The tall, orange flames danced before her. Their hungry roaring filled her ears, the smoke made her eyes water. The heat of the great pyre fanned her dry cheeks.
She almost wished to walk into the flames, to turn to smoke and float away.
She stood perfectly still as she watched the fire burn. Her back was straight as a rod and her shoulders rigid.
She couldn’t fathom how or why she was there. She still refused to believe it all had really happened. After all, it wasn’t supposed to go like this. This was not the happily ever after she had always dreamt about. How could it all end so soon, end like this?
He had vowed to stay by her side forever, so how had he dared to leave her like that?
She could not feel any pain.
She could not feel the overwhelming sorrow.
More than anything she wanted to cry, but she could not do even that.
‘Broken-hearted’ could not even begin to describe how she was feeling. All she felt was emptiness. She felt completely numb, as if none of this was happening, or as if she was watching it happen to someone else.
Here she stood, all alone, watching the fire with eyes so empty they failed to see anything, feeling like her heart had been torn out of her chest, trying futilely to cling to the tattered remains of the severed bond.
Kagome did not know how long she stood there trying to make sense of her life. When she finally came to, the fire had burned out and there was nothing left but ash. The fire-rat haori she had been squeezing like a lifeline fell from her numb fingers, the red looking unnaturally vivid against her stark white kimono.
Like in a trance, she watched as they carefully gathered the ash from the funeral pyre. She knew that at the top of the flight of stairs, there was a freshly dug grave waiting, right beside that of Kikyo’s. They would bury the ashes there.
Years ago, the thought of the two of them resting side by side would have made her miserable and upset, but now she could not feel a thing. She was no longer an insecure teenager and the time for jealousy was long past. Kikyo might have been his first love… But it was her he had mated.
The men carrying the ashes started to ascend the stairs.
She turned away. She did not want to watch them bury him.
She did not want to acknowledge that he was gone.
A friendly hand squeezed her shoulder gently, breaking her out of her musings. She turned to see Miroku. The monk’s eyes were tired and full of sorrow. Like a lost child, she allowed the man to walk her into Kaede’s hut, where he sat her down as the old miko offered her a bowl of hot soup.
The young woman looked at the food and her stomach turned. She had no appetite, even though her stomach was aching in its emptiness. She hadn’t been eating properly for days. She did not want to eat; she wanted to lie down, sleep and forget. But she knew that she would be spending the night staring at the ceiling, trying desperately to escape the painful loneliness that haunted her in the dark.
Miroku looked at Kagome, worry for the woman evident in his expression. He glanced at Kaede, and the miko shook her head slightly, a sad look in her old eyes.
“I have to go to see Sango now,” he told the old woman.
Kaede frowned but nodded. As the monk left the hut, she turned to regard the unresponsive young woman, who was dully staring into her untouched bowl of soup.
Miroku entered his house and found his wife there, serving tea to their guest.
“How was Kagome-chan?” Sango asked, concern and grief shining in her eyes.
Miroku shook his head.
“Still the same. I do not think she has yet even overcome the initial shock.” The monk sat down and then turned to their guest.
“I am glad to see that you came to attend the funeral,” he said with a polite bow of his head.
The male sipped his tea before he answered.
“My personal feelings towards him aside, we still share the same blood.” the golden eyes flashed, as he met the monk’s gaze. “And while you may not believe it, I did not wish for his death.”
Miroku did in fact believe him. He still remembered how the two brothers had fought side by side – on more than one occasion.
“Besides, I needed to see the miko.”
“Kaede? She has been taking good care of Rin,” she assured.
“No, the Shikon miko. I wanted to see if she was still alive.”
Miroku looked like someone had just doused him with cold water as he stared at the demon.
“What do you mean?” he asked, trying to remain calm and quell his sudden alarm.
Sesshoumaru was silent for a moment.
“Not everyone accepts mating between the youkai and the ningen.” he began to explain in his deep voice. “Certainly, it is not commonly practised. Yet, it undeniably happens. The mating bond is such a strong and perfect union between the two partners that the death of a mate can drive even youkai insane. It is a loss greater than you humans can fathom, and that is why they do not usually survive the anguish.”
The demon paused and glanced at the couple who was raptly listening to him.
“And often”, he continued, “to compensate for the inequality between the humans and the demons, the mates will bind their lifespans together. This will grant the human the longevity of their demon partner. It will also without fail result in the death of the human when their demon mate dies.”
Sango’s hands trembled as she set down her tea cup. The thought of losing Kagome, too, tightened her throat so that it was painful to swallow.
Miroku was frowning.
“I know she has not been eating or sleeping properly, but that all belongs to the normal process of mourning,” he pointed out.
Sesshoumaru nodded slowly.
“Inuyasha was only a half-demon. And the miko has considerable power. She might survive.”
Miroku studied the demon lord in silence.
“There is something you are not saying,” he prompted after a while.
The look in the golden eyes hardened as Sesshoumaru once again levelled his gaze at the humans.
“We have a tradition through which we honour the deceased by saving their beloved human mate.”
“It is possible to prevent the widow’s – or widower’s – death, then?” Miroku asked, one brow raised. “How?”
“By tying their lifespan to that of a demon’s.”
Sango blinked, and then gasped loudly as she understood the implication behind the daiyoukai’s words. Her hands fisted in her lap.
“You do not mean the human has to mate again?” she asked incredulously.
Sesshoumaru’s lips formed a thin line as he nodded.
“Preferably within the family, pack or clan for the new bond to form correctly,” he dryly added.
Miroku stayed silent and continued to closely study the daiyoukai.
“Surely there is no need to go that far!” Sango protested, visibly upset. “Kagome-chan is doing just fine.”
Sesshoumaru’s eyebrow rose, implying his doubts about the taijiya’s proclamation.
Sango seemed to realise it herself, for she blushed slightly. Remembering how Kagome had just stood there for the entire cremation, the emptiness in her eyes, not having shed a single tear, it was quite obvious that the young woman was not doing fine at all.
“And if something happens,” she continued on a softer tone, “I am sure the Tenseiga would – “
“Not work,” Sesshoumaru cut in tonelessly. “The blade cannot call back the miko’s soul without her consent. If she is reunited with the hanyou in the afterlife, do you think she will wish to return?”
Pained silence filled the hut.
They all knew the answer.
“You may have no reason to concern,” Sesshoumaru said then, taking a careful sip of his tea.
“No reason for concern?” Sango echoed incredulously. “After telling us that Kagome-chan is dying?”
“She may not be,” Sesshoumaru coolly cut in. “As I said before, the miko does have a considerable power.”
Miroku gazed at the demon lord thoughtfully.
“I am guessing this lifespan binding is related to power, then?” he voiced his astute observation.
Sesshoumaru nodded, and met the monk’s eyes.
“You are correct. It is the weaker one who will adhere to the lifespan of the more powerful being. When a human and youkai mate, this would always mean that the human would be given the chance to live as long as their youkai mate. But Inuyasha was a hanyou… And he mated the Shikon miko. It may well be that the miko was the stronger one, and if that is the case…”
“She would still detain her own lifespan,” Miroku replied. The man was quiet for a while, before he frowned. “But the danger still exists, does it not? The loss of her mate might still be too heavy a blow.”
“She still lives, which makes me believe that she can master her own lifespan. But she does not look well,” Sesshoumaru said pointedly, glancing at Sango.
The taijiya glared back defiantly, until her shoulders started to shake and she had to lower her eyes.
Having proven his point, the daiyoukai turned away. There was no reason for him to torture the female further. He could scent her grief, her fear, her desperation.
From the times he had visited this village to see his ward, he had noticed how close the two women had been, the demon slayer and the miko.
For the slayer, the priestess was pack. It was only natural for her to feel concerned.
Miroku cleared his throat.
“I think it is time to cut through all this and get finally to the point of the matter.” His piercing violet eyes pinned down the demon. “Why are you here, telling me and my wife about all this?”
Sesshoumaru stiffened, and impassively held the monk’s gaze.
“A year after they had mated, Inuyasha came to see me.”
Sango gasped softly.
“I was surprised as well,” Sesshoumaru admitted. “Having a mate had changed him – you who stayed at his side surely also noticed this. He was not as immature. He was no longer as brash. He was more thoughtful.”
Miroku nodded, and smiled somewhat wryly.
“Kagome-sama must have rubbed off on him.”
“Indeed. The mating is the joining of souls – occasionally, over time, the mates may begin to resemble one another.”
The daiyoukai paused for a moment.
“He had become more careful. He now had a mate that depended on him. And he was often away from her. Helping the humans defend their homes from demons, travelling, with you,” Sesshoumaru noted, inclining his head at the monk. “He came to me to ask a favour. He wanted me to look after his miko… if anything was to happen to him.”
“So now you’re here,” Miroku said on a neutral tone.
“I am aware, that when Inuyasha made his request, he did not realise what he was asking of me. Because of his mixed blood he was not taken into the youkai society; it is highly improbable that he was ever aware of the existence of this particular tradition.”
“And yet you would be willing to follow the tradition and save Kagome.” Miroku stated, studying the demon lord. “Why?”
“Because I gave my word,” was the rather simple reply. “And because I respect the miko.”
“That is most charitable of you.” Miroku acknowledged. “And I do not wish to be impolite, but I still feel somewhat sceptical. Taking a mate is a lifetime commitment – would you truly go so far just because you gave your word to your brother?”
Sesshoumaru’s posture had grown rigid as the monk had voiced his doubts, and now the daiyoukai was glaring at the man coldly.
The monk sighed. He was not a fool, and knew which battle to fight and which to fold. Sesshoumaru had been accommodating so far, but the demon lord was growing irate with the delay.
He was not sure if Sesshoumaru’s proposal would be in Kagome’s best interest, but at this point he was desperate to try anything. As a monk, Miroku had experience of grieving widows before, and he knew that she would need to snap out of her sorrow, or it would never really lift. He had seen it happen too many times, and he did not want the miko to become a slave to her sadness. It was a gamble. Sesshoumaru could either make everything worse, or save her. But there was only one way to find out which it would be.
“Sango, would you please go join Rin-chan and the kids?”
The taijiya did not look happy, but nodded. Miroku turned back to Sesshoumaru.
“I’ll bring Kagome here so you can discuss this.”
Sesshoumaru inclined his head and watched as the monk and his wife left the hut.
After a moment, the shikon miko came in, wearing the white kimono of mourning. She sat down on the tatami.
She had never looked more like the un-dead miko. Her skin had a sickly pale cast to it and her eyes were empty and soulless. She had lost weight and there were dark circles under her eyes. She moved slowly, sluggishly, listlessly, as if she was in a dream.
An endless nightmare she could not awake from.
Sesshoumaru felt oddly unsettled, seeing the miko like this. He remembered her as a brave, cheerful and strong-willed person, but the woman in front of him had none of those qualities left.
Just by looking at her, he could tell she had not been sleeping or eating properly for the past several days. The lively spark was gone from her deep blue eyes.
Those were not good signs. She seemed to have given up.
“What do you want, Sesshoumaru?” she asked him bluntly in a tired, broken voice.
“To fulfil my brother’s request. He sought me out some years ago, to ask me to look after you. I am sure he was unaware at that time, that I would be bound by tradition to take you as my mate if something were to happen to him.”
“Excuse me?” the priestess asked lamely.
“Undoubtedly Inuyasha told you how a mating works. You bind your souls and your lifespans. The human usually succumbs to their mate’s lifespan, so if the mate dies, so will they. To prevent this, a tradition began for one of the demon’s pack to mate the widow.”
“So you come in here, state your business and expect me to follow your stupid little custom?” she queried incredulously in a raw voice.
Despite her current lifeless state, it seemed her old temper was still there, lurking beneath the listless surface.
“I came here, because I gave Inuyasha my word. And because I believed such union would be in our mutual interests,” Sesshoumaru stated calmly.
“Well with this lifespan-thing you explained I can see why you think such madness would be beneficial for me, but I don’t see what you will get out of it, save for the chance to coddle your sense of honour.”
“To be frank, miko, right now I may well need this mating more than you do.” he paused, his scoff a clear indication of his distaste. “Someone has decided that I need to be mated, and is looking for suitable matches, but none so far have been acceptable to me. While I would not object to an arranged mating, I would wish it to be with a female I at least could respect.”
Surprised, she raised her head to meet his steady gaze. Soon, though, her shoulders hunched, and she averted her eyes from him.
“I am sorry that you are in such a situation, Sesshoumaru. I really am. And I’m honoured you would ask me. But I have to decline. I can’t be your mate.”
“Yes, you can,” he countered imperiously, “and you should.”
“I don’t need your help, alright?” she huffed, beginning to grow agitated.
“Yes, you do,” he retorted. “I can tell you are not eating. You are not sleeping. You are letting the grief take the control of you. You are giving up on life, miko, and that is unacceptable.”
Again, she turned her gaze away from him, and stared at her thinned hands, clasped tightly in her lap. She did not wish to argue with him, she felt exhausted and just wanted to be alone.
“Go away, Sesshoumaru,” she pleaded. “Leave me be.”
Sesshoumaru had never expected the miko to comply to his proposal easily; he knew she was too struck by the death of his brother. Right now, he could tell she was not sure if she wanted to keep on living, taking a mate was the furthest thing from her mind.
But he was not going to back down, nor would he accept no for an answer.
“Would you rather stay here, daily haunted by the memories and living in the past, unable to let go your sorrow? Would you rather wither away and willingly succumb to death? If so, the years have truly changed you, miko,” he spoke in a cold, unyielding tone. “You have lost your perseverance and grown weak. How despicable.”
And then, there was finally a sign of life in the blue emptiness of her eyes. Her anger sparked, as the short-tempered woman rose to his bait.
“What do you know?” she shrieked at him. “You could not possibly understand what I feel, so just fuck off!”
Her small hands had balled into fists. A slight flush of anger tinted her waxy cheeks. Her chest was heaving from her heavy breathing. She looked alive again, but to him the most intriguing thing was her anguish, so clearly etched onto her features. For the first time, she had allowed it to show on the outside. He had studied her during the cremation, and knew she had not shed a single tear.
Sesshoumaru briefly closed his eyes and inclined his head.
“You are correct. I have never been mated, and thus cannot fathom your loss.” he paused, his piercing amber gaze boring into the very corners of her soul. “But I know my brother would want you to live. He would not wish you to waste your life because of him. He, of all people, would understand. He, too, loved and lost once. But he got past that pain and he found you.”
Kagome sat still as Sesshoumaru’s words sunk in. She knew he was right. Inuyasha would want her to move on with her life, he would not want to see her repeating his past mistakes.
But she was not sure if she could do that. She had lost too much. She had given up everything for Inuyasha; it had been because of him she had returned through the well. And now he was gone and she was forever stranded to the past, cut off from her family and the world she had been born in. Sure she still had her friends, but they were not enough to fill that horrible vacuum inside of her, born out of her loneliness.
Confused and afraid, she fingered the long sleeve of her kimono.
The demon lord was sitting before her, patiently waiting for her answer. She watched him under her bangs, and he looked just as regal, composed and powerful as always.
Only he could march in and so arrogantly propose to her on the day she had buried her mate. Not that he ever actually had. Not once had he presented her the question, no, Sesshoumaru had simply stated the proposition as it was.
She shook her head.
“I… I need to think about it,” she finally rasped, her voice so soft that he might not have heard her if not for his superior senses.
He gave her a graceful nod.
Then, he stood up and exited the hut, leaving the forlorn miko alone with the painfully heavy fragments of her heart.