the lock of pale hair falling haphazardly over his brother's right shoulder when he heard the muffled creak of footsteps coming toward him through the snow. He didn't look back at Kagome as she caught up, swallowing hard as she caught her breath. Her socks were probably getting wet now, he thought distantly. His mind was searching for a distraction, something to drag him away from what stood before him in the darkening evening. It didn't want to acknowledge that his brother was a silent, lifeless statue in front of him.
Sesshoumaru was. . .he was dead.
"Oh, Inuyasha," was all Kagome could say, her voice small and sad. "I'm sorry."
"Why?" the hanyou found himself saying, his eyes on the indigo crescent moon on Sesshoumaru's forehead. "He was no brother to me."
Kagome hesitated at the emptiness in his voice. "But he was your brother," she replied weakly. Then when he didn't bother replying to that, she asked the obvious question. "Do you think it was Naraku?"
Inuyasha snorted rudely. "That asshole doesn't have the juice to mess Sesshoumaru up this bad. Kill him. Whatever. He just doesn't."
"But he's right in our path. . .like a message," Sango said, her voice subdued. Like Kagome, she was speaking quietly like they might wake the corpse. By contrast, Inuyasha's voice was almost painfully loud.
Painfully something, anyway.
"If Naraku really wanted to send me a message, he'd have—done something else," he finished weakly, his eyes sliding to Kagome almost guiltily. But her eyes were on his older brother, and she'd missed his slip completely.
"He's like an ice carving," she whispered, taking a step closer. "I never thought I'd be able to stand this close to him and still have all my fingers and toes. And you know, he doesn't look dead—y'know, not all blue and gross like frozen people dug out of the snow on those crime shows on television."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Miroku said calmly. "But really, Kagome-sama, you shouldn't get so close, we don't even know what did this yet. For all we know he's in full rigor mortis from. . .leprosy."
Sango laughed, then immediately slapped her hand over her mouth, contrite. But she did elbow the monk hard in the side and shake her head. Kagome, who was hopping from foot to foot, shivering, just stretched up toward Sesshoumaru's face and tilted her head as she stared curiously.
"Maybe it was like, an ice youkai or something," she mused, and glanced back over her shoulder. "Is there even such a thing?"
It was while Inuyasha was trying to process that question that she turned back to the youkai lord and pressed her fingertips against his pulse.
There was a flash of light, and Kagome screamed.
"Kagome!" Inuyasha yelled, reaching out and hauling her back from Sesshoumaru with brute force. "What? What happened? Are you okay?" When she didn't reply, he turned her over in his grasp. "Oh god. Kagome?"
There was a fine layer of frost over every inch of bare skin he could see, and she was shivering harder than anything he'd ever seen. "I'm—I'm—o-k-k-kay," she chattered, but her eyes were wide and panicked, and she was clutching her fingers to her chest protectively. Likewise, he did the same to her whole body, trying to get as much of his wide sleeves around her as he could. But he was damp and cold from the snow, and no real help at all. Turning, he passed her to Sango and pointed to Kirara.
"Get her to the village," he said sharply. His eyes switched to Miroku. "You go too. Make some shit up about ghosts, I don't know. But get her someplace warm, fast. I'll follow on foot and meet you there."
"But Inuyasha. . .are you just going to leave Sesshoumaru here like this?" Sango asked dubiously, carefully tucking a wildly shivering Kagome in front of her on the fire cat. There were shadows in her eyes, and really Inuyasha understood the parallel between them, though he could bet that Kohaku was a good kid when he wasn't being worked like a puppet. He couldn't say the same for his brother. Every cruel thing he'd done, he had done because it suited him.
"That bastard left me sealed to a tree for fifty years," he said flatly. "And this is a spell he's under—Kagome's snowman impression is proof of that. Let someone else free the ice queen. I really don't care."
Sango's mouth opened, but she wisely refrained from saying anything else. Unfairly, Kagome gave him a shaky middle finger, probably because she couldn't talk through her shivering. Bitch, he thought fondly, watching them take to the sky and lope in the direction of the village.
Inuyasha knew they probably thought he was a bit of a bastard for saying that, but they just didn't have a clue. Maybe Kagome did – she'd seen exactly how deep their family ties ran. Sesshoumaru wouldn't thank him for trying, or even succeeding, should something so impossible happen. And Sesshoumaru wasn't worth it. Not to him.
Besides, he thought as he started walking in the direction of the village, Sesshoumaru had his own people to help him. Maybe that bitchy little frog that followed him could do something useful with that staff of his and thaw him out. Bizarrely, the thought made him grin a little.
Come the next morning, Jaken probably would have found him and they'd be on their merry way again.
Still, as he walked away, the hanyou couldn't help but wonder if he was sleeping under that spell, as he had when Kikyou sealed him. Or was he awake inside his own skin, raging, unable to speak or move or glare. A prisoner inside his own body.
Hesitating, Inuyasha turned and gazed at him from the other side of the field. Trapped. . .and defenceless.
The snowball that struck Sesshoumaru in the back of the head was large, hard-packed and thrown with the hanyou's full strength. It completely exploded on impact, fanning the youkai lord's hair crazily in all directions before crumbling in a fine white shower across his clothes.
All the while, he made not even a breath of movement.
Inuyasha smiled widely and dusted off his hands.
"Seeya around, asshole."
He practically skipped to the village.
While Sesshoumaru hadn't anticipated the hanyou stumbling across him in his frozen state, the blunt refusal to aid him had been no great surprise. There was no love lost between them, after all.
The snowball, however, had been simply spiteful.
But the brief encounter had left him with a curious sense of loss, all the same. It had been approximately one month since the spell had completely taken hold, and not a single soul had chanced upon him. It seemed the frigid weather was keeping everything with moderate intelligence inside their homes. It also explained why Inuyasha was traipsing about in it.
Still, trapped in such a pitiful state in utter silence as he had been, even the arrival of the hanyou's ragtag friends had been a welcome interruption to the maddening quiet. One could only count the seconds for so long.
Inuyasha's reaction had been interesting, to say the least. His disbelief had been almost palpable. Why, Sesshoumaru was unsure. And if he was completely honest, the high regard Inuyasha had briefly displayed had warmed him, just a little.
Figuratively, of course. The ice that gripped his body was a sharp, merciless snare of pain and cold, as if winter itself had crawled inside his skin. Sesshoumaru decided he would get used to it, soon enough. He must; the spell was rejecting even the touch of another living being, if the human girl was any indication. He'd felt only the brief touch of warmth against his neck before the spell had lashed out at her. Nothing would attempt contact more than once, with such a powerful shock of cold being their only reward.
Not even Jaken. Likely the fool would catch his death if he tried, and Sesshoumaru was less than elated at the prospect anyway. No, it seemed no help was coming for him. No matter.
As the wind picked up and snow began whirling in the air, settling on his shoulders and clinging to his hair, Sesshoumaru realised something.
He had never freely given aid to a single creature in his life. He couldn't even say that Rin had been revived out of mercy. Tenseiga had simply demanded it. Knowing that his life had been one long lonely trail of selfish ambition, the youkai lord found he had no right to assume help would come.
Somewhere deep inside his frozen heart, he understood that he did not deserve it.
"Inuyasha, if you don't stop picking at that thread, I'm going to strip you naked and roll you out into the snow."
Looking up from where he was worrying the edge of the blanket the village headman had given him when he arrived, Inuyasha raised an eyebrow at Miroku, who was trying to get as close to the fire as possible without actually crawling into it. "That's a bit extreme," he decided. "Or do you just want to see me naked?"
Sango's face scrunched up in confused jealousy where she stood holding a blanket out on the other side of the fire, trying to warm it before she wrapped Kagome in it. She already had his kosode around her; the fire rat haori was still too damp for her so he'd kept it on for the sake of propriety more than warmth.
"I've already seen you naked," Miroku pointed out. "Too many times for my liking, actually."
"Gross," Kagome offered, but she sounded kind of blocked up and nasal. "Oh god, I hope I don't get sick from that stupid spell. What was I thinking, trying to touch him?"
"It was a rather silly thing to do with no protection," Miroku reflected. "You could be pregnant now."
Shippou spat out his soup and looked up at him in horror. "He can do that?"
Inuyasha found himself turning out their conversation, letting his mind wander. The village they'd stopped at was larger than average, and the headman had been kind enough to give a room to the monk that swore up and down that their village was cursed, and his strange servants. It rankled Inuyasha a little, but it had convinced the humans and got them shelter so he had no real quarrel with it.
The snowstorm he'd predicted had worsened and intensified into a blizzard, with everyone retreating indoors to wait it out. But stoking even the largest fire into a crackling blaze did precious little to warm everyone completely. The wind was howling to get inside, blowing drafts where it could and sneaking inside their clothing. Inuyasha was faring much better than most; he was only vaguely chilled in the single layer of clothes he wore, a thin blanket draped absently around his shoulders.
Sesshoumaru was probably doing a lot worse out there.
Annoyed with himself, he tried to focus on something else. But try as he might, his thoughts kept circling back to his half-brother. How had he gotten there? Had he fought? Did anyone actually know he was out there, besides himself?
Should he have tried to help?
Hell no, he thought crossly, shifting uncomfortably. What could I do, anyway? Only powerful shit could have snared Sesshoumaru.
This was all Sango's fault, he decided, and levelled his best pissed off glare at the girl. It probably would have had more effect if she hadn't been giggling with Kagome and miming giving birth. What she had implied had kind of struck home with him, even if he hadn't wanted to realise it. Even when they do stupid shit and treat you like dirt, weren't you supposed to help family? Just because? Honestly Inuyasha had no damned idea; he'd never had a family. There had just been his mother, for a little while. He'd have done anything for her. But that was different.
Sesshoumaru wasn't family. He was his half-brother, and someone he barely knew. There was a difference there, a huge chasm between Kohaku and Sesshoumaru. Sango was just seeing ghosts, and Inuyasha had no business playing into that.
Turning away from the group, he lay down on his side and decided to sleep. Anything to put those dumbass thoughts out of his head. He wasn't a hero, anyway. Certainly not Sesshoumaru's.
But it was as he began dozing off later on that his ears picked up the sleepy conversation between Sango and Kagome.
"You want to know a secret?" Kagome sounded strangely embarrassed. "He reminded me of a fairytale."
"Uh-huh. The evil prince, put under a spell that can only be broken by true love's kiss. Or something!"
". . .you wanted to kiss Sesshoumaru?"
"Eww, no! I'm just saying. Jeez Sango, don't project your infatuation onto me. You're the one who wanted to save him."
"Because it's the right thing to do, that's all."
"Mmm, not to Inuyasha. Sesshoumaru isn't very nice—you've seen what he's like."
"A jerk to his little brother? Trying to steal his toys? Sounds pretty run of the mill to me."
"I don't know. I think Inuyasha is scared to be anything other than the big tough guy where his brother is concerned."
"So he isn't disappointed when it all goes south?"
"So it's just hurt pride that stops him from helping? That's kind of petty."
"Shh, he'll hear you."
"Sorry. . ."
Inuyasha forced himself to stop listening then, feeling sharp and raw and very, very much awake. Part of him wanted to be furious that they'd even speculate on something like that, much less make him out to be the asshole in the equation. But another part that felt suspiciously like his conscience was telling him there was more than a little truth to what they'd been whispering about.
Inuyasha's eyes opened then, and he sighed heavily.
Sesshoumaru had been pondering the pros and cons of being completely covered in snow for the duration of the winter when he felt the curious sensation of being touched.
It was mere pressure, at first, of something touching the snow that had gathered all around him. Something pressing at his shoulder. Torn between alarm, affronted anger and hope, he waited, trying to discern who it might be. So far all he could register inside the effects of the spell was touch, and temperature. Which he supposed was only to be expected – it would have been a terrible spell otherwise. He could also hear. Two of his five senses survived. How vexing, as they didn't tell him much about his visitor at all.
The hands continued, purposely avoiding his face and any exposed skin. Wary of the backlash of the spell? Perhaps. Suspicion rose in him.
The brush of something rough against his cheeks startled him then, and he felt cloth wiping away the snow that had gathered and caught in his eyelashes. Clever, he thought reluctantly. This person knew what they were doing. Why, was the most pressing question. Sheer curiosity? Robbery? His swords were still in place as his side, last he could recall. They would trade quite well if this mystery person had brains enough to know what they were.
The tending to continued until it felt like all the snow was gone from him, even brushing at his feet as though digging around him. How oddly considerate. His feet had been throbbing with the agony of being encased in not only the ice of the spell but the snow that had risen to his knees over the course of the blizzard. Fractionally, Sesshoumaru began to suspect this person did not hold any ill intentions toward him.
Finally the attention completely ceased, and he felt the electric sensation of eyes roving over his face. Breath gusted across his chin and throat, shockingly warm after nothing but cold all this time. Almost hot. Has Sesshoumaru been able to move even a little, it would have been toward that impossible heat. He craved it like nothing he'd ever wanted in his long life. Something so simple, and he would have handed his swords over willingly for it. Just. . .warmth. Contact.
"What the hell do I do now?" Inuyasha asked pointlessly, and Sesshoumaru's reality shattered around him.
Was it possible to go insane after only a month of inertia? It would certainly explain his hallucination that his hanyou half-brother had returned to aid him. But even as he speculated on it, he knew that what was happening was very real. What he couldn't understand was why.
Almost as though he could sense the question, Inuyasha began to speak, his voice never more welcome to Sesshoumaru's ears.
"That spell iced Kagome up pretty good, and now she's sick. Miroku's spinning bullshit so we can stay for another week or so," the hanyou said slowly, something fumbling and awkward brimming beneath his usual brash tone. "The village is fucking boring, and the assholes keep staring at my ears. Figured I'd come out here and see if someone had freed your ass yet."
Footsteps then, and movement that circled him once and came to a stop in front of him.
"It would be pretty easy to dig a hole and bury you in it. Couldn't break the spell then, right? Buried alive and unable to even move. . ." the hanyou hissed in a pitying breath. "Definitely not a good way to spend however many centuries you have left."
Of course, Sesshoumaru thought distantly. It was not aid Inuyasha had come to offer. Why he had assumed otherwise for even the briefest of moments he couldn't understand. Desperation, perhaps. But any softness in Inuyasha was reserved for humans, not youkai brothers who had attempted on more than one occasion to kill him. This too, he expected he deserved. Sesshoumaru had never attempted to foster any kind of friendship with the hanyou. If anyone had the right to revenge, to capitalise upon this entire damnable situation, it was Inuyasha.
To be tucked away beneath the earth, sealed in a grip of a spell that would encase him in ice forevermore—
Fingers. Hands. Bare skin—
"Huh, guess this shitty spell doesn't react against me," Inuyasha discovered, his voice startled. "I wonder why."
Sesshoumaru didn't care why; his entire existence had narrowed down to the glorious sensation of a palm pressed to the side of his neck; a scalding handprint that reminded the youkai lord of everything bright and hot and vital in the world that had discarded him in the snow. Sunshine, firelight, the insulating warmth of his fur when he transformed. The buzzing heat of summer. Heartbeats. All of it trapped in the guileless press of skin against skin; simple contact that he hadn't experienced in a painfully long time.
It was gone too soon, leaving him feeling even colder than before. Bereft, he tried to brand the moment into his memory. For all he knew it could be the last time anything living laid a hand to him.
"I don't know if you can even hear me," Inuyasha said suddenly, sounding downtrodden. "Probably not. Maybe you're dead inside this spell."
I'm alive, Sesshoumaru thundered silently, where his thoughts echoed inside his own mind. I hear you, I hear everything. Free me. Free me, Inuyasha.
"Not that it matters I guess," the hanyou decided, his voice flowing into brisk, controlled tones. "I haven't got a clue about how to break the spell. Looks like you're boned."
Then, to Sesshoumaru's outrage and despair, the sound of footsteps reached his ears. Footsteps, walking away.
Don't abandon me. The thought was pure need, instinctive and unashamed in its plea. But no one could hear him. He was silence and ice and terrible, lonesome solitude.
When the footsteps completely faded there was dead silence in the field.
Inside Sesshoumaru's mind there was a howling that would not stop.