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Reaching Across the Milky Way

Chapter Text

The warm, dry breeze ruffled Rin's hair as she made her way down the dirt road. She re-adjusted her straw hat to keep the shade on her face. It was no concern to her if she freckled, but Kohaku and Shippo would never let her hear the end of it if she came back tanned like an old, leather hide.

She glanced up at the sun's high position in the sky. She would have plenty of time to reach the village, even with a break for a midday meal. Spotting a tree just off the side of the road, she made her way to the space beneath the green branches and set down her bags. She leaned against the trunk and rummaged through her things until she found a few rice balls.

As she ate her snack, Rin looked out across at the countryside, taking in the distant mountains and admiring the white clouds drifting lazily across the sky. It was days like this that made traveling worthwhile: just wilderness, wildlife, and rice balls.

In the eight months since she started traveling to remote villages, Rin had gone through many new experiences. It had helped to take her mind off other, less enjoyable things.

...

A few short months after the spring festival in her fourteenth year, where Rin had caught the eyes of many young men in the village, Kaede had fallen victim to a dry and winded cough, with little energy or appetite. Rin had tended to the old priestess constantly for more than fortnight before Kaede showed signs of recovery. For another several weeks after, Rin forced Kaede to rest until she was convinced that the priestess was fit enough to move about normally. However, for the rest of the summer, Rin kept her eye on the old woman, ready to catch any hint of a symptom.

Sometime later, as the evenings started to carry a cold nip that foretold the coming of winter, Rin had returned from an errand in the village to find Kaede collapsed on the floor. The old priestess had no breath on her lips and Rin could not detect the thud of a heartbeat.

Struggling to hold back her tears, Rin had run to Kagome's home and practically into the young woman's arms. Concerned, Kagome sent Inuyasha to Kaede's hut. When he returned with an ashen look, Kagome also started to shed tears and Rin could hold back hers no longer. The two wept for the passing of their mentor and old friend.

Kagome offered to let Rin stay with her and Inuyasha, but Rin refused to leave the old priestess' hut. She remained withdrawn and rarely left the immediate area around her home. Her friends grew increasingly worried. Winter was on the way and Rin didn't look like she could take care of herself.

About a month after Kaede's death, Kagome called Rin to her home. She explained that she was having trouble keeping up with the additional responsibilities. Several requests had come from neighboring villages for medicines and small spiritual items. Would Rin be able to deliver and provide any aid as needed?

Rin accepted first that request, then a second and a third. Slowly she spent more and more time traveling and helping the sick and injured. As the winter months passed, she found herself falling into the new routine and leaving her grief behind.

Then last spring, news had come from a remote region that had been bit hard by the winter. They requested favors of the priestess, primarily healing skills and medicines. But the lady Kagome, expecting her second child, was in no position to make the journey. Rin volunteered to deliver the items in her place.

...

That had been some months back - now it was towards the end of summer, with high temperatures and even higher humidity.  Rin had completed her round and would be returning home after one final stop on the road.

Wiping the rice crumbs from her face, she packed her items and prepared to leave. The warm wind blew some wisps of her in her face. She took one last look at the landscape and then set out.

She traveled for the rest of the day and the sun was already setting by the time she arrived in the village.

On the edge of the settlement, there was little sign of life. Burnt debris littered the ground and skeletal structures remained where homes had once stood. Rin quickly lifted her kimono sleeve to cover her face; the air was rank with decomposing material. Not far away, laid the form of a small animal, clearly a family pet. She blinked back tears as she surveyed the area. She was no stranger to destruction and suffering, but that didn't make it any easier to stomach.

Rin pressed on and within a few minutes, she had left the graveyard behind. The buildings here were standing, but appeared to be held together with a patchwork of replacement wood. There were no people in the streets, but she could see signs of light behind closed doors and windows.

Looking for someone to speak to, Rin spotted an elderly man making his way down the path that ran through the center of the village. She quickened her pace and caught up with the old timer.

"Excuse me, do you know where I might find the leader of this village?" Rin asked in her best business manner.

The old man stopped and replied, "I am he. What business do you have with us?"

Rin pulled her straw basket from her back and opened the lid. "I come from Kagome-sama, bearing medicines and some small spiritual relics."

"Who is Kagome?" The village elder frowned in confusion. "You'd best be on your way; we have no money for a peddler's wares."

Closing the lid on the basket, Rin explained, still maintaining her professionalism, even in the face of the old man's slight to Kagome. "Kagome-sama is a powerful priestess. She stepped into the position after…", her mask faltered but she recovered and continued, "...after Kaede-sama passed on. There had been requests from this region for medicines and small talismans. I bring those items on her behalf."

The old man's brow furrowed even further. "I do recall the name of Kaede-sama and I am saddened to hear of her passing. However, we cannot accept these items, regardless of the good intention. He swept his arm to gesture at the village, "We have been attacked by bandits throughout the winter and now we have next to nothing. We have no means to pay you."

Rin smiled. "Kagome-sama does not require payment; just knowing that these were of use to you is more than enough for her."

"You would mock us and our strife?" Rin glanced as the old man's voice rose. "We may not have anything, but we still have our pride. Do you think us so far gone that we cannot get by without the pity of some unknown priestess?"

Despite having had this conversation many times in the past four months, Rin was still getting irritated. "Kagome-sama does not care about getting paid. She just wants to know that she was able to help you all in your time of need."

The old man glared, "And I am stating that we do not need a stranger's charity!"

By this point, their raised voices were drawing curious glances from doors that had suddenly become propped open.

Rin dropped her professional pretense. She understood that it was embarrassing to accept generosity from someone outside the village, and even more so to receive it gratuitously. That being said, this man's stubbornness was frustrating.

"I meant no offense, but I cannot leave this village without providing you with assistance." Rin smiled. "Do you think we could come to some sort of arrangement, perhaps some food and a place to stay for the night in exchange for some medicine?"

The old man seemed about to object, but a young couple leapt out from one of the homes, bearing a sick child. "Please! We'll give you some food, just please, help our son."

Rin turned to look at the child, whose breath was shallow. His skin had light sheen from his fever-induced sweat. "Please show me to your home. I'll administer the remedy there."

They hurried back to the couple's house, but several other families were looking on from the doorway and windows. Everyone clustered around as Rin crushed several of the herbs from her store and mixed them into a tea. Carefully, she fed the draught to the child. After a few minutes, the boy's breathing became regular and his complexion regained some color.

Rin wrapped some extra pieces of the herb in a piece of paper and handed them to the mother. "Crush these and add them to his tea at least twice a day. He should be alright in a couple days."

The mother and father bowed low. "Thank you! We didn't know what to do when he collapsed."

"It really is no trouble. " Rin felt a tug on her kimono and saw a small child who had snuck in. "What is it?"

"Will you look at my mommy?" The little girl's eyes were filled with worry.

Rin nodded. "Where is your mother?" The little girl gestured outside the house, so Rin packed up her things and readied to follow the child.

Just before she stepped out, the mother of the boy stopped her. "Please, when you are finished, come back. We will give you food and shelter for the night, to repay you for what you've done for our son."

"Of course," Rin smiled and then set out to help.

Hours later, Rin returned exhausted from treating many of the villagers. She could barely stay awake during the meal and was grateful when her hostess showed her to a futon. Minutes after she dropped into bed, her eyelids grew heavy and she was asleep soon after.

...

In her dream, Rin was young again, traveling carefree with Sesshoumaru through a field of golden flowers. Then suddenly, the field of flowers vanished and the trees were stripped of their leaves. Confused, Rin looked around and recognized it as Inuyasha's village. Naraku's miasma had destroyed all living things in the area and nothing had started to grow back yet.

She realized that Sesshoumaru had not stopped and she trotted after him, but she could not get close to him. He turned around and said, "Rin. Stay here."

Rin shook her head and started to run. "Wait, Sesshoumaru-sama, don't leave Rin here!" She tripped on a stone and fell, but landed on soft grass. The village was green again. This must have been three years after the jewel had disappeared, just before Kagome returned.

Rin picked herself up and ran after Sesshoumaru. He was even farther away. He turned again and held out a hand to her. Eagerly, twelve year old Rin reached out as well, but before she could get close, he said, "I must go away on business. I do not have time to visit you." Then he turned and continued walking.

"Wait! Sesshoumaru-sama! It's okay if Sesshoumaru-sama does not have time to visit Rin! Rin can wait!" Just as she started to gain on him, she stepped into a river and found herself submerged. When she surfaced, time again had passed. Rin's fifteen-year old self clamored out of the water. Off to the side, the lights of the village festival glowed in the distance.

Sesshoumaru spared her a glance and her clothing was suddenly replaced with a gorgeous kimono. He turned away for a final time. "Good-bye, Rin."

"Sesshoumaru-sama!" Rin called after him, but the dream had dissolved into a watery confusion.

...

A sudden clamor outside startled her awake. Outside the sounds of harsh yells mingled with terrified screams. She silently crawled out of bed, towards the window, and peeked into the darkness.

The street was filled with villagers, running in fear. There were also strangers, with armor and weapons. One stopped and turned to look straight at Rin, who dropped below the edge of the window sill.

Bandits!

She looked to the other occupants of the house, and found them huddled in a corner. Rin moved closer to them, but was only halfway when a figure in the doorway cast his shadow into the room. Rin recognized him as the bandit from only moments before who had spotted her through the crack in the window.

He reached forward and grabbed Rin by her hair. "Well aren't you a pretty one?"

Rin winced as he pulled on her hair and called out to the family, "Go! I'll keep him busy!" They hesitated. "Go! I'll be fine."

The bandit swung his axe to block their escape. "No one's going anywhere."

Rin reached in to her obi and pulled out a small, sheathed knife. Quickly, she thrust the blade down into the man's foot, while reaching towards his face with her nails. Cursing, he staggered back, clutching his eyes and reaching to pull the knife out.

"Go, now!" Rin shouted at the clustered family. The couple gathered their son and ran out the door. Rin scrambled to the door as quickly as she could.

Just a few steps from the door, the bandit grabbed her again. This time, he held Rin's knife against her throat. "I'd like to see you try that again, girlie."

Rin bit into his arm hard, causing him to loosen his grip. She twisted out of his grasp and started running into the forest.

The forest was dark, but she had sure footing. She slowed her pace and turned to look back at the village. She needed to double back soon, to see if she could help any of the other villagers escape.

She crouched behind a tree and surveyed her options. Fires were breaking throughout the village and all the villagers were fleeing into the woods, many under pursuit by bandits. It looked like the far end of the village was largely unaffected. If there was a chance of saving anyone, it was there.

Preparing to head out, she stood and turned. A large branch swung out of the darkness, aimed at her head. She lost her balance as the blow connected and dropped to the ground.

The bandit stepped out of the shadows gripping the branch menacingly. "I found you, girlie."

Rin tried to focus on the man in front of her, but her vision was blurry and everything was spinning. She felt her instincts telling her to flee and she dragged herself a couple of feet away from the man, but the man's foot came down hard between her shoulder blades. She winced as he dug his heel into her back.

"I don't think so." He pulled his axe off his back. "You're a feisty one, that's for sure. I didn't think you'd pull that stunt with the knife." Raising the axe above his head, he grinned wildly "Normally, I'd say we should have a little fun, but you've made me mad, girlie, and I don't forgive, or forget."

Still disoriented, Rin clawed at the ground in front of her, looking for something that could be used as a weapon, but found nothing. She closed her eyes tightly and waited for the fall of the axe to bring the darkness.

But instead she felt the pressure from her back disappear and then heard an uncomfortable gurgling noise a short distance away. Suddenly, she felt herself being lifted off the ground, a maneuver that sent spots in front of her eyes. She could feel the cold steel of armor on one side and the warmth of cloth on the other, but her vision was still blurry.

With great effort, Rin turned her head upwards, to see who her hero (or captor) was. Feeling the darkness of unconsciousness creeping in, Rin caught only a glimpse of white hair and golden eyes. Relief washed over her as she relaxed and let herself fall asleep.

"Sesshoumaru-sama…"

Chapter Text

"Do you think she'll wake up soon?"

Rin's eyes flickered open. Her vision was blurry, but she could see Kagome's and Kohaku's faces. They turned towards her with smiles.

Kohaku grabbed her hand. "Are you feeling better, Rin?"

Rin sluggishly tried to sit up, but was pushed back by her nurses. Kagome shook her head. "You need to rest. That was a pretty bad blow to the head that you took." Rin looked around and noticed that she was in Kagome's home.

"How did I get out of there?" Rin brushed the back of her head and felt a lump. "I thought I was dead for sure."

Kagome frowned. "You mean you don't remember? That's not good."

"Well, I remember getting hit in the head, and the rest of it is pretty fuzzy after that." Rin concentrated. "But I think someone saved me." She focused on what had happened and from her hazy memories the images of white hair with golden eyes bubbled to the surface. She sat up suddenly and shifted out of bed, despite feeling slightly dizzy. "Is he outside? I need to go thank him."

Kohaku and Kagome shared a glance. Kohaku put a hand on her shoulder, "Rin, there's something we need to tell you."

Rin moved out from under his grip. "I need to give my thanks before he leaves. He's outside, right?" She stood and moved to the door.

"Rin-chan, I don't think that's such a good idea…"Rin headed outside despite Kagome's protests.

A short distance away from the hut, she caught the glimmer of white hair in the breeze: a figure in the shade beneath a large tree. Rin set out at a reasonable pace, stopping only once or twice to recover from short spells of dizziness. Soon, she was standing right behind him.

Not sure what to say, she twiddled her thumbs before she bowed. "Thank you for saving me in that village," she looked up, "Inuyasha-sama."

Inuyasha turned around to face her, his expression suspicious. "Eh?"

Rin straightened up. "Thank you for saving me. If there's any way that I can make it up to you, please let me know."

His expression turned to one of complete and utter confusion. "Did you hit your head that hard?"

"That's rude!" Rin huffed in annoyance. "I'm just offering my thanks."

He crossed his arms. "And I'm telling you that you've hit your head too hard." He sighed. "You're thanking the wrong guy."

Now it was Rin's turn to be confused. "But I remember white hair and golden eyes. If it wasn't you, then.." It slowly dawned on her and she looked around excitedly. "Is he still here?"

"Sesshoumaru left as soon as it was clear that you would be fine." Kohaku had joined the pair.

With a rush of disappointment, Rin felt wobbly on her feet, but Kohaku caught her before she fell. She smiled her gratitude as her helped her sit down on a tree root.

Worry was written on Inuyasha's face. "Should I get Kagome?"

Rin shook her head, "I'll be fine." She laughed a little. "I guess I should have stayed in bed."

Then she turned to Kohaku again. "Sesshoumaru-sama already left?" She pouted. "I wish he'd stay longer. He never says 'hello' anymore."

Looking awkward, Inuyasha made an excuse to leave. "I'll go see if Kagome has anything for your head." As he passed the two teenagers he paused to give Kohaku a meaningful look. Kohaku nodded and Inuyasha left.

"Spill, Kohaku." Rin stared at her friend. "I can tell that everyone is holding something back from me."

Kohaku coughed and looked away. "Rin, I'm not sure how to tell you."

Rin sighed. "What is it? You don't have to spare me. I'm almost sixteen. Whatever it is that you want to tell me, I can handle it."

"Sesshoumaru isn't coming back." Kohaku said abruptly. "When he brought you back, he told us that he wasn't going to visit you anymore. No more gifts. No more visits."

Not sure what she'd just heard, Rin sat silent for a minute. Kohaku peered at her. "Rin?"

"Did Sesshoumaru-sama tell you this himself?" She asked carefully. Fear was beginning to pool in the pit of her stomach. He wouldn't really leave her.

"Not him, exactly. Jaken was the one that actually conveyed the message." Rin sighed with relief as Kohaku leaned back and looked at the sunlight through the branches. "He didn't mention why, but we all think this is the right thing."

Rin looked at him sharply as he continued. "To be honest, we all think that you're better off here than living with demons all the time."

"How can you say that?" Rin asked, anger hedging into her voice. "In case you've forgotten, Inuyasha-sama is also a demon."

Kohaku shrugged. "That's different." He held up a hand to stop Rin's interruption. "Kagome lives with Inuyasha, but they live with humans. A life with demons is unpredictable, violent, and dangerous."

"It's exciting, adventurous, and interesting," Rin corrected. "You're just prejudiced because you have to fight the dangerous demons all the time. Sesshoumaru-sama would never let me come to harm."

"You don't know that, Rin." Kohaku said. "Jaken said it was just a coincidence that Sesshoumaru was in the area when that village was attacked and that he was able to save you."

"I don't believe that. Sesshoumaru-sama has always been there to save me when it matters." Rin crossed her arms. She knew that she was being slightly unrealistic, but her head was throbbing and she didn't appreciate being talked down to. 

Kohaku sighed in exasperation. "Rin, he's not the hero you seem to think he is. Sesshoumaru lives in a cruel world where injury and death are common."

"But Sesshoumaru-sama is kind. I know he is." Rin frowned. "I am disappointed, Kohaku. I thought you knew better."

"I know you think Sesshoumaru is kind, but not all demons are like that. Can't you see that he is trying to spare you from the hardship of living in a demon's world?"

She stubbornly shook her head. "That's not for him to decide. I'm an adult - I can make my own decisions. Besides, I won't believe it unless I hear it from Sesshoumaru-sama himself."

Kohaku dropped his head in his hands. "There's no convincing you, is there?"

Smiling, Rin stood slowly. "Nope." She started to walk away and called over her shoulder. "I can count on you to help me find him, right?"

Kohaku's head jerked back up, his face aghast. He watched as Rin walked back to the village, concerned for his friend.

It has taken Rin some time to convince Kagome that she was well enough to travel and even then, she didn't mention where she was going. She swore Kohaku to secrecy. Then, once the preparations were made, there was one thing left to do.

Early on the morning of her departure, Rin made her way to the shade of a familiar tree. There was dew on the grass and even the birds were quiet.

Rin knelt in front of a small grave, clapped her hands together several times and bowed. "Hello, Kaede-sama." She looked up. "I'm sorry I haven't visited since…" her voice trailed off as she choked back her tears.

Taking a deep breath, she started again. "Anyway, I'm sorry it's taken me so long to see you." She dropped her hands into her lap, but stayed crouched before the marker.

"I'm going to see Sesshoumaru-sama." She traced a finger in the dirt. "I want to find what his intentions are for myself.

"I always assumed that he would come for me when I grew up, that we would travel around, having adventures - like the old days." She watched several birds glide overhead. "But Kohaku says that I'm supposed to stay here, that it's safer than living with Sesshoumaru-sama.

"Did you know that he was intending to leave me here? That he wasn't going to come back for me?" She frowned. "But I don't think it will come to that. Even if Jaken says that Sesshoumaru-sama wants me gone, I won't trust anything that little green kappa says."

The dark feelings started to pool in the pit of her stomach again as a shadow crossed her thoughts. "What if I do catch up to him and he really doesn't want anything to do with me? What if he does think that I'm only a nuisance?

"I don't know if I can handle being left alone again," she whispered. Her life had never been harder in the first few weeks after the old priestess had passed, when she lost the first maternal figure in her life.

The early dawn wind rustled through her hair, comforting her. "You're right, I know that I have Kohaku and the others. " She smiled.

She raised her hands in prayer again. "It will be a while before I can visit again, so take care." She remained that way for a few minutes.

Someone came up behind her and Rin stood. "Kohaku, I'm ready."

* * * * *

Hours later, Rin and Kohaku drifted through the sky on Kirara's back. It was peaceful and quiet, but for Kohaku, it was painfully awkward. He opened his mouth to say something, but found his throat wouldn't work. He coughed once and tried again. "Sesshoumaru-sama was last seen going this way. Hopefully we'll run into someone who has also seen him."

Rin nodded from behind him, but didn't say anything. Kohaku could tell from the look in her eyes that she was blissfully waiting to be reunited with her former guardian. He fidgeted as he tried to figure out how to broach the subject. In the end, he gritted his teeth and took a deep breath.

"Are you sure you want to be doing this?" he said.

Rin frowned. "Why are you bringing this up again? I told you that I'm going to meet up with Sesshoumaru-sama, whether you and the others like it or not."

"Why don't you heed our advice? We're not trying to control your life - we just want to make sure that you're aware of the consequences of this decision."

"And what are the consequences of this decision, exactly?" Rin raised a brow and placed a fist on her hip. "We've already covered that I think you are all being paranoid about my safety. I told you that I can protect myself."

Kohaku shook his head. "I know there's no convincing you about it; that wasn't what I was talking about."

"Then what?" Rin's irritation subsided as curiosity took over.

"Well," Kohaku coughed once again. "Physical danger aside, have you considered the emotional strife you're getting into?" Rin stayed silent, so Kohaku pressed on. "What I mean is, do you know if Sesshoumaru-sama returns your feelings?"

"What?" Rin responded sharply out of surprise. "We don't have that kind of relationship. Sesshoumaru-sama is like the father I never had." She pondered for a moment, "Well, not quite like a father because he's more lenient. So, more like an uncle or an older cousin."

"Are you sure that's all it is?" Kohaku asked. "The girls in the village seemed to think it was a bit more than that."

Rin brushed him off. "The girls in the village will say anything. They don't like me."

"What I meant to say was that I think it seems more than what you believe." Kohaku blushed a bit, but he hid it behind a pretend gesture to scratch his nose.

Rin tried to peer around him, without success. "Why do you think that?"

Kohaku steadied himself; he was in this all or nothing. "I've seen the way that he looks at you. I wouldn't say that he treats you like an older cousin or uncle would."

"And what makes you the expert on how Sesshoumaru-sama feels about me?" Rin pushed back, hoping to deter Kohaku from continuing much farther down the line of conversation.

Kohaku was rendered speechless momentarily as he tried to make a decision: tell her how he felt and get the rejection over with, or not tell her and maintain their easy relationship.

"There! What was that?" Rin pointed excitedly at a patch of forest. Kohaku sighed in relief, glad that he could postpone his dilemma.

Kohaku looked at where she was pointing, but the trees looked identical to the other trees. "I don't see anything."

"I just saw a flash of white. What if it was Sesshoumaru-sama?" Rin patted the large fire cat. "Kirara, take us down!"

"Rin, there's nothing there," Kohaku said, but he decided to humor her anyway. Maybe she would get this out of her system once she saw that her precious lord was not going to pop out of the woodwork.

The trio touched down and Rin slid off of Kirara's back. She looked around with increasing disappointment. "I promise you that I saw something white here. I honestly thought it might have been Sesshoumaru-sama."

"I believe you, "Kohaku said. "But, I think we should get back in the sky because we have a better vantage point from up there."

Rin pouted slightly, but then smiled apologetically. "Could you wait a few minutes? There is some...ah...personal business I need to attend to."

Kohaku nodded. "Don't go too far."

"I won't." Rin started walking away from the clearing, but as soon as she was out of eyesight, the flash of white appeared again. "Sesshoumaru-sama," she whispered.

She looked back in the direction of the clearing and then back at the disappearing silver hair. "I'm sorry Kohaku," she said as she ran after the pale figure.

* * * * *

Bored, Kohaku leaned against Kirara. "What is taking her so long?"

Kirara playfully pushed him, as if to say that he shouldn't inquire about that sort of thing. Kohaku smiled, but then suddenly felt a tingle in the back of his neck. A demon was nearby. In the direction that Rin had gone.

"I think she should have been back by now." Kohaku pulled out his scythe. "Personal business or not, I'm going after her." Then he followed Rin's path into the forest.

* * * * *

After minutes of a sprinting chase, Rin was starting to lose sight of the figure in front of her. Afraid that she would lose it entirely, she called out: "Sesshoumaru-sama!"

The figure stopped abruptly and turned to face her. Rin's smile turned to a look of horror. This gnarled, skeletal, gray monster was not Sesshoumaru. It turned its red eyes on her and grinned with a mouth of pointed fangs.

Rin turned to run, but the monster was much faster. A quick blow to her stomach and Rin was knocked unconscious.

* * * * *

Kohaku raced through the dense forest, following Rin's tracks, but they suddenly stopped. He scanned the area for signs of a struggle. His fears were confirmed when he saw clawed demon foot prints around the last set of Rin's steps.

From the looks of it, there were no signs of blood; it was likely that she was mostly unhurt. But, there was no telling how long the demon would keep her alive. Most demons in this area lived in the most barbaric sense imaginable. He would need to hurry.

"Kirara!" The cat was there in a second and he hopped on. "Let's go!"

As they became airborne, Kohaku hoped it wasn't too late.

Chapter Text

Rin blearily opened her eyes and felt the room spin around her. She shut her eyes again, but this did not stop the spinning sensation. She blinked a few times and noticed that it was not the room that was spinning, but herself.

She appeared to be strung upside down in some sort of cave that was littered with bones. Rin quivered in fear as she noticed some human skeletons piled in a corner. A skittering noise drew her attention to the back of the cave, where she could make out a figure scrabbling around in the shadows.

As if noticing her gaze, the demon turned towards her and she caught a glimpse of the glowing yellow eyes that she had mistaken for Sesshoumaru's golden ones. Rin quickly shut her eyes so that the demon would think she was still asleep. It seemed to work because the demon went back to its rummaging.

Taking deep breaths and trying not to gag, Rin tried to think of a way out of this situation. It was that or become food.

Thankfully, the demon had not thought to tie her hands and she reached for her pocket knife. Unfortunately, as she pulled it out of it's sheath, it slipped through her fingers and clattered onto the floor.

The demon reacted to the sound instantly and moved quickly towards her, claws extended. Heart pounding, Rin waited until he was within a few steps. Then she whipped out her second knife and slashed at the demon's face.

A bloody welt appeared over one of the demon's eyes and it backed away, screaming in agony and clutching its useless eye. Rin took the opportunity to swing her torso up to her feet and cut herself loose. She collapsed onto the floor and tried to stand, but the blood flow to her feet had been cut off and she urgently tried to massage feeling back into her legs.

Having recovered from the original attack, the demon approached Rin, now fully enraged. Rin frantically tried to pull herself to her feet, but the demon lunged.

* * * * *

Kohaku tracked the demon back to a cave and hurriedly landed Kiara. He rushed in the cave, "Rin!"

To his surprise, Rin was standing above the decrepit body of her attacker, knife dark with black blood. She smiled confidently. "See? I told you that I could defend myself from monsters." She moved to her pack and bent down to find something to wipe her blade on.

Kohaku glanced down at the demon to identify the species. His eyes widened in alarm. Those particular demons always worked in pairs, so where was the other one? He looked up just in time to see the second demon leap from the shadows, fangs bared. "Rin!"

Rin turned quickly, but lost her balance in the process, falling on the ground and unable to move out of the way. Kohaku launched himself towards her, hoping to at least to cover her, but before he could move a step, the attack stopped.

Sesshoumaru stood in front of Rin, with the second demon in his clawed grip. The demon struggled, but Sesshoumaru glared at the creature and in no more than a second, he snapped its neck and tossed it aside.

Kohaku went over to Rin and helped her sit up. "Are you okay?" He leaned her against his chest, since she was in shock. Whether from the demon attack or from the sudden appearance of her white knight, he wasn't sure.

Sesshoumaru stood a few paces away, watching the pair of them carefully.

"Sesshoumaru-sama…" Rin whispered from within Kohaku's grasp. She tried to move towards the demon lord, but Kohaku held her fast. "Kohaku, what are you doing?" She struggled. "Let me go!"

She twisted her head to look at Sesshoumaru, "Sesshoumaru-sama, tell him to let me go!"

After a moment, Sesshoumaru's expression cooled. "Kohaku, escort her home. She does not belong here."

Rin froze. She hadn't expected a warm reception, but the possibility of outright rejection hadn't crossed her mind. Her head and shoulders drooped as Sesshoumaru walked away. When he was gone, her body started to quake.

"Rin?" Kohaku peered closely at his friend. "Are you okay?"

He nearly missed having his nose smashed as Rin whipped her head up, her eyes angry and her face determined. "Oh no, you're not getting rid of me that easily."

She jumped up and ran out of the cave. Looking to the sky, she spotted Sesshoumaru's white form drifting away with the clouds. "Come on, we can still catch up to him!" After a few seconds of silence, Rin turned back around to see Kohaku standing next to Kirara.

"What are you doing? We will lose him if we don't leave now."

But the demon hunter stood his ground. "I won't help you get involved with him."

Rin glared at her friend and squared her shoulders. "If you're not going to help, that's fine," she said before stomping away.

"You're not going to catch up with him that way!"

"I know what I'm doing!" She yelled back. She cupped her hands around her ears, listening for some far-off sound. She lifted two fingers to her lips and blew. A sharp pitch whistled through the air. Rin dropped her arm and waited. A minute later, she was rewarded for her effort.

The great two-headed dragon, Ah-Un, descended from the sky, with a whining rider. "Ah-Un, you stupid dragon, what do you think you are doing?" Jaken kicked his short legs against the beast with no result.

"Wherever Sesshoumaru-sama goes, Jaken is sure to follow - far behind." Rin smiled and walked up to Ah-Un, extending her arms. The two heads sniffed her hands and then started to butt her gently with their heads. Rin giggled. "It is good to see you again."

Having taken notice of the exchange, Jaken sputtered, "Rin, what are you doing here? I thought you were back in that village!"

"Oh really. So it was you that told Inuyasha-sama and the others that nonsense." She reached up and plucked Jaken from his seat. "Thanks for bringing Ah-Un here."

She tossed Jaken towards Kohaku, who caught him messily. "Kohaku, take care of the kappa for me." She jumped into the saddle and shook the reins. With a rush of wind, Ah-Un took to the sky. "Sesshoumaru-sama, you're not leaving me behind - not this time."

The ground fell away as Rin and the dragon sped after the figure in the distance. The wind whistled in her ears as they started to gain ground. It was clear that Sesshoumaru hadn't detected them, or at the very least, didn't care that they were following.

"Sesshoumaru-sama!" Rin called out, certain that Sesshoumaru would pick out her voice, even at the extended range.

He ignored her.

Furious, Rin urged Ah-Un to fly faster, but they could only match Sesshoumaru's pace at best. Rin could see that they would not be able to make up the distance, especially now that he was going full speed. It was a good thing she had prepared, although not for this exact scenario.

Quickly, she pulled a length of rope from her shredded pack and tied one end around her waist. Then, she looped the other end around Ah-Un's reins. She took the opportunity to glance over the side of the dragon and gulped at the distance. The rope wouldn't provide much protection, if worst came to worst.

"Please let me be right about this." Rin took a deep breath and then swung herself out of the saddle.

A scream had barely passed her lips when she stopped falling. Still reeling from the heady rush of having just jumped into midair, it took her a minute for her vision to clear. Once it did, she latched onto folds of white and red fabric. "I caught you!"

Irritated, Sesshoumaru glared. "Let go of my robe. I am putting you back on the creature and he will take you back to the little demon slayer."

"No you won't." Rin held on tighter. "I'm not going anywhere until we talk."

The deadpan Sesshoumaru almost scowled. "We have nothing to discuss."

Rin frowned, but didn't let go of his kimono. "Really? Because I've heard rumors that you've been trying to leave me in Inuyasha-sama's village." She tilted her head slightly. "If you expect me to accept your decision, I would at least like to know why."

Before he had a chance to respond, she released one hand and pointed an accusing finger at him. "And don't tell me that it's for my protection because demons are dangerous. In case you hadn't noticed, humans aren't much safer!"

She suddenly felt her anger rising as she continued to rant. "I can take care of myself. Didn't I show you that when I was a child? I'm an adult - I can defend myself even better now and I don't need you to make decisions for me.

"If your concern is that I'll get hurt, then let me tell you something. Leaving me with Inuyasha-sama isn't going to help. I solemnly promise that I will get up to no good, every day for the rest of my life. I will make you see that it's safer to let me stay with you."

Rin took a breather as Sesshoumaru's eyes widened in shock. What had spawned this monstrosity?

After a moment, she let go of his robe and smiled at him, suddenly looking more like the little girl that Sesshoumaru remembered. "If you really want to leave me behind, I want to hear it from your personally - not from Jaken, or Inuyasha-sama, or Kohaku."

Though a second later, she was back to admonishing him. "But if that's the case, you shouldn't have made a promise to a little girl who would wait over six years to go back with you on traveling adventures. If you are going to abandon me, I want a very good reason."

"You are human. You belong with other humans." Sesshoumaru looked blankly at her.

Rin huffed. "You said that I could choose whether I wanted to stay with Kagome and the others after I spent some time with them. You're making the decision for me." She furrowed her brow. "I choose to travel with you."

Sesshoumaru frowned slightly and Rin pressed on. "Or at the very least, if you're going to make some argument that the demon world is dangerous and that I don't know how dangerous it is, then you have to let me travel for you."

She held up her index finger. "One year. Let me travel with you for one year - from now until the start of next fall. That will give me enough time to see the demon side of the world for myself. After that, I'll make my decision." She hid a grin; she had no intention of going back to the humans permanently, but at least she could given Sesshoumaru-sama the impression that she was considering it.

Sesshoumaru sighed, defeated. "Do as you wish."

"Really? I'm glad that's settled!" Then she noticed that she was being dumped back onto Ah-Un. Her smile disappeared. "What are you doing? I thought we had agreed that I was stay with you."

"You will ride on the dragon."

"Oh." Rin blushed with embarrassment from having behaved like a child who was afraid of being abandoned by its mother.

Once she was securely back in the saddle, Rin started to remove the rope, but she was stopped by Sesshoumaru's hand. "You might need that." Then he brushed by her, leaving Ah-Un in his wake.

Quick to catch up, Rin tried to fathom what happened. What did he mean by that? 

Then it clicked. "I purposely jumped off the dragon, you know - I didn't just fall off!"

Chapter Text

The sky was blue, the few clouds drifting around were puffy white, the sun was shining, and there was absolutely nothing that could ruin Rin's mood. She had just caught up to Sesshoumaru-sama and he had agreed to let her stay with him. Well, it was only for a year, but that was more than enough time to convince him that she should stay with him.

Sesshoumaru suddenly stopped and looked to the east. Rin pulled Ah-Un up next to him. "Sesshoumaru-sama?"

"Stay here," he commanded and started to move away.

"No."

He looked back to see a determined Rin poised to take flight with Ah-Un. He frowned slightly. "Stay here."

"No." Rin shook her head. "What is the point of my traveling with you for a year if I'm not even going to be exposed to demon nature?"

"This is dangerous; stay here where it is safe. I will return." He turned to leave again, but was held back by one of Rin's tirades.

"I am not a child anymore! I can take care of myself and I won't be a burden to you." Rin crossed her arms. "At least, no more of a burden than Jaken is."

From farther down Ah-Un's back, Jaken sputtered. "Ho-ho-how dare you! Unlikely you, I am a full-fledged demon. Although I may be of small stature, at least I passed the test!"

"Jaken." Sesshoumaru almost growled in annoyance, but the little demon didn't notice.

A twinkle formed in Rin's eyes. "Test? What test?"

Jaken smugly explained, "The great test that every demon in service to Sesshoumaru-sama's family must pass before they are employed. Great demons such as Sesshoumaru-sama can pass this test when they are but children. However, you, as a human, would never be able to complete the trial."

Rin latched onto this information greedily. "So, if I pass the test, then I would be on the same level as a competent servant. If that was the case, then you could have no complaint about me accompanying you into dangerous situations, would you, Sesshoumaru-sama?"

Sesshoumaru was giving Jaken the death glare and the little demon squirmed under the pressure. After a few moments, Sesshoumaru tightly replied. "If you pass the test, you will not need to stay behind except in the most dangerous of situations." Rin beamed. "Jaken will administer the test."

With that he floated away, leaving behind the distraught Rin and Jaken.

Without any sort of an explanation, Jaken brought Rin to a random bit of landscape. Mysteriously and reluctantly, he procured a white strip of fabric and handed it to her. Rin looked at him quizzically.

"All servants must go through a trial period, during which they must wear the white sash. Once they have completed the trial period, they take the test and then are allowed to discard the trainee sash. I won't have you make a mockery of this tradition, so you will wear the sash as well."

He turned back front and crossed his arms, pouting. "You are lucky Sesshoumaru has been so kind to you thus far. But it won't matter, since no human could pass hiko no shiren."

"What is hiko no shiren?" Rin stretched, limbering up for whatever challenge the test posed.

"That is the name of the test that you must pass. Any demon that wants to be considered for servitude under Sesshoumaru-sama or his family needs to jump across a gorge to the west of the castle. Failure means death-"

"I just need to pass hiko no shiren then?" Rin interrupted optimistically. Any test that Jaken had passed couldn't possibly be that difficult. "Where do I find this gorge?"

Jaken glowered at her. "Travel due west from here. An expert such as yourself should easily be able to locate it," he quipped a bit sarcastically.

Rin's hair whipped around her as Ah-Un coasted through the air. She shivered slightly in the late summer wind, but then she caught sight of her destination.

A great expanse of canyon opened below her; the region was completely devoid of flora and fauna, with sharp outcroppings scattered along the crevice. Rin looked into the chasm, it dropped off into darkness before reaching the bottom. Rin felt butterflies well up in her stomach and she turned Ah-Un away to find someplace to land.

Suddenly, a gust of wind picked up, almost pushing Rin off of Ah-Un. She desperately grabbed on to the reins as she slid to the side, pulling Ah-Un forcefully. The dragon made a sharp turn to follow the weight on the lead, but Rin scrambled back up and tugged in the opposite direction.

"Ah-Un, down." She directed them to the edge of the gap and took a minute to rest while her heart stopped pounding. Maybe it would be better to continue looking for the spot on foot.

Jaken had said that ordeal happened where the canyon was the widest. On one side of the canyon, she should be able to see the victory circle, marked by knives dug into the ground, with the trial period sashes tied around the hilts.

After only a few minutes, Rin saw a series of white sashes fluttering in the wind. From across the canyon, they appeared no larger than tiny hair ribbons. The distance was daunting; even a demon like Inuyasha would have difficulty crossing. Kouga would have been able to clear it back when the Shikon no Tama was around, but without the shards, Rin wasn't sure.

Ah-Un came up behind her and gave her gentle nudges. She draped her arm over one of the heads and rubbed the other. "There must be some trick to it. I know that Sesshoumaru-sama expects the best, but I can't imagine that he would approve of senselessly killing potential servants by asking them to jump across this." After all, how strong were servants like Jaken supposed to be anyway?

She crept up the edge and looked down into the black abyss. None of her surroundings provided her with any sort of hint and she sighed. Reaching down, she grabbed a handful of sand and tossed it out into the open space. The grains fell straight down.

Rin crossed her arms and frowned. Then she gathered up some more sand before climbing onto Ah-Un. She urged them to fly right at the top of the drop. As they started across, she slowly scattered the sand, but it all fell directly into the darkness. Discouraged, Rin watched the last of the grains disappear and let Ah-Un continue to the other side.

About third of the way through, Ah-Un stopped and started to twitch. Rin could feel the tension rising and gave their necks a pat. "What's the matter? Everything's okay-" Then a sudden wind from below pushed Ah-Un and flung Rin into the air.

"Ah-Un!" She screamed at the dragon, but she had been thrown too far. She scrunched her eyes closed, prepared for the worse. Then, she felt herself being cushioned softly and then thrown again. Briefly, she opened her eyes and saw that she was speeding towards the victory circle instead of down into the depths of the gorge.

Seconds later, she crashed into the dirt, just past the knives. She gasped while she caught her breath. Ah-Un landed next to her and crooned in concern. She smiled back. "Don't worry, I'm fine."

After a few minutes, she had regained her composure enough to get on Ah-Un and return to the other side. Slowly, she navigated Ah-Un through the same path as before, flying and dropping sand. Before they reached the midpoint, she moved Ah-Un away from the direct path and tossed some sand where she had been flung previously. "Let's see what happens here."

The sand fell straight down. Confused, Rin threw some more and the sand dropped again. Rin frowned. "Did I get the position wrong?" She guided Ah-Un closer to the same spot as before. There was nothing.

"I am sure this was the place -" she was interrupted by the huge blast of wind which narrowly missed the dragon. Rin backed them away as the wind died down. She patted both of Ah-Un's necks to calm them down. "It's okay."

She waited a few minutes and the blast happened again. Ah-Un circled for another set of minutes for the blast to happen again. Rin carefully counted the seconds between blasts. It seemed to happen consistently every two hundred seconds or so.

"One hundred ninety-eight...one hundred ninety-nine..." Rin tossed some sand and watched as it was whisked away. Shading her eyes, she was able to see that the large blast pushed the sand farther across the gorge. Around two-thirds across, there appeared to be another, softer blast, that carried the sand the rest of the way.

Rin smiled. "I knew there had to be some trick; Jaken couldn't have crossed it on his own." Her smile disappeared as she looked back at the starting spot. There was still a good hundred meters between the first air blast and the edge of the gorge. If she could make it to the first air pocket, she would be able to make it the rest of the way.

The problem was getting a third of the way across. But, the sun was already low in the sky, so Rin set up a small camp near the canyon. After a quick meal, she laid out her makeshift bed next to Ah-Un. She quickly stripped down to her under things and crawled into her bed.

Once under her blanket, she stared into the inky sky, sprinkled with twinkling stars, preoccupied with the day's events. It was only that morning when she had left with Kohaku in search of Sesshoumaru and now she was trying to pass a seemingly impossible test to prove she could keep up with him.

Any strong demon could jump the distance to the first wind burst, but it was out of the question for a human. She would need a trick of her own if she wanted to pass the trial.

Rin rolled over and tried to fall asleep.

* * * * *

Rin awoke to the sound of twittering birds and a distant howl of wind. She sat up and stretched, refreshed after a night of decent sleep. Her bright morning was interrupted by an annoying green kappa.

"Sesshoumaru will return this evening. At that time I will administer the test one time." He tapped his staff on the ground. "You have until then to practice."

With no further ado, he stalked away before Rin could ask him anything.

Rin sighed. A short deadline was the last thing she needed, but there was no use complaining. She quickly got dressed, had breakfast and then hopped on Ah-Un.

The first order of business was to practice traveling from the first blast to the second, and then landing so she wouldn't be impaled on the victory circle. She was lucky that her accident yesterday hadn't killed her.

Once Ah-Un was in position, Rin carefully counted and then jumped off. Her heart dropped into her stomach, but before she could scream, she was bounced upwards. The wind carried her to the next spot and she was once again tossed unceremoniously towards the victory circle.

Prepared, she oriented herself so she would land feet first. As she got close to the collection of knives, she extended her feet, and landed between the blades, before pushing off and summersaulting away outside the circle.

Rin rolled for a few feet and came to a stop. Ah-Un flew and landed next to her. "I'm okay. That wasn't as bad as I thought it would be." She shook out her limbs and got to her feet. "Just a few more times."

A few more times was all it took until Rin could reliably not kill herself on the landing. Standing after her last landing, she stared down the gorge. Now all she had to do was figure out how to get to the blast point without flying on Ah-Un.

She slipped into the saddle and brought Ah-Un back to the starting point. The first order of business was making sure that she wouldn't fall to her doom while attempting the jump. She rummaged through her pack and found a length of rope. It wasn't nearly long enough to cover the hundred meters she would need to go, but it would stop her from plummeting all the way down when she was sure to miss.

She found a tree close to the starting point and tied one end of the rope around the thick trunk. Then she tied the other end around her waist. Then she walked, determinedly to the edge of the chasm. The wind blew fiercely, tugging her hair in all different directions. The darkness swarmed at the bottom of the ravine, holding some unknown terror.

Rin rolled her shoulders back, walked to the edge. She took a deep breath, whispered a prayer and jumped.

She didn't have a chance to scream in horror as she free fell straight into the oblivion before the rope caught her and knocked all of the air from her lungs. Having stopped her descent, the rope pivoted on the edge of the gorge and swung her against the rocky cliff side.

"Ugh." Rin grunted and tried to get her bearing. Although she had hoped there would be some sort of wind magic that would help her get to the first blast, that didn't appear to be the case. She grabbed the taut line and began to climb back to the top.

"There must be some other air pocket around here somewhere. There's no way that Jaken could make it that far." Rin pouted in thought.

"Actually, I can make it that far on my own."

Rin whirled around to see the cocky little demon smirking at her. She turned back around and announced defiantly. "I don't believe you."

"Watch." Jaken walked calmly to the starting circle and tapped the end of his staff into the ground. One of the faces screamed and projected a blast of fire, moving Jaken forward. He maintained a steady pace across the entire distance, without the aid of the wind blasts that Rin was counting on.

"That isn't fair; you didn't actually make the distance on your own!" Rin protested.

Jaken shrugged. "There is no rule that you cannot use objects to help you. However, they must be self-contained and cannot be attached to the environment." He gestured at her rope. "That is not permitted for this test." He smiled arrogantly. "And I can't say that I would have used the rope that way, either."

Rin growled as Jaken disappeared into the forest. "It would have been nice to know that before." Then she sighed and untied the rope from her waist. It would take much more than her own stamina to get across.

"I wonder if there are any wooden poles around?" She wondered as she walked into the forest, hoping to find something to help her vault the distance.

* * * * *

Hours later, Rin was no closer to getting to that first blast and she was quickly running out of time.

One of Rin's universal axioms was that Sesshoumaru would always catch her should she fall. She had proved that the previous day, when she intentionally jumped off Ah-Un. Therefore she was in no danger of dying in the event that she failed the test, but she would be relegated to the 'children and weak' group when they encountered danger. Her entire year would be spent hiding in the background, just as she did so many years ago.

She shook her head. It wouldn't come to that - if she could help it. That was no way to convince Sesshoumaru that she could survive in his world.

Feeling a little dejected, Rin decided to take a bit of a walk on the starting side of the gorge. The sun was beginning to set and she had no more than an hour before Sesshoumaru would be back from his errand. But, she needed to clear her head.

As she meandered back and forth, she tried to think of her options. She was so caught in her thoughts, that she wandered too closely to the edge.

"Ahhh!" Rin cried out as a large gust of wind blew her into the abyss. She reached out to try and grab something from the cliff side to hold onto, but her hands could not find a purchase. Scrabbling, Rin tried to dig her feet into the side, even to stop her descent a little.

Miraculously, her foot caught on a ledge and she was able to grab a small rock outcropping. Clinging to the rocky wall, she scrunched her eyes tight and tried to ignore the wind whistling around her, threatening to send her tumbling again.

Rin surveyed her options: waiting for Sesshoumaru to arrive and rescue her would be equivalent to failing the test; even worse, he might determine that she was too much of a burden and bring her straight back to the village.

As much as she touted that it was her decision whether to leave or stay, she knew that she was only permitted as long as Sesshoumaru tolerated her. Being rescued from such a dilemma would not help her case. She would need to find a way out and quickly, if she still planned on taking the test.

"Ah-Un!" She called, but her voice was spirited away by the strong winds. The dragon would not being coming for her.

Rin forced herself to open her eyes and examine the path back to the lip of the gorge. There were very few footholds available and without any sort of rope, the situation looked hopeless.

She lifted her foot and tried the nearest foothold available. It seemed sturdy enough, so she tried putting her weight on it. The foothold crumbled and her leg jerked downward, but stopped just before the ledge surface. A second later, her foot was released and settled on the ledge.

"What could that be?" Rin muttered and looked down; there was nothing there that could have possibly caught her foot. She tried lifting her foot to the same level as before and lowering it, but met no resistance. She did this several times, but the result was the same.

"Why can't something be straightforward for once?" She cried, frustrated. In anger, she raised her foot and stomped it down. But this time, her foot was stopped by the same invisible force, that released her only a second later. Quickly, she tried again, but found that it didn't work.

Rin tried stomping her other foot and found the invisible step. It disappeared after a second. She tried again, but the step didn't appear. "Does it only work when you alternate your feet?" It didn't really make sense, for how could a random phenomenon possibly know which foot she was using?

"Maybe it's distance?" She stomped her foot and stepped on the invisible step. After her foot landed back on the ledge, she swung the same foot, but over the empty space off the ledge. Praying that it would work, she stomped and luckily, the invisible pillow appeared. Before the step faded, she brought her leg back within the safety of the ledge.

Taking a minute to breathe, Rin analyzed the situation: there appeared to be a random wind-based behavior that provided resistance when enough force was applied. It didn't seem to work when attempted in a close space, but alternating with large foot steps should provide enough space to keep activating...whatever it was.

Rin looked up at the edge - only a couple meters separated her from the surface. It would not take more than a few iterations of the random foot steps to get her to the top.

Steeling her nerves, she took one giant step, but didn't bring her second foot up in time and she slid back to the ledge, but nearly fell off. She tried again, but this time was able to get a second step in and a third before falling back down to the ledge.

Clearly, this was going to take a bit of time. Rin furrowed her brow in concentration and pushed off again.

About an hour later, Rin was laying breathless on the ground at the lip of the gorge. It had taken much longer to master stepping on the air cushions than she had anticipated. However, now she knew how she was going to get to the first blast. Now she just needed to do a run-through...

"Ahem." Rin was pulled out of her thoughts by a small cough. She turned her head towards the sound and saw Jaken standing behind her. "Sesshoumaru will be here shortly. If you have not passed the test by then, you will need to wait another year before you can take the test again."

He smirked, "As you have learned, you are clearly out of your league. You should stay where Sesshoumaru-sama tells you to."

Rin snapped back, getting off the ground, "I'll have you know that I have every intention of passing this test and then I won't be left behind with you like a child."

Jaken stuttered, "Im-im-impudent human girl! I am Jaken, the great steward of Sesshoumaru-sama himself! How dare you talk to me that way-"

"Rin." Sesshoumaru had arrived.

The little demon instantly turned to groveling, "Ah, Sesshoumaru-sama. Rin was just about to take the test. I do apologize that we weren't able to run the test earlier; this girl was causing a scene-"

"Do the test and then we will leave." Sesshoumaru cut him off.

Jaken did little to conceal his annoyance about Rin, but ushered her to the starting place. He cleared his throat and then hurriedly said, "We are here today to witness this trainee, Rin, perform hiko no shiren, a sacred ritual. Failure will result in death. May the winds be in her favor." He glared at her and then backed away.

With Sesshoumaru and Jaken staring at her back, Rin could feel her nerves getting the best of her. She hadn't even had time to test her theory about getting to the first blast and she certainly hadn't been able to time it properly.

If there was ever a time for luck, this would be it.

She took deep breaths and took a few steps back from the edge. She closed her eyes and tried to listen for the wind blast in the middle of the canyon. After counting one hundred and fifty seconds, she took one last breath, gritted her teeth and sprinted for the edge.

She nearly stumbled as the wind caught her right foot. She pushed off and stretched her left leg as far as it would go. A split second later, she shifted her weight and pushed off the invisible pillow that formed under her left foot, reaching out with her right leg. After a few steps, she developed a rhythm, switching between her feet in a zig-zag sort of pattern.

Rin could hear Jaken's faint complaints and thought she heard "cheating". She smiled as she continued quickly towards the first air blast. Almost there, she realized something was wrong: she had miscalculated the distance to the exact spot. She would miss the blast by a few seconds, which meant she would have to try hopping around for another few minutes - something she wasn't sure her invisible step trick would support.

Trying not to panic, Rin quickened her pace and felt the resistance of the air pockets start to lesson from all the closely clustered steps. She changed tactics: taking three quick steps, she pushed off with both feet on a single jump. Feeling the extra power under her feet, she arched forward into a handspring, praying that this would work.

Her prayers were answered and she was able to finish tumbling, right onto the air blast. Without a second to spare, she was launched into the air again and tossed to the second blast point. Unlike in her practice, Rin had no control over her flight and was unable to orient herself as the second blast tossed her towards the edge of the gorge. With the world spinning around her, Rin was only able to catch a glimpse of her landing zone: the middle of the victory circle.

Unable to do anything about her predicament, Rin closed her eyes and braced for impact.

Instead of painful, metal-spike induced death, Rin felt strong arms pluck her out of the air. Sesshoumaru scooped her up and landed a few feet beyond the victory circle. He let her delicately slide out of his grasp, but kept his arm around her to keep her from falling down.

Jaken landed seconds later with Ah-Un. Rin looked up hopefully. The little demon grumbled but begrudgingly gave his consent. "Although it was without any refinement and was borderline barbaric, Rin's performance qualifies as a pass."

Rin jumped up and clapped her hands. Then she looked shyly at Sesshoumaru. "I can accompany you now, right?"

Sesshoumaru gave her the same stony stare that he always had. "Do as you wish." He headed off into the forest.

Exhausted, Rin almost mentioned setting up camp, but thought better of it. She could sleep on Ah-Un. Sleepily, she climbed on the dragon and motioned him to follow Sesshoumaru.

After only a few minutes of walking in the darkening forest, Rin felt her eyelids droop and within seconds, she was slumped over on the dragon's back.

Sesshoumaru turned around and looked back for a minute. Then, he approached the sleeping girl and gathered her in his arms, careful not to wake her.

Jaken muttered his complaints, "You don't need to do that, Sesshoumaru-sama! She can sleep on the dragon; I will make sure she doesn't fall off." He was about to continue when Sesshoumaru shot him an icy glare and Jaken fell silent.

Sesshoumaru walked past and continued into the forest.

Chapter Text

The sounds of twittering birds and a gentle breeze rustling the green summer leaves pulled Rin out of her sleep and she slowly became aware of her surroundings. An ashen fire pit, where a campfire had glowed. One traveling kit, with the bed neatly unpacked. Rin blinked. A fire pit and bedding? She had no recollection of setting up camp and settling down for the night. Then she vaguely remembered she hadn't.

After her adventure with hiko no shiren, she'd fallen asleep riding Ah-Un. Someone must have made a fire and put her to bed. It would explain why she felt so hungry, if she never had dinner. A dreadful thought crossed her mind - it wasn't possible that he had taken care of her, was it?

As if to confirm her suspicions, her favorite green imp walked into the clearing.

"Ah, good. You're awake. Get packed - we're leaving." Jaken snapped at her. Always a little ray of sunshine.

Trying to maintain good will, since being rude was no way to repay Jaken for taking care of her, Rin calmly replied. "I will get ready as soon as possible, but I would like to eat something before we leave."

Jaken sputtered in annoyance. "Y-y-y-ou foolish human! What an inconvenience you are! First you collapse in Sesshoumaru-sama's arms so that he'll carry you. Then you feign exhaustion so he has to set up camp for you. Now you're claiming that you need to eat-"

Rin stopped paying any mind to the little demon. Sesshoumaru-sama had carried her here? And then he performed some mundane human chores like making a basic fire? Rin flushed from embarrassment. She wasn't sure what was worse - thinking that Jaken had tended to her, or at the age of almost sixteen, she was still being cared for like a child by the guardian she admired so much. Although somewhere in in her heart, a little wicked though bubbled up: but you enjoy it when he treats you like a princess. Rin shook her head and focused again on Jaken who had barely ceased his tirade.

"...so completely irresponsible-"

"Where is Sesshoumaru-sama?" Rin interrupted. She started to get out of bed and stretch. "I would like to thank him for assisting me last night."

Jaken raised his pointed beak into the air, "Of course you do! Anyone who can submit to Sesshoumaru-sama's good will should do nothing less than grovel at his feet!"

"Where is Sesshoumaru-sama?" Rin repeated with a little more force.

Frustrated, Jaken glowered, but answered. "He is already ahead of us."

Rin nodded. It was clear that Sesshoumaru still set his own pace and nothing would affect that. He might have granted Rin permission to stay by his side for a year, but he would not slow down for anyone, not even Rin. There was nothing to be done about it today, but Rin would be up earlier tomorrow.

Pulling some rations out of her bag, Rin nearly choked down a hasty breakfast. A swift clean-up later, she was mounted on Ah-Un and ready to depart. Jaken barely managed to grab onto the dragon's tail as they lifted off.

"Now to catch up with Sesshoumaru-sama," Rin murmured. She urged the dragon ahead at full speed.

They flew long and hard, with Jaken grumbling the entire way, but Sesshoumaru was nowhere in sight by the time the sun started to set. Feeling defeated, Rin brough Ah-Un down for a soft landing near a stream. Sesshoumaru-sama must have some urgent business that he wanted to keep her out of. Rin sighed, but moved to set up camp and then headed down to the stream to catch some fish for dinner.

The next day, Rin rose early, but was disappointed to see Sesshoumaru had already left. She, Ah-Un, and Jaken flew all day at a breakneck speed, but they did not catch up to Sesshoumaru.

Days passed in much the same fashion, where Rin would rise very early and fly quickly, but never once encountered Sesshoumaru.

Several weeks had passed and one night Rin tossed, unable to fall asleep. Sesshoumaru-sama had grudgingly giver her a year to travel with him and then reluctantly granted her permission to stay at his side, even as danger loomed. There was no doubt that she had forced herself into the situation, without any consideration to Sesshoumaru-sama. Maybe he had meant to leave her in the village with Kagome and the others. Maybe she was a burden to him. After all, maybe he regretted his decision and was trying to elude her.

Rin sat up. That was no way to think! True, she had been a sort of tag-along when she was eight or nine, but now she was an adult. She had learned basic medical and herbal treatments from Kaede. She could defend herself on a basic level, thanks to Kohaku. Now she had the knowledge and skills that she had not possessed all those years ago. She had fought hard so far to stay with Sesshoumaru-sama. There was no reason to feel uncertain or insecure: she would prove herself again and again if necessary.

Resolved, she flopped back on her thin bed mat. A few minutes she was upright again. "That was stupid; I let myself get all worked up and now sleeping seems pointless." She looked up at the moon, which softly illuminated the clearing with its soft glow. Rin smiled. A quick stroll would soothe her.

She made her way quietly, tracing a slow path around the perimeter of her campsite, lost in thought. With her mind residing elsewhere, Rin didn't notice a root in the darkness and stumbled. Before she could regain her balance, a strong par of arms caught her, keeping her upright.

"Sesshoumaru-sama," Rin breathed, shocked to meet face to face after so many days of separation. Moments later, she realized that he was still supporting her and she scrambled to right herself.

Clearly her throat, Rin stepped back from the demon lord. "Sesshoumaru-sama, have you returned from your errand?" She smiled politely.

"What errand?" His deep voice cut through the air between them.

Feeling awkward, Rin pressed forward. Had she guessed wrong? Did he actually mean to avoid her, without even the excuse of danger or other pressing matters? "You have not been present for some time, so I assumed that you had gone off on an errand, to some sort of business that needed to be addressed without the rest of us in tow."

She found it difficult to stop, so she babbled on. "I know I made you promise to take me with you, even into dangerous situations, but I can see that it was irresponsible of me to force you into such an arrangement. There will of course be times when you need to resolve matters on your own..."

Curses. Rin looked at the ground. Shame at her own silliness poured over her in waves. She had never been inclined to get upset for making a fool of herself before, and she had in fact spent most of her life not caring what others' opinions were. But, for some reason, standing before Sesshoumaru-sama, she wished she could disappear. Or get angry. Then at least she could spout any rubbish she desired without feeling ungainly.

"I have kept my word."

Rin looked up as Sesshoumaru continued. "You have been matching my pace. You have been traveling in my company, as you requested."

Astonished, Rin took a second to find her voice. "But I did not see you at all."

"Is constant visibility another requirement?" He gave her a cold , questioning glare.

Almost with relief, Rin felt her irritation build. Good. Now she wasn't so embarrassed. She didn't back down as she admonished him. "If I can't see you, how am I supposed to know you're even there?"

"The dragon will sense and follow, as you are aware."

Of course. How stupid of her! Ah-Un would know the way to follow its master. Otherwise, Rin would have been long lost on the first day when they had pushed out in random directly. Well, not very random as it turned out.

Her irritation mounted for only coming to this realization now. She felt her temper rising, even though she know that she was being childish. "Well, it feels no different than if you had gone off somewhere. Traveling together means sharing a companionship - it's hardly traveling together if you can't see each other."

Calming down, Rin tried to back track a little. "At the very least, sharing meals would be nice." She glanced up meekly at the stoic mask she knew so well.

"Hm." With that quick reply, Sesshoumaru swept away. Rin's brows knit in confusion. What was that supposed to mean?

* * * * *

As she rose the next morning, Rin was filled with disappointment: Sesshoumaru-sama was nowhere to be found again. Rin prepared to leave, completely ignoring Jaken's usual complaining. Her heart sank lower as they started to fly.

Then, only yards in front of her, floated the serene form of Sesshoumaru. Elation bubbled up inside of her and a smile broke out on her face. Maybe he was suffering for her. But maybe it would work out.

* * * * *

Sesshoumaru pressed on, setting the pace at a quick clip. It had been several days since Rin had found him during a late night stroll and confessed that she was displeased with their traveling arrangement, although he could not fathom exactly why. She had been upset - that much had been obvious. He glanced back at the teenage girl who was exuding joy as she glided through the skies on the back of a two-headed dragon.

She was no longer a care free pet that followed him blindly, but this new, clever, occasionally fiendish creature demonstrated a lot of promise. He faced front and the tiniest smirk graced his face before it disappeared.

They were heading into Ryudo, a set of lands overseen by small clans of dragon demons. The territory fell under the great western lands controlled by Sesshoumaru and his fore-fathers, but the dragon clans were permitted to control the land as long as they made no action that would undermine the Inu family command. Sesshoumaru's spies had long since reported unrest on the borders of Ryudo, with whispers of abductions and violent murders.

Now that Rin was traveling with him once again, he was free to focus completely on these pockets of conflicts within his domain, since he no longer had to keep some of his resources honed on to her separately.

He stopped abruptly, his senses tuned to some inconsistency in the air. The strange sensation had peaked a few paces back, but it still hummed on the edge of his awareness. He turned back to face Rin just to see Ah-Un begin writhing as though in pain. The dragon reared and twisted in the spot that Sesshoumaru had just passed. Rin had clamped her arms tightly around one of the dragon's necks.

Eyes widening, Sesshoumaru surged forward towards Rin, his arm outstretched, but in that instant, Ah-Un winked out of existence, Rin along with it.

Chapter Text

One second, the wind was whistling past Rin's ears as she struggled to stay clamped on to one of the necks of Ah-Un, who was furiously rocking back and forth. The next moment she felt a great compression, as though heavy stones pressed in from all sides. Just when her lungs felt ready to collapse, Ah-Un dropped a short distance to the ground and landed.

Unclenching her hands and forcing her eyes open, Rin surveyed their new location. What she had not anticipated were the dozen of guards armed with spears and swords. Most pointed in Rin's direction. Looking beyond the weapons, the guards were tall, reptilian, with mottled brown scales.

The closest one opened its mouth into a narrow, but toothy snarl. "You! Get off the dragon!" He jabbed his spear against her side, "Get off the dragon or we'll make you wish you had."

Rin rapidly assessed the situation, evaluating her options. High stone walls enclosed them in a cramped courtyard; it would be hard for Ah-Un to take off here so escape was unlikely. She might have been able to slip through the ranks of lizards, but Ah-Un would still be trapped. Sesshoumaru-sama would surely scold her later, but Rin refused to abandon her faithful dragon friend.

"How dare you threaten one under the protection of the great Sesshoumaru-sama!" Jaken crawled out from under Ah-Un where he had fallen during the crash landing. "All of you will certainly be reckoned with once Sesshoumaru-sama arrives!"

Several of the lizard men looked at each other. "Sess-who?" One of them sneered, "Oh, you mean that mutt? What do we care about him? He's miles away and our lord is much stronger."

Jaken could not contain his ire. "How dare you insult Sesshoumaru-sama!" He then proceeded to spout polite obscenities (if that was possible), choosing to ignore the increasing amount of tension and hostility coming from their captors.

Suddenly, Rin was roughly hauled away from Ah-Un. She kicked and flailed her arms, looking for any means of disabling her opponent, but the scales were too hard and the fleshy openings at the joints just slightly out of reach. Rather than waste her energy, Rin subsided. Beyond the iron grasp that contained her, Rin saw Jaken being tossed into a sack and Ah-Un being prodded with hot iron until he moved towards a darkened corner of the courtyard.

Another cruel lizard face swept into her vision. "You're lucky. Our lord wants to speak to you."

Rin raised a brow, but did not further that might instigate the ruffians. "And how does that make me lucky?"

The leader of the group grinned and flicked out a forked tongue. "You're not going down to the cells like the other bad ones we've caught."

"Your lord is hospitable?" Rin kept her voice light and innocent.

The guards pushed her along and the leader laughed in a raspy voice that sounded like gravel. "No - just practical. You're not a demon, so it doesn't make sense to put you in the cells."

That was bad - they didn't like humans. Rin attempted to hide with some false bravado. "You think I'm too weak to escape?"

"You are weak and therefore no use to us." The lizard smiled before shoving some cloth over her head. "And our lord disposes of useless things - quickly."

* * * * *

Sesshoumaru dropped to the ground under where Rin had been abducted. He could still feel the tug and pull of the trap that had been laid to catch unwary travelers. There was no doubt that this trap was linked to the very rumors Sesshoumaru had come to investigate. There was also no doubt that there would be others. It raised a number of questions: why did it target the trio instead of him? Who was the true target - the girl, the dragon, or the imp? But there were more important things to consider at the moment.

He thought back to the last seconds before Rin had vanished. Just after the dragon started writhing, there had been a ripple in the air. Clearly Rin had been pulled through some rip or portal to another space. Sesshoumaru frowned. If she had been pulled into another dimension, serious harm could befall her. Humans were fragile and easily suffered ill effects from demon realms.

Pushing aside his concerns and questions, Sesshoumaru held out his arm and in his upturned hand, he summoned a swirling mass of shifting darkness.

"Find her." All at once the swirling mass split into a dozen inky crows that sprung from his claws and scattered. He watched them fade into the distance before launching himself into the sky.

* * * * *

Rin was led through a seemingly endless maze of halls. She made a note of every turn, every misdirection thrown at her. She might not be able to escape, but she would be able to make her way back to the courtyard and possibly to Ah-Un.

Then the party halted. A great pair of wooden doors were hauled open. Rin was pushed across a stone courtyard and pushed to the ground.

With her hands bound, she was not at liberty to remove the fabric that blinded her, but she appeared to be outside. The stones on the ground were smooth and warm, as though sitting under the sun. She sniffed and immediately wished she hadn't. Although she could sense a light breeze, the air was thick with blood and rot.

The guards dragged her to her knees and tore the sack from her head.

She found herself in an open courtyard that must have been used to entertain guests once. But those days were long since over. Guards lined the perimeter, almost hiding damaged columns and half-destroyed statues. In corners, Rin could see the rotting remains of corpses, some that looked fresh enough to have been killed earlier that day. Blood stains of varying sizes, shapes, and color were splattered across the stones.

Forcing herself to look forward, Rin gazed upon the lord of the castle. He was large, even when compared to his guards. But where the guards were lean and toned, their liege was bursting with bulky muscles, long in disuse. He was squeezed into an over-sized throne that had been crudely carved from a single boulder. The splintered remains of the previous throne lay just behind the lizard lord. Rin shivered. Regardless of whether he had gone to see, any blow from him might be the last. He trained his single remaining eye on Rin and she flinched from his snakelike stare.

"Come here, girl." His voice rumbled like boulders clashing together. He held out a scaly hand and beckoned with a single claw, rusted and crusted with blood. Rin hesitated. His voice had been even, but she could detect a violent undercurrent, threatening to break out.

The guards prodded Rin with the butts of their weapons and she shuffled forward slowly on her knees.

"I said, come here!" Some of the rage leaked into his command.

Hoping to avoid any additional wrath, Rin moved to stand so she could move faster. The lord hissed and the guards pushed her harshly back onto her knees. She crumpled slightly from under the sheer pressure of their force. Gasping a little from having the wind knocked out of her, Rin looked to the lord in confusion.

"Did I say you could stand, you human whelp?" The lord partially rose from his throne.

Rin shook her head enthusiastically. If she wanted to make it out of this castle, she would need to make it out of this courtyard. "No, uh, lord." Frantically, she tried to recall some of the postures and bows that Kagome had taught her as part of the priestess rituals when Rin was younger. Rin settled onto her feet and bowed over her hands. "I apologize for my behavior. I am a simple country girl and I am not educated in court etiquette. Please excuse my poor manners."

This seemed to pacify the lord and he settled back down. "That is well. Just let me see you closer."

Reeling from the change in temperament, Rin wasn't sure whether she should try to stand or remain still: either seemed perfectly reasonable given what had just transpired. But she stood shakily and moved slowly. When she was a few paces away from the throne, she stopped. The lizard lord once again let his one eye rove over Rin's form; repulsed, Rin quivered. After a few minutes of tense silence, the lord nodded.

"She will do nicely as one of my Hanahime. I have been looking for a new jewel to add to my collection." He paused mid-thought and snapped a question at Rin. "What princess are you?"

Wide-eyed, Rin stammered, "What princess am I?"

"Our lord asked you a question! Declare your royal lineage to join the Hanahime or our lord will have you disposed of."

Panicking, Rin tried to think, "I am…Rin-hime…of…the….Inu clan." The lie came to her lips more easily than she believed it should have.

But apparently it was not convincing enough for the unstable lizard lord. "DO NOT LIE TO ME!" He roared as he stormed over to Rin and backhanded her across the face. Rin felt bone in her face crack as she flew across the room before she slammed into the back wall. Blackness crept into the edge of her vision, but she struggled to stay awake. Slipping under now would almost certainly mean death.

Concussed, Rin pushed herself to her knees. "I'm sorry, lord?"

"You are a human, how could you be a princess?" The lord asked, as though just coming to the realization, despite having asked an opposite question only moments before. It also escaped him that their could be human rulers as well as demon ones, but Rin wasn't about to correct him.

Unable to think clearly, Rin tried to conjure any sort of lie. Then, Sesshoumaru's face appeared in her mind. "I am…the betrothed…of Sesshoumaru-sama…of the…Western Lands." After saying those words, Rin felt a little better, as though she had just chanted a healing spell. Her head cleared a little and she continued. "Do you think his family would see him paired with a human?"

This set the lizard lord back. "But you are human. You smell like a human. You are clearly just as weak as a human."

Gaining confidence, Rin scrambled to a better position on her knees. "A temporary disguise, let me assure you."

Twisting his head to the side, the lord slipped back into his half-mad state. "And why would the betrothed of that dog parade around as a human. Even that clan of mongrels has more pride than that."

Rin adopted a haughty tone and gambled that a bit of attitude would please the crazed lord in his current mood. "Don't expect me to explain it to you. That family has a particular…fascination…with humans." She smirked. "But prestige always comes with a certain allowance for eccentricity."

This set the lizard lord into a long and loud laugh. Her response had hit the mark. "I always knew that family was rotten." Then his laughter died as suddenly as it had started. "Welcome Rin to my Hanahime and my castle." He clashed his palms together and a circle of guards swarmed around Rin. "Take her to the others, but, have her healed first. She seems to have hurt herself somehow."

As she was ushered out of the courtyard, Rin's head pounded. What den of madness had she fallen in to?

* * * * *

Hours had passed and Sesshoumaru was no closer to discovering Rin's location. The most recent crow messenger had returned with no news. Whoever had taken Rin away from him would pay dearly. Sesshoumaru leapt into the air and blazed a trail in the clouds, his eyes furious.

Chapter Text

The guard swept Rin through the halls of the castle but she took almost no notice. Any adrenaline that helped her ignore the broken bones in her cheek and throbbing pain in the back of her head was quickly draining away, leaving her drained and barely able to walk.

Eventually, they arrived at a little building that was set in the middle of a traditional garden - or at least it would have been if the ponds had water or if any of the plants were still alive. Despite the growing pain, Rin noticed that the garden was even more heavily fortified than the throne room: guards, two deep, lined up around all the edges. 'What a waste of resources', she thought in passing.

Then she was whisked to the front doors and the guards barked out, "Got a new one for you!"

A few seconds later, one of the doors cracked open. Unfortunately, this also happened to be the moment when Rin's body chose to give out and she collapsed from pain and exhaustion.

* * * * * *

"Who do you suppose she is?"

"She's human - isn't that proof enough?"

"I thought humans were disposed of. Do you think this might be a trick?"

Soft and fluttering voices intermingled with stern and biting tones, waking Rin. She opened her eyes and assessed her physical condition. Somehow, her head had stopped pounding. She poked her cheek, which had seemed to have healed. Then she panicked - how long had she been asleep?

A pattering of feather-light touches paraded over her hand and Rin quickly groped around. Her fingertips brushed against a small form that felt scaly and round. The creature clung to her palm and she was able to get a good look at the thing: it was blobby little thing, with big black eyes set against the tiniest of black scales. It had chubby little paws and spindly tail that whipped back and forth.

Rin looked into the girl's eyes, "Were you the one that healed me?"

The blob gave a chirp and then flitted away before Rin could say anything else. She sat up to see where it had gone and came face to face with the Hanahime.

Seated in a cluster a short distance away, where about a dozen girls. Each possessed the prettiness than was afforded to those with demon blood in their veins. Perfect skin, radiant hair, and bejeweled eye colors. The youngest were no older than twelve or thirteen and the oldest looked about several years older than herself. Each had been adorned with draped silks and embroidered satins. Gems sparkled from loops in their hair, throats, and wrists.

However much the lizard lord valued his castle, he valued the Hanahime much more. While the building was largely in ruins, these girls were adorned with expensive fineries. This thought chilled her to the core. It didn't take much to guess what purpose the Hanahime served. Rin had been through enough plundered villages to know what cruel men with power were capable of. Although none of the girls in the room sported the lifeless look that so many of the broken women of those villages had, Rin sensed a current of fear in the room.

At the center of the group was an older girl with black-green hair and deep purple eyes. "Who are you?" Her voice was strong, but soothing. "We are curious as to why the lord of this castle would send a human here."

Rin rose from the futon that had been laid out for her. "My name is Rin." She wasn't sure how much she wanted to expose, given the anti-human sentiments she'd heard just minutes before. "I told the lord I was a demon, but in human disguise. In truth, I am a human."

"I knew it! You are a spy to thwart our attempts to escape!" Another girl, closer to Rin's age raised a brow and gave her a sharp look. This one had pale blue hair and silver eyes that reflected any light that was caught in her gaze. She turned to another, slightly younger girl with light pink tresses, but the same silver eyes. "She will hinder any chances we have to escape. Harika, I told you not to get your hopes up."

The older girl frowned, "Kongomi-hime, you are making accusations without any basis. Would it make sense for the lord to send a spy to stop us from escaping? He has numerous guards that will do the job satisfactorily."

"Kongomi-nee-sama," the younger girl with rosy hair softly smiled. "Let us hear Rin-san's side of the story. I agree with Kokuto-san: I doubt she is a spy."

Rin watched closely, getting a sense of the group's dynamic. Regardless of whether all the other girls here had also lied about royal lineage, it was clear that Kongomi and Harika were the real deal. If forced to guess, Rin would say that the older girl, Kokuto, was also not a commoner. All of the other girls seemed dainty and well bred, so it was unlikely that they were from social castes any lower than the merchant class.

As she scanned her fellow captives, one loner caught Rin's eye. This girl was sporting a short, severe cut. She too had pointed ears and exquisite beauty, but her demeanor did not read dainty maiden. From her position, away from the group, but within striking distance, the strange girl made eye contact with Rin, nodded, and then returned to watching the other girls.

Rin had been raised around Sesshoumaru, Inuyasha, Kohaku, Sango and the others; she knew a trained fighter when she saw one. If she had to guess, a guard of some sort?

"Well? Are you going to keep us waiting all day?" The all-mighty Kongomi was getting impatient.

Shaking her head, Rin cleared her thoughts and turned to the others. "I was traveling with some friends when my dragon and I were suddenly hit by something. The next thing we knew, we were here."

"Why would a human be traveling with a dragon?" Kongomi was clearly not letting anything by. "Traveling dragons are raised and trained exclusively by the royal breeders in our kingdom. They rarely leave our boarders except when presented as gifts. So when did you steal it?"

Mildly insulted, Rin didn't let it get to her because it was obvious that Kongomi was not going to believe her anyway. "Ah-Un does not belong to me. He belongs to my traveling companion, Sesshoumaru-sama. I don't know when or how he came to have Ah-Un."

"Sesshoumaru-sama?!" Kongomi erupted, extremely surprised. "How do you know Sesshoumaru-sama?"

Taken aback, Rin answered hesitantly. "I travel with him and have done so for many years." She left out the part that they had been distant until lately. She didn't like how Kongomi's eyes narrowed and did she detect the princess's shoulders tensing? Rin was mature enough now to recognize the signs of jealousy and she was feeling oddly possessive.

"I see." Kongomi's face shifted into a loft, indifferent look. "Should we expect Sesshoumaru-sama to come after you then?"

Rin put aside her doubts and nodded. "He will be searching for me. Sesshoumaru-sama always manages to find me."

"That won't be possible." The stern-faced girl from outside the circle spoke up. "The compound is surrounded by a barrier. Nothing gets in and nothing gets out."

Harika spoke up, "Kongomi-nee-sama cannot even sense anywhere outside the barrier."

"What do you mean?" Rin was confused. "Do you have sensing power?"

Kongomi smiled haughtily. "I am the eldest princess of Ryudo. As the indicated heir to the realm, I am granted the power to sense all within the kingdom. I can sense all citizens, all lands, and all dragons, within the borders of Ryudo. However, I cannot see beyond the barrier; it is as though the only world is that inside this castle and its lands."

Then it might indeed be the case that Sesshoumaru might not be able to track her down. Rin frowned. She would need to find a way to clue him in to her location. She was certain that if he found the barrier, he could destroy it, but that would be of no use if he never came across it.

"Is the barrier ever down? Has anyone tried to escape?" Rin looked towards the lone girl.

Before anyone could say another word, the clash of a gong rang out through the castle. All of the Hanahime froze, fear written on their faces. Kongomi barked a command, "Girls, hurry!" As the other girls leapt up, the princess came to stand in front of Rin. "Stand still and try not to ask too many questions."

"What is going on?" Rin had no time to feel embarrassed as she was stripped out of her half-destroyed traveling clothes and into the same fine garments and jewels that the others wore.

"You must look decent or the lord will get angry at us. And I told you - no questions." Kongomi stood back to appraise Rin's appearance and nodded. "That will have to do." Then she turned to the stern girl. "Hae, see to Harika."

Hae rose and went to Harika's side, helping the other princess to her feet. Harika tried to protest but Kongomi overruled her. "Harika save your strength. Now is not the time to argue." She clapped her hands. "We need to hurry!"

Everyone assembled to form two lines, with the oldest girl, Kokuto, in front. They walked briskly out the doors and the reptilian guards flanked them on both sides. The procession swept through the castle and they soon arrived at the courtyard where Rin had been earlier.

Just before the girls filed in, Kongomi turned over her shoulder to whisper to Rin. "Whatever you do, do not draw attention to yourself or others. Bow when we bow and say nothing."

Within seconds the girls were bowed low on the floor before the lizard lord. His labored, dusty breathing echoed in the courtyard. "Hello, my crown jewels. Let us begin shall we?" Rin could hear him get to his feet and slowly make his way towards the trembling girls prostrated before him.

He stopped next to Rin and reached down under her chin. Afraid that even the slightest movement would let his claws dig their way into her throat, Rin allowed her head to follow the lord's hand motions. He flicked his tongue out. "Excellent. You've cleaned up well, Inu-princess." He released her. Remembering Kongomi's words, Rin dropped back into a deep bow.

After a few minutes of walking around and examining the other girls, he stopped in front of Kokuto, the soft-spoken girl with ebony hair. "You. Stand up. Now."

Rin heard little gasps from the other girls. What was going on? What was going to happen? She glanced up in time to see Kokuto being hauled away, tears streaming down her face. She tensed, but out the corner of her eye, she saw Hae give a quick shake of her head. Rin didn't have a weapon on her anyway.

"You have been dismissed!" The guards ushered them out of the courtyard and back into the castle.

* * * * * *

Rin thundered once all the girls were back in the garden house. "What just happened? I want an explanation!"

She rounded on Kongomi, "If you had told me what was going to happen, I could have armed myself and persuaded them take me instead! I have self-defense training - I could have been prepared. But you stopped anyone from saying anything!" Rin knew she was being slightly unreasonable, but she hated feeling helpless.

Her outburst triggered Hae to leap to her feet in concern for the princess's safety, but the princess waved her aside.

"How could you prepare if you do not know what will happen next?" The princess returned coolly.

"What do you mean?"

Kongomi-hime continued. "Those who are selected at the summons do not return to the house. Whether they are killed or sent to the cells, or simply cast out of the castle to starve or freeze - we do not know. Even if you are trained, you are still human and would have met the same fate."

One of the younger girls started crying and the princess went over to sooth her. "Trying to interfere with the decision, with the selection would mean to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves. It was an outcome that Kokuto herself had prepared for - she knew that there was a chance she would be picked. Do not undermine her sacrifice."

Rin had to admit that the princess had spoken logically and she offered no further argument. In the quiet that followed, she sought out Hae.

"Have you already tried to escape?" Rin sat down. "I can't imagine you would intentionally leave the princesses in this sort of environment if you had the chance to leave."

The guard shook her head. "No. When the princesses and I were captured, there were already a half-dozen girls. I could escape if it was just the princesses, but Harika-hime refused to leave the others. Since then the numbers have only grown and now there are too many to move stealthily. Because of Harika-hime's poor health, moving her can be difficult if she isn't willing to cooperate."

"What about the barrier?" Rin was most interested in this. "If the barrier cuts off the outside world, doesn't it also stop people, demons, from leaving?"

"I know, I hadn't thought about how to deal with that." Hae sighed wearily with exhaustion. "I hoped that if we could get far enough away from the castle, I could come back and find a way to disable it." The demon rubbed her temple with her index finger. "They must have a spell that maintains a barrier of that size and strength."

"Do you know where they might be keeping the spell caster? Or the spell item?" Rin was already trying to think of a way to get a message out to Sesshoumaru.

"Unfortunately, the castle is largely in disuse, so it could be anywhere. Kongomi-hime has been unable to sense any magic, so the spell isn't of dragon origin."

Suddenly, the two of them noticed the little blob creature from earlier in front of them. It bobbed in the air, as though a short breath would blow the entire thing away.

“Hello, I see that you’re back.” Rin reached out with a hand, prompting the tiny youkai to crawl into her hand. “What’s your name?”

“That is Yami. He is a kageko, a spirit animal of sorts that is given to children of the upper classes of Ryudo. Yami belongs to Harika-hime.”

 “That’s odd – I didn’t see them before and didn’t the lizard lord notice them?”

Hae also extended her arm for Yami to perch on. “They have some mild camouflage capabilities, which allows them to pass unnoticed. It’s rather useful, given their other talents.”

“Other talents?”

“All the kageko can perform minor healing by feeding their energy into their partner,” she gave Yami a little poke and he crooned quietly. “Harika-hime felt bad for you earlier, so she asked Yami to fix your wounds.”

Rin smiled, “Thank you, Yami, for sharing your energy with me.” She glanced up at the younger princess with pink hair. “I will thank Harika-hime for her generosity.”

“They can also teleport, but only with one person at a time and only to locations that are within eyesight.”

“Hence why you haven’t tried using teleport to escape.”

Hae nodded in agreement. “It would be one thing if Kongomi-hime could use her kageko to teleport outside the barrier and contact our warriors, but I cannot allow her to travel so far unprotected.” She sighed. “Sending any of the other girls would be pointless, since they would have no means to summon help.”

A thought popped into Rin’s head.

“Couldn’t you use me?”

“What do you mean?” Hae sat up, interested.

“If you lend me one of the kageko, I could travel alone to the edge of the barrier and teleport outside.”

Her compatriot frowned, “How is that any better than sending one of the other girls?”

Rin grinned, “I can summon Sesshoumaru-sama.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“I do not mean to discourage you, Rin-san, but you may want to think your plan through a little more.”

Rin looked at the fighter. Now it was her turn to ask, “What do you mean, exactly?”

“We do not know that the kageko will be able to see beyond the barrier. If there is no line of sight, they cannot teleport. You might go the entire distance and not be able to do anything.”

“It couldn’t hurt to try.”

“Yes, it could.”

“Why are you so worried about this?” Rin asked, rounding on Hae. “I’m trying to think of a way of this situation. There might be something that could work, but you are dismissing it without a second thought. Are you always such a pessimist?”

 Hae snapped back, “Yes, I am.”  Rin was actually taken aback as she fiercely continued, “My duty is to protect Kongomi-hime and Harika-hime. We need to escape, that is true, but I am not willing to cooperate with an escape plan with such liability, especially a plan that hinges on someone that I’ve only just met!”

“What is the harm in letting me try? Even if I cannot get a message out, I can return and we will be in no worse shape than we currently are. There is nothing to lose.” Rin defensively pushed back.

“Did you not hear me before? There are guards, and the unpredictable wrath of that wretched lord. We could lose everything if they discover you are gone.” She looked exhausted. “That is a risk that I cannot afford to take.”

Rin quieted. After hearing tales of dangerous adventures from Kagome, it was easy to forget that not everyone had the courage, or even physical stamina, to take the leap of faith on a very skeptical and tenuous escape plan. Hae was right: with the number of innocent lives at stake, every decision needed to be calculated and justified. Anything less would get them killed.

Rin still had no doubt that Sesshoumaru could break through it with one of his swords, but getting him to the barrier was something else entirely.

After spending years in the company of Sesshoumaru, she had a decent idea as to how he was able to find her, no matter where she was. If she was in danger, he would track her down and appear before her.

Clearly, the barrier was quite strong. When the lizard lord had struck her earlier, blood had filled her mouth and her bones had crunched beneath her skin, yet Sesshoumaru had not come. Kongomi’s comment about not being able to sense outside the compound confirmed her suspicions.

Despite the hopelessness of the situation, she needed to escape. Someone had to warn Sesshoumaru about the traps that had sent her to this mad and crazy place. Sitting around and waiting for rescue was hardly her style, but neither was abandoning those in need. If she was going to escape, they all were.

How could she convince Hae to let her make her way to the barrier, to attempt to deliver a message to Sesshoumaru?

Tricking and slipping through one or two guards would be easy, but if she were caught, then everyone was potentially in danger.

If only there was a way to get something outside of the barrier without any of the girls needing to leave! What sort of message could she send?

Then she was hit with inspiration.

“Hae, may I borrow your blade?”

“What do you have in mind?” Hae asked, alarmed. “You’re not planning on attacking the guards, are you? If you are, I will do everything in my power to stop you.”

“No, no,” Rin shook her head. “I have a theory that if we can get some of my blood outside the barrier, Sesshoumaru-sama will track it down and he can break the barrier. All we need to do is get my message there – I don’t have to go myself.”

Kongomi overheard this and raised her voice. "Are you suggesting that you are going to force the great Sesshoumaru-sama to track you down like a common blood hound?" She huffed critically. "I would never stoop so low."

Gritting her teeth in annoyance at the princess, Rin reached out for Hae's blade. Deftly, she cut into her silken robes; the other girls gasped. Then Rin cut a thin slice on her finger and started to write a note.

After a few minutes, she rolled up the shredded fabric and handed it over to Hae as she used some of the extra scraps to bind the cut on her finger. The other girls looked on with a mixture of awe, curiosity, and horror.

“Can one of you send your kageko to the barrier with this message?” she turned to Hae. “If it’s not able to make it through the barrier, then it can come back. No harm done.”

The guard was slowly nodding. “The kageko will instinctively hide if there is danger, so the chance of being caught is low.” Then she frowned. “What happens if it can get through the barrier?”

Rin shrugged. “Just wait around for Sesshoumaru-sama, I guess. He’ll track the blood and get the message.” She didn’t mention that all of this was based on her hypothesis. If was wrong, then all of this really would be for nothing.

Harika moved forward softly. “You can send Yami. I will tell him what to do with your message.” The little black shadow snuggled against her cheek. The princess accepted the blood-stained cloth and closed her eyes, clearly communicating the instructions without the need for words.

When she opened her eyes again, Yami was clutching the scrap in his tiny little paws and he flitted to one of the side windows, to slip off into the night.

"Well that was a pointless exercise," Kongomi sneered. "I doubt he will make it to the barrier, never mind cross it."

Rin outright ignored the princess and turned to Hae. "We should try to lay down the framework to escape into the forest."

Hae folded her arms. "I told you before, I am not willing to risk the lives of my princesses! There are too many guards. And there is a barrier."

"But what if there were no guards?" Rin pushed. "What if something distracts the guards and we could have the opportunity to flee to the forest? You never know what might happen. I would rather have a contingency plan that might never come to light over no plan at all."

This seemed to calm Hae and after a minute or two, she nodded. "You are right. I have cornered myself with narrow thinking. I would certainly regret it if I were unable to act if an opportunity arose. What exactly did you have in mind?"

* * * * * *

Sesshoumaru waited at the edge of a cliff. Uneasiness had set in when Rin disappeared and it had spent the entire day gnawing at his insides. It was not a familiar sensation and Sesshoumaru's irritation steadily climbed. Rin had never been spent so long outside the range of his vision or his demonic aides.

A slight breeze drifted through the evening air, shifting Sesshoumaru's long hair and making his kimono sleeves sway. It brought a hint of the pending autumn. And something else.

Sesshoumaru whipped his head around, eyes focusing into the darkness. It was faint, but Rin's scent was definitely there. He took a deep breath. Blood. It was Rin's blood, somewhat fresh. His eyes turned scarlet, his fangs becoming noticeably longer as he charged towards the smell.

Someone would pay.

* * * * * *

Late in the hours of the night, the lizard lord slouched in a maddened haze on his dilapidated throne, unaware of the crumbling stone and fraying bamboo around him. If someone had told him it was this easy to be king of a castle, he would have done this years ago!

"We grow tired of your antics." A cold voice drifted from the shadows.

The hostile tone wasn't enough to deter the reptile. "What do you mean? You asked for a girl, I brought you a girl today."

"But she wasn't the dragon princess." Another voice came from the dark on the other side of the room. "These girls are useless unless it is the dragon princess."

The lizard lord tilted his head as though in thought, "But they are all princesses."

"You fool!" The second voice lashed out. "Do you believe that every girl you catch is a princess? Do not forget that you are only here because we granted you power!"

"Calm yourself, brother," soothed the first voice. "His lordship is free to call the girls whatever he likes. It is not as though we know the dragon princess's appearance either."

The voice inched closer, "However, we are running out of time. There are rumors that the military is already on to our little operation. We will need to abandon this place soon."

"No," roared the lizard. "I am the lord of this castle! I refuse to retreat like a coward!" He staggered out of his chair and swiped his great claws blindly at the darkness.

"As you wish," said the body-less voice. "But we would encourage you to hasten your play time selection process. We want to find the dragon princess in the next few days or we are leaving. Whether you stay or leave

"But a few days isn't enough for me to get my enjoyment out of them," growled the self-appointed king of the castle. "There are still nearly a dozen of them."

"We don't care," sneered the less mature voice. "Take them all at once: isn't that something rulers do?"

"Fine." The lizard lord dropped back into his stone seat. "But I think I will take the little Inu princess first. She looked tasty."

"Inu?" one of the voices questioned. "What do you mean Inu?"

He waved his claws lazily in the dusty air, "The new princess. Said she was betrothed to that Sesshou-mutt. She is a delicacy I want to sample."

"No", the shadow voice rang out, "You will bring her directly to us."

* * * * * *

A determined energy filled the room of the Hanahime. The girls buzzed over the Hae's and Rin's plans, which included alternate sets of makeshift clothing that offered more freedom than their usual courtly wear.

Suddenly, the front doors shuddered under the force of heavy knocks. "Bring the human!"

All of the girls simultaneously looked to Rin, unsure what to do. Hae rushed to Rin's side. "Do you think they have caught your message?"

"I am not sure," murmured Rin. "Either way, this should keep his attention off of the rest of the girls, at least for a little while." She put her hands on Hae's shoulders. "You must be on the lookout for a chance to escape. Promise me that."

"Hurry up or we will enter by force!" The guards yelled through the door.

"Promise me!" Rin shook Hae's shoulders just slightly.

Hae nodded and reached into her belt. "Take this. I do not know if it will be of any help, but a girl should always be defended."

Securing Hae's extra knife into her belt. "Thank you." She strode to the door.

"You have until the count of three to produce the human or-"

"Or what?" Rin opened the door slightly. "You'll kill me? I bet your lord would love that."

The captain hissed, baring his fangs. He grabbed Rin's arm, claws biting into her skin and drawing a little blood. He dragged her close to his face, where Rin could smell the putrid odor of his breath. "I don't know how you managed to convince our lord that you're demon. We can all tell that you're nothing more than human scum. You're easily damaged." He grinned. "And our lord won't care about a few scratches - not on the important pieces of you, anyway."

Once again, fabric was thrown over her head and her hands were bound, but this time, she was tossed over someone's shoulder, like a sack of rice. The small contingent of guards headed out. This time, Rin could hardly tell where they were going, but in a few minutes they had arrived.

Rin was tossed unceremoniously on the floor.

"Get out! I am not to be disturbed," the lord ordered and Rin heard the doors close.

She quickly clamored to her knees in an attempt to prepare herself for whatever happened next. This room was not the courtyard where he had received the Hanahime earlier that day. The tatami mats on the floor were shredded and there was a foul musk that hung in the air. She could see glittering jewels, shining strips of fabric, and abandoned shoes, remnants from previous visitors who had met an unfortunate end. She squirmed against her hand restraints, willing them to fray or fall off.

"Well, well, well." The lizard's gravely voice carried through the air. "If it isn't the Inu-wench." He tread closer and whipped off the hood covering her face. He traced a rusty claw along her jawline and down towards her collarbone. "We are going to have a fun time."

Desperately trying to figure out to avoid disappearing like the other Hanahime who had been selected before her, Rin jerked away and played the haughty noble. "Sir, I am a lady. If you harm me, my lord Sesshoumaru-sama will see you killed."

This turned out to be a bad idea. The lizard lord growled and grabbed her elaborately adorned hair and pulled hard, throwing Rin off balance. She grimaced at his tight grip. "You think I fear that dog? That mutt? For years I lived in his domain and I have never once feared him!"

Rin tried to recoup her losses and started again, trying to ease the force of his grip on her hair. "Of course not, my lord. I just believe I am more valuable to you as an untarnished hostage."

Without warning she was flung across the room. Hitting some blood stained painting, she dropped to the floor. Everything was spinning and she tried to catch her breath. From her position on the floor, she could see the lizard lord slowly approaching. Each foot step jolting fear into her heart.

The lizard lord stood over her and grabbed the front of her robes, his claws slicing into her skin. Rin suppressed the urge to cry out, since everything she said seemed to increase his ire. The ropes around her wrists were cutting painfully, but she almost had one hand free.

He brought her close to his gravelly face and flicked his sandpaper tongue against her cheek.

In a quick movement, Rin sprung her hand free, pulled one of the ornate chopsticks from her hair. She jabbed it into the lizard man's single eye.

He promptly dropped her as he brought his hands up to his face, screaming in agony. Rin lost no time in trying to dash to the door, only to find that it would not budge. The crazed lizard youkai was blindly groping, having no way to see.

"I can still smell you! I can hear you!" He dropped to all fours, feral and mad, and started to sniff.

Rin scurried to a far corner of the room to take refuge behind what had once been a chest of some sort, before huge amounts had been gouged out by reptilian claws. She covered her mouth to mask her breathing and squeezed her eyes shut.

Staying in hiding would mean almost certain death, but what else could be done? Frantically, she tried to think of a way out. Even if Sesshoumaru was at the barrier, he would not make it into the depths of the castle in time.

"What have you done?" A new voice, a more human voice called out. "We told you to bring her to us - not eat her for dinner!"

"I do not take orders from you. I am the lord of this castle - not you!" The lizard growled in defiance.

"You only have this castle because we gave you the dragon scale. Without it, you are nothing. You hear me? Nothing!" The new voice sounded rather impatient.

Rin hesitantly opened her eyes. Was this new person a friend - or foe?

"Can you stand?" A hand reached down.

It was pale gray, almost metallic-looking, with pearly sort of claws. Rin's gaze followed the arm, up past well-made foreign clothing - probably from the mainland - all the way to the depths of the hood of this person. Silver eyes practically glowed from the shadows.

Tentatively, Rin accepted the hand and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. Her assistor was tall, almost as tall as Sesshoumaru, with proud bearing and graceful, fluid movements. She could also tell that he was strong - it had taken him no effort to lift her onto her feet.

"We do apologize for your treatment. We merely wanted to have a little chat with you, but as you can see, our friend here had other ideas." The helper, still holding onto Rin's hands turned and gestured to another cloaked individual, who was berating the lizard lord.

"...This time, do it right! Get the rest of your girls. Bring them to the main courtyard. There are people attacking the barrier, so we need to test them now."

"I do not listen to you!" The lizard lord swiped in the direction of the voice and almost succeeded in mincing the other cloaked man.

Rin's partner dropped her hand. "If you will excuse me one moment." He swept over to the arguing pair and without a moment's hesitation, proceeded to slice off one of the great lizard's hands.

Although she was no stranger to the sight of blood, violence, or gore, Rin found herself struggling to maintain her calm demeanor. She watched with ragged breath as the lord of the castle stumbled out of the room. Then the twin pair of shadowed strangers turned to look at her.

She felt her blood run cold. They might be less barbaric than the reptile had been, but there was definitely a cruel streak that would not hesitate to torture or kill. Trying to keep her voice from shaking, she hesitantly tried to play her way out of the situation.

"My lords, t-thank you for helping me. I was about to be ravaged by a brute - no, a beast!" She bowed over her tattered robes. "Now, I must be on my way-"

The argumentative man planted his hand on the sheath of his sword, indicating his aggression. "Why in such a hurry? Didn't you hear my brother tell you that we wanted to talk?"

"Talk? To me? I am sure that I have nothing that would interest my lords." She rose from her bow and tried to casually look around the room for a possible exit. Running from a stupid lump of meat would have been hard. Escaping these two might prove impossible.

The more mature demon gestured to her kindly, "Please, won't you take a seat? We have a few questions regarding the rumors of yourself and your traveling companions."

Ignoring the offer to sit, Rin continued her mock acting as an overwhelmed lady of status. "What rumors might these be? I have no traveling companions-"

"Lies!" Yelled the younger brother. "You were captured on the back of a traveling dragon. You claimed to be betrothed to Sesshoumaru!"

Feeling despair seep into the pit of her stomach, Rin countered with, "I would say anything to guarantee my safety. I am not above a few lies to deceive someone so stupid as that poor create." Without much pause she pushed on, "Yes, I was captured on a dragon, but that is hardly unexpected when one is traveling in the dragon lands?"

Then she noticed a shadow on the floor, square in shape. A trap door? Some sort of chute? It lay only a few feet away. It was close enough that if she took them off guard, she should be able to leap into it. Wherever it led had to better than where she currently was.

"You're not beyond weaving a few tales to save your own skin?" The older brother smiled cruelly. "You mean like the lies you are telling right now?"

She had seconds left. They were not patient and she did not want to think about the consequences of overstaying her welcome. So she decided to drop the act.

"So what was that you said about a dragon scale?" She shot sharply at the younger brother. "Useful bit of information that is."

This struck a nerve. "How did you know about that? No one is supposed to know about that!"

The older brother sighed and turned away from Rin to scold his young sibling. Rin took advantage of the opportunity and leapt into the bottomless hole.

"Now look what you've done!" Screamed the younger brother. "You've let our hostage kill herself!"

Just before the darkness enveloped her, Rin could hear the older brother saying, "Yes, that is rather unfortunate.”

* * * * * * *

Sesshoumaru flashed through the deep shadows of the forest. Then he stopped. Just a few yards away, he could feel the slight twinge of magical power surging. It was the same energy that had ensnared Rin earlier that morning.

Outside the barrier was a diminutive lesser youkai, claws clenched around a scrap of fabric that was the source of Rin’s scent. Blood stains had made their way to the outer edges of the cloth. In the blink of an eye, he plucked the demon out of the air and caged it with his long fingers.

Completely devoid of any alarm, the creature burbled and after a gentle tug, relinquished the message. Sesshoumaru unrolled the fabric to see a message crudely smudged in drying blood. 

He felt a little pang in his heart. Rin had wounded herself to write this message so that he could find her. His uneasiness was instantly abated when he concluded that there were other means of incorporating her scent that might have been less painful and that Rin was being overly dramatic. Well, she was a human, and a female one at that. How much could one expect from one so young?

He started to read:

Don't worry. I am fine. In castle under barrier. Powerful spell. Ah-Un hidden.

Sesshoumaru looked up, intending to demand more information, but it was highly unlikely that the youkai would be able to provide additional details. He continued to read the letter:

Others inside. Help too.

His frown deepened. If he was in the habit of sighing exasperatedly, he certainly would at this time. Why was he not surprised? The girl was too sentimental for her own good.

Holding out his hand with the crumpled piece of fabric, a green flame engulfed and obliterated the message. A few yards away, an invisible tingle hummed, just like the one he felt earlier when Rin had vanished. He raised his sword to strike.

* * * * * *

Rin woke up, somewhat surprised that she hadn't splattered all over the cobbled stones. In fact, she had landed on something vaguely soft. She patted the space around her, trying to get a feel in the darkness. Something soft here, something harder over here. This was sharp, that was smooth. Was that fabric? No, it was…

She suppressed the urge to scream. Her soft landing was a mound of bodies, corpses, judging from the cold temperature. She scuttled backward, trying to get away from the remains of demons and humans alike.

When she'd arrived, what was is the guards had said? She should be grateful that she was going to see the lord instead of the prisons? Everyone who hadn't passed the youkai princess test must have made their way down here.

She brushed into a skeleton and it crumbled to dust under her hand. This time she did shriek a little.

"Rin-san? Is that you?" A weak female voice nearby called out from the dark.

"Kokuto? Are you here?" Rin called back. She had survived! "Keep talking, and I'll try to follow the sound of your voice to you."

"Rin-san...that is...not necessary." Rin concentrated - off to the right, but she couldn't tell how far away.

"What do you mean it's not necessary? We can get out of here together."

"I don't have….the energy. But Rin-san…you need to….get out of….here...as soon...as you can." The voice was so faint, even as Rin moved closer.

"You are being silly. You can go with me too." She felt her head getting heavier. Iwas starting to feel like she was moving underwater. Everything was getting foggy.

"The spell...on...the castle…it drains….our energy….to...feed...it." Kokuto's voice was fading quickly and Rin could no longer pinpoint her location. "You...are...human...you will….die…..please…...save….yourself….." Her voice trailed off and she said nothing more.

"Kokuto? Kokuto?" Rin called out, but there was no response. She blinked back tears, aware that if she didn't leave now, she would perish herself. "Good-bye, Kokuto," she whispered. That girl probably endured treatment similar to what Rin herself had faced earlier. What a fate for a nice girl.

She brushed away her tears sloppily with the back of her hand and pressed towards a flickering light at the end of a long hallway. Luckily, security didn't seem to be a top priority for there weren't any guards posted around this dungeon. Fighting the urge to rest her head, Rin pressed on.

After an eternity, she reached the main door to the prison and collapsed against the iron bars. Weakly, she rattled the cage, but it didn't budge.

The main door was locked. No guards, but no way out.

With her energy rapidly flowing out of her, Rin sluggishly looked around, but no solution presented itself to her. Breathing was becoming harder and her vision was quickly dissolving into a blur. She didn't even have the energy to think about her regrets.

Shrill screeching broke through her haze.

Rin squinted and saw a distressed blur fluttering around her face. It looked like one of those kageko. She smiled mildly, “Why, hello. What are you doing down here?”

The only response she received was more trills and chittering. “Did you find my Sesshoumaru? Did he find me?”

Sleep was coming on hard and fast. As she slipped away, her brain caught up slightly. That’s probably Kokuto’s – not Yami….

Then there was a jolt to her system, as if electricity was coursing through her veins. She snapped out of her drowsy state and blinked in confusion.

“What is going on?” she asked, knowing that there was no one to answer her. There was a soft weight on her shoulder – the kageko was desperately clinging onto her clothes, a golden glow moving from its body into Rin’s. She remembered Hae’s words.

“Of course! You can transfer energy – that’s what you’re doing right now, isn’t it?” she reached up to pat the hard worker on the head. “We’ll get out of here soon; I won’t let you effort go to waste.”

With renewed vigor, she rattled against the cell door. Now that she was pumped with energy, she could see that the door was practically ready to fall off its hinges. I doubt they’ve had to worry about people escaping.

Taking a few steps back, she braced her shoulder and then charged at the metal bars. As predicted, the door fell to the additional force.

Good. Now all she needed was to get back to the other girls. The lizard lord had started on his rampage and Rin was absolutely certain that he would head right for the Hanahime to spend some of his rage. She started to run as feeling came back to her legs, but she wished there was a way to get there faster.

The little kageko chirped and suddenly everything around them blurred. Dizzy, Rin paused to collect her bearings, and when she did, she noticed that they were already at the end of the hallway. Ah – teleportation.

She smiled at her friend. “Thank you, although a little warning next time might be in order.” There was no time to waste and she picked up the pace, the kageko teleporting them down the long hallways, with Rin sprinting between the jumps.

Finally, the pair reached the main hallway and stopped.

Panting, Rin took the chance to catch her breath. The teleportation was still a foreign sensation for her, combined with running, she was getting a bit tired.

"I AM COMING, HANAHIME! YOU CANNOT ESCAPE ME!" The roar of the lizard lord reverberated throughout the halls. He wasn't far away.

We need to get back to the others before he does – or they will die.

With that thought in mind, she started running again, the kageko working its mystical magic, flashing them down hallways, through the labyrinth of corridors. In seconds, they reached the courtyard.

Rin paused to compose herself. There was only one way to quickly get through the guards. She looked at her tattered robes, scratched, torn, and bloody. Taking a deep breath, she mustered her determination.

She aristocratically marched to the doors, where the guards were posted. "Let me in!" She commanded. Luckily, these were lower-level guards without the intuition to see that something was potentially out of place. Rin walked right past and through the doors.

"Hae!" She called as she burst into the room. Realizing her voice would carry to the guards outside, she quieted, "Hae! We need to escape - now!"

Hae was immediately by her side. "Rin! You are back - we thought for sure that you were gone." Then she saw the ashen look on Rin's face. "What is wrong?"

"The lizard man - he is coming."

Hae eyes widened and she nodded before turning to the rest of the girls. "Everyone remain calm. Please put on your escape clothes. Do not take anything else with you. Prepare to leave immediately."

This sent the girls into a flurry of activity. Rin started her own preparations as she explained. "I think there is a power struggle happening- there are two others who seem to be pulling the strings here. They were very interested in who I was."

In a hushed tone, Hae asked, "Before that - how did you escape? No one that was taken has returned."

"There was good reason for that," Rin replied bitterly. "I think he was using demons' energy to fuel the power source for the barrier and for this castle. There are cells below the castle - everyone is dead." For some reason, she felt it best to keep the part about the dragon scale.

"Even Kokuto?" Hae asked. "She was only taken this morning."

Rin shook her head. "Whatever spell he is using is very powerful. I was only down there for a few minutes and I am not sure that I would have lasted much longer." She gestured to the kageko who had come with her. “This little guy was too late to save Kokuto, but he managed to get me out.”

Resigned, Hae moved on. "And the lizard man?" Hae pulled up a stone tile to reveal a small set of throwing knives, which she promptly used to arm herself. "Why is he coming now?"

Rin pulled on the rest of her ragged escape clothes, sighing from relief at being able to move unhindered again. "He attacked me, but the two hooded people, they saved me before I could come to any real harm. This angered him and I think he is self-destructing."

"How do we leave? The guards are still there? You know that we won't be able to get past them without a distraction."

Biting her lip, Rin looked around worriedly. Most of the girls were prepared and clustering around her. Hae was right. Without something to pull the attention of the heavy guard around the Hanahime house they had no chance of escape.

As if the very gods of coincidence were watching over them, it was at that moment that Yami came back, improvised message gone. That was a good sign.

“Sesshoumaru-sama must be at the edge of the barrier. Knowing him, he will try to destroy the barrier right away.” Hopefully, any attack on the barrier could serve as a distraction, but there was no telling how long it would pull the guards away from their posts.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a gaggle of girls shooting questions at her.

"Sesshoumaru-sama is here?"

"Will he be able to bring down the barrier?"

"Is he here to rescue us?"

"Quiet!" Kongomi barked about the babble of the other girls. She looked loftily over at Rin. "Only the helpless wait for a knight in shining armor. We couldn't possibly burden Sesshoumaru-sama like that."

Rin wasn't sure how to take the princess' attitude, but whatever it was, there wasn't time to consider the hidden meanings. She turned back to Hae. "You're right. We need a distraction now and we can't wait any longer."

A great thunderous echo resounded throughout the castle and across the courtyard. The air hummed with a heated energy. All of the guards just outside the Hanahime rooms were starting to panic. Rin could hear their confused shouts. She gestured to Hae and the two of them went to the windows.

"What do you think is going on?" Hae peered at the reptilian fighters who were clustering around what appeared to be a messenger.

"It's Sesshoumaru-sama," Rin answered with absolute faith. "He is breaking the barrier."

Hae looked at her with a mix of astonishment and amazement. "He really did come? He can break the barrier?"

Rin smirked, just slightly. "Of course he can. He's Sesshoumaru-sama!" Turning her attention to the guards again, she saw all the guards save three had left their posts to follow their captain to attend to whatever was causing the tumultuous crashes.

"Hae, can you take two guards?" She had no doubt that she would be able to keep one guard distracted enough to let the rest of the captives escape, but her fighting skills were far below those of Hae.

"Yes. Two should not be a problem, but who will lead the girls out of here? Kongomi's powers are still blocked by whatever barrier spell is in place - she cannot read the layout of the castle."

“Can Yami do it? He’s just come back from the edge of the barrier. Everyone can use their kageko to get away from here and into the forest. They should be safe there until Sesshoumaru-sama can take down the barrier.” Seeing Hae’s hesitation she added, “I don’t think we have many choices. It’s now or never.”

This persuaded Hae, who immediately went to the princesses. "Kongomi-hime, Harika-hime. Yami should know the way to the edge of the forest. Kongomi-hime, you will take Yami to lead the rest. Have everyone teleport behind you with their kageko. Rin and I will keep the remaining guards distracted and then we will follow you."

Harika started to cry and Hae but a comforting hand on her shoulder. "It will be fine, Harika-hime. When have I left you before?" In all seriousness, she looked back to the older princess. "Kongomi-hime, I am trusting you to get everyone away from this place. Find somewhere safe to hide amongst the trees. Go quietly. Go quickly."

Kongomi nodded before giving one last encouraging message to the other girls, while Rin watched. They wouldn’t be able to go through just yet, but they would be hidden until help arrived. Everyone was clustered near the back of the room, waiting for the signal.

The crashes against the barrier were increasing in frequency. Rin clenched her hands, trying to work the nerves out of her system.

With all the preparations in place, Hae and Rin made their way to the doors. Hae quickly briefed Rin on their plan of attack. "There are two guards who are now by the door. I will engage both of them. If you can get through, the other guard around the back. Do you think you can handle it?"

They stopped just before the entrance. "I’ll have to," Rin said, unsure of her abilities, but determined to do her best.

"Right." Hae paused. "Ready, set, now!"

They slammed open the doors and Hae was immediately whirling around, a maelstrom of blades. Rin was able to slip around the guards and made her way to the back of the courtyard, her feet pounding on the stone.

She spotted the remaining guard. "Hey, you!" Not having been the aggressor in a fight before, Rin was not sure how to instigate a battle.

Fortunately, she had nothing to worry about. The guard charged right at her. Rin promptly starting running in the other direction. She had no hope of winning a physical battle, but she could probably handle outrunning one guard. Whatever Kokuto’s kageko had done to her in the dungeon had restored her energy and renewed her spirit.

She sprinted around the side of the building, keeping the path clear for the girls. Out the corner of her eye, she could see them swiftly moving across the courtyard. They would be clear in just a few seconds -

WHAM.

The guard had caught her off guard and managed to smack her soundly on the head. Rin tumbled to the ground and rolled a few meters. Head spinning, she tried to make sense of her surroundings in the pre-dawn darkness.

Before she could think, Hae was on the back of the guard, drawing her blades across his throat. With a wet choke, the guard dropped. Hae offered a hand and Rin gladly accepted.

"The girls are safely moving away from here. We should follow them."

Another crashed sounded, but much fainter this time. Was the barrier weakening?

"HANAHIME!" The former sovereign of the castle dragged himself into the courtyard. "YOU ARE MINE!" Blood was now pouring out of his wound and both women could tell that he did not have much longer to live. They watched as he clawed his way into the elegant chambers that had once housed terrified maidens.

Moments later another roar rose up as he found the apartments empty. He crashed through the back wall and fell into the courtyard, not far from where Rin and Hae were standing.

Hae attempted to drag Rin away. "What are you waiting for? We need to leave now!"

But her voice was drowned out by a sudden increase in the crashes. The barrier above their heads buzzed and Rin could feel it bending under the pressure of the overhead attacks. She dropped to her knees and covered her ears, trying to block out the immense pressure that was building.

Then everything happened at once.

With a giant crash, the pressure disappeared and a great speckling of light flashed across the horizon, forming a plasma-like shield across the sky. At the top, the dawning sky was starting to shine through. More and more of the dome disappeared, melting and exposing the regular sky.

"THE SCALE! IT BURNS!" A bright white flame had erupted on the chest of the lizard lord. He screamed and rolled on the ground. His body was quickly consumed with the flames until all that left was a tiny flame burning on the ground.

The barrier had creeped back until it reached the top of the castle and everything started to crumble. The courtyard rolled and tumbled, tossing Rin around like a rag doll. Rin's arm smacked against an overturned statue and she felt the searing pain as it cracked. Spots floated in front of her eyes.

Stone tiles started to sink into the earth. With the barrier down, the castle couldn't maintain its structure and it was falling back to the subterranean ruins. Rin felt the earth beneath her shift and she struggled to grab onto something to stop her fall back down to the prisons. From this height, there would be no recovery.

The tiles dropped under her and she screamed, screwing her eyes tight. But then she felt a strong tug on her arm. She opened her eyes.

"Sesshoumaru-sama!"

He had reached down and secured a grasp on her arm. He carefully pulled her out and into his arms. He leapt away from the courtyard, drifting above the destruction below.

"I knew you would be able to break to barrier. Did you get my message?" Rin asked, curiously looking up at Sesshoumaru. But he remained strangely silent. Not even a word of rebuke for being reckless? He was focused on the dissolving compound.

Maybe he was trying to learn what he could before everything disappeared? Rin started to divulge the information she'd learned. "I found out who was abducting the girls - there were these two demons and they gave this lizard man a scale and that was forming the barrier, but I guess that you already knew that -"

His grip on her tightened, pushing uncomfortably against her broken arm. Rin tried to hold it in, but a small hiss escaped her lips.

Sesshoumaru looked down in silent concern. Rin smiled weakly, "Ah, don't worry - I think my arm is broken, but it will be fine."

He growled slightly, which silenced Rin immediately. Sesshoumaru did not growl. He was the king of cold looks and monosyllabic responses. Growling was completely out of his character. He must be really angry with her.

She lowered her gaze. Of course - a broken arm would be nothing but a hindrance.

"You are hurt."

Rin sighed. "I'm sorry Sesshoumaru-sama. I promise I'll be more careful next time. I'll try to learn to live with just one arm while it heals-"

"Humans are so fragile." Rin could practically hear the disappointment in his voice.

She hung her head in shame. So much for proving that she could keep up with him. The first real chance she had to prove herself in action and what had resulted? A broken arm and a hassle of a rescue mission. After such a long night, she found herself slipping into doubt and self-pity. "It's okay Sesshoumaru-sama. I see now that humans are too fragile. I understand if you don't want me to travel with you -"

"And if I don't keep you in my sight, you no doubt will get into even worse trouble." His voice was barely audible, but Rin caught every word. She looked up excitedly, but Sesshoumaru was looking away again.

She smiled, closed her eyes and relaxed in the dog demon's arms, letting him carry them away to safety.

* * * * * *

In the distance, two cloaked figures watched the demise of the lizard lord's castle from the depths of the forest.

"Damn! How are we supposed to find the dragon princess now?" The younger brother bitterly complained. "That was a complete waste of time."

"Oh, I do not think it was a complete waste, Kan. We did not find the princess; that is true. But I think we found something much better." He nudged his brother.

"What are you talking about, Pian?" Kan looked up and saw a tall figure in white, silver hair shining in the approaching dawn. He was carrying Rin towards the rest of the survivors. "Is that…?"

"The one and only Sesshoumaru." Pian smiled. "Looks like our human princess wasn't lying, after all."

* * * * * *

Several hours later.

From the rubble of where the castle had once stood, a little green hand emerged, crushed and shaking. A little screechy voice squeaked out:

"Sesshoumaru-sama? Rin? Ah? Un?"

Chapter Text

"Rin-san! Rin-san!" Concerned voices clamored through the forest, echoing in the early morning quiet.

Rin swiveled in Sesshoumaru's hold to face the rest of the girls and called out: "Hae! Everyone! You made it okay! Is anyone hurt?"

As he landed on the ground, he gently lifted Rin down to let her stand on her own feet. Although she was a little disappointed to be released, she was equally relieved to be free from his grasp in front of the gaggle of young ladies. Hae reported.

"Everyone is fine. I cannot detect anyone else in our general area, so I believe the rest of the lizard lord's troops have scattered." That said, she remained protectively within arm's reach of Harika and Kongomi. She turned to the rest of the girls and exclaimed, "I am sure that Rin needs some space – she's been hurt. Why don't you all wait over there while we tend to her wounds?" Although there was a smile upon her face, there was clearly no room for argument.

The rest of the girls clustered together, leaving Rin in the presence of the dragon princesses, Hae, and of course, Sesshoumaru.

Harika dropped by Rin’s side and immediately put her hand on Rin’s arm. “That’s a nasty break. Yami and Kuro will fix that for you.” She beckoned Kokuto’s and her own kageko forward. “Although with how much healing you’ve received today, you will probably fall asleep.”

Rin nodded. There was vital information about those mysterious hooded youkai that she needed to get to everyone. “I want to tell you about the demons that were running the castle.”

Hae held up a hand to stop her. "Harika-hime, why don't you join the other girls? I am sure some of them are feeling anxious." Hae must have felt that letting Harika stray out of her reach was better than letting the little dragon princess hear whatever horrors Rin had to share.

"Kongomi-hime?" Rin wasn't surprised to hear Hae asking whether the older princess wanted to stay, rather than sending her away. If Hae had told her to leave, Kongomi was likely to have spent the rest of the day scolding her guard.

"Rin-san, you may begin." Kongomi's aristocratic prompt irked Rin, but she ignored it. She was already having difficulties staying awake, now that the exhaustion of the escape was setting in and the effects of her kageko-induced adrenaline rush were wearing off. Divulging her information was a far higher priority than being petty about a princess.

With two kageko on her arm, gently flowing thin strands of energy into her, Rin recounted her time with the lizard lord and the reveal of the two hooded strangers, both with metallic gray skin, pearly claws, and silver eyes. Kongomi made small noise of surprise, but quickly covered it up so that Rin could continue.

Having described her time in the dungeon, Rin allowed the kageko to begin the healing in earnest, the full brunt of the golden magic flowing into her. Sleep crept up and within moments, she was dreaming.

* * * * * *

When Rin woke, there was the sensation of wind tugging at her hair. The wind rushed past her face and made her shiver slightly. They must be flying again.

Drowsily, she opened her eyes, rubbing away the groggy remnants of her nap. Her head spun for a second as she realized that they were thousands of feet in the air. One wrong step, one slump, could have sent her plummeting to the ground. The apprehension was blown away by the fact that she was indeed flying and much to her happiness, her old friend had returned.

"Ah-Un! You're safe!" From her seat perched on the back of the two-headed dragon, she wrapped her arms around one of his necks. The dragon crooned a little roar back to her, also happy to be reunited.

As she went for the hug, she felt a tug of a tiny weight against her clothing. Peeking out of the fold of her sleeve was a familiar black blob, who was apparently snuggled against her body heat.

“Yami!” she gleefully picked up the creature. But something was wrong. Not Yami, but…

“Kuro, right? You’re Hokuto’s kageko.” She stroked its head with a delicate finger and Kuro purred. “I never did thank you for saving me back there, did I?”

The next time she saw Hae, she would need to ask about what to do with the little sprite. Did their partnerships last forever? What happens if one of them died? Was she supposed to adopt him/her? She would do that in a heartbeat, but maybe the kageko was supposed to go to next of kin?

That was when she noticed the little strip of paper wound around Kuro’s tail, tied on like an archer’s message on an arrow’s shaft.

Quick she unwrapped it to find a brief note in unfamiliar handwriting. Once again, she thanked the stars that Kagome had seen fit to teach her how to read and perform basic mathematic computations.

Rin – the royal guard have arrived to bring the princesses and the other girls back to the city. Sesshoumaru-sama has also departed. I believe he wants to investigate the situation a bit more before also turning to the city. He assured us that your dragon would also know the way. – Hae

The fact that Sesshoumaru had gone with them sent a little pang through her heart, but Rin quickly brushed that aside. She had gone out of her way to demonstrate that she could handle herself and convince Sesshoumaru to take her on his journeys for a year; she couldn't afford to mope around like some silly teenager just because her guardian went off to conduct important business while she was sleeping away on the back of a dragon.

Anyway, she was thrilled that Ah-Un had made it out of the castle safely. When the lizard’s spell had broken and the castle collapsed, she had feared the worst.

Come to think of it, I was pretty close to dropping myself. She looked at her arm, which was no longer complaining.  Very carefully, she stretched and rolled the limb, shaking at cramped muscles out. Everything was in perfect working order.

With that out of the way, she turned her attention to her surroundings. Judging from the sunlight, it was close to the end of the day. Had she really been asleep for that long?

“Your healing must take up a lot of energy, huh?” she asked Kuro. He burbled back.

Apparently there was nothing else for her to do during the rest of the ride to the dragon city. Nothing aside from recount the information that she had already told everyone. Except for that one piece she hadn’t told everyone.

She could offer no explanation as to why she held her tongue about the scale that she had seen. There was something that made her feel uneasy about the whole thing and she wanted to discuss the matter with Sesshoumaru. Maybe it was the fact that it had been a gift from the two hooded figures. Perhaps it was that the scale seemed to hold some sort of power that burned the demon in the end.

When the scale had exploded into a flame, the castle had started to crumble. Was the scale a magical spell that was keeping the castle together? How was that connected to the horrors that she had witnessed in the dungeons, where countless innocents had been drained of their life energy?

Rin sighed, rubbing her head. This was all too confusing. She would just need to talk to Sesshoumaru and possibly Hae when she got to the city. Heaven knows she would never willingly talk to the elder princess. Even if she did, the princess probably wouldn’t offer up any information.

In the middle of her musings, an image of Sesshoumaru materialized in her mind. She quickly shook her head, willing the picture to disappear.

What on earth?

There was a flurry of clicks from her sleeve: Kuro was happily bouncing around in a dance, as though inviting her to shower him with praise.

“Did you do that?” she asked incredulously. She frowned slightly as another image of Sesshoumaru drifted in front of her eyes – and this time the little creature had taken artistic license, by adding some sort of glow around him.

“Will you stop that?” she prodded Kuro. “I get enough of that from Kohaku, I don’t need it from you too.” The feeling was not entirely dissimilar from the teasing she received from her friend.

The kageko cheeped at her, as though to comfort her. Worried?

Rin’s mouth dropped open. Now I am losing it: did he really just speak to be with his mind? And about Sesshoumaru-sama no less?

Shrugging, she decided to play along, vowing to visit a healer as soon as she got into the city to have them check for head trauma. “I’m not worried about anything. He’s Sesshoumaru-sama and I’m just traveling around with him. There’s nothing to be worried about!” She abruptly added as an afterthought: “And the only feelings I have are admiration, so you can keep your fuzzy glow to yourself.”

Indignant denial apparently had no effect on the little beastie, because yet another image of Sesshoumaru floated in her mind, this time with a rosy hue.

Eager to change the line of thinking, Rin tried to flood a new thought into her mind, but she was helpless against the not-so-innocent blob that was merrily hopping up and down her arm.

A chilling idea wiped all of that away in an instant. If she was at the mercy of such a small youkai with no ill intentions, then what would happen if she met another, more powerful demon? Worry seeped into her heart. That was certainly something she would need to work on.

With an air of melancholy wrapped around, she continued of her dragon-borne journey to the mysterious land of Ryudo.

* * * * * *

The two hooded figures lurked among the stones of the castle wreckage. One of them suddenly crouched to sweep a small glittering item from the ground. He picked up the dragon scale that had only been burning hours ago.

"Be more careful with your things, Kan."

The other man growled. "May I remind you, Pian, that it was your idea to give that little lizard git my scale to for some round-about scheme to capture princesses."

"Would you have preferred to test it yourself, only to become consumed by its need for power before you were even aware of its thirst for power?" Pian rolled his own scale between his fingers as easily as a practiced street magician. "Since you did not have the patience to practice with your power, this was merely the easiest way to test the boundaries."

Kan scoffed. "I'll give you that, but we still didn't get the princess and now we've let her and Sesshoumaru slip away."

Pian smiled, exposing a set of pearly teeth.

"If we know where they are going, have they really managed to slip away?"

* * * * * *

With Rin awake and no fear of her falling off, the Ah-Un was able to fly at almost breakneck speed. But the sun was already setting when Ah-Un began to slow down.

"Ah-Un, what is it?" Rin rubbed the dragon on both of his necks. "Are we almost there? Do you need a break?"

Kuro bounced on her shoulder, drawing her attention to the space in front of them.

A huge vortex of clouds swirled, diffusing the orange rays of the sunset and scattering the golden beams. Ah-Un charged straight into the depths of the clouds, enveloping the three of them.

Rin held out a hand; having flown much in her childhood, she knew that clouds were cold and damp. These clouds had no substance to them, as though they existed only to deceive the eyes. They were hardly more tangible than the air itself. The trio continued to descend.

Seconds later, the great city of Ryudo materialized from the dry mist.

Nestled in a cliff side, towering above the foam of ocean waves crashing against the coastal rocks, Ryudo was strange to Rin's eyes. From just a few meters above the sea, up towards the top of the cliff, there were building fronts carved from stone. Every window or opening had a balcony or landing of some type to keep the occupants from accidentally falling to the ground. Mixed in with the buildings were large courtyards that housed a variety of people and dragons.

Ah-Un swooped down until they could feel the ocean's spray. Then he turned quickly to climb, faster and faster until they had flown past the entire cliff face.

At the very top of the cliff stood a sprawling, majestic castle. Stone spires spiraled high into the sky, gleaming in a white marble. Dragons of all sizes with mounted riders flew through the clouds, leaving small eddies of wind in their wakes. Beyond the castle lay a great wall, hundreds of meters high, protecting the city.

Ah-Un dove towards one of the open courtyards on a lower level of the castle, making Rin's stomach flip just a little. She held tightly to the dragon's reins as they spiraled down to the platform. Very softly, Ah-Un dropped the last few feet to settle on the smooth, dark stones.

Rin slid off of his back, taking in the wonder and splendor of the hidden city. The view was glorious from afar, but on closer examination, everything was exquisite and striking. Water flowed through little channels, feeding the vibrant green plants housed in boxes and flowerbeds. Stone lattice work framed each window and door, always following the dragon motif.

Rin had hardly any time to admire the alien beauty of the city before a party came out to meet her. A cluster of simply dressed figures was approaching. Each one was pale, but emitted an almost pearly luminesce that Rin was beginning to associate with dragon demons

"Rin-san."

A mature woman at the front of the group bowed low and her younger counterparts behind her did the same. "We welcome you to Ryudo. We understand that you are Sesshoumaru-sama's traveling companion. Allow us to escort you to your quarters."

"If it's all the same, I'd like to speak with Sesshoumaru-sama first." Rin did not feel entirely comfortable venturing off into a strange city without at least checking in with Sesshoumaru. She sensed no ill will from this group, but it was difficult to gauge intent when everyone had an emotionless face that could give Sesshoumaru's a run for his money.

The spokeswoman was shaking her head. "Unfortunately, Sesshoumaru-sama is in discussions with our princess at present and cannot be bothered."

This irked Rin, but there was little she could do. The lord of the western lands would need to conduct business with the political leaders of the different territories. Rin tried to ignore the uneasiness that was building in her chest from the thought of Sesshoumaru having extended conversations with the beautiful and aristocratic Kongomi.

"Please allow us to escort you to your quarters, Rin-san." The group of servants pressed forward. "We will happily bring your dragon to the stables."

"Perhaps you can show me where the stables are? I would like to bring him there myself." Rin protested whole heartedly, still wary of being led into the depths of an unknown castle.

"If you wish," the lead servant appeared to be miffed.

"Oh!" Rin rushed to make amends for her offense. "That was not intended to be a slight in your abilities to accommodate Ah-Un. I just feel awkward when other people are doing work while I am idle. So if it's all right with you, I'd like to bring him there myself."

Whatever the servants thought of her, they were now especially careful to conceal their feelings. Although Rin suspected that they disapproved of her forward attitude. The matron of the group clapped her hands and a little boy with bright blue hair stepped forward; the rest of the group dissipated.

"This is Aoi. He will attend to you during your stay in the city. He can show you were the stables are." With that she turned on her heel and walked away quickly.

Rin sighed. She had spent very little time immersed in a system that strictly obeyed a code for social interaction. Before this stay was over, she would offend more people than she could count – no doubt about that.

Putting her discouraging thoughts aside, she turned to the young boy. If he was human, Rin would guess that he would be eight or nine, but that could easily amount to several decades in a demon child. He was attempting to maintain the same cool demeanor as his older colleagues, but Rin could see the nervous energy that was making him fidget slightly.

"Hello, Aoi-kun," Rin crouched down so that she was at his eye level. "My name is Rin. You can call me Rin-chan if you'd like."

"Don't call me Aoi-kun. Aoi-san is fine." He frowned and looked away. His voice was a little biting, as if he was annoyed with her. To be fair, any boy his age might find it just a tad condescending to have a girl kneel down to talk to him.

Then his eyes widened suddenly and he adopted a mortified look. He quickly bowed low. "Please accept my sincerest apologies, honored guest. Servants are not permitted to be so familiar with honored guests such as yourself."

"Is that what your senpai tell you?" Rin smiled. "I am also willing to bet that they tell you that the guest should always be at ease." She put on a fake pout. "And it makes me very uncomfortable when people are formal with me."

She had certainly hooked her bait; the young boy was looking hesitant. Now it was time to reel him in.

"I guess I have no choice but to lodge a complaint with your superiors, explaining that you made me feel ill at ease."

He frantically waved his hands in protest. "No! Please don't do that! They'll hold back my dinner if you do that."

"Well, then do I have your promise that you'll call me Rin-chan? And that we'll drop the other formalities?" Rin stood up again.

"Fine, Rin-chan." Aoi was still slightly put off, but quickly recovering. He suddenly switched to a friendlier attitude. "So I can treat you like normal?"

"Yes, please do." She was immensely pleased that she had already managed to make a friend.

"Rin-chan, are you shacking up with Sesshoumaru-sama?"

Rin sputtered and coughed. That was considered normal? Kids these days! "No. I am traveling with Sesshoumaru-sama for the year as a companion. That is the extent of our relationship."

Aoi contemplated this. "Hmm. I was sure that Harika-sama said that you said that you were shacking up with Sesshoumaru-sama. I thought that was weird because Kongomi-hime says that Sesshoumaru-sama will be shacking up with her."

Something here was amiss. Even if the princess was presumptuous enough to assume that Sesshoumaru saw her in that light, Rin couldn't imagine either princess using a term as vulgar as 'shacking up'. "Aoi-kun, is 'shacking up' the word that Harika-chan, I mean, Harika-sama and Kongomi-hime, actually said?"

"She called it 'betrothed' or something like that. I wasn't sure what it meant, so I asked Haru and he said that it meant 'shacking up'." Aoi-kun paused, "Though I am not entirely sure what that one means either."

Rin breathed in relief and then immediately looked to clarify the words for Aoi. "Aoi-kun, 'betrothed' and 'shacking up' are not the same thing. 'Betrothed' is when you are going to marry someone. I am not betrothed to Sesshoumaru-sama." And then to placate her own satisfaction: "And neither is Kongomi-hime."

"What about 'shacking up?"

"Ah, let's go bring Ah-Un to stables, shall we?"

* * * * * *

With Ah-Un tucked safely away in the stables, and having managed to escape explaining 'shacking up' to a demon child, Rin found herself alone in her room.

It was truly unlike anything that Rin had ever seen. The floors were smooth stone, with the faintest of feather-like patterns. Flowing, light fabric adorned the walls and windows, juxtaposing the hard edges of walls and the metal decorations. Each element, every decoration, was imbued with the spirit of one of the domains of dragons: wind in the sky, stone in the earth, and metal forged in fire.

Through the gossamer drapes on the giant window, Rin could see smaller, lesser dragons drifting in the early evening air. The temperature was a bit cooler here, up higher and closer to the sea. Rin shivered a little bit and she realized that she was still clothed in the ragged apparel left over from her rescue mission. Tattered remnants of shredded finery lay against her skin.

She took a quick gander at the clothing selection that had been provided to her, but everything was just as delicate and ornate as the robes she was trying to discard. Light silks embroidered with clouds and flower, rich and flowing silvers, reds, and golds. At that moment, she was extremely thankful that her original pack had not gotten lost.

Rummaging in her pack, she found her spare yukata and shorts. This attire suited her just fine.

Next she needed to address the matter of a bath. There was crusted blood, dust, and an array of particulars that Rin didn't even care to name. No wonder all the servants had been giving her strange looks – who could believe that someone who looked every inch the part of a penniless vagabond could be traveling with Sesshoumaru?

Now, where would the baths be?

Rin gathered her toiletries and began her quest to find the castle baths. Though she didn't make it very far past opening her door a tiny crack before she was discovered.

"Rin-chan!" Aoi-kun was waiting for her. "Are you trying to go somewhere?" He was bouncing with a raw energy to be friendly and helpful. Rin didn't trust him one bit –she knew a prankster when she saw one. "Do you want to go to the baths?"

Cautiously, Rin smiled. "Yes, Aoi-kun. Can you show me where they are?"

"That's easy, follow me!" He set off down the hallway at a clip and Rin had to pick up her pace to catch up to him.

Aoi led her down a few hallways and to Rin's relief, they arrived without passing anyone else. The fewer people that had to see her in her sorry excuse for clothing, the better. He halted in front of a pair of thick, wooden doors with golden designs deeply carved into the grain. He puffed himself, discarding his childish mantle to adorn himself with the proper airs one would expect from a season servant at the royal castle.

He rapped on the door; a girl just barely older than him came out. "Rin-sama has come to use the baths," he announced, full of pomp.

The girl squeaked in excitement. "Come in, come in! I'll show you where to go!" She ushered Rin in with great gusto. Aoi shot her a cheeky grin before the girl had closed the door. Why on earth the cheeky grin, she had no idea –

"So it is true that you are Sesshomaru's mistress? And you're human?" The little girl's emerald eyes were shining. "Harika-sama said that you said that you were lovers!"

This completely explained the young boy’s grin; he had sensed her reluctance to discuss relationships and knew what was coming for her in the baths. It stood to reason: people congregated in a small area like to gossip, baths are a common plan for people to gather, therefore, going to the baths was tantamount to jumping into a fiery pit of gossiping. Might as well get this over with.

"I am human." Rin paused. "I am not his mistress. I am traveling with Sesshoumaru-sama as his companion. Not as his lover, his sister, nor his mistress."

She hadn't taken the princess Harika to be a chatterbox or a tale-weaver who would extend the truths to unimaginable heights. "What exactly did Harika-sama say?"

"She said that you said that you were betrothed."

Rin smiled as she explained, "That was something that I said to keep our captors from killing me. I hoped that he would spare me if he thought that I was important to Sesshoumaru-sama. We are not actually betrothed."

This deflated the younger girl. "So you're not his lover?"

Rin shook her head. "No."

"And you're not bearing Sesshoumaru-sama's love child?"

What on earth?! How did these children keep jumping to conclusions? And who was teaching them these things?

"No. Definitely not. We are just traveling companions." Rin looked wary as the young girl gave her a shifty smirk. "I am telling the truth!"

"I am sure that you are." The girl gestured past the thick blue curtains. "This way, Rin-sama. The baths are right through here."

Scooping up the pieces of her pride, Rin shuffled past the young girl and into a dressing room of sorts. It bore no resemblance to any bath house or hot springs that she was familiar with, but Rin easily figured out where to leave her things. There were wooden boxes lining the walls. Rin found one that was not in use and dropped in her belongings. There was some sort of light robe, presumably for wearing to and from the baths.

Rin tip-toed out to the main bath area. There were a dozen fountains, each carved in the form of a traditional dragon. Waters flowed from the mouths, pooling on the floor. No one else was there, so Rin picked one of the fountains and began to wash.

As she rinsed under the delightfully warm water, Rin could not help but think of all the nagging she had received. Everyone was suffering under the misapprehension that she was…involved…with Sesshoumaru-sama. No doubt Harika had gotten the wrong impression between Rin's confession in front of the lizard lord, her daring plan to summon Sesshoumaru-sama, and then actually having the white knight himself appear. It was no wonder that Harika assumed that Sesshoumaru-sama was violently in love with Rin.

This contemplation made a strange cacophony of emotions surge in her heart. The vague beginnings of an awkward realization, combined with the occasional jabs of jealousy, battled with the awareness that the relationship that she and Sesshoumaru-sama once had was now gone. The connection they had as guardian and ward was quickly becoming strained as she pushed the boundaries.

Rin froze. But was their relationship really becoming strange? From what she could tell, Sesshoumaru-sama still perceived her to be young and reckless. From his perspective, she was still his ward – at least for another year. Perhaps it was only she herself that believed the relationship had been morphing into something else. Perhaps all of her efforts to prove herself to be an adult were in vain.

What did killing a demon (and almost getting killed in the process) prove? What did jumping across a chasm (and almost getting killed in the process) really say about her resolve? Was she really proving anything by helping a dozen girls escape the evil clutches of a crazed lizard man (and almost getting killed in the process)? Wasn't it clear that she had a long way to go before he would see her as an adult, as an equal? That much had been made evident when she was left behind with Aeveen so that the others could hasten their return to the city to begin their strategy sessions.

But hold on just a minute. Rin tilted her head, not caring as the water ran into her eyes and ears. She had been on this journey for less than a month. Of course that was too short a time to see any results! What was she thinking?

Rin shook her head furiously, to rid her mind of all the self-pity. She was an adult. She could wield a knife. She knew how to make medicines from herbs and to treat wounds. She was brave, creative, and she could think on her feet. There was plenty of untapped potential and Sesshoumaru hadn't seen anything yet!

Now grinning like a madwoman, Rin bit her lip in excitement. She'd show him. And all those girls who kept assuming she was nothing more than a plaything for the great lord. First, she would force Hae to teach her some new knife tricks. Then she'd go back to the stables and see if anyone could give her lessons on flying better on dragons so that she could go to battle with Ah-Un. Next she probably should see if they had any tomes or scrolls about the Inu clans rule over Ryudo.

She would better herself to become a suitable companion.

She was so immersed in her plans that she failed to notice the young, pink-haired princess next to her. "Rin-san. Rin-san!"

Rin blinked. "Harika-hime?"

The princess smiled gently. "I was afraid that you were falling asleep while standing up." She daintily offered an arm to Rin. "Shall we go to the baths? I was hoping I would run into you here and that we could chat."

Completely baffled, Rin quickly tossed on her robe and proceeded to join the princess. She had been to baths before, but usually not on the arm of a woman, never mind a princess. She gave up with a mental shrug. Everything else here was strange and unusual, why would the baths be an exception?

The bath itself was huge, beyond any hot spring that Rin had ever visited. Mosaics formed pictures of dragons soaring amongst the clouds and walking the earth amidst hot, flaming coals. Everything was edged in gold filigree. Rin was completely mesmerized until she felt the princess lead her into the bath.

Settled into the hot water, Rin closed her eyes to relax. Harika-hime waded in next to her.

"I didn't see Hae. Is she protecting your sister?" Rin was only a bit curious, but it seemed as good a topic as any to start a conversation.

"No. She is in the shadows." Harika-hime waved into a dark corner of the room. "My sister is protected by her guard, Yoihito. He goes wherever she goes."

At this Rin opened her eyes. "Everywhere?"

Harika shot her a knowing look that was slightly out of character for the peaceful princess. "Much in the same way that Sesshoumaru-sama goes wherever you go."

"He doesn't go where I go, I go where he goes." Rin argued lazily, the effects of the bath wearing down any tension she had felt.

"Then you'll be at Kongomi-nee-sama's ceremony." Harika was twiddling her thumbs, making small ripples and splashes.

"What ceremony?" Rin sat up, genuinely inquisitive.

"Oh, well I suppose no one's told you since you only arrived a few hours ago." Harika raised her arm, glistening with water droplets. "In seven days Kongomi-nee-sama will undergo the promise ceremony with Sesshoumaru-sama."

Rin felt slightly nervous "Promise ceremony?" Did demons have traditional engagements before getting married? Maybe they had these promise ceremonies instead and then it was settled.

"Since our father's father's time, the ruler of Ryudo has sworn allegiance to the leader of the western Inu clan. In return, the leader of the Inu clan vows to protect Ryudo as one of the western land territories. A promise for a promise." Harika lowered her arm into the soothing waters. "It's all symbolic, but all symbolism has meaning, I suppose."

"Anyway, it turns out that Sesshoumaru-sama has not actually performed the Promise ceremony with Father or Kongomi-nee-sama. Since he is here, Father thought it would be good to follow through on the Promise Ceremony, but also to include onee-sama's coming of age rites at the same time."

"So Kongomi is having her coronation at the same time?"

Harika giggled a little. "We do not have 'coronations'. When the current king feels that the heir is ready, the prince or princess undergoes the coming of age rites. After that, the king or queen becomes a regent and slowly relinquishes the power and responsibilities to the heir. That way, if the ruler dies, then there is less disruption."

"That makes sense," Rin said. "So Kongomi-hime will go through her rites."

"And as the newly empowered heir, she will complete the Promise Ceremony with Sesshoumaru-sama," Harika added.

Rin settled back into a quasi-relaxed state. On one hand relieved that the Promise Ceremony was only politically motivated, but on the other hand she couldn't quite shake the nagging feeling of displeasure whenever she thought of Kongomi and Sesshoumaru having to spend time together, planning a special event. Her only consolation was the certainty that Sesshoumaru would hate every second of that tedium.

"Do you have something in mind?" Harika broke her concentration. "For what you'll wear to the ceremony and the banquet afterwards?"

Trying to prevent the feeling of inadequacy from overcoming her, Rin thought of the clothes sitting in the wooden container in the waiting room. Those were the only garments she currently owned. "Nothing in particular. I guess I could look for a kimono in the marketplace…"

"Please let me come with you." Harika grasped Rin's hands. "I can show you all of the best stores, and where to find the best accessories!"

Rin had no intention of spending much time at all on whatever formal fripperies were required for the ceremony, but the rosy princess looked so excited by the prospect of joining her on a shopping expedition that Rin simply couldn't say no.

* * * * * *

 

Much later, Rin lay down on some of the giant pillows that were laid out on the carpet in her room. To contemplate the complications that were rapidly entangling her life.

First, there was the matter of the ceremony. A formal event which was clearly intended to be the social event of the season, if not the decade. Every eligible girl and her mother would be dressed to the nines and on the prowl for future marriage partners.

Sure, if she was some love-sick teenager, she might be frantic, desperately learning how to dance, how to play an instrument, how to recite some poem in a tongue that was hardly spoken, or even how to wear beautiful, but painful clothes. Alright, there was probably no getting out of the last one – not with Harika-hime at the helm and not with Sesshoumaru-sama being involved.

As she had no desire to be wed right at the moment, there was no need to waste her time priming and preening to catch Sesshoumaru-sama's eye – even if somewhere small, in a tiny corner of her heart, something said that she wanted to.

Then, there was the matter of those obnoxious rumors. Was she really going to have to spend seven days denying that she was his lover? How irritating!

Her disgruntled emotions were undoubtedly the result of her dislike for the princess, and they were not related in any way shape or form to any sort of 'feelings' she might harbor for Sesshoumaru.

Not that she was harboring anything. Despite the best efforts of everyone in this castle, Rin was not romantically interested in Sesshoumaru-sama. It was true that she wanted to impress him, but only to show that she was worthy of staying by side as a strategic aid or partner.

She rolled onto her stomach and walked through the next steps in her plan.

She had seven days before they left. Seven days to learn as much as she could about fighting, about flying, and about politics.

Rin rose from the pillows over to the low writing desk. She quickly penned out a message – maybe she could ask Aoi-kun to deliver it in the morning. Then she returned to the pillows, fanning her damp hair out across the beaded and embroidered fabric.

Seven days to learn how to be the best partner she could be.

Seven days to quash the rumors about Sesshoumaru's relationship with her, or worse, with Kongomi.

Seven days to hope she wasn't making a huge mistake.

* * * * * *

 

Late into the evening, a tall figure slipped into Rin's room. He blended smoothly with the billowing drapes and eased into the room with not so much as a whisper.

Sesshoumaru saw no one was in the bed and a quick search found Rin nestled amongst a large pile of pillows, sleeping soundly. It had been a long day for them both. Though one could argue that having one's life energy drained, replaced, followed by a rescue mission and an expedited healing of broken bones could be tiring, Sesshoumaru still believed that political meetings that lasted more than one hour were more exhausting.

He looked to the small writing desk in the corner of the room, where a pile of papers were shuffled around, disturbed. He took a cursory peek into the papers and found a small message addressed to him.

Dear Sesshoumaru-sama,

I will be busy for the next seven days. Please enjoy your political conferences with Kongomi-hime and her court officers.

Sincerely,

Rin

Sesshoumaru raised his brow just a fraction of a sliver of a millimeter. The girl never ceased to surprise him. He was certain she would be waiting outside the conference room with the utmost devotion, patiently awaiting for his return, just to know what was happening or how she could help…

But no. That girl was gone. As he was constantly reminded, this new Rin was fiercely independent to point of wanting to do everything herself (even if she was almost killed doing so). This Rin was prone to dangerous and reckless actions and frequently put her in harm's way.

He glanced down at a second sheet of paper on the ground, which he retrieved and quickly scanned the contents. It was a list of Rin's objectives for the next seven days before the dragon princess's coming of age ceremony. Gently, he placed the paper back down the desk.

Yes, this Rin did dangerous and reckless things, but perhaps that wasn't a bad thing.

* * * * * *

 

AFTERWARDS:

Having clawed his way out of the rubble, the little green imp lay collapsed against a big stone. His two-headed staff was bandaged around the middle where it had been snapped in half. The sun had gone down long ago and in fact, it was due to come up again in a few hours.

Jaken heaved himself up and started meandering forward with the same determination he possessed on the day that he first entered the employment of his master.

"Sesshoumaru-samaaaaaaaa….."

Chapter Text

Rin woke and blearily stumbled to her window. The sun was still rising on her first day in the dragon city and the nip in the air made her shiver slightly. As she rubbed her arms to stave off the chill, a flash of gold streaked across the sky in front of her.

A dragon? Rin leaned out over her balcony to get a closer look at the majestic creature.

The dragon swooped and spiraled, flirting with the low set morning cloud cover. The golden beast curved through a graceful figure eight, cutting the clouds with a sharp and slender tail. Perched atop was a delicate rider with a faint grasp on a loose leather harness.

Rin's breath caught in her throat. The trust required between mount and rider to accomplish such a feat must have been forged through years of practice and bonding. Would she be able to do that too, with appropriate training?

Dragon and rider descended in the direction of the stables, clearly done with their morning flight. Rin raced to get dressed and hurried down to the stables. Maybe if that rider was still there, he or she might be willing to share some of their secrets to dragon riding!

Sprinting at full speed, she made it down to the stables just in time to see the rider dismount from a small gold dragon. Rin breathlessly called out.

"Um! You are a beautiful rider!" She approached the person, still panting as she tried to catch her breath. "If you have some time, can you let me know how you're able to ride so well?"

The rider turned and carefully removed the ornamental helmet. Rin froze in her tracks – the mysterious rider was none other than Kongomi.

"Ah, well," the princess smiled with a cruel smirk and loftily shook out her hair. "My dragon is bonded with me. This level of skill is to be expected." She propped her helmet against her hip. "I am terribly sorry, but I must be off – ceremony plans with Sesshoumaru-sama, you know."

With those words, the princess fluidly spun on her heel and led her dragon away.

Rin stewed with anger. That was completely unnecessary!

A shape stepped out of the shadows and nodded in her direction. It was another dragon demon – this one with a more tan skin, flaxen hair, and amber eyes. Unlikely many of the dragon folk, he was heavily armed and covered in golden armor with a red cape.

That must have been Yoihito, the crown princess's personal guard. Rin gave a little bit of a sympathetic smile; protecting someone like Kongomi must be difficult.

Nicely distracted from her fury, Rin was calm enough to go into the stables to bring Ah-Un back out into the courtyard.

She climbed up on Ah-Un's back and settled right behind where his two necks met. "Now let's see have some fun, shall we?"

Ah-Un lifted off and they took to the skies. Wind whistling in her ears, Rin took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the cool morning air.

"Come on, Ah-Un! Let's go higher!"

The dragon climbed higher and higher, far above the castle on the top of the cliff. Everything below was small, but picturesque as the castle cut through the magical clouds that surrounded the city. Rin paused to ponder how sunlight made it through the clouds, but decided that there were some things that couldn't be explained.

"Go for it, Ah-Un! Dive!"

With only a moment's pause, Ah-Un dropped. Rin's stomach flip-flopped even more spectacularly than the day before when she had arrived.

She wondered if it would be possible to spin, like the princess had earlier. Without warning, Ah-Un complied, executing a tight corkscrew with a spin so tight that Rin could barely hold on. As they burst out of the spin, she was grinning ear to ear.

See, she could do it if she put her mind to it!

Instead of going all the way to the base of the city to touch the ocean spray, Ah-Un headed back to the stables and landed somewhat heavily in the stone courtyard.

The young girl slid down off of Ah-Un's back, smiling broadly.

That had been exhilarating! Why, with even a bit more practice she might even be able to show the princess a thing or two -

"You foolish girl! What do you think you were doing?"

Rin looked around Ah-Un to find the most ancient, little demon toddling over to her. His cane clanked on the ground as he shuffled over in worn slippers and course linens. His hair was mottled gray and his eyes, surely once a vibrant green, were foggy with age.

She bowed, still holding onto Ah-Un's reins. "Greetings, Elder. How may I help you?"

"You can help by getting out of my stables, right this instant!"

She blinked.

"I'm sorry?" she asked, hoping to clarify what was happening.

"You should be!" The little old dragon jabbed his cane at her. "What do you think you were doing, making a traveling dragon do such a thing – and at his age!"

Was he talking about Ah-Un? Rin looked at her friend with concern. Was something wrong with Ah-Un?

"Could you not hear his protests? Traveling dragons are bred for long distance and strength – not aerial acrobatics." The demon, who Rin guessed was the royal hostler, snatched the reins out of Rin's hands, chafing her palms slightly.

She made a swing to take back the reins. "Ah-Un was not complaining! He was flying like normal!"

"Silly human! That is because you cannot hear his heart!" The hostler poked his cane at her again to keep her at bay. "He is in pain now because you made him do something he did not want to do."

"But he didn't give me any indication – "

"Of course not. This dragon is bonded to you. He will do anything to help you. He will do anything you ask. Even if that means putting himself in danger." He shook his head and glared at her. "It is a pity that he bonded to you. This dragon was destined for great things, but here he is, carrying a silly, weak, human girl."

Shame stole over Rin, chilling her heart. Ah-Un was in pain? And it was her fault?

Timidly, she reached out to touch her long-time companion. "Ah-Un, I'm sorry –"

The hostler smacked her hands away, rapping them sharply with his cane. "You can just go away. I need to tend to his injuries." He led Ah-Un back into the stables with the other dragons, leaving Rin alone with her thoughts.

* * * * * *

 

"I was thinking that a warm color, like red or orange would suit you the best, Rin-san."

Rin shook her head to clear her mind; the incident that morning at the stables dominated her thoughts, effectively distracting her from anything else.

"I'm sorry, Harika-hime. My mind was somewhere else." She smiled apologetically.

The younger princess was being so kind as to take her shopping in the marketplace for formal garb for the ceremony later that week. As Sesshoumaru's traveling companion, it was only expected that Rin would be in attendance, which required appearing respectable.

Despite the promise to herself from the previous night, Rin was feeling less than enthusiastic about learning more about flying, knife fighting, or even about the politics and history of the Ryudo lands.

"Is something bothering you?" The princess gestured that they should take a seat. "Hae, would you be so kind as to get us some snacks from the stall over there?"

The young woman nodded, for going to the stall would pose no problem towards her ability to protect the rosy princess.

"Now, tell me what the matter is," Harika said, putting all her attention on Rin.

Feeling there was nothing to lose, Rin launched into an explanation about what had happened in the stables that morning. She left out the part about doing this self-improvement for Sesshoumaru's sake because she didn't want to deal with teasing about romantic pairings that didn't exist.

"Ah, you mean Daichi-ji-san," Harika smiled. "He is incredibly cranky. I wouldn't read into his scolding too much."

"I think I might have honestly hurt Ah-Un. I didn't realize that he was in pain, but I still made him do that anyway." Rin feel terrible about injuring her friend, given all that he had done for her.

"What do you normally do when you hurt a friend by accident?"

"Huh?" Rin looked at the princess inquisitively.

"When you hurt a friend accidentally, what do you normally do to resolve the issue?"

"Well, I guess you apologize and try to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Then the princess's line of questioning clicked into place. It really was that simple, wasn't it?

"Harika-hime," she said, "sometimes I get the impression that you are much wiser beyond your years."

The princess smiled sweetly. "I am sure I don't take your meaning." But it was clear that she did.

Hae returned with some fried sort of dough treat on a stick, one for each of the girls. "I was not sure when to bring this up, but I heard from Sesshoumaru-sama that you were interested in learning more about using knives to fight."

Rin blushed. How did she should about that?

More importantly, how did Sesshoumaru-sama know about that? Then she remembered the note she had left on the writing desk. He must have seen it, along with the rest of her notes about what topics to study during her stay in the dragon city.

Trying to push aside her embarrassment, Rin confirmed. "I've had some basic self-defense training from a demon hunter back in my village, but I would like to become more proficient."

Hae smiled. "Then I can help you with that. Just come down to the training yard behind the castle tomorrow and I'll show you some exercises for strengthening your muscles and we can take a look at your knife work as well."

"Thank you!" This was proving to be easier than she thought.

"I would also not worry about Daichi-ji-san He's really quite harmless. Just make sure you go back to apologize to your friend and then don't take no for an answer. Regardless of what he says, keep chipping away at him and he'll give in eventually." Harika provided some insight. "I'm not very good at riding like Kongomi-nee-sama is. I was constantly apologizing to him for 'abusing' the training dragons."

Rin couldn't stifle a giggle. Well that settled that. The only piece missing was learning about the history and political system of the dragon lands. She would have to see what Aoi-kun had managed to track down when she got back to her room.

* * * * * *

 

Turned out, Aoi had managed to track down a lot.

When Rin returned to her room after being forced to try on garment after garment until the princess was satisfied, she found stacks of scrolls piled up around the room.

The little demon had left behind a written account of what each scroll contained. Everything seemed to be covered: the written history of Ryudo, the political ruling system, a collection on the mythology surrounding Ryudo and the Ryunin, or dragon people, as well as notes on their economy, exports, and way of life.

She sighed. She had asked for all of this information and there was nothing for it, but to start at the top.

Grabbing a scroll from the history pile, she began to read.

She was so immersed in the origins of the dragon demons that she failed to notice when Sesshoumaru slipped into the room.

"You are quite studious."

The words cut through the silence and made her jump a bit. "Sesshoumaru-sama!" She could see the feudal lord eyeing the mounds of literature that were cluttering the room. "I was just reading up on some history…"

"I see."

A new, awkward, quiet fell between the two of them. Rin was not sure what to say. There was no doubt that Sesshoumaru was aware of her motives for suddenly adopting an interest in flying, studying, and fighting. Even though she wished desperately to quash any assumptions about bettering herself solely for the sake of the almighty Sesshoumaru-sama, her denial would be met with skepticism.

"Dinner will be served shortly."

Rin blinked. Was this an attempt at casual conversation?

"Will you break from your studies?" That seemed almost like an invitation.

Unsure how to reply, Rin settled for running away. "I want to study a bit more. I'll have Aoi-kun send for food."

"I see."

She almost hoped that there was disappointment in his tone, but that was thinking too much. At least she would not have to watch whatever gloating Kongomi would do from the seating arrangement, which would surely place Sesshoumaru next to the princess. With a tiny sigh, she released the last of her discontent and returned to reading.

"Make sure you eat."

With those final words, he swept from the room, leaving Rin with tiny flutters in her heart.

* * * * * *

 

After a night of acceptable sleep, Rin headed down to the stables. The first order of business was to get back on the right foot with the old hostler. Hopefully, there wouldn't be many people there at this hour of the morning.

"You missed a wonderful dinner last night. Sesshoumaru-sama said he enjoyed it thoroughly."

She cursed under the breath. Kongomi was the last person she wanted to see. The growing irritation at the princess's sense of entitlement regarding Sesshoumaru was bad enough; having the arrogant young woman rub it in was worse.

She slapped a haphazard smile on her face and turned to greet the princess with the minimum number of words to still be considered polite. "Good morning, Kongomi-hime. I am glad to hear it. Now if you'll excuse me, I must be going."

Pushing past the gaping princess, Rin walked briskly into the stables. Not even a second had passed before Daichi was after her.

"I thought I told you to get out!"

She slyly quipped. "You didn't say anything about coming back."

This did not slow down the little old demon one jot. "You rude human!" He hobbled over to her angrily.

Rin let the smile drop from her face. "May I see Ah-Un?" She asked softly. "I would like to apologize for what I did yesterday. I was naïve to try anything without guidance."

She took another breath to steady herself. "Ah-Un has been a close friend since I was very young. I never wanted to hurt him."

The hostler squinted his eyes in close scrutiny. Rin forced herself to meet his glare squarely on despite the strong urge to fidget.

He broken into a toothy smile. "I already knew that."

Confused, she blinked. "I'm sorry, I am not sure I understand."

"Many of our people have the ability to commune with our dragons, to speak to them heart-to-heart. Your friend had nothing but kind words for you."

He laid his hands over each other on top of his cane and he gave her a soft look. "The many years you have spent together have created a deep and irreplaceable bond."

Rin blushed. "It has been years since I've seen Ah-Un, but I am glad that he still thinks of me fondly."

"Oh, I was talking about you and Sesshoumaru-sama."

Her blush intensified to a brilliant shade of scarlet and she was left grasping for words.

"Now, let us get your Ah-Un and see what we can do."

Several hours later, Rin was seriously reconsidering her decision to learn dragon riding, but she did not have much time to reflect on this, as she ran along to the training yard to meet with Hae.

That afternoon was filled with scratches and bruises as she learned lesson and after lesson from the skilled Hae. It seemed that everything she did was wrong and by the end of the practice session, a healthy group of spectators comprised of swordsmen, fighters, guards, and apprentices, had joined Harika-hime on the fences.

By the time the servants started calling the lords and ladies to dinner, Rin was in no mood to play court, but Aoi-kun absolutely insisted on her making an appearance at the stately meal that evening.

Half asleep, she let Aoi-kun pick out some delicate garments for her to wear and someone was called in to wrangle her hair into a presentable state. Then she was forced down into the great hall.

Walking into the room, Rin's eyes widened in amazement. The ceiling arched high, with the city's traditional dragon-lattice-work-golden-filigree theme. Gauzy fabrics in jeweled tones of blues, greens, and pinks were draped from every corner, creating an ethereal effect.

A tad stupefied, she let one of the servants guide her over to a table setting. She snapped out of her awe enough to notice that she had been placed a bit far from Sesshoumaru, who was, of course, next to the lovely crown princess. Kongomi took no time in exuding her dominance and confidence to anyone within ear range.

Rin's consolation was that the younger princess Harika and another royal sibling were seated nearby, allowing her to have at least some pleasant conversation. Even after the meal, Harika offered a short walk around the palace, as if sensing her displeasure and need to vent.

"What is this ceremony for, anyway? Why is Sesshoumaru-sama so important to it?" Rin tossed the questions out hypothetically, to blow off some steam, but she was not surprised when Harika attempted to respond in earnest.

"Several centuries ago, there was an uprising by one of the king's attendants. He amassed an army, which included several of the great dragons of old – fearsome daiyoukai with unimaginable powers and strength. Ryudo fell under his tyrannical rule and he began spreading his chaos across all the land."

The princess's tone had taken on a melodic hint as she recited the story from memory.

"That was when the great Inu clan of the northern island came down. They possessed a weapon that could tame and even slay the great dragons. A young general led their forces and defeated the traitor, granting our ancestors their freedom once more."

Rin frowned. A young Inu general? Could that possibly be?

"Inutaisho-sama was granted rule over all of the Western Lands as reward for his services. He chose to give us autonomy, provided that we swore to remain loyal. In return, he promised to protect us as part of the Western Lands."

Noting the unhappiness on Rin's face, Harika provided some comforting words. "You do not need to worry about Sesshoumaru-sama being stolen away by Kongomi-nee-sama. She is under extreme pressure as she is both coming of age, performing the rites to become the full heir, and she also needs to impress Sesshoumaru-sama during the time leading up the ceremony."

"Why is that?"

Harika's voice dropped, "Sesshoumaru-sama has not been seen in these lands for an age. The last time he appeared was with his father, many years ago. We were uncertain as to whether he would continue to grant us the freedom of rule, or whether one day he would overturn our system."

"Sesshoumaru-sama would never do that!" Rin exclaimed. "He might not have a lot of patience, but he is not cruel."

"Although the promise is the smallest piece of the ceremony, it is the part that we are most anxious about." Harika smiled warmly. "Please try to forgive onee-sama during this time."

Forgive as she might, Rin still felt the pangs of jealousy that were forcing her to realize the truth of the emotions in her heart.

* * * * * *

 

The next few days passed in a very similar manner: Rin struggled to gain her sense of balance during dragon riding lessons and continued to remain the center of attention in the training yards while Hae taught her about fighting with knives.

Once again she found herself catching the not so subtle whisperings of the servants as she made her way around the castle and the city. As irritating as the gossiping was, the continuous run-ins she had with her royal highness, Kongomi-hime, continued to be unbearable.

The princess took every opportunity to find some flaw or fault with Rin's appearance, conduct, upbringing, companionship, or even what she chose to eat for breakfast. In response, there was nothing Rin could use to fight back.

Even when she wasn't around, the princess remained on her almighty pedestal.

"I bet the princess never gets her hands this dirty," Rin had said with a smile, brushing the clods of earth and straw from her hands after a tumble in the training yard.

"That's not right." Several of the guards who were training had risen up in Kongomi's defense. "Our princess practices here every day. She is skilled in both sword and archery, as expected on the crown princess."

There was nothing Rin could say against that sort of testimony. She did her best to brush it aside and continue with her work.

Each night when she retired to her room to study, she was left alone with her thoughts. Those thoughts would more than occasionally turn to a certain white-haired demon lord and make her heart palpitate. It was getting harder to ignore the reality of the situation. Luckily, the target of her growing affections was frequently busy, and she never had to confront her feelings directly.

Dinners continued to be just as awkward and Rin was extremely grateful every day when she was finally allowed to return to her room and go to sleep.

* * * * * *

 

After a grueling morning in the stables and the training yard, Rin trotted down the main street towards the market place to pick up an accessory for Harika; the younger princess was trapped in ceremony rehearsal for the afternoon, along with the rest of the royal family. It went without saying that Sesshoumaru was there as well.

Her heart clenched at the thought of the princess being paired up with her mentor, but it was second nature for her to ignore the sensation.

Then, there was a feeling of being watched. She froze and whipped around, trying to pick out the spectator amidst the crowd.

Her eyes met with an all-too-familiar set of silver eyes. It was one of the demons from the lizard lord's castle. How could they be here, with all the security that was in place?

The watcher's gaze glowed from within a deeply set hood. Slowly, deliberately, he raised a silver hand and put a finger to his lips, requesting her silence.

Rin dashed forward through the throngs of people, but the mysterious creature was gone. She frantically glanced around, but all trace of the demon had disappeared.

She had to tell someone immediately. What if he was already getting ready to attack?

Without a moment to spare, she started to sprint back to the palace. It might already be too late.

Somehow she managed to weave her way back to the main hall, where the ceremony rehearsal was taking place. Guards stood at attention outside of the great wooden doors, but Rin ran right past them, slamming one of the doors wide open.

Everyone in the hall paused at the sudden noise.

"The demons! From the castle! They're here – in the city!" Rin called out, trying to catch her breath. "I saw one – in the marketplace!" She collapsed to her knees as a bead of sweat rolled down her temple.

"What are you blathering on about?" The affronted Kongomi demanded from her place on the dais, standing close to Sesshoumaru. "You are interrupting our rehearsal."

Normally, she would attempt to ignore the princess, but the she had had enough of the insults and the barbed words. In a very terse tone, Rin snapped back. "I am not blathering. The demons that abducted you, your sister, and your citizens are wandering around your marketplace. Unmarked, I might add."

Kongomi-hime scoffed. "That is impossible. Our defenses are impenetrable and we hire only the highest quality guards!" She calmed and adopted a condescending tone. "Surely, you must be mistaken. You are still new to our city; perhaps you saw another ryu-yokai with similar coloring and became confused?"

"Do you really think that your pride is more important than the safety of your people? There is no reason to act like this. Do you really think that Sesshoumaru-sama's opinion of how well or how poorly you are securing your perimeter trumps making the necessary changes to protect all those precious lives?" Rin got off the ground and started striding to the princess. "Are you so concerned about your appearance that you refuse to see what is happening?"

Armed guards moved towards Rin, clearly preparing to disable any potential threat to the royal family.

"Rin."

Sesshoumaru's voice rang coldly throughout the presentation hall.

"You will leave."

Rin gaped. "But Sesshoumaru-sama, she is being impossible-"

"Your behavior is an embarrassment. You will leave now."

This left no room for argument and Rin stormed out of the room, leaving behind a smug crown princess, who smiled genteelly at Sesshoumaru.

"Thank you for diffusing that situation. Humans can be some imaginative sometimes, can't they?" She chuckled slightly, but stopped when Sesshoumaru started speaking directly to Yoihito.

"You will increase the number of guards patrolling the city."

Kongomi's mouth dropped. "Sesshoumaru-sama? I thought we just agreed that there was no threat. Besides, the security we have in place is ample enough to protect me – there is no need to send out reinforcements."

"Your forces might be sufficient for you, but they are not adequate for me."

With this, Kongomi laughed, puzzled and amazed. "But my lord, you are so powerful! Surely you do not require protection."

"Not for me – for Rin."

The princess's mirth died in an instant and her expression became cold. "Are you really concerned about an idle threat?"

"Rin does not make false reports. Increase your security." He proceeded to walk out of the room, much to the astonishment of everyone else.

* * * * * *

 

The cool afternoon air refused to alleviate the angry flush across Rin's cheeks. Why did the princess feel it was necessary to belittle everything she did? Simply remembering the words that were thrown about in the strategy chambers refueled her irritation.

Rather than return to her room, she decided to stroll around one of the balconies just off one of the meeting halls. As if sensing the young woman's fury, all of the dragon folk had apparently disappeared, leaving Rin alone with her thoughts. She stomped over to the railing and gripped the smooth stone with a strangle hold.

To make matter worse, Sesshoumaru had taken up that witch's defense. How could he side with the princess like that? Here she was, trying her best, and he had the audacity to agree with that haughty, imperious, pompous twit!

"ARGH!" Rin shouted at the sunset. "They're both so stupid! Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid!"

"Who is stupid, exactly?"

She whirled around to see Sesshoumaru standing a few paces behind her. To hide her embarrassment, she replied quickly, "No one. No one at all." She turned back towards the red and orange sky, trying to keep her disgruntled expression to herself.

There were a few faint footsteps and Rin could feel Sesshoumaru standing off to her left.

"Do you know why you were scolded?"

She pouted. "Because I overreacted and tried to hit the princess." She threw a glare in his direction. "But she deserved it."

"Even if you believed that she deserved it, you have to play the game by their rules."

"That's stupid."

Silence fell and then there was a brief sigh. Rin glanced sideways at the lord, trying to glimpse at this rare, emotional outburst. She was sorely disappointed when his face was stoic as usual and she looked back up at the sky.

"And if that's the case, then I'll be in trouble because I'll never be able to play the game. I'm no good with subtleties and intrigue, as you well know." She smiled as the wind whipped her bangs about.

"I do know."

With this, she stopped. She had only tossed in that last part as an expression – it was entirely unexpected that he would actually agree with her.

She moved to face him head on and asked: "You do?"

In response, he also turned to face her, letting the full power of his golden stare bore into her. Unprepared for this earnest approach, Rin struggled to keep her composure. The quips from the dragon princesses floated to the surface of her mind and she forced those uncomfortable, romantic notions back down. She could feel her breath quickening slightly.

"Your complete lack of tact and your inability to maneuver political discourse are some of those qualities that I happen to find – "

"My lord, Sesshoumaru-sama!"

The pair broke from their conversation to look at the poor servant boy who had interrupted, who was now becoming mildly terrified from the stone gaze of the dog lord. Rin's stern look of disapproval was probably not helping.

"A-a-and of course, Rin-sama as well. D-d-dinner is now s-s-served." Message delivered, the servant scurried away.

With the distraction gone, Rin could feel an awkward mood settling in. Should she ask what Sesshoumaru was going to say? Did she really want to know?

Rather than confront these feelings, she decided to run away. She took a deep breath and swatted Sesshoumaru on the arm playfully.

"You really didn't need to scare him like that."

Then she flounced off to dinner.

* * * * * *

 

"What have you done now, little brother? I can sense the unease, even from out here." Pian floated in the sky, just beyond the clouds that obscured the city. He spoke to a small scale in the palm of his hand.

"The inu-wench spotted me and went running to Sesshoumaru, who presumably told everyone else." Kan's voice radiated from the dragon scale. "Now he's on alert with the rest of the castle."

Pian sighed. Sometimes Kan's impatience was such a hindrance.

"I will take care of distracting Sesshoumaru. You find a way to handle the extra soldiers before the deadline. Use any means necessary."

He could hear Kan snickering. "That won't be a problem. But, how are you going to distract Sesshoumaru? Your mental tricks don't work on higher youkai."

Closing his eyes and drawing his hood over his eyes, Pian brought his hands together in a meditative position. "Luckily, I am not aiming for him."

* * * * * *

 

Rin found herself back in the marketplace, but this time, the sky was dark and the streets were devoid of a single soul. The silence was suffocating and she didn't dare utter a word.

Then, a form materialized in front of her and when she saw who it was, she tripped on the long hem of her kimono and fell to the ground.

"Hello, my dear." One of the silver-eyed monsters had come to visit. "How you doing on this fine evening?"

She scrambled to her feet and tried to keep her breath even. "This is just a dream. I know that. I'll defeat you like I do every time something unwanted shows up."

Standard procedure: imagine the tools she needed and the beat the opponent into oblivion. With closed eyes, she imagined herself in warrior gear and waited for her kimono to change.

Except it didn't.

Confused, she frowned and tried forming a stronger mental image.

"Having some trouble, my dear?"

Gritting her teeth, she shot back, "Can you stop calling me that? I'm not your dear. And as soon as I am done getting ready to pound you into the dirt, I'll come after you."

"I really don't think that's going to happen."

Using her growing frustration to mask her fear, she opened her eyes and glowered at him. "Why is that?"

He started to approach her slowly, much like predator stalking prey. "You were only half-right when you said this was a dream. This is a dream, but I am the one controlling it."

The distance between them shrank and Rin took a few involuntary steps backwards, only to find that she had hit a wall.

"You see, I have a talent for minds and your mind, my dear, is utterly lacking in defense. It is child's play for me to slip inside while you are asleep."

Reviled, Rin raised an arm to push him away. "You are disgusting!"

He caught her arm and she could feel her strength draining away in her entire body. Without any power, her arm dropped to her side and her legs gave out. The demon caught her as she fell and gently cradled her limp body in his arms. Terror flooded her heart and captured her mind.

"Why are you doing this?" she whispered, unable to draw the full breath to speak properly.

"Are you referring to why I am targeting you? Or perhaps you are referring to what my brother and I are trying to do at large?" He reached down to draw a single pearly claw down her jaw.

She shivered.

"My brother and I have some personal business to attend to. That business happens to be enacting revenge on this tiny, useless, pathetic, land. To do that, there's a few things that we need that happen to be here in the city."

His claw traced down the edge of her chin and down her neck, towards the edge of her kimono. Rin tried to muster the energy to resist, but her strength was still sapped and all she could do was tremble.

"As it happens, we have a very particular hatred for the inu-clan, which of course extends to the current leader, Sesshoumaru." This last phrase was uttered with venom dripping from every word. "Which brings us to you."

She forced herself to meet his watching eyes, trying to remain calm as he used his claw to play with the edge of her kimono, peeling it back slightly.

"You really are quite a lovely girl, for a human. I can see why he is captivated with you. His interest makes it that much easier to leverage you as bait."

Alarm filled Rin's mind and adrenaline pumped through her veins. With one swift movement, she jabbed an elbow into his stomach and wobbled away a few steps before careering to the ground once again. She glanced up at the villain defiantly, but he was completely unfazed.

With slow, deliberate steps, he approached her and fear took over Rin once again. "That was quite impressive. You were able to overcome my spell for the briefest of moments because I threatened your beloved Sesshoumaru-sama."

This time, when he reached her, he pushed her down onto the ground and pinned her with a heavy hand to her shoulder.

"Rin," said the demon.

She scrunched her eyes tightly, unable to even scream.

"Rin."

Her body tensed and she rolled her head to the side, trying to block out the sound of his voice.

"Rin. Wake up."

Her eyes flew open at the sound of a new voice. She looking around, completely disoriented. Someone loomed over her with a heavy hand on her shoulder.

The pale moonlight shined brightly on silver hair that framed a pair of golden eyes that almost seemed to glow in the dark.

"Sesshoumaru-sama, is that you?" Was this still the dream? Was it another trick?

She received no reply, but the expressionless face told her everything she needed to know.

Rin launched herself at Sesshoumaru, planting her face into his kimono, grabbing the soft white fabric on his back, and brushing against soft fur. Without the armor in place, she could feel the warmth radiating directly from him, through his clothing.

"Rin." He voice was quiet, but there was no anger or irritation in his tone.

"I am sorry, Sesshoumaru-sama. Please let me stay like this until this passes. I will be alright in a few minutes."

They stayed that way, kimono fabric clenched in her hands as she tried to calm herself from the nightmare was already beginning to fade away. There was no safer place to be, no person she would use as a pillar of support when the world was wrong, and there was no other person she cared for as deeply. Even now, when she could not recall the contents of the nightmare that had terrified her, she drew comfort from his presence.

Taking a deep breath and trembling slightly, she decided it was time.

"Sesshoumaru-sama, there's something I need to say." Her voice was muffled by his kimono.

"Are you recovered?" His voice was precise, as if each word was calculated. "No apology is required. Humans are sentimental creatures and they get carried away in the moment."

The words cut Rin deeper than any knife would she had ever received. The rejection was painfully clear: there was no doubt that he had noticed her growing affections, and her stabs of jealousy towards the princess. Now he was trying to save their relationship before she confessed something that would have potentially made it impossible to continue traveling together.

Rin reluctantly released her grip and sat back on the bed. She muttered a few words to thank Sesshoumaru for his kindness before dropping back into the bedding and pulling a blanket up around her head.

She waited until she heard him get up and leave the room before letting the first tears fall.

Ah, this is what a broken heart feels like.

* * * * * *

 

Outside the room, Sesshoumaru clenched a fist and frowned. He had managed to save Rin from making a grave mistake.

Over the past week, he had watched her persevere and grow as she worked to better herself. Knowing that her efforts were for his sake and his sake only had awoken a plethora of emotions that extended beyond possessive pride.

Disgusted with his own foolish emotional state, he employed the cruelest logic to convince himself that her feelings were fleeting and that one day she would desire mortal, human company. Therefore, it only stood to reason that as the older and wiser of the pair, he had the responsibility to eliminate potential regrets and maintain their current relationship as guardian and ward.

Although he knew his decision was the correct one, he felt uneasy for a reason he could not name. He could smell the salt of fresh tears and for a split second, he was almost prepared to go back in there and take her back into his arms, to make everything right again.

But that was something he could not allow himself to do.

Chapter Text

"Sesshoumaru-sama! Where are you, Sesshoumaru-sama?"

Jaken whimpered in his sleep, clutching his staff close. His tiny, fragile hand reached out delicately, as though trying to grasp the early morning light beams.

"Mommy, what's wrong with the little green monster?"

"Hush! Keep walking! We are going to be late to the promise ceremony!"

Not about to let the opportunity go to waste, Jaken woke up in a hurry and launched himself towards the mother of a small child, who were walking on the path nearby.

"Is this the way to Ryudo?!" He called out with a crazed look in his eye.

The mother tugged her child away from the imp. "The capital is down the path, about two hours away." The pair hurried down the dirt road, glancing back with a fearful look.

With the weariness of a soldier completely spent from one too many war campaigns, Jaken stumbled to his feet, slung his staff on his shoulder, and began his long trudge towards the dragon city.

* * * * * *

 

"Good morning, Sesshoumaru-sama!"

Even this early in the morning, Rin was as bright and cheerful as ever. Sesshoumaru carefully examined her: there seemed to be no ill side effects of the previous night's events. There were no tell-tale signs of crying and she was in good spirits.

Perhaps he had been mistaken about her affections after all?

"Um, Sesshoumaru-sama, did you need something from me?" Rin tilted her head and looked at him with curiosity written all over her face.

"No." Without another word, he left.

* * * * * *

 

After Sesshoumaru was completely out of sight, Rin let out a ragged sigh. She closed her eyes and brought a hand to her heart.

The pain was still excruciating, but if he did not reciprocate her feelings, then there was little she could do. She smiled bitterly as she recalled what Kagome had told her in the past about the despair that comes from an unrequited love.

Rin's smile softened. At least Inuyasha's older brother had the decency to make a clean cut instead of dragging out an ambiguous relationship for years. There was no false hope there.

With a little more of a bounce in her step, she made her way into the stables, to find many of the dragons were gone and the air was heavy with a tense silence.

"Hello? Daichi-ji-san?" She called out. Only the quiet cooing and hissing of the dragons answered her. Raising her fingers to her lips, she let out a whistle.

She was rewarded with the deep, rumbling call of Ah-Un. Making her way out into one of the outdoor paddocks, she found her friend.

"So, do you know what's going on, Ah-Un?" She smiled as they playfully butted her with their heads. "Where is everyone?"

"Rin-chan! Rin-chan!" Aoi stumbled into the stables, his hair disheveled. "I've been looking everywhere for you!"

"What is going on, Aoi-kun?" Rin turned to face the young boy.

"The entire castle is on high alert. No one is allowed to fly today except for the sky patrols." He gestured into the air, where figures on small dragons were obscured by the clouds.

Rin raised a brow, "Why is the castle of high alert?"

"Sesshoumaru-sama commanded that the security be increased because of a potential threat."

Her heart fluttered; he had demanded extra security, because of her report yesterday? She sighed and forced herself to move on.

"Well, I guess then I'll go to the training grounds and see if Hae is available."

"Hae-san won't be there. She is guarding Harika-hime and the rest of the royal children in the family suite. Would you like me to bring you there?" He smiled mischievously for a reason that Rin couldn't fathom.

Rin politely declined the offer. This would be a good chance for her to catch up on her studying. "Thank you, Aoi-kun, but I think I will return to my room."

"Too bad for you!" He broke from his servant mode. "Harika-hime ordered me to bring you to her no matter what!" He grabbed her arm and almost dragged her into the palace.

It turned out that the princess did not having anything particular that she wanted to discuss; she just felt that Rin might be bored confined to her quarters. Harika introduced her younger brothers, several of which Rin had seen at the royal dinners. They were all very intrigued by the human girl who was traveling with Sesshoumaru-sama.

To deflect some of their questions, Rin requested that Harika tell her about some of the lore around the dragon demons and the city itself.

In this way, she passed most of the day, even taking dinner with the royal family privately. Kongomi was thankfully absent, attending to matters of security and the promise ceremony.

Also absent all day, was Sesshoumaru, which was a bit of a relief, since she hadn't quite conquered her disappointment and sadness.

That night, as she tried to fall asleep, Rin stared at the silken fabrics draped on the ceiling. There was no denying a certain anxiety had crept upon her as the evening slowly stole over day: an anticipation that something terrible drew near. Which was strange, as there wasn't a reason to be scared. Even though she could not recall the nightmare she'd had the night prior, she was sure it wasn't anything so fearsome that she would still feel uneasy.

Furthermore, she was concerned that she would cause more trouble for Sesshoumaru. The last thing she wanted was to force him to comfort her every time she had a bad dream.

The anxiety must be from the heightened security, she supposed, as she turned on her side and tried to fall asleep.

This time, Rin found herself wandering the halls of the castle. A wooden door creaked behind her and she whirled around with a knife in hand, ready to strike.

"I would not do that, if I were you, my dear."

Rin gritted her teeth as she recognized the voice of the silver demon. "Come for another round of torturing me in my dreams?"

The silver demon smiled and swept gracefully out from the shadows. "But of course. You are, after all, serving as a diversion while my brother does his work."

"That was your brother I saw in the marketplace yesterday," she confirmed, carefully easing herself into a combative position, with a knife that she materialized out of dream material.

"If you must know, yes. That was my younger, impatient brother." He twirled a knife in his hands.

She glanced down in shock; the knife she had been holding was gone – in the hands of her opponent. "How did you-?"

His condescending smirk said it all. "I told you last night that this may be your dream, but I am the one in control." His smile deepened. "I'm surprised you didn't remember that."

Irritation growing, Rin spat back, "That's because your little trick prevents me from remembering the next morning, right?"

"Oh! You are a bright girl," he clapped patronizingly. "Then you know that this is just serving as a distraction for your beloved Sesshoumaru."

"How is this a distraction?" she questioned, trying to buy herself time to think.

"Our precious lord has to keep half of his attention on you. Did he not abandon a strategy session to come running when you were engulfed in the terrors of the night?"

She swallowed back a hurt noise before responding with more bravado. "Well, he won't be doing that anymore. He's made his intentions perfectly clear, and babysitting me isn't one of them!"

Without any notice, she charged towards him, with a new dream knife in hand.

He easily side stepped the attack. "How interesting! Come and catch me, if you can!" He dashed down the hallway.

For a second, Rin was torn: should she allow herself to be goaded into what was a foolish action? She shrugged it off. There were no actual ramifications to decisions made in the dream.

Hot on the chase, Rin followed the demon as he whipped around corners and flashed down corridors. Then he made a sudden turn towards one of the courtyards and she followed in close pursuit.

Reaching the edge of the balcony, he glanced at the ocean waves crashing on the rocks many meters below, his expression calculating.

Feeling a bit confident, but still cautious, Rin prowled into the courtyard. "Your game ends here."

Her heart sank when the demon looked upon her again, this time with a knowing expression. "Oh no, my dear. This is where the game really begins."

Everything happened so fast. The demon leapt onto the stone railing and Rin sprinted towards her target, knife extended. As she reached him, he grabbed her arm and pulled her over the railing.

That was when she felt a sharp tug on her other arm, her vision went black, and then she felt the familiar sensation of cold steel and smooth kimono cotton.

"-in…Rin." Sesshoumaru's voice faded into her conscious as her vision began to clear. She shook her head to clear the rest of the dream away, only then realizing where she was. She gasped.

Instead of her bed, she was outside, on a balcony at the top of the city. No longer dazed, but still bewildered, she looked around. Once again, she was carefully captured in the arms of Sesshoumaru, but this time she was only a few feet away from the railing and almost certain death.

"Was I about to jump?" she asked, her voice quivering slightly. "I was about to jump, wasn't I?" A combination of fear and anger welled up inside her, causing her to tremble. What sort of dreams was she having that could cause her to sleep walk off of a balcony?

Sesshoumaru said nothing, but tightened his embrace when she started to shake.

After a few minutes, once the shaking had subsided, he loosened his grip. "Are you able to make it back to your room on your own?"

Rin started, finally remembering what was happening. Awkwardly, she pushed away from her companion gently. "Yes, thank you, Sesshoumaru-sama. I am quite fine now."

There was a pregnant pause and Rin forced herself to look up. When she did, she was not prepared for what she saw.

Sesshoumaru was looking off to the side, his gaze focused on the floor, with a bit of a frown forming. His eyes wandered, as though searching for an answer, and his brows furrowed just a bit more.

Not entirely sure what to make of this rather emotional display, Rin pondered if there was something that he wanted to tell her, but in the same moment tried to convince herself that there would be nothing. The tension in the air was as delicate as a sheet of glass that might shatter at the sound of a single word, sigh, or breath.

The moment disappeared in a flash when one of Sesshoumaru's demon crows appeared and delivered a message.

He sent the crow on its way and then strode purposefully back into the castle. "Rin, come."

As she fell into pace with him, he answered her unspoken question. "Guards are dead. There is an intruder in the castle."

Sesshoumaru led Rin down a series of corridors until they reached a large pair of double doors. Without explanation, he pushed the doors aside and strode into the room.

The king, princess-heir, and captain of the guard were clustered around a table. The rest of the royal family were grouped on a set of chairs off to the side. Every wall of the room was lined with members of the guard, standing at attention.

All eyes turned to Sesshoumaru as the pair entered.

"What is she doing here?" Kongomi arrogantly inquired.

"Rin is currently being targeted by the attackers," Sesshoumaru calmly replied. "A pathetic attempt to keep me distracted."

The room erupted into a chorus of confused voices.

"What do you mean she is being targeted?"

"Then does that mean the attackers are here in the castle?"

"Do we need to move the royal family?"

In all of the chaos, Rin's head started to throb. Small black spots filled her vision and then everything went black.

In the darkness, a voice drifted over her. "Hello, my dear."

Rin clenched her fists, "Why don't you come say that to my face, you dream freak!"

"I'd prefer to remain anonymous, if that's acceptable for you."

She tossed her head back and forth in an attempt to locate the source of the demon's voice. "You are infuriating. Leave me alone!"

"Rin, Rin, Rin, you are in my world. I will leave you alone when I am ready."

A sharp sting pierced her thoughts like a fiery needle. "What was that? Some sort of lazy attack?"

The voice chuckled, "Let's make this more interesting, shall we?"

This time, the pain shot through her entire body, locking her in place as all her muscles tensed up. Everything burned, hotter than red hot coals or a branding iron, searing her thoughts faster than she could think. She cried out in agony.

"Rin."

A new voice, a familiar voice, pushed through the cloud of anguish.

"Rin. Focus."

She grabbed onto this new lifeline with all the mental energy she had remaining. Slowly, she started to pull herself out of the nightmare.

"Come here, Rin."

With one final tug, she broke out of the darkness and her eyesight cleared.

Sesshoumaru was kneeling on the floor next to her, his fingertips on her temples. Rin blinked and felt a tear roll down her cheek. Had she been crying outside of the dream as well?

Her protector reached down and delicately wiped away the salty tracks left behind by the tears she shed. Face fully flushed, she quickly sat up to conceal her emotional state.

"Can someone tell us what happened?" The king asked, voice full of concern.

"I was attacked again," Rin said a bit wearily. Then the shroud that had fogged over her memories started to lift. "It was the demons! The ones who kidnapped the princesses!"

She glared at the princess, "I tried to tell you that there was one of them in the marketplace. Now do you believe me?"

"Why didn't you tell us about these mind attacks before? I might have considered your claim with a bit more gravity if you had provided us with all the details." The princess shot back.

"If it wasn't obvious, they did this during my dreams so I wouldn't be able to tell you. They're not stupid, you know."

"Silence."

One word from Sessohumaru and both girls snapped their mouths shut. He nodded to the captain of the guard, Yoihito, who wasted no time in moving the discussion along.

"We know from what Rin-san told us previously, that there are at least two of these silver demons. There may be more. We can assume that at least one of them, or one of their associates, is in the castle and has killed several guards near the outer walls."

Sesshoumaru helped Rin to her feet as Yoihito continued.

"At this juncture, I recommend that we move the royal family to the vault until this matter is resolved."

The king looked like he was about to protest, but he was cut off. "I insist, your majesties. We don't know the full scale of the attack and until that is understood, I cannot commit to your safety."

He turned to the rest of the group. "Everyone else will take part in the search to track down the invaders. Sesshoumaru-sama, can we count on you to help with this?"

Sesshoumaru nodded and then looked down at his ward. "Rin, will you go with me or go with the royal family?"

An indignant princess sputtered in outrage, but refrained from complaining about Rin staying outside the vault.

Ignoring her pounded heart, Rin smiled softly. "I'll go with the king and the others." She tapped her head. "Right now, I'm a liability and I can't distract you with attackers on the loose."

"Good." He gently stroked the top of her head, which sparked fireworks in her chest. "Don't be a hindrance."

He straightened up, turned around, and abruptly left the chambers, setting out to find the invaders.

Yoihito took that as a signal. He finished assigning groups of the guards to areas of the city. "Royal family to me. Hae, you come with me as well. Everyone else – move out!"

* * * * * *

 

Outside of the castle, the city was quiet in the early morning rays. Sesshoumaru glided gracefully from balcony to balcony, listening, waiting.

The sudden slice of metal being withdrawn from a sheath gave him milliseconds to respond. He whirled around his own sword, which glinted in the sunlight. The clang of metal on metal rang out.

"So, this is the almighty Sesshoumaru-tono?" The demon's metallic skin shimmered and his silver eyes glistened. High collared and loose-fitting clothes from the mainland fluttered with each movement.

Looking upon one of the demons that was targeting Rin's life, Sesshoumaru felt dark anger curl inside his core.

"What's this? Demon got your tongue?" The demon taunted him, whipping his blade around for a sharp swing, one that Sesshoumaru easily parried. In response, the demon charged, both hands around the hilt of his sword.

Stepping deftly to the side, Sesshoumaru remarked, "Your feeble attacks are pointless."

"Is that so?" The demon smiled, exposing pointed pearly teeth. "Let's see how the great Sesshoumaru-sama handles this!"

The demon's blade began to thrum and emit a blinding blue light. Dropping the carefree attitude, he raised his sword and leapt forward with a deadly precision.

This time, Sesshoumaru took evasive measures, but the glowing weapon managed to singe off a segment of his hair. Narrowing his eyes, he looked at the burnt strands. This weakling was proving to be a non-trivial annoyance.

"Am I still pointless?"

"Quite so." Sesshoumaru dropped his hair and raised his sword again. "Destroying such superficial elements has no impact on my fighting power."

The demon tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Maybe not, but what about this?"

The demon raised a glowing fragment to his lips.

"Brother, I am currently entertaining Sesshoumaru-sama. Now that you're in the castle, feel free to begin the attack." He grinned malevolently. "And that girl you've been torturing each night? I would start with her, if I were you."

* * * * * *

 

Rin was slammed with a wave of nausea as her vision spiraled out of control. Damn that silver demon and his mind tricks!

"Rin-san?" Harika and the youngest children stopped to cluster around Rin, who had dropped to one knee and was desperately trying to regulate her breathing.

"Go! I'll catch up!" She waved the rest of the family on.

When no one moved, Kongomi took the lead. "Everyone, keep moving! We cannot stop until we've reached the safe house." She pointed down the darkened hallway whose sole illumination was the flickering of torchlight.

After a moment's hesitation, the king, queen, and all of the younger children were jogging into the darkness. Kongomi and her shadow remained behind.

"What about you?" Rin squeezed out through gritted teeth.

The heir gave her a smirk. "And if something happened to you, Sesshoumaru-sama would never let me live it down. No, I think I will make sure that you at least make it to the safe house in one piece. If you fall apart after that, then you are no longer my responsibility."

Rin's biting response was interrupted by a chorus of screams.

Kongomi whipped her head up, eyes widened in alarm. Her gaze briefly flashed to the captain. "Yoihito!"

Her guard quickly leapt into action, silently dashing down the corridor, his golden armor glinting in the dim light. A few seconds later, there was still no sign of him.

"Wait here." Kongomi ordered Rin as she cautiously rose and slipped into the shadows.

Feeling the demon's attack fade, Rin shook her head to clear the effects of the spell and made her own sprint to the family.

It was immediately clear that something was wrong, terribly wrong. Both Yoihito and the princess were frozen; living statues that embodied fear, dread, and despair.

Rin turned to look down the side hallway and brought at hand to her mouth.

She had never seen so much blood. For all of the bandits and demons she had seen slaughtered or decomposing, nothing had been quite as vivid and real as this. The corpses of the king and queen lay strewn on top of the bodies of the children, shielding their offspring from the full brunt of the attack. The unseeing eyes of the littlest princes were glazed and unseeing in the state of eternal horror. Off to the side, the form of Hae was slumped against the wall, with sword slices across her body.

With tears threatening to spill over, Rin glared upward at the attacker, who was lazily wiping the crimson stains from his sword.

"Ah hello," he smiled and silver orbs glowed beneath his hood. "How are you doing, my dear? It's so nice to meet again in person, isn't it?"

Rin snapped to attention, glowering at the fighter. "You have a lot to answer for!"

At this Yoihito started, breaking free from the mesmerizing scene. "Hime-sama: flee, now!"

"This is her royal highness, Kongomi-hime, I presume?" The demon's attention honed on the princess who was still frozen in shock. He lazily swept his eyes over the carnage. "Then, this was the royal family?"

"Hime-sama! You must run!" Yoihito commanded her again. "I will fend him off, but you must get to safety!"

The demon took a calculated pace towards the trio. "This is excellent timing. I am in need of some royal blood." He gestured towards the family, "I was going to use theirs, but yours will do nicely as well, Kongomi-hime."

"Please, Kongomi-hime, RUN!" Yoihito pleaded desperately as he brought up his sword, poised to counterattack.

Without a second to spare, Rin grabbed the princess's arm and dragged her back down the main hallway, listening to the clang of swords ringing out in the darkness.

* * * * * *

 

Sesshoumaru slashed out violently; as he failed to slice his opponent, his frustration grew. He could only imagine the type of attack that the demon was talking about and he knew Rin was in danger. His instincts were calling for him to extract himself from the situation and get to her side.

"Right now, my older brother is reclaiming what is rightfully ours. It was stolen years ago and now we are taking it back and taking our rightful place in this land." The demon arced his glowing sword back and forth, forcing Sesshoumaru back a few paces. "We're not beyond a bit of collateral damage."

Sesshoumaru was satisfied to let the irksome creature to keep babbling on its own accord – he certainly wasn't going to contribute to the conversation.

Which clearly wasn't what the demon had in mind.

"What's that girl's name? The cute little human one? Rin, wasn't it?"

Trying to ignore the goading coming from the other party, Sesshoumaru focused on executing a series of quick jabs and stabs, looking for a weak spot in his opponent's defenses.

"You know, my brother Pian, he has a way with women," he said, "Or rather, he has a way with their minds, especially human ones."

He absent mindedly ran a finger down the edge of his blade. "Pian tells me that human minds are so weak and open. It doesn't take much to break in and break them down."

Sesshoumaru closed his eyes and took a breath, once again keeping his anger at bay. After a second, he opened his eyes and found that the demon had disappeared.

"Do you think you really have time to be taking a nap?"

There was barely time to dodge the attack from above as the glowing blue sword came down heavily. Sesshoumaru's own sword quivered under the brunt of the demon's weight.

It didn't look like he would be able to get away any time soon. He had to trust that Rin would be able to stay safe.

* * * * * *

 

Hauling the weight of the princess behind her, Rin ran as quickly as she could towards the stables. If they could get on Ah-Un, then they could leave the city and find a place to regroup.

As if wakening from a sleep, Kongomi finally blinked and wrested her arm from Rin's grip. "Where are we going? We have to go back!"

Rin reached out for Kongomi's hand. "We have to leave. The attackers will be coming after you."

"I cannot leave the city while there are still citizens here, open to the attacks of those predators. That would be neglecting my role as," Kongomi stumbled for a second, blinking back tears, "my role as the queen of this city!"

"We don't have time for this!" Rin threw her hands up in exasperation. "And what will your people do if you are dead? Did you think of that?"

Regardless of what Kongomi thought, it was at that point that the ground began to shake. Both girls grabbed onto support beams in the dragons' barn. The dragons started to howl from within their stalls. The princess dropped to her knees, with her hands over her ears.

"I hear a voice! It's so loud – it's filling my mind!"

Rin whistled sharply, hoping that Ah-Un would be within hearing distance. Then she raced to all of the dragons and set to work releasing the harnesses. If there was danger on the way, she wasn't going to let the dragons be trapped on her watch.

A familiar croon cut through the noise of the dragons taking to the skies.

"Ah-Un!" Rin raced up to embrace her old friend. "How are you doing?" The dragon butted her gently with both heads.

At that moment another great wave shook the ground, even larger than before, and this one showed no signs of stopping. The far end of the stable collapsed from the stress of the earthquake.

"Kongomi, hurry!" Rin rushed them to Ah-Un, but the princess stopped. "The stables are about to collapse!"

"No – I will NOT leave without Jiro!" Kongomi dashed off into the stables.

It was clear that the building could not withstand the tremors anymore; it was now or never. Rin scrambled atop of Ah-Un and they took off as the stables were reduced into a pile of rubble.

From her new viewpoint in the sky, she could see the entire city was falling apart. Balconies crumbled, dropping blocks of dark stone into the ocean below. Anyone with a dragon was fleeing the city, taking to the air, which seemed to be the only safe haven.

Out of the dust cloud pealed the golden form of Jiro, bearing Kongomi on his back. The princess clearly hadn't had time to put even the lightest of harnesses on him, but she was still perched confidentially at the base of his neck, right above the wings.

Rin guided Ah-Un over to the princess. "What is going on?" she hollered over the crash and rumble of the city.

With a voice choked with raw emotion, Kongomi could do nothing but hold her head, as though protecting it against the voice that only she could hear. "I do not know."

* * * * * *

 

Sesshoumaru paused as a giant roar resounded over the ocean and the pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. The brothers were trying to awaken some historical weapon, one that was tearing up the city and the landscape.

Anxiety, an emotion that did not frequently resonate with him, flooded into his heart. Rin was supposed to be the heart of the castle, heading to the secure location. The chances for her survival were growing slim.

Then the cliff erupted into an explosion of debris as a most fearsome creature broke free from its subterranean cage.

Everything seemed to freeze as the dragon daiyoukai trampled on the remnants of the city, killing any hope for Rin's escape.

With demonic eyes glowing red, Sesshoumaru looked upon the insufferable fool that was preventing him from going to Rin. Without a single further thought, he growled and lashed out with fury blazing from within.

* * * * * *

 

Rin and Kongomi watched in horror as giant dragon emerged from beneath the city.

The dragon was a dull bronze, with scales that could have been forged in the earth. Claws as large as swords tore through the core of the cliff side, gutting the city as it went. With black eyes, the great beast swiped away every living thing that crossed in its path.

When it reached the top of the cliff, it crouched on the pile of rubble that had once been the proud city. It let out a ferocious roar, making the very air quiver and reverberate.

Through all the dust and smoke, Rin could make out a tiny, piercing light. On the head of the monstrosity sat another type of monster: the old brother who had only a short time ago, murdered an entire family. Around his neck was the bright and shining light – an amulet of some kind.

There was no time to ponder these details though as the giant dragon started to swat down dragons in the sky. They needed to move.

Rin spotted a bit of cliff along the shore, somewhat away from the remnants of the castle. "Kongomi! We need to seek shelter!" She pointed to a small outcropping that hopefully concealed some sort of cave.

Sensing the princess's hesitation, she flew up to Jiro and placed a gentle hand on the princess' shoulder. "Kongomi, there is nothing that we can do at this point. We need to escape and then we can find a way to fight back."

Silver eyes ablaze with defiance, the princess nodded. "Mark my words – I will be back. I need to tear out the throats of those murderous bastards myself."

* * * * * *

 

Sesshoumaru surged forward, demon markings across his face, a sword in one hand and his poisonous claws ready in the other. He swiped and swung at the younger brother, mindless and savage in his assault.

"Oh, what scary eyes, my lord Sesshoumaru-sama! I bet you can't show that face to your little human pet, right?" He smirked. "Or is that you can't show that face to her anymore because she's been crushed under the city?"

Lashing out, Sesshoumaru's claws landed a hit straight across the demon's eye. The demon recoiled, clutching his melting face and cursing through a clenched jaw.

He reached into his shirt, pulled out the glowing piece of unknown material, and hastily brought it close to his mouth. "Pian, you fool, are you quite done playing around yet?"

"Why, Kan, is something the matter?" A small phantom voice emitted from the shard.

Scowling at Sesshoumaru, Kan snapped back. "You could say that."

"Yes, I see you now. I'll be over to assist in but a second."

In his rage, Sesshoumaru was in no position to decipher what this could mean, but he found out moments later as Pian arrived atop the daiyouki.

"Greetings, Sesshoumaru," the elder brother said pleasantly from beneath his darkened hood.

Even in the haze of anger, Sesshoumaru connected the dots. This was the demon that had tortured Rin and was responsible for her demise. His blood churned and he felt his demon features become even more accentuated. Discarding all logic, he flew at this new attacker, sword in hand.

Pian raised as hand and the daiyoukai also extended a massive, clawed limb. With the force of an avalanche, the dragon hit Sesshoumaru, sending him crashing into the ocean.

"That seemed to be a trifle too much for our dog friend," Pian remarked.

"Did you just let that bastard get away?" Kan demanded, lowering his arm to reveal the scarred mess his face had become. "I wasn't done with him yet."

"I very much doubt that is the last that we have seen of him," his brother said reassuringly. He watched as his glowing dragon scale floated just above the palm of his hand. "Especially since our dear little Rin has not perished."

"What? She survived?" Kan looked at him incredulously. "Are we going after her, to use her as bait again?"

"Not right now."

"Why not? Now is the perfect time to end them – while they're licking their wounds."

"Patience, brother," Pian crooned. He turned to look over his shoulder on the back of the dragon they had summoned.

"We have our own business to attend to, after all."

Lying in a collapsed pile a few feet away, lay the unconscious form of Harika, second princess of the royal family of Ryudo.

* * * * * *

 

Far below the chaos of above and tucked behind jagged rocks, Rin and Kongomi took shelter in a cave. Hours had passed since the initial attack on the city and everything appeared to be quieting down.

Kongomi paced back and forth, deep in thought.

"Who were those people?" Rin asked. "They seemed to know Sesshoumaru-sama. They must have some sort of connection to your family—"

"That's nothing that you need concern with yourself with." The princess interrupted her.

After days of enduring snippety remarks, Rin let her irritation for the princess spill over.

"Is this really the time to be pulling rank, oh exalted one?" she said, jumping to her feet.

Kongomi rounded on her. "My family was just murdered in front of my eyes!"

"Well, my family was murdered in front of me too! That doesn't give you an excuse to be a royal pain!" Rin snapped back.

"In case you had not noticed, we are on the run from assassins. No one is coming to save us. I need to think of a plan to get us out of here."

"That's exactly my point! I can't help if you don't tell me what you know!"

"Who says that I wanted your help?" Kongomi turned and stalked to the edge of the cave, letting her face get hit by the ocean spray on the rocks. She grabbed her arms and her shoulders shook.

In that moment, Rin's temper died. The princess had been robbed of her family, her home, her friends, and her very way of life. She was the only known survivor of a brutal attack, forced to flee in the face of unknown assailants. Even if she was a princess, she was only a few years older than Rin.

With a small sigh, Rin joined her.

"I know that you don't like me much," she started, feeling Kongomi's sideways glance on her, "and to be honest, I don't like you either."

"But we owe it to our friends and to ourselves to make it back. Back to Sesshoumaru-sama. Back to Yoihito-san."

"Do you think he survived?" Kongomi whispered, having discarded the last vestiges of her royal bearing.

Rin placed a hand on her shoulder. "He is a strong warrior. If there was a way to get out of there, Yoihito-san could find it."

Kongomi squared her shoulders and clapped her hands three times, lowering her chin in prayer. Rin followed suit, offering wishes of safe passage to the members of the royal family and everyone in the city who perished that day. For a few minutes, the only sounds were the crash of the ocean waves against the rocks and the quiet crooning of the dragons in the back of the cave.

Wiping away her tears, Kongomi regained her composure. "I absolutely hate you, Rin-san, but I am willing to put that aside in the name of survival." She extended a hand as a friendly gestured. "I call a truce until we make it back to Sesshoumaru-sama."

Hesitantly, Rin accepted the hand shake. The princess suddenly gripped her hand hard and looked her sharply in the eye. "But all bets are off once we get there."

Rin met her straight on. "I wouldn't have it any other way." She grinned. "Now tell me what you know about those silver creeps."

"No, you tell me what you know first. Then I don't have to repeat anything."

Rolling her eyes, Rin wanted to strangle the princess already, but opted to let it go. "There are two of them: brothers, I think. They're both fighters. Judging from their clothing, they're from the mainland. One seems to have mind powers."

A detail struck her. "And they were trying to track down a dragon princess and they have some sort of scale?"

Kongomi was uncharacteristically silent.

"You know who they are," Rin threw out the accusation. "You've known since I told everyone back at the lizard's castle."

She noticed Kongomi's look of surprise. "I may not be great at court subtleties, but I'm fairly decent at reading people and you weren't trying very hard to conceal your reaction."

"I am sure Hari-" Kongomi took a breath, "I am sure that my sister told you why we hold the promise ceremony?"

"Yes," Rin replied, wondering where this was going. "She said that an attendant led an uprising, summoned several dragon daiyoukai, and then Sesshoumaru-sama's father fought them off."

Kongomi settled on the ground next to Jiro and patted the golden dragon's head. "Not quite. We say attendant, but he was actually a cousin from a side house." She pointed to her silver irises. "The only way you get these is through the royal bloodline."

"These attackers are the same who led the uprising years ago?"

"Not a chance. The uprising was years ago and these ones are too young," Kongomi smiled grimly. "Additionally, Inutaisho-sama did an excellent job putting down the power-hungry upstart."

"Then, children?"

She shrugged. "Descendants. They have silver eyes, which means their bloodline crossed with ours at some point."

Rin nodded in agreement. "That would explain why they are equally interested in taking down Sesshoumaru-sama." A thought struck her. "If they are of royal descent, why are they looking for a princess? One of them said they were looking for royal blood."

Kongomi's face became dark. "That would probably be for the dragon."

"What? That dragon?" Rin pointed to outside the cave.

Looking extremely angry, Kongomi replied. "My father alluded to a power hidden in the city that could be called on by the royal family in times of crisis. He must have been referring to that dragon. Royal blood must be the way to wake it up."

"But where did that dragon come from?"

"Isn't that obvious?" The princess regained a bit of her old haughtiness. "The historians lied to us. The daiyoukai were not slain, at least not this one. I heard its voice in my head. It was sealed and buried in the ground beneath the city. Who knows, there might be more of them lying around, waiting to be woken up."

As soon as the words cleared her lips, both girls looked at each other.

"You don't think they're trying to awaken-"

"I'd say it's very likely, given the series of events today."

"Then we need to get to Sesshoumaru-sama, right away."

"Will he be able to do anything? These are daiyoukai we're talking about here."

Rin got off the floor and brushed the dirt from her clothing. "There's only one way to find out." She looked outside the cave. "The sun is setting. We move once it's dark and hope they don't see us."

"What about their mind tricks? I assume they are still connected to you. We can't risk them finding out where Sesshoumaru-sama is."

"You worry about finding Sesshoumaru-sama. I'll worry about me. If I get hit with another mind attack, then leave me behind."

Kongomi threw her a look full of apprehension. "If I leave you behind, he'll kill me."

"Like I said, you worry about Sesshoumaru-sama."

* * * * * *

 

The sun had long since set and a stillness had settled over the shoreline. Ocean waves lapped gently against the sandy beach. There were no signs of a horrific catastrophe that had occurred only a few hours and miles away.

No signs, save one.

Sesshoumaru lay propped against a boulder, blankly starting into the inky dark water as it poured onto the beach, just beyond his feet.

One smack from the dragon's paw had cracked several of his ribs and thoroughly broken his arm in several places. Other parts had not faired quite as well, where iron claws had torn great gashes into his back. His demon blood was helping the healing process along, but it would still be at least a day until he could fight again.

Not that there was any point to fighting, now that she was gone.

The possibility that she had someone scraped through the experience was so small that he refused to allow himself the false hope. There was no amount of vengeful violence that would bring her back.

He had been right, of course. Humans belong with their own kind; those that enjoyed the company of demons inevitably wound up dead.

He closed his eyes.

For a demon, time passed in decades or centuries, rather than years. The seven or eight years that he had known her, must have felt like a lifetime for someone so young. For him it seemed like only yesterday that she first stumbled across him in the forest, smiling, offering him small tokens.

It was a strange sensation: the need for constant vigilance and observation had disappeared. No more sending out demon birds to check in on her. No more dropping by Inuyasha's village or getting updates from Kohaku. No more keeping part of sight, hearing, and sense of smell on the alert for her presence.

It was a very quiet sort of feeling.

Lost in his thoughts, it took him a few seconds to realize that there was something disrupting that quiet.

"…shoumaru-sama! Sesshoumaru-sama!"

He froze. On the edges of his hearing, there was a tiny voice calling out to him.

Against all the odds, could it possibly be…?

Raising himself, he turned to face the potential, the hope that was heading his way. Muscles burned and bones ached, but this was important.

"Sesshoumaru-sama!"

It was Jaken.

Filled with nothing but irritation and annoyance for his servant, Sesshoumaru fell back against his rock. How could he possibly have confused their voices? He let out a sigh of exasperation. How had he fallen!

"Sesshoumaru-sama?" Jaken sidled up tentatively, with a limp in his step and a face full of dirt. "Sesshoumaru-sama, are you okay?"

"Jaken."

"Yes, Sesshoumaru-sama?"

"Go over there and be silent." He pointed to a place down the beach a few meters away.

A few seconds of indignant stammering were followed by small steps in the sand as the imp made his way to the designated place.

"Sesshoumaru-sama!" The tiny voice called out to him again.

Without any patience, the demon lord snapped loudly. "Jaken, I told you to be silent."

"But Sesshoumaru-sama, I didn't say anything."

Then who was calling out to him?

"Sesshoumaru-sama!"

He looked to the sky frantically trying to find the source of the voice. He knew it was no good, getting his hopes up like this. It would be just another stranger from the city, some lucky soul who managed to avoid death in all the destruction.

Then Rin and Ah-Un dropped beneath the clouds and everything became a surreal dream: she landed on the beach, jumped off the back of the dragon, and raced towards him.

"Sesshoumaru-sama!" She reached out, arms extended and he found himself reaching out his good arm in return. Just before she got to him, she stopped, as though seeing his injuries for the first time. Falling to her knees, she placed her hands on his chest and worry swept over her face.

"You're hurt," she looked up at him. "How badly?"

Reeling from the unfamiliar whirlwind of emotions, Sesshoumaru simply stared at her, steeped in profound relief.

"You're alive." These were the great words issued from Sesshoumaru, lord of the western lands.

Now Rin looked even more concerned. "Did you hit your head or something? Yes, I'm alive, but I thought that was obvious."

Underneath her bravado, she was shaking and he could see that her eyes were glassy. He brought his good arm up to rest his hand on her head, touching her dirt-streaked hair. "Well done."

This was clearly too much for her to take, as a pair of tears fell and her lips quivered. She glanced down in a rare demure moment. When she looked back up, her eyes locked with his. For a fleeting moment, there was a glimpse of longing, but then a look of shocked realization came across her face.

She rubbed her eyes roughly and turned to call over her shoulder.

"Kongomi, we're over here!" She softly mentioned, "The rest of the royal family was killed. Kongomi thinks she knows who our enemy is and what they're up to."

The dragon princess made her way to the pair, leading Jiro and Ah-Un. "My lord." She bowed, hand over her heart.

Then words failed her as she took in his current state; the shock of seeing the all-powerful Sesshoumaru-sama prone and injured on the ground rendered her speechless.

Though this did not stop her for very long.

"I know the identity of the attackers," she said. "They are descendants of an old foe that your father once crossed blades with many years ago."

Sesshoumaru contemplated this. Adversaries looking for a rematch were nothing new, but most merely wanted the chance to swing their swords at Inutaisho's eldest son. These two were clever; they knew to target Rin in order to conceal their true intentions.

His ruminations were interrupted when a roar filled the night air as crimson dragon wheeled around the group. It landed on the ground heavily, crashing into the sand and throwing up a cloud of grains, pebbles, and dirt.

This dragon was known to the princess.

"Aki!" Kongomi raced over to the red form. "Yoihito? Yoihito, are you there?"

A groan rose from within the folds of Aki's wings and a weak voice called out, "Kongomi-hime?" Out of the shadow of the dragon, captain of the guard managed to crawl out to reunite with his princess.

Sesshoumaru saw Rin give a tiny smile as Kongomi dropped to her knees and wrapped Yoihito in a tight embrace. That smile disappeared as Kongomi called out, with panic etched into every word.

"Rin! He's lost a lot of blood! I don't think he can stay awake much longer!"

And it was true, the guard's golden complexion was unusually white, with blood smeared across his armor, his face, and through his normally fair hair.

Sesshoumaru caught Rin at his arm and then she met his gaze. They were now a party of two injured combatants, three exhausted dragons, one useless servant, and two others with middling fighting abilities. If the attackers were truly intent on tracking them down, then it would only be a matter of time before they found the group and potentially slaughtered them.

"We are too open here," Rin spoke the words in his mind. "We need to go somewhere safe, now."

There was the rub. Moving everyone would not be easy. Sesshoumaru frowned slightly. It was no wonder that Inuyasha's party was always on the verge of death – if someone was wounded, the whole group had to stop, and then they were targets open to all forms of attack.

Then a nagging, itching feeling tickled in the back of his mind. There was only thing that could mean.

He took a deep breath to take in the oncoming scent and confirm the storm that was coming.

Looking to the sky, he said: "Then we might have a solution."

"What is it?" Rin also looked up into a sudden cloud formation that appeared out of nowhere. As though recalling a faint and distant memory, Rin's eyes widened. "That's a bit of a coincidence, isn't it?"

"No. It never is, with her." Sesshoumaru responded, trying to keep his full irritation from showing on his face.

"What is?" Kongomi had managed to help Yoihito limp over to the others. "Who are we talking about?"

"My mother."

Chapter Text

Amidst the swirling winds, a giant castle appeared, covered in a low fog, making the entire compound feel ethereal and other-worldly.

Inukimi, lady of the castle and mother to Sesshoumaru proceeded down the stairs, her over kimono gracefully floating above the stone steps.

"Oh ho, Sesshoumaru. What trouble have you run into now?" She raised her sleeves to hide a mock laugh.

Her son remained silent; Rin could feel the animosity in the air. Many years had passed since she had last been in the presence of Inukimi, but it was still clear that underneath the delicate pale skin and amber eyes, there was a ruthless woman with little worry for her only child.

"Please, I beg your assistance!" Kongomi rushed forward, collapsing under the weight of the injured Yoihito. "My guard, he is gravely wounded and he's lost a great amount of blood!"

"And you are?"

Rin gaped. A man's life on the line and she was worried about introductions?

Kongomi took the opposition in stride and quickly executed a bow. "I am Kongomi, crown princess of Ryudo." She paused, but pressed on: "Now queen of Ryudo."

"Hm. A queen? And you prostrate yourself before a dowager?" She pulled a fan from her kimono and opened it with a snap. "Of course, Ryudo! That tiny little country on the edge of Inutaisho's property."

Something needed to be done.

"Can we handle the introductions later?" Rin interrupted. "This man needs your help – and quickly."

Inukimi slowly pivoted in place and arrested her with a perfectly icy glare. "No need to ask for your name – you are Sesshoumaru's little pet." She closed the fan and threw a glance at Sesshoumaru. "I thought you threw her out years ago. Pity you did not."

Rin was not sure how to respond. After all, this lady was the wife of Inutaisho, Lord of the Western Lands, and Sesshoumaru's mother. While her behavior warranted no courtesy, her station certainly did. How could she get Yoihito into a healer in time?

"Mother, you overstep your bounds," Sesshoumaru growled lightly. "Take the captain," he ordered the hapless servants who happened to be loitering around the main entrance. They immediately leaped forward to carry away Yoihito with Kongomi trailing worriedly.

"You will give us rooms while we recover. We will retire for now, but in the morning we will discuss the consequences of your actions." Sesshoumaru shot his mother a frozen stare that rivaled her own.

This did not seem to phase Inukimi in the least. "But of course, Sesshoumaru. Whatever you need, you will have. What else would you expect from such a doting parent?"

Rin rolled her eyes. At least Yoihito was receiving the treatment he desperately needed.

"Come, Rin." Sesshoumaru swept away and down a hall, servants opening the doors as they went.

She barely had time to observe the fine architecture or the white and red dressings that seemed to adorn every wall. Perhaps the sight of a fine castle no longer amazed her?

No. She shook her head. It was the oncoming exhaustion that dulled her senses and inspiration. She was partially grateful, since it kept her from adopting the wide-eyed country bumpkin look that Inukimi would be sure to mock her for.

She hardly noticed when they stopped outside of a room and was pulled from her thoughts once she realized that Sesshoumaru was standing, waiting for her.

"Sesshoumaru-sama?" Her curiosity prompted her to examine the demon lord and she was shocked by what she saw.

He was doing his utmost best to conceal it, but his injuries were taking a large toll. His face was as tranquil as ever, but Rin could see his efforts to control heavy breathing. His good arm was trembling so slightly that no one would notice, but Rin did.

"Sesshoumaru-sama!" She exclaimed, opening the door to the room and ushering him inside. "How long have you…?" She stopped when she finally saw the blood-soaked gashes that tore into back.

Closing the door behind her, she immediately dashed forward and whirled around him, checking the extent of all of his injuries. "Why didn't you ask for healers too?"

The look he shot her conveyed a new level of incredulity. Whether he was affronted by the suggestion of a warrior asking for help from his mother or instead disbelieving that his mother would not simply laugh in his face, Rin could not tell.

"We need to get you out of those things and bandaged up." Hearing no protest, Rin started fiddling with the buckles on his armor. Unfortunately, his long hair was ensnared in several of the straps. She sighed. This is why she insisted on wearing her hair up and out of the way.

"Sesshoumaru-sama, sit."

Her request was met with a blank stare as if to say: You gave me a sit command? I am not my brother.

But Rin had enough of troublesome nobility for one day and her patience was officially depleted. "Sesshoumaru-sama, you will sit. Now."

The great Sesshoumaru knelt on the wooden floor, crouching on one knee, rather than sitting. Exasperated, Rin decided she would take what she could get and moved around behind him before reaching out for the white strands.

For someone who had battled a giant dragon, with his back half torn out, his hair was immaculate. The white fibers glistened and felt silky between her fingers. Finger-combing hair away from armor and slowly detangling the snarls, Rin felt transported. Whatever strange world she found herself in, she wasn't sure that she wanted to go back to normal.

Snapping out of her fantasy land, she deftly pulled everything into a high ponytail, much like many of the warriors sported.

She continued to work silently, carefully unbuckling and removing pieces of armor. This chest piece here. That pauldron there. Swords slide out and go over here. Then she hit the kimono.

Berating her own heart for thudding hard inside her chest, Rin pushed aside her crush-fueled reaction. Very gently, she tugged on the edges of the collar and slowly slid the shirt open.

Sesshoumaru pulled his good arm out of the sleeve and the braced his bad arm so Rin could wrangle the other sleeve out around the broken limb. With the shirt pooled around his waist, she shuffled on her knees to examine his back once again.

Without fabric to veil the damage, the red, raw scratches contrasted against pale skin. Everything was already healing, but very sluggishly. No doubt they would be fine in a day or so, but she wasn't about to take any chances.

"I'll need a few things. How do I get to the healing room?" She asked very softly, aware that Sesshoumaru's pride and current level of fatigue might cause him to shut her out at a moment's notice.

"Ask the servant outside. He will bring you what you require."

Just beyond the door was a young demon with black hair and court attire. Rin conveyed the list of items that she would need and the servant set off at a quick pace down the corridor.

"Come here."

She had been content to wait at the door for the serving boy to return, but there was something in the tone of the command that she couldn't resist.

Settling on the floor in front of him, she looked up to meet his gaze. Almost hesitantly, he reached out and placed his good hand on her shoulder. Alarm bells pinged inside her mind and her shoulder felt hotter than any open flame. His hand moved down toward her wrist, fingers lightly gripping around her arm. The alarm bells got a little louder and her entire arm tingled.

Once he reached her hand, he moved on to the other shoulder and down to the wrist again. Rin tried to stop the bells from ringing so loudly, but there was nothing for it when he gently spun her and checked the back of her neck, her spine, her shoulder blades, and her waist.

Come on, silly girl! She chided herself. He's only checking you for injuries! Stop acting like a love-sick maiden!

He turned her around again and at this point, she did put her foot down. There was no way he was inspecting her…her chest! She quickly stood and strode to the door. Luckily, the servant had just returned.

"Thank you." A flushed Rin grabbed the haul and closed the door so quickly it might have been rude.

Getting back to business, she settled behind Sesshoumaru and prepped the supplies for stitches. In no time, she was threading the needle and ready to begin.

"This may hurt," she warned, although she felt a bit stupid for saying it. He had multiple broken bones and his back was ravaged – would he really be bothered by some additional pricks against his skin?

Her fingertips brushed against back. When they didn't spontaneously combust, she pushed down a bit more and began stitching.

No words were uttered, but from the muscles tensing beneath her touch, she could tell that he was bothered by the pain. Working efficiently, it was only a short while before all of the wounds were neatly closed. She wrapped clean bandages to cover her handiwork.

Next were the broken bones. Not having much experience with demon healing, it wasn't clear whether the bones required setting.

The puzzlement on her face must have shown because Sesshoumaru answered for her. "They will heal on their own."

A giant sigh escaped from her lips as she sunk fully onto the floor, leaning against her arms. There was nothing more to do, but rest while their little rag tag team recovered from their encounter with the dragon demon twins.

"Rin. Turn around."

"Huh?" Rin pushed herself up slightly to see what he was on about. Then she immediately flipped back around and closed her eyes. He had been taking off the rest of his kimono! His fur mantle had already been on the floor and his boots had been discarded.

Struggling to maintain her composure, Rin asked herself intellectual questions like: he changes his clothes? Where does he keep them? If they get damaged, who repairs them? Do his clothes have magical powers like Inuyasha-sama's fire rat clothing? It was very unlikely that she would ever get answers to these queries, but they helped calm her down in the face of her unrequited love undressing in the same room as her.

Then she had a sobering thought. If he had no second thoughts about disrobing in front of her, then he clearly had no romantic interest in her. He had made that perfectly clear the night she had the terrors, but she had allowed herself to continue hoping. Today was only a stark reminder of their platonic, guardian-ward relationship.

"Rin."

Afraid to look, she glanced back and was relieved to see him clothed once again in white with his traditional red accents. His mantle had returned to his shoulder.

"You may use the bath." He pointed to a sliding door adjacent to the room.

She rushed over with a hurried murmur of thanks, grateful for the opportunity to escape from the strange atmosphere that had fallen over the two of them. As she scrubbed the dirt, blood, and grime from her body, she kept repeating small mantras to herself: He's only concerned because we were in a life-threatening situation. He's only being strange because we were both in a near-death scenario. He'll be back to normal tomorrow…

More time passed than she had expected and by the time she came out, Sesshoumaru was nowhere to be found. A servant had laid out a futon in the center of the room. She was about to crawl into the covers when her ears caught a tiny wooden creak from outside the room.

Alert, she blew out the light and made her way over to the window that viewed out into the courtyard. The light of the moon reflected a soft glow off of the crown of Sesshoumaru's head, just peeking above the window sill.

Rin smiled. From what she had seen of dog demons, they preferred to sleep on their own, with their swords nearby. She grabbed her futon and laid it out right underneath the window so that only a wall separated the two of them.

How sentimental of me, she thought as she drifted off to sleep. Ah, well, I think after today I deserve to spoil myself a little…

* * * * * *

 

Sesshoumaru waited until her breaths became soft and even before allowing himself to relax.

Today had been more taxing than he cared to admit and he was a bit frustrated with himself. He had done everything in his power to conceal the duress he was under, but he knew she had spotted the signs. When he could finally take no more, he shamelessly used her own embarrassment to shoo her away into a bath to conceal his getaway.

What sort of great youkai stooped so low?

Humiliation after humiliation he had faced in the past day. Defeated by an enemy. Requesting aid from his mother. Relying on a young human girl. Displays of weakness abound.

As he recalled of these mortifying events, he came to a surprising realization: annoyed as it was, none of it mattered.

He had almost lost Rin to the land of the dead again. She had already been saved by Tensaiga once and then again by his mother's power. There would be no third time. Being back in his mother's castle only served to strengthen the reminder that human life was fragile and brief. Rin was at risk all the time.

But against all odds, she had survived and made it back to him. Her continued tenacity and willpower never failed to astonish him (although he certainly kept that to himself).

Wearily, he rose to his feet and peered inside the window. Rin was curled up in her futon, her hair spilled over the blankets.

Every day she was growing stronger and smarter. Every day it was harder to ignore the uncomfortable feelings. Every day it pained him more to think that his Rin would be gone.

Suddenly, Rin started whimpering and tossing in her sleep.

Immediately, he was by her side. Was this another one of the dragon demon mind attacks? He placed a hand against her cheek.

After a few seconds she calmed. It was only a normal nightmare in passing.

Sesshoumaru released the tension in his muscles and exhaustion hit him like a wave. He found himself sliding to the floor with his back against the wall, good hand still extended, brushing against Rin's face. He chided himself for yet another moment of weakness and emotion, but it was only half-hearted.

How sentimental and weak of me, he thought as he fought off sleep in vain. Today is an exception, but this really must be the last time…

* * * * * *

 

 

In the shadows of the crumbled city of Ryudo, a tiny, frail imp crept quietly. When he finally arrived at the city of dragons, he was shocked to find only a pile of rubble and bodies strewn everywhere. If Sesshoumaru-sama had been here, a sight such as this should have been impossible.

Jaken began to slink back into the shadow when he tripped over a rock. He cried out in surprise and then immediately curled into a little ball, fearful for his life.

“So this is where you were.”

The voice was so cold and completely devoid of any positive emotion that Sesshoumaru’s retainer shivered. “P-p-p-please do not hurt this worthless one!” He whimpered and glanced up with tears in his eyes.

Silver eyes under a dark hood bore into his soul.

“I thought I had felt a little rat, sneaking around.” The figure grinned menacingly. “You will come with me – I am sure that you will amuse us.”

Jaken scrunched his eyes tightly as he felt a clawed hand grab him by the neckline of his courtier’s robe. A cold rush of wind rustled through his clothing and he clutched his staff as best he could. But it was wrested from his grasp all the same.

Moments later, he was tossed on the ground like a pile of limp rags. With his breath knocked out of him, he coughed and his eyes bulged open.

Another merciless face with glowing eyes swam in front of him, but this one had half a face that had been ravaged and twisted into a grotesque nightmare.

“Tell us where Sesshoumaru is!” The visage snarled at him. “I am getting revenge for my face!”

Trembling, he stuttered. “I d-d-do not know where Sesshoumaru-sama is r-r-r-right now!” A dark growl from the shadows told of a big creature, on the alert and ready to attack at a moment’s notice.

The smaller monster in front lashed out to land a strike against his face.

“No! Don’t hurt him!” a small girl with pink hair, bound, dirty, and tossed on one of the fallen boulders. The angry demon stalked over to her and there was a sharp smacking sound that rang across the clearing.

Blinking away the spots in his eyes, Jaken tried focus his mind elsewhere.  Who were these demons? Presumably they were the ones that had destroyed the city.  What sort of monstrosities were so hell bent on destruction and more importantly – why did they harbor ill will toward Sesshoumaru-sama?

* * * * * *

 

Rin awoke in a chilled sweat. She had the strangest dream – Harika and Jaken had been taken captive by the two brothers. Both were being repeatedly tortured for information.

She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. It was just a dream – nothing more. By the time her heart quieted, her eyes had adjusted to the pre-dawn darkness. There was something above her head. She tilted her face to get a better look and received a jolt to her system.

Braced against his swords, Sesshoumaru was dozing.

He was sleeping. Actually sleeping.

Rin maneuvered so she was right side up. She thought she was perfectly quiet, but as soon as she started to move, his eyes opened.

His golden irises arrested her movement. He remained silent and Rin felt the urge to fill the silence.

"Um. Sesshoumaru-sama."

Great going, self.

He didn't seem inclined to offer anything to the dialogue, so she scrambled around in her brain to find something to say. Then a lifeline appeared.

"You know, Kongomi and I were talking yesterday. About the demons." Encouraged by his noncommittal gaze, she kept rolling.

"Kongomi thinks they are distantly related to her family, that they are children of the person who led the uprising that your father quelled."

"Silly girl, that wasn't his father. That was his grandfather." Inukimi was fluttering just inside of the room by the door. "My father was the one that dealt with Tomohisa all those years ago."

Rin leapt to her feet. "Then you know who they are? Do you know what they want?"

Inukimi ignored her and spoke directly to her son. "Really, when are you going to get that pet of yours under control? Her behavior is entirely inappropriate."

"You are the only one being inappropriate here." Sesshoumaru stood, extending to his full height.

"Hmm. Interesting, given that you are the one sleeping with the lower classes." She smiled cruelly from behind a patterned sleeve.

Sesshoumaru's muscles tensed and he reached towards his sword. Rin could tell this was rapidly getting out of control.

"Like it or not, I'm the one that your son chose as his traveling companion. You will need to suffer me." Rin stepped in between them and braced her hands on her hips. "Anyway, my relationship with your son is hardly the highest priority with enemies at large. What was that about…Tomohisa?"

A sharp glint in Inukimi's eyes warned Rin that she had probably just made the hit list, if there was such a thing. Her mouth twisted in a smirk. "Oh, did I say Tomohisa? I think he was a chef, when I was a child."

For the love of all things. Rin was boiling and would have shot off at the mouth again, but Inukimi continued.

"Of course I would not say anything about a map. Or my father's sword, Ryuushin. That would just be too much – knowing where the dragons are and how to kill them? That is simply much too much." Her face was smooth and serene as she drifted away.

"What was that?" Rin shot Sesshoumaru a hopeless look, expecting some sort of a reaction, but there was none.

Then Inukimi's words clicked in her head. "There's a map. A map for where the sealed dragons are. I have to Kongomi and Yoihito!" She dashed out of the room and down the hall before she realized that she had no idea where she was going.

A few questions to a helpless servant pointed her in the right direction. She sped through the halls, excited by the new tidbits that Inukimi had delivered.

The passages were illuminated by dim flickering firelight. She had to reminder herself that the sun had yet to rise, so it was highly unlikely that her allies would be awake at this hour.

But as luck would have it, Yoihito was awake. He raised a finger to his lips as Rin entered the room. His other hand was clasped tightly by the sleeping princess. She tip toed over to the futon and knelt on the floor.

"How are you feeling?" she whispered as quietly as she could.

The guard shrugged and replied softly. "To be honest, I've had worse." She smiled down at Kongomi. "She was making a bigger fuss about it than she needed to."

"Yoihito-san." Rin cut in rather sharply, but smiled. "It is not good to lie. I know enough to recognize near-fatal damage."

Keeping his face passive, he regarded her with a critical stare. "Sesshoumaru-tono must have a tough time with you."

"Excuse me?"

"Rin-sama is very frank and blunt. I doubt my lord will have encountered many who are so direct." At this he did crack a very small grin in the corner of his mouth.

Rin didn't know what to make of that and decided that keeping quiet with her awkward blush was the best thing.

"I cannot fathom what she must be going through right now." He moved his other hand to stroke her pale blue hair, tightly bound in an elaborate bun.

"Have you known the princess long?" she asked, curiosity getting the best of her.

"I have been the captain of the royal guard for many years. I have watched her grow from infancy into an opinionated young lady preparing for rule. This is the first time that I am acting as her personal escort." Rin was taken aback with the level of warmth and caring that radiated from the young man.

"You love her."

Rin's observation jarred him, but he recovered quickly. "Rin-san, you're being direct again."

Now it was Rin's turn to grin. "Isn't it one of my endearing qualities?"

"Are you two done flirting?" That biting tongue could only mean one thing.

Kongomi sat up and stretched. "Of course, it doesn't surprise me that Rin-san would throw herself at every eligible bachelor in the vicinity." She swept a non-existent stray hair back into her bun.

For a second, Rin thought about rolling her eyes, but then opted not to. With how much eye rolling she would most likely be doing in the next couple of days, there was no point in burning out this early in the game.

"Good morning to you to, Kongomi."

"That's Kongomi-hime or Kongomi-sama to you, Miss Human."

"Whatever you say, Kongomi-chan."

As the princess sputtered indignantly, Rin moved the conversation along. She quickly relayed the details of Inukimi's message: Sesshoumaru's grandfather, the sword Ryuushin, a mysterious name Tomohisa, and of course, the map.

"And you think this map contains the locations of the sealed dragons that the attackers are trying to revive?"

Rin nodded. "It's assumption, but if we can trust Inukimi's information, then yes."

"Then we need to stop them from summoning the other beasts," Yoihito mentioned thoughtfully. "If one dragon is enough to level a city, how much destruction will result from adding several more?"

"That was my thought –" Rin stopped as her eyesight went black and a roar in her ears made her topple over.

"Hello, dear child."

She wanted nothing more than to cringe at the sound of that voice floating out in the darkness, but she refused to let herself despair.

"I have a message for Sesshoumaru. Will be so kind as to give it to him?"

"Like I would do anything to help you!"

"Even if your friends will die if you do not?"

She attempted to glower at him, but she had no sense of direction in the inky black space. "What are you talking about?"

A small burst of light shone through, showing a vignette. Bound and covered in wounds were the two from the dream – their injuries even worse than they had been during the night.

"These three are currently keeping me and my brother entertained. Yet, I am afraid that we will not being enjoying their company for much longer unless we get what we want."

"And what it is it that you want?" she ground out behind clenched teeth.

"No doubt the princess has already told you that we mean to bring back the war dragons. She would be absolutely correct. One issue is that we do not know where they are. Another is that royal blood must be spilled to awaken the creatures. We want the princess."

"What?"

"She will procure the record containing the locations of the dragons and then we will use her blood to complete the resurrections."

"Never!"

"Then you condemn your compatriots to horrifyingly slow and torturous deaths. I am kind – I will give you one day to make a decision." He paused as though listening to someone before continuing. "Ah, yes, and my brother wants Sesshoumaru as well so he can have revenge for that lovely bit of work done to his face."

With these words, the darkness faded and Rin found herself staring up at the ceiling.

"Rin-sama, what was that?" Yoihito was leaning over her with Kongomi.

Sitting up shakily, Rin gave them both a troubled expression. "They have Harika. And Jaken."

Kongomi started and then covered her mouth in an attempt to hide her shock. "Harika? She's alive?"

"The older one says that he'll exchange Harika for you. If we don't, she will be dead in a day."

Blowing away her insecurity, the princess squared her shoulders. "Then there is nothing for it. We have to rescue Harika."

"Kongomi-hime, you cannot hand yourself over." Yoihito protested. "I will not let you."

She flashed a defiant look his way, "I'm not 'handing myself over'. I intend to reclaim Harika through stealth."

"Then I will go with you, princess. What would your parents say if I allowed you to venture into such danger without proper protection?"

"But Yoihito, you're still wounded. We'll need to leave as soon as possible. You will stay here and finish recuperating."

While his expression was calm, his words betrayed a growing anger. "Kongomi-hime. You are acting irrationally. Stop for a moment a think about what you are proposing! This is folly!"

"I agree."

The trio turned to face Sesshoumaru, who was sans armor, but fully dressed all the same.

Wasting no time, Rin rushed over to her own protector to plead her case. "But Sesshoumaru-sama, there is a deadline. If we don't rescue them in time, Harika-chan and Jaken will be killed. We can't afford to wait much longer."

His tone turned ice cold. "This is a trap – that much is obvious. As slow as those fools are, they will not kill the hostages so easily."

"You don't know that!" she protested.

"If that is indeed the case, then a poorly planned escape attempt will not make a difference," he explained clinically.

Rin was beyond furious. How could he dismiss innocent lives without a moment's pause? These were friends and allies who had their lives on the line. He was supposed to be better than that!

Before she could argue, he continued to speak.

"A more efficient use of our time would be to locate the map and the sword that my mother mentioned."

"Of course you would say something like that," Rin snapped back.

Sesshoumaru actually frowned at her, but Rin cared not one jot.

"Why am I not surprised that you would care more about some stupid sword than trying to save good people? In case you hadn't noticed, Jaken was on the list of captives. Don't you care if he is killed? Or is it okay as long as you get a nice, big, shiny sword and bragging rights for defeating an enemy?"

"Mind what you say," he growled with narrowed eyes.

"Or what? You'll stop me? I'd like to see you try!" Even she could tell that her attitude was beyond foolish, but it felt good to direct some of the pent up energy that was building inside her.

"That is exactly what I will do. Go to the training yard. We will settle this matter there." Without a further word, he strode out of the room towards the practice area.

* * * * * *

 

Sesshoumaru's behavior was atrocious and he knew it.

First it was last night, using silly human affections to trick a little human girl. Now he had been goaded into a fight that should never happen.

What was it about that girl that made him completely abandon all sense of propriety? In a single minute she could kindle sparks of emotions that were alien and unknown to him. In the next, she could fan the flames of his temper to create a raging fire.

One moment he thought she was strong and beautiful and perfect, but then she became a fledgling, naïve and foolish.

Why could she not see the trap in front of her? That the enemy was toying with her feelings to force her into a rash decision?

"Are you serious about this?" her voice was slightly breathless from keeping up with his swift pace. "You are still injured-"

He rounded on her, his hair, still in a ponytail swishing behind him. "That may be so, but it's more than enough for a –"

She interrupted, "More than enough for a what? A weak little human? Is that what you were going to say?" Fury gripped her face, contorting it into an expression that he had never seen before.

Choosing not to respond, he walked right out into the foggy courtyard. Sometimes it was the hard lessons that needed to be taught. Rin needed to be shown that she did not possess the strength and experience to battle calculating foes on even ground. It was only with her own calculations and well laid plans that would ensure her victory.

One of the servants brought a practice sword and handed it over with a bow. There would be no wooden weapons available – demons healed quickly enough to take blows from blunted steel. He would need to be very careful not to injure his sparring partner.

He looked around the way and saw Rin strapping on some leather bindings that could hold throwing knives. How did she expect to win with those? Her knife work was starting to improve through the training she received in the dragon city, but not enough to grant her an edge.

Both of them faced off and he could see a slight hesitation in her eyes.

It was at that moment that Inukimi chose to reappear.

"Oh, what is this?" she smirked behind her sleeve. "Teaching your little pet some manners I see? Be gentle with her – humans are so fragile."

This erased the fear in Rin's eyes and she took a stance to begin the fight, a pair of knives in her hands. "Do not belittle me."

Without warning, he charged, bringing his sword around in a crescent arc. Rin threw the knives his way, but he easily flicked his blade to send them flying away into the crowd. He pressed forward, a tad bit slow with his left arm, as his right was still broken in places.

He raised his arm to bring the sword down, but she was able to tumble away like a clumsy acrobat. A split second later, another set of knives came towards him, but again he parried them away. They clanged on the stone ground.

Her level of inexperience was painfully obvious as they continued this exchange. She threw knives that would never reach the target and he acted just slowly enough to give her a chance to escape. Regardless of the onlookers, he wanted to end this charade quickly and without injury to the girl.

Lightning fast, he came in with a series of quick slashes that cut all of the knife sheaths from her torso and legs. Then he went for a sweep that caused her to stumble onto her back. He lightly touched the tip of his blade to her throat to signify the end of the match.

That had been relatively painless. Hopefully she has learned that she is much too green to go out with only "brute force" as a strategy. Lifting his weapon, he glanced down at her and was once again surprised.

Her eyes were squeezed shut, but angry tears seeped out from the corners under her eyelids. She rolled onto her stomach, crawled to her feet, and sprinted away. He barely caught her parting words.

"I hate you."

There was no real weight behind her words. Not really. She was only upset and lashing out.

Why did it bother him all the same?

That question continued to haunt him throughout the morning and into the afternoon. But he saw no sign of Rin, so he brushed it off in favor of doing some training with his actual swords.

By the time the servants starting lighting the evening lamps, he grew earnestly concerned. Walking through the halls, he could detect small, faint traces of her scent, but nothing recent enough. He released a dozen of his crows to search for her and waited for their message.

An hour passed, letting a mild anxiety gnaw away at him, filling his heart with irritation and anxiety. Then:

"Sesshoumaru-sama! Have you seen Kongomi-hime? She is missing!" Yoihito limped out onto the balcony. Red stained his bandages from where his wounds were reopening.

With a sinking feeling, one of his crows returned with a cawing message. It was as he feared.

"She and Rin are several leagues away, headed back to the ruins by the looks of it." He gave the maimed guard a stern look. "You will do well to stay here and rest."

"I can follow on Aki. I will not abandon my princess," was the stubborn response.

"Do as you like."

Sesshoumaru turned on his heel to return to his room. Minutes later he was striding purposefully towards the front entrance to follow after Rin.

Much to his annoyance, there was a cluster of busybodies in the way.

His mother pushed her way to the front. "Sesshoumaru, are you in such a hurry?"

He attempted to circumvent her, but she side stepped him. "Might I introduce my younger sister, Inukojo, ruler of the northern lands?"

Whatever ridiculous plotting his mother was attempting, he was completely out of patience. There was no time for his mother's political intrigues and feminine wiles.

"Mother, out of my way." He brusquely pushed aside the gaggle of females and jumped into the air outside of the palace.

Yoihito, in his golden armor, pulled up aside him on his crimson dragon. "I hope we are not too late."

He could only hope.

 

 

Chapter Text

"Where do you think they are?" Kongomi called over from the back of Jiro. "The city is huge – we won't have time to search all of it!"

Rin closed her eyes and tried to ignore the biting wind that threatened to pluck her from Ah-Un's shoulders. Her vision had been brief and bleary, but she had seen the princess and imp. They had been trussed and tossed on the ground in the middle of an open area littered with broken stones.

"Somewhere big? Maybe a courtyard?" She concentrated. "There might have been a pattern on the floor – a serpent wrapped around a diamond?"

"It's not a serpent – it's a wingless dragon," Kongomi snapped. "I know where they are."

Evening was coming fast, with the light fading even faster. Storm clouds were moving in, blocking any light that might have come from the moon or stars. Perfect for infiltration, but terrible for night flying. Rin was worried that would get caught out in the middle of a giant rainstorm.

"How much farther until we reach the city?" She almost shouted over the noise of the pending weather.

The princess chose not to answer and Rin resisted the urge to scold her. Rebuking her would only serve to break down their weak bond and they needed all the teamwork they could get. This was especially true if she wanted to rescue Jaken and make it out with her own life intact: the princess would prioritize Harika's safety over everything else – even if that meant trading lives to ensure her little sister lived.

Granted, she held no great love for the little demon, but he had protected her during her childhood and somewhere in her heart, she could not forsake him.

Lost in her contemplations, she was brought back to the present by the spattering of raindrops against her face. In fairly short order, the small specks of water transformed into a driving force, making it impossible to see more than feet ahead. It wasn't quite cold enough to be ice, but each drop felt like a frozen needle jabbing her skin.

"Kongomi!" Rin yelled. She cursed internally, having lost sight of her partner. No doubt this had been Kongomi's design all along, but the arrival of the storm wasn't helping matters.

Her low hair bun emitted a distinct chirping. An all-to-familiar scaly black blob crawled out from under her hair, clinging on for dear life, tail twitching.

Rin couldn’t resist smiling. “Thank you, Kuro.” She reached up to rub a finger against what could be its forehead.

Their moment was interrupted as Ah-Un bucked, buffeted by the severity of the weather, nearly throwing Rin off into the darkness. She clung onto the harness and looked at the dragon. This wouldn't do: they needed to land as soon as possible, regardless of whether they had reached the city or not.

She guided them down, touching base in a forest and taking shelter under a rocky outcrop. Soaked and shivering, Rin attempted to gain her bearings. The last time she entered the city, it had been shrouded in a cloud – no doubt conjured by sorcerers in the city or the dragon that had been entombed beneath the foundation of the castle. There was no magical cloud now, but without an understanding for the lay of the land, Rin was at a loss.

Lightning cracked across the sky, briefly illuminating the surrounding landscape. In that flash of light, something caught her eye – a door hidden amongst a pile of rocks.

"Stay here!" She commanded Ah-Un; hopefully the tree would provide sufficient coverage since it was highly unlikely that her friend would be able to squeeze through the entryway.

Using her arm as a shield against the icy rain, she dashed through the clearing to reach the rocks. Blinking the water from her eyes, she ran her hand against the smooth surface. Carved into the face of the door was the same dragon entwined with a diamond from her vision. What did that design mean?

Placing both hands against the door, she began to push, but fell forward when there was practically no resistance at all. Catching herself, she found herself looking into stairway that descended into an even deeper blackness. A breathless voice rasped out a question.

"…The human girl?"

She squinted into the shadows and barely made out the form.

"Daichi-ji-san?"

The old hostler lowered the blunt length of wood he had raised in attack. "You survived." He was covered with dirt and dust from head to toe. Blood from a wound on his forehead had cut a track through the grime down his face. He looked worse for wear, but none of his injuries seemed to be combat-inflicted.

She nodded. "Kongomi and I were able to escape. We took refuge at Sesshoumaru-sama's mother's castle-"

"The princess is alive?" Daichi dropped to his knees in relief. "I thought the entire royal family was dead."

"Harika-chan survived as well. Kongomi and I are here to rescue her."

Now the old man struggled to stand. "The princesses are here? In the city?" Rin stopped him with a push that was gentle, but firm.

"Stay here." When the protestations came, Rin brushed them aside with a shake of her head. Loyal retainer he may be, this old grandpa was not fit for any sort of fighting at the moment. "I am meeting with Kongomi and we will rescue our friends." In an attempt to distract him, she pointed back out into the forest. "Ah-Un is out there. Will you make sure he is okay while I am gone?"

Try as he might, he could not resist a request to aid a dragon in distress. Some habits were just too hard to break. As he turned to leave, he grabbed Rin's arm with a spindly hand.

"You must save the princesses they are our only hope if we are to survive as a people."

Rin nodded. "I will do what I can, Daichi-ji-san." Then she proceeded through the doorway and into the deep, deep shadows.

Blinking, she hoped that her eyes would adjust, but there was no source of light to be found. She reached out to run her hand along the cold stone. The going would be slow and careful – if she tripped and fell here, there was no telling how far she might tumble.

She smiled in spite of her nervousness. Imagine: after all of this, she fell and broke her neck in some ruined stairwell.

At first, the howling wind echoed around her, but as she continued her descent, all sound slowly faded away. Down, down, down she continued, the darkness pressing against her. The air was getting colder and chilled her to the bone. Shivering, she tried to keep herself cheerful by thinking of warm, inviting sorts of things. The warm curry that Kagome made back in the village. Wearing her thick, winter's coat in front of a fire. Embracing…

She shook her head. The love sickness was starting to impact her ability to stay focused. Once the rescue mission was safely over, she would need to dedicate a serious effort in forgetting her affections for Sesshoumaru.

Then the stair case ended. In the pitch black, there was no telling where she now found herself. She was reluctant to abandon her position. What if she was unable to find her way back to the staircase?

As she pondered her next step, a faint glow started radiating only a few feet away. The light was icy blue and felt alien to Rin. Still, any light source was better than none.

She stumbled forward, her steps as unsteady of a newborn creature, trying to navigate in the dim space. A short minute passed and then she was upon the mysterious source of light.

Looking down, she was surprised to see such a small thing. It was shaped like a diamond – a fragment of metal or another material that could refract. Hesitantly, she reached out with hand, but in that moment, she quickly snatched her arm back. The trinket, whatever it was, had repulsed her.

Quickly, she tore a bit of her clothing to form a makeshift rag, with which she was able to pick up the object with ease. Having heard the tales of Sesshoumaru's and Inuyasha's swords, it came as no surprise that there were other objects in this world that could not bear the touch of a human. It reminded her of the shards that her friends had spent a year collecting, but it also brought to mind the coat of arms that Kongomi had mentioned earlier. Sharp, with brilliantly cut edges, but also so flat that it could have been the scale of a mighty beast.

Without much time to reflect, she held the fragment in the cloth in front of her, illuminating the path before her. The room was devoid of any sort of decoration except for the small stone pedestal from where she had retrieved the artifact. Tentatively, she started to explore a little more: maybe there were markings on the wall? A map of the city or castle perhaps?

Quietly, she crept around the room – the tap of her footsteps echoing loudly. For one reason or another, she felt it would be wrong to generate more noise than she already was.

Carefully, softly, she continued her investigation, but came up with nothing. Letting go of the faintest of sighs, she moved to the exit a few feet away.

But a grotesque face loomed out of the darkness.

"Hello there, girlie."

Rin gasped and jumped back, dropping the fragment. She fumbled for her belt where her knives would usually sit, but she cursed as she remembered having left most of her equipment in Ah-Un's pack.

Meanwhile, the younger of the dragon demon brothers, sauntered forward, his silver eyes emitting silver in the dark. He walked over to the treasure and picked it up with his bare hands. Rin turned to keep him in her limited sights.

"Thank you, brat, for finding this for us. We were having a devil of a time getting its location out of the princesses." She noticed the plural princesses; either another royal sibling had survived and the demons were terrible at determining sexes, or Kongomi had gotten herself captured. The monster dug into his robe and pulled out another glowing shard. "Pian, you were right - she led us right to it."

A tiny voice came out of what Rin was quickly identifying as a dragon scale. "Excellent. Bring her here."

"I will not go with you," she snapped defiantly. Going with the younger brother now meant that all hopes of the rescue attempt would be dashed. She needed to get away – now.

"But my dear, that isn't up to you," the tiny voice from the scale taunted.

Her vision went black.

* * * * * *

 

 

Pian lowered his hand containing a glowing dragon scale and he turned to Kongomi, who was bound and kneeling next to her sister.

"So you see, my little princess, your compliance was not required." He glided over to the group of captives. "I always get what I want."

She spat on his face.

Without warning, he bore down on her, gripping her chin between his fingers, pressing so tightly that his silver nails drew blood from her cheeks. His countenance remained smooth and serene, but there was an underlying rage that floated just beneath the surface.

"Mind your manners, whelp. Do not forget your current station." He flicked his wrist, releasing her. Harika murmured her concern for her sister's wellbeing, but Kongomi was unperturbed.

"The same should be said about you – pretentious rebel." She threw out the word casually. "You might have the map, but a pretender to the throne will never have Ryudo."

Pian laughed. "You think that we want your precious little kingdom? Hardly." He pushed back his hood, letting the rain fall on his metallic skin. "No, no, little princess. What we want is not a kingdom or riches.

"We want to raise this land and watch it burn. We want all of you to pay for the wrongs against our family."

"What wrongs? Your ancestors tried to overthrow us – your relatives could not have possibly thought that such a thing would come without consequence?" Kongomi snapped back. "You will be punished just like your forefathers. Sesshoumaru-sama will make certain of it."

"Ah, yes, dear Sesshoumaru." He crooned. "Once we have destroyed the land that cast us out and brought down the peace-mongering pacifists that dared opposed us, then we will have our vengeance on that dog pack that ruined us."

He turned to face his younger brother, who was escorting a dazed Rin into the open courtyard.

"And now that we have the map to where all your precious war dragons are hidden, we have the power to make it happen." He reached out a hand to accept the bright blue shard. “It really is beautiful, isn’t it? To think someone would have left such a gift behind, stored in a dead dragon’s scale.”

"You let him capture you?" Kongomi called out to Rin. "Pathetic."

"You forget that we captured you too," the younger brother smiled. "Pathetic."

"Well at least my face wasn't melted off," she scoffed in return.

The demon leapt towards her, but his brother restrained him. "Calm yourself, Kan. She will not be our problem for much longer."

"And why's that?" The princess looked at Rin, who was now slumped on the ground, her eyes wide and unblinking. "And what did you do to her?"

Pian twirled the scale between his fingers. "Nothing I haven't done before. A little of this and a little of that. You need not concern yourself." He paused and focused on the huddled group. "Especially since you are not long for this world."

Kongomi noticed Harika and the little imp servant whimpering as she looked intently around the area. Trying to plan an escape while appearing to be largely ignorant was no small feat.

"You're just going to kill us, is that it?" Kongomi continued her subtle search for escape, careful not to let her sideways glances give away her intentions.

"Oh no, little princess. Your blood is much too valuable for that. I believe I told you before, we need your blood to awaken the dragons from their slumber."

Kan gave his brother a little push. "Why are you telling them everything? What if they use that against us?"

"What does it matter when they will be dead soon enough?"

"I wouldn't be sure about that."

A new voice rang out in the area. Atop a crimson red dragon, was the golden form of Yoihito, captain of the guard and protector of the royal family of Ryudo.

"Ah, welcome. I remember you." Pian let a crooked smile sneak onto his face. "You fought so valiantly to try to save your king. But it was all for naught in the end."

Kan also smiled widely. "Why don't you come play with us?"

Then the white, ghostly form of Sesshoumaru swept forward from behind the dragon's leathery wings. "I accept your challenge."

In one smooth motion, he unsheathed Bakusaiga and the blade seemed to throb with a pulsing energy. The brothers regarded the sword with a careful interest; the weapon did not seem to possess any special power during the demons' last fight with its owner, but this time there was a presence that made the both of them somewhat wary.

Sesshoumaru noted their hesitation with a flare of pride – they should tremor in front of him. He was one of the most powerful demons in the Eastern, Western, and Southern lands combined. The last time they crossed swords, he had unintentionally lowered his guard. This time, they would get no such kindness.

Bakusaiga was clenched in his right hand, all of his bones having healed earlier in the day. Back to full strength, there would be no stopping him. Energy blasts would be out of the question, but in the seven or so years since his arm had regenerated, along with the sword, he had mastered control over the decomposition technique. It would be child's play to destroy both brothers without harming the hostages.

"Sesshoumaru-sama! You have come to rescue us!" The all too familiar screeching of a certain servant made its way into his ears. "Quick! Use Bakusaiga to disintegrate them!"

One of these days he would shove that useless little piece of demon flesh into a sack with a pile of stones and drop him into the ornamental carp pond in his mother's castle.

The elder brother's filled with glee, even if the expression didn't extend to the rest of his face. "Your sword has some special powers?" he asked rhetorically.

"Absolutely! Just you wait and see! My master will eliminate you!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Sesshoumaru could also see the princess and her guard looking at Jaken in disbelief as well. One of these days…one of these days…

Stripped of any element of surprise, he raised his sword's edge, preparing to swing and unleash an attack on the brothers.

"I don't think so-" the younger brother rushed forward, but his advance was halted by his brother's outstretched hand.

"Patience, Kan. I have another idea." He raised a tiny blue flame to his lips and whispered some sort of command. "We have a perfect counter to our little lord Sesshoumaru."

* * * * * *

 

The darkness blocking Rin's vision started to fade, revealing that she was lying down on a pile of wet stones. She tried to blink her eyes to clear away onslaught of rain droplets, but for some reason she couldn't move an inch. Then she became aware that something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

Every muscle screamed as she felt herself get up and pick up an object in her right hand. She was no expert, but from the heft and weight, it was probably a sword of some kind.

Her entire body protested as she slowly turned around. No words could escape her lips. Her eyes would not blink away the water running into her eyes and mouth. Even her breath and heart beats felt distant.

All of the sounds were buffered and dull in her ears, as though she were underwater. She was vaguely aware of Pian's cruel and snide tone, but the meaning of his words were lost on her.

Then she was slowly turning and came to a halt in front of Sesshoumaru. As her arms unwillingly raised her weapon, she let out an internal scream. One that she could only hear.

* * * * * *

 

Sesshoumaru watched with a mixture of anger and horror as Rin rose from the ground and clutched a cutlass, discarded from the tragedy that had befallen the city.

"Rin." He called out to her. No doubt this spell could be broken like the others. "Come to your senses."

If she heard his words, she showed no signs of stopped as she raised the sword and approached him with a sluggish walk.

"Rin." He raised his voice, the tiniest bit of urgency betrayed in his tone. His command had never failed to reach her before.

"You see, Sesshoumaru, your power amounts to nothing when I hold all the cards," said the older brother smugly.

His patience was at its end and this would end now. He dashed to the side, easily evading Rin's awkward shuffle.

"Oh, I hardly think so." The demon made a quick gesture and Rin suddenly swung with full force into Sesshoumaru's side.

Years of experience allowed Sesshoumaru to dodge the attack, but he could almost see the trail Rin sliced through the rain. Without a moment's pause, she pulled back her blade and swung again. Sesshoumaru met her attack with his own and a great clang ran out as the metal edges clashed.

She began an endless tirade of hacks and slashes; nothing with any certain amount of finesse, but there was a degree of power that was unexpected.

Has she always been this strong? Or is this the influence of the mind control?

His questions went unanswered as his full concentration was pulled back into the fight. She would certainly die if he were to use any of his usual movements. A brief lapse in focus would spell her end. The practice fight they had had only that morning felt like a distant memory.

A sheen started to appear on her face – whether the spell was drawing directly from her life energy or whether this was the result of forced motions, there was no way to tell. Regardless, he needed to bring this fight to an abrupt conclusion.

With every ounce of attention, he began a rapid counter attack, whipping the blade around. Each slice was precisely calculated in speed and force so that Rin could parry, but not retaliate. Faster and faster Bakusaiga whirled and twirled, casting off water droplets.

He was so enraptured, he failed to notice the older brother assessing the situation and raising the shard to his lips.

Landing a series of quick strikes, Sesshoumaru prepared to make the final charge. He raised the sword and brought it down hard, expecting some resistance from Rin before it shattered.

But instead, Rin flung her arm out to the side, casting away her means of protection, and took the full force of the blow on across her chest.

Sesshoumaru's blood ran cold. He watched, as if in slow motion, as the light came back into her eyes and she crumpled to the ground, her blood rapidly draining and blending with the pools of rainwater.

This could not be happening.

Something rattled as it hit the ground. It took a second for him to realize that it was Bakusaiga.

Distanced from his body, he felt himself run forward and clutch her body to his own. Brown eyes, blank and unseeing, were set into a deathly pale visage. A surge of adrenaline and panic rushed through his system, although his expression was rigid as stone.

A feather light touch tugged at his wrist’s hem and Sesshoumaru blinked before attempting to fling away the useless distraction. No one would take Rin from him again. There was a fierce chattering and a dark shadow scrambled down his arm, back onto Rin’s chest. It squawked angrily, clearly aggravated as it tried to wriggle closer to the wound.  Despite having no leeway, the small creature wormed its way to Rin’s cut and huddled, trembling.

Pale yellow sparks of light drifted from the tiny youkai and seeped into the deep slice that started at her collarbone and trailed across her chest, down to her waist. The entire injury developed the faintest of glows and Sesshoumaru recognized the act as healing.

Was another miracle possible? He locked his gaze down at Rin. Seconds passed. She was not breathing. It seemed like minutes. His ears strained to pick up the faint thud of a heartbeat, but no sound could be heard.

Suddenly she gasped and started coughing. Her eyes scrunched against the rain as the rest of her body started to wake up.

“Hurry!” The timid little rosy-haired girl near Jaken called out, terrified, but clearly worried about Rin. “The kageko can’t do a lot of healing. You need to push down on the wound! Otherwise she’ll bleed out!”

Gently he laid Rin on the ground and immediately placed both of his hands on her chest, trying to put pressure on as much surface area as possible.

The ground began to shake. Nearby pebbles pattered and pieces of the remaining structures started to tumble. Out of the darkness came a giant pair of yellow eyes. Rain splashed against large metallic scales that were pitch black in the night.

In the face of the giant creature that had crushed his body only a day ago, Sesshoumaru started thinking with cold brilliance. There was only one course of action to take.

"Bakusaiga!"

As if by magic, the guard leapt off his dragon and rolled to the ground, his own wounds bleeding through his bandages. Staggering to his feet, he reached for the fallen sword and slid it across the stones.

With every ounce of confidence that Rin would survive for a few short moments, Sesshoumaru lifted one of his hands and picked up his blade. Despite the protests from the young demon girl, he released a giant attack against the large beast. Once the attack pierced the hide of the dragon, it would succumb to the disease that was Bakusaiga’s decomposition. Pieces of the body would fall from the ground as the dragon’s life came to a messy end.

None of that happened.

The elder brother laughed. "Where is this precious disintegration that we were promised?"

Overhead, the dragon roared, baring impossibly large fangs. There was a final option. If Bakusaiga was not enough to inflect even the tiniest amount of damage, then all that was left was tooth and nail.

Sesshoumaru evaluated the situation. Without pressure applied to the wound, Rin’s blood was flowing out much too fast. Judging from the shrieks coming from the little black creature, he would need to return his hand to cover the cut if there was even a hope of her surviving. Retreat was out of the question. He could completely let go – become a daiyoukai – but as he watched her straining to keep the faintest flame of life burning, he knew he could not. He might be able to win, but then again, he might not. And he would regret it for the rest of his life.

There was nothing that he could do. No attack. No plan. No more steps.

This was somewhat of a shocking revelation for the lord. Having spent his entire life completely assured of his own capabilities and power, absolutely certain that he was in control of his destiny, the feeling of helplessness and the growing lack of hope was alien.

He dropped his sword for the second time that day and continued to apply pressured to Rin’s chest.

He looked down at Rin and was surprised to see her eyes clear. Through labored breathing and between pained grimaces, she gave him a weak, apologetic smile.

What does one say at a time like this?

A flash of white cut across his vision.

Streaking towards the dragon was a pale demon with snow white hair, pulled severely into a bun. At this speed, it was impossible to determine gender, but the new arriver unsheathed a curved and wicked blade that was bathed in a sparkling red light.

The fighter unleashed an immense crimson beam, which cut through the giant dragon as if it no more substance than a soggy piece of paper. Then another pair of slashes crisscrossed to bisect through head and down the length of the body.

Sesshoumaru was arrested by the sight of the mysterious demon who was dismantling their foe in fairly short order. Steel flashing in every which direction, so fast that the glints from the blade looked like lightning. A surge of jealousy rippled through his veins.

With one last strike, everything settled and the only sound was the gentle shush of rain. The dragon was slain.

The princess let out a cry, wrapped in the arms of her guard. "Harika! They've taken Harika!"

The younger princess, along with both brothers, had disappeared in the chaos.

"You useless fools," said a biting voice that drew Sesshoumaru's interest. The fighter was stalking back exuding irritation. "You let them get away."

As the stranger approached, he was surprised to find she (for it appeared to be female) possessed the same amber eyes that all inuyoukai were born with. Combined with her white hair and pale countenance, there was no doubt that she was family. Although probably a distant relative.

"I never suspected that my own nephew would be so weak that he could not take down a simple dragon demon!"

Or maybe a closer relative than he thought. He met the gaze of his 'aunt', but offered no words – she seemed like the type of person that would scold and rebuke even if there was nothing wrong in the world. He turned his gaze back to Rin who was barely holding on to her own life.

"Th-th-thank you, Inukojo-sama! We are most humbled by your gracious presence and are eternally grateful for assistance from the ruler of the Northern Lands!"

That little twerp could also be counted on to employ groveling in any situation.

"I should say so," was the snarky reply.

She walked over to Sesshoumaru. "Well, nephew, what have you to say for yourself? Clutching onto some little human trash and waiting to be crushed – what a miserable existence. This must be the influence of your father, he always did love his humans, didn't he?"

Sesshoumaru blatantly ignored her. The only way he would pay her heed was if there was something she could to help save Rin. Everything else was noise.

“And now you’re pretending that you didn’t hear me? Some manners you have!”

Still her taunts elicited no response.

There was an angry huff as the aunt pushed Sesshoumaru out of the way. “Oh, for the love of-!“ She brought out her sword, glittering again with the red light.

Now Sesshoumaru turned on her, eyes red, pupils small and dark.  The lady shrugged off the aggression. “Move out of the way – unless you want this piece of garbage to die.”

Quickly – much too quickly, she shoved Sesshoumaru away like he was no more than a young pup. She drew her sword, which quickly took on its vibrantly crimson hue.

Then she laid the sword against the wound.

Rin’s entire body tensed, but she had lost too much blood to even muster the energy to scream. Even from a few meters away, her pain was obvious.

Furious, Sesshoumaru leapt back up and dug his own claws into the shoulder of his so-called aunt, drawing blood. She responded with a pair of red eyes of her own. “Fool! I am cauterizing the wound – or did you change your mind after all?”

He refused to extract his claws, but a few seconds later, the female demon withdrew the sword and swung at him. He easily dodged the blade and then looked down at Rin.

Where a giant gouge had been only minutes before, there was now a ragged scar, raw and jagged around the edges. It was a gruesome sight to behold.

Sesshoumaru could feel his rage building, but then he heard the soft thud of Rin’s heartbeat. The rhythm was becoming stronger, more regular. He calmed, seeing the little healer continuing to pour golden light into the wound, which was drastically improving by the second.

He in no uncertain terms agreed with her methods, but he was satisfied that this was the best possible outcome, with regards to Rin’s life.

“What was that?” He flicked his gaze at the sword.

“That is Ryuushin, the dragon slayer.” She was not taken aback and continued without missing a beat. “And I am its wielder, Lord Inukojo of the Northern Lands, sister to Inukimi.” She waved the sword before gracefully sliding it back into its sheath. “Is that explanation enough for you?”

But he had already moved on. The black youkai chirped as the golden light around the wound faded. From her breath and heartbeat, it sounded like Rin had settled into a deep sleep. She was not out of the woods just yet, but she would survive until they returned.

Carefully, he scooped the young woman into both of his arms. He threw a sideways glance at the princess who was in shock. He tossed an order to the guard: “Collect her and let us return to the castle.”

"Sesshoumaru – where do you think you are going? Those two annoyances are still out there – with a map and a royal blood supply, I might add!"

Without a single ounce of patience to spare, even for a 'close' relative, Sesshoumaru turned to give her a stony glare. "We are returning to the castle. I suggest that you do the same, although if you feel so inclined as to chase after those 'annoyances' instantly, I will not prevent you from doing so."

That was the last said on the matter as everyone left for the long flight back to Inukimi's castle.

* * * * * *

 

The weight of sleep gradually lifted from Rin; slowly releasing her from empty dreams that were filled with nothing but darkness.

She blinked, but everything around her was blurry. A dark smudge here, a bright streak there. Her memories caught up with her: the dragon! That fight! The slash coming down – she couldn't stop it!

Sitting upright, she crashed into a solid form and was forced back into her bedding.

"Rin."

In one word, she was lulled into tranquility. She rubbed her eyes and her vision began to reveal the true nature of the fuzzy world.

"Sesshoumaru-sama? What happened?" She turned her head towards the primly seated demon lord, who removed his hand from her shoulder. "Where are we?"

"We have returned to the castle. You and the guard sustained injuries that were in need of immediate care."

Her chest felt it was on fire, with a thousand sharp needle pricks running diagonally from shoulder to hip. Looking down, she saw a thick swath of bandages. That last hit that she took must have really done a number on her, as Kagome liked to say.

Sesshoumaru had paused, as if contemplating what to say next, but decided to continue anyway. "The two demons escaped with an artifact that will tell them the locations of all the dragons. We have reason to believe that it will also allow them to control multiple beasts concurrently."

Her heart sank. That was terrible news – not only had she put herself in danger, but her little escapade had increased the power of their enemies.

"And Harika? The younger princess?" she whispered.

"The princess was not recovered."

The worst possible scenario: there was nothing that could stop Pian and Kan from summoning an army of terrifying monsters. Not to mention that at any moment, she could also turn into a mindless slave, bending to the will of Pian.

If she remained here, she would only continue to endanger everyone else.

Leaving was the rational decision.

"Sesshoumaru-sama," she said with a ragged breath. It was so hard to keep her emotions in check! "As soon as I am well, I will return to the village." Then she squeezed her eyes shut, since there was no other way to prevent tears from spilling out.

This was how it ended. Months of trying to show him that she could handle the pressure, the dangers, destroyed in one fell swoop.

Silence fell.

And then…

"Why?"

She had no choice but to open her eyes and regard the man she loved in confusion. What did he mean 'why?' Was she not a nuisance that caused more headache than help? Was she not a threat to his safety?

"Why are you returning to the village?" He repeated his query a bit slower, as if she was having trouble understanding the question.

Words tumbled out of her mouth as she explained her reasons behind her decision.

"And?" was the great reply.

Mouth agape, she struggled to come up with anything else. Luckily, Sesshoumaru seemed to have something else to say.

"You are suffering under the misapprehension that I am only recently inconvenienced by your antics. That was a given, from the start. The disastrous rescue attempt has little effect on my opinion of you. Whether you cause trouble here or there matters little to me."

How was she supposed to interpret such a response? Rin's mind reeled as she tried to come to terms with what was being said.

There was a murmur at the door – Sesshoumaru was being called away.

"If leaving is your decision, I will not stop you."

With that, he was gone.

* * * * * *

 

Rin's comment had surprised him: given her carefree attitude, he had never taken her for the self-sacrificing or tragic type. But, perhaps she was overwhelmed from the day's events and a good night's rest would restore her mental strength.

Yet, after all this, she decided to leave, he would not stop her.

What right did he have? His failings as a warrior had nearly killed her. It would have, had that girl with the magical powers been there.

That thought alone made his fingertips feel like ice.

True, she had been rash to head out on her own, but she had sense and vitality enough to survive in a time of such violence and turmoil – even if only just. Next time, she would know better and that was the important thing.

If there was a next time.

With these melancholy thoughts in mind, he entered his mother's receiving room, where she entertained guests when she was feeling too lazy to use the royal hall.

"Ah, my dear son, Sesshoumaru. Do come in." Inukimi's melodic voice taunted him from behind a screen hung from the ceiling.

"Mother, what is this about?"

The lady-mother of the Western Lands collapsed her fan with a rolling snap. "Does a mother need an excuse to hold an audience with her own son?" In no rush at all, the draped screen was lifted to reveal Inukimi, leaning against an armrest on the floor. She wafted her fan in a mindless patterns and then, in a gross mockery of motherly tenderness, she pouted, "Mother is so sad because you do not wish to visit with her." She wiped non-existent tears delicately from her face.

Her son was not the least bit moved by her performance. "I will ask you only once more - why did you summon me?"

She dropped all pretense. "I can see you will offer me no entertainment this time around, so I suppose I cut to the point directly." She splayed her fingers in front her, as if to examine her perfectly manicured nails.

"Jaken has told me that you failed to eliminate those pests."

Sesshoumaru frowned. "What business is it of yours? You have never cared about what happens outside of your own castle."

Her golden gaze grew hard and cold. "Those pests can summon dragons that cannot be defeated by your power. They also have the means to locate each and every one of those ancient war dragons. Never mind the battle, they have already won the war. They will drive you into a corner and you will lose."

"You are on dangerous ground, Mother."

"No. It is you who is on dangerous ground," the she shot back, her words like icy barbs. "Fools they may be, they currently possess great power, almost as great as their forefather, Tomohisa, had many years ago. Your father was not able to defeat that demon on his own. Neither will you be able to defeat his sons." She calmly moved forward, the silks of her numerous kimono layers rustling. "But that need not be the outcome."

Fighting to contain an enormous amount of irritation, his deadpan expression did not shift in slightest. "What are you scheming?"

"Scheming? I am merely offering you a solution. What mother wouldn't help her own son?" She tapped his arm lightly with her closed fan.

"I thought you were going to get to the point."

Her humor instantly died and she sighed. "I do wish that you would play along – it would make the conversation much more intriguing."

"Mother."

"You have met your aunt and seen her skills in action, yes?" She gave him a second to recall the earlier encounter. "She has ways to slay the dragons and bring this threat to heel."

"You would have me beg for help?" His lack of expression belied the rage that was building. "I am not so weak."

His mother passed him an incredulous look. "I thought you were intelligent Sesshoumaru. Your Bakusaiga cannot pierce dragon scale, but my sister, with Ryuushin in hand can do so readily. Can you truly dismiss her talents so easily?"

"No one grants their favor without a promise of something in return. Since I have no significant material wealth, the only thing I can offer is the Western Lands. I am not willing to compromise my father's legacy."

"Hm? Your father's legacy? Do not forget that it was my father, a proud demon from the northern clan, who defeated the dragons and presented the Western Lands and me your father on a silver platter. Your father merely stood on the sidelines. Those sorry excuses for swords that he left you and the half-breed were much more of a legacy than those so-called lands."

As quick as lightning, Sesshoumaru whipped out Bakusaiga. The blade glinted in the sunlight as he raised the tip towards his mother. "Do not insult his memory."

Inukimi scoffed at this. "Really, Sesshoumaru. I am merely stating fact. We both know that your father's bloodline has no talent for dragon handling." She ignored the blade pointed at her throat. "When pressed to fight a dragon on his own, he could hardly fend off the beast, and those wounds were the end of him. And that pathetic creature was some weak descendant of the old dragons. I am not speculating: you will meet the same fate if you do not seek assistance."

"And I tell you, I will not relinquish the lands that he entrusted to me." Sesshoumaru bared his fangs.

"Come, this is unsightly behavior. You are the rightful leader of the southern Inu clan. Do not disappointment me with your childish antics." She gave him a pointed look before unfolding her fan.

"There is something that you can offer that will pacify my sister's need for collateral."

Calming slightly, Sesshoumaru sheathed his sword, but did not lower his guard. His mother was a conniving women and every word had the potential to drip poison. "And that is?"

"Rather than concede the lands that you appear to hold so dear, why not marry advantageously and produce an heir? Many rulers are satisfied knowing that their descendants will possess the power than they themselves cannot. My sister has a daughter that she would gladly see wed to you. It would be a matter of course for her to assist a future son-in-law with protecting the lands that her grandchildren will someday rule."

Sesshoumaru was silent. A tiny smug smile graced Inukimi's lips.

"You summoned them here."

"Of course – as soon as I sensed those boys arrive on our shores, I sent for my sister and her forces immediately. After all, what could you possibly hope to accomplish?"

"Do not tell me you have qualms about entering a loveless engagement - unless of course this is about your human. Do not worry, you can keep your little human pet. She will be gone in several decades. Perhaps she will pass on before this dragon conflict is resolved; for as you know, youkai matters may not be settled for an age."

In her element, Inukimi face radiated with triumph, preparing for the final blow. "You need not worry about your fiancée's feelings on these matters: I have already consulted her and received confirmation that young Tsukiakari does not mind an occasional fling."

At this Sesshoumaru raised his head sharply. "You hold no sway over my business and I will not be manipulated by your irritating feminine plotting. I will resolve this matter without assistance from you and certainly without releasing anything in my possession."

He stormed out of the room.

A few seconds later, Inukojo came out from around another screen. "You see? I did not think he would be one to agree to such a plot."

"Onee-sama, this is only the beginning." Inukimi gestured for the armored ruler to have a seat next to her. "He will be made to see the error of his ways. The dragon pair will be defeated and Tsukiakari will be married to my son."

"Why are you so intent on this?" Inukojo asked the hard question. "I refuse to believe that you feel guilty because our father chose to give Inutaisho and the Western Lands to you, rather than me."

"Amusement. I do not get more delight out of anything other than teasing my dear Sesshoumaru." She flicked her fan with a ruthless snap. "We were never that close anyway."

* * * * * *

 

Sesshoumaru strode down the corridors, not even caring to conceal how aggravated he was. His mother had a talent for getting on his bad side, but she had never goaded quite that hard before and it had struck a nerve. Several nerves, in fact.

He found himself treading back to Rin's room and before he knew what he was doing, he was inside the room and sitting across from her futon.

Rin remained on her bedding, but she quietly turned her head. "Sesshoumaru-sama?" Her voice was filled with confusion, but also with concern. "Is everything alright?"

Somehow her question prompted thousands of answers, and yet not a single thing could he reply. Insecurities bubbled to the surface, but he would hold them in check.

"Do you believe I can defeat these foes?" The words were past his lips, he could never take them back. His eyes widened in shock – what a display of weakness!

There was no reply.

There would not be one. Not after today, when she had been nearly cut in two because of his inability to gauge and react to such an enemy.

"Do you think you can?" Rin's quiet question broke the silence.

He slowly met her gaze as she sat up cautiously, her futon cover falling away to reveal a swath of bandages, protecting the last stages of healing.

Letting his body guide his actions, he moved closer to her and then delicately reached out, slowly, carefully. He cupped her chin, his calloused hand against the youthful smoothness of her skin. For the first time, he looked at her, really looked at her.

He was uncertain. And he hated it.

He was not certain that he could defeat the demons that haunted them without the help of his relatives.

He was not certain that he could keep her safe from the terrors that trapped her within her own mind and forced her to another's will.

He was not certain that his powers would be enough, for now, forever.

But as he looked into her eyes, he saw hope, and optimism. What had started as a childlike faith had matured into a deep sense of trust. Even with all the peril and dangers that awaited, she still believed.

Just maybe, if she was here, he could. Perhaps, if she was by his side, he could be certain again.

After an eternity, he finally found his voice.

"The dragons will be defeated." He felt himself frown. "It will not be simple and it may be dangerous." The frown eased as determination filled him.

He could hear the thud of her heart its paced quickened. He could see her embarrassed flush across her cheeks. Although he would never show it, he was mortified himself, for being so open, but these were the words that needed to be said. She needed to be here.

"I will overcome this, without letting go of anything."

Now her pulse was fluttering rapidly like the wings of a small bird and he saw her swallow nervously. She stammered slightly, "O-of course. The Western Lands are in jeopardy – you would not want to lose them."

His breath caught. Is she testing me? Well, two can play this game. Keeping his smirk absent from his face, he slid his hand from her chin along her jaw until his pal was flush on her face. He brought up his thumb to caress her cheek. "The Western Lands are not the only things I stand to lose."

Those words came out with less resistance than he expected. There was nothing left to lose.

"You once stated that you were prepared to dedicate your life to mine. Are you still so committed?"

Blinking, she was clearly struggling to keep up with the chain of events. "What?"

"This life is dangerous and I cannot guarantee your safety. But I will not abandon you and I will not let the dragons win. This I can solemnly avow. Can you commit yourself?"

Reflected in her eyes was his own face, stern and stone. It was an expression that was steadfast, without a trace of the anxiety that swirled internally.

To his complete and utter relief, she nodded numbly. "Yes. I always have and I always will be."

"Then you will stay?"

"I will."

Chapter Text

Chapter 14: Aftermath of the Storm

Rin's thoughts buzzed with an adrenaline-induced excitement from the whirlwind of events that had taken place in only a few short hours: the departure to rescue the younger princess felt days away and the gripping nightmare of fighting in the rain was already transitioning into memory.

One moment refused to fade from her mind and continued to repeat with a vibrant clarity. Sesshoumaru's gaze had pierced her soul as he laid out in no uncertain terms that he wished her to stay. She trembled as he allowed her a brief glimpse into his doubts and then reached out with a strong hand.

Now, much later into the evening, she was attempting to fall asleep, but to no avail. His words, his actions orbited in her mind, each taking a turn in the forefront of her consciousness. 'Go to sleep,' he said, but that was impossible!

Still, she made the attempt. Sesshoumaru had chosen to remain by her side for the night, keeping a vigilance. She was not about to get scolded for staying awake like an excited child on the eve of a village festival.

A particular memory resurfaced that caused her to flush from embarrassment. There was a gentle croon from her chest where the tired kageko was nestled against her bandages. Even exhausted, Kuro was maintaining a constant watch.

"Rin."

"It's nothing Sesshoumaru-sama – just a slight twinge from the wound." Rin lied. She wriggled slightly in her blanket and futon. "It's already passed." She tried to regulate her breath to be shallow and light.

But remembering her near blunder was difficult to push aside. Once again she had fallen prey to her own insecurities. The dark cloud of worry had almost driven her to abandon Sesshoumaru, which she promised she would never do. Granted, having the demon lord lay out the circumstances with such bald frankness was humbling, but it saved her from making a very stupid decision.

She would see this through all the way to the end. When the promised year was spent, she would fight to remain, silly teenage crush be damned.

Another thought instantly sobered her. The demon brothers' curse had surely not abated, despite the brief pause in the spell. The only rational assumption for them was that she had perished from the brutal sword attack, but underestimating her enemy would bring about her downfall. She might as well enjoy the small recess while it lasted, but be prepared to counter them as soon as possible.

Before her thoughts could start accelerating, a smooth sleepiness rolled over her. The last thing she heard as proper rest finally overtook her was the soft chirping of Kuro, as he resumed healing.


Deep in the forest, Kan was pacing quickly, constantly changing his direction. Despite the damage to the side of his face, his frown was still dark and strong.

"What are you worried about?" he spat at his brother. "We have the map," he held up a small leather pouch that emitted trace amounts of blue light from the opening at the top.

"We know the spell to wake the dragons and we have the blood of a royal. Why can't we start summoning the dragons?"

Pian lazily twirled his own dragon scale between his fingers, but his clipped tones betrayed his own irritation. "Patience, brother – unless you want a repeat performance from earlier tonight?"

The forest around them fell into silence, all manner of flora and fauna having quieted hours ago.

"That was Ryuushin, wasn't it?"

"Unless you know of another crimson sword tougher than draconian scales and able to slaughter the war dragons," Pian shot back, "then yes, that was Ryuushin: the dragon slayer."

Their father had divulged a great number of details about his rise to glory and his disdainful fall from grace. At the heart of his ruin was the cold and merciless Satsujimaro, with Inutaisho as his left hand and the legendary dragon slayer, Ryuushin in his right, the Inu lord from the north of old had promptly destroyed everything Tomohisa sought to achieve.

"How were we supposed to know that damned sword was still around?" Kan growled. "It was supposed to be lost, now that the old Inu-bastards are dead."

"As it happens, that is not the case. It appears that our father's enemies had more progeny than we anticipated." Pain sighed.

Not only had they settled for revenge on Sesshoumaru, son and grandchild of the demons that drove their father away, but now they were mixed in with another family faction.

"If we could get our hands on the sword, then everything would be easy! We would have the dragons and the dragon sword!" Kan resumed his pacing. "But there's no way to know where it is, who has it, or if we can even get close to it."

Then an idea struck Pian. He smiled maliciously, "Let's see if our little bird knows anything, shall we?" He glanced at the scales intertwined with his hands and then into the distance where the sky was adopting the paler hues of dawn. "If she's still alive at all."


Morning in the spirit castle of Inukimi was different than in the mortal realm. Faint sunlight filtered in through a hazy film of cloud cover, if it could even be called that. Rin looked out of her window at the overcast sky before turning her attention back to the letter she was writing.

Sesshoumaru was obviously long gone with the sun, off to complete whatever sort of planning he needed to do, now that they knew their quarry and would soon be in pursuit. Rin was determined to do her part and thus, she furtively scribbled on the tiny scroll in front of her.

Just as she scribed the final words, Kongomi came in with a furious whirlwind of energy.

"You!" The princess slammed back the paper door and stood on the wooden floor, arms crossed. "How could you let that happen yesterday?"

Taking a deep breath, Rin delicately placed her brush back in the ink tray. "Kongomi-hime, is there something in particular that you are referring to?"

Kongomi dropped to a crouch and leaned in, eyes narrow. "Because you allowed yourself to get injured, those villains managed to escape with my sister. Now she is still a hostage and time is running out."

"Then there is time for us to save her," Rin countered confidently. As much as she wanted to deliver tit-for-tat, now was not the time to bring up that Kongomi herself had also gotten captured and that there were a slew of other factors that contributed to the demon brothers' escape. The princess was very worried about her sister and that was what they needed to focus on. Allowing herself time to calm down, she continued. "Harika-chan will be safe."

"How can you possibly know that? You've seen what they can do – they just want her blood to awaken the dragons. Once they have summoned the beasts, do you honestly think they will let her live? Will she have any blood left to bleed?"

As the relentless onslaught of Kongomi's tirade grew, Rin felt a familiar sensation: the dull fade of the sounds around her, the tight clenching of her muscles as their control was wrested from her. Above all was the darkness that fell over her momentarily. Once the shroud was lifted, all that remained was the terrible feeling that nothing was right, that all she should be doing was screaming at the top of her lungs.

'Hello, my dear.' There was that voice. 'I am very surprised and delighted that you managed to survive our previous encounter.'

'What's it to you? I'm wounded – I won't be moving for several days. Plus, everyone knows what you can do. They will be ready for whatever you bring.'

The voice seemed to ignore her. 'There's nothing more I take greater pleasure in than manipulating others to my will.'

'You can have me, but you won't have them. They won't fall for their tricks.'

Rin was forced to listen to the cold malice in his laugh.

'Let's put that to the test, shall we?'

Sounds came back into focus and Rin felt her body gaze at the angry princess.

"Now we're delayed," she was saying, "Sesshoumaru-sama won't make a move until you're at least partially functioning, you useless…human! And that aunt of his won't give me the time of day. We need Sesshoumaru-sama to get that sword for us – then we can go after my sister!"

"I agree." Rin/Pian said.

"You what?" Kongomi was taken aback. "What do you mean you agree?"

"I think that we need the sword to defeat the demons. Sesshoumaru couldn't cut the dragon, but that red sword could. If we could get the sword, we could easily recuse your little sister."

Kongomi sputtered and struggled to find what to say while Rin watched gleefully. Pian had delivered her a golden opportunity on a silver platter.

'What amuses you so?' came his voice in their shared mindscape.

'Nothing that concerns you,' she snapped back.

'But everything that concerns you is now of my concern as well.' There was a pause. 'Was it something I said?'

She knew she needed to come up with a reason – a good one. 'It's unusual to see the great and mighty Kongomi nonplussed. That is what made me smile.'

'Even in this predicament?'

'What is the expression? Habits die hard.'

Crossing her fingers in her mind, Rin hoped that he would buy it.

Then he chuckled again and her heart sunk.

'My little chick, you are adorable. While I share your mind, I can see all of your thoughts. I applaud your attempts to deceive me, but your efforts are fruitless.'

He returned to Kongomi, who was still unsure what to say. "The main issue is as you say: Sesshoumaru-sama," he paused, putting extra emphasis on the honorific before continuing, "He won't move until he feels that I'm fully healed. If you were to take the sword, then you and Yoihito-san could save Harika-chan without delay."

Rin's hopes sank even further as Pian threw a little more condescending phrases her way. 'Slip of the tongue – I won't be using the wrong honorifics again, Rin-chan. No one will find out what is happening here, since I can read the entirety of your mind.'

With that, Rin's last hope sailed away. She suspected that Kongomi's outrage was not due to her unexpected assent, but actually because she had referred to the demon lord so informally. It was unfortunate that Pian caught onto this and then found a way to distract the dragon-blooded woman, as not to draw attention to his slip-up. He would make good on his promise: such an opportunity would not arise again.

Kongomi was nodding, "For once, I agree with you. With that sword, no dragon could stand in our way."

"Do you know where the sword is kept?" Rin/Pian asked.

"Why? Were you planning on stealing it?" she was suspicious again.

"Why not?" Rin/Pian replied. "If you are caught snooping around, then they would not give you any freedom and then you would be at the mercy of their schedule. If I am caught, then the same would apply, but I'm not necessary for a rescue mission."

Rin wanted to shake Kongomi hard. This wasn't the sort of thing she would suggest, especially not in those terms. Realize it already! It's not me!

'Thank you for that little bit of feedback. I will try to be more sympathetic and emotional. Can't have anyone catching on, can we?'

There was no escaping him.

"Of course – that makes sense." Kongomi nodded. "I think we should let you steal the sword." She glanced around the room, as if hidden ears would pop out from the walls. "From what I have heard, if Inukojo-sama does not have the sword at her hip, she leaves it in her room."

"Who is Inukojo-sama?"

For a moment, the princess was confused, but then it clicked. "That's right - you were unconscious during the entire affair. Inukojo-sama is the elder sister of Inukimi-sama. She is the bearer of the dragon slaying sword and Sesshoumaru-sama's aunt. She's located in the royal quarters."

Rin could feel Pian processing the information – this was dangerous. Every word uttered was one shared with the enemy.

Kongomi obliviously helped Rin to her feet and escorted her down a maze of corridors to a separate area of the palace. "Down there are the rooms for royal guests," she smirked, but there was passionate anger behind her expression, "at least for guests from their clans. Similar luxuries are not afforded visiting foreign dignitaries." The last few words dripped with a poisonous sarcasm.

She crossed her arms, waiting for Rin to go. Silently, Pian turned Rin around to slowly tread down the hallway. Turning the corner, Kongomi disappeared from view.

"Oh, my."

A voice, soft and low, came from the other end of the hallway. Pian/Rin looked up to see an exquisite young woman gliding towards them. Her pale skin put the full moon to shame and her white hair glistened brighter than fresh icicles on a cold day. She moved with an enviable innate grace that revealed her royal breeding, completely unburdened by many layers of fancy robes.

"Are you lost?"

Her words were kind – devoid of malice of any kind and free from the curt feel that all of the Inu clans seemed to possess.

Pian definitely felt Rin's naked confusion: neither of them knew the identity of the beautiful stranger. Could she be trusted? Could she possibly be an ally?

"No, I was looking for Sesshomaru-sama," Pian lied. "I was told he might be here."

The newcomer smiled, "Sesshoumaru-dono does not stay with the rest of us. He chooses to stay in his own quarters in a different part of the castle." She blinked curiously at Rin with amber eyes. "Are you Rin-san?"

"Yes." Pian answered.

"I am Tsukiakari, daughter of Inukojo."

Rin sensed Pian filtering through her memories, but only the most recent conversation with Kongomi yielded any details related to Inukojo.

'That's right – I have no idea who she is or what she's doing here. You're going to have to get out of this yourself,' she remarked to Pian with grim satisfaction.

'With pleasure, my dear.'

Pian bowed, letting Rin's loose hair fall forward. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Tsukiakari-hime. What brings you to the castle?"

'A bit direct, don't you think?' Rin mocked with false bravado.

'She won't know the difference.'

"My mother heard of your troubles with the dragons and came to lend her aid." Tsukiakari's smile faded ever so slightly, but kept her serene countenance strong. "I came at the insistence of my aunt. I suspect she intends to use me as a marriageable pawn. Although I will assess Sesshoumaru-dono as a prospective partner before I agree to any nuptials."

Her words sent Rin's heart into a tizzy. Pian might control her body, but he didn't seem to have his claws on the physical responses to her emotions and now her heartbeat was pounding.

Sure, she had resigned herself to an unrequited love the very night that Sesshoumaru subtly rejected her affections, but now she had to contend with not just one, but two, rivals. Granted, romance was the least of Kongomi's priorities, which essentially put her out of the running. That said, Tsukiakari was the real deal: a powerful blood line, unparalleled looks, and the backing of the family.

Rin couldn't begin to guess how Sesshoumaru felt about arranged marriages or whether he would fall for the lovely dog demon, but being the third wheel for such a power couple would be unbearable.

Pian chuckled in her mind as he bore witness to the cacophony of feelings flooding through Rin's system.

The princess had noticed the silence and immediately took an apologetic stance. "My apologies – it goes without saying that I would not infringe on the relationship that you and Sesshoumaru-dono have. Even if my mother or my aunt were to express the strongest desires to have us wed, I would not dare come between the two of you."

This time, Pian had a quick response: "Don't worry about that, Tsukiakari-hime. There's nothing between Sesshoumaru-sama and myself."

As the faintest signs of relief traced across Tsukiakari's face, Rin wasn't sure what made her want to cry more: the fact that Pian's statement had effectively cut her out of the competition or the fact that it was true.

"Please excuse me," Pian turned Rin around to briskly walk her back to her own quarters, but there was someone in the way.

"Rin."

"Sesshoumaru-sama!" Pian had Rin's mannerisms down perfectly, while trapped inside, Rin wanted to cry out, to let him know what was happening.

"What are you doing here?"

"Talking to Tsukikari-hime," Pian replied, "but I'm not feeling well, so I'm going back to my room to rest for a bit." He made Rin smile a bit before scampering off.

"She is a sweet child, is she not?" Tsukiakari stepped forward. "But one with many troubles, I fear."

Sesshoumaru glanced down at the woman, taking a moment to process who she was and immediately passed judgement. "I will not marry you."

She returned his sideways glance with a raised brow, "Of course not, my lord. I have no intention of falling into our mothers' traps and I hope you do not either."

"If you will excuse me, Sesshoumaru-dono, I have somewhere I need to be." She gave a bow and then shot him a guarded look. "As do you, I would imagine."

With that, she turned around and walked away.

Sesshoumaru watched her leave, contemplating the interaction that had just transpired. Her responses gave him pause. His cousin was not an unreasonable sort of person. Perhaps they could even get along.

But there were more important matters to attend to. He strode after Rin, who had picked up her pace.

'Running away with your scaly tail between your legs?' Rin taunted.

'Hardly. We will circle back and get the sword via another route. Once the sword is our possession, you will leave the castle and bring the sword to us.' Pian's voice resounded in the empty chamber where her consciousness was allowed to live.

"Where is the sword?"

Kongomi lay in wait at the end of the corridor, impatient and at present, angry.

"I thought the plan was that you were going to get the sword so I could go rescue my sister. Where is the sword?"

"I ran into Sesshoumaru-sama and Tsukiakari-hime. I'll need to go around the other way." Pian let some impatience of his own slip into Rin's words.

'We don't have time for this.'

He gently pushed Kongomi further down the hallway. "You should head back – what if Sesshoumaru-sama catches you here with me? Then we will have no further chances to get the sword." To ensure the dragon queen departed, Pian threw in a little extra incentive: "Harika-chan does not have much time. I will try to get the sword as quickly as I can, but you must leave."

Disgruntled, but obliging, Kongomi nodded with a frown and then deftly snuck her way out of the royal part of the palace.

'That takes care of that. Now back to the sword.' Pian's confidence was surging and Rin was beginning to despair.

If they were able to obtain the sword and then left the castle, that would spell the end. There would be no means to slay the dragons, there would be no waking up from the terrible nightmare of being a prisoner in her own body. With every step, she tried to think of a way to wiggle out of the situation.

'My dear, struggle all you like – this is the reality of your life. But never fear, it will be over soon enough. Once we have the sword, there won't even be a reason to keep you hostage. We will be able to trample your precious 'Sesshoumaru-sama' without using you to tie back his hands.'

She could not answer.

"Rin."

'For the love of…' Now even Pian was becoming extremely annoyed. 'If it's not one thing, it's another.'

Pian/Rin turned at the sound of the call. "Sesshoumaru-sama!" He had Rin put on a confused act. "Is something wrong? I was heading back to my room."

"Are your injuries bothering you?"

"I'm just a bit tired, that's all," Pian said. "I think the healing took more out of me than I expected. I'll be fine after a bit of rest." He had her stifle a little yawn to reinforce the notion.

Sesshoumaru bent down and put his hands on her shoulders, to look into her eyes. Pian had Rin squirm uncomfortably from his scrutiny. "You did not seem to experience any attacks from the enemy last night. And now?"

"Nothing so far. But I think you'd be able to tell if they were in control – no one can pretend to be someone else perfectly all the time. They would slip up." Pian was riding high on his own clever deceit. "If I start acting strange, you must suspect me immediately, Sesshoumaru-sama."

There was a long, long moment with all three frozen. Rin watched intently, waiting for Sesshoumaru to notice that everything about the situation was wrong, but then time began to tick again.

Sesshoumaru nodded, releasing Rin and allowing her to continue down the corridor. Inside, she would have shed tears if she could. That might have been her last chance to warn him, the last time she would ever see him.

"One more thing."

Rin could feel Pian's rage building, which was rare in the elder brother, who was normally much more composed. 'What more could he possibly want?'

"Do you love me?"

Chaos erupted inside Rin's mind: Pian immediately started probing through every conversation, through every emotional reaction she'd ever had relating to Sesshoumaru, but could not find what he was looking for. Rin herself floated numbly, not sure how she would respond herself.

Without any leads, Pian opted out.

"Well done, Sesshoumaru-kun. You've figured it out." Pian dropped the charade completely. He clapped Rin's hands slowly. "And such a brilliant question to ask as well: what would a young, impressionable ward possibly say in response to that?" He took a defensive stance. "As much as I would love to hear how this little romantic interlude would play out, I really must be going."

He quickly flicked two daggers from Rin's belt and made a dash for it. Luckily, Rin was no match for Sesshoumaru's speed. There was a sharp pain on the back of her neck before everything went black.


Opening her eyes blearily, Rin once again felt the sensation that her body was not her own.

'I was wondering when you were going to awaken, my dear. It is so dreadfully dull when you are unconscious like that.'

'Why are you still here? They figured out your trick!' From the metal bars in front of her, they were clearly imprisoned. 'They won't let me go – not now. You won't get any more information. There's nothing you can do to me.

'That's where you're wrong, my darling Rin-chan. There is use for you yet.'

They watched as the door the dungeon opened and a group came to stand on the other side of the bars. 'Just watch.'

In additional to Sesshoumaru, his mother, aunt, and cousin, Kongomi and Yoihito had also joined the small party.

"What do you think?" Inukimi asked her sister from behind her hand fan. "Are they the ones from before?"

Inukojo narrowed her eyes. "How should I know? Father was the one that fought them – not me."

"Mother, aunt, please be quiet." Tsukiakari softly rebuked before nodding at Sesshoumaru.

He nodded his gratitude in return before facing Rin and her captors. Before he could get a word in edgewise, Pian made his initial demand:

"The sword or the girl dies."

"What are you talking about?" Inukojo snapped.

Pian raised Rin's arm to point at Ryuushin, strapped to the lord's waist. "The sword or the girl dies," he repeated with a malicious grin.

"Are we supposed to take that threat seriously? What can you possibly do in there?" Inukojo rose to meet his antagonism.

Without warning, Rin stopped breathing.

Suddenly, her lungs were locked in place and there was no more air. Terrified, Rin wanted to gasp, to try to draw any amount of air, but she could not. She felt her heartrate increasing as her lips and fingertips started to go numb. Even worse, she could not claw her throat or make any sign of what was happening.

Through red-rimmed vision, she could see the group outside the cell slowly growing concerned. Yoihito was the first to catch on.

"She's suffocating! They must be doing something to her!"

Tsukiakari pressed up against the bars. "Rin-san!" Kongomi stood back in shock as the two elder Inu matrons looked on with an eerie sense of fascination.

Sesshoumaru immediately unlocked the cell and ran in to catch Rin as Pian lost the ability to keep her sitting upright.

"Rin." He cradled her body as foam began to drip from her mouth and her muscles started convulsing.

The last thing Rin saw before darkness overtook her was a first: Sesshoumaru was panicked.


Sesshoumaru watched helplessly as Rin twitched and her eyes rolled up into her head. Then she went limp.

He pulled her chest closer to his ear: her heartbeat was faint, but growing steady, as was her breathing. She was merely unconscious, which apparently released her from the curse long enough to catch her breath.

"Sesshoumaru: that pet of yours is a lost cause," Inukimi idly remarked behind the paper folds of her fan. "Now would be a good a time as any to abandon her."

Kongomi and Yohito looked at her with disgust. True, the citizens of Ryudo had no particular reason to be attached to Rin, but simply discarding allies was not an option they seemed fond of.

"If you think I'll hand over Ryuushin to pacify those twats, think again. That girl is as good as dead." Inukojo let her opinion out in the open.

"Silence." Sesshoumaru barked. "Leave - now."

The sisters shrugged before sweeping out of the room.

"Everyone."

At this second order, Kongomi and Yoihito, both worried, departed as well.

"I made myself clear." Sesshoumaru growled at Tsukiakari, who was the only one remaining.

Tentatively, she came into the cell. "It appears to be a curse, a spell that is attached to her alone." She knelt by Rin and used her sleeve to wipe away the foam from the earlier attack. "All curses can be lifted, so there is hope."

"Can you do it?" Sesshoumaru's eyes did not leave Rin's motionless form. The enemy could attack again at any time.

"Based on my observations, this will be incredibly difficult to remove," she mentioned in a low tone. "This level of control is most likely a blood contract, which require purification rituals." She smoothed Rin's hair with firm hand. "We will need to find a miko. That could be problematic."

"No." He met her eyes. "The demons will repeat this stunt once she wakes." He looked down at Rin again with a dark expression, his eyes tinged with red. "I will not let her suffer like that again."

Tsukiakari withdrew her hands to the folds of her kimono. "There is a counter spell I can offer, but I would not recommend it."

"I will be the judge of that."

She sighed. "There is a shroud spell that my mother had me learn: it casts the victim in total darkness. There is no light, no sound. Even the sensation of warmth and touch are significantly diminished. It would very likely trick the casters into believing she was still unconscious." Her brow furrowed "I may not be able to lift the spell. I've only cast it in battle and the enemies were slain shortly thereafter."

He tightened his grip on the girl in his arms. She could wake to endless cycles of suffocation, which could potentially kill her. Would she last? The alternative was to live in a world of nothing, possibly forever. What if that nightmare could not be dispelled? Either way, she would suffer. The only thing he had to decide was how much.

With a grim countenance, Sesshoumaru nodded. "Cast the spell. We leave immediately."

The princess placed her fingertips on Rin's templates and closed her eyes. No incantation was spoken, but a dark mist drifted from her fingers and settled over Rin before disappearing from sight.

"It is done."

Gathering her in his arms, he made his way out of the castle dungeons with the utmost haste. There was no telling if the spell would trick the demons. They needed to get to Inuyasha's village now.

"If you do not mind, I will come with you to make sure the spell is maintained," Tsukiakari offered.

He would not waste the time to acknowledge her suggestion, but if she was even marginally intelligent, she would come to the conclusion that he would reject her actions if he found them unacceptable. As they headed out into the main courtyard, there was a massive rustling of cloth as Tsukiakari transformed her clothing into pants, boots, and a kimono with smaller sleeves. Reaching the edge of the first balcony, she paused, waiting for his cue.

He launched into the air and sped towards the only person he could think of to help them.

At this height, the wintering wind was sharp and biting. Taking care to wrap Rin in his kimono sleeves, he made sure she was snug against his armor, away from the chill. As he adjusted his grip, a faint glow appeared over Rin's skin.

Keeping his alarm masked, he glared at his travel companion who was holding a pair of delicate fingers to her lips. Serenely she lowered her arm. "A heat spell to keep up her temperature. She won't feel anything, but it is important to keep her core temperature high."

Gratitude was not an emotion that frequently graced Sesshoumaru's heart, but he could not ignore the debt he was building against his cousin. Rin's survival was just as much in her hands as it was in his. At the end of their excursion, it would take a great deed to repay the balance he was accruing.

For many hours they traveled in this way: a blistering pace without a second to catch their breath. It wasn't until the sun had already set that Rin began to stir. Her eyes shifted beneath their lids and Sesshoumaru suddenly dropped below the tree line and sank to the ground, carefully putting Rin on the ground, maintaining a hold on her hand.

Without prompting, Tsukiakari rushed to Rin's side and waved a hand above her. "The spell is still intact." Her expression was worried, but determined. "This is when we find out if the gamble has paid off."

Seconds later, Rin shifted and opened her eyes.


'Welcome back, my dear. I've been waiting for you.'

Rin could feel Pian guiding her body with an iron grip; he blinked her eyes, but there was nothing to see. No sounds came through her ears, no sensations came across her skin.

'Well, this is new. What have your friends been up to?'

'Maybe I'm in the wakeless sleep because you pulled that stunt before.' Rin said. She had been witness to similar illness before: one who sustained a great injury or illness could fall into a deep sleep. Many never opened their eyes again, but those who did would often attest that they could feel their loved ones' nearby, hear the spoken word, smell the world's scents and so forth. A very few claimed that they felt like they were awake, able to move, which turned out to be naught but a dream.

After reviewing Rin's memory, Pian seemed inclined to agree. The battlefield rarely afforded the chance to analyze those who were downed in combat. In this arena, Rin was much more experienced.

'Let us see – if that is the case, then I shall leave you for now. Perhaps I'll check in again later. It is too much fun, playing around with you. Until next time.'

Suddenly her lungs felt heavy as she began breathing on her own. Drawing air was a chore, but a burden she was thrilled to undertake. She had her own body again!

As the influence of Pian left, more of her senses sharpened. Warm air brushed against her cheeks, her arms were wrapped in fabric, and her hand was pressed against a hard material – maybe metal?

The initial joy of being in control wore off very quickly.

What if she was in the wakeless sleep? What if she never woke up from this nightmare? What would become of her? What type of life was that?

Panic swelled inside of her and she suddenly wanted out. The darkness pressed in from all sides, closing around her.

She screamed into the emptiness.


Sesshoumaru watched with concern as Rin shifted on the ground. Her eyes opened and closed several times, turning her head back and forth, clinically examining the world around her. He kept her hand tight in his, pressed against his chest armor.

"The spell is working," Tsukiakari whispered at his side. "They don't seem to know she is awake. There are no signs of critical health issues."

Minutes passed, the pair remained motionless, afraid that any motion would dispel the trick.

Slowly, a change passed over Rin's expression: tiny twitches, fluidity in the turn of her head, uneven and heavy breathing. A small smile came over her face.

"Rin." The word slipped out before Sesshoumaru realized he'd said it. Of course she wouldn't be able to hear him, but his heart was filled with calm, seeing her with freedom.

Then her face contorted into one of terror, with eyes wide and searching, but seeing nothing. Breathing and pulse quickened.

"Is this an attack?" he demanded.

Tsukiakari shook her head fervently. "No, my lord. I believe she is currently of her own mind. I think she is starting to realize that this is reality."

Rin screamed. She tossed and turned, attempting to wrest herself away from Sesshoumaru. Tears trickled out of her eyes. "I WANT OUT! LET ME OUT!"

"Take the spell off." He snarled through gritted teeth, his canines extended and his eyes turning red. "Stop it now."

"I have been trying for the last few minutes." Tsukiakari remained calm and stern. Her brow was moist with perspiration and her hands were out, fingers fully extended and shaking. "I did warn you that I might not be able to lift the spell. That was a risk that you took."

"Do not make excuses." He could feel his ears growing longer, his snout starting to sharpen as his canine form emerged.

"Control yourself, Sesshoumaru-dono!" The princess coldly commanded. "Do you think you are helping Rin-san by getting angry? I am doing everything I can to try to lift the spell, but your top priority should be her. She is terrified. Rather than getting enraged at me, why don't you try to comfort her instead?"

For some reason, the words cut through his fury and he calmed himself.

But what could he possibly do to comfort a person who could neither see nor hear? It was doubtful that she could even feel through touch.

There was only one thing he could think of: he reached out, beyond her flailing arms and embraced her. He drew her in close against him, one arm securely behind her back and then other at the base of her neck.

Once in his youth, he had seen Inuyasha's mother deliver comfort in such a manner, patting the little hanyou on the back until he'd stopped crying. So Sesshoumaru did the same, gently stroking her hair.

Almost instantly, Rin stopped moving, as if to assess the change in tactile sensations. Tentatively, fearfully, she reached out with her arms, wrapping them around his shoulders. Her muscles still tense, ready to take fling herself away at a moment's notice, she began to brush her fingers over his back.

A gentle tugging on his head told him that she had wrapped those fingers around strands of his hair, rubbing them together, getting a feel for the texture. Leaving one hand there, she leaned back and brought another palm to rest against his cheek.

"…Sesshoumaru-sama?" her voice was a little too quiet and somewhat uneven, but it was her.

Knowing that his words would not reach her, he sought a way to confirm that she was right, to give her a sign that she was not alone and they were helping her.

But there was nothing. They had no secret signs, no inside gestures, no shared expressions that he could use to affirm his identify. His eyes roamed her face as he thought, the smallest frown creasing above his nose.

"Sesshoumaru-sama?" she asked again, this time with more urgency laced in her tone. If he did nothing, she would surely retreat into the horror again and he might lose her forever.

He closed his eyes and leaned his head forward as his ideas continued to run dry. At the same time, Rin turned her head to speak his name once again, frightened and alone.

Unexpectedly, her forehead knocked against his brow, just over his crescent mark. Startled, he opened his eyes, checking to see if she was okay. To his surprise, she frowned slightly, but then brought her face back, forehead resting against him and nose bumping into his.

Eyes still closed, with a light blush on her cheeks, she smiled slightly. "Sesshoumaru-sama." His name this time was filled with certainty and a warm familiarity.

Unsure of what to do in the situation, he continued to stroke her hair and didn't move his head away. Anything to keep her calm, to reassure her - that was the important thing. Once again, he felt grateful to Tsukiakari for maintaining her silence, to avoid breaking the tenuous connection he'd made with Rin.

A grumble came up from Rin's stomach, but without hearing, she was not especially aware that this had occurred. Sesshoumaru settled Rin on his lap, trying to maintain contact, lest she assumed that she'd been abandoned.

"Here." Tsukiakari knelt next to the pair. "I have some dried rations – I wasn't sure how long we were going to be traveling and I know humans quickly grow hungry."

Almost in awe of her foresight, Sesshoumaru took the food. He tore off a piece and pressed it against Rin's lips.

She obediently opened her mouth and swallowed down the morsel. "Thank you, Sesshoumaru-sama. I didn't even realize I was hungry." This time, her voice was too loud, as she continued to have trouble regulating her volume. Eagerly, she took another bite.

Dinner was a quick affair and Rin's eyes were soon drooping. Her grip on Sesshoumaru's hand grew clammy and tight, as though to ward sleep away as though it was an enemy, rather than a welcome friend. To quell her fears, he drew her into his lap and nestled her in the crook of his arm.

Fully red in the face, Rin thanked him again and then closed her eyes. Seconds later, with mortification left behind, she was softly sleeping.

Neither Sesshoumaru nor Tsukiakari felt the need to start a fire, so the two passed several hours in the pitch black forest, letting Rin get some well needed rest.

"It's amazing," Tsukiakari murmured some time later while they prepared to move out. "You knew she was under the spell. I spoke with her for only a few minutes, but she was very much like I had heard. You knew from only a smattering of words. There are partners who spend their whole lives together, without that level of awareness or trust."

As they flew into the night sky, seeing the twinkling stars, the tiniest twinge of guilt pinged in his heart.

If only. He had not actually recognized initially that she was under control. It was only thanks to a small scroll that he found in their chambers that allowed him to realize what happened:

Sesshoumaru-sama – I am worried that the next time I see you, I will already be under the control of the elder brother again. Whatever happens, you must suspect that I am not myself. I will do what I can, but I fear that I will not have many options. I do not even trust to put a password or secret question to paper in case they can find that too. The best I can do is this: when you meet me, ask me a question that you would never ask. Pick a question that even you do not know how I would respond. Then look at my expression. We can only hope that the demons will reveal themselves in that moment. You must promise to do this. – Rin

If not for the note, he would have noticed nothing, suspected nothing, and done nothing. Rin could have been enslaved to them for months or years, forced to remain a prisoner in her own flesh. His bond with Rin was not what Tsukiakari believed it to be.

Still, he liked to think that he would have known the type of answer his precious partner would give him. He smirked in a miniscule way. That was a question for another day, once the curse was lifted, once the spell was gone.

The sun was still blanketed in the dark velvet night sky when the trio touched base outside of Inuyasha's village. Not even the farmers would be stirring at this hour.

Tsukiakari looked around curiously. "Is there a priestess here?" Someone caught her eye on the horizon. "And who is that?"

Sesshoumaru looked up the path in the direction of his brother's home. He was not the least bit surprised to see Inuyasha standing there, stern, glowering, with irritation written all over his face.

A similar annoyance bubbled up as he started walking to his sibling. "That is my brother."

A figure in white and red stepped out from behind the crimson-clad half-demon. "And that is our priestess."

Chapter Text

"Rin-chan?" Kagome rushed out from behind Inuyasha, sprinting towards the pair. "Rin-chan, what's wrong?" Inuyasha followed in close pursuit.

Tsukiakari stepped forward and raised her hands to slow down the pair, "Please, Miko-sama. Rin-san is in no immediate danger, but she does need treatment."

Taken aback, Kagome stopped with a worried and confused expression on her face. "I'm sorry, who are you?" Her eyes flicked between the stranger and Rin, who was clutching Sesshoumaru's kimono.

"My name is Tsukiakari of the Northern Lands. Sesshoumaru-dono and I are kin." She made a graceful bow, the soft folds of her clothing rustling like a whisper. "Our mothers are sisters. I am here supporting Rin-san's condition."

Kagome nodded, a tad bit uncertainly, but quick to move on to higher priorities. "Bring Rin-chan inside and tell me what is going on." She ushered the three of them down the path and towards their house. Before turning to follow them, she drew Inuyasha to the side.

"Find Shippo-chan. Have him bring Kohaku." She gripped his sleeve. "Come back soon. Rin-chan worries me."

If the hanyou had any curiosities or doubts about his wife's request, he did not let it show on his face. In a flash, he leapt into the pre-dawn sky, already on the scent trail of the demon fox.

Tsukiakari was waiting outside when she arrived a few minutes later. "Miko-sama-"

"Kagome, please. I don't think we need to worry about titles." She flashed a smile at the astonished youkai as she gestured for both of them to move inside the main room. "Now, tell me what happened to Rin-chan."

"I am not sure of the particulars myself," she started. "The only piece that I have personally witnessed is some sort of demon's curse allows the caster to take full control of her body. Specifically, I watched as an unseen force suffocated Rin-san by stopping her breath."

At this Kagome paled. "They stopped her from breathing? How is she still alive?" She peeked inside one of the empty rooms, where Sesshoumaru was now crouched, still carefully embracing Rin. It was odd how the teenage girl clung onto him as well – it was definitely not normal for her. "Is that what scared her so much to be acting this way?"

There was a quiet sigh.

"That would be my doing. After seeing the spell abate when she lost consciousness, I convinced Sesshoumaru-dono to let me cast a concealment spell on her, which robs her of sight, of sound, and severely diminishes other sensations. It was the only way I could conceive of tricking the spell caster into thinking she was unconscious."

"Is that why she is behaving that way?"

Tsukiakari nodded. "Yes. I am also afraid that I do not know how to lift the spell. To confess, I was hoping you would be able to help with removing both spells.

Kagome pursed her lips and crossed her arms, deep in thought. It certainly would not be an easy feat, but there were ways…

"Kagome-nee-san!" Kohaku arrived on the back of Kirara, along with Shippo. Inuyasha touched down moments later. "What happened?"

Without waiting for a response, Kohaku jumped off the fire cat's back and rushed inside, straight to the room where Rin and Sesshoumaru were staying.

His eyes narrowed when he saw Rin cowering. "What did you do to her?" There was some bite to his words as he approached the pair. When she did not even respond to his presence, he downright glared at Sesshoumaru. "What did you do to her?"

Kagome followed the impatient boy in and grabbed him by the shoulders. "Kohaku-kun, you need to remain calm. Creating a fuss is not going to help Rin-chan."

She quickly filled him in on the details.

"Does Rin know what is going on?" Kohaku frowned. "She looks terrified."

"With the concealment spell, we haven't been able to communicate with her much."

Kohaku paid no heed to the pale-faced stranger who was suddenly included in the group. With no warning, he reached out and grabbed Rin's hand, flipped it over so her palm faced upwards, and slammed his hand down.

There was a moment of panic when her hand was grabbed, but then a look of realization stole over her. "Kohaku?" Rin turned her head this way, and that, as though trying to ascertain where her childhood friend was located. "Is that you?"

Rapidly, Kohaku made a series of symbols and gestures with his free hand, pressing each one into Rin's palm. With each sign, she murmured, trying to figure out the pattern. "Location…Kagome…house…help…" She nodded. "We're at Kagome-chan's house to get help?"

Another symbol flashed and Rin smiled. "What are we getting help with?" Blinking unseeing eyes she followed-up with, "Is this to fix why I can't see or hear?"

More slowly this time and frowning in concentration, Kohaku appeared to carefully select the words as Rin sounded them out: "Darkness…spell…eliminate target?"

Shippo gave Kohaku a whack to the back of the head. "What are you telling her?"

The young demon slayer glared back, "I'm doing the best that I can. When we came up with this system as kids, I didn't think we'd need to explain difficult concepts like 'You have two spells on you and Kagome-nee-san is going to try to remove them'. It was intended for playing pretend ninja!"

Realizing what he had just announced to a room full of smirks and mild giggles, he flushed. "Either way, what are you going to do to remove the spells? I can tell her what's going on."

"Sesshoumaru-ni-san, can you put Rin-chan down? I need to be able to look her over some more," Kagome asked. Kohaku didn't even need to spell this out: Rin was already sliding out of Sesshoumaru's grasp, holding out her hand for the next set of symbols.

Sesshoumaru silently rose and left the room.

Alarmed, Kagome gave Inuyasha a look, which was met with a protesting stare, which was in turn countered with a gaze that seemed to exude flames from the depths of hell itself. One last defiant squint and the hanyou was out the door.

"Oi."

The sole indication that Sesshoumaru had even heard his brother was the minutest of irritated brow twitches.

Clearly not pleased at being tasked with making conversation, Inuyasha opened with an expressive, "So."

Birds beginning to stir as the sun finally peeked over the horizon twittered in the distance and a cool breeze rippled across the fields.

Losing what little patience he hand, Inuyasha spat out, "Are you going to tell us what happened? Or are you going to disappear again as soon as you know she's alright?"

"Why should I need to inform you of everything that transpires?"

"Let's start with you arrive here in the middle of the night with Rin and a member of our extended family. You ask for help and it turns out that the girl's got two curses on her!" He growled slightly. "What will it be next time – her dead body?"

Sesshoumaru whirled his arm, slamming Inuyasha into the side of the house, gripping his neck. "Watch your words."

"And what if I don't?"

For a few tense moments, the brothers locked their golden eyes, each one poised to go on the attack or defensive should the need arise. Ever so slowly, Sesshoumaru lowered his arm and resumed his vigilance of the creeping dawn.

"There were two dragon demons."

This perked Inuyasha's interest right away. "Like the one the old man fought?"

"No. These are stronger. Apparently my grandfather was the one who killed their father and now they want revenge. They are trying to summon dragon daiyoukai." Seeing his brother's muscles flex, he added, "I do not believe they are aware of your existence. Your brood should be safe."

"You honestly think any of us are going to be safe with giant demons roaming around?" Inuyasha placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. "Where are they? I'll get Miroku and the demon slayer kid. We'll take them down."

"Meaningless."

"You don't know until you try," snarled Inuyasha.

"I know."

Silence fell as Inuyasha's expression softened to genuine concern. "You fought them?"

"The scales can only be broken by the blade of Ryuushin, a sword that is in the possession of Tsukiakari's mother."

"Not even Bakusaiga?"

He chose not to respond to that.

At that moment, Kagome and Tsukiakari came outside, both looking worried, but it showed more on the former's face.

"The only thing we can think of is to do a purification ritual to rid her of any demon energy that may be in her body. It will probably hurt, given how long she has had the first curse and how deeply both spells are entwined with her."

Kagome bit her lip, "Kohaku is trying to explain to her now, but he's not sure he'll be able to tell her exactly what's going on."

Sesshoumaru swept back inside, leaving the remaining three in the cold air. Tsukiakari smiled. "It's sweet that he's jealous, but I think he needn't worry about the little human boy."

"EH?" Kagome and Inuyasha both hand their mouths contorted in disbelief.

"Oh my, did I get it wrong?" Tsukiakari raised the hems of her kimono sleeves to her mouth, to hide her surprise. "Or were we all pretending to ignore it?"

Meanwhile, inside the house, Sesshoumaru brushed past Kohaku and gathered Rin back to his side. She smiled softly with a quiet "Sesshoumaru-sama."

"Do you really think this is a good idea?"

Sesshoumaru regarded the boy with boredom, but did not reply.

"Sesshoumaru-sama, do you really think it is a good idea to keep dragging Rin around like this? This is the second time you've brought her here in rough shape."

With a tiny exasperated breath, Sesshoumaru looked away coldly. "It is her choice."

"Like hell it is," Kohaku exclaimed.

That drew the demon lord's attention. "Explain yourself."

"How can it be her choice? She's a young girl, traveling around with…with…" he stumbled over a few words, "with a handsome older man. She practically worships the ground you walk on – it's like you can do no wrong in her eyes."

Sesshoumaru did not feel inclined to point out exactly how wrong Kohaku was, but instead continued to listen to the young man's tirade.

"She is…" he glanced at Rin, who was thankfully oblivious to this entire encounter. "She's…she's in love with you and you're leading her on. If you told her to jump off a cliff, I'm sure she would!"

This time, Sesshoumaru especially did not feel inclined to share exactly how right Kohaku was, given that she had in fact, thrown herself off a cliff repeatedly to prove herself. And so, he opted to let Kohaku's words continue to flow in his direction unabated.

There were a few more meaningless phrases shot in his direction, but once the diatribe concluded, Sesshoumaru made his move.

"Rin will do as she pleases. If you would like to convince her otherwise, you are welcome to try."

"That's why you need to talk to her. She won't listen to any of us."

"I fail to see how that is my concern."

"And that is exactly why she's going to end up dead!"

There was a mild cough at the door. Kagome knocked against the frame. "Is Rin ready?"

Taking a breath to cool his head, Kohaku shrugged. "Ready as I think she's going to be."

Kagome nodded. "Tsukiakari-san, if you would be so kind as to take the boys outside, that would be appreciated. Kohaku-kun, you take over for Sesshoumaru."

Inuyasha headed out of the room. There were a few high-pitched whines as Inuyasha accidentally awoke his children as they moved to a safer distance. Tsukiakari shooed Shippo from the room as well.

When the demon lord did not move, Kagome was about to give him an eye roll and an ear full, but luckily his cousin stepped in.

"Sesshoumaru-dono. This is a purification ritual. It would be best if those of us with demon energy step outside."

"I will remain here." Almost as a compromise, Sesshoumaru moved to the back of the room, away from where the rites would be performed.

Tsukiakari gave Kagome a helpless gesture, before serenely walking out of the room.

"Kohaku-kun, I will need you to hold her tightly. There is a very likely chance that this will hurt, but I need her to remain still."

Rin was guided to the floor, where she sat with her legs tucked neatly under her. Kohaku faced her, bracing her head against his chest. Kagome took her place just behind her back, with her hands raised at the ready, hovering over her shoulder blades.

Taking in a breath and then slowing releasing it, Kagome began to chant softly and a tiny glimmer of sparkling energy formed beneath her fingertips.

Sesshoumaru was suddenly aware of an intensifying heat. Judging from the humans in the room, this was a warmth unique to him. His natural instincts urged him to move away, to seek refuge from what was quickly becoming a burning sensation, but he forced himself to remain – not taking his eyes off Rin even for a single moment.

Throughout the ordeal, although the blistering purification energy grew to be borderline unbearable for the demon lord, Rin kept quiet. She was clearly gritting her teeth, for a few whimpers escaped, muffled by her sealed lips.

Eventually, the glow faded away and Kagome sat back on her heels, wiping some perspiration from her brow with the sleeve of her miko's robes. "Rin-chan?"

"Kagome-chan?"

Rin blinked a few times and then brought her hands up to her eyes. "Is it gone?"

"I can no longer sense any demon energy in your body, but I'm not familiar with the curse, so I don't actually know if the spell has been completely broken," Kagome explained as Rin moved carefully away from Kohaku, still calibrating her newly reclaimed senses of sight and hearing.

"Oh."

Sesshoumaru could hear the underlying uncertainty that weighed down that single word. Impelled to make things right, he shifted forward, but was interrupted by the clamor of voices who burst into the room.

"Rin-chan!" Shippo launched himself at the poor girl. "I missed you so much!"

"Shippo-chan! You need to be careful – you're too big for that!" Kagome lightly chided the young fox.

Rin extracted herself from the teenage youkai and tried to catch her breath. "I missed you too Shippo-chan, but it's only been a few weeks since I was here."

"That can't be true! It's like you've been away from months – or years!" He wailed unconvincingly, which was only marginally shameful given his age.

"Rin-rin!" Another fluffy little presence blurred into the room and landed with a soft whumph against Rin's stomach. A tiny face peered up at her, eyes twinkling in excitement. "Rin-rin!"

"Hi Miki," she smiled, ruffling unruly black hair between a pair of twitching ears. She pulled the tiny quarter-demon into her lap, purposefully pushing Shippo out of the way. "Oomph! You're becoming such a big girl, aren't you?"

In all the familiar commotion, Sesshoumaru took the opportunity to slip away. Rin's gaze was pulled to this movement, but she was quickly drawn back into the reunion with friends that she considered her family.

That was the last time she saw the Lord of the Western Lands that day. Under the pretense of follow-up treatment, Kagome kept her confined to their house and the immediate grounds. Even with such a restriction, she found the company comforting, like a warm blanket and hot tea on a cold, rainy day. As much as she lived for traveling with Sesshoumaru, it was these moments where she keenly felt the missing elements of her life.

Later in the morning, Sango and Miroku arrived with their children, having heard from Kohaku himself a few hours ago. Rin soon found herself sitting on the floor in the main room with Miki and the demon slayer's only son squirming in her lap. A few feet away, Tsukiakari patiently entertained the twins, who were bombarding the tranquil youkai with all sorts of questions, as small children are wont to do.

"Rin-nee-san, you're all better now, right?" The more curious twin, Kiyoko, scrambled over. "Mama said that you were sick, but Kagome-nee-san fixed you up."

Taking her cue from her sister, Maeko also edged over, albeit more hesitantly. "Is the bad stuff all gone?"

Kagome and Sango both looked up from their corner of the room, marginally alarmed.

Suppressing the bubbling anxiety, Rin forced a smile on her face. "Don't you worry you two," she grinned a little wider, "I'm perfectly fine."

This pacified the twins and they returned to their interrogation of the beautiful stranger.

As soon as the attention diverted away from her, Rin began to seriously ponder her situation. Before she could spiral too deeply into those dark thoughts, Kagome came over with her youngest. "Rin-chan, it's time for Shinobu to take a nap, but I'm afraid it's too noisy in here. Would you mind bringing him outside?"

She handed over the bundle that was her sixth-month-old son. There was a strange clash of traditional clothing mixed with fabric that was alien in both feel and color. Presumably items sent from a doting grandmother beyond the well.

Rin gladly accepted the babe and walked outside, easily rocking him to sleep. Minutes later, there was a light swishing of kimono.

"They are all lovely children," Tsukiakari opened the conversation.

She looked down at Shinobu, who unlike his sister, had not inherited many youkai traits aside from his eyes, which were currently closed. "Yes. They are all wonderful." She couldn't help but feel some of her sunny disposition return and with it – her curiosity.

"What are the children in your family like?" Rin turned to face the young woman. She noted that somehow Tsukiakari had managed to change into more formal attire. It was nowhere near as elaborate or ornate as what she had worn in Inukimi's palace, but it was definitely a step up from the plainer trousers and boots she'd donned earlier.

"It is rare for there to be more than a single child born to each set of parents," she began with a melancholy manner. "It was a very lonely sort of childhood, but I suppose it was for the best."

Seeing Rin's confusion, she explained. "Inukimi-sama and my mother are not on the best of terms. They are extremely competitive and frequently attempt to best each other. If I were graced with a sibling, I imagine that a similar fate would befall me as well. In fact, it is a blessing that Sesshoumaru-dono grew up far from my mother's sight or I suspect he would have been my arch rival instead of a prospective marriage partner."

With these words she brought her kimono sleeves to cover her mouth. "Rin-san, I do apologize. I only just realized that the words we exchanged back at the palace must not have reflected your own feelings on the matter. That was extremely uncouth of me to resurface the subject."

"Tsukiakari-san," Rin sought to calm her. "Don't worry about it. After losing control of my body and being faced with the chance that I might be able to see, hear, or even breathe on my own again, worrying about a silly little crush feels, well, trivial, to be honest."

"Do not belittle yourself, Rin-san. The bond you share with Sesshoumaru-dono is a special one and I would not dare to intrude upon it." She took on an amused expression. "Besides, although he is assuredly one of the least objectionable marriage partner my mother has yet to propose, I am not convinced he would be a good life partner."

"What?"

"Sesshoumaru-dono has a great many talents and traits, from what I have witnessed, but he has an equal number of faults."

"You mean like how he assumes that he's always right and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool?"

"I was referring more along the lines of his complete and utter lack of tact, but your example is also applicable," she sighed. "I had hoped that he had not inherited the family obsession, but it seems inescapable."

"The family obsession?"

Tsukiakari's bemused mien grew further. "Rin-san, surely you must have noticed?"

It dawned on Rin. "Ah, the swords."

"Yes, the swords."

"Why does it always need to be swords?"

"I am not sure. My mother is the same about Ryuushin – the pride of the Northern Inu clan! Sometimes I believe she cares more about that blade than she does about her own kin."

Rin leaned over and mentioned in a conspiratorial whisper. "I scolded Sesshoumaru-sama about that once."

"And?"

"We ended up having a training yard duel."

"Rin-san!"

"I lost, but it sure felt good to say that to his face."

Both of the young women could not suppress the tiniest of giggles, but quickly quieted when Shinobu started to scrunch his face.

Rin regarded her conversation partner. Everything about their situation should have left her feeling anxious, jealous, or guarded around her potential rival in love. Despite that, she found herself liking the demon maiden more and more as they continued to chatter. Tsukiakari was rapidly transitioning from competition to compatriot. Regardless of who Sesshoumaru would pick, (if he should even pick one of them), Rin was happy to have found a new friend.

The rest of the day passed without incident and soon the autumn sun was setting early, with everyone tightly gathered in Kagome and Inuyasha's home. Food scarfed down and dishes cleaned, Rin was able to slip away from the observant eyes of Kagome.

Into the evening she stepped, away from the delicate glow of the home, and into the wild darkness that held danger, adventure, mystery. Making her way to the top of the hill, she swept her vision across the peaceful village: flickering lights scattered across the countryside signified the homestead of each family.

"Sesshoumaru-sama."

The nearly silent tread of feet announced his arrival.

"What we will do next?"

"I cannot force you-"

"You're right, you can't." Rin shot him a hard glare. "I thought we had settled this: I am committed to seeing this through – by your side. I have no intention of leaving now. It's hardly like you to repeat yourself."

In the falling light, it was becoming increasingly difficult to read his deadpan expressions. "You looked happy."

This gave her pause: how strange to hear emotional sentiments from him. She held her breath, not wishing to disturb the tranquil space that swirled between them.

"You have rarely displayed unadulterated happiness since you began your sojourn. It would appear that such a lifestyle may give you greater pleasure. Providing security, a family, and peaceful times is not within my power."

"You would have me stay here."

"If you should desire it, yes."

Pushing down the compulsion to rebuke him, for attempting to make a decision for her, to try persuading her away from their arrangement, she settled for a neutral approach.

"Is that what you want?"

The silence stretched and twisted in the darkness between them.

"No."

Rin's heart fluttered. Straightforward responses, especially in regards to their relationship, were incredibly rare. Receiving even one such response was enough to elevate the tingling in her chest to fly amongst the clouds. She let her emotions soar for a few free minutes before the stormy concerns from earlier rolled over her thoughts.

"What if the spell isn't gone? What if they manage to take control of me again?" There was a very real chance that as soon as they were in range, she could lose her mind and body, turned against her allies and herself.

"Then we will do what we did before?"

She pondered what he meant. Did he possibly mean the secret question trick? "That won't work again. They know to look for that sort of questions now."

"There are other means of achieving the same sort of confusion."

"What are you talking about?"

Her question was cut short as he approached her without warning, placing his hands on her shoulders. "Like this."

He brought his face down to meet hers, collapsing her personal bubble, letting their breaths puff in the chilling air. Holding her wide-eyed look with his own steely golden irises, he pushed his forehead against hers and brushed her nose with his own.

The gesture was over in an instant. With a mighty swish of wind, he leapt into the night sky, leaving Rin gasping for air as though the curse had just activated. She pressed a hand against her rib cage, willing the thudding to subside.

There was a gentle tap of a footsteps.

"Rin-chan."

"Kohaku!" Rin spun around, clapping hands to her cheeks, trying to hide the mad blush that was expanding over her face. "What brings you out here?"

"I wanted to talk to you."

She was about to brush him off, but the somber solemnity in his expression sobered her immediately. "What is wrong, Kohaku?"

He squared his shoulders. "Are you leaving with Sesshoumaru-sama tomorrow morning?"

"Yes," she nodded. "Are you going to try to convince me to stay too?"

"Too?" Kohaku's momentary puzzlement was fleeting as he connected Rin's state to who she must have been speaking to. "Of course not. I tried that once: you ran away and almost got slaughtered by a low-level monster."

Anticipating her protest, he raised a hand to wave away his comment. "But that is not important." He closed his eyes. "If you are leaving again, there is something that I must say now for I may never get another chance again."

Now Rin was completely mystified. Did he think she was going away forever? What could be so important that he needed to tell her now? Was there something wrong with –

"Rin, I love you."

With a shaky sigh, he opened his eyes and looked off to the side, a perfect picture of young male embarrassment. But he brushed this aside to regard her with a relieved confidence. "I don't need a response. I just wanted to let you know before it was too late."

He gave a slightly stiff bow and then walked away, leaving Rin in a daze.

Now what was she supposed to do with that?


"It looks like our little bird is not a reliable means of collecting the sword," Pian drawled lazily.

"Why are you not concerned? We lost our best opportunity to grab our greatest weakness." Kan growled. "Are you taking this seriously?"

"But of course, brother." Pian sat up and smirked. "I would hardly call dear Rin-chan our best chance. She was an outside gamble at best. I have a much better idea." He raised the glowing dragon scale to his lips. "Why don't we try hedging our bets on another fighter?"


Kongomi sat at Yoihito's bedside as the evening slowly turned to night. Events from the previous day churned in her mind, keeping her high on alert.

When they came for her, she was ready.

'My little princess.'

Kongomi could feel the tug as unseen hands attempted to wrest her muscles and nerves from her. Grinning maliciously, she raised her demonic aura and blasted away any trace of the creeping fingers.

'Well done, princess.'

'Did you think I would fall to your little tricks? I am no silly human girl.'

'Quite. No, princess, we had something special in store for you.'

'What can you possibly do to me?'

'We can kill your sister.'

Her breath hitched in her lungs.

'Then who would you use to summon the dragons? You did a neat job wasting the blood of the rest of my family.'

'We would come for you, dear princess.'

'Why should I acquiesce to your demands, if you are planning to murder my sister either way?'

'You do not need to make this difficult with your pathetic attempts to bluff. Simply bring us the sword and we will free your kin.'

'And me?'

'You will remain with us, but at least your sister will not have to experience any further pain. That is a victory in and of itself, is it not?'

They were hurting Harika? Kongomi's blood ran cold. That was not an outcome she had considered. No, the thought had always been in the back of her mind, but she had tried to blind herself to that possibility. Now the threat was real.

'Fine. I will let you know once I have the sword in my possession.'

'Excellent. It has been a pleasure doing business with you, princess.'

The connection was gone.

Kongomi slumped over, holding her face in her hands, trying to banish the tears that were spilling down her cheeks. For all her false bravado, there was no helping the outpouring of emotion as her foundations were rocked.

Harika was half of the world that remained intact after the attack on the city. Losing her precious sister would destroy any remaining vestiges of her will to live. She needed to save Harika at any cost.

But what would the cost be to everyone else?

With watery eyes, she looked at the sleeping form of Yoihito, the other half of her world. She could not afford to drag him into this affair: if she was caught, he could try to take the fall for her. Losing him would split her soul again.

Do it alone. There was no other option.

Give up your life in exchange for theirs. There was no other outcome.

Go now, while everyone is relaxed and preparing for sleep to arrive.

Almost in a trance, Kongomi rose from her seat. Slinking down the hall, she carefully traced her steps from the previous day to where she had sent Rin. She slid down the empty halls, her soft boots pattering. A turn here, an advance there, weaving closer towards the royal quarters.

At the final corner, she stopped and braced against the wall. This was the point of no return; once she proceeded, if she was caught, there would be consequences. But this needed to happen if Harika and Yoihito were to be saved.

Biting her lip, she inhaled sharply and prepared to make a dash.

But an iron grip wrapped around her wrist. Golden eyes shone in the darkness.

"Let's have a chat, shall we?"

Chapter Text

“Let’s have a chat, shall we?” Inukojo gripped the wrist of the young dragon princess. “Let’s discuss why you’re in this part of the castle.”

To her credit, the girl mustered her courage admirably, but not well enough to fool the centuries-old Inu lord. “I was looking for Sesshoumaru-sama; I have need to review a few matters with him.”

Releasing the arm that was now slightly bruised, Inukojo pretended to accept whatever falsehoods were being fed to her. “Oh? But surely you must know – my nephew left early this morning with my daughter in tow. I believe he was going to get that pet of his treated.”

“Of course,” was the reply, perhaps a bit too hurriedly.

Amber eyes bored into silver ones and then she sighed. The game had been mildly amusing for a short while, but she had already grown tired of the charade.

“Really, now that you’ve gotten that out of your system: why don’t you tell me the real reason you’re here in the family quarters?”

“I-“

“Yes, you. What are you doing here? You certainly don’t have permission. That means you were trying to sneak in here, but for what?”

Now there wasn’t even a feeble attempt to articulate an excuse, so Inukojo continued her amusement.

“You wouldn’t have been trying to steal anything? Like say, a weapon? A sword?”

The consequent flinch confirmed her suspicions.

“Allow me to put forth a guess: your little sister is alive and those scoundrels are holding her hostage; they said she’d go free, provided you can bring to them my dragon-slaying sword.” Inukojo gloated and her own intellect. “Am I right?”

“Yes,” the princess looked up with such a pitiful, wistful expression. “I want to save my sister.”

“How touching,” Inukojo said with a tilt to her head, regarding the child who was not fit to rule a bucket of fish, never mind a kingdom. Without warning, she grabbed onto a shoulder and pushed Kongomi back against the wall.

“Here’s how this will play out: I am going to give you a ‘present’ that I want you to deliver to those arrogant little pricks.” She pulled out an oblong package wrapped in oil-treated fabric. “Give this to them as your sword.”

Kongomi’s eyes widened in alarm, “My lord, is this the sword?”

“Silence, you dragon refuse. You will speak when spoken to.” Inukojo shook her for good measure and slammed her into the wall again, this time with a bit more force. “For all intents and purposes, you are bringing them the sword, in exchange for your sister’s life.”

“But if they find out they have been tricked…“ Her reply was cut off as a strong, steely backhand smacked her across the cheek.

“What did I say about speaking out of turn, you little brat? You will deliver this. Should you fail, well, you don’t want to realize the consequences if you don’t succeed.”

With a push, she sent the princess scurrying down the hall.

“I did not imagine you to be quite so cruel, sister.”

Inukojo did not turn to acknowledge her sister as she watched the retreating form of the panicked Kongomi.

Inukimi remarked coolly, “They will surely kill both of them when they discover she has given them a fake version of what they seek.”

At this Inukojo did look over her shoulder, “And what if I said it wasn’t a fake?”

“I also did not imagine you to be quite so stupid, sister of mine.”

“Come now,” Inukojo turned around fully with her hands open, “do you really believe me foolish enough to send away my greatest asset into the enemy’s camp without any insurance?”

“Yes, I do.”

She shrugged. “I am merely putting my plan into motion.”

“And what plan would that be?” Inukimi fluttered one of her paper fans. “Do tell.”

“You’ll see.”

 * * * * * 

Minutes passed before Rin truly processed what happened. Kohaku had confessed. Confessed that he loved her. This outcome definitely lay beyond the realm of expectations and even of possibility. How could this happen?

But as she watched his retreating back, her confusion was gradually replaced with a sense of irritation and annoyance. Seconds later, she launched herself in his direction, charging at him with full speed.

“KOHAKU!”

The unsuspecting boy slowly turned and then jumped before starting on his own foot race.

“Come back here!” Rin roared as she dashed down the path. “Don’t think you can just do that to me!”

Yelling over his shoulder, Kohaku did not pause. “I told you I don’t need an answer!”

“Well tough luck!” She focused on getting her legs to move just a bit faster, closing the gap until it was only feet away. “You’re getting one whether you like it or not!”

With the last cry, she leapt at his legs, effectively tripping him and sending both of them rolling in the dirt. Panting, she sat up and wiped the dust from her eyes. “What did you think you were doing?”

Realizing that Kohaku’s eyes were shifting, searching for an exit, Rin put her full weight on his chest and sat on his lap. “You’re not going anywhere until we talk about what you just said.”

Blushing furiously, Kohaku stammered some meaningless syllables and then looked down. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

Rin huffed. “Wrong! There’s plenty to talk about. Let’s start with – how long have you felt that way?”

“Long enough.” He coughed as she jabbed him harshly in the ribs. “A couple years.” He refused to meet her gaze.

“Then why are you telling me about this now?”

There was a slight shrug. “No reason.”

“’Before it’s too late’ – that’s ‘no’ reason?” Rin leaned down to try to make eye contact with him. “That sounds like a serious reason to me. What’s too late?”

When he didn’t respond, she eased up slightly and sat back. “You mean before I fell in love with someone else?” He stiffened slightly and she took that as a confirmation. She slid off of him before quietly murmuring: “Well, then you are too late for that.” Now it was her turn to find something else to look at.

“That isn’t what I meant by it,” Kohaku replied heavily. “I knew about Sesshoumaru-sama from long ago.”

Rin spun, accidentally dragging her sleeves on the ground. “What? Am I really that obvious?” Her cheeks flushed and became smudged brown as she used those same sleeves to cover the red heat. A connection made her pause. “If it wasn’t that, then what else?”

“I wanted to tell you before you ended up dead.”

Fury rose up within her: “Not this again! You need to stop – “

“It was so real this time.” His voice was trembling just enough that Rin ceased her tirade as he continued. “Last time you nearly died. This time, you almost had to live out the rest of your life under a curse. If either of those had come to pass, I’d never be able to tell you. And I would live my out the rest of my life under the shackles of guilt.”  At this he did turn to look at her.

“I would have regretted never telling you how loved you are, Rin-chan.”

She was the one who turned away from his intense stare. “I know that I’m loved,” she said but her words had no body behind them. Although she had questioned the spontaneity of the entire situation, her heart was telling her that she’d known all along.

Ever since they were young children, caught in the vengeful violence of Naraku, Kohaku had been someone special. He had been by her side, teaching her useful skills, helping her navigate the normal ways of human society. He encouraged being her own self, taking whatever path she wanted. He had kept her company during those long months of separation.

“Kohaku, you mean so much to me. You are an irreplaceable part of my life.” She stretched her legs out in front of her, wiggling her sandaled feet. “And I love you – truly I do – maybe even in a romantic sense.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“But it’s not the same.” He shot her a melancholic smile.

She responded in kind, “No, it’s not the same.” With that, she clamored to her feet and attempted to brush the earth from her robes. “But I do not want that to come between us. We have always been best friends and I do not want that to end.”

Extending an arm to help him up, she took a deep breath. “Kohaku, I want you to come with us.”

Having gotten halfway up, he fell back down in surprise. “What do you mean, come with you?”

Rin reached out her hand again to grab his. “We are fighting a very dangerous enemy. What happened today could happen again. I don’t want to become someone who simply disappears from your life.”

“What does our lordship think of this?” Kohaku finished standing up and proceeded to brush himself off.

“He doesn’t know yet.” At this he sputtered but she shrugged. “And he will have to deal. Both of you are very important to me and I would like to have both of you during this time.” With a pout she finished explaining, “To be perfectly honest, I know that I am still honing my skills. Sesshoumaru-sama can’t spend all of his time training me or protecting me when something goes wrong.”

“Aha,” Kohaku chided in mock misery, “I see how it is. You can’t bother your precious Sesshoumaru-sama with the mundane details of training you or catching you if you fall, so you need a back-up plan. What a sorry life I lead!”

Rin drove her elbow into his side. “You know what I mean.”

“I do know what you mean.”

For the first time since Rin had set out on her journey with Sesshoumaru, she felt that the two of them had finally reached an understanding. It brought a wide grin to her face.

“What if we get cleaned up?” She gestured to their clothing, which, despite their best efforts, still looked like it had been dragged through a dust patch.

“Lead on,” Kohaku gestured like a gentleman and the two of them headed back into the house, laughing along the way.

As soon as their laughter faded, Sesshoumaru drifted down to where they had been sitting. His expression dark and brooding, his hands clenched. He did not move from his spot for a long time as the lights in the village slowly popped out, one by one. At last, even Inuyasha’s home fell into the quiet stillness of night.

And in that velvety night, his fists slowly unfurled and a hint of a hopeless sigh escaped, leaving a tiny puff of fog hanging in the air. There was no helping it, was there?

  * * * * * 

 “A little bit further, Jiro. We’re almost there.” Kongomi and the dragon cut through the clouds, obscuring the moonlight from her mount’s reflective golden scales.

She shivered, but it was not for lack of garments. Even in her haste, she had taken time to clothe herself according to the season: there was no telling how long she might be out of doors. There was also a chance she might have to sacrifice some of her layers to keep her sister warm. Harika had not been wearing much during the attack and the likelihood that her captors had shown her mercy was slim. 

Trusting Jiro, Kongomi closed her eyes, honing in on the vision that had been so bluntly sent to her previously. This time the brothers had abandoned the ruined city, but they were close enough that the princess could identify the span of cliff edge that they claimed as their current hideout.

With a burst of speed, the pair broke out from the clouds and into clear skies. Kongomi averted her gaze, knowing exactly what carnage lay below her. There would be a time to mourn and rebuild – once the living were safe. She ran her hands along Jiro’s neck, soothing herself as much as she was soothing him.

‘Very good, princess. You did not keep us waiting long.’

Clutching both temples, Kongomi scanned the area and it was not long before she was able to locate the small encampment, if it could be called that. She guided them down in a lazy spiral until all it took was a few wing flaps to lower themselves to the ground.

Deftly, she slid off the dragon’s back.

“Where is Harika?” She demanded, furiously whipping her head back and forth.

“Patience, my dear.” A familiar cloaked figure swept forward, silver eyes shining in the hood’s shadow. Metallic claws reached out. “Let us see your wares and then we shall show you ours.”

Kongomi reached behind to grab the heavy, oblong package from her back. Without ceremony, she held it out in front, aware that any arrogance on her part could spell trouble for Harika – even if she had suppress the desire to toss the stupid weapon at his feet.

Delicately, Pian grasped the wrappings and drew them to himself. With utmost care, he peeled away the material and let the strips unravel until a sword was unleased.

He gave the glowing katana a few swings, the ruby hue glinting in the firelight. “Beautiful: Ryuushin, the almighty dragon slayer.”

At this Kongomi snarled: “Your end of the bargain?”

A snap of fingers and another hooded figure hauled Harika out from the shadows. “Here, you have her!”

Fatigued, famished, and freezing, Harika collapsed into her sister’s arms. “Harika-nee-sama?”

“Hush, it’s fine now. You’re going to be okay.” Afraid that the brothers would attack them, Kongomi hurried them over to Jiro and slung her sister into the saddle. Her heart throbbed when she realized how easy it had been to throw Harika onto the seat. ‘A few good meals and some solid warmth will fix you up.’

Unwrapping her cloak, she draped the folders over her sister’s skinny shoulders. “Here, take this. It’s getting cold to fly, this time of year.”

“But, what about you?” Harika’s eyes filled with worry. “You’re coming with me, right?”

Kongomi blinked back tears and maintained as stoic an expression as possible. Before she could answer, Kan chuckled. “No, she’s part of the deal. You for the sword…and her.”

“No!” The younger princess sobbed. “Kongomi-nee-sama, you have to come with me. I won’t leave you here!”

Sensing both of the brothers slowing approaching, she knew that Harika needed to leave now or she wouldn’t leave at all.

“Go! Now!” Kongomi slapped Jiro’s flank. “Fly!”

Flapping wings disturbed the sand on the ground, causing small dervishes. Kongomi felt Kan’s arms restrain her as she heard his whisper in her ear. “You just hold on – you’re not going anywhere.”

Kongomi felt her body sag in relief as she watched her little sister escape past the cliffs and over the ocean.

“But then again, neither is she,” Kan snickered.

“What?!” Kongomi raised her head just in time to see Pian launch towards Jiro, crimson sword glowing in the pitch black shadows. “NO!” She struggled against Kan’s grip, but it was no use. “Harika! Jiro! Run!”

Time was traveling slowly and Kongomi had to endure every second as though it was an eternity. Harika turning towards the sound of her name. Pian slashing, arcing a brilliantly red flash, slicing neatly into Jiro’s neck. Girl and dragon together beginning the slow descent into the jagged rocks along the shoreline, then suddenly plummeting below the horizon into nothingness.

Kongomi screamed until her voice disappeared and all that remained was a small bit of strength to draw wrecked breaths between quieting sobs. She barely noticed the arms hauling her away, with her legs limply dragging trails on the ground.  

  * * * * * 

The following morning was filled with the hustle and bustle that always accompanies a group setting out on a journey: Kagome flitted around, filling a spare backpack with materials and clothing, Tsukiakari had been drafted into cooking the morning meal, and Sango cleaned a few extra weapons, while Inuyasha and Miroku watched the children. Amidst the organized frenzy, Sesshoumaru and Kohaku stood, silently.

“Ahem.” Kohaku cleared his throat awkwardly. “Has Rin-chan spoken to you this morning?”

“She has not.”

“Ah.” The young man fiddled with the chain on his slayer weapon, uncertain on how to broach the subject of their future companionship. In the end, he took the coward’s approach.

“It’s getting colder.”

At this, Sesshoumaru gave him an incredulous glance as though announcing the obvious was a complete and utter waste of breathing.

Kohaku decided to admire the morning in silence.

Thankfully, Rin returned only a few minutes later, adorned in one of Sango’s old demon slayer suits and a simple kimono. “Good morning everyone!”

Nearly everyone responded in kind as Rin rejoined the group. Tsukiakari announced that breakfast was ready and they all sat inside Kagome’s and Inuyasha’s home, around the warm pot over the fire.

“How was Kaede-sama?” Kohaku asked her quietly as everyone dug into their food.

Mouth full, Rin smiled as she downed the stew. “I cleaned the grave a little bit and left some offerings. It was good to talk to her again.” Another mouthful of meat and vegetables disappeared.

“Will you be staying, Kohaku?” Sango asked, son squirming in her lap. “You are never around for very long and it’s a shame that you don’t even visit your own relatives.”

He froze and looked at Rin, who gave him a little nod. “Actually, Aneue, I will be leaving with Rin and Sesshoumaru. This demon they’re fighting sounds tough and I thought I could be of use.”

Noticing that Sesshoumaru was absent from their little group, Miroku quietly asked, “Does Sesshoumaru know about this?”

Rin gulped the rest of her meal and shrugged. “Probably. Sesshoumaru-sama usually knows everything. Besides, I was the one who requested Kohaku join us. Sesshoumaru-sama is not so immature that he would turn down decent help.” The last line was said a bit louder than necessary, as though directed to the person in question, who was undoubtedly just outside the house.

Sango and Miroku exchanged a nod before the demon slayer offered: “If this demon is as much trouble as you say, then wouldn’t it make sense for more of us to go with you?”

Shaking her head, Rin was about to reply when Kohaku got there first. “You should focus on securing a retreat location for your families in case the demons decide to go after you. It’s unclear if they are exclusively targeting Sesshoumaru-sama for revenge.”

Inuyasha frowned. “And what are you going to do with weapons that won’t cut the giant dragons?”

“Well,” Rin tapped her chin thoughtfully, “I’m hoping that we can stop those brothers before they can summon another daiyoukai. Kongomi-chan should be able to help us find them.”

By now, word of mouth had spread the information through the entire group. Although no one knew the true extent of the princess’s power, it was clear that she had a deep connection with dragon-blooded youkai and she might be able to track down either her captive sister or the demons themselves.

“Are you finished?” The stern tone of Sesshoumaru drew everyone’s focus to the front entryway. Just as abruptly as he arrived, he left.

Rin grinned, “Still impatient as ever.”

The travelling members made their final preparations to leave. As they trooped out into the cool sunshine, Inuyasha pulled Kohaku aside.

“If there is one of those big dragons, come back.” His golden eyes narrowed at his brother’s back. “Sesshoumaru is proud enough that he will die trying. Don’t be stupid: get yourself and Rin out of there. Don’t worry about the dragon. If I need to, I can use Meido to send the dragons to the underworld.”

 “Of course, Inuyasha-sama.”  Kohaku gripped his forearm tightly. “Please keep Aneue and Kagome-sama safe.”

“Feh,” Inuyasha smirked as he returned the grip. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”

Kohaku smiled and the pair released their handshake. He watched as Rin whistled for Ah-Un. Although that in itself was bizarre – how could the dragon possibly know where they were from one measly human whistle toot?

But sure enough, moments later the two-headed dragon descended, prepared to take on the role of trusted steed again. What they were not anticipating were the two most unexpected passengers.

“SESSHOUMARU-SAMA!!” Came the screeching call. Jaken threw himself from his death hold on Ah-Un’s necks, on a straight trajectory for Sesshoumaru, who deftly swept to the side, before the imp crashed into the grass.

“Jaken, what are you doing here?” Rin crouched down and prodded at the flailing mess of robes and staff.

“Sesshoumaru-sama, it has been so long!”

“Ha?” Rin scrunched her face. “What are you talking about? It’s only been –“

“This most loyal servant has followed you with the utmost care and devotion. Nothing will stop me from being by your side! Even if a castle falls upon me, even if I get abandoned in a ruined city and held hostage, even if I am forgotten, never let it be said that Jaken is not-“

“Jaken, we’ve been gone less than two days.”  Rin rolled her eyes.

“I will always be-“

She threw a sideways glance at Kagome, “Can we leave him here?”

Kagome smiled warmly, “That sounds like a good idea.” She smoothly moved over to the wailing retainer. “That sounds terrible!”

“Oh, Kagome-sama. You have no idea,” he wept. Kagome made a shooing motion to get the rest of the group away.

Silently, Rin mounted up on Ah-Un before she heard a familiar chirping. The kageko reached out with spindly limbs and she carefully picked it up. “Kuro!” she whispered excitedly, nuzzling the tiny black scaly beast. Settled, she patted Ah-Un on the neck: “Let’s go!”

As the group rose into the sky, Kohaku was sure he could hear the fading protests of one little green imp.

  * * * * * 

“Rin-san.” Tsukiakari floated up to where Ah-Un was flying. “I had an idea – I am able to transport myself to locations I have seen before with my own eyes. Shall I go on ahead to Inukimi-sama’s palace? I can alert the princess of the situation.”

“That would be a great idea!” Rin chimed. “If you can tell her that we will be there shortly and that we’re hoping she’ll be able to point out where those demons are.”

“But of course, Rin-san.” Tsukiakari’ serene countenance hardened a little as she focused. The party eclipsed her rapidly and Rin had to twist her neck almost painfully to look back. By the time she’d wrangled a view, all that remained was a few unnatural wisps of cloud.

Kohaku nudged Kiara closer. “Where did Tsukiakari-sama go?”

“On to the palace. She’s going to warn Kongomi and…“ She trailed off.

“What’s wrong?”

“I forgot to tell her to speak to Yoihito as well. He’s Kongomi-chan’s guard and he’s excellent in a fight. He also had a red dragon named Aki. I’m worried that Kongomi-chan might try to leave without telling him again.”

Kohaku’s attention was pulled to a moving object heading their way. “A red dragon you say?”

“Yup.” Rin fiddled with Ah-Un’s harness since it had gotten a little tangled. “Red dragon named Aki.”

“And golden hair?”

“Huh?” She looked up in confusion. “How did you know that?”

Kohaku pointed ahead. “Somehow I don’t think you need to worry about him being left behind.”

Streaking across the sky, Aki and Yoihito shot through the air, blowing away any clouds. They first reached Sesshoumaru and then blasted right past. Yoihito whipped his head back and then brought Aki into a tight curve, wheeling around with great dexterity.

“Did you Tsukiakari-chan?”

“Did you see Kongomi-chan?”

Rin and Yoihito asked at the same time, cancelling out each other. Yoihito had Aki fall in next to Ah-Un before re-asking his question.

“Kongomi-sama has been missing since last night. She took Jiro. I think she’s gone to rescue Harika-hime.”

“No, we haven’t seen any sign of Kongomi-chan. We actually just sent Tsukiakari-chan to meet up with the two of you before we took on Pian and Kan. We were on our way back to the palace.”

Yoihito’s brow furrowed, “I have no idea where she might be.”

“Maybe they are back at the city? That was where they were keeping the princess before.” Kohaku piped up, having been brought up to speed only that morning. “There’s also a chance that they might need additional resources that lay beneath the city.”

Rin was smiling on the inside.  Planning and strategizing was much easier when your partners were willing to share ideas! Externally she nodded and tilted her head towards the guard. “Yoihito-san, this is Kongomi-chan we are talking about. Do you think we should go?”

“I would very much like to try to recover the princess before doing anything else.”

“Good, then let’s try heading back to the city. Everyone, be on your guard!” Rin called out to the group as Yoihito took the lead. Although he said nothing, Rin could see Sesshoumaru flying much closer at a distance that she knew he could cover in less than a second. Giving him a sidelong stare, she tried to assess if he was tense. He also cast her a look and Rin dropped her gaze hurriedly.

It was several hours of hard flight before they were able to reach the city. In the midday sunlight, Rin could truly see the devastation for the first time. Where once there was an elaborate network of spires, balconies, and trellises rising up from the cliffs, there was nothing but rubble. Barely a week since the attack, there were still bodies littering the mounds of dark stone.

The dragons spiraled down onto a large, open area. Everyone dismounted and began carefully treading, investigating to see if there were any signs of a struggle. Rin took a few steps away from the center of the clearing and came across a giant rusty stain. It was pale, as though it had been washed over with buckets of water.

“Yoihito-san!” She called out. “I think I might have found something!”

The guard looked up and cautiously made his way over to her finding. When he saw the blood mark, his face grew grave. “That does not belong to the princess.”

“How do you know?” Rin knelt to examine it closely, failing to notice Sesshoumaru’s stance change.

“Because, Rin-san, that is your blood.”

 At this Kohaku froze and flicked his eyes over to Sesshoumaru who was as still as stone. Then he briskly walked over to examine the mark as well.  Yoihito continued to clarify for Rin, who was baffled.

“This is where you…that night…”

Rin sat down hard, mouth slack from shock. Everything she experienced under the spell was blurred, fuzzy, and extremely muted. But as she looked around at the clearing, traces of memories came back to her. Realization hit her and she also looked at Sesshoumaru. This is where he had…

There was a heavy gravity in the air as the group waited for either Rin or Sesshoumaru to make the next move. But it was the dragons that actually took the next step.

As a cold ocean breeze washed over the cliff side, both Aki and Ah-Un reared their heads. They crooned and grunted in distress, reptilian senses honed and tuned into an unknown scent. Yoihito ran over and immediately leapt onto Aki. The pair dove off the cliff, straight towards the ocean. Kohaku was quick to follow suit on Kiara.

Rin slid up to Sesshoumaru, who had yet to do so much as twitch.

“Sesshoumaru-sama,” she placed a gentle hand on his kimono. “It wasn’t your fault. I will never blame you for what happened.”

A strong hand covered her own, lingering for a second too long, before tossing away her hand and with it, his emotional weakness. But rather than let her back on Ah-Un, he knelt down before her. Without question, she climbed onto his back and grasped his shoulder armor. Then with a rush of wind, they were also following Yoihito and Kohaku, down the cliffs and towards the ocean foaming on the rocks.

The dragon and cat were easy to spot, somewhat further down the coastline.

Even from this distance, Rin could tell something was wrong. Yoihito was on his knees, head bowed, arms slack at his side. Nearby, Aki roared and stomped his clawed feet into the jagged rocks that lined the edge of the land. Kohaku was reverent beside Kirara.

On their approach the truth gradually revealed itself: in front of the royal guard was a crumpled form, pale rosy tresses strewn about, unmoving. Rin gasped and had to bite her lip; but that could not keep her sadness at bay as she also noticed the massive metallic form also collapsed.

Sesshoumaru landed softly and knelt to let Rin drop.  She staggered over to Kohaku and grabbed onto Kiara’s warm fur – for the stability or the comfort she could not tell. Fighting to regain her composure, she murmured Harika’s and Jiro’s names to her friend.

“Harika-chan was the second eldest daughter of the royal family. Jiro was Kongomi-chan’s treasured partner” was the only explanation Kohaku would receive before Rin left to approach Yoihito.

“Harika-hime was our beautiful sunbeam. If Kongomi-hime is the cold, precise, moon, then Harika-hime was the sun, always shining brightly in the court and the city.” Yoihito brushed away tears before they could spill out. “Dragon was she born and dragon did she die; she has returned from the mortal realm to that of our ancestors, in the sky. Alone she does not travel, for with her goes the mighty Jiro, radiant, also like the sun. May his agility and strength be of service to her on her return.”

The flow of words abated; Yoihito stood and gathered the form of the princess in his arms. Without a single stumble, he walked over to Jiro and gently placed Harika against the great hide. He held out an arm to Rin and regarded her with emptiness.

“Rin-san, do you have the kageko with you?”

Kuro chirped and drifted over. Bowing graciously over his palm, Yoihito offered platitudes to the little creature. “Please be the guiding light for our dear princess. Let her not be abandoned to the darkness for eternity.”

With a final cheap, Kuro clattered over to Harika, where he settled neatly into her hands that were folded in her lap. The sinking feeling in Rin’s belly grew, but she kept her eyes glued on the scene. One cannot have life without death and when it was time, each culture had their own way of sending their kin to the great beyond. Who was she to interfere with such a ritual?

Still, she was not prepared for the sudden burst of flame that erupted, engulfing the princess and kageko together. Nor was she ready for the command Yoihito issued to Aki, who yielded a great flame that licked Jiro’s scales.

“To the light they return.” He bowed his head, eyes closed.

By now Rin could no more easily stop the flood of tears than she could walk away. Kohaku tentatively reached out and gently turned her into his chest, arms protectively wrapped around her shoulders. He muttered words of encouragement. Rin felt some measure of relief from having a means to conceal her sadness. One of her arms reached out to grab onto a part of Kohaku’s suit that was not covered by armor.

Then she felt it.

In her free hand, the one away from Kirara and the heat of the funeral fire were strong, clawed fingers curled around in a tight grasp. If Kohaku noticed the inu lord’s close proximity, he certainly made no comment in that regard.

The four of them remained like that until the only remains of the pyre were tiny glowing embers. Yoihito shifted and Sesshoumaru quickly released Rin’s hand, angling his body away.

“I am sorry you had to see that, Rin-san. I could not bear to see another member of the royal family left to rot without the proper rites.”

Rin held her elbows, wrapping herself to stay warm against the cold ocean spray. “I can’t agree with whatever you had Kuro do; he was a good friend to me and you-“

“Rin-sama-“

She raised her hand to quiet him. “It is alright,” she gave him a watery smile. “I do not agree with it, I cannot fathom why you would sacrifice unnecessarily, but I can respect you for your dedication to your culture.” She placed a heavy hand on his armor. “You don’t need to worry.”

“Thank you, Rin-sama.” His face fell with relief, barely preventing a complete collapse into anguish. “The kageko are born when we are born and they pass when we pass. I did not see Harika-hime’s Yami, but there was no time to find another. I was so grateful to see that little one with you.”

“What do we do now?” Kohaku came up. “There’s still light today, we can make good progress, no matter where we need to go.”

“If there is a chance to save Kongomi-hime, I am oath-bound to take it.” Yoihito clenched his fists around the katana at his hip. “I feel she is still alive.”

“Is there any way to track her down?”

Yoihito shook his head.

“Any ideas where they would have gone?”

Rin joined Yoihito in shaking his head.

“Then what do we do?”

Chapter Text

Chapter 17 - Descent into Darkness II


 

Kan palmed the scale that had been recovered from Ryudo , glowing a pale blue and emitting a tiny beam of light that vanished in the distant mountains. “That means the closest dragon is in that mountain range, right?”

“It does indeed.” Pian tumbled his own scale between his fingers in thought. “If we do not hurry, that insufferable little troop will catch up to us.” He carefully observed the princess who was naught but an empty shell. She walked when commanded, but would not exert more energy than a lifeless doll.

“What does it matter if they catch up? We have Ryushin!

Pian drew out the crimson blade. “Yes, we do. But let me remind you that this sword was intended to slay the great dragons. Its superior strength is only truly effective against dragon scale or armor made from those beasts. Even in a fight, I do not believe it possess the power to defeat Bakusaiga , if that sword does what that imp said it does.”

“Then we just need to beat the sword’s master; I don’t know why you are worrying.”

“You would be wise to treat Sesshoumaru with respect, lest you want to lose the other half of your face, little brother.” Pian looked over lazily at the glowering Kan. “Don’t give me that look – you know I speak the truth. Sesshoumaru is an admirable fighter, trained by the best. He has been honing his skills in combat since he was young, if we are to believe chichiue ’s stories.”

“We need to summon the next dragon. We were too hasty with the first one, but now we know our enemy and we can prepare for that.” He pinched the edge of his hood. “But haste is what we need to employ presently if we are to gain the tactical advantage.”

“It wouldn’t be a problem if this bitch wasn’t dragging us down.” Kan kicked the limp form as Kongomi toppled over, eyes blank and unseeing. He laughed harshly, “Funny to think that she was set to become queen of a country. The only thing she can do now is sit there.”

“If we wish to pick up speed, we will need to carry her.” Pian sighed. “I suppose we can take turns, since I cannot imagine that either of us has a strong desire to haul a sack of meat around.”

Kongomi suddenly braced her bound hands on the ground to bring up her legs and deliver a spinning kick to the distracted Kan. Wasting no time, she flipped onto her feet, crouched low and swept her leg under him to send him sprawling onto his back. She bounced out of her pose and began running in the opposite direction, dodging left and right.

Seconds later, Pian caught up to her with a swift chop to the back of her neck. Her momentum tossed her forward into the forest brush, tearing her clothes and ripping her hair out of its elaborate coils. When her body stopped tumbling and rolling through the leaves, she lay still.

“My, my, you are the princess, aren’t you?” Pian decidedly stepped forward, Kan in his shadow. “I would not expect anything less. Oh, don’t worry about your body. It’s a temporary paralysis: just a muscular trick that I learned in that land your ancestors exiled us to. You will gain movement again – after a few hours.”

“You believe you’re invincible,” she spat out. “But you will fall. You will pay for everything you have done to my family!”

Pian leaned down to grab the front of her kimono and lifted her so her slacked head was lolling just below his face. “No, my dear. You will pay for everything that’s been done to mine.” Adjusting the rag tied over her mouth so it once again muffled her words, he then hoisted her onto his shoulder. “I shall take her first, you can have your fun afterwards.”

“Your idea of fun is significantly different than mine.”

As their voices faded away, a tiny little chirp could be heard in the rustling leaves. A little ebony creature scurried up a tree and chittered. While some of its kin might have been distressed at the thought of being separated from their master or mistress, Kukuyo trained thoroughly with Kongomi for precisely these circumstances.

The spell it needed to cast was complicated, especially for a lifeform with such little magic, but its dedication was strong: it would accomplish its mission or die trying.

* * * * *

Time was of the essence. Every second they waited was another moment that could lead to Kongomi’s death, the summoning of a great dragon, or worse – both.

“There’s nothing we can do?” Rin pressed Yoihito. If nothing could be done, then generating additional urgency was not productive.

“Rin-san, I do apologize, but there is nothing that I can do. Only a member of the royal family is able to sense other dragon-kin. Now that Kongomi-sama is the only royal still alive, that method cannot help.” He lifted a leather bracer that had metallic shards embedded. “Even this is useless!”

Kohaku and Rin peered at the garment. “Is that some sort of tracking mechanism?” Kohaku inquired.

“Yes. Each member of the royal family receives a gem that is forged in the fires beneath the city.  That fragment is enchanted with a spell that, once activated, can be used to track its counterpart. It is based on ancient draconian magic. I believe the scale that you have referred to as a map behaves much in the same way.”

Rin got excited, “Then can’t we use this to find Kongomi-chan? You must have one of her fragments there.”

Yoihito’s face grew dark. “Unfortunately, the fragments I have receive a signal rather than broadcast one. This is to prevent any villains from being able to create a mimic to lure the royal family. Only members of the royal family can transmit a signal.”

“Then Kongomi-sama would be able to activate the fragment on her end, no?”  Kohaku suggested.

“Yes, theoretically she could. Provided that she has her hands free and that it is safe for her to spend a few minutes performing the rites.”

“Oh.” Then Kongomi either had lost her gem or did not have the mobility and time to execute the spell for some reason. Rin almost felt foolish asking her next question, “What happens if the spell is activated?”

Yoihito held up his bracer once again. “The gem will glow with a particular color – Kongomi’s is pale blue – and…”

Faintly, the gem he was pointing to started to emit a crystalline aquamarine light and buzzed with a rhythmic energy.

“Aki!”  Yoihito jumped up and the two were airborne immediately. Kohaku took Rin by the wrist and dragged her on Kirara.

“But Ah-Un!”

“There’s no time – unless you want to lose our only lead!” Kohaku called back to her. “Now hold on tight!”

Rin looped one of her arms around his waist and then twisted so she was facing backwards. She blew a piercing whistle that caused Ah-Un to perk up their heads. They also joined them in the sky. For a few moments, she wasn’t able to see Sesshoumaru, but as soon as the group had cleared the clouds, she could spot him just off of their left side.

“How do we know we’re getting close?” Rin called over to Yoihito after about an hour of flying at breakneck speeds.

“The pulsing grows stronger the closer the counterpart gems get. Based on this, we’re only a few minutes away now!”

Apparently the princess had been able to delay any real movement, which had certainly given them the advantage. According to Yoihito, the demons had only managed to cover ground at a walking pace for a few days. It was trivial to catch up when in the air.

Aki descended below the tree line, louder and more conspicuously than the situation called for. It was extremely doubtful that any amount of cautions would have made any impact on how Yoihito approached the area.

“Kohaku, you go down with him and help look for Kongomi-chan.” Rin released her hold on his waist.

“What about you?” Kohaku looked back in alarm.

“I want to get a closer look above,” she replied as she carefully brought her first foot underneath her body and then her second, so she was precariously perched on the fire cat. “Sesshoumaru-sama!”

She listened for the slight whoosh of clothing and then jumped off. As predicted, Sesshoumaru was rocketing just below Kirara. Rin landed clumsily on his back with an “oomph!” as the wind was knocked out of her.

“And what do you call that pathetic little tactic?”

Rin opted not to respond as she worked on getting her breathing back to normal. “That worries me.” She could feel Sesshoumaru shift under her, clearing the path from his arm to his swords, readying a fast draw if needed. “I do not think this is Kongomi-chan.”

“Then you feel this is a trap,” was the response, somewhere between an assertion and a question.

“I don’t know,” Rin admitted. “What I do know is that neither of those bastards is careless enough to keep a prisoner on a short leash and then suddenly give them the freedom that she would need to use the tool. They’re either letting her do it for a reason or it’s not her at all.”

“And so you wish for us to remain vigilant.”

“Yes.”

There was a pause. “Very astute.”

Rin blinked. Was that a compliment? A genuine piece of praise uttered from the mouth of Sesshoumaru-sama? She flushed at experiencing this sensation for the first time.

Seeing Kohaku and Yoihito rise above the treetops snapped her back to reality, suspicions fully confirmed: there was no Kongomi. Yoihito shifted his head, moving his ear closer to his shoulder and it appeared he had a glowing gem in his hand.

“What happened?” Rin asked while Sesshoumaru drifted closer to the dragon and cat.

“It looks like Kongomi left her kageko to do the spell,” Kohaku explained. “I think Yoihito is communicating with it right now.” In response to Rin’s questioning look, Kohaku shrugged.

“Sesshoumaru-sama.” Yoihito beckoned the lord forward. They might be working together, but it was clear where the royal guard stood on chain of command. “Kukuyo tells me that the enemy moved to the mountains. Are you familiar with that region?”

To Rin’s surprise, Sesshoumaru readily served up information: “Those mountains are largely inhabited by individual demons. No humans dare approach, for even without the demons, the conditions are not hospitable for mortal kind.”

“Is there a possibility that one of the dragons was sealed there?”

“Given that the lore you are referencing was to be given to me during the ceremony, it is not information I currently possess.”

Rin stopped herself from rolling her eyes at the overly verbose answer. “You could have just said you didn’t know,” she muttered under her breath.

“Of course, my lord.”

“Well, it’s worth checking out. If Kukuyo…” she paused to make sure she’d gotten the name right, “If Kukuyo says that that’s where they were headed, then that should be where we are headed.”

Yoihito and Kohaku nodded in agreement.

Sesshoumaru silently flashed forward, with Rin struggling to hang on. Everyone followed suit.

“You could have warned me,” she said lightly bopping him on the head. “I almost fell clean off your armor; do you know how slippery it is? You need to give me advance warning before you do things like that-“

“You could have just said you were unprepared.”

Her eyes bulged. Now he was giving her sass? This was insufferable! Why did she have to be madly in love with this obstinate geezer? There was a sweet, honorable, boy her own age waiting in the wings, ready to sweep her off her feet! This was not the first time that Rin thoroughly questioned her own heart.

Not to mention, she thought to herself, that aforementioned geezer might be lord of the western lands, but he was a god when it came to ambiguity and loose interpretive meaning. He had made himself quite clear not a week ago, but then his actions since then seemed in complete reverse of his previously articulated opinion. At least Kohaku was transparent!

Left to her own devices, she almost mused on the qualities of each prospective partner, as though contemplating their benefits and vices would yield a different outcome. Her thoughts were promptly halted by the sobering notion that they were heading into enemy territory, against vile individuals that had tortured her on multiple occasions. Feeling slightly proud of herself for avoiding the temptation, she refocused her energy on keeping a lookout for any signs of movement as the forest gave way to rockier terrain.

They pushed on through the day, but soon the orange hues crept over the craggy landscape. Sesshoumaru accelerated, his fur mantle floating behind him. He led everyone to a nondescript outcropping. There was no cave nearby, but there was a high wall formed from boulders that blocked the open area from the rest of the mountain.

He knelt to let Rin off his back. “This is a safe location to rest. Light no fires once the sun is gone.” Then he launched back into the sky.

“He never changes, does he?” Kohaku remarked as he came to stand next to Rin. “I don’t think I’ve ever traveled without him abandoning the group at least once.”

“He’s not ‘abandoning’ the group. You know that.” Rin poked her friend. “He’s just a terrible ‘team player’.”

“What’s a team player?” Rin raised her eyebrows. “I’m being serious. What is a team player?”

“Haven’t you heard Kagome-chan say it before? She uses it all the time when she’s talking about Inuyasha-sama’s tendency do things by himself.”

“Sure, but what does it actually mean?”

She contemplated this for a good minute before she giggled. “You know, I haven’t any idea!” With that mystery left unresolved, she slung off the backpack that Kagome had diligently packed that morning. “Let’s get a fire going before it gets dark. I would like some hot food, if that’s alright by both of you!”

* * * * * *

Kongomi was tossed onto the ground with little ceremony, her arms and legs bound again since  Pian’s spell had worn off. Her feet and hands had almost lost all feeling; if she was freed, it was questionable whether an escape attempt would be possible. Or would she merely fall flat on her face?

From her vantage point, it was difficult to ascertain if there were any landmarks to indicate their location. Rocks, rocks, and more rocks. Gritting her teeth in frustration, she rolled onto her back: perhaps the stars could show her a bit more insight, but no luck: the brightness of the full moon rendered all other starlight too faint to discern.

“Why is it doing that?”

Kan’s question perked up her ears, but she was careful not to draw attention to herself. Information of any kind, no matter how insignificant was crucial. Should they realize she was listening in, they would certainly shut her out.

“You are exactly right, princess.” Pian drawled as his face came into view over her head. “I must be getting old to be so sloppy.” He undid the tie from his hooded cloak.

Kongomi cursed as he draped the cloth over her body, cutting off her view and oddly, her hearing as well. He must have enchanted the cape! With a sigh, she began the very slow process of wiggling in tiny increments to shift the folds of the material and (hopefully) move them in such a way that afforded her some ability to spy on the demons.

Pian regarded his handiwork and then turned back to his brother. Kan held out the scale, which was shining in two directions, one into a valley at the base of the mountains, and the other into the middle of another peak.

“I believe that means there are two dragons that slumber here.” He tapped a silver claw against the dragon scale. “If I had to hazard a guess, I would say these are the Twins.”

Before passing, their father had passed on a great number of stories, covering the golden years of Ryudo . The tales of the daiyoukai had been some of their favorites as children: Miraito – she who could see the future, Ichiryu and Jiryu – twins with great firepower and dangerous dexterity, Suguremasa – whose physical strength and tie to the land could not be matched, and of course Omo – the unparalleled destructive force that could lay waste to anywhere and anyone who stood in his way.

They had squandered their summoning of Suguremasa, who had been thwarted with the dragon slaying sword so soon after he awoke from beneath the foundations of the royal palace. Now that they had Ryuushin , that mistake would not happen again.

“Do we split up?” Kan asked. “What if the inu brat and his group get to one of the twins first? Even if they don’t have a source of royal blood, they could make it impossible for us to summon.”

That was true. From what they knew of Bakusaiga, there was a nontrivial possibility that Sesshoumaru could destroy the sleeping forms of the dragons. Time was of the essence: how long did they have before the other party would realize the power they actually held?

Heavy footsteps drew his attention, but failed to warrant any action on his part as a thick, ogre demon wandered into the clearing. In a gravelly voice, it offered some kind of verbal threat that he took no notice of.

“Kan, I do believe I have just thought of a solution to our dilemma.” He regarded the ogre hungrily. “You will do nicely.”

Many hours later, in the quiet just before the dawn, Kongomi was once again hosted onto a shoulder as the cloaked group headed away from the campsite. With preparations complete, all that was left was to execute the summoning.

Luckily, both brothers had been somewhat careless as they hurried about, reading the items needed to awaken the dragon. Kongomi had managed to slip something down her sleeve until it was nestled at her wrist. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and checked for the thousandth time that the tiny metal shard was secure.

When the moment was right, she would struggle and wriggle, pretending that she was trying to get loose from her ties. In that brief confusion, she could drop her precious cargo into her hand and say the spell that would alert Yoihito to her position.

That would have to happen at the last possible second. Hopefully that would give them enough time - to realize they were heading into a trap.

* * * * * * 

Rin was awoken by a sudden scuffling from where the others had been taking their rest. Yoihito was scrambling to his feet and packing his things.

“Yohito-san, what is it?” The captain raked his hand through his hair and held up his bracer. The gem was beginning to flash again. “How is that possible? I thought she left the gem with him,” she gestured to the kageko that was chirping quietly nearby.

“Kongomi-sama must have another gem with her.”

“Or they’ve learned what happened and are mimicking the signal.” Kohaku joined the conversation.

“That is a risk that I have to face should it come to that,” Yoihito countered. “I said it before - if there is even the tiniest chance to save Kongomi-sama, I am bound by honor to take it.” He swung himself onto Aki. “You may do as you like, but either way, a lead is better than nothing at all.”

Kohaku sighed, but got onto Kiara anyway. Both men launched into the air.

Rin paused while holding onto A-Un’s reins, but saw the flash of white that indicated Sesshoumaru was maintaining a close distance.

“Rin, come on!” Kohaku called down to her.

“Coming!” She jumped onto A-Un and joined the rest in the sky.

After a short while, Yoihito raised a hand to signal the group should stop. Rin instantly felt a spike in tension as everyone shifted: hands lighting brushed against weapons, postures became tightly coiled to the anticipation of springing into action.

Each mount carefully lowered, sinking below the massive rock outcroppings that filled the landscape. Riders dismounted and came together, taking every moment to observe the area, trying to discern any sign of threat.

The captain raised his gauntlet, giving everyone a clear view of the gem, which was now glowing a steady blue. In hushed tones he explained: “Kongomi-sama is within several hundred feet.” He glanced in the direction they had been heading and gestured with a pointed thumb. “I suspect she is not far beyond that ridge”

“What is the plan?” Kohaku probed. “If their goal is to summon another ryukai , we need to rescue the princess before they kill her.”

“But what about Tsukiakari? Do we wait for her or make the attempt without her? Some of her abilities could prove very useful.” Rin supplied.

A shake of the head. “Kohaku-san is right. If we wait any longer, it will be too late.” Yoihito clenched his fist and gritted his teeth.

“We need to investigate; going in without any knowledge of the situation will get us killed.” Rin found herself nodding along with Kohaku’s assessment.

“So we go in together and figure out what to do at that point?”

At this, everyone met each other’s eyes, silently agreeing to her suggestion. She could feel Sesshoumaru’s gaze boring into her back, but that only filled her with resolution: they could do it - they would rescue Kongomi and stop the brothers.

As the group headed out, Kohaku took point, using every demon-hunting skill in his repertoire to keep them undetected. The rocky slope was covered in large boulders, but it was also littered with smaller stones and pebbles that could easily become dislodged. There was no way of knowing if the demons were few steps away from the top or a few thousand; each person remained on high alert and took care in placing their feet.

By the time they reached the top of the slope, Rin’s muscles had started to complain and she momentarily scolded herself for  not maintaining the regime Kohaku had schooled her in when they were younger. But the fatigue vanished at the sight that lay before them.

A small crater, seemingly scooped out of the earth by massive hands, filled their view. At the center was a small figure, lashed to a rock with rope with pale blue hair messily strewn about. Nearby was an ominously familiar figure in a dark robe, who appeared to be conversing with the bound form.

The hair on Rin’s arms tingled: partly due to the cold breeze that whipped through them, partly due to the sinking feeling in her stomach.

“Where is the other one?”

Kohaku looked at her sharply and she lowered her voice. “That must be Pian. Where is his brother?”

A firm hand clamped on her shoulder and an arm draped in a white kimono pointed across the crater to another cloaked figure who appeared to be moving amongst the rocks. Rin cast a sideways glance at Sesshoumaru. “Can you tell what he’s doing?”

A silent stare gave her the answer. She retreated into her memories, trying to recall any scrap of detail that could give them a clue around the sort of preparations that would be required to lift the type of spell that sealed an enormously powerful creature away. Her thoughts settled on her own experience with the demon brothers’ spells.

“Blood.” The group froze. “Everything they do is tied to blood somehow: destroying seals or making new ones. See, look!” She pointed at the figure across the crater, which had now moved from its spot and onto another place, further along the outer perimeter. “I bet once they’re done with the outer seals, they’ll kill her to finish the spell.”

“Leave the elder to me.” Sesshoumaru’s first contribution in hours appeared to be calm, but Rin was able to sense the anger laced through his words.

“Sesshoumaru-sama will occupy the brother. Yoihito-san, your focus is getting Kongomi-san out before the spell can be completed.” Kohaku turned to Rin. “You and I will stalk him,” he jerked his head towards the figure which had settled in its next set of preparations. “You follow him and I’ll approach from the front.”

Knowing better than to argue with a person who possessed far more battle experience than she, Rin gave the briefest of nods and then crouched low to begin her trek around the edge of the crater.

“Rin.”  She looked back at Sesshoumaru.

“Don’t be careless.”

Belying her uncertainty with bravado, she flashed him a grin as she reached into her pouch and tossed him a small object. “Don’t let your hair get in the way.”  The effect was immediate: a miniscule grimace flitted across his face and that alone bolstered her confidence as she started her trek.

Sesshoumaru launched himself towards Pian without any warning, drawing Bakusaiga. Unfortunately, the latter was unphased and calmly drew his own sword to meet Sesshoumaru’s with a giant clang that rang out in the air.

“What a pleasure to see you, Sesshoumaru,” he drawled. “I was wondering when you and your little ragtag army would arrive.” He disengaged by spinning around, swinging his sword out for a returning blow. Sesshoumaru received the strike with little effort and forced his opponent’s blade away.

“Come now - surely you must have heroic words for me. ‘You won’t get away with this,’ ‘you’ll pay for this’, that sort of thing?” Pian gracefully whirled his sword for another round.

“It is meaningless to converse with the dead.”

“Such courage! Although I will admit, the delivery was a bit heavy-handed.”

There was a clatter as Yoihito scrambled down the cliff face and sprinted towards Kongomi. Pian’s attention was diverted, but almost too fast for the eye to see, he whipped out a second sword, let loose a blast of red energy in the captain’s direction, and sheathed the thing.

“Not so hasty, golden boy. You can have your princess when I’m done with her. The next one will tear to her pieces if you try to get any closer.” Pian smirked.

It was in that moment that Sesshoumaru both released his poisonous whip and a wave from Bakusaiga . Capturing Pian’s free arm, the bulk of the sword’s energy was directed at the other limb. The demon was forced to drop his regular sword and watch it crumble away. With a strange tranquility, he distantly observed the whip around his arm cinch his clothing around his arm. He waved his recently vacant hand at the whip, which dripped like a liquid onto the ground.

His full attention on Sesshoumaru, his grin split open wider: “Very good, my little lord.” He reached into his cloak and unsheathed the second sword. “I suppose I should show you what I can do!” Emerging from the shroud was a blade, crimson, glowing with a mysterious energy.

Sesshoumaru’s eyes widened in shock. How did he, of all people, have Ryushin ? Defeating Inukojo was extremely plausible. He had very little time to contemplate this turn of events before having to dodge a red crescent that was launched his way.

Yoihito took advantage of the situation to rush over to Kongomi, who was blindfolded and gagged. “Kongomi-sama!” He pulled down the rags tied over her eyes, which were damp from tears. Seconds later he tore away the folds around her mouth. “Kongomi-sama, are you alright?”

Relief washed over the princess’s expression. “Yoihito - how did you?” She spotted the glowing gem against his wrist. The ropes around her arms slackened and she jumped out to grab his forearms, dropping to her knees at her legs refused to support her. “It’s a trap - you have to stop them!”

“We are,” Yoihito proceeded to scoop her into his arms. “Rin-san and Kohaku-sana are grabbing the brother now. But we must hurry.” Mixed waves of energy crashed into the ground around them. “It is not safe to remain here.”

“How did you know where to find that Kan bastard?” She looped her arm around his neck, wincing as pins and needles filled her legs after days of tight constraint.

“We saw him at the top of the ridge. The Kohaku-san and Rin-san are circling him right now.” He began to run towards the edge of the crater and gave a sharp whistle to summon Aki.

She frantically grabbed his shirt from between the pieces of his armor. “I told you - this is a trap!”

“What?” He snapped his head up and scanned for Kohaku. Even from this distance, with the chaos surrounding them, it was clear something was wrong. Kohaku was not moving, but instead, looking at something at his feet. The teen crouched and then recoiled, before breaking out into a dead run towards Rin.

“That’s not Kan. It’s a decoy!” Kongomi started to struggle to get out of his arms. “We are all going to die if we do not leave right now!”

She was interrupted by a ferocious, feral scream that echoed across the mountains.

Sesshoumaru did not falter, even as the roar filled the air between him and Pian, but he recognized the sound and he knew what it meant. They had failed their mission; the brothers had managed to summon the dragon and this entire scene was naught but an elaborate ruse.  

His eyes flicked to a flurry of motion at the top of the ridge. Kohaku was running as fast as he could, but Rin was too far away.

“Don’t even think about going anywhere,” Pian said, slightly breathless from keeping up with him.  “It won’t help you in the least. You might be the better swordsman, but what is swordplay in the face of true power?”

Another giant call resounded against the rocks and this time, over the horizon, appeared Kan abreast a terrifying sight.

Black scales, shiny and glinting with a blue tinge. Long, serpentine body with silver plates along the underside and back. Gray whiskers around a face that was less lizard, but certainly not similar to any other creature known. The behemoth floated in the air, buoyed by powerful youkai energy.

Time stopped as they all gaped in horror at the new dragon. Rin’s breath caught in her chest, where her heart was pounding against her ribcage.  Blood rushed to her head and the thick throbbing of her heart was the only thing she could hear.

As if in a trance, she could see Kohaku making a beeline for her, but still quite a distance away. Yoihito was surging up the cliff, Kongomi in his arms, while Aki popped over the ledge, speeding towards his master. In the center of it all, was Sesshoumaru locked in battle with Pian.

Almost in slow motion, she watched as Sesshoumaru turned to face her, his ponytail gracefully drifting. Her sight narrowed in on his face just in time to see his mouth form a single word.

Run.

Her shock-induced state splintered and everything was now in real-time. Screams filled the air as Kohaku called out to her, as Aki swooped to collect Yoihito, as the monstrosity above them screeched another challenge.

She threw herself over the edge of the ledge, clamoring down the mess of rocks as quickly as she could - ignoring scrapes and gashes from her carelessness. Throwing out her own high-pitched whistle, she continued to make her way down to the main path.

A-Un arrived seconds later, skidding to a halt on the loose gravel. Rin quickly swung herself onto its back and slapped her hands against both of the necks. “Go!”  Her partner of old rose with a whoosh of blue demon flame and dove towards the nearest forest.

Kohaku watched as Rin dropped below his line of sight. Kiara mewed and instantly transformed into his larger form, keeping low so Kohaku could hop on. “Don’t lose sight of them!” But before they could go anywhere, a massive reptilian tail lashed out in front of them, causing Kiara to wheel around while his rider clung tightly.

Rapidly shifting his attention, the demon slayer regarded the threat, only to find that they were not the target. The dragon was crawling into the pit, bringing Kan closer to his brother. Kohaku frowned in confusion - they weren’t trying to stop him from leaving?

Then he noticed that Kan was sprinkling something from a waterskin over the rocks in the crater. Somethin dark red.

“Kiara! Fly - we have to stop him!”

Sesshoumaru saw Kiara dashing towards Kan; the fool was going to his death. The dragonfolk might be able to survive for a few minutes, but Kohaku? The little human would easily perish under the tooth and nail of a full-blooded daiyoukai. He quickened his pace, with a flurry of slashes. If he could finish the elder brother, he would have Ryushin and that dragon wouldn’t be a threat.

“What’s this?” Pian nimbly stepped outside of range, but a bit slower than he had intended. One of Sesshoumaru’s cuts made it through. “Is this what they call a last stand?” His free hand covered the gash on his chest. “That moment when all is lost, but lesser creatures feel the need to continue fighting?”

Not one for fancy quips or heroic comments, Sesshoumaru kept to himself as he increased the velocity and veracity of his movements. Pian’s smile died completely as he focused entirely on defense, barely keeping up as he took steps further and further back to avoid the attacks.

One misplaced footstep and he tripped over a rock. Unable to maintain his balance, he fell backwards, bracing himself on his hands. For the first time, Sesshoumaru saw true fear reflected in the silver eyes. He aimed Bakusaiga at the villain’s throat.

But then Pian’s terrified expression dropped and his confident smile returned. “Kan!”

Sesshoumaru realized his mistake. Having pushed Pian back in their fight, he was now more than dozens of meters away from the younger brother, who was jumping off the dragon and pouring more red liquid on the ground.

He’d fallen for their trick.

The scent of coppery blood filled the air as it seeped between the cracks in the rocks. Aki and Kiara landed while Yohito and Kohaku stared in horror, with the terrible insight as to what was coming. Kongomi’s hands were over her ears, her eyes squeezed shut.

Pian rose, completely free of exhaustion, dusting off his clothes. “As I said, you might be the better swordsman, but I am a far superior tactician. This was positively delightful to arrange, but I must thank you.” He paused as the earth beneath their feet started to rumble. “I was not expecting the present you brought me.”

Sesshoumaru shot him a withering look.

“I don’t suppose you know, but this sword,” Pian gestured to Ryushin , “has some very special properties that I am slowly becoming acquainted with. In fact, one of them I only learned about today.” He circled around Sesshoumaru, towards the blood stains that were starting to shine in a golden color.

“Apparently, this sword remembers the last living thing it cut. During our fight earlier, I could feel its bloodlust rising, beckoning me to find the source and end its life, which means the prey was close.” Pian flicked the blade down to poke at the shining marks. “But I am very interested in satisfying the dragon slayer: I shall have so much fun tracking down my target.”

Anger welled up inside as Sesshoumaru carefully eliminated all the possible persons that could have been touched by the blade. When the full realization hit, his eyes became tinged with red, his fangs began to grow, his face markings turned ragged.

“You had me fooled for quite some time, but I am very happy to see that dear Rin is alive. I am not sure how it came to be that her blood was the last the sword tasted.” He raised Ryushin and moved into a fighting stance. “But I suppose I have your aunt to thank for that.”

In an instant, Bakusaiga was away and Sesshoumaru began transforming - growing larger as his form became more canine and he rose to tower over the space. It had been a long time since he assumed his daiyoukai shape, but if his last run-in with a dragon was any indication, Bakusaiga and Tenseiga would be of no use here.

He was vaguely aware that the rest of the group was flying away and he detected Rin heading northbound at a rapid pace. Mind at ease, the giant dog turned to snarl at the obsidian dragon curled in the crater, fangs bared.

And not a moment too soon. From the ground erupted a cloud of dirt, stones, and other debris, knocking Sesshoumaru off of his feet. A deep, dark cloud filled the area and as he recovered his footing, he could sense that the others had fled the area.

As the smoke began to clear, he braced himself for the worst, for that what was lay before him: another dragon, a perfect mirror of the first. Pian and Kan perched on the crowns of each, urging the beasts forward.

Red eyes locked on pairs of reptilian yellow as the three daiyoukai clashed.

Sesshoumaru’s jaw locked around one of the dragon’s throats, but his teeth slid over smooth scales, trying to find purchase - a single chink in the impenetrable armor. The other dragon opened its mouth wide, a giant glow forming behind a row of needle teeth. There was no notice as the light became brighter and hotter before blasting out as a wide flaming breath.

Singed, he shook his head to clear the soot out of his sensitive nose and blinked rapidly to cease the stinging sensation in his eyes. Both dragons pounced on the opportunity; the first clawed up Sesshoumaru’s flank, digging deep gashes that oozed copious amounts of blood. The second fired another searing attack that burned his fur on the other side.

With his forelegs slashed and raw, he dropped, chin slamming into the the rocks. Twin pairs of dragon paws pushed into his shoulders. He writhed beneath the crushing weight, but he was locked in place.

Pian slid down the face of his dragon and slowly meandered over to the giant muzzle. He drew Ryushin and tapped the tip of the blade against the top of Sesshoumaru’s nose, against the fur turned rust-colored by blood and fire.

“Is that all you have? I am thoroughly disappointed.” He strolled over to one giant red eye and saw his image reflected. “Though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised: your ilk were never a match for true power.”

Snarling, Sesshoumaru’s lip curled back, exposing a deadly, angry smile. He snapped, but the heavy feet on his back kept him well out of range from biting his enemy.

“If we had known it would be this simple, we would have attacked years ago. I was hoping for more of a challenge.” Pian turned to face his brother and called out, “Kan!”

“What, Pian?”

“I was just telling Sesshoumaru-kun here that I was hoping for more of a challenge. What do you think?”

“I think we kill him!” Kan called back down.

Pian shook his head. “No. That will not do: your forefathers destroyed ours and we were the ones that felt pain. You’ve been allowed to live your perfect little life; now you will suffer as we have suffered.”

He snapped his fingers and one of the dragons raked its hind claws down the length of Sesshoumaru’s back. Another snap of the fingers and this time, flesh was ripped from his ears. The daiyoukai growled, swallowing a cry of pain as blood streamed out of the fresh wounds. Hind legs scratched against the dirt as he tried to rise, only to be squashed down with razor sharp grips.

“Oh, that does give me an idea,” Pian mentioned mockingly. Sesshoumaru couldn’t help but think that the little imbecile was utterly full of it, but focused on staying conscious.

Kan dropped down from his dragon and joined his brother, arms crossed, and murderous intent on his face. Pian’s false amusement dissipated as well.

“To truly experience the anguish that we went through, we’re going to take away the piece of this world that you love the most. Only then will we allow you to die” he said lazily running Ryushin under Sesshoumaru’s eye. “You stay here - Kan will keep you company while I take care of dear, darling Rin-chan.”

A canine whine actually escaped from his throat as his struggle to rise began with renewed vigor. Rin was in danger and he yelled at himself: Get up you pitiful excuse for a youkai! His form was held fast. Muscles strained and he forcibly tried to get back on his feet through sheer brute force. Is this the best you can do, welp?

Pian sheathed Ryushin. “I’ll leave him to you, Kan. Just don’t kill him - yet.” He walked out of sight, but his footsteps were audible before slowly fading.

Sesshoumaru bucked and twisted, but he was held fast. Despite the futility of his efforts, he continued to try. Are you or are you not the Lord of the Western Lands? Do not disgrace yourself by conceding to worthless adversaries !

But even his self-derision was beginning to lose bite as exhaustion from blood loss set in.He closed his eyes for a moment, gathering his strength for another surge when he picked up two scents approaching. Why would those fools return?

“Take that!” and the sound of metal on metal clanged.

Eyes open wide, his vision came into focus: Yoihito and Kohaku were engaged in a furious exchange of cuts and parries with Kan, the former with a sword, the latter whipping his chained sickle. Keeping a healthy distance from that encounter, Kongomi edged her way over to where the dragons had him pinned down, Kiara and Aki by her side. Her hands were still over her ears and she winced every few steps. Then she carefully shifted her fingertips to her templates and scrunched her eyes very tightly.

At first nothing happened. What is that girl trying to do?

Then the screams began: tormented sounds released from the mouths of the dragons as the pair lifted their paws for a few seconds to bat their own ears. Kongomi yelled with an agony of her own, trickles of blood running from her ears, down her jawline and Sesshoumaru didn’t need to be told twice.

Heaving to his feet, he slunk out of the twins’ grasp and began running towards Rin.

* * * * *

The explosions filled her ears, but Rin stayed on course. Sesshoumaru had trusted her to stay alive and if that meant running away, then she would do that to the best of her ability. She tried to block out roars and screams of animals locked in combat. As much as she wanted to turn around, to confirm that the demon lord was fighting tooth and nail, the top priority was hiding.

Wasting no time, they dove down into a forest. From the ground, the trees were so closely clustered that the sky was obscured. It could have been early evening, for all she could tell. The woods were completely devoid of life and for the second time that day, Rin couldn’t discern if her shivers came from the cold air or perhaps a more sinister force.

A hiding spot - that was what they needed. A place to seek refuge until the fighting had died down. But even just a few steps forward revealed a new problem: the same trees that concealed them from above, were preventing A-Un from moving. The spaces between the trunks being too small for such a large creature.

Here was not safe enough, but further they could not go. Stay here and remain vulnerable to attack? She shook her head. That would leave them both dead. Return to the skies? The vision of Harika and Jiro’s wrecked bodies floated to the front of her mind. Pian and Kan wanted her suffering or dead. She could not drag A-Un into the same fate.

Tears dripped down her cheeks. As much as she might admonish Sesshoumaru for abandoning his friends and allies, here she was, about to make the same decision.

Was this what it felt like? To leave behind the ones you loved?

Pulling out her dagger, she cut them free of the saddle and harness they had worn for so many years. Then she released them from the bridle and reins. Sensing melancholy within her, both of the dragon’s heads crooned mournfully, bumping their noses against her sides. “Shhhh,” she soothed, smoothing down their scales and dark green hair one last time. With a quiet pat, she began to walk east, away from both the fighting and A-Un.

A few yards away, she suddenly heard the sounds of distress as they tried to follow her. “No!” she shouted as loud as she dared. “Go away! You can’t follow me!” A sob bubbled up in her throat and her words came out choked. “Save yourself.”

She reached down to grab some rocks to deter them further, but the dragon was silent, unruffled. Eyes, still and smooth, bore into her own watery gaze, neither judging nor questioning. Blue flames flickered to life at their feet and they rose to the treetops.

Rin wiped away the tear tracks, but knew that it would be many days before the tears in her heart stopped flowing. Then she struck out in what she hoped was a north-eastern direction to keep the enemy off her heels.

But luck was not with her. For only minutes after she sent A-Un away, a voice ran out in the dusk-like light of the woods.

“Hello, my dear.”

The words came from nowhere and yet, they came from everywhere. Rin ducked behind a large tree, drawing her sword.

“Do you know how to use that?” This time the voice was closer, or was it farther? Possibly off to the right?

Letting out a shuddering breath, Rin tried to stop the shaking in her hands. With a tree at her back, she scanned the area.

“Surprised to see me?”

She swung her sword blindly as a face materialized out of the murky shadows, but a pale grey hand grabbed her wrist, and squeezed tightly. Rin dropped her sword as her arm was lifted into the air, leaving her dangling a few inches above the ground.

“We meet again, my dear,” Pian said with cruel bemusement written across his features.

Rin spat in his face. “I’m not your dear - stop calling me that.”

He wiped the spittle from his face, looked at it on his index finger, before extending a dark blue-gray tongue to lick the finger clean. “Now, there’s no need for that. Afterall, we do have some time to play around before we get down to business.”

“I have no time for you.” She curled up her core muscles to bring her legs up, she pushed her feet out against his chest, while bringing her face up to bite his hand.

Apparently shocked, he actually dropped her and she landed heavily on one of her ankles. She kneed him in the groin and limped away as quickly as she could. Frantically, she sought any sort of spot that would allow her to keep out of sight. A small ravine!

She slid down the earth, using the branches of the trees that grew there to stop her fall. At the bottom, there was a crevasse, a crawl space between the massive roots of an old, dead tree. She scrambled into the hole and froze, covering her mouth with her hands to hide her adrenaline-fueled breaths.

A wave of red energy crashed through the forest and trunks shattered around her. Protected by only a small wall of dirt, Rin struggled to keep from crying out. A few teardrops seeped out in fear.

“That was unnecessarily barbaric, Rin-chan. We have such an intimate relationship; I do hope we can be more cordial in this time we have left.” His voice was close, extremely close. “You really are lovely, my dear. It’s such a shame that I have to end you.”

Her lips started to bleed from where she had been biting back her ragged breaths and whimpers. Nothing compared to being hunted down: not when she was about to be eaten, not when she was suffocating in a cage of her own body, not when the wolves ripped her apart half a lifetime ago.

“You needn’t worry: I will wait until your Sesshoumaru-sama is watching. That’s when it’ll happen. You can come out now - I promise.” He must have been right above her. She froze, not even attempting to make herself smaller.

As soon as he moved away, she would make a dash - twisted ankle or not. He might not kill her, but he could make her wish he would.

“Did I tell you? Ryushin remembers blood it has tasted already; it throbs when it draws close. I know not how, but apparently you have been sliced by this sword. And now it sings out for you.”

Confusion shot through her mind. How did he have the sword? But even more so - what did he mean? She had been cut by it before?

Her muddled pause cost her dearly.

There were footsteps heading towards her.. Uneven and searching, closer and closer. He must be nearly upon her.

Shaken, she placed her hands by her side. Taking a deep breath, she counted. One...two…three!

With all the energy left her bound, she leapt out of her hiding place, but her right hand was snagged immediately. Knocked off balance, she grabbed a dagger from her sheath, whirled around to strike her opponent in the chest.

It was Sesshoumaru, burnt, bloodied, far worse than she had ever seen him.

He tugged her arm to draw her closer and she dropped the dagger to bring her other arm around shoulder to his back. She felt him tense and she could feel an all-too-familiar stickiness. “Sesshoumaru-sama?” she queried with wide eyes. How badly are you hurting?

Pulling back, he placed his forehead against hers and rested his nose against her own. Somehow, girlish crushes and blushing were another time, miles ago. There was nothing except surviving...together. The gesture was over as soon as it started.

Just as he had done days before, he turned around and knelt. Rin gasped. His white kimono, his hair, his fur mantle - all drenched in deep, dark blood, at least what was left of it. Armor in tatters, even his hair was shorn and mantle sliced through. Holding tears at bay, she climbed on his back and prepared to hold on as tight as she could.

To her shock, she felt him hook his arms under her knees, just as she had seen Inuyasha do for Kagome so many times before. Neither of them was taking any chances.

Then all she felt was the wind as he leapt into the air and made for the cover of clouds. If they could make it back to Inukimi’s castle, hidden from the mortal realm, they could recover and fight another day.

So focused on their goal, neither of them noticed Pian also rise from the shadows of the tree tops, draw Ryushin , point the sword in their direction, and let it go.

Thud.

“Sesshoumaru...sama…” Rin murmured as her grip on his shoulders slackened. He came to an abrupt stop and reached to bring her around to an easier hold in the front. Ice shot through his veins, straight to his heart.

Ryushin was embedded in her back, poking out through her chest. As he reached for the sword, it twitched and pulled out with a splash of blood, hurtling back to Pian, who stood with his hand outstretched.

“Go.” Sesshoumaru looked at Rin. “He’s...not with...the dragon. You can kill…” her voice faded.

“Rin.” Her eyelids fluttered. “Rin.” She blinked and her eyes focused on his once more. “Do not fall asleep.”

Her hands grasped at his sleeves. “Get Pian...you may...never get...this chance again.” She drew a ragged breath and coughed, flecks of red against her lips.

He frowned, face dark.  Anyone who could help was hours away. He wrapped her closely in his arms, pressing hands over the wound on her back, trying to abate the flow, saving even a few minutes.  That bastard would pay, but that was not important now.

Taking out Bakusaiga, he released a flash of energy, while swiftly soaring over the forest, covering as much distance he could. It only took a minute, but he arrived at a mountain far to the west. There, he settled on an outcropping, his body and heart in quiet agony.

“Sesshou...maru-sama?” Her quiet question drew his gaze. “You didn’t...go?” She reached out to gently brush his face. “To be...honest...I’m...glad.” She smiled softly, but after a moment, tears started to slide down the sides of her face and her smile wavered. “I’m scared.”

At a loss, Sesshoumaru carefully brushed them away, but more soon trickled out. What were you supposed to do? More of her warmth seeped away and her breath grew more shallow. What could he do?  

“Sesshou...ma...ru…?” There was a pang in his chest to hear his name without the honorific he had grown accustomed to. Her eyes were already unfocused. “Are...you…?”

Carefully, making sure not to disturb her form, he reached over to pull out Tenseiga. The blade glinted in the late afternoon sun; he took her hand in his and meticulously arranged her fingers around the hilt. “This is Tenseiga. The denizens of the netherworld cannot harm you while you bear this sword. I bequeath this to you.”

Rin’s fingers gripped the sword and a tiny wave of relief snaked through him. At least she would be protected where she was going.

“I…” Imperceptible, barely above a whisper, Rin struggled to get the words out. “I…”

Then she was gone.

The sun dipped low in the sky, sinking below the horizon. Red hues faded into blue and eased into deep purple. Stars blinked one by one, until there was a huge expanse of twinkling bodies in a vast ocean. The moon rose, casting a glow over the world.

A solitary figure stood, walking over to the mountain. Light reflected off of a katana that sliced through the night, small crescents of energy digging into the stone. Once the small amount of crumbling subsided, the figure stode into the mountainside.

The moon rose, casting a glow over the world, reached its zenith. It was many hours later, nearly at the dawn, when the figure reemerged. A large boulder was pushed over the entrance.

Sesshoumaru walked to the of the ledge and turned for a second, bathed in the moonlight.

Sayonara, Rin.

Chapter Text

Act II – Prologue

Sayonara, Rin.

With those words, Sesshoumaru, Lord of the Western Lands, departed into dawn that had just begun to cusp over the horizon.

Several hours passed and the sun greeted the new day, as it always had, warming the chilled air and breathing life into the flora and fauna for a few more weeks before the world fell into a blissful sleep for the winter.

The bright skies and clear breeze belied the tragedy that had befallen the night prior, almost in spite, as if to proclaim that it was just another day. And it was just that: another normal day.

Except for one person.

That cloaked figure approached on the horizon, emerging from the fog. Swiftly, it drifted to the mountainous outcrop and stood where Sesshoumaru had. With an air of annoyance, it strode forward, waved an arm and the pile of rocks that stood at the entrance shattered. With a quick sweep inside, the figure stepped inside.

The small cavern was empty save for one figure laid on the floor, with hands wrapped around a katana hilt.

"My dear child, what a fool he was," the figure sneered and it delicately stroked the young maiden's face. Her brow appeared to glow and the figure stepped back. This time, it made a series of gestures. Suddenly a giant, black gaping hole appeared on the floor as Rin's body sunk into the darkness.

The hole shrunk away as quickly as it had appeared and the figure brushed off their hands, metallic eyes gleaming in the dark.

"And that will take care of that."

 

Chapter Text

Sunset, the previous day…

“Did you get them?” Kan asked, alert and perched behind the primary horns on his dragon’s head, slowly coming up on his brother. “Tell me you ended the dog whelp.”

Pian tilted his head thoughtfully and then slowly turned to look back into the darkening forest he had exited. “No.”

Kan clicked his heels against the dragon’s scales and brought himself closer. “Are you insane?”

His brother chuckled and murmured, “Perhaps I am.” Out loud he said, “Consider it a passing moment of sentimentality. A moment of respite for our little demon lord to mourn.”

Shrugging he turned away and regarded the palm of his hand. “I feel it would be somewhat empty and pointless if we attack while he is distracted with dear Rin consuming his mind.”

Kan squinted incredulously, but threw his hands up in the air. “Fine, but if it turns out that you destroyed all the work we’ve been doing because of your,” and he sneered sarcastically, “passing moment of sentimentality, then I’ll kill you myself.”

“I never imagined anything less,” Pian smiled cruelly. “And never fear, I shall pay them a visit in the morning. I do have to make sure that there is no way to undo my handiwork.”

He clapped his hands together and then rubbed them with malicious contemplation.

“Now come, let us plan our next move, for our revenge begins renewed tomorrow.”

☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

Someone was going to pay.

Last night was filled with questions that went unanswered, uncertainty hanging in the air, choked with doubt:

What could he have done differently that would have kept her alive? Was he wrong all this time to keep her by his side when he knew that danger lurked in every corner? Would her memory haunt him for the rest of his days?

While the night began as a starlight vigil, a tranquil reverie to request safe passage for her soul, somewhere in the darkest hours the anger rose fo the surface. His blood boiled as the twinkling lights in the sky blinked out one by one until only the moon illuminated the sky.

It came down to that damn sword: the same one his aunt had proudly flaunted as the sole way to take down the beasts that taken Rin from him. And yet, somehow it had been the weapon that brought about her undoing.

If his aunt could not be trusted to hold on to her own things, which made her an insufferable fool. If she betrayed the clan, then she could not be trusted at all.

Either way, she would pay for tearing away that which he held most dear.

He paused and looked upon Rin’s face one last time. She was dear to him, wasn’t she? The faintest wisp of a dream lost floated in his vision: an image of his brother and the priestess blurred into a different pair of figures. Could they have shared that life? He glanced down and away, effectively dispelling the dog.

None of that was of any consequence. Tomorrow was nothing. The harsh reality of today rendered Rin into little more than fragment of yesterday and unlike the Shikon no Tama , collecting the shards would not bring her back.

He gracefully touched his fingertips to her cold cheek and the briskly walked out of the small cave. Fueled with an irate irritation, he pushed a boulder over the entrance to protect the tiny sanctuary where she rested.

Fuming, he strode to the edge of the cliff, ready to take off into the night, but he stopped.

For one final time, he turned back to her and for a second he could imagine a ghostly visage, rippling and translucent. When he blinked, the young woman was gone, perhaps never there to begin with.

He leapt into the air, lancing through the clouds, streaking across the dawn that was crawling over the horizon. His mother might be able to hide her castle from others, but not from him.

☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

Inukojo lazily strolled through a seeming labyrinth of corridors until came across a great wooden door that was reinforced with iron studs and bands. She pulled on the great metal rings and let herself inside.

Steep stairs led down into the darkness, illuminated only by the flickering flames of torches up against the walls. She enjoyed the light clacking sound of her boots against the stone steps, the faint scuff on the rough surface when she didn’t lift her feet quite quick enough. And the rest?

Silence.

Her descent ended in a narrow hallway, lined with prison bars. She halted her promenade in front of one of the cells.

“Have you come to your senses?” She rolled her neck to look at her daughter, who was clad in manacles that dug into the walls. “I had hoped that spending the night would allow you to clear your mind.”

“Mother, you are making a grave mistake.” Even in captivity, Tsukiakari was as poised as ever – not a hair out of place, not a single wrinkle in her clothing. Even her expression was flooded with concern with no thought to her own circumstance.

Inukojo gripped the bars of the cell that had held Sesshoumaru’s little human pet only days ago. “I think not. I’m correcting the course of fate.”

Tsukiakari frowned. “It was not your fate to possess this castle, to control these lands. That was gifted to your sister, her husband, and her children. The only thing you are doing is breeding resentment and sowing discontent between our families.”

Her mother clicked her tongue. “You are still so young that you cannot see. My little sister did not hesitate to use her trickster ways to steal my place and she would not spare a second thought to bring me down again. I am merely protecting my future and the futures of all my family.”

“Allying with those dragon demons is a dangerous move.”

“I thought I had made it clear,” Inukojo snapped, whipping her head to renew her focus on her daughter. “They are not our allies. I am trapping them: give them the sword, give them a false sense of security. They will let down their guard and then I will recall the sword and completely destroy them.”

“Yet, you won’t until the rest of the dragons have been summoned.” Tsukiakari’s tone and eyes were hard. “When Sesshoumaru-dono has no choice, but to concede to your demands.”

Before her mother could reply, a thunderous slam reverberated through the castle.

“Ah, that would be my nephew, demanding an explanation no doubt.”

It was indeed Sesshoumaru, storming down into the dungeon. His gaze flicked momentarily to his cousin before he grabbed Inukojo by the collar, hauling her up against the flagstone walls.

“What did you do?” he demanded, each word pointed and barbed.

“I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about,” she replied with a face full of confidence.

“They had the sword. They killed Rin.”

Tsukiakari gasped at his announcement. His grip intensified and he lifted his aunt enough that she needed to raise slightly to the balls of her feet to keep herself on the group.

“Well, I cannot say that I know what happened, but you need not worry your pretty little head. If all you want is to end this terrible mess, then all you have to do is comply with my request from earlier and the sword is yours.”

“Your promises are empty without any weight. Do not try my patience.” He squeezed a bit harder and Inukojo’s twisted smile turned up even further.

“Do not try mine.” In a second she was on the ground, feet away, arms outstretched with the glittering red blade of Ryuushin. “I do not make false commitments. One word and you can have your revenge.”

At this moment Inukimi floated down the stairs, gently wafting a fan by her chin in order to conceal her face, but failing to hide her eyes, darting between her two nearest blood relations, excited.

Sesshoumaru stared at his aunt and for a second, seemed to be on the cusp of rejecting her outright, the stripes on his face ragged, eyes tinged with red.

“Fine.” He turned on his heel and strode out.

All three of the ladies of the Inu clan were stunned. Inukojo was the first to react, letting out a short, course laugh. “That was easier than I thought. I’ll have my stewards begin preparations immediately.”

“Preparations for what?” Tsukiakari queried with a voice that quivered in fear or anger – it was difficult to say.

“Your marriage, my darling daughter. Although I have his word, I want there to be no question as to the legality of the arrangement, especially with regards to ownership and property.” Inukojo pensively took her leave, but on the way out, she placed her hand upon Inukimi’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry, sister of mine. You will be permitted to stay here, if you wish. I’m not so heartless as to cast out my own kin.”

Inukimi’s face betrayed no internal emotion as she watched Inukojo close the door. In one fluid motion, she waved a hand and the chains binding Tsukiakari slithered into shadow snakes that dissipated.

Tsukiakari looked at the magic in wonder and not a moment later, when she looked up again, her aunt was gone.

Now there was no time to consider what her aunt might be doing, for there certainly was work to be done elsewhere. As much as she might harbor affection for her mother, she was not about to let this nefarious plot run its course. Swiftly she swept through the halls until she found herself outside of Sesshoumaru’s quarters.

She rapped her knuckles against the door. “Sesshoumaru-dono, we need to talk.”

Hearing no response, she pushed her way into the room. The lord of the western lands was standing primly, staring out of the open window.

Tsukiakari made her way to his side. “You cannot do this, Sesshoumaru-dono. My mother is taking advantage of your grief and your anger. She does not possess the sword. That was merely an illusion to-”

“I am aware.”

“And you intend to walk right into this trap?” she sternly asked. “You must realize that she intends to see us wed and then send you to your grave.  Even if you do survive, have you put any thought into what will happen once the threat is over? My mother will have your exiled.”

“And what of it?”

Her mouth dropped before she remembered her manners and daintily covered her faux pas. Her words were much less gentile: “Are you always idiotic or is today a special occasion?”

With this insult flung in his direction, he did acknowledge her, his eyes beginning to glow again. “Yes, please, direct your fury at me, so you can make yet another stupid decision.” She shot in his direction. “Did Rin-san mean nothing to you?”

He flew to her in an instant and pushed her up against the wall, arm pressed against her throat. Yet she deftly tossed him off, surprise showing on his face.

“I am not a doll that can be so easily crushed and pressured. I hold the same power and prestige as you, Sesshoumaru- san , “ she appended a lower honorific to his name in a biting retort.

“Watch your tone. Your magic tricks, your power , is not enough.  Do not imagine yourself to be on the same playing field. There is nothing you can do.”

“That is where you are wrong. I can walk away and the sword will be beyond your reach.”

“Foolish. We can still be bound to each other even if you are not there.” His fury had hardened into an icy coldness.  “That sword will be mine and I will have those demons’ spilled on the ground by nightfall.”

“I certainly won't become your wife with that attitude.” She surged forward and grabbed the alabaster skin of his forearm.

“What do you think you are doing?” He tensed his muscles and gave his arm a hard shake, but her strength rivaled his own - a warrior's grip.  “You...have trained.”

She closed her eyes, “More so than you. I can swing a sword and do this.”

Without any hesitation, the two disappeared as the sun finished burning through the early morning dew.

☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

Kohaku awoke with a start and instantly wished he hadn’t. Piercing into his side was a sharp pain. He rolled onto his side with a cough and felt a wetness expel from his throat. Cracking his eyes open, the world blurred in his vision, but the flecks of red laid out as shiney black droplets against the leaves.

Blink once. Blink twice. Breathe.

He rolled his head gently to assess his surroundings. Trees, uprooted. Broken branches, scattered dirt and rocks.  A small mass of pale fur was nearby.

“Kia..ra” With a wince and a massive jab into his chest, he rolled onto his stomach, heaving from the agony. What had happened?

Stretching out his hand, the ground spun, forcing him to drop his head to the ground. Letting his eyes close for a few seconds, he struggled to remember how he had ended up like this.

There was a trap. Several traps. We tried to stop them, but it was too late. Rin. Rin! She ran away. I tried to follow her, but the dragon stopped me. The dragons. Massive beasts. Sesshoumaru changed, and then he went to Rin. I wanted to, but Kiara couldn’t…

His eyes flared open and he squinted, trying to focus on his youkai companion. “Ki...a...ra…” He rose onto his elbows, but immediately flopped down again as his muscles screamed. Short huffs of breath kept him going, but Kohaku had been injured enough to know this was bad. If he couldn’t get up, both he and Kiara were goners.

The trees rustled with a sudden rush of wind.

“Why are we here? What exactly was the intent of that little stunt?” A deep voice echoed in the clearing.

Then Kohaku’s vision was filled with silvery, shimmering cloth. Gentle hands carefully turned him onto his back, pushing the blackness on the edges of his sight, dark spots blocking his ability to see their faces.

“Is he not one of your allies? He is gravely wounded and we can bring him to the help he needs.”

The delicate hands pressed onto his chest and he gasped, but then exhaled as a warmth stole over him, relaxing his body and pumping pure energy through his veins. Everything started to feel heavy and his eyelids drooped. Ah, healing sleep.

Before he slipped under, he managed to twitch his arm towards Kiara and uttered his name.

The kind voice replied, “Yes, we have him too. Now, be at peace. We have you.”

But there was one more.

“Rin…” he murmured as the blanket of drowsiness wrapped around him. He slipped under before he could hear their reply.

☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

Inuyasha stood on the edge of his homestead, nose twitching. Despite the sun’s arrival, the land was still quiet. Too quiet. His ears flicked back at the sound of Kagome’s approach.

“They failed.”  He could hear the tiniest intake of breath. “The wind smells like demons; strong ones. It’s not one that I am familiar with.” He closed his eyes and inhaled. “There is more than one.”

“Inuyasha,” Kagome gripped the sleeve of his fire rat kimono. “Is it time?” Her voice was wavering. A clawed hand covered her own, calluses calming and familiar.  She looked up into the golden eyes that she had trusted with her life time and time again.

“Are you sure I can’t help you?” Her brown irises watery and searching.

He cracked her a melancholy ghost of his usual smirk. “ Baka. You know that your mother can’t take care of the children herself.” His brow furrowed in worry. “Take Shippo with you. The kid isn’t ready for this yet.”

Kagome blinked back tears. “I’ll send him to Sango-chan’s to let them know that we’ll be leaving soon.” She bit her lip and then pressed into his chest. “If you die, I’ll get Sesshoumaru-nii-chan to drag you back from the underworld so I can put you there myself.”

The hand rubbed her head, stroking her hair. “That’s a promise.”  But then his body tensed. Kagome recognized those signs and immediately rushed behind him, out of his line of vision and attack. She needn’t have bothered, as Inuyasha growled and surged forward, Tessaiga drawn.

“You bastard!”

Sesshoumaru stood motionless as his brother brought the blade to within inches from his face. A few paces behind him stood Tsukiakari with a limp body in her arms dressed in demon slaying armor.

“You really did bring back a body!” Inuyasha snarled and drew back his sword. This time Sesshomaru drew his own weapon to block. The metal rattled in their hold. “You better start talking. What did you do with the kid? Was he not worth your time?”

“Inuyasha-dono.” Tsukiakari’s voice cut through the rage. “This is Kohaku-san. I have rendered assistance, but he needs further administrations.” She looked beyond the brothers. “Kagome-san, may I place him in your home?”

Kagome nodded, her hands already clasped over her mouth, tears streaming down her face. The ladies rushed towards the house, the priestess’s muffled sobs quieting as the distance expanded.

“What. Did. You. Do.” Inuyasha broke the lock, but kept his claws and fangs at the ready.

To his surprise, Sesshoumaru sheathed Bakusaiga and drew his claws, swiping. “What did I do? I held her hand - that is what I did.”

Inuyasha dodged as his brother continued, raking his poisonous claws through the air, his voice increasing in bitterness.  “I watched her slip away. I laid her to rest. I said my farewells. I even gave her Tenseiga to keep her safe!”

“Then I submitted to my aunt’s demand so I could take in hand the power I need to avenge her, only to be spirited away by that devil of a cousin.” By this point, he made one final slash, claws trembling in anger as he clenched them into a fist. “I came to my brother to…” he spat out the word, “ ask for the power to bring her spirit to rest.”

Meido. You need Meido .”

Golden eyes met golden eyes. No words fell in the air between them.

“I cannot let them live.” Sesshoumaru’s demeanor was once again the stillness of marble, except for his fist, which cut into his palm, spilling his demonic blood in the dirt.

They were interrupted by an anguished scream, followed by tearful cries. Moments later, Shippo carried the two small children away from the house, nose running and eyes red rimmed, as they also cried in his arms.

Inuyasha jumped into the air and landed right in front of the mourning group. He softly drew his son and daughter to his chest. “Go to Miroku and Sango. Tell them it’s time.”

Rubbing his face, Shippo nodded before summoning his spirit fox bubble and floating away.

“Whatever vendetta you have in your mind, right now we need to keep everyone safe. Wait here. Keep a lookout.” He walked back to his home, leaving Sesshoumaru alone with his thoughts.

☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

After several hours, Pian was able to track down the little sanctuary Sesshoumaru had built.  It had been a bit of a challenge, without Ryuushin's little ability to find her, but the brothers came upon the little cliff outcropping late into the morning.

Kan waited outside, as this was really his brother's side project.  A few short moments he saw his brother emerge, robes aflutter.

Something was off. Pian was distracted as he pulled down his hood.

Now did you take care of her?” Kan asked.  When he didn't get a response, he repeated the question. “Brother?”

Pian was turning the ruby sword over in his hands in heavy contemplation.  

“Brother? Are you still with us?”

At this he did start.  

“What? Oh yes, she's gone.” He gestured at the blade.  “We must tread carefully. There is more deception afoot than I anticipated.”

Kan crossed his arms. “What are you talking about? Didn't you say that us accepting that sword was a trap, but we did it anyway?”

“Shut up. I'm trying to see what that inu witch doesn't want us to see.”

“While your royal highness is seeing, can we get a move on?” Kan patted his dragon.  “You can think of something while we're flying.”

“No.” Pian caught his brother's flippant hand gesture.  “We stay here and figure out our plan. Rushing in will be the death of us.”

“You little shit.  What has you so spooked, huh? You scared of a little bitch?” He smirked at his play on words.

Pian sheathed the sword and turned on his brother.  “When I went in there,” he said pointing at the cave, “... you know what? Nevermind. You won't understand.”

He held up a hand and pointed at the sun.  “We wait until nightfall. At least you can see the sense in waiting for proper cover?”

Kan threw up his arms in exasperation. “Fine.  You win: nightfall we move out.”

☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

The dream started off the way it always had: Sesshoumaru walked a few steps in front of her, fur floating and hair drifting lazily, his figure cutting a majestic silhouette. The amorphous colors around them blended together to vaguely hint that their surroundings could have been anywhere and yet, nowhere at the same time. Calm and comfortable, Rin felt like she was home.

Then, the darkness began to bleed into that abstract painting and Sesshoumaru pulled away.

“Wait! Sesshoumaru-sama! Don’t leave Rin behind!” The dream echoed with her tiny child’s speech, the way that it always did.

The demon lord continued to walk, ignoring her pleas, in the way he always had. The same vision, the same pain.

But he stopped. The background suddenly shifted into a rocky outcropping, reflecting the light of the full moon. Now his hair was tied back, with only bangs and a few delicate strands waving in the night air. With utmost solemnity, he turned to face her.

“Sayonara, Rin.”

Rin could find no words to force from her lips and so she watched in silence as the inky blackness quickly ate away at the vignette, consuming all until nothing remained but the dark.

Her eyes snapped open, only to find that nothing had changed. Her world was a shadowy one, completely devoid of any light, sound, or even air to breathe. Not that it mattered – she was dead, after all.

Once, she managed to convince Kagome to recount what happened when the priestess was trapped in the Shikon no Tama . From what she understood, Rin would have preferred an imprisonment for several centuries in that dastardly gem than continue her existence here.

At least Kagome had the possibility of escape, the hope of rescue, the chance of salvation. Those emotions had no place here.

Wherever here was.

The stories had certainly painted the underworld as a desolate place, full of despairing souls, attempting to end their torment and return to the world of life, of love. Her memories of her last visit to that wasteland had been blurry – she passed out before she could really derive any meaningful context from the strange apparitions that surrounded her.

Perhaps this is what lay beyond the front gate. Souls that had abandoned the fight were destined to drift in empty space for eternity.

With no air, she could not even sigh. Closing her eyes, she surrendered herself to the wandering visions that her mind conjured from her memories. Her favorite game was to imagine what happened to her friends.

No doubt, Kohaku would be very angry. He had spent so many years warning her that she would end up dead and now that she had, well, if she ever saw him again, she would apologize and wait for him to tell her “I told you so.”

She recalled his confession, hurried and awkward, under the stars back in the village. No. Rather than anger, sorrow would surely prevail. If they ever crossed paths, she would need to voice her apologies two-fold: for not listening to his sage advice and for breaking his heart.

And the rest? They would mourn as well. Some, like Kagome, shedding tears fluidly and freely. Others respectively remembering her life, while others still, stoically silent.

Her thoughts turned to Sesshoumaru and into which category he might fall: she had never once seen him display any sort of sympathy or sadness in all the years they had known each other. Would he have gotten angry? Would he have said anything? Would he even remember her?

Luckily, crying was no longer in her repertoire. This plane cancelled everything. She was left with naught but her thoughts and the futile motions of moving against empty space.

‘Let them be safe,’ she threw a prayer up to the unseen powers that be.

‘Let who be safe?’

Her body pulsed with a jolt. Surely she must be imagining things?  There was no one here. Most definitely not the owner of a whispery, gravelly voice.

‘Who are you?’

‘The question is: who are you?’

Again, her consciousness was filled with a deep tone that was ragged, from age or injury, it was impossible to tell.

‘I asked you first!’ She shot back defiantly.

‘Do you really think that is wise, you insignificant little thing?’

‘What, do you mean talking to you? Probably not, but what do I care – I’m dead.’ She admitted honestly, but she continued to keep her tone a little biting. She wouldn’t go down without a fight!

After a few seconds of silence, it appeared that their exchange was done and Rin believed that she had conjured the entire affair out of unrelenting boredom.

But then a low chuckle began to rumble across the space, the kind that made her hair stand on end as the papery tone grated across her nerves. Seems like she wasn’t quite done with this weirdo.

‘Oh good. I thought I was going crazy for a minute there.’ Despite the futility of it all, she pulled Tenseiga in front of her, eyes darting, searching for her potential foe.

The snickering evolved into a full-throated laugh. ‘Yes, yes, just like that, little one. Wield that sword!’

‘If you can see me, than you should be able to see this.’ She rolled her eyes pointedly. ‘Do you think you are the first creature to mock me?’

‘Of course not. You are puny and frail. I assume that everyone would be mocking you at every turn. No, I am not the first.’

A few more seconds of silence passed.

‘Are you going to do something?’

‘Do something?’

Rin would have sighed if there was air to exhale and then went on to explain pointedly as if to a child. ‘Are you planning on attacking me?’

‘No. Why would I do that?’

Flabbergasted, Rin shot back: ‘Then why, oh “magnanimous one”, are you taunting me?’

‘I find it relaxing.’ The next sound was akin to a mental yawn. ‘There hasn’t been a single living soul to speak to since I arrived; you’re the first one.’

Interesting choice of words, Rin thought to herself. Certain aspects of this situation were beginning to click for her.

‘This isn’t the underworld, is it?’

‘Of course not. Why would you think that?’

‘I don’t know, maybe because I was cut in the back with a sword, bled out, and died?’ She filled her comment with cynicism to keep off the sting that came with the truth.

‘So close, but yet, so far.’

Rin squinted her eyes in confusion. ‘Would you mind not speaking in riddles?’

‘Actually, I would mind if I were. Fortunately for you, I am not speaking in riddles, so I do not.’

That cleared everything right up. Clearly this individual was playing the long game. ‘Would you be so kind as to elaborate in detail with regards to your meaning on your statement around being so close and yet so far?’

‘Excellent puny flesh lump! Well done!’ Was that applause she was hearing? ‘As a reward, I shall divulge the meaning of my phrasing to you.’

‘I did not misspeak when I said that you were the first living soul to grace this space with me. Your claim that you were cut with a sword, bled out, and tragically died is not completely accurate. From where I stand, you are not dead.’

‘How so? I’m not breathing. My heart is not beating.’ She lowered the sword.

‘You possess both a soul and body. What more do you desire?’

Maddeningly cryptic. She cracked a tiny smile. Even Sesshoumaru was never quite this evasive. ‘Are you telling me there is a way for me to return?’

‘That depends on to where you are attempting to return.’ The voice paused and Rin could imagine the grandiose gestures of an orator. ‘This is the underworld and yet, it is not.’

Rin grit her teeth in frustration. ‘Earlier you clearly told me that this was not the underworld. How can it not be the underworld and be the underworld at the same time?’

‘That was then, and this is now. Everything constantly shifts and our world changes. What once was can become nothing, the never of yesterday can slide to become the forever of tomorrow, and we are bound to that chaotic shift.’

‘Are you talking about time?’

‘But of course child, to what did you think I was referring?’

Rin shrugged and threw up her free hand in exasperation. ‘While this conversation has been fascinating, I don’t see what it has to do with my lack of death.’

‘What do you think death is?’

Her irritation popped as new curiosity bubbled up within her.  She moved to open her mental mouth, but snapped it shut, faced with a question that she had rarely contemplated. What was death? It signaled the end of one’s life, but what did that even mean?

‘Your body lets go and your soul is taken to the underworld?’ She hazarded a guess.

‘A perfectly valid way to view the situation. Let us assume you are correct, that your body stops functioning and then your soul is ferried to another time, another place.’ The voice had adopted a spark of excitement. ‘If that is the case, why do you think your body stops functioning?’

She rubbed her temple and sincerely wished for the first time in her life that she had actually tried to list to Miroku when he had broached these types of theoretical topics. That morning her goal had been to find the dragon princess and prevent their foes from summoning dragons – not debate her existence with an unknown power!

‘The soul…?’

‘Well spoken!’ Now delight peppered the strange being’s speech. ‘The soul, the life, and the body are woven together. If the life is absent, the body begins to slow, and the soul detaches. If the body is destroyed, the life…’

The mysterious voice continued to elaborate, but Rin’s mind had already started to accelerate. If what the entity said was true, then she had a soul and a body. All she needed was a bit of life and then she could find a way back.

‘Life!’ She practically shouted her revelation, interrupting the flow of words. ‘You asked me what I wanted: what I want is life. That’s the answer, isn’t it? Do you know how I can get that back?’

The chuckle started soft and dry, like the crinkling of paper, and as it became more pronounced, it became more like a sharp blade, crispy cutting through fruit. Or someone’s skull. Rin stopped cold and carefully brought up her sword again as the laughing continued to grind against her nerves.

‘You are amusing, little one. Our little conversation has been the most fun I have had in an age. I find it intriguing to watch small creatures like yourself work out the intricacies of life. Such infantile minds you all have, so delicate, so fresh. The seasoned veterans have the most delicious conversation, but young ones are lovely too.’

If she could back away, she would have been doing so with all of her might, but such a maneuver was impossible in a world that contained the absence of everything.

‘Then let me spice things up for you a bit more?’ She tossed it out, trying to buy time. ‘If this is the underworld and not the underworld, how can that be?’ Her eyes were open wide and scanning the surrounding area, but there were no changes. ‘Are you trying to imply that the underworld is in the same space but a different time than the rest of the world?’

No reply answered her hastily concocted hypothetical question. She nervously whipped her head around and there, floating in the darkness, were a pair of monstrous yellow eyes.

Without hesitation, she braced herself, Tenseiga in front, a tiny metal glimmer to separate her from the unknown. Just below the sickly gaze, a slit opened into the largest, most malevolent grin she had ever encountered. The fangs were curved and cruel, thin needles the entire length of her body.

‘I suppose you must have heard this from others, but you really are a clever girl. Although, sadly for you, not clever enough. You cannot trick me.’

‘You don’t know that,’ she thought back tempestuously.

‘I most certainly do, my dear.’ Rin flinched at the false endearment that reminded her of the last foes she ran up against. ‘And I would put that sword away, if I were you. You cannot hurt me with such a trifling object.’

‘Let’s see how trifling it is!’ Rin swung with all of her might, just as she had seen Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha do before. Please , she prayed, let something happen – this is my final gambit!

To her surprise, blue flame erupted from the sword, swirling and filling her vision, forcing her to close her eyes against the brightness. Seconds later, she blinked away her blind spots and gaped. Where the looming visage of the creature had been, there was a brilliant tear in the darkness, lined with smoldering flecks of fire. The gap was beginning to close, like a demon’s wound. Tenseiga glowed with a pale blue aura, thrumming, purring almost.

‘I will admit, that was an outcome I did not foresee, but no matter. You will still make an excellent meal!’

Rin whirled around to see her opponent now at her back and then glanced back at the tear. It was only feet away, but without any means to move herself, she could only watch as the doorway closed.

It wasn’t the worst predicament she had faced, but it was definitely a close second.

Then a skeletal hand gripped her shoulder, dragging her backwards. She had no time to think as she was pulled through the gateway mere moments before it sealed.

She instantly fell to the ground and dropped to her knees, using Tenseiga to prop herself up. Sensation flooded her body again – sound, smells, there was air! The packed earth beneath her legs was hard and she relished the tingle of pain that came from her protesting limbs.

Without spending any time to contemplate why she did not need to breathe the air, she focused on hauling her body up to face the figure that had so unceremoniously saved her from…whatever the equivalent of death was for the deceased.

Upon closer inspection, her savior was indeed skeletal, or rather, it was a skeleton. Clawed and draped in white cloth, armor worn down due to a combination of use and age. When they were alive, the demon must have cut a dashing figure with tall posture and broad shoulders. The stringy remains of white hair draped limply over the top of the fleshless head, above the toothy grin that all skulls possess. With enlarged canines.

Rin’s brow scrunched with worry. Another member of the inu clan? She’d faced enough trickery for one day.

“And who are you?” she croaked before clearing her rusty voice. “I’m having a hell of a day, so if you’re going to kill me, just let me know so we can move on.”

The remains of what should have been a warrior titled its neck.

Rather than calming her, Rin continued to struggle to her feet. No response was the worst type of response. Hard to read and even harder to anticipate the next strike. Sure enough, the figure reached out with clacking bones.

Three steps back. Sword up. Eyes trained on the outstretched claws. Do not assume your opponent’s intent.  Sesshoumaru’s sharp instruction came through her mind as through he had been standing next to her.

“Seems as though I can’t let him go, even when I’m dead.” She muttered, even if only to hear sound in the physical world again. Do not get distracted .

“Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time.” The last thing she needed were delusions manufactured by her mind.

Turning her attention back front, the corpse remained frozen, with a hand reaching for Tenseiga , the eye sockets honed onto the blade’s blue glow, which was growing fainter by the second.

Victory does not favor the trepid – attack!  

Where does he keep coming from? Rin was completely confused. They had never spent enough time together on her sword training for these commands to be coming from her memories.

Attack!

“Will you shut up?” she hissed. The momentary distraction proved to be the window of opportunity the skeleton needed. It wrapped bone fingers around the sword and tugged hard, pulling the weapon half out of Rin’s grasp. She clenched her own hands around the hilt and wrenched downwards.

No more playing around.

She brought Tenseiga around in a side sweep, planting her feet firmly in one large step. “Keep your hands to yourself!” she shot over.

Her opponent was ready for her, drawing their own katana to parry with a great clanking and clattering as the two swords crossed, with both fighters pressed their weight behind their blows. The skull moved its jaw to utter a single word.

“Yield.”

Rin blinked. There should be a limit to the number of bizarre occurrences when one was dead. Weren’t they supposed to be at rest? Far from it!

Strange or not, her patience had run out long ago. “Don’t hold your breath.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 19: Rising from the Ashes - Taking a Stand

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Inukojo stormed through the castle, slamming doors and brusquely brushing guards and courtiers alike out her warpath. Eventually, she marched straight down to Inukimi’s room.

Her sister was handing off a cloak to a servant and looking in a mirror for any sort of imperfection in her hair styling.

“I know you had something to do with it.” Inukojo banged open the door and stood in the middle of the room.

“You will need to be a tad bit more specific than that,” Inukimi remarked with almost a melodic tone. She reached up to fix an invisible flyaway.

“Tsukiakari and that son of yours are gone. Nowhere to be found in the castle or on the grounds. This has to be your doing.” She shook an accusing finger in the sorceress’s direction. “You feel threatened because my nephew finally agreed to my terms.”

Inukimi moved on to her impeccable makeup, pretending to adjust her flawless appearance. “Why would I be anything but gracious and immensely happy that my bachelor son has finally agreed to a match? On the contrary, I am relieved. I was so fearful that he would take that little human pet as his partner.”

Inukojo fumed. “Don’t lie to me. We both know that once Sesshoumaru marries Tsukiakari that his inheritance terms will be met and everything you possess will go to him and Tsukiakari, and by extension - me. You don’t like the feeling of having power stripped away from you.” Triumphant, she concluded. “I’m finally taking back what is mine and you can’t stop me.”

“Again, why would I have any desire to stop you?” Inukimi daintily brought her brows together and brought out her fan. “That boy is altogether too hard to persuade and you have done it most dexterously. Forcing him into a vengeful state is original, I must say. I am extremely grateful that you’ve done the work for me.”

She swept like a ghost over the floor. “In fact, I am a bit surprised that it worked so well. He is quite taken with the idea - so much so that he was able to overlook your poor acting.”

“What?” Inukojo snarled.

“You don’t honestly expect any of us to believe that the sword you pulled earlier was the real thing? My son may be a fool, but he is an expert at swords and would have seen through your deception as easily as I do.” Inukimi fanned herself.

“But if I will be completely honest, you told me yourself that you had sent that poor wretched dragon girl with the real weapon as a trap. Logically, that sword couldn’t be the real one.”

Furious at the full scale mockery, Inukojo stomped up to her younger sister. “I will have my destiny.”

Her righteous anger was met with a gentille and cruel smile. “Of course. You will receive everything that is fated for you. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have matters to attend to.” She waved her arm and the door to the room opened without any intervention.

As Inukojo strode to the door, Inukimi could not resist throwing out one last quip: “Now let us hope that your little trick works and sword comes when you call.”

She smiled at her sister’s confused outrage and clarified: “Come now, the walls have ears. I thought you knew that.” And with a final wave of her hand, the door slammed shut.

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“Kohaku-kun, you need to lay down. You’re still healing.” Kagome tenderly pushed the young man back down onto the futon as a roll of sterile bandage wrap rolled onto the floor. “I know this is,” and she wiped the streams on her face with the back of her hand, “hard, but we need to get you bandaged or you’ll die too!”

“He was supposed to protect her. He was supposed to keep her safe!” Kohaku lamented with a ragged voice, breath catching in his throat, forcing him into a series of coughs and blood splattered the ground again. He curled around his sore lungs, trying to find a way to make the pain as small as possible.

Kagome rubbed his back in small circles and brushed back his bangs. She did not make an attempt to abate her tears as they ran down her cheeks. “I am sure he did everything he could.”

A murderous eye glared at her: “Do you honestly think that? Or are you trying to placate me?”

“That is quite enough, young man.” Tsukiakari moved between the venomous gaze and the priestess. “You are in pain. You are hurt. That does not give you the right to hurt others. Kagome-san is trying to help you. If you do not calm yourself, I will do it for you.” She held up her hand, glowing with a golden light.

Kohaku froze and in that stillness, tears bubbled over to silently roll over his skin. His brows came together and he clenched his teeth, biting back the unspeakable torment in his heart. But he was quiet.

Inuyasha returned bearing Miki and Shinobu, his face ashen and forlorn, for Rin had grown into a younger sister figure for everyone in the village. Her loss was felt no less acutely than when he had sent Kikyo beyond.

Kagome finished wrapping the bandages and then took her children into her arms. “Let’s get them through the well. Sango-chan and Miroku-sama will be here soon.”

Tsukiakari watched in amazement as strange clothing, wraps, accessories, and items were gathered and loaded into packs with a design unlike any she had ever seen.

“Come on,” Kagome coaxed her eldest, “we are about to visit Oba-chan for a while.”

At the name, Miki’s expression lit up. “Oba-san? We can watch tee-bee? And eat eye scream?” The modern words rolling off her tongue like tiny balls of lead.

For the tiniest moments, Kagome and Inuyasha glanced at each other. If they didn’t play this right - if they didn’t make it out of this, Miki was going to get a whole lot better at pronouncing those modern words as they became a part of her new life.

“Mama? Papa?” Miki looked curiously between her parents.

Kagome smiled warmly and reached down to grab the little girl. “Yes. But we’ll need to make sure Oba-san doesn’t spoil you too much. Or you’ll turn into a rotten apple.” A tickle under the chin got the toddler giggling.

Over the laughter, she asked, “Tsukiakari-san, would you be able to watch Kohaku-kun? And keep an eye out for Sango-chan? We’ll be a few minutes.”

The demoness nodded and away the family went. They hadn’t been gone for more than a few minutes when the next wave arrived.

She watched distantly as the demon slayer and monk came into the house, also tear stained and grave faced. She observed as Sango gently embraced Kohaku and wept. She witnessed the monk trying to remain stoic as his children wriggled in his arms, confused and distressed by the situation. She gave them privacy and headed outside.

Sesshoumaru was gazing into the distance, without an apparent care in the world. But Tsukiakari could see straight through it: the clenched jaw, the slight wrinkles of skin around his narrowed eyes that swept across the landscape.

“Rin-san’s death was not your fault.” His jaw twitched ever so slightly at the mention of her name, but he remained tight-lipped. “Even if you were charged with her protection, she was her own person, someone who made her own decisions. There is always risk in that kind of freedom.”

Silence.

“I will not tell you to ignore the threat that has come before you; such villains must be dealt with.” She smoothly turned to face him. “But I urge you not to do this for revenge. Do it to save the land, the people in this world of ours. Vengeance is an empty dish that leaves our souls craving more.”

Silence again, but his eyes were more focused and the red tint was back.

Tsukiakari sighed. There was no helping the members of her clan: once they had their mind set on something, there was no swaying them. At least she had tried.

Hearing Inuyasha’s return, she started to head back to the house, but stopped on the dirt path. “When you finally meet Rin-san again, ask her if you did the right thing. Let her answer be the one you were looking for.”

Back in the house, Inuyasha was giving an explanation to the family.

“Kagome is already on the other side with the old lady. We’ll take the kids one at a time. From what we can tell, if one of you is touching me or Kagome, you should be fine.”

“Inuyasha, will this work?” Miroku was warily stroking the heads of his children.

The hanyou crossed his arms. “Hell if I know – we’ve never tried bringing other people through the well before.” Realizing that he let his attitude get the better of him, he reached out to put a firm hold on the monk’s shoulder. “Kagome believes it will. I mean, it worked for Miki and Shinobu and we bring stuff from the other side all the time.”

Miroku gave a nervous smile in response, but was clearly reassured as he stood up and ushered the children out of the house, with Inuyasha following right behind him.

Sango remained behind, dutifully checking on her brother, who had settled into a quiet state, lying on his back, with his eyes closed. The three of them sat, not moving, listening to the wildlife twittering and rustling outside.

Eventually, Inuyasha returned. He helped Kohaku get to his feet and slung the wounded man’s arm over his shoulder, with Sango safely nestled under the other. Slowly and awkwardly, the trio moved.

Tsukiakari watched them head over one of the rolling green hills. Not the idle sort, she got to work on cleaning up the house, tidying away items that were scattered on the floor, sweeping away the ashes from last night’s fire, and putting boards up over the entryway.

Gone even longer than before, it was deeply late into the morning when at last, she spotted white hair on the horizon. He spotted the house and gave her a brief nod of thanks as she joined him in stride.

Before they reached Sesshoumaru, Inuyasha paused. “You know,” he rubbed the back of his head, not accustomed to social niceties, “you could probably go there too. To be safe, if you wanted.”

“That is very generous of you, thank you. But one way or another, I need to make amends for what has happened. These demons are targeting not just my family, but this world. I cannot continue to let that happen.”

“You’re going to fight?” Inuyasha scanned her a bit incredulously, taking in her silken robes, glistening hair flowing down her back, and unscarred skin.

She chuckled delicately, hiding her smile with her sleeve, every inch the perfect courtly lady. With a sweep of her gown, she conjured a cloud that swirled around, concealing her form.

Inuyasha blinked and rubbed his eyes. Now before him stood a warrior maiden, clad in a dark kimono and silver armor, boots and bracers covering feet and hands, hair coiled tightly in braids at the back of her head, and a sword by her side. He noticed a detail on the hem of the sleeves.

“That red mark – Sesshoumaru has it on his robes too.” He raised a brow.

She walked past him towards the demon in question. “It is our house crest – every lord or lady of the house has this symbol embroidered on their battle and ceremonial garments. Although I suspect he hasn’t a clue.”

The two of them joined Sesshoumaru on the hill, under the big tree that had once held a sleeping Inuyasha for decades.

“So what’s your plan?” Inuyasha chided. “Are you going to do anything or is Tensaiga taking care of it?”

Sesshoumaru actually growled at his younger brother. “Hold your tongue, brat.”

“Brat? Is that how you ask someone for help?”

“I’m not asking for your help.”

“Oh really? Then what do you call this? It sure looks like you can’t finish the job without meido .”

Tsukiakari sighed. “Gentlemen, do either of you know where to find the demons in question? I would elect that we start there. You can debate which of you is less useful later.”

Both demons stopped mid insult to look at her in varying degrees of amazement. Neither one seemed inclined to provide any insight in to resolving their dilemma.

“Shall we start with where you encountered them before?” She queried with the patience of a mother on the verge of scolding a pair of children. “I hear no objections.” She placed extremely sturdy grips on both of their shoulders and the trio vanished in a swirl of clouds.

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Kan laid back on the massive snout of his dragon and juggled Ryuushin in his hands. “So how does that recall trick work? I get that it was able to kill the girl because it had struck her before, but how did it know to return to you?”

“I imagine it has something to do with the wielder. Perhaps the length of time they have been in contact with the weapon. It could be the intent of the sword before the blood tracking began. Or,” Pian sat up from his parallel location in a nearby tree, “it could be based on whomever has the strongest will.” He held out his hand to call the sword to him.

Kan gripped the sword in anticipation, preparing to resist an unseen force, trying to gauge the inevitable pull…

He relaxed his hold. “You’re not even trying.”

Pian smirked and leaned back against the trunk of the tree. “Of course. It is infinitely far more amusing to watch you pretend to struggle than to see the actual thing.” He closed his eyes and the smirk vanished, returning to the same unsettled expression he’d had ever since that morning when he came out of the cave. “Now stop bothering me. I am almost done devising our strategy to ensure our success.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Kan cracked his neck and rolled his shoulders. “Do you want to share your master plan with me?”

“What did I just say? I will let you know as soon as I have the details worked out. Now be quiet.”

What a maddeningly unhelpful response, he thought, as he picked at the scarring on his face. Those cursed dogs would get what was coming to them, they would grovel, beg, and suffer at the feet of their mortal enemies. They would be dealt a terrible hand as soon as Pian was done.

Kan froze and then regarded Pian with newfound reflection. “Hey, Pian.”

“What did I tell you?!” His brother’s composure unraveled.

“I’m going to take the dragons on a hunt.” Kan shot a pointed look at the strategist. “Unless that’s going to ruin your beautiful plans-“

“No – don’t be stupid. Just go and let me think in peace!” Pian tossed a branch in his direction. “Unless you want to die right here.”

“No, I’m good.” Kan raised his arms in surrender. “See you later.”

His elder brother didn’t respond, so Kan took that as a sign of approval. He crawled up top his dragon’s head and directed it away from their hiding spot. He slid down the neck and landed next to the other dragon, curled on the ground. It regarded him with a hostile reptilian gaze.

“Don’t be like that, you brute. I bet you’re just as bored as I am. Let’s let off some steam, yeah?” Kan held the dragon slaying sword in front of himself prominently.

The dragon snorted to release a great huff of hot air flow around the small figure, but tilted its head to allow Kan to climb aboard.

“That’s what I thought.” Kan muttered to himself as he scaled the massive hide. “Now to have some fun!”

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“Here, honey.”  A mug of tea popped into Kagome’s view, steaming and frothy. She smiled and cupped the warm beverage in her hands.

“Thank you, Mama” The two ladies of the Higurashi household fondly observed as the combined cluster of children sat with eyes glued to the television set. As the eldest of the group, Kiyoko and Maeko had quickly won the war over the programming lineup, quickly adapting to new technology they had never seen before. Their younger brother swiveled his head between them and Miki, who was also engrossed in the small screen, as though trying to figure out what to do in the situation.

Mrs. Higurashi sipped her tea. “It is good to see you, Kagome.”

“Sorry,” was the sheepish response. “I meant to bring Shinobu over a bit more frequently than this, but things have been…”

“There is no need to apologize. The important thing is that you are here now and you are safe.”

Only a few short hours ago, she had watched as her daughter arrived, distraught, with the children. Shinobu and Miki had been swiftly handed off to their grandmother, but not before Mrs. Higurashi had caught an exchange between Kagome and Inuyasha, one that could very well have been sayonara .

Then, to her surprise, her son-in-law came back with even more people: a young man gravely wounded, and presumably Kagome’s closest friends with their small clan of children. Not completely prepared for so many guests, there was a flurry of activity to ensure everyone had food, clothes, and rest.

Now the initial hubbub had settled, yet, none of the adults appeared any calmer. The young woman with the low ponytail and sturdy kimono had been pulled away to fretfully tend to her injured brother. The Buddhist monk was lost in thought in the corner of the living room, standing at attention as though on watch.

And Kagome smiled, but a mother always knows: minds that were miles away, with thoughts of loved ones.

“I can watch them.”

Kagome started with wide eyes. “Mama -” She was interrupted by an easy touch to the cheek.

“When we are facing our greatest trials, our friends are what keep us from falling.” Mrs. Higurashi smiled. “You don’t have to worry about the children. They will be safe here.”

“Mama,” Kagome whispered, “There is a chance we might not come back.”

“I believe you, but I also believe in you.” It had taken months for her daughter to finally recount the adventures, the terrors, and the nightmares she had experienced during her time travels to the past. “I remember each and every story you told me. It horrifies me to think of the number of times that I almost lost you.”

She rubbed her thumb over Kagome’s cheek. “But the important thing, is that I didn’t. You always came back. I think that’s worth something, don’t you?”

Her daughter gave a watery smile and nodded. “Thank you.”  She went to her friends, gathering them in the kitchen. Mrs. Higurashi followed, preparing to brew another pot of tea.

“I’m home!” A familiar voice called from the entryway. “Oka-san, I need you to sign this permission....slip…”

Sota’s voice faded as he dropped his bag and slowly walked past the horde of tiny zombies, eyes glued to their television. He did a quick headcount and checked on his fingers. Definitely not his sister’s - at least not all of them. He did spot the pair of black dog ears amongst the group, so Miki was here. Who were the others?

He heard voices from down the hall and peeked into the kitchen.

“Welcome home, Sota!” His mother greeted him and then quickly gestured to their guests. “These are Kagome’s friends from beyond the well.”

“Sango-chan and Miroku-sama.” Kagome explained, pointing out a beauty with long hair and a monk who were equally as surprised as he, but much more tense. If Sota were still in middle school, he would not have been able to suppress his inquisitive nature, but now that he was older, reading the room was much easier.

“Hello,” he stated simply and then pointed towards the ceiling. “I’ll go get changed and then I’ll say hi to Miki.”

“Ah, make sure to be quiet. Shinobu is sleeping in Kagome’s room.” His mother prompted.

With a thumbs up, he stealthily made his way up the stairs and to his room. He was halfway pulling off his uniform when he saw his bed was occupied.

The stranger stared at him, bandaged and cautious. Next to him lay a cat...fox...with two tails…? The creature was asleep and equally bandaged.

“Um,” Sota accidentally dropped his tie as he raised his hand in greeting. “Hi - I’m Sota. I’m Kagome’s brother.”  

“I’m Kohaku. Sango is my sister.” The stranger started to get up. “I can see I’m intruding; I’ll excuse myself.”

“No - you’re fine.” Sota shook his head. “I can get changed in the other room. You stay here and…” Looking over the amount of bandaging, Sota debated what word to use. Was rest appropriate given that much damage? “You can stay here and keep recuperating.”

He quickly grabbed his regular clothes and went into his sister’s room, careful not to disturb the napping baby. Once he was done, he looked at the blazer and slacks: they really needed to be hung, so he made his way back to his room.

This time, the woman from downstairs, Sango, was tying her hair up and neatly folding her kimono. Upon his entry, a furious battle of whispers and low murmurs stopped. Sota bowed his head, “Sorry, I just need to hang this, but then I’ll leave.”

Sango finished tugging her armor into place and swiftly bent down to kiss Kohaku on the forehead. “Keep watch over them. I’m counting on you.” Then she picked up her katana and briskly walked out the room.

Awkwardly, Sota sidled over to his closet where his hangers were. Out of the corner of his eye, he couldn’t help but notice Kohaku was clenching his fist, clearly aggravated. As he fiddled with the buttons, he put out a feeler. “If you don’t mind me asking, do you know what’s going on?”

Kohaku whipped his head to the side and glowered. “They’re leaving me behind.”

“Behind? Are they going somewhere?” Sota paused in his work.

“Just to fight a sworn enemy of Sesshoumaru who happens to possess two dragon daiyoukai that can destroy the country and also murdered my….best friend yesterday.” Kohaku spat out the words. “And they’re leaving me here, like some sort of invalid.”

Hazarding a comment, Sota replied, “You’re injured. I think that makes sense?”

He immediately received a biting look. “I am a warrior. Injuries are expected. If it were only injuries they were worried about, then I would be going with them. No, they’re concerned that I’ll do something I’ll regret.”

“Like what?”

Now the eyes were dead and cold. “Kill the damned monsters that took away Rin-chan’s life.”

Sota realized he was way out of his depth. Although the young man couldn’t have been more than a few years older than him, they were playing on completely different planes of existence. That said, if there was one thing that modern Japanese society had taught him, and that was how to be hospitable.

“Well, I can’t speak to that,” Sota said, reaching under his bed, “But I know that when you lose someone, it can help to talk about it?” He grabbed a soda from his stash and tossed it up, watching it land with a soft puff on the blankets. “You don’t have to say or do anything you don’t want to, but believe it or not, I’m pretty good at listening.”

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The sun dipped beneath the trees and darkness began to creep along the edges of the world. Pian rubbed his temples. Something was still poking his mind, the distant warning bells calling to him. Still, they should be fine with Ichiryu and Jiryu , the secret pawn that was still in play, and of course the sword.

Time to see how well the slingshot effect worked. He held out his arm to call Ryuushin to his side.

Nothing happened.

Irritated partially that his hypothesis was wrong, but also that his little brother could not be trusted to keep to a time table. He pulled out his dragon scale, glowing. “Kan - get back here now.”

“What the hell, Pian? I didn’t think you were actually going to pull that stunt.”

“If you don’t get back here, I will drag you to the underworld myself.”

“With what, exactly? The sword that you just tore from my hand?”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not going along with your plans anymore. Lay a complicated trap to capture a princess. Fails! Spend a lot of time summoning the massive dragon under the city. Dead! Spend even more time summoning the twin dragons. Bam! I know how that one ends: dead! All because Older Brother is a pissy little scaredy cat-”

“Don’t tell me you were planning on attacking them yourself. Out of all the stupid, idiotic, ideas that an imbecile could come up with-”

“As a matter of fact, I was. We’re here to take revenge, not skulk in the shadows waiting for them to come to us. We strike while the iron is hot. And don’t worry: I’m still going to tear them limb from limb with just the dragons. Who needs that shit sword anyway.”

Kan continued as a sinking feeling pooled in the pit of Pian’s stomach. Hesitantly, he held up his arm once more and this time, he kept steady.

A minute later, whistling like an arrow, the sword sliced through the air and landed with a heavy thud in his hand.

It clicked.

If the sword could be recalled by anyone, from any distance...there was no reason that the crazy bitch wouldn’t have called it back by now, unless she was waiting for the perfect opportunity.

Say for example, when they had summoned the last of the dragons to launch their full scale attack...in one place.

“Kan! Stop right now! You’re heading into a trap!”

“You keep saying that, but I think it’s all in your head. You’ve been paranoid ever since we summoned these two, but you don’t have to be scared. We have the greatest firepower in the world and together we can take them down.”

“Dammit, Kan!”

There was no response after that.

“Kan!”

Pian swore and leapt out of the tree, hellbent on reaching his brother before they did.

-----------------------------------------------------------

“You will release my son’s sword to me.” The voice was deep and echoing, with the jaw bone clacking as if to fill out the words.

Rin slid Tenseiga out of the hold and spun away. “I think not. I’ll have you know, Sesshoumaru-sama gave this sword to me and I intend to keep it!”  She paused in a defensive stance.

“Wait - your son’s sword?”

“Tenseiga was one of the swords created by my son-in-law for his future progeny.” The skeleton extended boney fingers. “I know not who this Sesshoumaru is or how he came to possess such a great weapon, but I do know this: it does not belong in the hands of a filthy, little human!”

It lurched forward, but Rin was able to jump back and roll away in time. Canine teeth and white hair? Check. Belittling hatred of humans? Check. Obsession with overpowered swords? Check. Rin sighed in exasperation. Yup, this had to be darling, Grandpa Inu-something.

“Well, tough luck, for you, O Lordy High and Mighty Inu-King. Your grandson gave it to me and you’re not having it.” She winced internally: the last thing she wanted to do was turn into a sword-freak too. She revised her words: “I’m happy to help you, if you need it to do something.”

“As if I would accept assistance from a puny being like yourself.”

“Look,” Rin sheathed the sword. “Thank you for pulling me out of a tricky situation. I really do appreciate it. But,” she said as she crossed her arms, “you are being unbelievably rude. Although from what I have seen of your relatives - it runs in the family.”

“And what relatives might those be?”

“Sesshomaru-sama. Sesshoumaru-sama’s mother. I think her name was Inukimi.”

At this, the skeleton lowered its sword as well. “Inukimi is my daughter. And you say Sesshoumaru is her son? Who was his father?” The sword was raised again.

Rin put her hands on her hips. Granted, they had all the time in the underworld, but interrogation was unpleasant nonetheless. “I don’t know! I’d have to ask Jaken something like that.”

“Jaken? The little servant boy?”

Boy ?” Rin choked. That old steward? “Sure. That’s him. Out of curiosity, how long have you been...here?” She wasn’t sure if he classified as dead or undead, so she left it ambiguous.

The jaw opened and closed a few times. Without warning, the skeleton whipped the blade into a nearby rock and a massive klang rang out as the metal hit the stone. The sword was sheathed with a great amount of irritation.

“Wait - are you unable to talk about it?” Rin frowned. “Like a curse or something?”

Now the figure twitched its head eerily in her direction, clearly not pleased to have to stoop to her level. “After we finished the daiyoukai dragons, …” the jaw hinged several more times until it seemed to find a word that would work, “that demon placed a curse on me.” The empty eye sockets bore into her, “The same curse that sits upon your right now.”

Rin dropped to the ground. “The same curse that I have?” Kami-sama - the brothers, or rather, the elder brother must have found a way to curse her, even in death. Just as their father had somehow cursed the elder clan leader.  She opened her mouth to ask the question, but found her voice constricted. Try as she might, the only thing she could do was gape like a fish gasping for air.

“Stupid human. Only a silly magic-wielder would create a curse that the victim could speak freely about.”

Her face darkened. Was she never to be free of them? No doubt the voices in her head were a part of the curse as well. A sickening sensation crept over her skin. She prayed that Sesshoumaru-sama and the others would be able to end the demons soon.

But in the meantime, she would have to exist with the feeling of a foreign entity inside her mind. Downcast, she shot a question over to her new acquaintance.

“Is there a reason you look like that?” She asked as vaguely as possible as not to activate the censorship of the curse.

Rather than answer, the demon reached out a hand again. “You will give me the sword.”

“No, I will not give you the sword. You will give me answers.” She paused. “Please.”

“Give me that sword!” The demon lunged forward, clawing towards the scabbard, but as soon as the digits came within inches of the sheath, crackling blue lighting erupted and charred the bones a smoking black.

“What do you want the sword for?” She asked, protectively covering it, despite knowing that its own native protections were far greater than anything her flesh and blood could do.

If a skull could scowl, that is precisely what the demon would have been doing. “You do not know what you wield.”

“I know that Tenseiga has great power in the underworld. That it can kill the demons that come to take away the souls of the recently deceased, that it can bring bodies back to life.” She frowned. “It used to be able to create paths to the underworld itself, but I think that power went to Tessaiga .”

“Ah, Tessaiga , Inutaisho’s other sword. Hungry for power, but never with any great finesse.” The echoing voice turned back to her. “But as per usual, you pathetic creatures never understand.”

Rin scrunched up her mouth in annoyance. “You know what? I am sick and tired of your family being rude to me. I used to think Sesshomaru-sama was the worst of the bunch, but then I met his mother, and now you. All of you seem to be under the impression that humans are weak, stupid, and nothing!”

She stood up in a huff and jabbed her index finger at him. “I’ll have you know that I’m not intimidated by you. You’re stuck in here with the same damn curse as me. I’m sorry that you must have been stuck here for a very long time, but that doesn’t give you the excuse to be obnoxious. Dead or not, I still deserve a speck of respect.”

“And another thing: all of you youkai seem to think you’re so great, speaking in riddles and vague commentary. ‘This is the underworld, but it’s not because it’s actually the living world just another time period.’” She continued to rant, not caring that she sounded every part the whining child. “Or, ‘You’ll never guess what the sword actually does - it only has power in the underworld because it has the ability to cut through time…”

She trailed off. “Oh.”

“Are you quite finished, brat?”

Ignoring his question, she murmured. “That’s how it works. It’s time .” She looked up as the cogs in her head spun. “Everything gets banished to this place, this time. It can reverse the time on wounds to bring people back. Then that...thing I encountered earlier, was that also a different time?”

She was never more thankful for the long fireside chats she’d had with Kagome about her experiences. If she had been a simple farmer, her mind would have been spinning.

Grumpily, the demon circled around her, but confirmed her suspicions. “That demon is from a by-gone era, the time before our world. Tenseiga cut a path between the times.” Bare bones gnashed and ground against each other. “I thought someone had finally opened the gate to the living world, but instead, I got pitiful, little you.”

Rin looked at him incredulously. “Can’t we just cut back through?” Who was the stupid one now?

The skeleton head titled, ratty hair falling to one side. “Simpleton. The living world is for the living. No sooner than we’d cross over then we would be sent straight back.”

Ah, that was true. Rin recalled the monster telling her that she needed a spark of life. “Then there is no chance of getting back.”

“Don’t be silly. You can cut holes to the living world, kill a creature, consume its life and then merely repeat the process until your business in the living world is done.”

Her mouth dropped open in horror. “Was that your plan? To live off the lives of others while you conduct your ‘business’?”

“Females are so squeamish. You’re never prepared to do what needs to be done.”

Rin leapt up in fury. “It’s not being squeamish, it’s being a decent person. I would never trade the life of an innocent just for the opportunity to see my friends again. Would I love to be reunited? Yes, in heartbeat. But not at the expense of another.”

With a harsh scritching noise, the skeleton massaged its template, to relieve the non-existent pressure building in its long-gone brain. “Trying to reason with such infants is tiring.”

“Well get used to it, your highness.” She swept her arm at the dark expanse around her. “The way I see it, we only have each other for company until the end of time. Or until the curses run out.”

“Oh, I should imagine we will have company soon.” It said nastily.  “Afterall, your so-called friends are fighting the same demons I did. But unlike me, they will lose.”

“You don’t know that,” Rin barked, trying to make her voice sound more confident than she actually way.

“I do know that,” the skeleton stood in front of her. “Now you have two options before you: the first is to do nothing, which will bring you back to your friends that much sooner. The second, is to go back to the living world, we will defeat the enemy, but you will need to  make peace with that insipid conscience of yours.”

She clenched her fists as he finished. “The choice is nothing: either you can die on the inside, or they can die...for real.”

---------------------------------------------------------------

Kan waved a hand over his dragon scale and immediately the fragment’s glow disappeared. While he might not be as adept in spells and trickery as his brother, he knew the basics. Silencing their two way communication was trivial.

He stretched the muscles in his hand from where the blasted sword had been torn away. Damn that Pian! Thinking he was so mighty and clever with his games, but when it came down to it, when the decision needed to be made, it had always been Kan.

Kan could be counted on to give the call to attack. And that was exactly what he planned to do.

“Ichiryu, Jiryu, it’s time.” Surely Pian had some grand scheme to either track down the fools or lure them out of hiding in a carefully hidden trap. But Kan was making the call.

“Attack.”

Both dragons inhaled deeply, the furnaces in their bodies heating the air into bright balls of energy and then, without a second command, began to unleash their fire onto the world.

Kan grinned with immense satisfaction. If those inu-wimps had any backbone at all, they would come and face him down.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------

Sesshoumaru stiffly looked around the stone-filled pit at the blood-stained rocks that had hidden one of the twin daiyoukai dragons. His eyes were drawn to the horizon, towards the trees that lay fractured from a warpath, and beyond that still - where Rin was laid to rest.

“Are you going to help?” Inuyasha scowled. “Or just stand there?”

Sesshoumaru chose not to dignify that with a response.

“Sesshoumaru-san, how were you tracking-”

He interrupted. “Her guard had a device that could track down the dragon princess. We got close enough to track them conventionally.”

“Feh.” Inuyasha closed his eyes and began sniffing. “If you’re going to be useless, then just say so.”

“And you believe that acting like a dog is going to help.”

“Shut up.” Then Inuyasha’s entire stance changed. His brows furrowed as he took a deeper breath. His ears twitched back and forth. His eyes snapped open and he shot a worried look at the others.

“They’ve begun.”  He set off at a dead run as a trail of smoke started to drift hazily on the horizon.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

A far distance away, a tiny green imp collected the last few herbs that he needed. Despite his verbal grumping, happiness filled his tone. It had been such a long time since anyone had asked him for help, and the hanyou’s priestess had so kindly requested some spices for that evening’s meal.

He had ventured further than he intended and he soon found himself over by the well. It was a strange structure, apparently with the ability to transport people to and from another world. In the days that he had spent with Kagome’s family, he had been able to pick up a few details as they prepared to retreat to that land.

His thoughts snapped back to the task at hand. If he didn’t hurry back to the cottage, he might be left behind, if they were intending to leave that afternoon. It had already been several hours and he might miss their departure.

Just as he turned to scurry away, a pair of feet smacked him in the back of the head. Dazed, he looked up to see a chestnut-colored tail flipping back and forth. Blinking, he could blearily make out a bit of conversations.

“Kagome, you came back! Where’s Kohaku?”

“He is staying on the other side with the children. But what is important is that we need to help Inuyasha.”

“Kagome-sama, how do you propose we catch up to them? Inuyasha and Sesshomaru-sama are clearly gone.”

“Shippo-chan, could you turn into a balloon?”

“I can, but I can’t hold all of you. Not for very long anyway.”

Jaken dragged himself off the ground and brushed himself off. “Ahem.”

“Jaken!” Kagome whirled around, bringing the fox, demon slayer, and monk with her.

The monk remarked, “We didn’t see you there.”

His buggy imp eye twitched. “Perhaps you can use Ah-Un.” Reviewing their confused faces he sighed and then whistled sharply. “This is the mighty steed of Sesshoumaru-sama. They will hardly be killed by a mere sword.”

Sure enough, moments later, the two-headed beast descended on the group, blue demon flames licking against all four feet.

Kagome dropped to her knees and pulled the imp in for a tight hug. “Thank you, Jaken,” she whispered. “You have no idea how important this is.”

She stood up and the group hopped on the scaled back as dust was kicked up from the dragon launching back into the air.

Astounded, Jaken was frozen in surprise for a minute, watching them soar away. He felt warmth creeping into his heart: there was someone who truly appreciated his efforts, he had helped someone, he had -

He had been left behind again, hadn’t he?

“Sesshoumaru-samaaaaaaaa!” He cried in anguish and set off in pursuit of the dragon.

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Chapter Text

Chapter 20: Rising from the Ashes - Counterattack


"Wait a minute Inuyasha-san!" Tsukiakari called, halting the younger brother's charge. "Let me save us some time." She placed a hand on Inuyasha and Sesshoumaru's shoulders.

"Aw, I really hate -" Inuyasha grumbled as the trio vanished.

"-it when you pull that crap…" his voice trailed off as they took in their surroundings.

It was a hellscape.

Smoke so dark that it blocked out the sun filled the air and the three youkai covered their noses. The sky was nothing more than a wash of glowing lights: white, yellow, and orange. Trees were stalks of black shadow or thick bands of bright red. Flashes of light littered the ground along with the few remaining plants that glowed on the edges where the flames were starting their feast.

Sesshoumaru's lungs were filled with smog, burning his throat. Without rapid demonic healing, he would not have lasted very long. The heat pulled his skin tight and left his lips cracked.

A giant roar to their right revealed the perpetrators: the scarred demon, his silver skin turned a rusty color in the glow of the fire, sitting atop the twins. Sesshoumaru turned to Inuyasha: "Use Meido and don't miss."

"What are you going to do?" Inuyasha coughed out his question with a puff of soot.

Sesshoumaru transformed into his daiyoukai form, Tsukiakari following suit. The dogs approached the dragons. There would be very little margin for error: they needed to hold the dragons in place so Inuyasha could launch his attack, then jump away themselves before getting sucked in.

Luck was on their side as the dragons were clearly not anticipating the appearance of one daiyoukai - never mind two. The cousins were able to leap on top of the twins, knocking off their little commander and pinning them under their weight.

Inuyasha was ready: "MEIDO!" He screamed as he unleashed a huge moon into the underworld.

All four of the giant demons immediately felt the strong tug towards the underworld. Sesshoumaru looked back and could see the dragon's tails were already on the threshold. He gave the signal for the pair to jump off.

He and Tsukiakari landed heavily, bottoms of their paws singed. They turned to regard their handiwork: the twins were writhing, clawing at the ground, muscles straining to avoid getting sucked away. The tips of their tails started to disappear into the shadows, paused, and then started to come back out.

"MEIDO! MEIDO!" Inuyasha swung out two more identical attacks, filling their vision with the inky blackness that was the other side of meido. Once again, the dragons struggled, tore at the ground, now almost frothing at the mouth and panting in their efforts. More of their tails slipped into shadow.

"I see you have everything under control." Inukojo had arrived, her lower face covered in an elaborate mask.

Sesshoumaru paid her no mind. He was about to prove that he did not need some stupid sword - that he was strong enough on his own.

But that proof never came.

Minutes later, the spheres began to shrink and still the dragons were there. Inch by inch, they clawed away from the dark prison, managing to pull out their tails at the last minute. They didn't even receive any lasting damage.

Sesshoumaru and Tsukiakari turned back into their human forms. Now that they had lost the element of surprise, future attacks would be even less effective. And if their foes could manage to escape three stacked meido, there were no other options.

Sesshoumaru turned to Inukojo, ignoring Tsukiakari's protests. "Well, aunt, our bargain?"

Inukojo's delight was captured in her golden eyes, dancing wickedly. She held out a hand. "As you wish."


Pian grabbed the stitch in his side as he pushed himself to run just a bit faster. That stupid, stupid, stupid asshole of a brother! Why could Kan not listen? Now everything was in jeopardy!

Damn it all! If only he hadn't gotten distracted with the fact that the little human girl was missing from her tomb, he would have been able to see through the sword's trap. But no, he had to try to figure out what was going on and missed the basics.

As he surged forward, he could smell the burning destruction. Count on his little brother to make a big entrance. There was no chance that any of their opponents would have missed this call to action.

A set of figures dropped down in front of him: a dragon, a fox, and several humans - all armed. He did not recognize any of them. "Out of my way!" He blasted Ryuushin in their direction and the group split into two, effectively dodging the crimson arcs.

"You're one the demons that Rin-chan was talking about, aren't you?" The little fox shrieked

Oh, these were more compatriots. "Yes, I killed Rin. What of it?" He lashed out again with several more attacks. Unlike Rin, this group felt a bit more coordinated, more experienced in handling combat. They deftly countered his attacks, but not for long.

He prepared another round of quickfire shots, but suddenly, Ryuushin tugged hard towards the smoke in the distance. Pian grabbed the hilt with two hands. The trap! The pull was so strong that he actually started sliding on the ground. He ignored the confused chatter of the group and planted his stance in hard.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the pull stopped. Pian panted and then grinned. He could feel the blood lust coursing through the weapon. It had accepted him as the master - it would no longer answer the call of the original owner. With victory in his grasp, he turned to face the group.

If blood was what it wanted, then blood is what it would get.


Inukojo dropped her arm and regarded her hand with a strange curiosity. Then she flung out her arm again, and again, and again. After the final time, she let her arm drop limply at her side.

"Mother, now is not the time for your games - you have proved your point. Give him the sword!" Tsukiakari snapped at her mother. "Stop wasting time!"

"Oh, this is delicious!" Kan pulled himself off the ground, some of his clothes smoldering. "She can't! My brother won!"

Tsukiakari stared at her mother in disbelief. Despite having pointed out these exact flaws, she was still dumbfounded that her mother had been so incredibly naive. She immediately flew into action, working elaborate hand symbols and chants in the direction of one of the dragons. "Sesshoumaru-dono - kill the demon. We'll try to hold back the dragons!" She twitched her head in Inuyasha's direction. Inuyasha joined her, attacking with every combination that he had.

Sesshoumaru turned to face Kan. "This works for me, doggy-boy. I owe you for this!" He gestured at his scarred face. "I'm not letting you go for this one!" He drew his own sword and rushed in.

Kan was far less intimidating a swordsman than his brother, but good enough to put up a fight. As Sesshoumaru met every thrust and swing, he tried to find a way to win. His fight with Kan was only a matter of time, but what about the dragons? The only people with the ability to subdue them were these two brothers and that princess, but who knows if she even survived?

The best they could do was give it their all and hope for the best.


Yoihito was seated under a tree, the princess Kongomi curled against him. Both were a bedraggled mess and sported crusted blood from wounds since healed.

Thankfully the two of them managed to elude the behemoth claws and unbelievable tails as Aki dove and wove into the surrounding forest. They flew hard through the night and for most of the next day before they finally collapsed for rest.

In all that time, the princess had not said a word: not a whisper nor whimper. Yoihito looked down on her fondly: she had lost so much in a short period of time. It was a wonder she was still in one piece. He gently swept back a loose tendril from her braids and she blinked, her crystalline eyes immediately locking with his.

"Hime-sama." Kongomi frowned and reached up to her ear, accidentally brushing against his hand. She sat up quickly.

"Hime-sama, what is wrong?"

For a second, worry and great distress crossed her face, but then she took a deep breath, steeling her nerves. In a voice that was a bit quieter than normal, she replied, "I think my attack damaged my ears. I cannot hear you very well."

Before Yoihito could respond with a flurry of concern, she held up a hand to capture his, pressing it against her ear and cheek. "Yoihito, this is fine." She gestured to the other side of her head. "I can still partially hear from this side and I'm sure this is a passing thing. I'll heal up in no time."

The guard counted to ten before allowing himself to speak, letting his thoughts settle. "How do you feel, otherwise?"

Kongomi released their hands to stretch her limbs. "Everything feels sore. Some bruises here, scrapes here, but I think the biggest damage quite honestly is to my ears."

"That's not what I meant."

She shot him a warning look, but he could not be deterred. "You lost your sister, your partner dragon, and very nearly your life. You cannot tell me that you are doing fine."

Her gaze was stern, but the longer she stared into the warmth of his eyes, her resolve broke down. A single tear rolled down her cheek, a lonely fallen star. Slowly, she reached out and delicately placed her head on his shoulder, loosely holding his waist. "What am I supposed to do?"

Yoihito blinked back a few tears of his own and he stared up into the tree branches. What was anyone supposed to do in this situation? He could feel her shivering and muffling her quiet sobs. Slowly they faded into sniffles and hiccups before fading away altogether.

"What is your dream, Yoihito?"

"What?" he tried to cran his neck enough to see her face, but she was buried in his armor.

"All my life, I dreamed of taking over for my father, to be the queen, to lead my people through centuries of peace and prosperity." She laughed bitterly. "Little chance of that happening now." Then a quiet sigh. "I realized that in all the years we've spent in each other's company, I've never asked you what your dream was."

"My dream is to help you achieve your dream."

"Don't give me that bullshit." Kongomi's tone turned dark and Yoihito was beyond shocked by her coarse language. She sat up and glowered. "That's a soldier's answer. I don't want to hear your platitudes to the kingdom - which I'll note doesn't exist anymore." Then her visage softened considerably and her eyes begged. "I want to know what you want. Please? I need this right now."

Never one to disappoint his princess, Yoihito turned his thoughts to the daydreams he'd had in the past. He closed his eyes to help recover some of the visions.

"I want to go to work each day, protecting the country that I love in the best way that I can. I'll walk along strong stone that tells the stories of my ancestors and feel the breeze of dragons in flight on my face. I want to drink with my friends in a pit of laughter and swing my children around in my arms until they've giggled themselves silly. And in every second, I want the love of my life by my side: supporting me and I support them." He opened his eyes and gave her a sad smile. "But as you said, little chance of that happening now."

Droplets dripped onto her lap as Kongomi shook her head. "I think there is hope for you yet," she said, returning his smile. "Because I am going to make your dream come true."

"What?"

Before she could answer, both of them caught the scent of smoke on the wind. Kongomi rubbed her eyes dry and stared into the sky. Her face turned to horror.

"The dragons. They're attacking the forests and it's heading towards Ryudo." Her expression was terrified and panicked in equal spades. "We - " she nervously swallowed. "We have to stop them."

As she stood up, Yoihito yanked her back down. "No, we don't. It's dangerous. This time you could lose more than just part of your hearing!"

She tugged her arm out of his grasp. "Well, I can't rebuild Ryudo if everything has been reduced to ash! There is still hope for us to start over, but that hope will disappear if the flames reach where the city was!" She started tucking hair back into her braids. "Kukukyo!" She called for her kageko that skittered from Yoihito's cape and up her side.

"You can do what you like, but I am going to stop those bastards from taking away what little I have left in this world."

Now it was Yoihito's turn to jump to his feet. "But you could die!"

With a hard look, she searched in his eyes before abruptly asking, "Do you love me?"

He gaped like a fish.

"Do you love me: yes or no?"

He gulped. "Yes. For many years."

She nodded curtly. "Good." Then she planted a kiss on his mouth. "I love you too."

Pulling his hand, she led them over to Aki, who was already waiting impatiently. She swung up into the saddle and reached down. "Now you have a choice: the love of your life is asking you to be by her side and support her. Are you going to make your dream come true or not?"

A proud smile broke out over his face as he took her offered hand. "I will warn you: if it gets too dangerous, I will pull you out - whether you like it or not."

It did not take them very long to spot the source of the smoke. The entire forest was engulfed in flames as high as the tree line, steadily marching outwards, and in one direction - towards the ruins of Ryudo.

Kongomi did not even wait for Aki to properly land. She leapt from the saddle to stand next to Sesshoumaru who was as wide-eyed as the inu lord ever got. They were in a furnace - one that would never end if she did not put a stop to this.

Between the two, she focused on the one currently under attack from a white-haired demon in a red coat. She placed both of her hands against her temples and focused. Blood of my blood, do my bidding...SLEEP!

The mighty dragon shook its head and clawed at its ears. Pain pushed through Kongomi's head, forcing a dark red across her vision, marred with black spots. She staggered, but felt Yoihito's strong arms catch her. He was saying something, but she could feel warm wetness trickling down her jaw and knew that she must have blown out both of her ears. Everything was eerily quiet, as though spoken from a far distance. Oddly enough, it allowed her to focus more.

With a deep breath and a few steps forward, she tried again. Dragon born, listen to your keeper, do as I command...SLEEP! The dragon's head drooped. SLEEP! Her vision went dark. SLEEP!

Then she knew nothing else.

Inuyasha watched the pale girl approach the dragon a second time and then saw the blood seep from her eyes, nose, mouth, and ears as she screamed the command to sleep over and over again. She went slack and dropped to the ground at the same time the dragon did.

He knew an opportunity when he saw it: MEIDO!

The portal to the land of the dead blossomed and engulfed the body of Jiryu, leaving only a spherical absence of fire.

Kan screamed. "You bastards! You won't be able to get away with this!" His blows, which were already sloppy, grew even choppier, messier.

Sesshoumaru parried away the demon's sword and then lashed out his acid whip, wrapping it tightly around the demon's neck. Kan screamed in agony, clawing at the rope that cut off his air, and again when his fingers started to melt. A few moments and he too dropped to the ground. The flames scurried over his corpse.

One down, one to go. Without looking up, Sesshoumaru now held out his hand.


Pian twirled around dexterously, evading every attack, but not quite able to land his own enough to shake these fighters. His annoyance was mounting - why were these people so persistent.

Kan was gone.

He stopped all motion, even turning his back on his opponents. His heart squeezed and all breath eluded him.

They had killed Kan.

Ryuushin rattled in his hand, trying to shake loose. Try as he might, the shock of losing his brother made his resolve fragile and the sword broke free, speeding to the distance.

Pian sprinted after the weapon. Now there was no stopping his wrath. They would all die - starting with Sesshoumaru.

He pushed back branches, crashed through the trees, heading to the inferno that lay ahead of him. His eyes were too hot to cry and could feel his baser instincts taking over. There was only the race to death.

A cloaked figure stepped in front of him.

"Get out of my way!" He snarled.

Golden eyes shone from beneath the deep hood as it held up a delicate white hand. An inky black pool spilled out on the ground beneath his feet. He started to sink and he thrashed. "You asshole! Let me go! Let me go!"

The figure merely watched as he continued to drop into the darkness, observing him twist his head to keep his nose and mouth in this world. But inevitably, he was swallowed and the hole shrunk into a tiny pinprick.

With a swish of their cloak, the spell caster also vanished as a dragon flew overhead, accompanied by the cries of "I think he went this way!"


Moments later, the glittering red sword arrived in the palm of his hand with a thud and Sesshoumaru glanced down as he gripped the hilt of the weapon that had taken Rin. With a red tinge in his eyes, he whirled around and swung the blade, ejecting a massive crimson light at the remaining dragon.

Ichiryu roared in defiance, but fell to the ground as the crisscrossing strikes cut all the way through his body, arcing and tracing paths until the dragon was no more than a pile of meat, slowly charring.

And then there was one - the mastermind, the bastard that planned this all.

"Inuyasha!" Kagome called out as Ah-Un landed. She slid down their leg and raced over to the hanyou. He quickly embraced her tightly.

"Baka! What are you doing here?" He kept her close.

"We couldn't just leave you here to fight alone!" Kagome's voice rasped and she coughed from the dryness in the air. "Did you get him?"

"The demon we were chasing - he's one of the ones that summoned the dragons!"

Inuyasha released his hold to confirm with Tsukiakari and Sesshoumaru. There had been no others. Sesshoumaru could feel his blood start to boil: the bastard had managed to slip away. That would not be the case for long.

Yoihito ran to Kongomi's side, cradling the unconscious princess against his chest and lifting her into his arms. He quickly approached the group and bowed, with an apologetic look on his face. "I have to get her help!"

Kagome stepped forward, one hand now covering her mouth in a cloth and the other arm braced against her forehead to guard her eyes against the embers. "Can we help?" She called out above the roar of the fire. "I can heal-"

He stepped back rapidly, his expression very conflict. "I'm sorry, we have to go". He turned and ran over to Aki, leaping onto the dragon's back.

Everyone watched as the dragon rose into the air and disappeared into the flumes of dark smoke.

Sesshoumaru turned to walk away, but Inukojo stepped in his way. "Where do you think you are going?"

"The other demon is still alive. I am going to end him," was his cold response.

His aunt's eyes narrowed and she crossed her arms. The pair seemed completely oblivious to the raging inferno around them. "I provided you with my side of the bargain. What about yours?"

For a second he contemplated countering with the fact that he had been the one to retrieve the sword she had stupidly given away to the enemy, but that was not his priority. Instead, he reached inside his kimono and pulled out a crimson, white, and gold amulet, with a silk tassel hanging from the floral design. He tossed it crudely on the ground between the two of them.

"I believe you wanted proof that you now owned the Western Lands. There is your proof." He strode past Inukojo, who gave a satisfied smirk before sauntering forward to retrieve the emblem and leap away.

"Sesshoumaru-ni-sama!" Kagome yelled, choking and coughing, "Aren't you going to help with the fire?"

He stopped and looked back, his expression as dead and uncaring as the first day he had run into Inuyasha, all those years ago. "Why should I?" Every fiber of outward appearance screamed that none of this was his concern.

Tsukiakari and Inuyasha seemed to reach the same conclusion. They surged forward, gripping him on the shoulders.

"You bastard!" The hanyou growled and bared his fangs. "You don't get to walk away!"

Sesshoumaru easily deflected his brother, brushing him aside. But when he attempted to do the same with Tsukiakari, he was met with an iron will. He slowly swiveled his head to regard his cousin with the same icy demeanor. "Let go."

"No." Tsukiakari's eyes were tinged with the familiar red. "Stop being a child."

He frowned and attempted to move away again, but was unable to escape from her steely grasp. "Let go, fool."

Tsukiakari slapped him across the face.

"No. You will stay and you will help deal with this travesty. You cannot ignore this: you live in this land, now you take care of it." She drew him in closer. "How dare you insult that girl's memory in this way." Then she let him go with a solid push that left him stumbling back a few steps. "You are a disgrace," she hissed with a look of pure disgust. "I don't have time for you."

All traces of her annoyance melted from her face and she swiftly joined Kagome and Inuyasha. "Do you have any ideas?"

Sango and Miroku joined them, eyes watering in the extreme heat. Sango's voice came muffled through her demon slayer mask as she fought to be heard. "What if we went to the water goddess? She could make it rain."

"Do you know where she is?"

"There's a shrine, in a lake, but it's far away." Miroku's voice was similarly muffled behind a demon slayer mask.

Tsukiakari nodded from behind her own makeshift cloth covering. "Good. I will take you there." She turned to Kagome and Inuyasha, "Do what you can here until we return."

She tore the ends off her sleeves and put them up against their faces. The fabric writhed and twisted, shifting from a strong cotton into matching masks. The sturdy ties fastened around the backs of their heads. With a quick nod, Tsukiakari reached out to brush her fingertips against Miroku and Sango before the three vanished.

Kagome looked at Inuyasha with watery eyes. "We need to contain the fire!"

"How do we do that?" He stepped closer to hear better.

His wife squinted, frantically turning her head back and forth to survey the scene, but all around them was lit with a ferocious heat. If they didn't do something quickly, the fire would scour the countryside, the devastation would be complete.

But then a thought came to her, a fragment of information from long forgotten tests that she had once classified as "certainly useless." The Edo fires. What did they do? They had professionals demolish areas of the city to create bands that would prevent the further spread.

"We need to destroy the forest on the edges - keep the fire from reaching more fuel."

"Destroy the forest?" He leaned in closer, worried that he misheard her. His hair was already a dirty gray from the cinders flying around.

"Hit it with whatever attacks you have. We need to clear the plants. If we do that, the fire can't spread." Kagome whipped her head around and then called out, "Ah-Un! Come here!"

Inuyasha seemed to have caught on to what was happening. He started to shrug himself out of the firerat coat, but Kagome laid her hand on his to stop him. "You'll need that more than me." She swung onto the back of the dragon. "I'll help you find the outer edges!"

With that, she also rose into the air, high above the infernal flames. Inuyasha watched her with a hawk's eyes. There wasn't much daylight left and once the skies got dark, it would become impossible to see anything.

He spared only a moment's grace to give his brother one last look, a glance filled with pity and disappointment. He heard Kagome's call and dashed off into the flames, leaving Sesshoumaru alone.

There was the rumble, loud like thunder, thrumming in his ears, pricked with the crackling of wood as it popped and snapped in the extreme heat. Sparks drifted in swirls and eddies, the autumn leaves with glowing edges, turning into bursts of red, and yellow. Under the smoke, there was no sunlight - just the bright shades reflecting on the trees as their other sides became darkness itself.

Amid the raging destruction, there was a twisted type of tranquility, one that he experienced once before. He had been on ravaged shoreline, contemplating the loss of Rin. Despite not being long ago, it felt as though eons had passed. The vague sense of drifting was gone: he could recall feeling that no amount of violent revenge could bring her back.

That was not the case now. Last time, his heart was calm like the surface of a windless ocean as he contemplated the loss of his ward. Now his heart matched the intensity of the searing landscape, broiling and furious just below a statuesque countenance.

Rin's killer was still out there. How could that insufferable cousin even suggest doing anything but tracking the son of a bitch down? Nothing was more important than seeing justice done. Nothing could even come close to compare.

Nothing.

The same nothing that would be left after the dragons' attacks had roasted the countryside.

The same nothing would be left after his revenge was complete.

His emotions simmered and another memory bubbled to the top: a solemn vow. A pledge to slay the demons and their dragons, to see them to their ends. He found the other promises rising: each broken with no chance of fulfillment.

The commitment to keep the Western Lands away from his greedy family's schemes.

The assurance to protect the wild lands of Ryudo, as his father had done before him.

The vow to end all vows: that he would never abandoned Rin and in return, she would dedicate her life to his. In a delicious irony of his aunt's earlier words, his own mind spat out the words: Rin provided her side of the bargain - what about his?

An ember landed on his nose, forcing him to close his eyes. He could hear the voice of the priestess above the treetops directing his brother where to aim his attacks.

Rin was gone. That truth was immutable, irrefutable. But he did not need to let her go - not yet. One final memory flashed behind his eyelids.

"One year." On the day of their reunion, Rin held out her index finger, every part of posture implying that she was cheekily hiding a secret. "Let me travel with you for one year. That will give me enough time to see the demon world for myself. After that, I'll make my final decision."

The world had cruelly made the decision for her, taking her life only a few months into their sojourn. But he could do this for her.

"One year." He murmured to himself. For one year, she would travel with him: he would carry Rin close to his chest and do as she would have done. There was no way more fitting to honor her memory.

He opened his eyes to a new world, setting out to find his brother and sister-in-law.

The rest of the evening passed in a smoggy haze: Kagome had put him to work, slashing at the forest beyond the grilling trees, halting the fire in its tracks. A few hours later, Tsukiakari returned with a delicate demon with ruby beads adoring her ears, neck, and hair. She raised a golden trident to the heavens to summon a masterful storm that pelted the blaze with a chilling rain.

In minutes, only the hush of rain against the ashes remained. As Tsukiakari returned the goddess to her shrine, Sesshoumaru surveyed the party. Everyone was gasping, hair glued to cinder-streaked faces. He lifted his own hands up, to watch the water slide down his skin, leaving alabaster tracts on otherwise gray flesh. Looking to the sky, he blinked.

Was that what Rin would have done?

In his heart he knew that it was.


Rin knew exactly what she had to do. That damned skeleton had given her the most ridiculous choice: to help her friends by opening a portal to the living word, join the fight, but at the same time, become a life-sucking monster or to stay in the afterward and watch them all die.

"No." She sat down on a rock and crossed her legs. "I'm not taking your bait."

"Bait?" The skull edged forward, giving the shoulders a hunched look.

"Yes. Bait. What else would you call a threatening ultimatum that makes no sense?" She raised a brow. "Let's consider the two possibilities. First - the fight might already be over. In which case, it would be pointless for me to open a portal to the living realm and let you do whatever shenanigans you have planned."

The skeleton snapped, "You have no desire to return to your friends?"

She shrugged. "Maybe I do, maybe I don't. If they lost the fight then they're dead and I have a chance to see them again."

"But if they won?"

With a deep sigh, Rin leaned back. "This is the part where I thank you."

Skeletal fingers scratched against a scabbard. "Why?"

"For a while there, I actually contemplated going back if there was a way. Find a spark of life, cut open the portal, and rejoin them as though nothing had happened." She then swung her body forward so that her arms were resting on her thighs. "But then I remembered what happens when the dead come back to life."

She dropped her gaze to the ground. "Unfortunately for you, my particular circle of friends are intimately familiar with the heart wrenching situation that occurs when a loved one comes back. There are always consequences and I have no desire to impart that onto any of them."

The demon sputtered and Rin held up a hand to silence him. "Then let's consider the second possibility - the fight might still be going, which is the best case scenario for you. But it's still not good enough. I doubt either you or I have enough power to make any significant difference."

"You insolent-"

"Yes, yes. I am an insolent, tiny, pathetic, weak, childish, foolish, simple-minded human." Rin rolled her eyes before flashing a grin back at him. "Did I miss anything...oh, what was your name again?"

Now that she was calm, it was surprisingly easy to recall information from her life - as though she was distant observer, able to pluck details out of her memories as easily as picking a flower petal out of puddle. She flipped the pages back to her studies in Ryudo.

"Oh, that's right - did I miss anything, Satsujimaro-dono?"

Sesshoumaru's grandfather froze and turned his eye sockets towards her again. "Now that is a clever trick. How did you figure that out?"

Rin put her hands up in the air, "Oh, I can see the future, obviously," she retorted.

"I think you mean the past."

"Oh no, I meant the future. Time works in mysterious ways" she continued in a mocking tone. Somehow, the stress of the past few hours (or was it days) had dissipated, leaving her mirthful.

Even the rolling depression of being separated from Sesshoumaru had yet to return. There was always someday, perhaps when he was as ancient as his grandfather. Until then, she would do what she could to make him proud. That way, when they finally met face to face, he would be proud of her.

Satsujimaro tilted down his chin slightly in deep thought. He broke from his trance and squared his shoulders, drawing his sword. "Be that as it may, Tenseiga does not belong to you."

Oh, what the hell, Rin thought. I've got a bit of time to kill - might as well hone my swordsmanship. She rocked forward, pushing herself up and did a few stretches before drawing her blade. "From what I can tell, it doesn't belong to you either. But you're welcome to come and claim it."

Attack! The voice in her head commanded.

"I hope you all get rid of those demons soon because that is going to get really annoying." She muttered under her breath, but she was less worried than before.

With that she charged forward, aiming directly for the other blade.


After Sesshoumaru had seen his brother's party safely back on the other side of the well, he returned to his mother's castle. Night had since swept over the land and he stood beneath a clouded sky, letting the cold wind bite through his kimono and chill the armor around his chest.

There was a soft knock on the door and after a moment of no response, the tell-tale whispers of socks against wooden floor. Tsukiakari quietly slipped beside him on the balcony, her appearance once again meticulous.

"Sesshoumaru-dono, I feel this bears repeating, but you do not need to do this." He could feel her gaze and maintained his stoic expression.

"You will need to be more specific."

"Please do not think for a moment that the so-called agreement you made with my mother before the battle must be honored." She held out a hand and carefully unwrapped the emblem, the crest of their house, that he had unceremoniously thrown onto the ground earlier that afternoon. "She did not provide you with the sword; you claimed the weapon on your own accord. She cannot expect you to comply with her wishes."

"And yet I will." He kept his face as smooth as a pane of glass.

Tsukiakari's voice belief a mild exasperation, "As I have stated before, I have no intention of entering a marriage that was built on revenge. It is a violent cycle that never ends."

"This decision is not for revenge. I made a vow that I must not break, no matter the cost." He moved away from the balcony, to one of the sliding doors, to stand inside. He held out an arm to allow her passage into the room first. "One of those creatures is alive, in hiding. While he remains, my mission is not complete."

"What mission?" Tsukiakari tread carefully, as not to disturb even the air. Her cousin had never been so open with her before and she dared not break the fibers holding the conversation together.

Sesshoumaru clenched and released his fists several times. His jaw tightened as he once again fought to keep the red tint from bleeding into his eyes. The temptation to give into his vengeful anger was strong, but he was able to fade the emotion back into a marble expression.

"I made a vow to…" he paused, mouth drawn in a thin line, forcing himself to say her name. "I made a vow to...Rin that I would not let the demons win."

Tsukiakari found herself gazing into his eyes in a rare moment of genuine eye contact. Swirling in those golden pools was great sadness, and anguish, but also a glint of determination. "If one of them draws breath, I must continue my vigilance to avoid further devastation and destruction." Then he broke away to stare into the distance again.

"Victory today does not guarantee victory tomorrow, and if I am to protect the words I gave to...Rin...I must make use of every tool at my disposal." He fell silent, having shifted his face away from her completely.

Tsukiakari smiled with great melancholy and placed her fingertips on his sleeve with the lightness of a feather. "And am I one of those tools?" Her tone contained a hint of irony, but was largely serious.

There was a sigh. "Yes. If you agree to it."

She blinked, but recovered quickly, letting her hand fall. "You are changed. You feel like her, but you also feel more like you, I think."

"There is one thing that I would ask of you."

"What would that be?"

"Be my ally. If I am to preserve the land that was given to me by my father, I will need more than a tool to navigate not one, but two mothers' schemes. I will need someone that I can trust with her vision, her ideals. Be a valued advisor - let us find a way to carve the future she should have been able to see."

Neither had to speak her name.

He paused. "Give me a year, do as I say, no questions asked. Then, when the year is over, I will return the favor for as long as you wish."

"I will," Tsukiakari made a slight bow and then shifted to the door. "I will do it for Rin." The door closed with a gentle click.

Sesshoumaru turned to Ryuushin, who lay naked on his bed without a sheath. The first thing he needed to do was remove the loose agents of chaos. While this sword existed, there was the chance that it would fall into the wrong hands at the wrong moment. He wrapped the blade in a thick fabric.

"Do you think that wise?" Inukimi shuffled forward, once again hiding behind a delicate fan.

He no longer questioned how his mother was able to move without detection. "You have never been concerned before."

"Oh ho, mother is so sad," she pantomimed wiping away tears.

"Cut a path - I do not care to where." He gathered the wrapped blade in his arms.

Inukimi's crocodile tears ceased and she smiled once again. "Of course, my dear son." With a graceful sweeping motion, she used her fan to paint a wide stroke in the air, filled with darkness.

He dropped the blade into the crack and Inukimi waved her kimono sleeve over the space, which returned to normal. "I hope you know what you are doing, my darling son."

Sesshoumaru's only response was to stand by the window again.


Rin and Satsujimaro dueled. Their swords could have been clanging for minutes, months, years, decades, or centuries. Time was difficult to track here, to the point that it was immaterial. After a while, their sparring became just that: a friendly encounter rather than a competition. Satsujimaro even offered her tips and began correcting her form.

"Will you never listen?" His voice rasped out as he rapped the back of her hand. "Stop using that form - it's improper."

Rin wiped sweat from her brow and picked up Tenseiga. "Well, Sesshoumaru taught me that way." She had long dropped the honorifics as she spent more time with Satsujimaro, picking up a few of his habits.

"Well, Sesshoumaru is stupid." She couldn't contain a giggle as he sternly eye-socketed at her. "He probably learned from Inutaisho, who was never great with a sword."

"Sesshoumaru's and Inuyasha's father?"

"Inuyasha?" He tapped a claw against his jawbone. "Ah, the whelp from that brat's second wife." He shook his head, "I knew as soon as I had given Inukimi away that he wasn't good for her. Too enamored on those filthy humans."

"What have I told you about calling us filthy?" Rin chucked a stone at his head. "If you can't be bothered to be polite, then I'll keep tossing these at you until you behave."

"See? Filthy."

She prepared another stone, but a flash of light shone in the distance, drawing attention from both fighters. Both immediately sprinted for what appeared to be a massive circle drawn into the shades of gray.

As they approached, Satsujimaro suddenly dropped back. "Stop, stupid! Do not get any closer to that hole!"

Still running, Rin turned around. "Why? It's just meido - it means that Inuyasha has used Tessaiga! There's a chance to see what's happening on the other side!"

Satsujimaro picked up the pace, but exuded confusion. "That is my daughter's signature spell. We must be wary!"

Now Rin's face was scrunched in bewilderment, but her heart was pounding with the potential to check in on the living world. The bizarre facts being thrown at her could be reconciled later.

A massive form flew through the hole, pushing rocks, dirt, and dead plant life aside, pushing up a giant cloud of dust. Rin stopped at the edge of the murky veil, giving Satsujimaro a chance to catch up with her.

They watched in silence as the particles settled, revealing what appeared to be chalk-covered scales. The tear to the living world was long gone, so Rin set about getting a closer look.

The pit of her stomach dropped. This was one of the twin dragons that the demons had summoned on the day she died. The form wasn't moving, but she did not want to risk getting too close.

"Jiryu, the younger twin fang," Satsujimaro named the beast. "One of the dragon beasts I defeated all those years ago."

"Defeated?" Rin queried quietly under her breath. "By defeated, I assume you mean pacified enough so they could be buried beneath the earth, only to be revived years later by the children of the demon you fought."

"Is there a difference?" Satsujimaro faced the dragon again, but whipped his head back quickly. "Revived?"

"Yes, as I said, by the children of the demon from before - I think Inukimi said his name was Tomohisa. They came back for revenge and have been summoning all the dragons you supposedly put to rest." She spelled it out for him since she received no reaction. "They're the demons my friends have been fighting."

"Your friends have been fighting Tomohisa's offspring?"

Rin tried to remain as patient as she could be while still standing in closer proximity to the dragon than she would like. "Are you not listening? Yes. They have been fighting two demons who call themselves Kan and Pian, who are the very vengeful children that summoned the massive dragon under Ryudo and then the two black dragons in the valley with the white stone."

"I was under the impression that the demons you were fighting were my family."

She might not be able to say it out loud, but she her mind raced: If he referred to his family, then it is not Pian or Tomohisa who cast his curse. It would be a member of his family.

Her eyes widened as her brain made a few more connections. Her thought process was interrupted as a massive yellow eye blinked, reptilian iris constricting at the sight of them.

Satsujimaro pushed her out of the way as the humongous jaw rolled to one side and attempted to sweep the two of them with giant fangs.

Less thinking! More moving! Rin rolled back into a fighting stance. "What are we supposed to do? We don't have Ryuushin!"

"Why are you asking me pointless questions?" Satsujimaro tried to strike at another one of the eyes, but the Jiryu was on his legs, dozens of meters out of striking distance.

Rin threw herself on the ground as the tail chopped through the air that she was previously occupying. Ignoring the spike of pain from pebbles embedded in her palm, she pushed upwards and grabbed Tenseiga.

She braced the sword in front of her, following the proper stance that Satsujimaro had drilled into her. "Please. Do something," she whispered and begged the blade before she brought both arms up. "Please." Down came the sword.

Bright blue flames erupted from the swing and flowed across the scales of the dragon, pushing it back slightly. Jiryu's head curled around and he snarled in her face, heat seeping out.

"Stupid girl, attack with intent!"

Rin hollered back, "I was! I was intending to kill him!"

"How idiotic can you be?" Rin was absolutely going to kill the old demon when this was over. "Tenseiga is not a killing sword!"

Oh.

Of course. She looked down at Tenseiga that was now a vibrant blue and humming. Tenseiga cuts time…

As she stared into a pair of eyes as yellow as saffron, she wracked her mind for ideas. Could I send him to another time? He looks too big for that. I can't cut the underworld demons that are ferrying his soul away because he's already here. What am I supposed to do?

"Ah!" She yelled as she narrowly missed a fireball aimed in her direction. Satsujimaro coordinated his attack and dragged his sword through one of the eyes while the dragon was distracted.

The black beast roared in pain, granting Rin a few precious seconds. She took her centered attack stance again, but this time, her mind was filled with a different prayer: Please do something with time! Anything is fine!

The sword came down and the blue light rippled over the dragon scales, pushing him back further than before and spraying up enough dust to create a smoke screen.

Rin dashed to another location and prepared for another attack. For some reason, there was no movement in the cloud and so she waited to react.

Satsujimaro joined her and they stood by as the dust settled over the dragon's form.

Except this time, he was smaller. Rin squinted without relaxing her stance. "What is going on?" she murmured.

"You activated Tenseiga's power. From what I remember - you have cut his ties to his time stream and reversed his age."

"He's younger?" With Rin's second question, Jiryu woke up and got back on his feet. He was still big, but no longer impossibly so. The eye that had been stabbed was now blinking and clear.

"He is now the same size as a young adult." Satsujimaro elaborated. "I conjecture that if you were to do that again, he might become a juvenile, young enough to be slain easily."

Wasting not even a single moment, Rin signaled and the two split, dividing Jiryu's attention. Luckily, reversing his age did not seem to affect his memories and the younger dragon focused on the target that had done more painful damage. Rin took the opportunity to race around to the back side and launch another attack.

Yet again, the blue flames flew out of the sword and flowed across the black scales, throwing the dragon a fair distance away, his body bouncing and rolling as he landed. When he rose up for a third time, he was definitely smaller, now about twice or thrice the size of Ah-Un.

"Alright, so how do you propose we kill him?" Rin asked her temporary mentor. "You said once he got this small, he should be easy to kill."

Before Satsujimaro could answer, there was a loud "STOP!"

Surprised by the sound of a foreign voice, Rin and Satsujimaro turned to look at the newcomer. Rin immediately burst into a wide grin.

"Harika-chan!"

Descending from the infinite black sky was the glowing form of Harika, second princess of Ryudo, astride a golden dragon that Rin recognized as Jiro - Kongomi's personal mount.

Rin sheathed Tenseiga and raced to her one-time friend. She stopped just short of Jiro's landing spot, wonderment written all over her place. "What? How is this possible?" She practically squealed in excitement.

Harika delicately slid off of Jiro and trotted the last few steps to Rin. There was an awkward pause then both girls simultaneously decided to embrace. To Rin's delight, her friend was as solid as she had been back in the living world, and tears cascaded down her cheeks.

"Rin-chan, it has been a while, hasn't it?" The princess radiated happiness and both were giggling. Harika was the first to pull away.

"We will have plenty of time to chat, but first, let me tend to Jiryu."

Rin's smile faded. "Be careful, I think I've managed to make him younger, but he's still extremely dangerous-"

Harika smiled softly and walked over to the dragon, who was snarling and thrashing. She held up an open hand and delicately extended it towards his snout. His labored breathing slowed, his motions quieted, and he took a few tentative steps to nudge her palm. She brought her other arm up to stroke under his whiskered chin.

"Rin-chan, it is safe."

Cautiously, Rin maneuvered closer, keeping a respectable distance away. "What did you do?"

"From what I can tell of speaking to my ancestors, I have the natural gift of dragon's tongue. They are naturally drawn to me, they will listen when I speak, and they dare not speak back. It used to be common, but died out. Even now, it is rare for a member of the royal family to carry this trait." Harika began to stroke his neck and Rin had flashbacks of the pink-haired girl talking to Ah-Un.

"Regrettably, it is a skill that I have only been able to master with the other dragons that have passed." She patted the black scales. "My mind is connected to all of the dragons here. Because Jiryu has a living body, his signal was much more vibrant." Harika's smile was sweet and sad. "Although I confess, I did not expect to find you here."

Rin returned the smile. "I got myself into more trouble that I couldn't find a way out of."

Harika stepped towards her and gripped her shoulder in solidarity. "I think many people run into that problem, myself included." She received a bit of a push from Jiryu, almost knocking her over. "Would you like to come meet everyone?"

"I'd like that."

Harika gestured for her to take Jiro as she prepared to get on Jiryu. "How are the others doing?"

"They are still fighting the demons, but I believe they will be fine. I have faith that Sesshoumaru will be able to use the dragon slaying sword to handle the rest of the dragons." She raised her brow apologetically. "I know that you love the dragons, but without a power like yours, I cannot see them saving the country any other way."

"I understand." Harika looked into the darkness. "There is something calming about this place that allows you to look at everything more objectively, as though our emotions are suppressed. I am sure that you have felt it too. Things that used to upset me no longer bring me tears."

Rin nodded; the calm was infectious. She reached Jiro and turned to Satsujimaro, who had been outside of their range.

Before she could do any form of introductions, a small hole opened a few feet away, light flooding the area. Rin ducked down and snuck in close, curious as to what was happening. Seconds later she dodged as a sword flew through the opening and clattered to the ground. The hole immediately resealed.

She whipped her body around to see Satsujimaro picking up the sword, the red sheen undeniable even in the shadows.

"Ryuushin?" Rin asked and she saw him nod in response. Her stomach rolled. She didn't know why, but the dragon slaying sword was here. If it was here, then Sesshoumaru and the others had probably killed the other dragon.

"Harika-chan, have you run into the spirits of those demons that kidnapped you?"

"No, but this is a vast place. It is quite possible that they are here and I have not encountered them yet."

"What about the other dragons?" Rin could feel the sinking dread filling her core.

"I have felt Ichiryu and Suguremasa, but not the others referenced in the story." Harika frowned worriedly. "From what the elders have told me, Miraito will not be a major concern."

"That is a foolishly optimistic view to have," Satsujimaro interjected as Harika started at the skeleton speak. "Miraito is the twins' mother. Once she learns that they are gone, do you truly believe that she will not be livid?"

With a harsh laugh, he continued: "But you are correct in the respect that Miraito is not a major concern - if compared to the twins' sire - Omo. There is no means of defeating the king without this sword."

Rin dropped to her knees. If that was true, then her friends were in mortal danger with no clue as to the death that prowled around them. The demons no doubt would find a way to revive the last of the daiyoukai dragons and complete his revenge.

Harika was quivering, with hands shaking over her mouth. "Kongomi-nee-sama…" she whispered with tears threatening to spill over her lashes. "Is there nothing we can do?"

"I could try to cut a path back to the living world, but there is no guarantee I would be able to pinpoint them because the time passes differently. I feel like I've been here forever, but Jiyru only just arrived. I could be off by a day, a year, or more."

"But there's at least a chance, right?" Harika looked at her with ruddy cheeks and glassy eyes. "You could save them?"

"There's another problem." Rin quickly outlined the issue: without a spark of life, her body and soul would be instantly drawn back to the underworld. The pull would be so strong that she would not be able to escape the pull.

Much to her astonishment, Harika's face lit up in joy. "If what you need is a spark of life, that I can do." She reached into her hair and pulled out another familiar face.

"Kuro!" Rin exclaimed as the little kageko drifted over to settle on her shoulder. The dark blob shimmered with a blue tint, indicating a spiritual essence, and crooned into her neck. "He saved me more times than I can count."

Harika smiled, "He has regaled me of all your adventures. Unfortunately, he will not be able to assist you, but" she lifted her hair further and another dark blob came out. This one without any tinges or hint of a glow. "You have already met Yami, my own partner."

Yami floated to Rin as Kuro gave a chirrup before heading back to sit on Harika's shoulder.

"Yami has told me the most fascinating tale, of a hooded figure that approached her and sent her to this land sometime after we were separated. I cannot make sense of it, but she is still whole: Teleportation, camouflage, and most importantly - the healing power of life."

Rin patted Yami with her fingertip. "Thank you for your service, little one, but I am not sure she can provide enough?"

"It is true, you will probably need to rest for long periods of time, but it should be enough to resist the pull and prevent the underworld demons from bothering you." At this, Jiro trod over and began warbling with a combination of growls, snorts, clicks, and chirps. As he spoke, Harika alternated between mild alarm and deep thought.

"What did he have to say?"

"Jiro wants to go with you," Harika absent-mindedly patted the golden dragon. "He wants to be able to help Kongomi-nee-sama in some way and feels that going with you is the best bet. The only catch is that like me, he is here only in spirit. He has made an offer, but…" she glanced away. "I am not sure how I feel about the arrangement."

"What is it?" Rin placed her own hand on the smaller dragon.

"He would like me to perform the ritual of the dragon mantle," she bit her lip. "Essentially, his soul will fuse with yours. It is a technique that our ancestors would use when going into battle. The mantle brings out our dragon blood, granting us wings, sharper claws, and scaled skin. We also gain great stamina with the extra demon energy flowing through our veins."

The process sounded a bit like when Inuyasha would become more demonic. Rin spotted the problem immediately.

"I will hazard a guess: it has never been tried on a human and there is a significant chance that I will get overwhelmed."

Harika nodded. "There is also a risk that we might not be able to reverse the process. Usually the bond is broken when the dragon awakens in their own body. But Jiro has none to return to - his spirit may refuse to leave."

"Let me think about it." Rin stared at the golden scales. It was a big risk, but that sort of thing had never deterred her before. She'd jumped off the back of a dragon, killed a demon, written messages in her own blood, launched escapes, and even challenged Sesshoumaru to a duel. The prospect that she might become a mindless demon was only a bit scarier.

"I'll gladly kill you if you go lose yourself." Satsujimaro came up to next to her. His tone was partially in jest, but Rin was oddly grateful for the sincerity in his message. "You may also want to consider your earlier commitment: will your friends appreciate your return?"

Rin's eyes glinted with determination. "If I do this right, they won't even know I'm back."

"How will you manage that?" His question was full of skepticism.

"I'll find the remaining dragons, interrupt the rituals, make it so they can't summon anymore, and then finish Kan and Pian myself." She shot him a glance as if in challenge. "Then I will return here, where I currently belong."

"Then you will need him," Satsujimaro dipped his head towards Jiro. "Your puny human body will give out far before you reach your goal."

"That is what I think as well." She sighed. "It is the biggest gamble I've made."

"For what it counts, I believe you will succeed."

That line had been completely sincere and it shocked her a little. Then she recovered some of her bravery and shot him a cocked smile. "You're only saying that because you're hoping that you'll get to kill me and take Tenseiga for yourself."

"Perhaps you do have a brain after all." His skull made it impossible to form any type of expression except for the toothy grin, but this time, Rin could feel the truth behind the canines.

"And don't even think about trying to come after me. I refuse to create yet another life-sucking enemy to contend with on this mission."

"Of course not." Satsujimaro stepped back. "It sounds like you have made your decision."

Rin nodded and turned to her friend: "Harika-chan, please perform the ritual. We will see what happens and take it from there."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely."

Harika rolled up her sleeves. "Please come here and place your forehead against Jiro's. Yami, come here and begin."

The premise was quite simple: synchronize the breathing, followed by controlling the flow of energy, and then open the pathway into Rin, allowing Jiro's spirit to fuse with hers. Yami was already starting to feed life energy into her in case the fusion required it.

"Alright, I am opening the pathway for Jiro." Harika turned to Satsujimaro and advised: "You best have your attack ready in the event that this does not work."

With her eyes closed, Rin could hear the ominous slide of metal on metal. Harika's words drew her back into the ritual.

"Once Jiro has fused with you, you should still feel like yourself. I am starting." Harika chanted words that sounded suspiciously like proper dragon tongue, but Rin quickly became distracted by the warmth that seeped into her. It felt comfortable, like the gentle heat of a campfire, or a thick blanket on a cold day.

But then came the scorching pain: every nerve, every muscle contorting. The bite extended to her fingertips, up to her ears, all down her arms and legs. Rin grit her teeth to stop herself from screaming. Beads of sweat rolled down her temples, but she refused to make a sound lest Harika stop the ceremony. Besides, the pain she felt now was normal in comparison to what the Pian bastard had put her through. The worst was on her brow - an immense and sharp pressure tore across her forehead. It became unbearable, but Rin weathered the storm.

And the clouds broke, leaving only the peaceful ease that follows such a tempest.

Rin opened one eye and looked around, as though expecting a surprise attack. "Is it over?"

Harika's surprise could not be contained. "Oh, Rin-chan, you should have told me that you were engaged to the inu clan before we began. It should have gone so horribly wrong, I'm glad that it didn't, but I was very worried-"

"I am sorry: engaged? What are you talking about?" Rin started looking at herself. She didn't feel much different: the muscles she'd built during her time training her a bit firmer, her nails were longer and tough...like claws. A quick assessment of her ears told her they were now slightly pointed, as were her canines. Her skin was quite a bit paler and her dark brown hair was now a full ebony.

"Your moon crescent - the sign of allegiance to the inu clan. It was glowing gold so brightly during the last part of the ritual." Harika explained. "Everything else looks normal from what I recall of the elders' stories. I doubt you'll get dragon wings or full scales, but this should be able to help you." She smiled, "Along with Yami of course." The little youkai was already leaving a trail of golden light from the crook of Rin's neck down to around her heart.

"As I was saying, what moon crescent? I have no idea what you are referring to." Rin flexed her muscles.

"The moon crescent is the sign of our clan. Only those born or married into the family receive that mark on their foreheads." Satsujimaro pulled back his stringy white hair to reveal a very faded purple paper moon on his brow. "As you are clearly not born of the clan, you must be married or intended." Harika nodded in agreement.

Rin threw up her hands. "Well, I can promise you that Sesshoumaru and I had no such arrangement. He better not have put that there when I was not looking, because if he did, he's an idiot. I have no idea how that got there."

"Oh ho, well the answer to that conundrum is perfectly straight forward: I put that mark there to allow you the opportunity to regain your life and return to the living world." A familiar voice echoed in the darkness as a sliver of light cut through. "It was about time you figured out it worked and broke the spell."

Inukimi stepped through the doorway. "Now, you will come with me."


 

Chapter Text

November 18, 2019

Hello everyone.

Unfortunately, this is not a new chapter. I wanted to check in with all of you because I have some exciting news:  the outline for the rest of Reaching Across the Milky Way and epilogue have been written. Now all I have left is to fill in the outline points with the actual text! There are still a bunch of chapters left to go, but essentially it's one big action-packed arc (with a ton of fluff as well). But I can guarantee this story will be finished in 2020. 

There are 2 ways that I could go about this: 

  1. I write the rest of the story and post in quick succession. You might need to wait 8-9 months, but then the remaining 10 or so chapters will be up for your reading pleasure. 
  2. I write the story as I have, posting chapter by chapter. I would anticipate the next chapter in 4-6 weeks and the final chapter would be posted about a year from now. 

Which would you prefer? Let me know in the comments!

(1) Binge all the chapters at once!

(2) Drip-feed me that content! 

 

Best Regards, 

ksmurf

Chapter Text

Chapter 21 - The Return: Black Devil

Rin failed to suppress a small groan as Inukimi swept through the portal of her own making. "You know, I think I would have rather had Pian curse me instead." She mumbled under her breath.

"I sincerely doubt that, little human." Inukimi flapped open her fan and closed it with a snap. "He wants you dead."

"And that is different from you in what way?" Rin argued back.

"I only want you dead some of the time." Inukimi smoothly transitioned her attention to Satsujimaro. "Is this not a pleasant surprise, Father?"

The skeleton slammed his katana back into its sheath. "Little bitch."

She pretended to be affronted, "Such language! But I accept your compliment. I see that you managed to get away from him; may I extend a full congratulations?"

Satsujimaro crossed his arms and growled a response in return.

Harika sidled up to Rin and whispered, "Who is this?"

"Sesshoumaru's mother." Rin glared. "Although you'd never know it."

Having lost interest in her male parent, Inukimi turned back to Rin. "We must be going. Now that you've broken the spell and found a way to return, you have work to do." Then she turned to glide back out through the portal, not taking a second to confirm that Rin was following.

Rin sighed, gave a quick good-bye hug to Harika and then stepped out. At the last moment, she turned around and found Satsujimaro on her heels.

"What did I tell you? I am not bringing over to this side where you can steal an innocent life-"

"You forgot this." He held out Ryuushin.

"Oh. Right." Rin accepted the sword awkwardly. "Thanks, for everything, I guess."

He stepped back and raised a hand in a ghostly wave as the portal shrunk into a tiny pinprick before disappearing.

"Are you quite finished?" Inukimi rapped her fan against the palm of her hand. "We have much to do."

"No, actually, I'm just getting started." Rin glared. "You have some explaining to do."

That raised a brow: "Do I now? Where is your gratitude, human?"

"How am I supposed to express gratitude when I don't even know what I'm allegedly grateful for?" Rin crossed her arms and winced as her new claws dug into her arms. "Why don't you tell me what I'm thankful for?"

Inukimi waved her arms in an intricate pattern to awaken another portal.

"Let me guess: all my answers lie beyond this door." Rin moved her hands to her hips.

"No. I simply refuse to continue this pointless conversation out here in freezing conditions."

Rin blinked. Freezing? That was when she felt a few powdery flakes brush her nose, melting into droplets. The overcast sky was a soft gray against the starkness of empty branches with a chilling breeze that made her shiver. If she had to guess, this was late winter - a few short weeks away from the thaw. Had she only been gone a few months?

There was little time to admire the scenery though as Inukimi flapped her fan and wafted some wind in Rin's direction. A mighty gust rushed in from behind, throwing her headfirst into the portal.

Rin crashed into the wall, sprawling on the floor. After scrambling up from her prone position, she blinked and looked around. She knew these tiles, the stone walls, the decorations. This was Inukimi's castle.

Panic set in. Did that mean that Sesshoumaru was here? Would they run into him? Rin chewed her lip. Although she said that she wanted nothing more than to accomplish her mission without being noticed, but there was a small voice in her mind that whispered, I hope I can see him.

Inukimi was standing outside of an open door, gesturing inside with a look that could only be interpreted as gentille impatience.

With a quick jog, Rin made it into the room, which appeared to be some random guest quarters by the look of it. There was a huge sigh before she turned around and put her hands on her hips.

"I think you owe me an explanation." Even in her power pose, she squirmed under the unrelenting stare of Inukimi. "I would greatly appreciate some sort of explanation. Harika-chan said I am engaged to Sesshoumaru, which presumably is your doing?"

The fan snapped open yet again. "When one such as yourself has already passed on twice, we have to get a little creative. Otherwise, you would be rotting in that tiny cave where I found you."

Rin blinked. It was unlikely she'd get any other explanation about exactly how the magic worked or precisely why Inukimi had selected that particular spell, but there were still more questions to ask.

"So you're telling me that you 'fake engaged' me to your son, so that I could go to the underworld, revive my body, and develop enough power to come back and do your bidding." Rin was incredulous as she spelled out what had transpired.

Inukimi did not respond, but smiled in her dangerously soft way.

"Why?"

She tilted her head slightly, "I wish to change the future."

Rin crossed her arms, "And why can't you change it yourself? You have power, wealth, influence. Making a few tweaks shouldn't be difficult."

"That is the curiosity with altering fate. The more one pulls on the threads, the faster the future slips through one's grasp. It is impossible to control the chaos that lies before us and the only course of action is to introduce an element of chaos, wind it as tightly as it will go and then release."

"I am your agent of that chaos."

Inukimi smiled cruelly, "Of course."

"And your father? Is he one of those agents too?"

For the first time, Inukimi's perfect smile wavered, instantly transforming into a grotesque mockery of her usual poise. "No. That beast will remain there for the rest of time. I have nothing more to do with him."

Rin swallowed any number of sarcastic quips about the inu clan being filled with psychotic monsters. Best not to instigate a fight with a very powerful and apparently, very bitter, sorceress.

After a few seconds of silence, Rin awkwardly coughed. "What exactly were you hoping I would do?"

"Come now, were you not listening? I cannot reveal my plans to you lest you ruin them."

Rin bit back another scathing remark as she resisted the urge to throw her hands up in exasperation. Instead, she held out Ryuushin.

"Can you at least tell me why you thought it was a good idea to throw this into the underworld? Last time I checked, Sesshoumaru and the others need this sword to take care of the dragons. By tossing it away, you've condemned them to death!"

"Last time I checked, Sesshoumaru was the one who asked me to dispose of it."

"Wait: why would he-" Rin started but then images of her own death flashed from her memories. The sword had flown around, pulled by an unseen force before embedding itself in her back. Then perhaps that meant-"

Inukimi continued, "You see, I designed Ryuushin with a very special feature. It can return to the hand of the wielder at any point with a simple call of will. I can imagine that after killing the twin dragons, my son wanted to avoid any future complications and therefore requested that I send the sword somewhere that no one could call it ever again."

She smirked. "I never imagined that you would actually bring it back."

"How do I destroy it?" Rin was on her feet, ignoring any prior irritation she had felt. If she did not get rid of the sword quickly, there was a strong chance that Pian would recall the blade to his side.

"That is quite simple: all you need is the flames of a daiyoukai dragon, the same ones that terrorized the land." Inukimi's smile grew. "Since they are all deceased, you can either attempt to summon one of the last two who lie dormant, which will require you to acquire more of that precious dragonkin blood from your royal friend."

Rin was already shaking her head. That route was folly; summon a dragon, use the infernal fire to destroy the sword, and then what? Kill the dragon with their hopes alone?

"The alternative is for you to contort the nature of Ryuushin, merge it with another blade that calls you its master. That would be sufficient to convince it to listen to you and you alone."

A coin that had been rolling around in Rin's mind for some time had finally dropped: "You. You made the swords?"

This took Inukimi by surprise and her eyes widened in disbelief. Was this girl not paying attention? "Yes, I believe I said that earlier. Did you honestly think that my sister or my father had the skills to create such intricate weapons?"

Rin looked down at Tenseiga, feeling a tad bit nervous. She had always assumed that Sesshoumaru's father or grandfather had created the weapons, but if Inukimi was the one, who knows what trickery was awaiting to rear its ugly head?

"You need not worry about Tenseiga. It was the first forged, during a simpler time. There is no malice in that steel." She flicked the paper of her fan thoughtfully and delivered to Rin a pointed look. "In fact, it would most likely be very receptive to merging with another sword's spirit."

Her meaning was clear: make Tenseiga and Ryuushin one blade. Rin nodded in understanding and made for the door, but paused as she reached for the ringed handle.

"Could you merge the two together?" She started, but then saw Inukimi's face. "Right, right, you can't directly interfere. Thanks for everything."

" Do you intend to leave looking like that?" Inukimi lazily gestured towards the mirror on the wall.

Rin was curious. She knew she had changed with her underworld training and the dragon's mantle, but now it was time to find how much.

In the mirror she saw a dragon demon. Honey crystals had replaced warm chocolate in her eyes, hair that was a dark umber in the sun was now a satiny black, and skin once tanned with freckles was shockingly alabaster.

With hands shaking slightly, she examined her pointed ears and incisors that were sharper than she remembered. Looking down she could see that her muscles, honed from her training, were far more firm to her touch than was possible in human anatomy.

She clenched her fists and relaxed her hands a few times. With the dragon's mantle, she truly was a demon. She looked back into the mirror. But not enough to fool her friends.

As though reading her mind, Inukimi handed her a metallic mask, similar to ones Kohaku and Sango wore. Rin accepted and placed it over her lower face. That certainly helped, but she would need additional disguise. She tried pulling her hair up as high as it would go, curling the long strands into a tight bun.

She turned her face this way and that, admiring her handiwork. With the mask and the severe hair style, she could no longer recognize herself.

"Stand up." Inukimi commanded.

Obliging, Rin looked at her in confusion as she raised a hand. Then there was a gentle tugging on Rin's armor. Looking down, she could see fibers and metal twisting to form new shapes and colors. It was one of the most unsettling things she'd ever seen, so she chose to stare at the ceiling instead.

"It is the uniform of our family's soldiers. They are crawling the countryside. Keep a low profile and you will not be noticed."

Rin peeked in the mirror. The robes were a rich navy blue, with the silver house symbol embroidered on the sleeves. There was more armor than she was used to, but it did not seem to impede her movement. Now her disguise was complete.

She moved to the door again.

"Oh, I almost forgot." Rin turned to face Inukimi once more and pointed at her forehead. "Can you remove the spell? I don't want any unwanted attention."

"You need not worry about that. It will only appear when you use your demonic energy."

"Can you please just remove it?"

"Unfortunately, no." She waved her hands in an elaborate fashion to create a rather intricate looking forehead protector. "Tie that on your head and no one will see."

Rin rolled her eyes, but accepted the cover all the same. "And the voices in my head? Will this block those?"

With one last flare of her fan, Inukimi demurely smiled. "Whatever do you mean?"

At this point Rin did in fact throw up her hands, grab both swords, and walked out, slamming the door behind her.

Inukimi stood in quiet solitude for a few minutes before walking to the window.

She watched with grim satisfaction as the little human girl walked away from the castle. There was a time when even she had the same optimism, the same enthusiasm for life. But then her father took that all away. She too had been cast into a war of which she should never have taken part, except for the fact that transportation and sword magics were too powerful not to leverage in the war with the dragons.

After she was utterly spent and had created numerous weapons, she was cast away to some country bumpkin and sent down south, away from the icy cold palaces that were her home. All the while, her sister received the highest honor of ruling the north in the lap of luxury.

Demonic energy swirled around her hands subconsciously as she recalled the fury of being discarded like a piece of commoner trash. Nails dug into the stonework as she closed her eyes to slowly bring back her equilibrium. The anger was always there, waiting to seep out. The only way to contain it was through elaborate distraction and entertainment.

She regarded Rin's retreating figure and smiled. The true amusement was only just beginning.

* * * * *

Rin looked back at the castle, but it had already vanished in a sudden fog. With a shoulder shrug, she set out across the wintery landscape.

The few snowflakes that had brushed her nose earlier lay on the ground, melting. By tomorrow they would be nothing more than a memory. It must be late in the winter season: still cold enough to redden the cheeks and numb the fingertips, but not quite enough to keep a dusting of snow on the ground.

She couldn't help but feel a twinge of nostalgia: in her youth, she, Kohaku, and the other village children would await the infrequent snowfall with anticipation. As soon as the white powder lazily drifted down, they would rush outside with tongues wagging, trying to catch the tiny crystals.

One time, Kagome had helped her to make something called a 'snowman' in the form of Inuyasha, but Rin thought the resemblance wasn't quite there - unless they were comparing the lump of snow to a pile of rocks.

A gurgling drew her attention and a few steps later her eyes fell upon a small stream. Now was a good a time as any to take a rest. Although Yami was providing her with a steady trickle of golden beads of life energy, straight to her heart, Rin was worried that all this moving around might be too taxing. The more she did, the more Yami had to work to counteract the draw of the underworld.

There was a nearby rock that served as a seat of sorts. "Ok Yami," she murmured out loud. "I need to find Batotsai, but I have no idea where he could be. All I can remember is that he has buggy eyes and that he travels around on the back of strange cow." She stroked the head of the kageko thoughtfully. Wandering around would do nothing but tire her out.

The burbling and bubbling of the brook caught her attention. That would do! "I can follow to where the water leads. It has to dump out into a bigger river, or a lake, or somewhere. Where there is a lot of fresh water, there are people!" Her grin was wide. It was a long shot, but it would most certainly do.

"Let's go, Yami! And Jiro." She added as an afterthought.

It would take her a few hours, but sure enough, she reached a lake. Partially frozen and clearly not strong enough to support someone's weight. As she gazed on the water, a niggling feeling twitched in the back of her mind.

"I've been here before." Vague impressions of a sunny day with blistering heat popped out of her memories. That was it! This was the lake she passed on her way to the last village during her rounds last summer. Or rather, her last summer. Up the hill she spotted the very path she had traversed on. If she followed that path, she would reach the village and possibly some answers.

Her stomach growled, causing her to giggle. At this point she'd settle for food.

She set off down the path, pleased to feel packed earth beneath her feet again. The other world had more of a gravelly feel, which was coarse and bumpy against her old shoes. Dirt was a soft luxury that was smooth and soft as a soup.

A few hours would bring her on the edge of the village she visited so long ago when she first reunited with Sesshoumaru. The likelihood of being recognized this far into the wilds was slim; the village might divulge basic details: the year, the date, if there are any major threats.

The sun hazily broke through the clouds, filtering gently, but Rin was temporarily blinded, forcing her to shield her eyes. How did Sesshoumaru and Inuyasha ever manage with such sensitive vision? Blinking a few times and several quick eyerubs helped her quickly adjust.

Eyesight restored, she looked ahead into the distance at the mountain forests and froze. Black and ash gray crisscrossed the land with a painter's broad strokes. She scanned, seeing more charred devastation. They had put down the dragons, but not soon enough.

Now she fought back impatience as she picked up the pace, practically soaring in the sky. Whatever joy she might have gained from experiencing flight from her own power was whisked away from the sinking in her gut. Was that village still there? How far had the destruction spread? When would the threat rear its ugly head again? Getting information was crucial.

That's when she spied some villagers running at full speed in the direction from which she came. Perhaps she was already too late.

Rin landed heavily in the cold, slightly damp dirt, right in front of a retreating man. He immediately raised his arms in defense.

"Don't hurt me! I'll do anything you ask!"

She turned to look over her shoulder in confusion, with her hand by Tenseiga. There was no one else around.

"Please let me go, I beg of you!" He had dropped to his knees in prayer. "If I don't leave now, then the koroi akuma will get me!"

It clicked. Of course they would be terrified of a masked demon in armor. She lowered a hand to help the gentleman up. "What is the koroi akuma?"

He accepted her gesture, but yanked his arm away as soon as he stood. "The fiend that comes in the night. He demolishes our houses. He attacks those who stand in his way. He is always searching; no one knows what he is looking for. He searches now!" Then the man joined the throng of poorly dressed villagers streaming away.

Rin frowned slightly.

That did not sound like Pian and Kan, but nothing could ever be ruled out. Apparently they had been in hiding while she was away and if Inukimi could be trusted, they were due to make a resurgence.

Taking to the sky, she leapt in giant bounds until she reached the outskirts of the village. Ducking behind an old frame, she took her dagger and edged it around the corner, to reflect the scene behind her cover:

A small child was sobbing as a figure dressed all in black lifted her up by her threadbare kimono. It shook her hard, interrupting the wails and screams. It cried out in a ragged voice filled with rage: "Where is he?"

Rin's blood ran cold. She knew that voice. Immediately she rolled out into the street and rose, drawing Tenseiga. This would not be easy to resolve without anyone getting injured.

The tell-tale steely slide of the blade withdrawing from a sheath drew the creature's attention. It whipped its masked head towards her and dropped the child, who scrambled away into the open arms of her father waiting in the ruins of another house. Both dashed into the depths of the forest.

"Who are you looking for?" Rin called out hesitantly, taking tentative steps towards the figure with Tenseiga raised.

"The one who took everything from me!" The figure rushed at her, weapon held high.

Rin was easily able to spin out of the way, which afforded her a closer look. It was no wonder that the villagers mistook this to be the koroi akuma, the black devil. Armor that was once turquoise was stained with blood, turning the pieces into a deep brown so dark it could have easily been black. Ragged loose ebony hair ran down its back and over the edges of the full face mask, made of metal, and twisted in the nasty grin of a monster.

The black devil came at her again, this time with more precision and Rin was forced to catch the blow on her sword. Fully engaged, she could see a swirling blue energy just behind the locked pair. As she suspected: this was a possession of some sort or maybe even a mutilation that had merged his essence with a vengeful demons.

"And who might that be?" She slid out of the hold and adjusted her stance. Hopefully, Tenseiga's powers would work the same as they had in the underworld. All she had to do was revert him to a time before the demonic presence appeared.

"The pale bastard that you work for!" came the reply, angrier.

Wait, what? Rin paused as the voice continued its tirade.

"I recognize those symbols on your clothes, I've seen that blue uniform before: you work for the inu clan and that monster who killed Rin and took her away from me!" He rushed at her again.

He wasn't searching for Pian and Kan? There must have been some miscommunication - either unintentional or otherwise. But she didn't have a second to spare as the black devil pulled out a second weapon, a very familiar sickle and swung both in her direction with a flurry of attacks.

She angled her sword every which way to parry all the attack, but she missed one and the curve of the sickle caught the edge of her mask, knocking it clean off into the dirt. With her full face exposed, the fighter stopped moving.

Not one to let an opportunity pass, Rin pulled up Tenseiga and swung with all her might. Revert to your proper self! Begone evil spirit! The blue flames blasted through his chest, pushing out the demonic energies and knocking the "black devil" off his feet. She watched as the fire ate away at the screaming, squirming spirit until all traces of the malevolent energy had been disbursed.

Rin grinned. Sure, purification was one way to go, but strange time-cutting magic was equally effective in vanquishing demon possessions. She slid Tenseiga back into her sheath and walked over to the prone person. The attack had loosened the ties holding the mask in place and she was very easily able to pull it away.

"Kohaku."

Just as she said his name, a roaring in her ears rose up and she blacked out.

* * * * * 

It was not a true state of sleep because she could hear and sense everything that was happening around her - including the angry twittering of her kageko.

'Ah,' she thought. 'I must have used too much energy. Sorry, Yami.' She sent up a tiny prayer that her trick with Tenseiga had actually worked and that she wasn't lying unconscious next to a violently raving lunatic.

Hours later, she felt the energy rushing through her system and she opened her eyes. There was a katana staring down her nose.

"Who are you?" The inquiry was softer, but full of wariness.

Groaning, Rin sat up and rubbed her temple. "Does it matter who I am? You were rampaging from a demonic spirit that had latched onto your mind. I got rid of the possession for you."

She looked around for her mask, but was not able to locate it on the ground.

"If you are looking for this, I will give it back once you tell me who you are and you state your purpose." Kohaku had tied back his hair and from the looks of it, attempted to wipe down his armor somewhat, although it was still a mess. The mask dangled from his free hand.

There goes any opportunity of keeping her identity a secret. Rin sighed. At least her new changes in appearance were enough to throw her old friend, at least a little. She tried out the cover story she'd formulated on her walk down from the mountain.

"My name is Mei. I work for Inukimi-sama and I am on patrol per my captain's orders."

Kohaku's expression hardened. "Don't lie."

"What makes you so sure I am lying?" Rin was desperately stalling, trying to find a way out of this conversation in a way that would not reveal her true identity. Get in, take care of the sword, take care of those brothers, and then go back. None of her friends had to get hurt.

"First, Inukimi doesn't employ soldiers. Second, that uniform belongs to that army," he spat the word, "that Inukojo brought with her. Third, the soldiers don't patrol - they get stationed in every village and town. They're placed for 'security' and 'general safety', but all they do is terrorize the locals." He edged his katana up a little further. "Plus you look like someone I used to know - what sorcery are you working?"

She threw in the towel.

"Fine! Fine! I give up! I was going to keep this a secret, but you're so damn suspicious, Kohaku! My name is Rin, I'm seventeen years old (at least I think I am), I have been dead for a while, but I am back temporarily on a super secret mission." Rin crossed her arms. "Now can I have my mask back? I'm kind of busy."

He shook his head, the katana wavered. "Not possible." A mix of doubt and hope were rendered on his face. "You're dead."

"I believe I just said that," she rolled her eyes. "What? You need more proof?" She flashed a few of the secret hand signals they used as children, the same that he had used when she was trapped. All clear. Friend.

The katana and mask thudded in the dirt as Kohaku raced over and embraced her in a bone crushing hug. Rin could feel him shaking slightly and there hints of moisture seeping through the shoulder of her robes. She smiled softly and gently returned the hug.

He pulled away and placed his hands on her jaw, rubbing his thumbs across her cheekbones. "How can this be happening?" A few tears trickled down his face. "You...you...you died." The anguish on his face cut into Rin.

"I know, I'm sorry." She reached out to caress his hair. "I didn't listen to you."

He smiled and she could tell his expression was lightening. "You wouldn't be Rin if you listened or did what you were told."

Unfortunately, the touching reunion had to end; there was still something else to address.

She smacked him hard on the back of the head.

"Ow, what was that for?" He glared at her and backed away a few paces.

"That was for you being an idiot." She bent down to pick up her mask. For now, she tied it to her sash. "The Kohaku I knew wasn't stupid enough to get caught by a vengence demon!"

He bent down to pick up his sword and continued to glower at her. "You have no idea what we went through, what I went through. Heaven forbid I let my guard down and in that tiny window, a demon snuck in!"

"Heaven forbid indeed!" Rin snapped back. "From what I can tell, you've been spending all your time going around, intimidating villagers, destroying their homes, and possibly even murdering them when you don't get your precious revenge."

He paled. "That...that can't be true."

"Well, apparently it is! You were so caught up wallowing in your grief and your misplaced anger that the demon turned you into a killing machine. Have you seen your armor? Who knows how many people you've killed."

"Kami-sama…" he whispered and dropped to his knees. "I swore I would never kill by someone else's will again. How could I let this happen?"

Perhaps it was her time in the underworld, but Rin felt surprisingly little conflict, watching her friend being torn up with guilt. She was well acquainted with the effects of grief: it could tear down your walls and level your entire world. But that was no excuse for allowing it to get the better of him. It was unfortunate, but it was the reality of the situation. This burden was his to bear and he would bear it for the rest of his life.

After a few minutes, Rin coughed awkwardly and sat next to him. "Look, I know you'd take it back if you could, but you can't. What's done is done and even all the powers in Tenseiga cannot reverse it. But you are a good person, Kohaku, a kind person. Just try to live your life honestly, try to help others when they have need and I am sure you will find your way."

"Thanks, Rin." He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

The two remained in quiet meditation for a while, simply taking in the quiet sounds of the abandoned village and the winter wind.

Finally, Kohkau was the one to break the silence.

"So, you're obviously back. Is this…?" He gestured vaguely at her modified appearance.

"The terms and conditions of my temporary revival." She nodded. "Consider them the side effects of being allowed to return for a short while."

"Then, you have to go back?" His delicate question hung in the air.

"Yes. Once I am done with the mission, I will return to the underworld permanently."

He sighed heavily. "I should have protected you. I should have been there for you."

"You can be here for me now," she reached across and took his hand in hers. "I need help to complete the mission and I'll be honest, I was a bit scared having to do it in complete secrecy." She met his eyes. "Having a friend by my side will make it easier."

"You got it, boss." He threw her a cocked grin. "What do you need to do?"

"Well, there's this thing with this sword, something about the dragons, and those twin brothers, but I'll explain more on the way." She glanced about. "Is Kiara with you? It'll be faster if we take him."

"No can do. Kiara's with Sota." Kohaku set about checking his armor, preparing to leave. He stopped when he saw Rin's raised eyebrow. "The children are over there and they need a bit of extra protection when the rest of us are away."

Her brow rose a bit higher.

"Look, Sota is a good friend. He was there for me when I was recovering from the attack and from...losing you. I wouldn't want anything to happen to him."

"Aw, did little Kohaku-kun make a friend while I was gone?" Rin teased and reattached her own mask.

"You don't need to worry about being recognized, if that's what you're worried about. You can't really tell, except when you make certain expressions."

"Well, I am not willing to take that chance. My goal is to accomplish the mission and then go back before anyone knows I'm here. I don't want anyone to have to say good-bye again." Rin stretched a bit.

"You mean you don't want to say good-bye." Kohaku walked past her.

She couldn't reply to that.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22 - The Return: In the Shadows


"And then she materialized this disguise for me out of my old clothes." Rin concluded.

Kohaku shook his head. "Wait, so she engaged you to-?"

"Yes."

"So that you could-?"

"That's right."

"And now you're…."

"Unfortunately." Rin shrugged. "Or fortunately, whichever way you'd like to look at it."

The two were making their way through the countryside, headed to Inuyasha's village in search of Battosai. Several days had passed since Kohaku's comment and Rin had more than enough time as they trudged along to consider exactly why she hadn't been able to respond and to figure out why his jab stuck with her like a bur.

Sure, she wanted to keep her friends from experiencing further heartbreak, but perhaps she was also hiding from it herself. Her death had been abrupt and she never truly had time to contemplate what had occurred.

While she hadn't found an answer yet, there was plenty of travelling to go, plenty of opportunity to contemplate the issue: it would be weeks before they reached their destination at this rate.

"Are you sure that I couldn't carry you?" She bent forward slightly and cupped her arms along her lower back. "I am certain that I could keep pace with Inuyasha."

Kohaku's jaw twitched a little from hearing Rin drop the traditional honorifics. "Wouldn't that cause you to pass out again?" He peered quizzically at the dark shadow nestled in the hollow of her throat. "If you had to use your 'demon' powers?"

"You're no fun," she slapped his shoulder playfully, but she knew he was right. Excessive use of the dragon mantle caused poor Yami to burn through life energy much too quickly.

That first day had been a bit awkward, but after camping around a fire a few times, Rin felt almost like her old self - just joking with Kohaku. He, on the other hand, was struggling.

When she asked how long she'd been away, his brows furrowed so deeply and his face grew dark. His response had been sullen and withdrawn, mixed with uncertainty: One winter season? Maybe two?

At the time, she had placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, but kept a tight lid on the empty words that would never be able to fill a broken heart. During the nights, Kohaku sometimes whimpered in his sleep and Rin had no choice but to let him endure the nightmare because at least the monsters in his dreams weren't real. Where could he turn when he woke up to the reality that he was a monster who hunted and killed for over a year?

There were moments, if Rin was careful, where Kohaku was cheerfully able to recall details.

"It sure sounds like you and Sota got along," she teased lightly.

"What was I supposed to do? I was bandaged with bruised ribs, broken limbs, and who knows what else before Kagoma-sama healed me. I was bedridden for the longest time." Kohaku turned a little red behind his ears as he mumbled, "I didn't ask for a nurse."

Today seemed like it was going well, so Rin tried her luck.

"Hey Kohaku." He hummed in reply. "Back in the village," she started, watching him carefully for any sign of withdrawal.

None so far, and she continued. "Back in the village, when you saw my uniform, you got angry. I think you said it was because you thought I worked for him?"

She knew better than to mention Sesshoumaru's name.

There was a stiffness in Kohaku's gait when she mentioned the name. Rin pretended not to notice: she was in no mood to get scolded for not heeding her good friend's wisdom about following the demon lord. She circumvented the issue by keeping references vague.

"What about it?"

"You later said that the uniform belonged to Inukojo - not...him. That it was from an army with soldiers that were stationed in every village."

"That's right." Kohaku was a bit uptight. "The dragons were killed, by whose hand, I don't know. No more had been summoned and no one had seen any sign of the silver-eyed demon brothers. But Inukojo insisted the threat was real and brought down her northern armies."

"And you all just let that happen?" Rin was surprised. Although she said you all, they both knew she meant someone else. She did not wish to think of what would have caused Sesshoumaru to permit such behavior while he was lord of the Western Lands. These were thoughts that clung to her mind like a thick tar. The tiny knot of dread had latched onto her stomach and was slowly growing.

"Inuyasha-sama and aneue were busy getting their families settled on the other side. Everyone was moved over during the dragon attacks and there was hardly any time afterwards before Inukojo moved her toops in." Kohaku gave her a reproachful look. "Everyone was dealing with a great many things at once."

"I'm not trying to insinuate that you all didn't do your best," Rin tried to explain. "I'm just trying to understand how this could have happened."

Kohaku's face became strained with tension. Maybe he tried to say something, maybe he didn't. But when she peered to get a closer look, his face was much darker than she could have imagined.

This immediately riled something inside of her, an annoyance, a grievance that she did not know she could possess - not when it came to Kohaku. She came to a full stop in the middle of the road.

"Kohaku. We need to talk. You have been skirting around the issue and I can tell you have something to say, something you've been holding back this entire time."

"You aren't going to like what I have to say," he began.

"I'm prepared to deal with it because I am out of patience," Rin crossed her arms.

"Fine." Kohaku mirrored her. "Why?"

"Why what?" Rin quirked a brow.

"Why didn't you listen to me?" He snapped. "I told you that he would be the death of you and I was right."

"That wasn't your decision to make. I'm an adult and I know my own mind. You can't take care of me forever." She planted fists on her hips.

"Well maybe I wanted to!" Kohaku burst out. "Maybe I wanted to have you by my side until the end of my days. Maybe I knew that was a foolish cause and was content just to have you living as vibrant a life as you could. Maybe I wanted that choice - a choice I no longer have because you died!" His sigh was shuddered and his eyes were glassy.

Rin was not quite prepared for the full brunt of emotion he bared before her. True, he had proclaimed his feelings before, but that confession had been tempered with a teenage awkwardness and modesty. This was raw, unavoidable.

"You have no idea what it was like." His brows were knitted together. "Hearing the news from that, bastard. Having everyone: my sister, the priest, Kagoma-sama, hell - even Inuyasha-sama- handle me like some delicate ornament while I was held up in bed."

"You know that it wasn't his fault." Rin grit her teeth to keep civil.

"Are you sure about that? You seemed willing to blame him for the troop situation a moment ago," he pointed an accusatory finger at her.

"That might have been his fault, but maybe not. But you cannot pin my death on Sesshoumaru. That is not fair."

"Not fair?" Now Kohaku was fully enraged. "None of this situation is fair! Do you want to know what that demon said to tempt me?"

Rin's eyes widened as he turned away from her.

"I was finally well enough to come back and I begged for something to do. Anything to keep my mind off the fact that you were...gone. They sent me on a scouting mission - to try to find signs of those demons. Every night I didn't have a trace of them, but every night I wished I was tracking him instead."

There was an unhinged cough. "The demon came to me one night, it bid me to join the darkness. To bring balance for the unfairness, the injustice that had been done."

He spun around and now there were hot tears streaming down his face. "I answered the call, Rin. Without hesitation. The last thing I remember is your face and the strong urge to kill him."

She didn't know what to say.

A blend of emotions welled up: confusion, hurt, but most of all - disappointment. How could he still blame Sesshoumaru? How could he allow himself to be so consumed by his viterol that a demon of revenge was able to control his life? The Kohaku had endured worse by the hands of Naruku! That Kohaku would not have been so weak-willed.

Trying to keep her quivering tone in check she asked, "And you still want to kill him?"

His head snapped up and their eyes met. For the first time ever, they stared at each other as though they were complete strangers.

But before he could respond, he shifted into a defensive stance, his attention unwaveringly focused around him.

Rin sensed it too. She quietly slid Tenseiga out of its sheath and sought cover from the nearby trees. Easing into view of Kohaku, who had hidden behind a tree across the road from her, she flashed a single hand sign: Demons?

His nod was hardly perceptible, but they had long since mastered the tells and minute expressions of the other. He returned in kind: Soldiers.

These must be some of Inukojo's troops. Attack?

This time it was a tiny shake of the head. Retreat.

Whatever reason he had must have been more complicated than their secret hand language could convey. Rin smirked. She would get the details later. Then she remembered their last words and her smile disappeared in an instant.

"What do we have here?" a sharp voice rang out behind them.

Rin winced before turning around. Sure enough, there were seven or so demons with varying degrees of ebony and silver hair, all wearing the same navy uniform with brilliant embroidery on the sleeves. There was an especially tall one in front with pale skin and purple cheek markings indicating service to the Inu clan.

A spear jabbed at her. "Mind telling us what you're doing out here with a," the voice sneered, "human?"

She rolled her eyes. "What's it to you?" she whipped Tenseiga around to them. Almost as if on cue, the sword began to thrum with a blue energy and the telltale signs of blue flame licked the edge of the blade.

Nononono. Please don't do that! Rin tried to make the flames disappear by willing them out of existence. If she kept this up much longer, Yami's energy reserve would be dry and Kohaku would be straddled with seven foes, plus one unconscious ally.

"Damn it all." She whirled around, slid her sword back into its sheath, leapt over to Kohaku, scooped him up with the grace of an undignified noble lady and then dashed towards the sky.

"After them!" the demons on the ground were confused for a brief moment, but were quick to follow as Rin tried to jump further away.

"Rin, what are you doing?!" Kohaku called in her ear, having wrapped his arms around her neck to better support his weight. "You're going to-"

"I know! I know!" She shouted back against the wind. "No need to tell me this was not my brightest idea!" Her head whipped back and forth as quickly as possible to find either a hiding place or a getaway path.

"RIN!" Kohaku yelled a bit louder.

"I SAID I KNOW!" She hollered in response.

"NO - STOP!" Kohaku buried his head in her shoulder, completely at her mercy.

"What?" Rin looked down to see a mighty chasm yawning wide right below them. She panicked - there was nowhere to land.

The darkness in the depths of the earth was rushing towards them. "RIN!" Kohaku screamed once more.

Her heart dropped through her stomach, but then a familiar sensation returned. The faint tingle of a memory was completely overwhelmed by the massive winds that surged under her feet, lifting her high into the air. It might have been a few years, but her body remembered.

Wobbling and struggling to keep her balance, she pushed off the unseen force and was instantly thrust forward onto another spot that once again tossed her easily towards the sky.

Her previous experiences with floating did not compare to the utter feeling of freedom as the wind tugged at her bun, whistled through the gaps in her mask, ruffled and whipped at her robes. There was only the sky on her horizon - clear all the way to the mountains. It was glorious.

Again and again, they returned to that vantage point until they were close enough to the other side. That was when she recalled that she didn't quite know how to land.

They hit the ground hard, rolling in the dirt, letting their momentum carry them towards the edge of the forest. Luckily, the ground was still partially moist from the light snowfall that had spotted their journey, so there was no dust in the air to choke on.

They both scrambled into the cover provided by the nearby trees, panting slightly. Kohaku held up a finger to his lips and Rin nodded. The demons were on the other side of the crevice. If they were anything like Inuyasha and Sesshoumaru, they might be able to hear them from this distance.

Unfortunately, Rin's dragon mantle did not afford her the ability of super hearing and she was forced to make do with furtive glances from behind the brush. But she could only hope at least one of them was remarking: it'll take us days to get around this, while another agreed: it's not worth the effort.

She could feel Yami struggling under her kimono and she fought to stay awake. That had been a very stupid idea, especially after Tenseiga had pulled so much energy moments before their escape.

To help keep her eyes open, she tried to calculate whether the demons could make it to this side of the ridge or not.

What was it that Jaken had said so long ago? It was a trial for those in service to the Inu clan to prove their strength. Not even the strongest among Sesshoumaru's father's retainers were guaranteed to make it across in one fell swoop.

With any luck, these troops were from the north and were hopefully not acquainted with the rituals of the southern branch family. Perhaps by some miracle they did not know the trick and would be put off by the sheer size of the gap.

Either way, it wasn't terribly long until the party had left. Kohaku and Rin both let out the breaths they didn't know they were holding.

"How did you know that would happen?" Kohaku asked breathlessly. "That trick with the wind?"

She was not about to let him know that she didn't know and that it had been a mere fluke that they survived at all.

"I've done it before." Kohaku's head snapped up in alarm. "Once before when I started traveling."

He looked at her incredulously. "What on earth would possess you to do such a thing?"

Sheepishly, she bit her lip before wincing a little. "I was trying to prove myself as a worthy companion."

Kohaku looked ready to explode, but before he could, Rin put her hands up in defense. "It's really not that hard. All you have to do is tie a rope around your waist to catch you while you're learning, and I'll admit that the first time you try it without the rope is a bit unnerving, but aside from that it's perfectly safe."

This did nothing to sooth her friend's mounting rage and she desperately thought of something - anything that could help calm him down.

"Oh come on - at least it's better than the time I jumped off the back of Ah-Un to make a point!"

Now he was frozen, his expression trapped between anger and confusion. Then he rotated his head towards her, like a jointed puppet. "You're right."

"Right about what?" She started breathing normally again - whether it was because of the shift in mood or because Yami had finally been able to catch up, she couldn't tell.

"It's not his fault."

Rin's eyes shifted back in forth and she tried to figure out the flow of logic that had brought him to this conjecture. "It's not?"

With a slow shake of his head, Kohaku's face melted into one of complete disbelief. "How could it be his fault when you're so mind-boggling STUPID?! Here I was the entire time thinking that it was his responsibility to keep you safe, but I never realized how gargantuan a task that was! You are impossible!"

Hesitantly, Rin cracked a smile as she brushed the dirt off her hakama and stood to offer him a hand. "You are just realizing that now?"

Thankfully, he smiled back and reached up to take her hand, but his eyes focused on something behind her, back towards the chasm.

Rin slowly turned and then she saw it: a flash of yellow among a bed of metal daggers and short swords. As though in a trance, she moved towards the tattered tattered piece of material flapping lazily in the breeze. With a tentative hand, she grasped the silken fibers of gold and purple.

He was here.

She gripped the fabric tightly and closed her eyes. Once again, she felt the conflicting desires of both wanting to see him again and never crossing paths. But somehow, just holding this tangential connection to him granted her a peace she had yet to know since her death.

Sesshomaru-sama. She might have fallen out of the habit of using honorifics in conversation, but in her heart, he would always be Sesshomaru-sama. Always perfectly imperfect, captured in her memories.

For once, Kohaku stood nearby, contemplative, but without the coiled anger from the past few days. At least for now, he had been able to break through some of his inner demons.

She quietly looked down at the sheath of Ryuushin with self-loathing. "You went through the pains to discard this blade, to save everyone from those monsters from reclaiming it and running havok again. What did I do? I brought it right back."

"What chance do I have?" Rin looked up at Kohaku, who was just as young and uncertain as she.

"It is a long shot. We don't know if Battosai can do something with the blade, we don't even know if he'll be in the village. After all, my arrangement was circumstantial - it could be weeks or months between when I saw him to take my weapon commissions and when he returned." Kohaku gave her a grave and melancholy look.

"But it's the chance we need to take," he continued. "True, none of this is fair. You shouldn't be dead, I shouldn't be missing two years of my memories, we shouldn't have been robbed of the safe lives we were leading in that happy village or on the road."

"That never stopped you from doing the right thing before and it won't stop you now." It was his turn to reach down to offer her a hand.

She glanced down at the yellow sash, steeled herself, and then accepted the help up. "Then let's head to the village to see what we can find out."

He nodded. "On the way there, let's see what we can pick out of my possession-addled brain."

"Are you sure?" Her eyes were full of concern.

"Yes. I know I've done wrong and yes, that hurts, but we don't have time for me to wallow in my own pity and shame. There must be hidden details, things that I didn't notice that are in my memories. Any little piece of information that might be able to help you, to help us, that's worth the pain." A stronger glimmer of the old Kohaku was starting to shine through.

She smiled appreciatively. "Promise me you'll tell me if it gets to be too much."

"I promise," he swore solemnly.

"OK, let's get started," she said as they started down the path through the forest. "We'll go back to the basics: you left Kiara with Sota…"

An embarrassed flush rushed across his cheeks. "I left Kiara to protect the children, and Sota."

"Right and that's why we have to walk everywhere," she chided.

The next few days passed without incident: quiet nights around the campfires, tranquil days under overcast skies.

Although she was dying to know answers to questions like How were the others when you last saw them? Was everyone safe? she knew the answers would certainly be: I don't know, I don't know, I can't remember.

Therefore, she kept the line of questioning strategic and they slowly began to piece together the big picture: one of the brothers (Kohaku was not sure which one) had been killed (by whose hand was also unclear), one of the dragons had been killed and the other sent to the underworld.

"Yeah, I knew about that one," Rin groaned when they got to that part in the recounting.

Inukojo had deployed a massive number of troops. Why Sesshoumaru had not taken action wasn't clear to either of them - nothing had been made public, but Rin had suspicions (these she kept to herself). Kohaku remembered the others complaining about the soldiers being stationed in every reasonably sized city and town.

It was several days later, under a cold misting rain, that the pair finally came within eyesight of the village.

"Don't forget, everyone is still at Kagome-sama's home on the other side of the well," Kohaku warned her.

"I was counting on it," she said, striding forward. As much as she would love to see everyone, she still had not come up with the answer to her dilemma and until she figured out what to say or what to do, she would avoid everyone at all costs in case the plan went sideways.

Several seconds later, she realized that Kohaku had stopped and was gripping the handle of his sickle.

She was immediately reaching for her weapon, eyes and ears alert. But there was nothing.

"It's quiet."

Kohaku nodded. "Too quiet. When I left for my mission, the villagers were still here. At least I think that was the case." He cursed himself quietly. "Why can't I remember the important stuff?"

"Don't worry about it too much. Let's have a look around."

Their investigation did not yield any answers. The village was completely abandoned - for at least several months by the looks of it. Homes were carefully boarded up, but that was the only hint they received.

"Maybe Inuyasha-sama and the others coordinated efforts to have the village evacuated before the troops got this far." They made their way back up the hill towards Inuyasha's tree. "There was no way that this was done quickly. That must mean that everyone is hidden somewhere."

"If no one's been in the village, then it's not likely that Battosai would have visited recently." Rin voiced the concern that Kohaku had been edging around. "It could be months or years until we see that swordsmith. I need to get rid of this sword and finish off whichever brother didn't die - and do it before they can do anymore damage." She started pacing.

"Why don't we try the well?" Kohaku asked. "There's a possibility that the others are there or at the very least, watching. If I can make contact with them, then maybe we can find Battosai."

Deep in her frantic pacing, Rin waved him off. "Go. I'm going to stay here and think." She plopped onto the cold, dead grass.

"There is one person that might know where Battosai is," Kohaku started as he headed away.

"Nope. Not an option." Rin cut him off. There was no way that she was going to Sesshoumaru. At least not yet. Get in, get it done, get out: she repeated to herself like a mantra. Then she set her mind to her most puzzling conundrum yet.


The darkness was vast and absolute, but Pian found it strangely comforting: a warm, velvet blanket to muffle out the anguish of losing Kan, of watching a plan fall to pieces, of seeing revenge unfulfilled.

"You are not afraid," a giant papery voice whispered, echoing in the black, bouncing off of nothing.

Pian did not even open one of his eyes, "An astute observation."

"What will you do?" the voice rasped out again.

"What will I do? Nothing." Pian answered honestly. "I have no urgency to act upon."

"Not even with the little girl?"

"Which little girl would that be? I am acquainted with many at this point."

"I believe you call her, Rin?"

With that, Pian's eyes did snap open and he frowned. "What about Rin?"

"Here I thought you were a strategist, one who likes to move pieces on the board, yet your moves are dull."

"What move would you have me make?" Pian responded, attempting to calm himself.

"I am willing to bargain - for more than just information about the Inu clan's little pet." The creature, whatever it was, took Pian's silence as prompt to continue. "If you are willing to cohabitate, I can grant you power - even to leave this place and complete your revenge."

Pian refused to question how this entity knew the information, he would not lose his composure, his balance. "What exactly does this cohabitation entail?"

"Ah, that is to say, I would reside within your body and when the time comes, you would allow me control of it."

"Permanently?"

"Permanently."

Pian hesitated.

"I merely offer it as a means to an end. We both benefit: you complete your desire for vengeance and I am finally free from the shackles of this domain."

There was no denying that Pian was low on resources. No brother, no dragons, and only the dragon scale they had managed to recover from below the city. No leads to where the final daiyoukai could be, no line of sight into what transformations had occurred across the land since his imprisonment.

A pair of golden eyes, hooded, swirled from his recent memory. "Are you very familiar with the Inu clan?"

The bodiless voice adopted faint traces of venom. "I am familiar with their she-witch."

Oh, so it was a witch? A sorceress? Pian smiled. Bargaining chips. "I am of the mind that you would very much like to act on some vengeance of your own, perhaps against that Inu spell caster. It is not only freedom you speak."

"Finally, an excellent move." The voice could very well have been grinning wickedly.

"What would you say to this: you may possess my body and you will grant me the power you claim to own. I will become the dagger that delivers our desires against the Inu clan's sorceress queen and her quibbling son. After that, you may do as you please." Pian's offer wasn't entirely that different, but he did lay out the when "that time" would be.

"We have an accord."

Without warning, the shadows converged on Pian, filling his eyes, his ears, his nose, his mouth. Tendrils wrapped around his neck, wrapping him in an intangible steel grip. The experience was more constricting than any binding he faced before, but he was not above suffering a bit of pain to get what he needed.

The sensation ended as abruptly as it started. Pian could feel energy coursing through his limbs, traveling up and down his veins. He lifted a hand and concentrated. A brilliant white light began to radiate from his palm, growing bigger and brighter, illuminating the space for the first time. He could see a series of black marks scattered across his body: the mark of possession.

He smiled as he let the light flash forward, tearing through the walls of the dimension, cracking an opening back to the other side. He wasted no time sweeping through and back into the land of the living.

As soon as his feet touched the ashen forest floor, he reached out his sword hand.


Rin was mumbling to herself. "If their main plan is revenge, they'll keep attacking the Inu clan and destroying the land with the tools at their disposal. Now what tools do they have at their disposal?" She scratched her head. Strategic planning hand never been her forte.

"What do you think, Yami?" She asked the kageko. "If they have Ryuushin as one weapon and the unsummoned dragons as the other, which one is the bigger problem? Which one poses more danger?"

Yami chirped uselessly.

"You're right." Rin sighed and quipped sarcastically. "I've always admired your great sense for battle tactics." Then she rubbed her little friend on the top of its head. "I jest. You are an important friend to me. I am just a bit anxious because if I mess this up, it could spell disaster for many more people. I have to look at this from the big picture and I'm not used to doing that."

She stood up again, dusting the dirt and brown blades of grass off her robes. "One thing I can do right now is keep watch over the sword. As long as I keep an eye on it, it's not going anywhere."

It was at that moment that Ryuushin flew out of its sheath. She barely had time to catch it, but she was not fast nor strong enough to prevent it from moving forward.

Her muscles strained against the unseen grip and she could hear Yami chattering nervously.

"Kohaku!" She yelled, but the force had already tugged her along. Her feet barely grazed the ground as the weapon picked up speed. In a moment of quick thinking, she used her free hand to briefly slide the sheath out of her sash and dropped it on the ground. Hopefully Kohaku was clever enough to figure out what happened.

Then she turned her determination to the task at hand. Pian, Kan, whichever one of you it is: let's settle this!


"You were right, Rin. The well doesn't work except for Kagome-sama and Inuyasha-sama." Kohaku called ahead as he returned to their meeting spot. "But I figured it was worth the attempt."

There was no reply: Rin was gone.

Alarmed, Kohaku immediately scanned the area. Attackers? Natural threats? There were no signs of either.

A glossy glint caught his eye; a lacquered sword sheath. One that he did not recognize: black covered in red, with a golden crescent moon on the top. Could this be the sheath to the dragon slaying sword?

He looked a few feet beyond his position and could see faint track marks, almost as if someone had been dragged away by a flying creature.

That means Rin was headed towards the enemy. There were only two ways to go: follow the trail forward or pivot to find their allies. Minutes drained away as he wavered. If he went into that fight, human as he was, he might be of no use.

With an aggravated huff he squared his shoulders. If Rin was in the enemy camp, there was only one person who had any chance of keeping up with her craziness, her harebrained plans, and her particular brand of stupid bravery.

He was going to need to find Sesshoumaru and it was going to kill him to do so.


 

Chapter Text

Chapter 23 - The Return: Heartfelt Reunion


Deep in the forest, there is a quiet loll during the winter months. All living things are peacefully sleeping, nested in their cozy dens, awaiting the day that begins on a crisp note, but slowly eases into a soft warmth as the sun finally greets the world.

That day was not far off, but this particular morning was still tranquil as Sesshoumaru and Tsukiakari swirled into a clearing, kicking up trace amounts of powdered snow left from the previous night.

"Are you sure that you do not wish to learn the trick?" she asked. "Teleportation is not particularly hard to get a handle on."

"I have no wish to become a magic user, a spell caster, like my mother," Sesshoumaru replied. "The bite of cold steel is all I require."

Tsukiakari smiled. "Yes, that is your way, isn't it?" Looking around her smile widened, but also saddened.

"I am grateful that the land is healing."

And it was. In the aftermath of Kan's attack with the twins, massive swathes of land had been obliterated, reduced into a thick layer of ash and cinders. Just over a year later and with spring on the way, the teeniest, tiniest signs of life were edging their way through - small peeks of green against a monotone landscape.

The forest was healing. Their rag tag group had long since healed of their injuries. Now, even he was taking the steps to heal his heart: bidding Rin a final farewell.

A few minutes later, the pair arrived at the base of a mountain, with cragged rocks and jagged outcroppings.

"May I join you?" her question jolted him out of his thoughts. After a beat, he gave her a subtle nod.

They made their way up the cliff face until they landed in front of a cave closed off with a very large stone. Sesshoumaru paused, hesitated, although he did not know why. Tsukiakari patiently waited a few paces behind him.

What started with one footstep, turned into two, then three, as he reverently walked up to the boulder over the entrance. Slowly and gracefully, he lowered onto one knee and placed his hand upon the cold stone.

What now? Where did he begin?

I am sorry that I would not visit you before today.

I am sorry that I could not protect you from the dangers of the world.

I am sorry that I have not kept my promise.

Somehow, all of these apologies rang hollow in his mind and so he kept his mouth closed against the empty offerings that he had available.

There was the gentle swish and sigh as Tsukiakari settled on the ground next to him. "Hello, Rin-san."

Her words cut through the heavy silence and jolted Sesshoumaru as though he had received an electrical charge.

"It has been a while, but I hope you would forgive us for the transgression, for it has been a very busy year. I believe it is what you would have wanted us to do."

None of her words were wrong, so he closed his eyes and listened.

"Rin-san, I only knew you for a short period of time, but I can say you have had a monumental effect. The actions you took and the words that you spoke have led us to where we are today."

A wind picked up, blowing the loose ends of her hair lazily up into the air and making strands of his ponytail sway. Visions of their time together floated behind his eyelids:

A girl in threadbare rags dropping flowers at his feet as he lay curled against a tree in a sunny forest.

A growing child in a tangerine and cream kimono cheerfully tagging along in his shadow, calling his name with sweet and complete devotion.

A developing maiden in rough and tumble robes questioning the world and maturing just out of his eyesight.

A young woman in armor doing her best to walk by his side, learning the harshness of reality.

He opened his eyes as Tsukiakari continued. "I am immensely grateful to you, Rin-san. You have inspired change in all of us, for the better." She also opened her eyes to look over at him.

"Yes, we have changed," he agreed. More than that, he could not acknowledge, not even now.

Something in his tone must have given him away because her smile disappeared. She removed her hand from the stone and turned towards him. "You do not need to go through with it. I am immeasurably happy that you have agreed to this marriage, but we do not need to have this wedding if you no longer desire it."

He also dropped his hand to his side. "What would we do about your mother? The plans hinge on our union. I am committed to this plan." His expression softened slightly. "I am committed to the future, our future."

His hand reached out for hers. "I have broken promises before," he said with a glance back at Rin's grave, "and I told myself that would be the last."

She joined her hand in his. "Then let it be so." Raising her free hand, she gently placed it once more on the stone. "Rin-san, please be at peace, we will both do our best to do what you would have wished."

He mirrored her action. It took him a minute to force his mouth to work, but then he was able to utter the words that had taken him over a year to say aloud: "Thank you, Rin. Sayonara."

Minutes passed in calm silence and then both of them stood in unison. Tsukiakari took the lead in their exit by a few steps. "What a long way we've come. Why, I can still recall when you viewed me as a tool to use in your revenge schemes."

"How do you know that I don't still?"

She threw a knowing look back at him. "I can tell, Sesshomaru-sama."

A term that would have burned a year ago, would have stung months ago, would have twinged weeks ago, now had no lasting consequence on his heart.

"You are right. There is no one in the world I can trust as much nor anyone who could make a better partner in my schemes."

His sincerity and frankness flabbergasted her. Her delicate mouth actually dropped open in surprise for a split second before she regained her composure. True, he had become more vocal in the year since Rin's passing, but praise, even if rightfully deserved, did not come frequently from him.

She prepared to give him a comment, but he was now frozen, a dark glower across his face.

Tsukiakari was at his side in an instant, hand on his shoulder. "What is it? Where do you need to go?"

Fury like he had not known in over a year surfaced as he growled. "The sword is back." With a stabilizing breath he held out his arm and concentrated. The blood lust was strong, there was no mistaking Ryuushin. He called out to the sword, but someone else's call was stronger. The blade stayed the course.

He angrily pointed to the path, sweeping across their horizon.

Tsukiakari's eyes followed his finger and nodded. "The closest I can get us is Inuyasha-san's village, but we should be able to pick up the trail from there." With a whirl of wind they disappeared.


Rin continued every effort to stop the progression of the sword, but her muscles, having far exceeded complaining, were beginning to fail her in their exhaustion. Yami was also beginning to chirp warnings that she would likely pass out soon.

After her initial defiance towards her old foes, she rationally concluded that perhaps a show down without any prior knowledge was not necessarily a good strategic choice and had resumed her attempts to delay the sword's commute. Yet, she was finding that there was little she could aside from hold on.

Then she spotted a pair of trees, thick from years of life, coming straight towards her. With her remaining strength, she angled her body and braced for impact.

She slammed into the trunks, but managed to twist the sword lengthwise, effectively trapping it between the two trees like a bar used to block a door. The two elderly trees groaned under the strain, but held. Rin carefully eased her grip on the sword and discovered the blade did not move.

"Thank goodness," she sighed heavily as she slid to the ground.

That's when she heard the slide of metal against wood and saw the glint of a blade by her ear.

"Speak."

A hundred different dimensions, a thousand different times, a million different destinies would not have let her forget that voice, that tone. Her own words locked in her throat as her mind cried out, Sesshomaru-sama!

Her eyes widened as Tsukiakari came into her vision, her long fingers weaving intricate symbols, her honeyed tone speaking in hushed volumes. A white ethereal fog settled around the sword and it fell to the ground.

"What did you do?" Rin found herself asking.

Tsukiakari looked back over Rin's head with a question in her eyes, nodded, and then held her hands over the obscured weapon, which drifted upwards until it floated a few inches below her hands.

"Your name and your purpose." Bakusaiga pressed against her collar, pushing into her armor under her clothing.

His voice captured her again and pinned her down, still in shock. Whatever choice she made about seeing her friends again to say good-bye, every ounce of her body was telling her that she should not be here that this was one meeting that should not be happening. Flee!

There was no way to tell what expression was on his face. Rin calculated her odds at getting away. Get the sword and get out of here!

"You work for Inukojo?" The name was filled with venom.

Ah. He had noticed the uniform.

"Why do you have Ryuushin?" This phrase had more poison than the last.

Of course he would have recognized the damn sword.

Based on her calculations: there was no chance of her getting away without speaking, but there was a possibility she could pass off as someone else. The threads of a story were coming together, weaving a tale that might just let her leave.

"Is this how the great lord of the western lands interrogates? Staring down a person's back like a coward?" Rin had forgotten that her voice had matured during her time in the afterlife and even she was surprised by how foreign it sounded using words that were not normally her own.

Bakusaiga withdrew. Tsukiakari took a few steps back. Rin was allowed onto her feet.

With as much control as she could muster, she turned around.

He was the same: golden eyes, shining silvery white hair, polished armor, a luxurious fur on his shoulder. The gold at his waist had been traded for black. Despite her concerns around being recognized and her fears of coming face to face with him, he was, at the end of the day, the man that she still loved with all her heart. She drank in his appearance, like a starving noble woman: trying to hide the starving urgency under good manners.

His eyes drifted to her waist and immediately turned red.

Rin schooled herself to keep her expression neutral while she tried to work out what happened. Then she remembered Tenseiga, which was strapped to her waist.

Curses. She screwed up.


Ryuushin disappeared from his senses.

Pian hissed slightly in annoyance. With his elevated powers, he had been able to sense the sword every step of the way. All he had to do was walk towards the energy with his hand out and he could feel it trying to come to him.

But now that feeling was gone. Completely obliterated, wiped off the face of the earth. But in its absence, the fainter signs of demonic energy flitted across his mind. Very familiar demonic energies.

He smiled. Now he had something new to track, something that was arguably much better than the dragon slaying sword.

With renewed mirth, he continued walking forward.


How could this happen? Sesshoumaru thought, enraged. He had only just finished saying his good-byes and yet this insolent bastard had the audacity to show up with not only Ryuushin, but also the precious Tenseiga that he had caringly bestowed to Rin. All while wearing the uniform of his aunt's damned army.

"Identify yourself," he snarled.

The figure was most likely female, although it was difficult to tell under the cloth and armor. The voice had been high enough for it. A long black ponytail, pointed ears, and unnaturally light eyes definitely marked this welp as youkai.

His opponent remained silent, body still, betraying no signs of emotion behind a mask that covered their lower face from nose to chin.

"Take off your mask," he barked.

Tsukiakari cautiously made her way over to his side, carrying with her the warded Ryuushin.

"No." The fighter's eyes darted between him and the red sword, as though trying to devise a plan.

Sesshoumaru moved to block her light of sight to the blade. "Where did you get those swords?"

Rin was beginning to panic. Every time she thought she had a grasp on a story that she could tell, his terse questioning tore it to shreds, along with her confidence. He would figure it out. He would know. What lies could she possibly tell?

Then a moment of clarity: did she need to lie?

The world froze for a second.

Maybe it would be okay. Maybe she could tell them. Afterall, it would be easier to complete the mission with their help. Maybe they hadn't moved on, maybe spending some time and saying goodbye would be better than leaving everything left unsaid. Maybe, just maybe, she could hope for a little more during the short time she had before her return.

In the silence that fell after his last question, Sessohumaru's suspicion spiked. Clearly this individual could not be trusted and was best dealt with quickly. Get back Tenseiga to its rightful place, graverobber!

He lunged forward with Bakusaiga raised, prepared to strike down his foe, who quickly whipped out Tenseiga to block the downward swing, bracing the backside of the blade with a firm grip.

A hard, short push forced him back a pace and the fighter resumed a neutral stance, sword at her side. She swung hard and he parried before responding with a few quick jabs that she was able to aptly doge.

His eyes narrowed as they continued to exchange blows. This person was experienced, perhaps with years, far beyond what he had seen in the standard soldier in his aunt's employ. A spy? An assassin? He found his annoyance mounting as the fighter managed to dance away from all his attacks.

Rin's eyes widened as she found herself able to keep up with every slash as the two finished a sequence of attacks and circled around each other. Sesshoumaru had been using a sword for centuries. Granted, he was not constantly practicing (at least not as far as she had been able to tell), but still.

For her to keep up with a swordsman of his caliber, just how long had she been away? Kohaku had been fairly certain that it had been only just over a year. That was not nearly enough time for her to suddenly keep up. Time did pass differently there: had she been away not for months, but years?

The pace increased and the blows intensified. Rin did find her breath becoming labored and began to hear the small twitterings of Yami. Fighting against blows with demonic speed and strength so soon after her ordeal trying to hold back to the sword was eating away at her energy reserves.

She broke from their current positioning to put some distance between them. She took a deep breath and recalled her bouts with Satsujimaro. This was the same. Keep calm. Afterall, what was the worst that could happen, she'd die? Again?

In the spirit of her newfound freedom, she grinned beneath her mask. I can keep up with Sesshomaru-sama. I can keep up! Her next offering was a few rapid up and down slashes, designed to put him on the defense, which did seem to throw him off. Then she followed with a few more jabs and whirled around to bring her blade bearing down on his.

As he braced his counter against her, she took stock of him. Still the same amber eyes, the purple cheek marks, the same unreadable countenance. Then she saw his stance - the footing was all wrong, at least compared with her usual spar partner. The words slipped out before she realized what she said:

"Who taught you to fight, Inutaisho?"

It was the usual jibe that she and Satsujimaro had made into their own private joke of sorts. The clan elder always felt his son-in-law had an inferior fighting style, one that was rough and primitive. Every time Rin improvised that was the comment she'd received. Once she started holding her own, she found it fun to spit it back at him.

But this was not Sesshoumaru's grandfather, it was Sesshoumaru. Rin was grateful for the mask to conceal her shocked expression.

Sessohumaru wheeled away and lowered his weapon. Who is this person who is skilled, but has the strangest modes of expression? Who also wielded Tenseiga and carried Ryuushin?

"Who do you work for?" He asked, keeping Bakusaiga at the ready, but no longer in attack position. He expected more silence.

To his surprise, the fighter responded. "Inukimi tasked me with hunting down and killing the demons that summoned those dragons a year ago."

His mother? "Why?"

The fighter also lowered her sword and seemed to contemplate her next sentence.

Tsukiakari came around, keeping Ryuushin close in the bubble. "Please," she beseeched. "We have no qualm against your mission, we just seek to understand." She gestured to the sword. "This blade took the life of one very dear to us and we cannot let its malevolence roam." With a quick glance back at Sesshoumaru, she returned her gaze forward.

"Those monsters of which you speak have taken much from us, from all of us. And there is more to come. If we let you go with Ryuushin, it may destroy our hopes for the future."

Rin blinked. Hold on a second… There was something in the noble lady's tone, her eye contact that brought the sinking feeling back to Rin's stomach.

She re-assessed the situation. The inu youkai pair were out here together. In matching kimono with duplicate red embroidery on the sleeves. Twin black sashes at their waists. Her eyes drifted upward and confirmed what she knew along.

Golden crescents on their brows. Not purple, but gold, lightly glowing. Rin's heart dropped through the floor. They're engaged.

But of course they were. She could easily remember conversations with Tsukiakari where they joked about being rivals for the affections of a man who did not know how to love. In the time she was away, apparently he had found his true calling.

A second ago, she was convinced that she could reveal everything to them, but now she was certain. No dragging anyone through the mud, no tearing open past wounds that had long since healed. Keep it simple, keep it secret.

After the barest of shuddering breaths, she responded. "Inukimi told me that there was a job left undone, that needed to be handled expertly and at pace. Otherwise, the dragons would not be stopped and the terror that ravaged these lands would return. She requested my aid in making sure the business was actually finished this time."

The words stung to say, but she needed to play the part. Make them believe she was a mercenary for hire, get back the sword (if she could), kill the remaining brother, and then return to the afterlife.

"Hand over Tenseiga." The order was no longer through clenched teeth, but it still carried the threat of bloodshed.

Rin frowned, but kept up the act. "No. Inukimi gave me this sword and Ryuushin. I can't possibly hand them over to you, whoever you are." She moved towards Tsukiakari.

Sesshoumaru once again stepped between them, positioning himself to block the fighter's path to the sword.

The fighter threw up her hands. "What, do you think this is a trap? You're going to need to make up your own damn mind on that front, but I am telling you that I need that sword and you need to let me be on my way."

She made to move around him, but he caught her across the shoulders, freezing her in place. He could feel well honed muscles, but she didn't make any move to resist. This was a talented fighter, someone who was dedicated to her mission (or her deception). Even if he kept the swords, he couldn't let her go: she was too dangerous. But, if purposed correctly, she could be a valuable asset.

He flashed a look to Tsukiakari, who took a few steps back.

"I have a proposal." The fighter was still locked in position. "I cannot let Ryuushin out of my sight, just as I am loathe to let Tenseiga loose. I will permit you to travel with us. We will offer our support, you can bear chief responsibility over the swords, and we will pool our resources to complete the mission. For we are after the same enemy afterall."

The fighter flashed her crystal honey eyes at him with alarm, warning, or threat - it was impossible to tell. Then she gave him a slow, solemn nod. He relinquished his hold and she stepped back, hand firmly around the hilt of Tenseiga.

"Where is the sheath?" he gestured to her waist, which was clearly missing a scabbard.

"When the demon attempted to summon the sword, I dropped it in the dirt in the hopes that my traveling companion would locate and use it to track me down." The fighter was brushing off her knees from where she had been kneeling before their match.

"Traveling companion?" Tsukiakari and Sesshoumaru shared a quizzical look. He clenched his jaw: another loose end to contend with.

"Perhaps we should go to the village to make sure the demon hasn't done any damage. We might be able to find your friend there as well," Tsukiakari suggested. "At any rate, we shouldn't stay here. No doubt that demon is headed this way already."

A solid suggestion. He stepped next to her. "Can you keep the ward up even if we teleport?"

She nodded.

Sesshoumaru turned to their new ally and instructed: "Place your hand on Tsukiakari's shoulder. We will transfer to the village."

There was a moment of hesitation from her that was confusing, but perhaps she was wary of magic. Tsukiakari began the incantation and seconds later, the world blurred around them as though they were in the center of a wind spiral. Then, as quickly as it began, the world stopped and they were back in Inuyasha's village.

Standing on the hill near Inuyasha's tree was a lone figure. That must be the traveling companion. They raised a hand in acknowledgement and came racing down the slope, but came to an abrupt halt several meters away.

The person's hair was longer, with bangs by the chin and a ponytail inching toward the open flesh on the back of the neck. His uniform was much more worn than the last time Sesshoumaru had seen it, but still serviceable and relatively clean.

It had been over a year since he last encountered Kohaku. In fact, it had been the morning after Rin's passing when he had carried the nearly dead boy and his pet cat back to the village for healing and then saw no sign of him afterwards. He knew the slayer had been angry and he was relieved that he had somehow managed to avoid confrontation since that day.

It was particularly fortunate, given the rumors that were circulating about the kuroi akuma, running into the spiteful young man would have only caused problems. Especially since he knew the boy had feelings for Rin and had been distraught by his love's death.

Hmm.

A passing thought, a brief connection between two ideas led him to stare for a moment longer between Kohaku and the fighter.

He searched for any indication that the fighter could possibly be, well, her. Given the situation, it wasn't impossible.

But as he watched Kohaku approach the group, rage and bloodlust barely contained, that possibility diminished. Given the strength of the young man's feelings, he would not be openly hostile if Rin had managed to return.

Sesshoumaru sighed and reprimanded himself for giving in to such wild speculation. It was no surprise that the fighter had run into someone from their group: many of them were secretly searching for the demons. He had already said good-bye; he needed to stop clinging to the past.

"Oh, lucky me, just the youkai I was looking for," Kohaku opened with some bite as all of his anger and regret flooded back at the sight of the inu lord.

Kohaku could see Rin making no attempt to stop his visceral conversation. She was still wearing the mask and must have been under cover. He was surprised to see that she had managed to run into her old guardian, but it at least saved him the issue of finding Sesshoumaru and then convincing him to come along on a dalliance for the demons.

"Why is that?" Sesshoumaru returned, as cold as ever.

Kohaku tilted his head. "I figured that Mari here," he gestured to Rin, "had gotten caught up with some business with the sword when she left this behind for me to find." He held out the scabbard in question. "Your lot started this mess; it stands to reason that you should be the one to finish it."

Was he being harsh? Yes, but he needed to keep Rin's cover story (whatever she had told them) and after over a year, he had some pent up aggression that was escaping the tightly clamped box around his heart.

As he stared down Sesshoumaru, he felt something was off, a detail was out of place. A flash of gold over the brow caught his eye. He quickly checked Tsukiakari. Wait, didn't Rin say that meant…?

As though she could hear his thoughts, he felt a strong grip on his shoulder. Rin reached over to grab Ryuushin's sheath and while in close proximity, gave him the barest hint of a shake of the head.

Anger flared up again. Rin was barely dead for a year and this villain had already gotten engaged to someone else? What's worse, now she had to stand here, painfully aware of their upcoming nuptials and pretend to be someone else? Kohaku could feel the pain on behalf of his dear friend mixing with his own anguish knowing that if Sesshoumaru had the chance to have what he himself could not, and had spoiled that chance.

"Am I to congratulate you both then?" He asked, tight lipped. Rin tightened her grip on his shoulder. He knew he was going too far, but he couldn't stop himself.

Tsukiakari nodded carefully, "Yes. Thank you. The ceremony is in eight days. You are invited of course," she extended with the same gentile smile she always had.

Kohaku flicked his head at Sesshoumaru. "Eight days, huh? You're moving on pretty quickly. If I had been so lucky as to secure Rin's affections, I wouldn't have forgotten her so soon."

Rin gaped beneath her mask, trying to keep her outward appearance calm. Weren't they already over this? Hadn't they discussed this? What was wrong with him? If he was carrying all these toxic emotions for so long, it was no wonder the demon possessed him!

Sesshoumaru remained his usually stoic self. "You do not know what you speak."

Kohaku exploded, pulling away from Rin's grasp. "You knew. You knew I cared about her, but you kept stringing her along like your puppet with false promises. Then you moved on without a second thought. How could you? How could you forget her like that? And for a woman that is… half… the woman Rin was?"

Trying to keep angry tears at bay, Rin slapped Kohaku as hard as she could, sending him reeling from the force and from shock.

"Stop being a child," she snarled at him. She would have strong words with him when they were alone. I thought Kohaku had begun the healing process, she frowned at him, turns out I couldn't have been further from the truth.

Sesshoumaru came to stand next to her. "Your companion is right. You are a child." He looked down his nose at Kohaku. "And Tsukiakari is twice the person you will ever be."

Rin's heart crushed into her rib cage, squeezing so tightly that she feared Yami would have trouble keeping up. At least there was no doubt of his attentions to his betrothed. Breathe she told herself. You can do this she reminded herself. Focus on helping your friends.

After a moment she was calm enough to speak.

"Anyway, the demon is out there. We don't have time to be squabbling over domestics," she forced out the words. "Inukimi told me that the demons were on their way back and if that sword moving around on its own accord is not proof enough, then we are lost."

Sesshoumaru's intense stare bore into her. "Did my mother say how she knew the demon was back?"

"Indeed. I am quite interested in knowing myself." A new voice rang out in the clearing and a fifth figure joined their gathering.

Rin's breath accelerated. There was no mistaking the silver eyes, the sharp nails, and that perfectly manicured voice, even beneath the strange marks and characters covering his skin. Pian.

"Hello my dear Sesshoumaru," Pian opened with a friendly gesture. "I must say that I am a bit perplexed to see you here. But regardless, I must thank you," he looked charmingly at Tsukiakari, "for keeping my sword safe while I was gone."

He turned to Kohaku, "Oh, I remember you: you were the little boy that followed my darling Rin around." Rin could see Kohaku and Sesshoumaru both bristle at the comment and draw their weapons.

"Still bitter I see," Pian mockingly put on a bored face. "I was feeling bitter myself over your brutal slaughter of my younger brother, but then, I think it's a fair trade. The person I loved most for yours."

He raised a brow. "Now you, I don't recognize." He regarded Rin with an air of investigation. "Who are you exactly?"

Play it cool. You can't let him know that you're you. That's the only trump card you have up your sleeve, to put it in terms Kagome-chan would use. Rin resisted the urge to yell out gallant words to the effect of The person who will kill you.

"Well, this has been the most heartfelt of reunions," Pian chuckled sarcastically. "I do really have so very much to do. I'll ask you once nicely: please hand over Ryuushin and I'll let your little party pass."

Tsukiaki glared with elegant poise. "Never, you monster."

He sighed. "I thought you might say that."

One of his hands started to glow. A bright white light that burned with an intensity that it had all three fighters blinking back from the glare. The illumination grew and as it expanded, it started to hum with a vibration that rattled in Rin's bones.

She heard Tsukiakari gasp, but all she saw was a flurry of fabric and silvery white hair before the world spun and they were somewhere else.

Tsukiakari collapsed to her knees, panting. Sesshoumaru was by her side in an instant as she tried to articulate what happened. "That magic...it is not...of this world...it would have...destroyed all of us…"

"The village?" Kohaku asked in a daze.

"Most likely...it is gone…" she said with worry on her face. "Or at least….much of it…"

Rin quickly evaluated their surroundings. "Ryuushin?"

Tsukiakari's eyes widened as she caught her breath. "I'm sorry. With the teleport, I…" She hung her head as Sesshoumaru gently placed her against his shoulder. He threw a knowing glance at Rin and for a moment, in some strange way, it felt like old times again.

They were in deep trouble.