“I know,” Inuyasha whispered. He gently rubbed his horse's nose, the mare leaning into his hand. He adjusted the saddle, cinching it tight. He flicked the reins across her back. “We both know it's silly making me ride you, but we've all got to make some sacrifices.”
The horse bumped his shoulder with hers and neighed softly.
He brushed her nose again, chuckling quietly. “I don't know if we'll have the chance to challenge the jackass's horse today. It suits him---the arrogant stallion, yes?”
“Have you finally made friends with your horse, Inuyasha?” Kagome asked, an amused lilt to her voice.
Inuyasha glanced in her direction, his eyes meeting hers. He froze, his hand sliding to his side. He could see the whispers of her brilliant aura around her, swirling in an intricate dance. Its rose, like her, was beautiful. It brushed against his aura, sending sparks down his spine.
“You really shouldn't stare at Kagome like that, Inuyasha. She's not any different than she was the day before, you know. That power of hers has been there all along,” the dry voice said quietly in the half-demon's mind.
Inuyasha jolted, clearing his throat. He said shyly, “Maybe.”
Kagome laughed softly. She clasped his hand in her own. “I'm glad. She's a nice horse.”
Where their hands interlaced, electric jolts thrummed through Inuyasha. Her power filled him with warmth, the sensation pleasant. He squeezed her hand, eliciting a fresh pulse of her pure and soothing aura. It coalesced around his heart, flooding it with love.
“Are you alright?” Worry crinkled her forehead, and she frowned. “You seem a bit distracted.”
The half-demon looked into her worried eyes. The gold flecks glittered like tiny stars with constellations all their own in them---and they mesmerized him. Inuyasha thought he could spend the rest of his life mapping them. Gently, he tilted her head up with a finger under her chin before cupping it. His eyes bore into hers, finding the glimmering gold utterly captivating.
“Inuyasha? Earth to Inuyasha!” Kagome waved a hand in his face, breaking the spell.
Inuyasha leaned his forehead against hers. He smiled gently. “I'm fine.”
Kagome's eyes searched his, her lips formed into a worried pout. “If you say so, Inuyasha.”
The half-demon kissed her. He smothered her startled gasp, and as her lips parted, he twisted his tongue with hers. Inuyasha threaded his fingers into her dark hair, gently cupping her face. Kagome looped her arms around his neck. Inuyasha growled softly when one of her fingers caressed an ear. Tracing a finger down, Inuyasha brushed her mark. It earned him a muffled moan. She tasted sweet and clean and utterly female. His hand trailed down her sides, gripping her hips tightly. Inuyasha pulled her flush against him, their bodies fitting together like an intricate puzzle. He thrust his tongue deeper into her mouth, dueling for dominance.
Kagome broke away, a blush dusting her cheeks. She asked breathlessly, “What---what was that for?”
A throat cleared behind them, and heat flooded Inuyasha's cheeks. He bit his lip, realizing that they had an audience. His ears drooped as he caught Miroku's smug smirk and Sango's surprised eyes. The half-demon rubbed the back of his neck, mumbling, “Can't I just want to kiss my mate?”
She had looked so beautiful---her eyes so full of love and trust---and most of all home. Seeing the gold in them sparkling back at him---a second mark declaring her as his---tugged on his baser instincts. Since unleashing the full potential of her power, that gold gleamed that much brighter.
The Purpose was wrong. Kagome was certainly different. She was even more ravishing than ever before.
“My, my. Who knew you'd be so openly affectionate?” Miroku teased, his voice still raspy. “Takes a brave man.”
Sango glared at the monk, the expression lacking its potency. The hint of a smile ghosted across her lips. As Miroku swayed, a concerned glint filled her eyes. She placed a gentle hand on the small of his back, steadying him. Even so, Sango kept her eyes downcast, refusing to make eye contact. A deep blush painted her cheeks, and she bit her lip, snatching her hand back as soon as the monk seemed steady.
Inuyasha's ears twitched. He knew Miroku had been making one of his usual comments. There was something different about it. In a strange way, the monk had complimented him---he had even sounded envious. Inuyasha looked from one to the other, seeing them draw closer to one another---all while trying in vain to keep each other at arm's length. They pretended that their secret love for one another was indeed secret. Inuyasha didn't pretend to be a love expert by any means, but he could tell that they were needlessly fighting their instincts to be together---openly in front of all.
“Alright, you two. What's going on?” Inuyasha asked, his arms folded across his chest. “Something's different.”
“What do you mean?” Miroku asked, a blush rosing his cheeks. “Nothing's going on.”
“Don't play dumb.”
The monk and demon slayer exchanged glances. Sango nodded, taking a firm grip of Miroku's unblemished hand. She interlaced their fingers.
“We're---well---we're officially together now. No ambiguities,” Miroku said.
“I see.” Inuyasha grinned broadly, flashing his fangs. “Now, was that so hard to say? And what took so long?”
Kagome squealed in delight, hugging Sango tightly. She said, “I'm so happy for you two!”
“You shouldn't tease them, little brother. If this Sesshomaru recalls correctly, you had some difficulty broaching the very same subject with your little miko,” the Demon Lord said, the faintest hint of amusement in his voice.
Inuyasha's ears flattened to his head. He stuck his bottom lip out into a petulant pout. “Shut up! No one asked you, jackass. The point is that I did---so there!”
“Oh Inuyasha,” Kagome chided half-heartedly. “You know he just says stuff like that to push your buttons. And you let him---every time.”
Sesshomaru snorted, the ghost of a smile crossing his lips. The glint of playfulness flickered in his gold eyes. Inuyasha knew when he was being laughed at---and yet he let it pass. After Rin's abduction, he had never seen his brother so emotionally exposed---and it had shocked him. The fear, pain, guilt, and sheer relief that had swirled in Sesshomaru's eyes afterward still bothered him. Inuyasha would never admit it aloud, but he was relieved to have Sesshomaru back to himself---snide remarks and all.
Sesshomaru grasped Rin's hand tightly in his. She led his chestnut stallion by the reins. He pawed the turf, snorting impatiently for the day's ride. The little girl stroked her hand across his nose, settling the animal.
“I see that Sesshomaru's horse is ready for the day's ride. Are you, Rin-chan?” Kagome asked.
Rin nodded. A wide smile crossed her face. “Belrin is, but she'll ride with Sesshomaru-sama today.”
Inuyasha's brow furrowed. He still didn't quite know what to make of the little girl's new name. It made her happy, and it didn't seem to bother Sesshomaru so he'd keep his mouth shut. He knew better than to pry too much into his brother's affairs when it wasn't worth the fight. If Rin had a new name and it didn't bother his brother, he'd leave it be.
“Belrin?” Kagome asked.
“Yes. Big brother Belgarath-sama said that it was her true name.”
“Oh.” A ponderous look crossed Kagome's face. She shrugged, an accepting smile crossing her lips. “I like it.”
As if speaking the old man's name had summoned him, he joined their small group. Belgarath winked at Rin before a serious expression settled over his features.
“I see we're ready for the day.” The old sorcerer assessed the group. “We'll be riding out in ten minutes---once my practical son-in-law finishes dousing the fire and cleaning up.”
“Don't rush him, Father,” Polgara called from atop her own horse. “I love him just the way he is.”
Belgarath snorted. “Sometimes he's just a little too Sendarian for his own good, Pol. That kind of efficiency and discipline sets my teeth on edge.”
“That's only because you lack both---along with scruples, Old Wolf.”
“Now, Pol---,” Belgarath protested.
“Get on your horse and shut your mouth before you catch flies, Father.” Polgara swung her horse towards the front of the growing group. “We do have an appointment to make.”
Belgarath stomped away, muttering.
“Remind me to never rush Durnik,” Inuyasha said.
“Half-breed,” Sesshomaru said softly, drawing Inuyasha aside. “Take the front when we ride. This Sesshomaru will ride next to your mate.”
Inuyasha nodded. “Alright.”
“This Sesshomaru also wishes to inform you that he shall instruct the boy once the new camp is established.” The Demon Lord gently eased Rin up into the saddle, steadying her. “I will report to you on his progress in the morning.”
Inuyasha spotted the fox kit hiding amongst the pack horses. His brow furrowed as he realized that Shippo had deliberately isolated himself. A contrite expression settled over the little boy's face---and his pained green eyes briefly met Inuyasha's. The half-demon wished there was time to talk to Shippo before they left. And yet, Inuyasha also understood the fox kit's need to be alone. He'd let Shippo come to him in his own time. Inuyasha knew forcing him to talk now might only exasperate the problem.
Sesshomaru climbed into the saddle, settling behind Rin. His arm looped around her waist, holding her secure. The little girl held the impatient stallion's reins. The Demon Lord said softly, “Keep an eye on the road, little brother. We're nearing this Ashaba and this Sesshomaru has been informed that it is unsavory.”
“I will. Just keep the girls safe.”
The group rode steadily north. The half-demon noticed that they drifted from the main road. They thundered over rough terrain, empty of civilization. There were no villages. There were no sleepy farmsteads. The entire area shied away from the grim and now broken city in the furthermost distance, its dark walls looming over the plains. Oily smoke curled up from it, the acrid scent irritating Inuyasha's nose.
Ahead, mountains soared towards the crystalline blue sky. Snow capped their peaks, reminding the landscape of winter's graceful and icy grip just on the horizon. Despite all the ugliness of Mal Yaska to the east and the horrors they had seen on the road from Mal Rakuth, the natural scene ahead ached with a pristine purity. It provided an elegant juxtaposition---a reminder that sometimes the ugliest scars on the land came from man himself.
Inuyasha twitched his ears, remaining hyper-aware of their surroundings. He didn't need to lead them into an ambush. The idyllic scenery ahead couldn't distract him from his responsibility. While his brother provided personal protection to the girls, he would keep abreast of any threat. All too soon, Inuyasha knew that their road would turn dark again---filled with enemies and horrific sights. Vigilance would be his best weapon.
They crested a hill, and a stream of refugees approached warily. Most wore tattered rags, their faces grey with desperation. Their eyes darted over the large group, and like a flock of startled birds, the ragged people scattered. In passing, Inuyasha's eyes met a young boy's. Defiance, anger, and fear illuminated his dark eyes. He saw strength there, too---and recognized it as his own. This boy was him---a long, long time ago. He, too, had been forced out of his home and into uncertainty. With a curt nod, Inuyasha acknowledged this kindred spirit. Amidst the sorry plight of these people, he took it as a strange sign of hope.
“That's why we're doing this. That's why we fight---for them, Inuyasha,” the Purpose whispered.
Inuyasha startled in his saddle, his hands jerking his reins. His horse stumbled a moment before easing back into her comfortable gallop. Inuyasha whispered to his mare, “Sorry. An unwanted passenger just dropped in.” The half-demon growled softly. “Fuck. Don't do that while I'm riding. Besides, I thought I told you to leave me alone.”
“I'm afraid I can't. You're entering the most dangerous territory yet. I need to warn you of a few things.”
“Fine. I'm listening.” Inuyasha scanned the area, remaining vigilant to his surroundings.
“You're heading to Torak's House. There are those that know it, and they will try to delay you.”
“Zedar for one. Naraku for another. It's not a secret that you must be there by an appointed time. The rules won't let them tamper with the Oracles, but if you don't get there in time, it won't matter what they say.”
“So if they can't tamper with these Oracles?”
“They'll set traps. Ashaba is a mausoleum to Torak's madness. Zedar knows every nook and cranny. When you get inside, watch out for any surprises. After his last face to face with Belgarath, he won't dare show---but leave behind a few deadly traps, absolutely.”
“Do I tell the old man?”
“Belgarath will already suspect as much. He's still smarting. After Zedar's abduction of Belrin, he couldn't track him down. It'll stick in his teeth. However, one of those traps not even he can predict. Zedar may be a wild card, but he'll gladly use Naraku if it'll help him punish Belgarath. Only you can detect this trap. Only you can keep it from preventing Belgarath reading the Oracles in time.”
“A trap laid by Naraku? Any hints?”
“Sorry. No hints. Just be ready. You should pay attention to the road again. Katakor is dangerous---and just ahead.”
With that, the voice was gone.
“All right,” Belgarath called, drawing everyone's attention. He halted his horse, the rest of the group following suit. “We are very close to the border. I don't want to go into Katakor or Ashaba blind. We'll make camp here and send some scouts ahead to alert us to any traps or ambushes.”
A hawk circled above, spiraling to land nearby. Before it landed, the bird shimmered and became the misshapen dwarf sorcerer, Beldin. “Belgarath, let me and that demon slayer scout ahead in the air while Garion and Kheldar cover the ground.”
“Fine by me---but no unnecessary risks.”
“Don't y' worry yer ancient head about us. We'll be jist fine, right little girl?” Beldin winked at Sango. “Bring that cat of yours and let's go.”
Belgarath threw his hands up. “Beldin, must you be so insufferable?”
Sango glanced over towards Miroku, worry in her eyes. Inuyasha saw her hesitation---her fear that leaving him here could leave him vulnerable. He slipped from his horse, crossing to her. Gently, he said, “Go ahead, Sango. I'll keep the monk out of too much trouble. I promise.”
Sango bit her lip. She outstretched a hand towards Miroku. It shook as she hesitated. She grabbed one of his hands, holding on tight. He squeezed back, nodding his acceptance. A determined expression crossed his wan face.
He whispered, “I'll be fine. Go on, my dear Sango.”
The demon slayer let go. “You had better be.”
She dismounted, following the dwarf sorcerer away from the new campsite.
“Miroku, hang on,” Inuyasha said. “Let me talk to Kagome first.”
Inuyasha turned towards the center of the group. His eyes met his brother's, and he nodded his acknowledgment. He joined him. Before he could interject into the conversation, Rin said, “You should have seen Jaken-sama, Kagome-sama. He'd been napping instead of watching over Belrin. He likes to make Ah-Un into a pillow, you see. Sesshomaru-sama came back, and the dragon dumped him onto the ground. Startled, Jaken-sama let loose some fire from his Staff. If Sesshomaru-sama wasn't so fast, Belrin fears Jaken-sama may have set his hair on fire.”
Kagome giggled softly, a musical lilt to it. She said, “Oh my. Jaken certainly sounds like an interesting traveling companion.”
“Oh yes.” Rin smiled wide, dimples crinkling her cheeks. It didn't escape Inuyasha's notice that the little girl seemed much more relaxed after her ordeal. Her sunny disposition seemed fully restored. Rin said, giggling as she spoke,“Sesshomaru-sama then took the Staff and clubbed Jaken-sama with it.”
“Seems you must keep the toad around for comic relief, eh, jackass?” Inuyasha asked. The half-demon gripped Kagome around the waist, easing her to the ground.
“Thanks for riding with me, Sesshomaru,” Kagome said, looking up. A wide smile crossed her face. “You, too, Rin-chan.”
Sesshomaru snorted, his expression unreadable except for the hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth.
Inuyasha hugged Kagome. He said, “Kagome, why don't you help the jackass set up his tent? I'm going to help the monk get settled. He's in no condition to pitch a tent on his own.”
Kagome kissed his cheek. “Okay. Where do you want ours set up?”
“Just a little outside camp---a little private, but not too far. This area makes me uneasy.”
“Okay.” Kagome turned towards Sesshomaru's horse. “Let me help you down, Rin-chan.”
Miroku dismounted not far away, his steps still wobbly. His face took a pallid cast. “I'm fine, Inuyasha. You don't need to babysit me. I'll set up the tent and rest.”
“And risk Sango shoving hirakotsu up my ass? I don't think so.” Inuyasha slipped an arm around Miroku's waist, pulling one of the monk's arms over his shoulders. He led him to a small patch of grass under a tree and settled him.
Miroku waved his cursed hand in protest at Inuyasha. “I'm fine. You needn't fuss over me.”
Quickly, the half-demon set up the tent, securing everything. He glanced towards the monk. He had fallen fast asleep, his head resting on his chest. He snored softly, his breathing shallow. It seemed the battle against the demon trying to possess him still taxed him greatly.
“Yeah, you're just fine.” Inuyasha gently carried the sleeping monk into the tent, lying him on the sleeping mat. He tucked a pillow under his head and tugged a blanket over the sleeping man's form. Inuyasha squeezed his shoulder and exited the tent.
He approached the other side of camp, Kagome joining him. She asked, “How is he?”
“Fast asleep. The day's ride was probably too much for him, but like the stubborn ass he is, he didn't tell anyone.” Inuyasha wrapped his mate into his arms. “I hoped he'd be fine after you purified that demon, but---,”
“He just needs rest and one of Lady Polgara's tonics.” Kagome snuggled into his chest. “Come on. We need rest, too. Lady Polgara said supper wouldn't be for awhile yet and she's dragooned Shippo into helping with a lot of the prep work. We have some time to relax.”
Inuyasha smiled, fangs peeking at the corner of his mouth. “We do, eh?”
“Uh-huh.” Kagome nuzzled her nose under his chin.
The pair ducked into their own tent. Kagome sat down cross-legged. She patted the spot across from her. Inuyasha's ears twitched, confused that she wouldn't want him next to her. Shrugging, he collapsed into a boneless heap. Judging by her anticipatory expression, his mate had something planned.
Kagome grasped both of his hands in hers, placing them atop her knees. She gazed into his eyes, the gold flecks sparkling brightly in the dim light. Little whispers of her aura surged to life, wafting around her in a rosy hue.
Inuyasha felt its purity wash over him. It was the salve his soul had needed all day long. He didn't break eye contact with her as he called upon his own aura. It swirled around him as it strengthened. His aura had changed---right down to the color. Instead of the red he knew, it had shifted to a rich blue. He mused idly that it might have something to do with his crossing swords with Garion---that the Orb had altered it somehow. And yet, the changes he sensed had nothing to do with that. It had everything to do with Kagome---and her acceptance of him. His aura felt stronger. It had a confidence he didn't remember having before. The world took on an azure glow as it blanketed him.
Carefully, Inuyasha let his aura caress Kagome's. It should have sizzled when meeting the pink. There should have been sparks. Instead, they meshed, swirling together. He poured all his tenderness and love into it, feeling hers respond in kind. All the troubles they had faced before and all those that lay ahead melted away. He gently cupped Kagome's face, his clawed thumb stroking a cheek. Their auras flared brighter.
In the instant Inuyasha saw them merge into a brilliant violet, he gasped. The beauty of it overwhelmed him. It flowed around them, a physical manifestation of the bond they shared. It deepened in color, the purple majestic. The half-demon stared into Kagome's eyes. All he could see was her love, acceptance, and trust. It fed his inner-demon, making it fiercely protective of this powerful miko.
His inner-demon flared to life the longer he focused on his aura. Inuyasha could feel it curl under the surface, itching to emerge. Instead of the blood lust, fury, and hate that it normally exhibited in him, this time, he could feel it purr with love. It wanted to merge with Kagome's miko energy---rather than shy away from its purifying power. In a way, he could feel all the negative scars his inner-demon had inflicted on his human heart burn away from Kagome's power. In its wake, his inner-demon sang in his ears, pleased that they had found an equal---a worthy mate in this miko.
Kagome's eyes blazed a brilliant gold. Their molten beauty left him breathless. In their depths, he saw the sheer raw power his mate possessed. It dazzled him that this powerful miko had indeed chosen him, a half-demon---and furthermore combined her power with his. He could feel her siphon some of his demonic energy into her. His inner-demon purred in delight, surfacing more to give her what she needed. Instead of sullying Kagome, this exchange made her all the more beautiful and pure.
Kagome surged forward, kissing him. Her tongue pushed into his mouth, twisting with his. She looped her arms around his neck, her fingers tangling in his hair. His mate straddled him. Her heady arousal wafted to his nose. Inuyasha responded by holding her down in his lap, his hips jerking upwards involuntarily. He yielded to her kiss, a soft growl escaping.
He'd give her anything she wanted---anything she needed.
When Kagome broke off the kiss, she whispered into one of his ears, “Make love to me, Inuyasha.”
Inuyasha shuddered at her words. He whispered, his voice a broken rasp, “Mate. Mine.”
He brushed his thumb over her mark, kissing her. Who was he to deny her?
Around then, their combined auras swelled and solidified, blocking out the world. They swirled and twisted---simulating the physical dance they were about to perform.