Kagome stared in silence at the newly-restored Shikon no Tama in her hands, a sense of melancholy creeping up her spine, wrapping around the edges of her mind, stealing quietly over the lull like a fog. It was finished. The ordeal that had carried her through time again and again . . . was over.
Where was the sense of peace, the feeling of accomplishment, that she had believed would come with this? At the very least, shouldn't there have been a semblance of repletion, a vestige of wonder or shock . . .?
Kagome wiped away a tear that slid down her cheek.
Sango, leaning over Kohaku's lifeless body, wailing in despair as his soul slowly faded from the world . . .
Another tear slipped.
Miroku, staring, aghast, as the kazaana—the Wind Tunnel—sealed itself; as though he expected it to reopen and draw them all into the vortex . . .
Another tear slipped.
Shippou's distress, trying his best to hold back the little girl, Rin while she struggled against his grip . . . Rin, cringing and crying silently when Sesshoumaru unleashed a piercing howl, cradling the broken form of Kagura in his one arm . . .
Another tear slipped.
Kouga, gouging the jewel fragments out of his legs, his face contorted into a pained grimace . . . Kouga, touching her cheek and telling her that she was better off with 'dog-shit', after all. Kouga, closing his eyes one last time as she begged him not to die moments before the bitter wind, the blinding flash of light as his body disintegrated into ash . . .
Another tear slipped.
Kikyou's expression as she realized that she could not take the Shikon no Tama with her again as she had the first time she'd died. Kikyou, handing the sparkling jewel to Kagome with an enigmatic smile on her face. "It's your task now, Kagome. Let no one take it from you. The accursed jewel has chosen you to protect it." Kikyou, offering Kagome the quiver of arrows she carried on her back . . . "These are yours now, too. Take care of . . . everything."
Another tear slipped.
InuYasha . . . InuYasha screaming, begging Kikyou not to go even as she faded out of sight, out of his grasp—even as he broke Kagome's heart again . . .
Another tear slipped.
Kagome sighed softly and pushed herself to her feet, forcing her body to move despite the leaden feeling that had seeped into her very bones, as though her body were fighting against the inevitable. She'd fretted over her decision for the last four days while they journeyed back to Kaede's village. She'd agonized over what she should do with the jewel. It had occurred to her that she alone could banish the jewel forever—the beautiful stone that had caused so much pain to so many for far, far too long. Sometime during the falling shadows of night, sometime as she'd lay awake in the quiet, sometime as she'd shifted her gaze to the exhausted hanyou who slept, sitting with his back against the wall and his arms wrapped around the ancient sword he held so dear, the answer had come to her in a whisper, in a fragment of understanding: an answer so simple yet so complex, and she knew—knew—that it was meant to be this way. She knew now what to do with it: the cursed jewel, the Shikon no Tama. The memory of InuYasha as he had stood on that cliff, as he had looked so horrifically broken, while Kikyou faded from sight . . . What else could Kagome do?
Stepping out of the line of trees on the edge of the small clearing, she could see the Bone Eater's Well—an unremarkable relic that most could pass by without giving it a moment's notice. Hesitating before she moved closer, she frowned thoughtfully, fastening the thin gold chain that held the jewel around her neck. Curiously, InuYasha hadn't tried to take it from her even once since it had been completed. Then again, he'd been so quiet, so oblivious to everyone and everything, that Kagome didn't think he even sensed it when she had slipped away as the sun rose this morning. She had only stopped long enough to do one last thing after kissing her fingertips, only to blow gently, careful not to wake any of them. She willed her friends to understand, not to be too upset with her, as they slept.
Kagome stopped beside InuYasha. Normally the hanyou would wake at the slightest disturbance. Oddly, he was deeper into his slumber than anyone. Then again, he hadn't really slept in days . . . possibly weeks. So intent he had been, on tracking down Naraku that many nights Kagome had stirred in the wee hours, only to see him sitting alone—staring into the campfire with a marked frown or reclining high in the branches of a tree high above, his back straight and proud, as though he were meditating.
InuYasha hadn't stirred as she had carefully lifted the kotodama rosary from around his neck. She held her breath, hoping that he wouldn't wake as she painstakingly removed the last lingering symbol of the bond between them that she had thought they shared. Maybe they had, but, after all was said and done, it simply hadn't been enough. After finally pulling the strand of beads and fangs free, she stared at it for a long time before slipping it into her backpack. Was it so selfish of her to want to keep something—anything—that had been his?
Shaking off the bittersweet memories, she sighed again, drawing a deep breath, gathering her courage as she climbed onto the side of the well and let herself drop into it. More tears fell as the soft pink light flashed to life, as it engulfed her in a gentle warmth that was so familiar. It was the last time that she'd use this portal. Her friends that had come to mean as much as family to her . . . She knew she'd never see them again.
Why hadn't she roused them, told them how much each of them meant to her, how she would never forget their time together? Kagome wiped away a bitter tear and drew a ragged breath. 'Because,' she thought with an inward sigh, 'they would have tried to stop me.' She winced. At least, everyone but InuYasha would have. She didn't even try to delude herself this time. How often had he told her to go home before? She'd always thought that he was just blustering, that he didn't mean it, but now . . .?
She had been so naïve. For two years, she'd convinced herself that she could help him, that she could make him see his way past Kikyou, tried to make him understand that her death so many years ago wasn't his fault . . . She'd tried to help him to see that there were still things in the world worth fighting for—things like friendship . . .
Things like love . . . and in the end . . .
In the end, she hadn't been able to do that, at all.
The image flashed through her mind again, just as painful now as it had been the first time: InuYasha, holding onto Kikyou's outstretched hand while the soul collectors wrapped around her and pulled her away from him. His voice cracking as he roared her name time and again as she floated away out of sight. Her words had been no more than a whisper on the breeze. Kagome had heard Kikyou's voice, but hadn't been able to discern her words. InuYasha probably hadn't, either. He screamed so loudly she doubted he even realized that Kikyou had spoken . . .
Kagome gasped as her feet gently hit the bottom of the well. The sight of the ladder was an all-too-shocking reminder that she was back in the place where it had all begun. She stifled a sob with the back of her hand before forcing herself to climb out of the well. One last time . . .
When she stood, looking down into the well, Kagome strengthened her faltering resolve. She had to stop crying. It wouldn't do to go inside the shrine and to let her mother see her so red-faced and puffy-eyed because the questions that would follow . . . No, she just couldn't answer them.
Slowly, deliberately, Kagome let her bag drop from her fingers, grasping the warm jewel in her palm. It seemed to pulsate under her fingertips, and she bit down hard on her lip, so hard that the instant tinge of blood that turned her stomach brought more tears to her eyes for just a moment. Drawing a deep breath, she gave one quick tug. The chain broke with a snap, the shimmering stone winking at her in the wan light of the well-house.
'Don't be hasty!' her mind demanded. 'What if you're mistaken?'
Kagome shook her head furiously. She knew she wasn't mistaken, and she didn't dare wait a moment longer. If she was going to do this, then it had to be now—now, before her heart made her falter. Now, before InuYasha came looking for her . . .
'Would he? Would he really?' she couldn't help but ask herself.
Sighing and rubbing her head, her grip on the Shikon no Tama tightened. "He would. If nothing else, I'm his 'responsibility'," she mumbled, her voice oddly lacking any irritation, any traces of regret. No, she had made that remark in a very matter-of-fact tone. Why wasn't she still angry? Why didn't she want to curse him, to condemn him?
'Because . . .' her mind muttered softly. "Because I love him," she whispered.
With that realization, Kagome rasped out an incredulous sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. She clamped her hand over her lips, as though she could hold back her grief with the action.
It was time.
A strange calm ebbed over Kagome's body and soothed the ragged edges of her heart. Determination alone had carried her through so much, and it would see her through this as well. Slowly, her hand curiously steady, Kagome brought the Shikon no Tama up to her chest. With both hands, she cradled it against her heart as her eyes closed and her mind cleared.
She must have looked like a little girl kneeling beside her bed to offer her prayers. That thought was especially poignant, and Kagome squeezed her eyes closed tighter still, until the pain had waned. "I want to use this to restore her . . . the woman who InuYasha loves. I want them—Kikyou and InuYasha—to have what they lost so long ago," she whispered. "Please, Midoriko-sama . . . If you can . . . Then you'll be freed . . ."
A comforting warmth washed over her like a summer breeze. Kagome felt her hair being swept off her face, and she smiled despite the torrent of tears, hot and furious, that coursed down her cheeks once more.
The Shikon no Tama grew almost too hot to hold in her hands, even as her grip instinctively tightened. A startling crackle seemed to emanate from the jewel, growing louder and louder. Kagome yelped in surprise and raised her hands to shield her eyes when the jewel flew out of her grip, as though being pulled by an invisible force. A moment later, a flash of light made her shield her face.
"'Twas you, gentle woman," a kind voice said as the wind died down. It came unexpectedly from right beside her, but it didn't startle Kagome at all. There was a familiarity that she didn't question, and Kagome knew that voice—knew it as well as she knew the sound of her own. Her eyes slowly opened, taking a moment to adjust after the blinding flash of light.
The woman standing beside Kagome was also bathed in a strange white light—the same light had just flashed from the Shikon no Tama. Her long raven locks fell well below her waist, and her miko's clothing was covered by ancient armor. Kagome recognized her instantly. She'd seen the visage before though never in such a solid state. Her eyes flared, and she gasped. "M . . . Midoriko-sama?"
The woman smiled warmly at Kagome and nodded just enough to affirm Kagome's question. "I don't have much time, Kagome. I came only to offer you my thanks."
Kagome tried to return the smile, but her eye caught sight of the well, and she gasped at what she saw: the gaping hole was filled with water. She leaned over, her hands resting on the edge, and stared at her reflection. "It's really closed . . ." she whispered, unable to grasp exactly what it meant in her heart, even if her mind already knew. "I . . . won't see him ever again . . ." Her tone was disbelieving, but the resignation that surged up within her was bitter, painful. She had suspected this would be the ultimate result of her wish, but she had hoped . . . Hot tears welled up behind her eyes, yet her eyes burned with an ache that was only equaled by the thickness that squeezed her throat closed.
Midoriko watched with a marked frown as two fat tears slipped down Kagome's cheeks, hitting the water and rippling outward with a vengeful gentleness. As though she couldn't stand the sight of her own reflection, she stooped quickly, retrieved the now-dormant jewel, cradled it against her chest like a precious thing—like the most precious thing in the world. Midoriko could feel the all-consuming pain in the young woman's heart—pain so raw and so sharp that Midoriko flinched as the emotion shot through Kagome and into her. 'So young to experience such heartbreak . . .'
"It was that young hanyou, wasn't it?" Midoriko asked gently. "The one they call InuYasha?"
"InuYasha . . ." Kagome sighed and ducked her head as a fresh wash of tears coursed down her face. "I thought . . . I thought that if I loved him enough, he'd . . . but he couldn't . . ."
Absolute understanding washed over Midoriko. Her expression said that Kagome didn't have to explain any further. "So, you gave him the one thing you believed he truly wanted, even though it cost you everything."
Kagome nodded. "What else could I do?"
"This woman . . . She's the one who protected the Shikon no Tama before you, isn't she?"
"Kikyou." Kagome made herself say the name out loud, and she flinched, as though the very sound of it possessed the power to wound her. Kagome closed her eyes against the sharp, stabbing pang that shot through her heart. "Ki . . . Kikyou," she whispered softly. "He . . . He loves her. He's always loved her . . ."
Midoriko sighed softly, smoothing the hair out of Kagome's face before gently turning her chin to make the young woman look her in the eye. "I lost my ability to see into her mind when she died, child. Then the jewel came to you, and the two of us forged a bond. I whispered to your heart, and you answered me. You've always told me the truth, just as you've always sought to be truthful with everyone you've met. 'Tis a beautiful thing, that, and because of your nature, Kagome, I have always sought to comfort you, just as you have always sought to protect me."
Kagome nodded silently. Because the jewel had been housed in her body, Midoriko had been with her from the start. Never in her life had Kagome ever felt truly alone. It was impossible to remember a time when she hadn't sensed that there was someone near, someone who couldn't be seen—someone who cushioned her from the harsher realities that she'd had to face.
But now that Midoriko was free . . . She could see it writ in the expression on her face, a new sense of emptiness that simply added to the forlorn dullness behind her gaze. Kagome's grip on the now-dormant jewel in her fist tightened. The gentle presence that had cosseted her for so long was gone because Midoriko's soul was free.
It seemed to hit the young miko all at once. She'd already lost InuYasha, and by her own choice. She'd lost those she considered to be friends—perhaps even family—the taijya, Sango, the monk, Miroku, the old miko, Kaede, and her beloved kitsune, Shippou . . . Now Midoriko's aura would leave her, too, and the melancholy that frothed thick around Kagome . . . It simply wasn't fair.
Midoriko stroked Kagome's cheek gently with the pad of her thumb. She had learned long ago that the world's sense of fair and just was skewed, and yet she could not say that she regretted the decision she'd made: the choice to fight for the good of man against the darker evils that sought to gain control. This girl, however . . . What choices had she ever really made? When one's fate was mapped out long before one was born . . . And how much pain could one young woman endure . . .?
"You freed me without any regard as to what you truly desired. Because of your wish, the jewel has been purified, and the youkai that sought its power will forever be silenced. You have freed me just as surely as you have vanquished the evil from the shadows of the past. For that, child, I will free you in return."
Kagome didn't understand. She frowned and opened her mouth to ask Midoriko to explain—but before she had a chance, the white light flashed once more. Kagome slowly sank to the ground, sheltered in Midoriko's soothing aura as conscious thought floated away from her.
Midoriko cradled the woman-child in her arms and smiled sadly. Lifting a hand to cover Kagome's closed eyes, the ancient miko mumbled a few words and sighed before placing a gentle kiss on the girl's forehead. "There, my sweet, sweet child. The gift of unawareness to repress your pain is the best I can give you . . ."