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Sesshoumaru would always recognise his scent. It was as frustratingly loud as the rest of him—boastful of power he had no right to claim. His entire belligerent existence trapped in a breeze that was tangy with sweat and vaguely laced with the scent of the earth, touched with that unmistakable trace of youki, drowning in the bubbling river of tainted blood.


Sesshoumaru watched him, swinging his father’s legacy with the same angry exuberance as a child might fling a toy—and that was all he was, in truth. A child. Still young, if his eyes were any indication. And while he might get older, and – by someone’s grace – wiser, he still seemed. . .hopeful. Of what, Sesshoumaru did not care to know.

It was funny, Inuyasha thought with a wild grin, that when everything was over, there were some things that never changed. His brother’s condemningly cold-eyed stare, for one thing. Another was the fluid unsheathing of his sword, that pure note of metal singing as it slid free, the lethal gleam almost welcome, because it meant a fight. With Sesshoumaru. Against will and outward protestation, there was something exhilarating about fighting his pure-blooded brother. Maybe it was knowing firsthand how strong he was. Maybe it was knowing that maybe this time, he might prove that he was strong.

Maybe it was knowing that during all of their battles with each other, neither of them had struck the final blow.

That was what he couldn’t figure out. Then again, Inuyasha was grudgingly aware that Kagome had always been the smarter one, and could have probably given him a list of psycho-whatever-related reasons why neither had deigned to take that final step. But she was gone now, locked in her own time after the final fight with Naraku. Her home, as she’d stressed so many times in the past. ‘I’m going home, Inuyasha, and don’t you dare follow me!’ She’d say stuff like that when they were hunting for the Shikon shards. But he remembered her tear-filled eyes when she’d looked over her shoulder before stepping into the well that last time, and they both knew how true those words were. He couldn’t follow her, not anymore.

Now, it was like. . .everything kind of bled out. There was nothing to do. Nothing to fight. No one to hunt. And because Inuyasha hated being bored, and idle – it made him pity himself, and if he started he’d never stop until Kikyou was Kagome and his mother had never died – there was one last loose thread to pick at before his existence lost all meaning.

Sesshoumaru was still there. Still looking down on him.

Inuyasha gave a feral grin and tightened his grip on Tetsusaiga.

Some things never changed.

The old saying ‘I can beat you with one arm tied behind my back’ was really starting to echo strangely in Inuyasha’s ears. The real pisser was that Sesshoumaru didn’t even have that arm to tie behind his back, since he’d cut it off ages ago. If only, only Inuyasha could go back in time to when he’d first discovered Tetsusaiga’s power in his father’s grave. . .he would never have cut off Sesshoumaru’s left arm.

He’d have cut off his sword arm instead, because now it was taking all he had to drive his elder brother back. Toukijin had already tasted his skin three times too many, and his own blood was cloyingly strong in his nostrils. Sesshoumaru was as pristine as ever, only his eyes showing any kind of change since the fight began. Where they had been coolly unamused to begin with, they were now narrowed into disdainful slits. He was growing bored.

Blows were exchanged, Inuyasha cursed, Sesshoumaru’s sword shone with the pinkish smear of hanyou blood. On and on it went.

With nothing on the line, no one to save, the fight was empty. What was he really trying to accomplish? Inuyasha didn’t know, but he was sure that he was likely being indulged for the simple reason that Sesshoumaru might just be as bored with the day as he. A slow, dulling sensation of clarity sapped the energy from him, leaving him standing there, resigned and sore as Sesshoumaru attacked again, swift and deadly as ever. Just what was he doing there?

Sesshoumaru noticed. Inuyasha wasn’t one prone to bouts of depression, and was just irritating enough to scoff at the thought of suicide. The act would have saved the youkai lord a lot of hassle, but the fact remained that there were very few reasons why Inuyasha would drop his stance in the middle of a battle, especially against someone who was intent on the kill.

Narrowed golden eyes turned hard, but it didn’t hide the slight change in Toukijin’s striking angle.

Inuyasha couldn’t help but cry out as the blade passed through his chest, just below his right shoulder. Face contorting with pain, he brutally pulled himself off the blade, punching it aside and changing his grip on Tetsusaiga in favour of staunching the flow of blood. It would heal in a while.

“Sesshoumaru, you bastard. . .that was a lucky shot!” he ground out, inwardly reeling that he’d been momentarily distracted in the first place. And, of course, the pain. Bloody fuck, did it hurt.

The youkai frowned mildly at Toukijin, and to Inuyasha it seemed like he was unhappy with the hanyou blood all over it.

“Indeed, Inuyasha,” he said smoothly. “Had the strike been any further to the left, you would be dead. It appears fortune was on your side.” But then, Sesshoumaru reflected, when hadn’t it been? Luck was all that had kept the fool alive all these years, even in an unnatural sleep for half a century. Why he hadn’t been gnawed on by local wildlife in that time was yet another mystery to lay at his feet. Even in this, his rare moment of indulgence when his half-brother had so obviously sought him out to begin a fight, only to lose interest partway through the battle. . .such actions were admittedly confusing, and killing the hanyou would not clear any of that up for him. So for now, he would withdraw. He could be spending his time more fruitfully elsewhere.

“Keh!” Inuyasha was scoffing, raising the fang and trying not to wince as the motion pulled at the wound. “Fighting me, you’re the one that’s going to need the luck. Tetsusaiga and I are going to kick your—what the fuck are you doing?”

Sesshoumaru’s expression didn’t change as he sheathed his sword and turned on his heel.

Then he started walking away.

From the fight.

Inuyasha saw red. “Sesshoumaru! Don’t you walk away from me! Hey! What, are you scared or something?!”

He at least expected some kind of response to such an accusation, but there was nothing but his almost soundless footsteps away from the clearing where Inuyasha stood. Stunned speechless, he stared through dishevelled strands of white hair at the retreating back of his elder half-brother, Tetsusaiga dropping heavily to the grass. He nearly yelled out once more, just to make certain he wasn’t just fucking around with his head, but a strong throb of something like rejection stopped him, made him blink stupidly after him. He wasn’t even worth a fight to him anymore?

“More like he didn’t want to get his claws all dirty,” he muttered to himself, kneeling slightly to pick up and sheath Tetsusaiga. Feeling curiously angry at the world, he began to stomp away, ears twitching madly.

Still, the strange, lingering confusion stubbornly remained.

It hadn’t yet been a month since it all ended.

For more than two years all their lives had revolved around Naraku and hunting the shards of the Shikon no Tama, driven in furious pursuit of their elusive enemy. Now, with his defeat at what seemed like the hands of everyone whom he’d ever wronged – even the mangy wolf, Kouga, had been there – life had ground to a screeching halt. For Inuyasha, at least. Kagome, with her role over, had taken the deadened Shikon no Tama and gone back to her own time. . .a parting that he barely wanted to think about anymore. It was Past. And it hurt like hell.

Kikyou had died with Naraku, what little of her that had still been alive. He’d never forget the grave beauty in her face as she wrapped her arms around the struggling hanyou, her holy powers scoring him even as her body began to crack and fall apart for the final time. They’d used the Shikon no Tama to wish her fragmented soul to a peaceful rest, at Inuyasha’s approval. It had been. . .hard, but it was right. Anything less would be pure selfishness, and he wanted that jewel out of their lives forever.

The rest was history. Kohaku was laid to rest in the taijiya village, before Miroku and Sango left together for whereabouts unknown. Shippou, torn between going with them and staying with Inuyasha, had tried to plead that he come with them. But why the hell would he? The last thing he wanted to do was hang out with them like it was old times, and think about the prayer beads resting around his neck like a shackle that could never be removed. So they’d gone, leaving behind an open invitation and a smile.

It was fine. They were happy, and Inuyasha was used to being by himself. He liked it that way.

Bullshit, some part of him spat brutally. You hated it before and you hate it now. Serves you right for acting so harshly while they were all still there. But now Kagome’s gone and you can’t stand to pretend there’s a chance she’ll come back. You’re alone now, and it’s terrible. That’s why you distract yourself by goading Sesshoumaru into yet another fight that will never be finished. That’s why he walked away, leaving you feeling like an attention-seeking idiot. You’re all by yourself, hanyou, and you’d better get used to it. You’re back to square one, and those last few years were just a dream.

The thoughts buffeted him more harshly than the night winds he was trying vainly to protect himself from, to no avail. This was the one night where he would not sleep, would not be safe. The sky was moonless, it was cold, and Inuyasha was human. Huddled against the sturdy trunk of a tree, hidden in the branches, he cradled Tetsusaiga’s sheath in his lap and tried not to block out the voice of truth that wouldn’t stay silent. Eight hours to go. Just eight more hours before sunrise. Tucking his hands deeper into the sleeves of his haori, he blew a lock of midnight black hair away from his mouth and settled back to wait out the dawn.

A high, frightened scream rent the air, startling him so badly he nearly fell out of the tree. “Shit!” he barked, dark violet eyes peering down at the ground to see where the sound had come from. He couldn’t see a thing with his useless human eyes though, not from his vantage point. Heart thundering, he thought fast. If he got down there—

The scream came again, followed by the snap of twigs and movement of something moving quickly over the forest foliage. Heading in his direction. Unease twisted his insides. He wasn’t weak like this, but. . .aw, hell. Scowling heavily at the inconvenience that something like this should happen on this particular night, he nimbly jumped down to one of the thicker, lower branches, and peered around. He could hear it clearly now, frightened whimpers colouring laboured panting. Small footsteps moving rapidly, cries of pain and snapping of twigs. Then, something that stopped him cold.

“Ss-sesshoumaru-sama! Help me, Sesshoumaru-sama!”

That voice sure as hell wasn’t the green toad, whatever his name was. It was the kid. Inuyasha backed off fast, content now to let her run by. If her being here meant Sesshoumaru was still looming somewhere, he couldn’t give a shit what happened to her. Let the bastard deal with it. Tucking his hands behind his head, he closed his eyes lazily and waited. Jeez, she was noisy. All that rustling was just giving away her position, smearing her scent all over the place. And the crying. . .

He shifted irritably. Man, he hated girls crying.

A short scream, and a hard thump. Closer this time. He imagined that even in this state, he could smell her terror, cold and sharp like ice. Where the hell was Sesshoumaru? At this rate, he’d be picking her up with chopsticks in the morning. Growling in annoyance, he figured that if no one was going to step in, he might as well try and do something. Just to shut her up.

So, when she finally burst through the bushes and started running past his tree, face scratched and tear-stained, Inuyasha leisurely reached down and snatched her from the ground. She let out a wail, legs kicking, before he thumped her down in his lap and covered her mouth. He craned his neck to see down at the ground, curious to see what had been tailing her. He nearly snickered when it emerged.

A skinny old wolf? That was it? Jeez, it wasn’t even a youkai. Why the hell didn’t she just climb a tree in the first place? Dumb kid. He watched as it stopped, momentarily confused as it scented the air. It circled the tree a few times before running off in search of new prey, probably heading for the nearby mountains it had come down from. Grinning, he looked down at the little, girl, ready to give her a tongue-lashing about making so much noise, when his smile slipped and died.

She was still sobbing, albeit silently, hands covering her ears and eyes tightly closed. And shaking. All this over some stupid— He uncertainly took his hand away from her mouth and poked her in the temple. “Oy. Stop it already.”

“S’it g-g-gone?” She asked, stumbling all over her words. Inuyasha resisted the strong urge to reply as if it were Shippou in his lap, certain that she wouldn’t respond too well to a good whack over the head. Damn, she was really making Tetsusaiga dig into his crotch. If she didn’t move soon—

“Yeah, it’s gone,” he snapped painfully, reaching under her to shift the sheath. “It can’t get you up here anyhow.” Oh, that was better.

Suddenly big brown eyes were looking closely into his, and little hands were pulling sharply on his hair for balance. Owfuck. Again, Inuyasha valiantly reigned in his temper. Her eyes were huge and shiny, and he could almost smell the wave of gratitude that was coming his way. Her mouth opened.

“Do you know where Sesshoumaru-sama is?”

His eyebrow twitched.

This was why he didn’t do hero business when he could avoid it. The troubles outweighed the benefits by far. “No, I don’t know where he is. Probably ditched you because you make so much noise. Why the hell are you here anyway? Where’s the toad?”

She’d started sniffling again, but perked up at that last. “Jaken-sama told Rin that Sesshoumaru-sama wanted a five-leaf clover. Rin has been looking all day, but. . .” she started fumbling in her kimono, while Inuyasha tried in vain not to crack a grin. Five-leaf clover, was it? That was one wily toad. Damned if he was sorry he’d never tried that one on Shippou. A hand tugged his sleeve, and he looked down to see her mournful expression as she held out her hand. “All Rin could find were these.”

In her small palm were what looked to be three four-leaf clovers.

Well, shit.

“That’s a pretty crappy haul,” he said lazily. “But it’s okay. You’re a kid, and kids suck at finding things.” Her lower lip trembled a little as she put away her find, and clasped her hands in her lap shyly. Due to the way he’d grabbed her, she was sitting sideways in his lap, legs hanging down and kicking idly at thin air. He was resting along the length of the branch, back propped up against the trunk. Seven and a half hours to go. He was glad that she contained the ability to shut up and not move around much, because it allowed him to forget that she was there for a while. He shifted a little and closed his eyes, knowing he wasn’t going to sleep but hoping it might keep her quiet if she thought he was. His face smoothed out as he relaxed, eyelashes dark crescents on his cheeks, mouth devoid of his usual harried scowl.

A finger poked him lightly in the temple. “Are you sleeping?” She whispered. Inuyasha didn’t reply. She fell silent again, thankfully, and he was about to try to figure out how to meditate when she scooted closer in his lap and lay her head against his chest. Startled, he cracked an eye open and looked down at the top of her head curiously, then opened both. The kid wasn’t. . .was she sleeping on him? She was! Damn it, he wasn’t some kind of pillow for Sesshoumaru’s insane servant girl! He nearly dumped her out of his tree, just for the insult, but lost his bluster soon afterward. She might be nuts, following his half-brother like that, but she was still just a kid. And she must be pretty desperate for company if she followed him around. He could understand being that alone in the world. Though when he’d been small enough and stupid enough to think that his snob of a half-brother might actually help him, his hopes had been crushed quite quickly. Somewhere in between the words ‘filthy’ and ‘hanyou’ had that happened.

But he let this girl follow him around, and even bailed her out of trouble?

After a while, he drew the conclusion that Sesshoumaru was a hypocrite. Inuyasha paused in his thoughts, mentally adding; and an asshole.

“Sesshoumaru-sama. . .” the girl murmured in her sleep, and smiled. Then she stirred a little, yawned, and looked up into his angry dark blue eyes. “Inuyasha-san? Can you take Rin to find Sesshoumaru-sama in the morning?”

He nearly fell out of the tree for real that time. “What?”

“Rin doesn’t really know where he went, and Inuyasha-san is a—”

“How do you know—what makes you think I’m Inuyasha?” he broke in, staring at her in disbelief. They’d met like what, four times, and she could still pick him in his human form?

Rin blinked slowly. “You’re wearing Inuyasha-san’s clothes. And you have a sword like he does. Did you leave Inuyasha-san naked somewhere? Are you a robber?” The colour slowly began to leech from her face. “Are you a bandit?

No, I’m not a damned bandit,” he nearly shouted, strangely feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on. “Leave Inuyasha-san – I mean me – alone.” Thank god in his hanyou form his hair was naturally silver—no one would be able to see all the grey hairs she was most likely giving him. “I’ll take you to my asshole brother in the morning, okay?” At the ass-crack of dawn, if he could manage it. When the first silver strand of hair appeared, they’d be out of there. This kid was a complete pill.

“That, will not be necessary,” a smooth voice replied below them. Inuyasha stiffened, staring straight ahead as panic blossomed beneath his ribs, even as Rin squealed in delight. Oh no. No. Not here. Not now. He barely felt the girl jump out of his lap; his body was too busy humming with fear and shock. If there was one thing he’d kept hidden from his enemies, a secret kept under lock and key, it was the one night he turned human. For years, he’d guarded that for fear it would get him killed, and because of some human brat who was too loud and too annoying, he’d forgotten for an instant that on this one night, he was as easy to kill as she.

And Sesshoumaru had just strolled on up to them, and was presently standing not three feet below him. Close enough to slap upside the head if he stretched. And he was looking at him. He could see that his silver hair was gone, replaced by midnight black. Could see that his vivid golden eyes were dark blue and wide with irrational fear. Could see that his white, triangular dog-ears had vanished from the top of his head, that his claws were gone, that his fangs were blunted into short human teeth. He took it in with one long sweep of his narrow golden eyes.

He knew.

Heart in his throat, Inuyasha thought he might drown in that silence. His hand gripped Tetsusaiga’s sheath so tightly he thought it might crack, but he couldn’t speak. There was nothing to say; even Sesshoumaru knew that, with his lips parted on cold words he wasn’t yet going to voice.

Then, his youkai half-brother’s hand slowly shifted, resting on Toukijin’s hilt.

And the hanyou Inuyasha did the only thing that he could.

He bolted.

Chapter 2: New Moon

Running away from a fight was never something Inuyasha was particularly adept at. Which, among other reasons, was probably why Sesshoumaru caught him so quickly.

In truth, the hanyou wasn't sure why he was running. He'd faced worse before – and with the kid watching, chances were that even his bastard brother might pause a little at the idea of killing him then and there. Inuyasha doubted it though. Sesshoumaru didn't explain himself, but it was beginning to seem more and more like it wasn't humans he had the problem with – it was just his half-breed brother. And presented with such a perfect chance to get rid of him forever . . . well, no one could fault him for taking advantage of the situation.

Inuyasha prided himself on being a realist about the truth of the world. And a survivor. So at the risk of being compared to Myouga, and fully prepared to kick his own ass for this later, he bolted through the low underbrush of the forest like any typical human faced with a youkai.

His first problem came when a branch snapped back in his face, leaving a deep scratch on his cheek. The wound felt like a brand of fire to his cold face, the blood an alert to every fucking youkai in the forest that there was food about. He kept running, but his second problem materialised quite quickly in front of him, just as he was glancing behind himself to see if he was being tailed.

Inuyasha was quite surprised to feel a foreign hardness stab hard against his belly, and turned to lookdown in horror at Toukijin's hilt digging into his stomach, connected to a pale, long-fingered hand that if he followed with his eyes would surely lead to his brother's cold gaze. The breath pushed out of already taxed lungs, Inuyasha wheezed and jumped back awkwardly, one hand to his brilliantly aching midsection. Great. He wasn't up to killing him right away.

"Cowardice overcomes stupidity, I see. Has your human form lent you some sense, perhaps? After all, it's human instinct to run from a predator, Inuyasha."

His eyes snapped up at the mocking thread in those coolly spoken words, glaring and defiant. Sure enough, Sesshoumaru stood there with his sword in hand, his white clothing and silver hair standing out even on the night where no moon graced the sky. Inuyasha managed to snort, even as his hand clenched too tightly on Tetsusaiga's hilt, still sheathed. "Good thing, too," he shot back, "because you sure as hell weren't around to help the kid out before. What was that, your answer to survival techniques? At least teach the kid to fight. Next time it'll be more than a half-dead old wolf out to get her, and I've got better places to be." The pain in his ribs fading, and his heartbeat no longer beating out panic's theme song, the hanyou began to feel slightly more daring than was probably intelligent. "Unless you're trying to get rid of her, in which case just kill her already."

His brother's jaw tightened almost imperceptibly, but his voice remained unaffected. "Ah, but then you would be honour-bound to protect her, wouldn't you? Somehow, I believe that on this night, our fight would be more than one-sided. This human guise becomes you, Inuyasha." There was a definite sneer, however, to those last words. And for a moment something like shame flashed through Inuyasha, quickly stifled under two years of knowing just what humans were really capable of. Humans weren't weak, he told himself harshly. And neither was he.

But he was no match for a full-blooded demon when he was only armed with an untransformed sword, and it was that knowledge that had his bravado crumbling with every word. Even at his most alert, he could barely see his brother's claws until they were wrapped around his neck, jerking him up until his toes teasingly brushed the ground. Gasping harshly, he waited for the burn of acid to eat away at his flesh, his eyes locking with narrowed golden ones, rimmed with markings Inuyasha had never inherited from their father.

"Killing you would be pointless," Sesshoumaru said, his eyes travelling over his newly darkened hair and eyes. "You are no challenge to me, little brother. When I sought the Tetsusaiga you were worth my time, but no longer. You may remain the only stain on our family until you die the way you lived - in shame and without purpose. I will not give you the honourable death you seek." He threw the stunned hanyou aside, where he landed roughly in the dirt.

For a moment he didn't move from his landing place, absorbing just what had been said. Back when Sesshoumaru had been seeking the fang, he'd spouted crap like that, about being a disgrace and how he should be ashamed to be alive. In battle, Inuyasha hadn't cared a whole lot about anything his brother said, since when it came to insults he usually gave as good as he got anyway. But this was. . .was. . .fuck. He didn't even know what it was, only that it seemed like Sesshoumaru was blaming him for something.

Setting his jaw, knowing the demon was still there, he spoke. "Do you hate him as much as you hate me?" He looked up at Sesshoumaru, anger vivid in his dark blue eyes. "Or am I just special?"

Standing in the same place he'd been in when he'd grabbed the hanyou, something other than his usual remote, cool expression threatened to usurp his fine features. "Explain yourself, little brother." But there was a rasp of warning anger in the invitation.

Inuyasha didn't do subtle. "Our old man," he said, snorting a laugh as he pushed himself to his feet. "After all, he's the one who decided that humans were a better lay, right—"

Eyes suddenly savage, Sesshoumaru brutally backhanded the slighter form of his brother, fangs bared in a tight snarl. "You know nothing of our father, you disgusting abomination. You're nothing but a mistake father didn't have the time to rid himself of. You and your simpering human mother saw to that."

Angry for reasons he couldn't name - hadn't he always said he didn't care about his father? - Inuyasha wiped the blood from his mouth and shot back a barb that caught both of them by surprise. "Yeah? You sure about that? Where were you when the old man was half-dead, fighting that Takemaru bastard?"

A ringing silence followed, the words hanging between them like the bald accusation it was. He hadn't even thought about what he was saying, but with the suddenly masked expression on his brother's face and the way he didn't just attack like he always did make him wonder. Where. . .where had Sesshoumaru been, that day? Of all the things to come to light from the battle against Sou'unga, no one ever seemed to know. Yet, Sesshoumaru had known Takemaru's name, and everything else that had happened at the castle the day their father had died.

Shakily, Inuyasha continued, unsure of where this was leading. "I mean, hell, you knew about all this before I did, so what was stopping you from going with him? How is it that him dying was my fault, when you just stood around and let it all happen? Seems to me that if it's anyone's fault he's dead, it's. . .yours. . ." That last tapered off weakly, almost asking for something to refute his words. Why, he couldn't say. The hanyou wasn't a thinker, really, but this seemed. . .why wasn't Sesshoumaru saying anything?

Because he was right?

Then the truth hit him like a landslide, and hot anger rose within his chest, his expression mirroring his shock and disgust. "Oh, I get it, you twisted son of a bitch - you wouldn't help because he was going to help a human, right? You pulled your high and mighty superiority shit, and left him to handle it himself. Jeez, you're some youkai, you know that? A real piece of work. I can't believe I ever wanted t—" He pulled himself up short then, for two reasons. One was because he didn't want Sesshoumaru knowing he'd once wanted to use the Shikon no Tama to become a youkai, and also because his older brother's features were beginning to glow in the darkness, surrounded by a shroud of red-glowing youki.

His eyes were turning crimson, animalistic. "You know nothing, Inuyasha!" He snarled, his voice guttural, blending into less sophisticated vocal chords as his features began to shift with an unintentional heightening of youkai power. He was furious.

Even human, Inuyasha could sense the killing aura that was rising off Sesshoumaru in waves. And it didn't take a moment to figure out that he was in very, very deep shit.

But someone gasped softly, a small someone with one messy pigtail and wide brown eyes, shyly peeping out from behind a tree to Inuyasha's left. "Sesshoumaru-sama?" Rin called out trustingly, but her eyes were clouded with confusion. "Sesshoumaru-sama, you ran away after Inuyasha-san and Rin couldn't find you. . ." Her eyes slowly absorbed the scene before her, from Inuyasha's surprise and agitation to Sesshoumaru's powerful fury, which was rapidly dimming under the little girl's uncomprehending gaze. Finally all was dark in the small clearing again, and Sesshoumaru sheathed Toukijin, which had been tossed aside amidst the exchange.

"Rin," he called smoothly, all trace of anger wiped from his voice. "Come." His eyes locked with the dark blue pair belonging to the hanyou youth beside her, eyes that swarmed with troubled anger and barely veiled disgust. And something else he didn't really wish to see, merely because it reminded him of their first meeting as brothers.

"Do you hate me?"


". . .oh. But I don't hate you. Is that okay?"

He'd never answered the child that day, he'd merely pushed him aside and left. The boy was filthy, stupid, and reeked of the humans he'd spent so much time around prior to his. . .relocation by the humans after his mother's illness finally claimed her. Of course Sesshoumaru hadn't heard word of Izayoi's death until months afterward, so when he came across the orphaned hanyou, he was fending for himself in the forest. Their first meeting had lasted mere minutes, and the boy didn't seem to even understand the bitter rage that had steeped the air between them. If he had, he would have turned tail and ran, as he'd done tonight.

Strangely, seeing Inuyasha turn his back and run wasn't as satisfying as it should have been. Perhaps that was why he had followed him. But now it seemed to be Sesshoumaru who was feeling the mortifying, unfamiliar urge to step back. The fool finally understood the anger that he'd held toward him since the beginning. . .only he hadn't expected to have it tossed back in his face this way. It was honourable to allow youkai to fight their own battles. Even had he asked, father would not have permitted his interference in the battle because it would be dishonourable to aid him.

But he'd been injured.

He died protecting Inuyasha and his whore of a mother! It was their fault. Their. Fault.

But suddenly, somewhere in the wasteland of bitterness and cold anger he'd nurtured toward Inuyasha over the years. . .there was a fissure of uncertainty he didn't know how to erase. And the hesitation in him was unacceptable.

With Rin close on his heels Sesshoumaru turned and walked away, leaving the curious sensation of unfinished business still burdening his thoughts.

Inuyasha said nothing to his retreating back. For some reason, there was absolutely no satisfaction to be had in watching his older brother back down. Just questions that only a dead man could answer. . .for Sesshoumaru never would.

Days melted into weeks, but there was no real peace to be had.

"You've got that look in your eyes again, Inuyasha," Kaede said, her back to him as she checked the vegetables in the garden. He had no idea how the old bat could tell, having only one eye that wasn't pointed at him, but he put it down to queer miko powers. Kagome always could tell when he was pulling a face at her. . .and Kikyo had always seemed to know where he was. Scratching at his ear irritably, he scowled at the old woman.

"What look?" He grumped, flicking a piece of leaf off his claw. How had that gotten behind his ear?

Kaede didn't look up from the radishes. "The look that means you're remembering the past. Be it my sister you're remembering, or young Kagome?" She got up with only a little difficulty, though she was probably pushing seventy by now. Inuyasha never failed to find it irritating that he was a good many years her senior, and yet she treated him like an errant grandson. Her one good eye scanned his features. "Or is it someone else?"

Figured she'd ask. After the night in the forest – his forest, no less – he'd gone back to the village for lack of anything else to do, really. It wasn't like he was lonely or anything. Kaede hadn't complained at his return, since he was handy to have around when youkai threatened to attack, but that didn't mean she wasn't about to ask questions. He shrugged jerkily and turned away. "I'm not thinking of anyone," he said shortly. "You're going blind, old woman."

She chuckled, the sound rough but genuine. "Perhaps, Inuyasha. But I'm not blind yet. What's troubling you?" She picked up the flat woven basket by her feet and began heading back toward the hut. "You rarely look so thoughtful."

"It's nothing," he said stubbornly, turning his face toward the forest. He scowled. "Nothing new."

"I see," she murmured, though of course she didn't understand at all. But it was enough for Inuyasha to start on what had been pissing him off for the last few weeks. With nothing else left to ruminate on, his usual simmering resentment toward Sesshoumaru had expanded further than he ever thought it could. Now it was like a fevered knot of confusion and tense anger, coloured only by the unanswered questions that plagued him. He spilled the bare minimum to Kaede, enough to let her know that for once his thoughts weren't on Kikyo or Kagome, for once. Sesshoumaru had effectively eclipsed them from his mind for the moment, which was silent testimony to the impact that short exchange between them had had on him. He didn't like that.

"I find it interesting that you're so curious, Inuyasha. What exactly do you hope to gain by finding answers to these questions?" Kaede asked, her tone mild and unobtrusive. It was her greatest weapon, really. But she knew from past experience that curiosity wasn't always the fastest route to an answer. Sometimes you had to wait it out. When Inuyasha shrugged irritably, she told him just that. He barked a short laugh.

"That's the biggest load of—"

"Osuwari," she said blandly, and every muscle in Inuyasha's body tensed, his jaw snapping closed with a sharp clack, eyes scrunched closed in expectation. But of course, the spell couldn't activate on her command. The kotodama rosary remained deceptively dull and silent around his neck. It was now simply an adornment he couldn't –and wouldn't- rid himself of. When the alarm wore off, anger blossomed.

"That was a dirty trick," he finally grated, teeth clenched. The old miko simply shrugged, and began shuffling back to her hut.

"Sometimes a dirty trick works better than any other, Inuyasha. Keep that in mind if you cannot wait for your answers." He watched as she left, not caring to follow. Whatever she meant by that was her secret alone. What was with her, anyway? Couldn't her advice be a little more specific? But then, in truth, Kaede wouldn't really know how to go about getting an answer from his youkai half-brother, no matter how wise a miko she was. His guess was that no one did. . .though it seemed that if there was one weakness Sesshoumaru had, it was the memory of their father. Why, he had no idea. Which led him full circle back to the source of the problem.

"Shit," he cursed up at the sky, "I really should have killed him back then."

It was dusk, and he was walking. As always, he found himself gravitating to the same place Inuyasha did most nights; the Bone Eater's Well. The last place he'd seen Kagome before she'd returned to her own time forever. He hated that word – forever. There were too many noble actions tied to the events that led to that word, and there was nothing he could do to reverse them. Kagome. . .she'd really taught him what it was like to think about people other than himself, to do what was right even if it hurt. So he tried it on for a while, played hero like he knew what he was doing. Nearly had it all. Now he had everything they'd worked for. . .everything but each other.

In a way, he was glad it had been cut short before he could completely grow to love her—though where his heart had wavered, hers had been endlessly giving. He regretted that most of all. But in that sense, she was safe from him. He couldn't make her cry anymore, wouldn't put that quenched look of pain in her eyes every time they saw Kikyo's soul-stealers in the sky. And she'd be safe. No more danger. It was a good thought.

It had been nearly two months, now.

He peered down into the secret depths of the well, golden eyes searching for a familiar blue sparkling energy he knew he wouldn't find. This was the only place where the stars looked like they were trapped in a land-locked abyss, and he wouldn't be seeing them again. Whatever time-travelling ability the well had, it had been sealed once and forever.

He hated that word.

Just for the hell of it, he threw a rock down there, listening for the clatter of stone on stone. He cursed softly when he heard it. Ears twitching, he turned away from the sight and sat down in the lush grass surrounding the dry well, leaning his back against the familiar wooden structure.

Golden eyes sliding closed, he breathed in the scent of quiet, bland peace. Safety tasted like old parchment in the back of his throat. At his hip, Tetsusaiga too seemed to rebel at the notion that the rest of his life may just be spent absorbing quiet routine, and dreaming about old wells that wouldn't glow anymore. Jeez, he was acting pathetic. Frowning slightly, he put his hand to the trembling blade, clacking slightly in the old sheath. It didn't quieten. Inuyasha's eyes flew open. Tetsusaiga only reacted like this when he was around, and he'd lay a bet that somewhere nearby, Tenseiga was shaking too. Scenting the air, letting his senses locate Sesshoumaru, he was confused when no trace of him could be found. Wary, Inuyasha got to his feet.

"You might as well come out," he called out lazily, the corner of his mouth cocking into a half-grin. Tetsusaiga didn't cease, the minute vibrations running up and down the length of the sheathed blade. No one emerged from the trees. What the hell was going on here? Was the bastard actually nowhere in the vicinity?

Scowling down at his sword, and feeling more than a little stupid, he began to draw the blade when a strange sensation overcame him. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Growling softly, nearly inaudibly, the hanyou slowly turned and looked down into the black depths of the Bone Eater's Well. "What the hell is. . .oh, shit," he gasped out, disbelief colouring his expression. He stumbled back two steps, confusion clogging any thought process that might have spoke reason. No wonder Tetsusaiga was kicking up such a stink, if the thing down there was what he thought it was.

They'd destroyed it. It was gone. Fucking gone! So what the hell was down there?

"This is horse shit," he grated, raking his claws through his hair agitatedly. Tetsusaiga begged to differ. Pacing back and forth before the mouth of the well, Inuyasha tried to think. The well. The well might be active again. No! Of course it wasn't active. Idiot. Okay. Then they hadn't destroyed it back then. And it just happened to fall in the well. Hah. Next idea. Sesshoumaru fell in the well, and it really was him the sword was sensing. Wishful thinking.

Inuyasha paused for a moment, and snickered at that one.

Right, thinking wasn't doing any good. Just get in there and check it out.

Grimacing at the all-too-familiar motions of doing this, Inuyasha vaulted over the lip of the well, falling in silence for a moment. Heart in his throat for an instant, reality returned when his bare feet thudded into hard-packed soil, his legs absorbing the shock. Tense, knowing that after last time, he was being stupid, stupid, stupid, he peered around in the dim confines of the old well, searching.

Vines, check. Dirt, check. Eroded half-buried bones, check. Same old well. But his sword was still shaking like a scared old woman, and it was making him edgy. Sniffing, he could detect nothing more than the usual earthy scent that remained in the well. No new disturbance.

They said they threw it in here to seal the evil no one else could command.

"I'm losing it," he grumbled finally, feeling a little sheepish. Straightening, he decided that in being completely bored off his ass, he was imagining things. And that pissed him off. "Bloody losing it!" Unaccountably angry with himself, Tetsusaiga, and the well, he kicked at the old wall. Pain blossomed in his foot almost instantly, and he shouted a curse that echoed up to the surface. So, in true fashion, he kicked it again—and his foot went through. Something crunched. Caught off-balance, he went down hard, his right foot half-wedged in the wall of the well, flat on his back, staring up at the small square of rapidly diminishing light shining down from the entrance of the well. He grunted and sat up, examined his foot, then fell back to the dirt, his silver hair disarrayed about his body and face. Shit. Had he ever had dignity? Even for a second?

Sighing through slightly parted lips, he closed his eyes and gave up. He couldn't really remember if he'd been this useless before all that mess with the Shikon no Tama, but saw fit to blame all his down-time with Kagome and the others for this new sense of ineptitude now he was by himself. What would Sesshoumaru say if he saw him now?

"Oh no, someone threw Inuyasha-san down the well!"

Nah, that was something Rin would probably say.

His eyes snapped open in horror. Oh, no. Anything, anyone but her. But sure enough, a gaping mouth below wide brown eyes was turned down to peer at him, her brown hair hanging down over her small shoulders. "Inuyasha-san! Don't die! Sesshoumaru-samaaaaa! Inuyasha-san's—"

"Shhhhh! Shut up! Shut up!" He hissed up at her, panicking. He jerked his trapped foot, only to wince as the rocks bit at his foot, something hard weighing on his toes. Hey. . .he wasn't actually stuck, was he? "Rin! Dammit, I'm not dead! Now pipe down, idiot!"

Blinking, she looked down at him, chewing her lip now. "How did you get in there? It looks scary down there. Why's there no water? Are those bones?" Her voice was hushed with fascination.

Inuyasha grinned. This'd freak her out. "Yeah, youkai bones, kid. They say this well eats the youkai corpses that get tossed down here. I just reckon there's a bigger youkai hidden down here, eating 'em as they get thrown in."

Her eyes lit up. "You gonna fight it?"

"Uhh. . .sure," he said blankly, when an idea came to him. "Yeah. I'm trying to draw it out by pretending I'm injured. So get lost, will ya? You're blowing my cover. And don't tell Sesshoumaru I'm here!"

She didn't look too sure about that last bit, but nodded eagerly at the rest, excited as all hell. "Good luck, Inuyasha-san! I hope you win!"

"Just Inuyasha," he called out half-heartedly as her head disappeared from the mouth of the well. "And of course I'll win!" Sucker. He knew he probably shouldn't, but he got a cheap kick out of that kid's gullibility. Someone needed to wise her on up about people lying to her. But between his tight-ass of a brother and a toad with a stick, he guessed her knowledge of 'people' revolved around a fear of fiery retribution and how to translate facial twitches into full-blown sentences. Poor kid.

Not that he'd fared much better, but still. He liked to think he'd come far enough to pity her.

Shaking his foot, which was wedged to the ankle in the wall of the well –maybe Kagome was right about those anger management issues- he gave it a experimental yank and felt something hard drop down onto the top of his foot, within the wall. He wiggled his toes and frowned. It felt. . .

His heart started thudding a different beat, and he glanced at his right hand warily. Of course it had healed months and months ago, but he still remembered the sensation of those tentacle-like parasitic arms sliding under his skin like worms, encircling his arm and his mind. But that was nuts. There was seriously no way that thing was in there. Leaning forward, doubled over, he wedged his hands in on either side of his trapped foot, trying to gain a little more space to remove it. It was almost completely dark now, but he could still see, somewhat. There was complete, solid silence draped around him, making him feel cut off from the outside world. Jeez, he hoped there really wasn't a youkai down there, because that would be sort of embarrassing. But really, there was no room for anything. Any time both he and Kagome had come down here together, they'd been fairly squashed in. Any youkai down here picking the bones clean would have to be. . .well, part of the wall or something. Or maybe it was the wall.

He looked at his foot, still stuck, and thought about it. His eyebrow twitched for a moment, then he started yanking harder. "No damn youkai's gonna eat my foot," he muttered to himself, glancing warily about himself. "I'll kill it if it tries," he said then, his voice pointedly pitched a little louder. No response. Heh. He resumed pulling smaller rocks out away from his ankle.

"I had thought you could not sink any lower, little brother. But I believe I stand corrected."

Startled, his head jerked up to see two faces looking down at him. One, his brother's. The other. . .

"You told!" He shouted at Rin, feeling unaccountably betrayed. That little— His eyes switched to his stoic-faced brother, whose face was unreadable. "What! Can't a person get a little privacy around here?" His cheeks were heating up, and he was steadfastly ignoring the horrified embarrassment trying to rise up in him. This was worse than that time he walked in on Kaede getting dressed. Sesshoumaru was little more than a blur of facial features and some silver hair to him now, with it this dark and him so deep in the well. At his hip, Tetsusaiga began shaking in earnest.

"If you yearn for solitude, I could assist by sealing this well shut for you."

Inuyasha snorted. That was about the measure of his brother's generosity. He'd help him die. "No thanks. You can go now." Pointedly, he resumed trying to free his foot, ignoring Sesshoumaru and his turncoat accomplice. Jaw set, he resolved to just ignore him until he left.

Then a rock hit him on the head.

"What the fuck!" He shouted. That had bloody hurt. His head snapped back to look up at the well. "You did NOT just throw that at me. Your ass is mine, Sesshoumaru." He struggled upright, foot still caught, and clumsily tried to draw Tetsusaiga. But in such a small space, with no room to actually execute a Kaze no Kizu, it was futile. So he settled for shouting a few words that had Rin giggling and Sesshoumaru. . .well, who knew. His eyes glinted coldly.

"Temper, Inuyasha."

"Fuck you."

"I think not," the youkai lord murmured, and the cold note of metal unsheathing slashed across Inuyasha's sensitive ears. "I believe it is time I said. . .goodnight." Toukijin glowed with a red sheen, ready to send a blast that would send him straight to hell. Having seen it once before, the hanyou wasn't sure he really wanted to go there just yet. So, he acted.

"I think Sou'unga's on my foot!" He hollered, waving his arms.

The blow never came. There was a disbelieving silence.

This time his cheeks did flame scarlet, and was grateful for the darkness. "I mean, Tetsusaiga went nuts on me, and you weren't anywhere around—" Only, now it was painfully obvious he had been somewhere nearby the whole time. "I mean, it feels weird, and I got down here to check it out. I'm not nuts or anything!"

"Then you must merely be forgetful. If you recall, I destroyed Sou'unga some time ago."

Inuyasha choked. "That was me, asshole! If anyone's forgetful, it's you."

Rin cocked her head. "Inuyasha-san and Sesshoumaru-sama both beat the bad sword! It was because you worked together, remember?"

"Keh! Whatever," he sneered, though he knew it was true, just as Sesshoumaru did. But it was nothing he wanted to think about. If he wanted to forget about it, fine. It wasn't like Inuyasha cared. He'd never acknowledged him as any sort of warrior before, and he wouldn't start now. Pissed off, he tensed his thigh muscles and hauled his foot out of the hole, gritting his teeth to muffle the cry of pain trapped behind them. It came free with a splintering explosion of pain, some rock shards . . . and something else.

Inuyasha's golden eyes flew wide, and high above him, a breath was audibly sucked in.

She said her ancestors found it in a well, known for its mystical powers.

The Bone Eater's Well.

Sou'unga was here.

"Oh, shit," Inuyasha whispered. He didn't understand that time stuff too well, but he knew that two hundred years ago, his father had died and the sword had been tossed in a well. Five hundred years in the future, it had flown to him in a children's playground, and he'd brought it back with him to the past.

Did that mean. . .there were two? They'd gotten rid of the one from Kagome's time, but here, it hadn't yet been found. Still stuck in the well, waiting.

His head hurt. Staring down at the dusty, sheathed Sword of Hell, he didn't know what to do. What if—what if it activated? Would the future, or, the past be messed up?

"Fuuuuck," he groaned, knowing he had no idea what to do. Inuyasha stared at the dulled orb embedded in the hilt of the blade, remembering the way it had glowed with power, and those mind-controlling tendrils that had possessed him for a short time. Nearly made him hurt everyone. The sword was evil, and worse, he couldn't beat it. Not alone, anyway. And damn, it almost cost him to even think that.

There was a rustle above him, and Inuyasha looked up in time to see a white orb shoot down into the well, lighting up the sealed sword for an instant, before it rematerialised into the taller form of the demon lord, his hair fluttering around him. He assessed the sword with a quick flash of his eyes, but when he turned to Inuyasha his gaze remained longer. He didn't look pleased, which surprised the hanyou, because he'd almost thought for a moment that he would try to take the sword. He still might. "What?" He asked bluntly, pressed against the wall for two reasons. One, his foot hurt like shit, and two, Sesshoumaru wasn't a small youkai and there wasn't much room. As it was his empty sleeve was brushing up against him, clinging to his haori with static from the transformation.

Sesshoumaru ignored this. "You will tell me why that accursed sword is in this miserable well, Inuyasha," he said softly, his eyes hard and dangerous. "You will tell me now."

He stood, undecided, trying to lean as far away from his brother as possible. "Aw, you feeling left out of the loop?" He jeered, determined to milk this moment for all it was worth. This was going to be sweeter than all those times Sesshoumaru had asked him where Naraku was, despite Inuyasha having just realised why it was here himself. His asshole brother didn't know that. "I don't see why it's your business, anyway—"

There was a flash of anger in his older brother's eyes, and his claws glowed green, the scent rising off them enough to make Inuyasha's eyes water.

High above them, there was a squeak of high surprise, followed by a scream as Rin skidded down the tangled vines lining the well's walls, nearly crashing down on Inuyasha's head. She would have, if Sesshoumaru hadn't grabbed her by the scruff of her kimono, holding her aloft at eye level with an expression akin to mild exasperation. Rin looked elated. "You caught me, Sesshoumaru-sama!"

He sighed, making Inuyasha blink in surprise, before putting the small girl down. It was now unbearably cramped down there, and worse, the hanyou was feeling a growing urge to take a leak. With legs and arms squashed in down there, they were an undignified huddle around a sealed sword. Inuyasha scowled and shifted, nearly elbowing Rin in the head. "If that toad wants in here next, I'm outta here," he grunted.

"You mean Jaken-sama?" Rin asked. "Sesshoumaru-sama told him to go look for a ten-leaf clover."

Inuyasha blinked twice, and he turned disbelieving eyes to the older demon, whose poker face was as immovable and emotionless as ever. His mouth worked, but it took a moment before any words could form. "Ten-leaf, huh? That's. . .a bit over the top." He cleared his throat. "Six-leaf, maximum, would do. Anything more than that's an insult."

"Indeed," Sesshoumaru said coolly, but his eyes were slightly crinkled at the corners.

Inuyasha felt the strangest urge to belt his head on the wall. So the bastard did have a sense of humour? Impossible. Well, the hanyou amended, stranger things have happened. . .

Oh, bullshit, who was he kidding?

He kicked Sou'unga back into the cavity his foot had created, and put the rocks back in place as best he could. For some reason his smugness had ebbed somewhat, and he no longer felt like holding out on him. "The sword needs to stay here," he said seriously, kneeling to pack the dirt in around it. It kept trailing out, damn it. He pressed harder. "The well's got some kind of power about it that messes with time. Kagome used it to travel from her time to ours."

"Her time," Sesshoumaru repeated softly. "Am I expected to believe this?"

"I don't give a shit whether you believe me or not," he replied grimly, "but Kagome was from a future five hundred years ahead of us. Her ancestors found Sou'unga and kept it in a shrine. . .that was the Sou'unga we fought. But here, in the past, I think her ancestors haven't found it yet. The seal's still intact." He pressed more debris in around it, and started when a pair of small hands began pushing more in the hole around his. Rin smiled in the darkness, hunched down beside him. She made the space uncomfortably tight, and Sesshoumaru's foot was practically wedged in his ass, but maybe she wasn't so bad. "I think it needs to stay here until all that happens."

There was silence then, and the sound of breathing. Then his older brother laughed shortly, the sound humourless. "If what you say is correct, precisely why would you wish to ensure that the events of Sou'unga's resurrection are carried out? Did you perchance enjoy being possessed by the blade, or trying to slaughter small children like a mindless animal?"

Inuyasha's hands paused slightly, his eyes fixed on the hole he was filling in. His ankle ached. He swallowed and continued his work. No.

A hand fisted in his long hair, yanking his head back until his neck was arched, and he stared up into his brother's face. "Answer me, Inuyasha."

He was too close, his breath on his cheek, his eyes locked and hard on Inuyasha's. The red markings on his eyelids, the stripes on his cheeks. . .he knew where they came from. And the hair that fell forward over both his shoulders, pooled in Inuyasha's lap. He knew, now. The hanyou had to swallow before he spoke. "I guess it's because if it didn't all happen, I still wouldn't know my father's face." A genuine, if self-depreciating smile ghosted over his mouth as he looked at Sesshoumaru. "You look more like him than me."

Impossibly, the words seemed to be a direct hit. Sesshoumaru stared at his half-brother wordlessly for a moment, before his hand slowly relaxed on his hair, freeing him. Inuyasha didn't wait for him to straighten, or laugh, or leave, he just pushed Rin's fingers aside and tried to make sure the future wouldn't change the past. It was probably selfish of him to want it, and he'd always said otherwise to Kagome and even himself, but seeing his father that time was a moment he couldn't quite forget. Hearing him say his name, watching him fade away—

Warmth. Right behind him, and the cool press of armour. Inuyasha stiffened as breath ghosted over his ear, eyes wide. He felt the weight of Sesshoumaru leaning slightly on his back, using him for balance as his sole arm reached around him. He'd kneeled down, and was stretching past Inuyasha for the messy patch job on the well he'd created. "Hey. . ." He started to protest, but was too confused as to why Sesshoumaru, his cold, hateful older brother would have his cheek nearly pressed to Inuyasha's in a dirty old well—and would seal the hole shut with the poison in his claws, melting the stone down over the gap his foot had created. It sizzled and smoked a little, and the acrid smell made Rin sneeze. Inuyasha barely noticed, his confusion warring with old wounds and anger, his face slightly turned to Sesshoumaru's, unable to move, even though skin was too close to skin.

"What're you—what the hell do you think you're doing?" The hanyou blustered, striving to mask his sudden uncertainty. Sesshoumaru didn't help; that just wasn't how it worked. "I can do this myself. Now get off me."

Ignoring him, Sesshoumaru released another wave of poison, truly sealing the sword in the space. Over time the stone would erode away to reveal Sou'unga's resting place, but for now it would serve well. Despite his actions before he truly understood the volatility of the sword, he had no use for the blade that could open the gates of the underworld. His eyes swung to Inuyasha's, only centimetres away. He seemed to enjoy the hanyou's nervousness. "I never knew you were such an ingrate. Manners, Inuyasha. Surely your useless mother taught you at least that much." So close to his ear, the thread of mild disdain in his voice was unmistakable.

Inuyasha's mother was always a touchy subject. He immediately bristled, his head snapping around. "You shut up about my mother—" He started to shout, when Rin shifted against his side, unthinkingly pushing him closer to the youkai than he initially meant to lean. Heads knocked. Lips grazed.

Sesshoumaru stiffened.

It was gone in an instant, that quick moist brush of mouths –not a kiss, no no no-, replaced by a gaping hanyou, golden eyes ruined of anger and filled with mortification. The daiyoukai came to life then, and reacted naturally.

The last thing Inuyasha saw was the fist rushing at his face.

Chapter 3: Deepest Cuts

Waking up in the bottom of a well in the middle of the night was one of those unpleasant, slightly degrading experiences that usually makes a person –or hanyou, in this case- look at the life that they'd led up until that moment.

Inuyasha, however, had found that cursing Sesshoumaru to high heaven was the better way to go. When in doubt about the direction life was taking, blame someone else.

Two days ago he'd crawled out of that pit of memories, the resting place of the Sword of Hell, Sou'unga. The Bone Eater's Well. Two days and he was back at the village, fingering the jaw Sesshoumaru had nearly broken, wondering at why someone so obviously hungry for power and disdainful of Inuyasha would actually go so far as to help him do something that really, served no purpose at all. Had he not known Sesshoumaru's scent inside and out, he'd have decided that the youkai down in the well with him that day had been someone else. But. Being his senses what they were, it was kind of hard to stretch denial that far. So Inuyasha settled for confusion. Irritating levels of confusion.

When Inuyasha was irritated, he liked to destroy things.

Which took him to his current situation.

"Wow, he's strong! Who is that?"

"That's Inuyasha, stupid—he's a youkai! See his ears? They say if you rub them, you get good luck!"

"Eewww! Really? I wanna try!"

"Move along you brats, you've got chores to do. Damn that Inuyasha, flaunting himself indecently like that! If he didn't make himself useful around here, why I'd. . ."

That little snippet of conversation went on for a while. Sure, they were a fair distance away, those damn villagers, but distance didn't matter much when you had even a hanyou –just a hanyou's - level of hearing. A youkai he wasn't. Gossip ran rampant in Kaede's village, and while Inuyasha didn't usually care, he was a little worried that kid back there was actually going to try and rub his ears. He'd bet his Tetsusaiga that Miroku had spread that rumour last time he was in the village. Bastard.

Hauling back the axe for the millionth time, Inuyasha revelled in the satisfying chunk of metal shearing through wood. Firewood, to be precise.

Trust Kaede to turn his urge to destroy into something practical.

He'd been there all day, more or less, and the day before that. So far the whole village had enough to last them through next winter, or thereabouts. Being nearly summer, the air balmy and almost thick with humidity, it would probably rot before it ever reached the colder months. Still, there was something cleansing about hacking the forest he'd been sealed in to tiny pieces. And it was betting than being still and just. . .thinking. Inuyasha hated thinking, and the last few weeks had given him a lot of it to do.

He was still hacking his latest tree apart like it was Naraku's face when he heard a slow shuffling, and the scent of sage and woodsmoke filled his nose. Ears twitching madly, he buried the axe deep into the trunk of the felled tree and pushed his hair of his face, panting lightly. The heat would almost make cutting the lot off worthwhile. "Can't you see I'm busy?" He snapped at Kaede as she approached, her expression as deceptively mild as always. She always seemed to take his angry bluster in her stride, and he let her, with the long-sufferance of two people too long set in their ways to really change now.

She stopped a few feet short of him and eyed the towering pile of neatly chopped wood, stacked high enough that he'd resorted to throwing the final pieces at the top and hoping he didn't overcompensate and hit some kid on the other side. The old priestess shook her head. "You've done a service to the village to be sure, but I'm not sure the youkai who live in the forest are going to forgive you," she said pragmatically. For a priestess whose village was routinely attacked by said youkai, she was all about the circle of life. The hanyou shrugged irritably.

"If they start causing a fuss, send 'em my way," he growled, cracking his knuckles in an old gesture he'd picked up somewhere. "I'll give them something to complain about." Bending down, he picked up his haori and slung it over his forearm, not wanting to put it on while his upper body still shone with sweat. "I'm going to wash. You got any food in your old shack or what? I'm hungry as hell."

"Honest work will give one an appetite," she said needlessly, turning away. "I'm sure I have a few bones you can gnaw on."

The dog reference wasn't lost on Inuyasha. "Hey, keep that up, and it'll be your bones I'll be chewing," he grumbled, stalking off toward the creek. "No damn respect around here. . ."

"Thank you for your help, Inuyasha," her voice called back. He snorted without turning.


He had no idea why he still stuck around the village, really. In a way it was the only place he'd ever called home, and it had been a base for himself and the others when they'd been hunting Naraku. It had also been Kikyou's home, once upon a time. He supposed that for all those reasons he hung around and made sure no stupid youkai came along to kill his villagers. They could hate him all they liked, but he had first dibs on killing any of them so that meant they were off limits to other youkai. It made sense if he thought about it. Kind of the way he'd be royally pissed if something killed off Sesshoumaru before he'd had a chance to skewer him with Tetsusaiga.

His ears twitched at the mental image. Maybe not stab him through, then. The Bakuryuuha? It was strong enough, depending, but not his strongest attack. Kind of an insult and a killing in one. Why go all out? Back in the day, one well-placed Kaze no Kizu had nearly offed him once and for all. Good times. He grinned to himself and wove his path through the forest, following the teasing scent of water. Somehow, deciding on how he'd eventually kill Sesshoumaru brightened his spirits somewhat. He still owed him for clocking him in the jaw, and he hadn't forgotten. Who the hell punches someone for losing their balance, anyway?

"Asshole," he growled to himself, starting when a snake paused as it crossed his path, hissing. "What?" He kicked the offending serpent out of the way, ducking under a low-hanging tree branch before the forest cleared, revealing the widest part of the local creek. It was damn hard to get to, so humans never came this way. Because, you know, youkai. Taking shortcuts through the forest was another form of suicide. Inuyasha ventured there almost daily, which was obvious from the towel and chunk of soap sitting at the base of a nearby tree. The soap had been a backhanded gift from Kagome, months ago. Actually, she'd thrown it at his head in one of their many arguments, and he'd kept it because it had smelled like her. Not really a feminine scent, it was just the warm, clean scent she'd always worn on her, the only one she'd kept after he'd told her that her chemical perfumes were too harsh for his keen nose. She'd always been funny like that. In a heartbeat she'd go from hurling objects at his head to throwing out half her arsenal of girl products for him.

Throwing his haori down beside it he finished the quick business of pulling off his clothes, still caught in thought. He grabbed the soap almost automatically, his hardened claws sinking into the malleable white substance as he walked into the creek, wading in until the cool water crossed his hips, lapping at his navel. Compared to the heat of the day, it was nearly icy at first, making him wince slightly. "Shit, that's cold," he said with heartfelt discomfort, then sucked in a breath and dropped beneath the water. He hated submerging himself—water got into his ears and was a bitch to shake out—but his hair was sweaty, and the water was shockingly cool, and he wasn't going to be girly about having a bath.

Opening his eyes beneath the water, he leisurely let his body stretch out, sinking to the bottom. The further toward the middle he went, the deeper the water became, until he began to see shapes in the slightly murky darkness. Thinking it a submerged tree branch, he reached out—and touched something that squirmed and slid between his fingers.

Inuyasha freaked. In a manly way.

"GODDAMN EELS!" He roared as his head broke the surface, fist clenched around his struggling captive. Golden eyes wild, waterlogged tendrils of hair clinging to his face, he reared up into a standing position, slung his arm back, and let the damn thing fly.

Right at Sesshoumaru's face.

He didn't know who was more surprised in that split second –probably Sesshoumaru, since Inuyasha was still doing the 'oh god, it touched me' dance of revulsion- but the older youkai caught the offending fish by its head mid-air and crushed it without missing a beat, tossing it behind him where Jaken seemed to materialise out of nowhere. The green youkai looked delighted at the bounty, but Inuyasha didn't exactly notice, instead making a break for the bank. Particularly, where there were no eels and Tetsusaiga would be within his reach. Shit, shit, shit! Sesshoumaru!

There was a rustle in the bushes then, and it paused everyone. "Sesshoumaru-sama, can I go find something for lunch—oh, Jaken-sama! You found an eel!" Rin ambled up to the youkai retainer, eyes wide with delight, sightly out of breath from running to catch up. "We can eat this!"

Jaken scowled. "I know we can, idiot! Sesshoumaru-sama gave it to me. Find your own!"

Inuyasha's mortification rose as the little girl's eyes swung to the creek, trailing over to his half-revealed, and very naked form. The water barely covered his ass. Rin's mouth fell open in a little 'O' of surprise. "Inuyasha-san! You've got no clothes on! And—you don't have a tail! I thought you'd have a tail. Why don't you have a tail?" She actually moved closer to the bank, her brown eyes bright with curiosity. "Did you catch that eel? Wow! Catch me one!"

Inuyasha panicked. Tetsusaiga, or being naked in front of a little girl? Tetsusaiga, or nudity and horrible, horrible embarrassment? She'd probably make a comment on his— Oh, hell. His mother hadn't taught him what to do in these situations, but Kagome sure had. Fingering the prayer beads around his neck, he sank back into the water, his eyes dark gold and hunted. He looked to Sesshoumaru. "Keep your hands away from my sword," he said darkly. He watched Sesshoumaru's expression shift from bored to calculating. "And—and why the hell are you here? If you say chance I'm going to kill you." Did he make a habit of showing up during his most awkward moments, or what? A thought occurred to him. "You're stalking me, aren't you?"

It was obvious enough that the hanyou wasn't at his most rational at that moment, but his reflexes were still quick. He ducked under the water as Jaken's Staff of Heads spewed fire at him, picked up a smooth, heavy rock from the creek bed, and broke the surface again to hurl the rock square at the diminutive youkai's bald head. With a hollow thud the projectile hit home, and Jaken collapsed to the grass, hat askew. The flames guttered and died. "Goddamn toad," he growled, then slashed his glance back to Sesshoumaru. "Beat it, I'm trying to get clean here. I'll kick your ass later." Glancing around, he realised that his soap was missing. His gut clenched painfully for a moment as he realised he'd let it go to grab hold of that eel. Ignoring the silent youkai standing at the bank for a moment, he turned and scanned the water, but saw no telling lump of white. Damn.

There was a small splash, and then Rin was wading into the water, holding her kimono up ineffectually. "Are there really eels in this water?" She asked, her eyes on Sesshoumaru. The youkai took his eyes from Inuyasha to answer the girl's question, his eyes veiled in distaste.

"All manner of filth frequent these waters, it seems." The girl's denial that eels were dirty dimmed in his ears as he waited for the hanyou's inevitable fiery comeback to his statement, but none came. Sesshoumaru realised after a startling moment that Inuyasha wasn't even listening. The youkai blinked before he could school his expression. To his memory, he'd never been ignored by Inuyasha before.

Sesshoumaru had been right, Inuyasha hadn't heard a single word of what he'd said. He was too busy fishing around in the water for Kagome's soap. It was stupid really, and he knew it, but like the prayer beads around his neck, he clung to whatever he still had of her. Memories faded into fuzzy black and white images in the back of his mind, but things—the beads, the soap, her discarded bow and quiver back at Kaede's hut—things were real. As the weeks crept by he was forgetting little things about her, small snippets of memory that slid from his fingers more easily than even he'd feared. If he didn't have something to hold onto, he was going to forget all of her. She'd be a scentless, toneless monochrome girl he used to know, once upon a time. He was already adrift now that she'd gone and the others had left, but even without a purpose he figured he could survive on what had once been. But no.

Stilling in the water, suddenly lost, he felt his shoulders drop out of their arrogant set as he realised what he was doing. He couldn't let go. Because he couldn't go back to how things had been before she'd come through the well and broken his seal. The future stretched out before him like some endless track into oblivion. He knew then why he'd stuck around the village, why he'd protect them. Inuyasha had absolutely nowhere else to go. Cold, hard facts of life.

"Inuyasha-san? Inuyasha-san, are you okay?" Rin called to him from the shallows of the creek, her wide brown eyes worried and somehow, very familiar. He stared at her for a moment, uncomprehending of what she was asking. Glancing back at Sesshoumaru quickly, she took a step forward toward the hanyou. "Inuya—" Her words broke off in a surprised scream as she stepped in a blind hole, and disappeared under the murky water.

That woke him up. "Shit!" He yelped, diving forward even as Sesshoumaru took one long stride to the edge of the creek, his cold eyes scanning the water. "I got her," Inuyasha said, sinking beneath the water and kicking off strongly, his eyes wide and searching for her small form. She'd been right. . .there—he reached out and touched the floating strands of her dark hair, then suddenly there was a death-grip on his hand. If she spent any longer down there, that might be quite true. Bubbles floated up from her mouth as she lost air, and for a moment he didn't understand why she didn't surface—until he saw the exposed tree root twisting around her ankle, freed when she'd stepped into the hole.

Reaching down one handed, he grabbed the root and hauled it free of her small ankle, and pushed her dark head to the surface.

He rose from the water a second after her, hitting her sharply between the shoulder blades to shake loose any water still in her lungs. Rin coughed up a surprising amount of it for a girl that hadn't even lost consciousness, then blinked up at him fearfully. "I fell. . ." She said unsteadily, then her big eyes welled up with startled tears that spilled down her cheeks. Her shoulders shook. Inuyasha couldn't really fault her for crying this time; even he'd been a little worried. But that didn't make it okay for her to bury her face in his stomach and hang on for dear life. He felt that familiar surge of awkward horror rising up again, and decided the only way to get out of this was to pick her up. Or, god, comfort her. What did Sesshoumaru do in these situations? Damn it, this was the second time. Since when had he become her babysitter?

Patting her on the head awkwardly, he bent and hooked an arm under her legs, lifting her up his body so that she was cradled high on his chest in both arms. It was the only way he could spare her an eyeful. Cursing fate, he pointedly ignored Sesshoumaru as he waded out of the creek and onto dry land, the hot wind buffeting him and feeling strange on his cool skin. In his arms, Rin shivered. He wasn't usually this hung up about being naked, but you were supposed to respect women's delicate sensibilities, or something like that. He was going on blind faith in Kagome and Sango's words there. Naked men were bad. He wasn't sure if a hanyou like him counted, but he wasn't going to risk it.

The kid was totally saturated—she'd fallen in wearing what he was pretty sure was her only change of clothing. Damn. Realising her grip had transferred to his neck, he hoisted her a little higher and freed one arm long enough to grab his haori from the grass, shaking it out. "Oi, kid," he said gruffly, "enough with the tears. I'm wet enough already, you know? I'm gonna put you down, and you take this and run into the bushes to put it on. You're gonna get real sick if you stay all wet. Understand?" He dragged the fire rat fur up so that she could see it and take hold of it. Rin blinked tears out of her eyes and nodded at him.

"Okay, Inuyasha-san," she said obediently, then frowned in confusion. "But you'll get sick with no clothes on, won't you?"

"Nah. Too strong to get sick," he said, fighting back a small smirk as she nodded fervently.

"You're Sesshoumaru-sama's brother," she said, like that explained everything. His expression cooled slightly, and he let her down to dart off behind the trees to change. Whatever. To his far right, Sesshoumaru studied him with his usual unaffected superiority, but his eyes held something sharp in them that usually wasn't present.

Feigning ignorance of it, Inuyasha just grit his teeth and began twisting water out of his hair, but paused as he felt water swish in the caverns of his ears. Wincing at the uncomfortable sensation, he shook himself off, shaking his head wildly like a dog shaking water out of it's pelt. He heard a soft growl of displeasure and looked up to see Sesshoumaru step back sharply, wiping a droplet of water from his cheek. He'd been walking toward him. Why? "Uncouth mongrel," he said flatly, running clawed fingertips over the pelt that crossed his shoulder. "Parading about in your skin like a savage, shaking your hair about, you truly have no shame."

Inuyasha bristled, then forcibly calmed himself down and began twisting the water from his hair again. Any excuse for a fight, but this time he was bare-ass naked, and that would mean he'd get cut to ribbons if he attacked. Heh, he was getting smarter these days. "Got nothing to be ashamed about," he shot back, "and besides, I was taking a damn bath. If it offends you, stop looking. Jeez, you're such a girl, Sesshoumaru."

Ah, crap, he realised, probably shouldn't have said that.

He was almost resigned to the feel of claws wrapping themselves around his neck, but the unsettling sensation of being pressed against silk, armour and, well, Sesshoumaru wearing nothing but his skin was just plain wrong. He glared up into eyes the exact shade of molten gold as his, only harder, colder. His claws dug bloody furrows into the striped skin of Sesshoumaru's wrist, to no effect. His vision started to fill with dark spots as air was unable to enter or leave his lungs. His eyes began to water with the pain, and he realised he was going to pass out if he didn't do something soon. He'd probably kill him.

Inuyasha did the only thing he could from the position he was in. He drew Tenseiga from its place at Sesshoumaru's waist, pulled his arm back and shoved it through his older brother's throat. To the hilt. It exploded out the back of his neck, spearing through the fall of his hair, parting it like a curtain.

That close, Inuyasha could see the surprised pain in Sesshoumaru's eyes, but buried underneath it was pure shock. Neither of them had thought Inuyasha possessed the guts to do it. It was a true killing stroke.

If it had been any other sword, that is.

The claws at his throat relaxed and lowered him to the ground, and Inuyasha wasted no time in springing back, kneeling to draw in huge gasping gulps of air. His windpipe had nearly been crushed, he knew it. If he'd been any more intent on the kill. . .

His eyes flashed up to the older youkai, his brother, as he too sank to his knees. Tenseiga was the Sword of Heaven, and it couldn't kill, but it could cut flesh like any other sword. Inuyasha figured that when he pulled that sword out, the flesh would close instantly. Never really seen it in action though. . .but the sword couldn't kill, right? He'd be fine.

But it was in his throat.

Inuyasha felt strangely, crazily, like he was going to throw up.

Sesshoumaru was staring at him strangely. His fingertips were touching the hilt of the sword lightly, but he wasn't pulling it out. His wrist was bleeding, Inuyasha saw, and he felt an answering sting in his neck where pinprick wounds trickled with fresh blood. It didn't seem like Sesshoumaru could speak around the sword, but his eyes spoke volumes. A sword. A sword through his throat, and Inuyasha had put it there.

Ears flattened to his skull, he stared at the sword where it met the pale skin of Sesshoumaru's neck, and in a sudden jolt, he realised he didn't feel anything close to victorious in this mock battle. He felt scared. Unbelievably, Inuyasha wanted to shut his eyes. He'd done worse, damn it, he'd done much worse than this stupid playfight with a sword that couldn't so much as spill a drop of blood. But his eyes were transfixed, and filling with fear. If that sword came out—

He hadn't actually—

Inuyasha's stomach rolled. "Pull it out," he whispered hoarsely.

Sesshoumaru just watched him with those deep, narrow eyes, full of recalculations and knowledge turned on its head. The hanyou's eyes wavered. He'd done something, this time. Changed something. He hadn't meant to. "I said pull it out!" The sharp cry tore something in his tender throat, and a small trickle of blood spilled down over his lower lip. He coughed, the speckled the grass with dark red fluid. Inuyasha barely noticed, since the youkai lord on his knees in front of him had grasped the hilt of Tenseiga, preparing to draw it out.

He didn't have the arm length to pull it out from the hilt, not without grabbing it from the blade halfway to complete the removal of it. That was bad form when handling a sword. Inuyasha saw that in an instant, and found himself reaching forward to take the blade's hilt, nudging Sesshoumaru's hand out of the way. Maybe the sword wouldn't kill him, but it'd make one hell of a mess on the way out before it all healed up. Teeth gritted against the thick tension that seemed to lace the very air he drew into his aching, bloodied throat, the hanyou watched as Sesshoumaru's long-fingered hand fell away from the hilt. He bared his throat to his younger brother, his eyes narrowed and searching. Inuyasha just figured that he should help clean up the mess he made—he wanted to see it for himself. He hoped to hell that the kid didn't come running back in the middle of this.

There was something strange about seeing the pale arch of Sesshoumaru's throat so close to his teeth, and he realised it was because it seemed so vulnerable. Now there was a word that had nothing to do with the youkai lord. Breathing in, he could easily detect the familiar scent of his brother, a mixture of cold-edged youki and the smell of thunderstorms, but this close, there was a hint of some sleek feral musk that reminded him of wild creatures and darkness. It was the scent of a predator. A predator that was baring his throat to him so he could remove a sword he'd placed in his throat. What did that mean?

Confused, and more than a little bothered by it all, Inuyasha started to draw back, realising he'd leaned too far into the scent in an attempt to drink it all in, pale hair that wasn't his brushing his cheek. Shit. Sesshoumaru's eyes tracked him the whole time. Ears flattening again in something like guilt, he tightened his grip on the sword and began the process of drawing it back out.

He kept his eyes on the sword, nothing else. He wanted to just yank it out, but the uncertainty of how the sword worked was enough to stay his hand, coax some semblance of caution from him. So inch by careful inch, he pulled it free of the sheath of flesh, watching the blade draw free tinged with the pink sheen of blood. Spread so thinly, it wasn't red at all. It didn't seem real, but it smelled it. His hand jerked slightly then at the sight of it, and he heard a breath drawn in sharply. Inuyasha let out a low whine deep in his throat before he could stop himself, then bit down on his lips, uncertain at his reaction. So he'd hurt him a little. Sesshoumaru deserved it and more. So who cared?

"Why the hell did you have to show up here, anyway?" He muttered, almost to himself as he watched the blade sliding out of his neck. "And why am I doing this? Why'd you look at me like I'd done something wrong? I save your pet human, you call me a mongrel. Then you try to choke me to death, so I did what I had to do to get free. It's not like you never turned Tetsusaiga on me in a fight."

Burnished gold eyes watched him the whole time, unable to talk or respond in any way. Inuyasha supposed that when someone's controlling a sword in your neck, you learn to be tolerant. He could explain it no other way. Besides, once the sword came out, he'd probably just attack him again, or worse. Resigned to it, he watched the last of Tenseiga's blade free itself from his brother's neck, and the gash closed over and sealed itself up without so much as a red mark for his troubles. All that remained was the tiniest smear of blood—the only evidence that he'd been hurt in any way at all. It was kind of cool, and for the first time, Inuyasha felt a small pang of jealousy. Any sword could kill, sure, but this one was one of a kind. Why give it to someone like Sesshoumaru? It was completely useless in his hands—he didn't want to help anyone but himself. Rin was probably just an accident.

He held the sword in two hands, the blade flat along his palms, and felt no answering pulse to his call. No recognition that he was a son of the Inu no Taishou, whose fang had given the sword life. It just felt cold, and dead. "It doesn't like me," he said in realisation. "Jeez, even your sword is a bastard." His voice broke a little at the exclamation, and he gripped his throat once, more hissing in pain. The taste of wet copper gathered in his throat again.

Sesshoumaru took the blade from his hands and ran it along the grass to clean away the blood, sliding back into place at his hip. When he stood, he seemed to tower over Inuyasha. It came to the hanyou's attention then that he was still naked and sort of defenceless, and he reached out for his hakama, jerking the pants on and tying them hastily, his eyes mistrustful as he watched the silent youkai before him the whole time. Somehow, since the moment he'd stepped out of the water, his world had turned surreal and completely wrong. He wasn't sure exactly what had just happened, but he had a sinking suspicion that it was bad. Very bad.

When the silence seemed to stretch too thin, Inuyasha snapped. "What? If you're gonna kill me –try and kill me-, get it over and done with already."

Sesshoumaru's eyes slitted into shards of frozen fire. "I would not waste my time killing you. You are worthless to me, dead or alive."

Inuyasha's lip curled. "Always a bastard. Maybe I should have picked Toukijin instead," he growled, ignoring the copper taste of fire in his raw throat. Turning away, he nearly missed his half-brother stiffen. He stopped and frowned. "What? I'd think by now I'd be able to handle that possessed piece of—"

"You chose Tenseiga on purpose," he said, slowly, rolling the words as though they tasted foreign. "This, I will not believe."

The hanyou shrugged jerkily, scanning the bushes for Rin. Where the hell had she gotten to, wearing his haori? It wasn't for keeps, damn it. He cursed silently to himself, half his attention on what Sesshoumaru was saying. "Like I care what you believe. I just don't want to give a little kid nightmares for a month, which I would've if I'd half sawn your damn head off right here."

The youkai lord tipped his head back in understanding. "You're fond of Rin."

He shook his head. "Not really. There's just some things a kid shouldn't see." Why was he having this conversation? Shaking his hair back irritably, he backed up a step, turning toward the bushes to look for said kid. But he should have known better than to think Sesshoumaru wouldn't annoy the living hell out of him before he could make a clean getaway.

"When I came across you, you were six years old and trying to dig a grave with your claws."

Inuyasha froze, his features draining of colour. In an instant he forgot all about Rin. What girl? To his eyes, there was only his mother's body wrapped in a shroud, the foul scent of decay already clinging to her corpse. And a hole, a muddy hole he couldn't make big enough to fit her in. He'd been too little, his claws broken off one by one. "No. No, I first saw you in the forest. You weren't there," he whispered, sucking in a breath to hold back the flood of memory. He thought he'd forgotten that day. He'd buried his childhood in that grave, alongside his beloved mother. No, there were some things a kid shouldn't see. "I'd have known."

"You were a child, with a child's senses. I had no desire to make my presence known."

He swallowed. "Maybe you should've just done it then. I probably wouldn't have cared. Hell, the grave had already been dug—"

He broke off them, hurtled backwards against the trunk of a tree, Sesshoumaru's hand splayed across his collarbone. His eyes were full of more wrath than the hanyou had seen in a long time. "You will die when I say so, Inuyasha. Not before," he snarled, his upper lip lifting to reveal the canine fangs that transformed his face into something bestial. Shaken, confused, he found himself swallowed up in that blazing gaze and could do nothing else but nod dumbly, his mind a spinning blank. The youkai before him snarled again, softer now, but it didn't seem a thing like the calm, collected person that was usually his brother. "I am the only one that can kill you."

Inuyasha blinked. Maybe it was just the mood his words had brought on, but he remembered something, then. Sou'unga. The Gokuryuuha. You're in my way! He'd nearly ate dirt from the force of the shove, but Sesshoumaru had taken the brunt of one hell of an attack. Funny thing was, Sou'unga's attack that time probably wouldn't have killed him, and both of them knew it. But he'd been pushed out of the way of the blast just the same. Golden eyes blinked, and something confused stirred inside the hanyou. He felt like he was missing something, but damned if he could figure out what it was. He'd never been a thinker, he just hadn't. "Like I'd let myself get killed," he said finally, pushing that hand off his chest. "I'm not that kid anymore, Sesshoumaru. Haven't been for damn near two centuries. I don't die easy."

This close, he didn't miss the slight smirk, that set tilt of his brother's lips as he drew away. "I believe I will hold you to that. I have no use for the Tetsusaiga at this time, hanyou," he said coolly.

Inuyasha bristled. "Good, because you're not getting it." He would have said more on the subject, probably a lot more than would have ended in bloodshed, but Rin chose that precise moment to come bursting through the bushes, holding something in her hands that made the hanyou and youkai alike tense in recognition.

Rin held up the sun-lazy snake he'd kicked aside earlier and smiled at him. "Snakes are kind of like eels, right? Can we eat this one?"

"No!" he nearly shouted, grabbing the snake off her before it could get it's bearings and decide to strike. "Jeez, can't you be a little more caref—fuck!" The yellow-black striped serpent thrashed in his grip immediately, scenting danger, twisting its head and sinking fangs deep into his wrist. The burn of something foreign in his veins had nothing to do with fangs, and Inuyasha's vision swam with surprise for a moment. Venom. The little shit was venomous.

Of all the. . .

Rin screamed as his knees buckled, eyes wide and full of fear. "Inuyasha-san!"

"Urgh, pipe down, kid," he slurred slightly, pulling the snake free of his wrist, barely minding that it's glass-brittle fangs had broken off in his skin. He threw the furious serpent into the creek and tried to slow his descent to the ground, blinking as the grass seemed to ripple. His wrist was engulfed in fire. "Son of a bitch. . ."

Above him, someone growled in irritation. "Useless. You're useless to Rin if you're this susceptible to danger. . ." The hanyou wasn't really sure who was saying that, he couldn't see them, and the words were wavering in his ears anyway. Sesshoumaru? He tried to squint up at his brother, certain that he should have an eye on him at all times, but not really sure why.

Then he was kneeling in front of him, and it didn't matter much. Almost docilely, he watched claws sink into the snakebite, plucking the ruined fangs from the wound and tossing them aside. Then golden eyes just the colour of his own locked with his blurry vision. The red markings gracing his eyelids seemed to stand out in vivid contrast to his white skin. He'd never noticed that much before. . .strange. . .

"If you survive this, hanyou, you'll be in my debt. How fortuitous. . ." Sesshoumaru murmured, his eyes narrowing in harsh scrutiny. "And that is a very large, if."

The last thing Inuyasha saw before pain engulfed him, were his brother's poison-misted claws sinking into his open veins.

Then his world was nothing but black agony.

Chapter 4: Delerium


It was as though a network of fire boiled under his skin, tainted and sick and hot. Inuyasha's eyes rolled under his eyelids feverishly, his skin slick with sweat, tendrils of white hair sticking to his forehead. A flash of white as his eyelids parted slightly – but he was senseless; lost in the grip of fever-bright delirium.

Kaede looked down at the suffering hanyou, and felt a soft prickle of pitying acceptance.

Inuyasha was going to die.

Seven days and seven nights, thrashing and shivering and gasping, unable to eat anything more than thin broth; barely more sustenance than water. And then finally, unable to eat anything at all. It was too much, his body pale and thinned with sickness, overwrought with nothing to run on. The bite wound on his arm was angry red and had been slashed open to nearly bare his veins, filled with another kind of venom that the old priestess had no notion of how to treat.

Venom of a dog demon.

She had thought it strange that the youkai lord Sesshoumaru had merely brought Inuyasha to her hut, slung over the back of a two-headed dragon, a young girl nearly in tears running by his side. Nothing was said until Kaede had lowered her nocked bow from its ready position; aimed right between Sesshoumaru's eyes. As Inuyasha had sworn up and down to her in the past that he had no heart, she felt it best to aim for the next vital spot, smiling grimly to herself even as something cold gripped her chest at the sight of what had appeared to be a lifeless Inuyasha. All her faith in the hanyou aside, she knew of the cold youkai's strength.

But the eyes staring down into hers were not presently those of a killer.

"Tend to him." A sharp jerk and Inuyasha tumbled from the dragon, landing hard on his side in the dirt, Tetsusaiga following to land beside him. Sesshoumaru had eyed the hanyou silently for a moment, before toeing him onto his back. Kaede could have sworn his eyes had narrowed in disgust, and that his hand had twitched toward his sword, but a blink and he was staring at her instead, mouth tight and expression a frozen mask.

"I will return in one week. Do not bury him until then."

It was when he had turned to leave that the small girl had run to her, fisting her hand in the white sleeve of her haori, deep chocolate eyes almost black with concern. Words tumbled over themselves out of her mouth; a rush of childish guilt and something like fear. "I-it was a snake, a yellow and black snake, and it bit him and he fell over because Rin was holding it and he took it away and then it bit him, and please make him better, Sesshoumaru-sama said his own poison couldn't or he'd die, and Rin doesn't want him to die—" Her babbling choked and died as a gnarled old hand had rested on her tousled hair, and Kaede had nodded.

"I see, child. I'll do what I can."

They'd left almost immediately, with the girl –Rin- looking back every few feet, wrapped up in Inuyasha's haori, hugging it to her like a blanket. Whatever that fool hanyou had gotten himself into, he'd obviously earned Sesshoumaru's little orphan girl's affection.

But it would do no good, the old woman sighed dully, as the firelight in her hut blanketed the dying hanyou in soft gold. What Kaede could do was not enough. The poison itself would not have been as much of a problem, but infection had set its heat deep under his skin, a sick and vile heat that was burning him up from within. How, she didn't know. The strength of Sesshoumaru's venom was nearly acidic, and should have removed all traces. She could only guess that was the intention of the nearly mauled wound in the hanyou's arm. Either that, or some curious attempt to counteract the poison with something stronger.

All she could do was bathe his skin and try in vain to cool his fever, and feed him. For his pain, there was nothing. No medicinal herbs she kept were potent enough to quell the agony streaming through his body, not with his half-demon roots. In the past he'd always borne the pain stubbornly, she remembered with a resigned shake of her head. Perhaps now he was too far away from consciousness to feel it.

Twisting the water out of a rag, Kaede lay the cloth across Inuyasha's brow, sweeping his hair off his face, where it clung in straggling strands. His cracked lips parted, and shockingly, for the first time in a week, he uttered a single, broken word.

"Mo. . .mother. . ."

Kaede's single eye widened, and a sudden, vicious stab of sadness took her by surprise. Oh, she couldn't deny it, she was very fond of Inuyasha, but she never thought she'd be tending him on his deathbed. Alone. The few that had loved him had gone on, long ago. Smoothing the back of her hand over his hot cheek, she could only be relieved that he would not die alone. No one deserved that, least of all this poor wretch. His intentions had always been good, but to meet an end like this for the sake of a human girl who followed his hated half-brother. . .

A sudden bloom of youki behind her, in the night, was her only warning.

By the time she turned around, he was close enough to kill her.

But again, Inuyasha's half brother did no such thing. Standing in the middle of her hut as though he'd been there all along, his single arm was relaxed and loose by his side, and there was no bloodlust in his frigid golden eyes. There was nothing in his eyes, nothing at all.

Trying to calm her old heart and not quite succeeding, Kaede's hand moved from the small dagger she kept hidden in her sleeve.

"A wise move, priestess," Sesshoumaru murmured coolly. His penetrating gaze slid to Inuyasha's prone form and lingered. "He is close to death."

Letting out a ragged breath, the old woman nodded tiredly. "There's nought else I can do for him. He's half-starved, can't swallow through the swelling in his throat, and the fever has him locked tight in dreams. He is simply growing too weak to heal himself." She paused then, a tickle of recollection as she studied the blades tucked securely at the youkai's waist. "Your sword has the power to heal, I hear. Revive the dead. Is that what you're here for?"

"Tenseiga finds him unworthy of its power," he replied calmly. And that was all. Kaede found it surprising that he made no mention of his own lack of interest in the endeavour. Should there be one. Exactly what was the youkai's game? She came up with no clear answer.

Inuyasha cried out then, his head twisting on the thin pillow as his face creased in pain. His whole body tensed like a bowstring drawn tight, fists clenching and claws tearing through the thin sheet draped over his waist. His shivering began almost immediately, even as sweat still poured off his body in rivulets. Sounds that could only be described as weak whimpers betrayed him, moisture glittering beneath his eyelashes. A dream. Nightmare. Behind her, unseen by the miko, Sesshoumaru's eyes narrowed in silent scrutiny.

"Prepare some food for him. Something that he can swallow," he ordered coolly, stepping forward to brush past Kaede, who stared at him in surprise.

"Don't let his movements fool you, he's completely unconscious. He'll not be able to drink in his state," she argued, frowning. But the look Sesshoumaru gave her was flat and unyielding, and said very clearly that she would obey or suffer the consequences. In her own hut! Grumbling to herself, she rose stiffly to her feet and shuffled over to the pot hanging over the fire, stirring the broth that was heating within.

"Build up the fire."

Kaede sniffed, but grudgingly did as he ordered. If Inuyasha lived, he would be severely in her debt. "Perhaps I should procure some fresh cold water also, if my lord pleases."

Her sarcasm was either unnoticed, or ignored. Sesshoumaru was running his claws around the raised edges of Inuyasha's wound and did not look up. "Do it."

Two sides of the same coin, the old woman thought darkly as she grabbed up a bucket and made her way out of the hut. Inuyasha and his brother were both rude and demanding. Whatever game that youkai was playing, marching into her village and ordering her about, she was certain it didn't bode well for Inuyasha. However, she bore it because if he could save him, she would allow it. Kaede had exhausted all her avenues when it came to healing the sickened hanyou.

But why Sesshoumaru would want to, well, she had no idea.

Inuyasha was weak.

The notion of that, under normal circumstances, usually brought the youkai lord a great deal of satisfaction. But these were not normal circumstances, and Sesshoumaru was angry. Too human for his acid claws to dispel the snake's poison, too susceptible to it for him to burn away the taint of venom with a youkai poison that was latently in his bloodline to accept. If he didn't need the hanyou for his own purposes, he'd have left him to die in his own froth by the riverside. It was demeaning that a son of the Inu no Taishou, their revered father, could be felled by a belly-crawling serpent. Inuyasha, ever the humiliation of their family.

Inuyasha, who was close to death.

Sesshoumaru would not bear this as the last blow the hanyou would strike in this world. Though it was a fittingly pathetic death for a weak hanyou, he still had his uses. To that end, he would ensure that Inuyasha would not draw his last breath that night, despite the damning silence of his father's healing sword.

Narrowing his eyes in disgust at the sight before him, Sesshoumaru tossed wood into the fire with almost bored grace, knowing the hut would soon become unbearably stifling. It was high summer, and the air was humid and thick, but to combat the heat of fever, equal heat was necessary. He strode to the side of Inuyasha's pallet and frowned as the hanyou gasped weakly for air, his eyes barely visible between his eyelashes; blind and unseeing in his stupor. His visage was deathly pale beneath the sun-drenched tan of his skin. To his memory, Sesshoumaru had never seen him so. He found it ill-suiting.

"Sesshoumaru-samaaa," came a soft whisper from the curtained doorway, as Rin peered between a crack in the material, obediently remaining outside as he had told her to. "Can Rin help Inuyasha-san?" She'd reluctantly changed back into her usual kimono earlier that day, holding the fire rat haori close to her chest, folded painstakingly carefully by the small girl. Her eyes were wide and earnest as she stared into the hut, blinking at the bright light of the fire. "Rin will be very quiet and not wake Inuyasha-san."

He debated telling her that he was almost literally sleeping like the dead and wouldn't wake for the end of the world, but the entire past week had been spent ordering Jaken to answer all of her questions about his hanyou half-brother. It would not do to destroy her newly-discovered attachment to Inuyasha just yet. "It will soon become too hot in here for you," he replied calmly. "But you may bring the haori." Beaming, Rin darted into the hut with the article of clothing, spreading it awkwardly in her hands to drape over the senseless hanyou, only to stop dead as she grew close enough to truly see the extent of his illness.

Swallowing hard, she blanketed Inuyasha with the open haori, her eyes haunted as she bent close enough to see the anguish crossing his dreaming face. When Inuyasha's breath hitched and something like a sobbing whimper emerged, Rin's eyes filled with tears. "Poor Inuyasha-san. . ." she whispered, and mopped his forehead with the sleeve of her kimono, heedless of the sweat beading on her own. "Is he going to die, Sesshoumaru-sama?" The quiet horror in her voice displeased him greatly, and he glared at his dying half-brother for causing it. This wouldn't do.

"He won't. Not before I say so," he growled softly, his eyes on Inuyasha with steel promise. "Not before then."

And that was that for Rin. She smiled and wiped her eyes, her energy returning almost immediately. "Will it be all right if Rin helps you, Sesshoumaru-sama? Oh, please? Inuyasha-san saved Rin's life, after all, and if he does die then Sesshoumaru-sama would be lonely."

The child's understanding on the subject of his feelings toward his brother were somewhat skewed, but he didn't correct her. Jaken could inform her of the truth of the matter. "If you recover from the heat every half hour by going outside, you may sit by his side. He will need as much heat as possible," he said smoothly. "Do not take hold of his hands for any reason. His claws are sharp."

"Just like Sesshoumaru-sama's," she nodded, stepping over Inuyasha's prone form to settle against his side. Her cheeks were already flushed from the heat in the hut. "Will Inuyasha-san be upset if Rin lays down?" She didn't wait for his reply, however, instead pushing his brother's hair aside and laying down against him, huddling herself close enough to cling to his good arm. "He is very sweaty, Sesshoumaru-sama. Why does Inuyasha-san shiver like he is cold?"

Explaining the ways of infection and fever to her would take far too long. "Inuyasha's body is confused. More so than is considered normal for him," he said briefly, picking up a wooden bowl of broth and scenting the liquid delicately. Salt and some essence of meat, faint spices. It would not nourish a youkai, however Inuyasha was anything but. Perhaps it could give him enough energy to allow his demonic blood to stave off the infection running rampant in his body.

Silently furious that he was reduced to acting as nursemaid for his invalid, hanyou half-brother, Sesshoumaru took a mouthful of the liquid and held it in his mouth as he lifting Inuyasha's head by grasping the back of his neck, tipping his face up and pressing his lips to Inuyasha's. Under Rin's fascinated watch, he trickled the liquid into the mouth under his, long fingers massaging his throat enough that the broth was swallowed. It was painstaking, debasing work, but eventually Inuyasha had taken more than half the bowlful into his system. Cracking his knuckles as he released him, Sesshoumaru blinked almost hazily against the heat in the hut, feeling sweat beading on his own brow. Rin, who had stayed the entire time, was flushed and sweaty, but staring at him in awe as though she had forgotten everything else in the world. Highly possible with that child.

"How did you do that? He drank it! Like a baby bird! Rin thought Inuyasha-san was a dog hanyou! Do real dogs do that, Sesshoumaru-sama? Rin sees humans doing things like that sometimes, but Jaken-sama said Rin was too young to understand, but they were just feeding each other, weren't they Sesshoumaru-sama? Jaken-sama is so silly sometimes, Rin is glad he is looking after Ah-Un in the forest. Jaken-sama smells funny. . ." Thankful for small blessings, the youkai watched Rin swoon dizzily from the heat and flop down beside Inuyasha, who was almost enviously oblivious to the chatter.

He hadn't moved the entire time, save for his eyes, which had slid closed. In almost dramatic contrast to his silver hair, his lashes were dark and spiky with moisture against his cheeks. Something about the sight of him drew Sesshoumaru's mouth tight, and narrowed his eyes. He was not a youkai who tolerated weakness, but this was something different. This was Naraku's killer, this was the hanyou that had dared cut off his arm, this was. . .this was his half-brother dying by slow inches in some dirty human village. The loud, brash, foul-mouthed idiot was silent and sick, and vulnerable. Sesshoumaru's lip curled.

"Sesshoumaru-sama. . ." Rin said muzzily, "will Inuyasha-san really help Rin, when he gets better?"

He didn't answer, for the old woman had finally returned, a bucket of cold water in her grasp. Her single good eye fell to Rin and lingered for a moment, but she said nothing about her arrival. "If you're to sweat that fever out of him, you'll be wanting to take that girl somewhere else. I know demons burn a little hotter than humans, and she'll be sick if she stays," she said blandly. "We've some spare pallets at the shrine."

The youkai lord couldn't fault her judgement; with Rin sleeping elsewhere he could build the fire high enough to break Inuyasha's fever. Once conscious, he could recover himself. "Rin." He said no more, gave no instruction, but the small girl understood. With a weak nod, she clambered to her feet, nearly tripping over Inuyasha as she stumbled to Kaede's side. The old woman watched him intensely for a moment, but finally fell to Inuyasha and the fire seemed to extinguish in her gaze.

"If you can save him, he won't be the only one in your debt. This village relies on him, whether they acknowledge that –and him- or not."

Sesshoumaru's head whipped around, and he pinned her with icy golden eyes. "Inuyasha is not this village's watchdog, nor its starving stray." The words, spoken with such flat certainty, were not without a certain element of superiority. Kaede understood immediately that his regard for the village Inuyasha had stood by this entire time was very low indeed. For the hanyou's sake, or his own, she didn't know.

Taking Rin by the hand, she left the hut to the two brothers, hoping against hope that come morning, the hanyou would still be breathing.

Beside her, the little girl yawned. "Don't worry about Inuyasha-san, grandmother. Sesshoumaru-sama will save him."

There was something to be said for a child's faith in the goodness of the world. Kaede almost wanted to believe in it, too.

Inuyasha woke sometimes, slowly, as though swimming through thick darkness. In brief flashes, he could almost summon the strength to open his eyes, but settled for small moments of lucidity, locked behind his closed eyes.

When the scent of Sesshoumaru swirled through his senses during one of these moments, the hanyou was sure he was going to die. Too close was his presence, too weak was Inuyasha to do anything more than lay there at his mercy. Unresponsive, but filled with panic. Lucid and unable to move. He was laying on his back, vulnerable stomach bared to the air in a manner he would never have allowed had he been strong enough to do more than gasp weakly, and suffer the freezing burn of his own skin.

But a warm, wet swathe merely ran across his bitten arm, returning again and again in long, soothing strokes over his wound. There was no attack, no sound, no pain beyond what shivered up and down his feverish body. He didn't understand, and for a while, he drifted back into the inky darkness.

He awoke seconds, minutes, years later to liquid flowing into his mouth—water. Cool, blessed water he found the ability to swallow, searching for more with his mouth but finding only a curious warm pressure over his lips. Sesshoumaru's scent still hung in the air, until he wasn't sure what was his and what belonged to his brother. Then it was too hard to try and stay awake, and darkness rolled back over him once more.

Countless times, he woke and slept and woke again, and always there was the presence of Sesshoumaru surrounding him. Why, he didn't understand. All he knew was that his strength was coming back, and that the hands that moved across his brow and the claws that touched his cheek did not harm him.

It was proof enough to Inuyasha that he was very ill indeed, to be dreaming of such impossible dreams.

The fever broke as dawn was creeping over the hills, spreading its orange light across the slumbering village. Inuyasha's chills stopped even as sweat began pouring from him, his battered body suddenly succumbing the stifling heat that hung in the air of the hut.

When his slumber finally released him, drugging fingers retreating from his mind, Inuyasha opened his eyes to find a bowl tipped to his lips and his head cushioned on a white-clad thigh. Drinking down the salty broth automatically, he drew in a long, blessedly painless breath into his lungs. Alive. The word had never sounded so sweet. Still, whatever the hell was in that broth Kaede was making him chug was probably going to kill him again.

"Enough," he was finally able to gasp out, his voice rough and hoarse with disuse. "Stuff tastes like shit." He pushed the hand holding the bowl away from his face, realising too late that the fingers were long and graceful, and tipped with claws. The deep magenta stripes curving around Sesshoumaru's wrist were the final clue. "Holy fucking dog's balls—!"

Lurching away with the minimal reserves of energy his body had regained, Inuyasha made a wild one-armed sweep for the Tetsusaiga, adrenaline pumping through his already abused veins, the world spinning around him. Of course, he came up with nothing. Panting weakly, he attempted to slide free of his brother's grasp, but was stilled with almost laughable ease. All he could to was stare up in mute horror at his captor, and wonder if maybe he'd died and gone to hell, after all. "Did you eat Kaede and move into her hut?"

The flat gold eyes staring back down at him said Sesshoumaru was unamused. In fact, he kind of looked like hell. His usually pristine hair was slightly bedraggled and sweat-damp, his armour actually discarded and neatly stacked against the wall with his swords. He was dressed in nothing more frightening than his white and red silk and his sash. Inuyasha couldn't comprehend the change, or why he was there, and why he was still alive and oh my god he'd been sleeping on Sesshoumaru's leg

"I am in hell," he said to himself, as what remained of his sanity managed to shatter into irreparable shards of incredulity. "I've been very bad and I've gone to hell. But that doesn't explain why Sesshoumaru is my nurse. . .unless the snake got him too—" He was thrown out of his addled ponderings by Sesshoumaru's sudden shifting, which resulted in the renewed realisation that there was something very wrong with the world when his bastard of a brother didn't claw his eyes out for prolonged breathing in his presence. Let alone rampant and wild speculations on his predicament that involved the youkai being killed by a snake. Bewildered, Inuyasha ran out of ideas in a silence that frankly freaked him the hell out. "What's going on?"

The answer wasn't forthcoming right away, as Sesshoumaru seemed to study something in his face before even thinking of replying. Whatever he was looking for came up lacking, as his expression turned disdainful and hard and oh, that was more like it. Familiar territory for the hanyou. "The snake's venom brought you low enough for infection to set into your body. It's been a week since then. You were near death at sundown."

Oh, shit. Inuyasha digested that for a moment, then smirked weakly. "Bet you're disappointed. You were here for the Tetsusaiga if I did die, weren't you?" Was that broth poisoned? He thought about it for a moment, confused. Memories of a fever dream came back to him then, and he glanced down at his wounded arm. The slashed bite mark was still visible, but whatever infection that had been there had vanished. The wound was clean and dry. His confusion grew, and he shot a look at the silent youkai, who was simply staring back at him impassively.

Slowly, suspiciously, Inuyasha raised his wounded arm and lowered his head to scent the wound. Immediately his head snapped up, not believing what his senses told him. Wide golden eyes stared back into their colder narrowed twin. Sesshoumaru's scent was all over his wound. All over him.

He'd been tended to, during his illness. . .by his brother?

The world spun briefly, and Inuyasha's stomach lurched. "Oh god, I'm going to be sick," he gasped out, saliva rushing into his mouth, acidic and nauseating. Pressing the back of his wrist to his mouth, he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to force back the overwhelming urge to empty his stomach. Fresh sweat beaded his brow and he blinked it away from his eyes in time to see Sesshoumaru's hand enter his field of vision. The hanyou sprang away from it, chest heaving, his eyes wide and pupils smaller than pinpricks, lost in the colour of sunlight. His face was chalk white. "Stay away from me, you fucking bastard," he rasped out, horrifyingly close to panic. "Whatever you're after, I don't care, take it and get away from me."

The taiyoukai's eyes narrowed slightly at the sight of his brother nearly flinching away from him like a beaten mutt. He'd never done so in a fight, but the realisation that he'd tended his wounds seemed to send Inuyasha into a tailspin of disgusted, cringing horror. It didn't make sense, but then Inuyasha rarely did. Expression cold and unaffected, Sesshoumaru assumed his cloak of superiority once more. "I see your manners have not improved," he said coolly. "How do you intend to force me to leave, Inuyasha?"

Something almost visibly snapped in the hanyou's wild-eyed gaze. Sesshoumaru's lips parted in mild surprise as Inuyasha found the strength to rise to his feet, stumbling badly out of the hut and into the bright heat of summer.

Nothing made sense, Inuyasha thought blindly, the world around him wavering and darkness crawling in from the edges of his vision. He was missing something, he had to be. He was playing some sick joke on his stupid little hanyou brother; screwing with his head. God, it was working. Staggering and nearly losing his balance, it was sheer brute force of will that kept him standing, the sun beating down on his naked back, his sweat-matted hair. Where was Kaede? Where the fuck was Kaede? Mortified, Inuyasha felt his eyes burn, overwrought and weaker than he could ever remember being in his entire life. Nearly died. Sesshoumaru should have been pissing on his grave, not saving his life.

Inuyasha had no illusions about his older brother's perception of him. He was worthless to the youkai, and he hated him. Blamed him for their father's death—for something. He knew he just needed to calm down and think, but being in this condition with Sesshoumaru only meters away was tripping every silent alarm in his entire body. Run, his blood whispered to his bones, run away. But the ground was spinning and roiling under his feet, rising up to meet his failing body.

What caught his slumped form was not hard-packed dirt, but an arm like an iron bar hooking across his chest, under his arms to hold him aloft. Inuyasha coughed at the pressure, his eyes sliding open as he refused to pass out. "I'm gonna kill that goddamn snake," he forced out weakly, an inane and utterly pointless declaration. "And then I'm gonna kill you, you insane son of a bitch. . ." Raising his head, he rolled his eyes upwards to stare into his brother's impassive face. "What. . .do you want?" That last was nearly a desperate plea, but it was never answered, as golden eyes rolled up and went blank, as the last of Inuyasha's strength waned and he lost consciousness.

The urge to sigh nearly got the best of him, but Sesshoumaru saw the old priestess and Rin heading in their direction and suppressed the desire. Loosening his grip and allowing Inuyasha's body to fold double over his forearm, the tall demon carried the slack form of his hanyou brother back into the hut. Dumping him on his pallet in a pile of limbs and wild silver hair, the youkai lord made the decision in that momentary silence to leave the area for a time. During that absence Inuyasha would get his strength back, and the cycle of things would return to normal. He could then make his demand and watch the furious fire boil again in his hanyou brother's eyes.

He had seen enough of Inuyasha's vulnerability. It was clear now that whatever haunted his half-brother was in part to be laid at his feet, and for a moment, Sesshoumaru wondered if that did not bother him.

Strangely, he had no answer, just a memory of wet eyelashes and firelight, the scent of salt on the air.

Sesshoumaru had no answer, none at all.

Chapter 5: Used & Abused

Time passed, and Inuyasha healed.

Well, to be fair, his body healed. His pride was still in shreds, and he'd been in a funk about it for weeks. When he'd woken up after the altercation with his brother, it had been a whole day later and the bastard had hightailed it out of the area. To make matters worse, it had rained and washed away whatever scent had remained of him. Unable to track him and shred his hide to ribbons, Inuyasha moped and growled and generally frightened the villagers out of their plans to give him a good stoning. Considering the mood he'd been in, it probably saved their lives.

Truthfully, he just didn't know what to think of what had happened. What hazy memories he had of the whole debacle left him with a sour taste in his mouth. Resolving to forget about the whole thing, but not quite succeeding, Inuyasha attempted to get back to his usual daily routine. Thinking too much pissed him off, anyway.

Thinking too much led to questions that had no answer.

But as the days passed, he fell into a comfortable routine of manual labour, sword practice, and his usual daily attempt to scare the living shit out of the village children so they'd stop bothering him. Honestly, being a filthy hanyou sure didn't count for much these days. At least the adults spanked them silly for coming anywhere near him, scrubbing their skin until it went pink just for trying to touch his ears. He was fairly sure that they deserved it, but damned if they didn't keep coming back for more.

So after a few exhausting hours of swordplay to while away the hazy afternoon, enough to make his arms burn and his hair stick to his forehead, he was unsurprised to see a small gathering of kids watching his every move. Briefly entertaining the idea of putting a shirt on, he discarded it and sheathed the Tetsusaiga with one swift movement. His eyes caught the fading wound on his forearm and lingered for a moment. At the rate he healed, it was a surprise it had remained visible for as long as it had. He didn't like the reminder. Running his clawed fingertips over the slightly raised skin, his golden eyes hazy with memory, he didn't see the midget onslaught until they were tugging on his pants.

"Inuyasha, can I play with your sword?"

"Inuyasha, are you hungry?"

"Inuyasha, do you like Suki-chan?"

"Inuyasha, why do you have long hair?"

It was enough to drive a normal person insane. However, being apparently made of stronger stuff than even he'd given himself credit for, Inuyasha had yet to suffer so much as a nervous breakdown. He was fairly sure he was developing a tic in his eye though. "Would you shut up?" He eventually barked, bristling with frustration. "I'm gonna break my foot off in the ass of the next kid who asks a retarded question."

Silence. Then;

"Inuyasha said ass!"

"Inuyasha, you're so cool!"

"I'm gonna talk like Inuyasha from now on! Ass! Ass! Reeee-tarded!"

It might not be enough to drive him insane, but he'd soon be on the brink of infanticide if he didn't get the hell out of there—now. Pressing his hands over the faces of the two kids in front of him, he shoved them onto their rumps and belted it the hell out of the field he'd been practicing in. God, he thought faintly as he ran, as sad as it was he'd actually prefer a few stones to the back of the head over the adoration of a handful of hyperactive human kids. He wasn't used to it. The only kid who'd been like that around him was Kagome's kid brother, and he'd never tried to search his goddamn hair for fleas.

His swift, completely manly escape took him all the way to the other side of the village, where the surrounding trees cleared into another, smaller field, this one rather muddy and therefore less popular to play in. Inuyasha grimaced as mud sank under his toenails, a little grossed out by the sensation. "Damn kids," he muttered, shaking one foot out in front of him. "Chasing me out here. . ." Glad for the sudden silence all the same, he closed his eyes briefly, feeling the wind pick up and stir his hair, smelling of wet grass and the ragged purple wildflowers that dotted the field. He felt the tension in his shoulders ebb and disappear. This was better, getting out of the village, being alone again. He hadn't really realised he was so used to it that after a while the villagers milling about felt almost oppressive. He didn't like it, but he was conditioned to survive by himself. Depending on himself. Living for himself. With the others gone now, it was just the way things should be. When the threat of Naraku had thrown them all together it had been circumstance that had the others travelling with him—Kagome's doing, he supposed. It was only natural that without her he had no reason to cling to them. Not that he wanted to. Humans should go on living human lives. A hanyou, on the other hand. . .

Inuyasha's eyes darkened, his eyes falling to the torn snakebite on his arm. Hanyou had no place in the world to begin with, Sesshoumaru would have said.

Sesshoumaru. He closed his eyes and swore softly.

Kaede had filled him in on what details she knew of the missing week of his life, from Sesshoumaru bringing him to the village to his mysterious return seven days later. The unknown practices he used to heal him, break his fever and halt his quickening descent into death. She'd had no idea why he'd done it, and neither did Inuyasha. He found himself waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some illumination into the mind of his infuriating pure-blooded brother, but he came up empty handed. Only one thing rang clear in his mind.

If you survive this, hanyou, you'll be in my debt.

Hissing a sharp breath, he tossed his head, ears twitching madly. Debt, a debt—he'd never owed anyone a single thing in his life! No one had bothered. But for this, this one time—and it was Sesshoumaru. He had to have done it for a reason, and it sure wasn't out of concern for his hanyou brother's welfare. Dragging in a sharp breath, he tried to quell the urge to snarl his frustration to the brilliant summer morning. Indebted to that pure-blooded, uptight son of a bitch. . .to hell with that, he decided with furious determination. But so lost in his thoughts was Inuyasha that he didn't react in time to the sudden rustle in the long grass behind him.

"A-ha! Prepare to die, Inuyasha!" A voice shrieked gleefully from behind him, and then the air around him exploded in flames.

Swearing loudly, the hanyou dove for the grass, skidding some meters in the slick mud by accident before somersaulting and simultaneously drawing his sword, facing his diminutive, green, and undeniably sycophantic foe. It was Jaken, brandishing the Staff of Heads, thrusting the damn thing at him like an amulet to ward off evil. Fire belched out of the old man's mouth like a jet stream, pointing straight at him. It didn't have much of an effect, to tell the truth, wearing the fire rat fur and all. But when Inuyasha started smelling burnt hair, he darted out of the flames with a fleet-footed movement, appearing behind Jaken to grab the staff and wrestle it out of the imp's little webbed fingers. Tetsusaiga was slid back into place at his waist, being slightly overkill for Sesshoumaru's little fanboy.

"Now what the hell is this," Inuyasha snapped, batting at his face with his free hand. At his feet, Jaken was hopping into the air ineffectually, clawed hands outstretched as he tried to catch hold of his precious weapon. He just hefted it higher in the air. "You nearly burnt off my eyebrows!"

"A hanyou like you doesn't deserve to have eyebrows!" Jaken squawked irrationally. "Give me back my staff!" Then, when the half demon just grinned ferally, his eyes shining gold, Jaken decided to hit below the belt. Literally. He brazenly punched Inuyasha square in the balls.

It felled him faster than the prayer beads ever had. Dropping like a stone, gasping, Inuyasha curled into the foetal position, spitting ineffectual curses like bullets. But he didn't let go of the staff. "Fucking—toad! I'll kill you! Oh my God, you are so fucking dead!" Eyes watering, he swung wildly with the staff, smacking the toad like one of Souta's baseballs and sending him flying into a puddle. He floated there for a while, breathing bubbles as he lay face down. Inuyasha violently hoped he drowned. Groaning furiously, he used the staff to get himself to his feet, covered head to foot in mud, his groin aching brilliantly. "SHIT!" He yelled to the sky, just to let off a bit of steam at his entire crappy afternoon. Rubbing his face viciously, he sifted out the charred ends of his ragged bangs and picked out drying clumps of mud with his claws. It didn't do much for his appearance; he still looked like some kind of vengeful swamp demon.

A high squeal split the air behind him, and Inuyasha near drew his sword again in alarm. But it was just the girl running out from the woods, arms out at her sides and she dashed straight for him, beaming. "Inuyasha-saaaaan! You didn't die!" The closer she got, the more he felt the inexplicable impulse to run away. What was it with kids running at him that scared the hell out of him? Their sticky fingers? Their uncomfortable questions? Or—

"Ooof! Fuck!" Inuyasha cursed, stumbling back and realising exactly what it was. Their random urges to hug him. Staring in horror down at his waist where Rin was plastered, having not slowed in the slightest when she'd run straight at him, he thought of what you were meant to do in situations like this. Duck and cover? Freeze? Play dead? Goddamn it, he couldn'tremember. "Damn it, when did I ever say it was okay to get all—clingy?"

Rin's bright eyes sparkled up at him. "I hugged you when you were asleep!"

Yeah. . .Inuyasha thought blankly, because that wasn't creepy at all. "I'm going to pretend you didn't say that," he eventually said, disturbed. Grimacing in discomfort, he carefully pulled her hands away from his waist and set her back at arms length, sharp eyes scanning the surrounding area for any sign of him. He was upwind of the direction the kid had come from, so no luck there, and he couldn't see anything either. In his grip, Rin bounced excitedly on her toes.

"I'm so happy you're okay, Inuyasha-san! R—I was really worried about you!" She insisted, as though he mightn't have understood the first time. Inuyasha shrugged uncomfortably.

"It's just Inuyasha," he told her with a slight frown. "You can't call me Inuyasha-san after you've hugged me in my sleep. It's weird." He realised something. "How come you're not calling yourself Rin when you talk?"

Rin smiled again, eyes sparkling. "Jaken-sama says I am too old to talk like that, so he taught me what to say instead. Sesshoumaru-sama thinks I am doing very well!" She looked at him curiously. "Inuyasha, do you think I am doing very well? Jaken-sama says I'm doing okay for a stupid human, and you're a hanyou, so you'd know better than he would."

Against his will, a reluctant smile curved his lips. "Better even than your Sesshoumaru-sama, who's not human at all?" He teased.

Rin hesitated for a moment, putting a finger to her lips. "You do talk much more than Sesshoumaru-sama does. . ." She hazarded, looking torn. It seemed to break something in her to do it, but she finally nodded. "Rin thinks you'd know better," she rushed out, as though she was committing a sin just by saying it. "I mean I think so!" She took a big step forward and grabbed the waist of his pants in her small fists, staring up at him with wide eyes. "Don't tell Jaken-sama I said that!"

Inuyasha was grinning. Knew better than Sesshoumaru, did he? Well, shit. Feeling suddenly magnanimous towards the small girl, he reached out and patted her on the head. "Take it easy. I think I killed him, anyway." Looking over his shoulder at the imp, he lazily called out, "you still alive over there, toad?" Jaken had rolled onto his back during his small conversation with Rin, and was currently wringing out his little hat in disgust, mud splashed up one side of his face. The look he shot Inuyasha was pure disgruntled malevolence.

"Stupid hanyou! Rin, get away from him before he gives you fleas!"

Rin ignored him, bouncing on her toes again. "So are you going to help me, Inuyasha? We came back to find you since you were sick before. Sesshoumaru-sama told us to go find you without him, because he thinks you'd just get yourself killed fighting him if he came too. . ." Linking her hands together behind her back, she blinked her big brown eyes up at him. "I don't want Inuyasha to die. I like you!"

He didn't know what the hell to think about all that. Help her? The part about Sesshoumaru killing him was pure unadulterated bullshit, but the reason behind all this eluded him. What the hell did she want his help with? Why in the hell hadn't his bastard brother come to beat the favour out of him, instead of sending his clingy little entourage to burn and hug him into submission? This was clearly fucked up in too many ways to even begin counting. Staring down at the girl, golden eyes serious, he thought of all the ways he could get the hell out of there before she could reinvent the puppy dog eyes and royally screw him once and for all. "Um, no," he finally said, giving an internal shrug at the whole situation. "I'm not helping you. Whatever it is, Sesshoumaru can do it. Tell him to get off his lazy ass and do something. I'm not his fucking servant."

Her eyes had widened long before he cursed, but as he finished speaking her eyes welled up with helpless tears. Her hands fell limply to her sides. "B-but I might die if you don't! I don't want to be a burden anymore! You're half-human, so you can help me, can't you? Oh, please? Jaken-sama has his staff, and Sesshoumaru said he'd kill me if he tried, because he's so tall and strong and his claws have poison in them and he has only one arm to fight with and—and please you have to teach me to be useful!" Screwing her eyes shut and sending tears spilling down her cheeks, she threw herself down into the mud and bowed at his feet. "Please teach me to fight and look after myself, Inuyasha!" Muffled sobs shook her shoulders, tears dripping to the ground. "Please! Rin doesn't want to be left behind!"

Inuyasha stared.

This was what had spurred Sesshoumaru into saving his life?

Teaching his pet human how to save herself?

It had long since been recognised that as brothers, the closest they'd ever some to family unity was the moment they'd defeated Sou'unga. Inuyasha would never admit it, but he'd had a lot to think about after that battle. A hell of a lot. But nothing changed; their enmity stayed the same. It was fine like that – he'd long since accepted Sesshoumaru's hatred toward him. His disgust and disdain. Inuyasha had a thick hide when it came to the sting of glares and insults. To some degree, he returned it a lot of the time; in Sesshoumaru's case he sent it back glare for glare, swordstroke for powerful swordstroke. It just seemed fair when he'd tried to kill him so many times for being some scum-blooded hanyou with a human mother. It was because Sesshoumaru hated humans, after all.

He'd accepted that.

Until a few weeks ago, when his youkai brother had saved his life, merely so he could teach Rin– a human – to survive for herself.

It. . .it had only ever been a whim.

Just a fucking whim.

Why he was surprised, Inuyasha had no answer. Why he was standing before the girl, fists shaking and eyes blazing, he had a very good idea. Gritting his teeth against a fierce snarl, he struggled for some kind of composure. Tipping his head forward, his hair obscuring his eyes, he turned his head slightly and cast his attention to Jaken. "Where is he?" He asked, his voice vibrating with emotion. "If he couldn't even come here himself, where the hell is Sesshoumaru now?"

Jaken scoffed. "You think I'm going to tell you, so you can go and bother Sesshoumaru-sama? As if I'd ever. . ."

He'd only turned his face, just slightly, enough to regard the small youkai with one glaring golden eye. Whatever he saw there, Jaken seemed to blanch a little, stumbling over his words before settling on a simple answer. He pointed. "He's that way," Jaken said, his voice bleached of all his usual contemptuous bravado. "Or he was when we left."

Without another word, Inuyasha walked away from the two, heading into the woods in the direction Sesshoumaru was in. Still streaked with mud, missing his shirt and haori, but completely uncaring as his speed picked up little by little, until he was streaking through the trees in search for the scent he knew so well. If he thought that the hanyou was just going to sit down and take this kind of shit, Sesshoumaru was in for a shock. That smug, arrogant son of a bitch. . . He was furious and he knew it, but this was different to the usual bad blood between them. Mostly because with everything tipped on its head, Inuyasha had no idea what to make of the last two centuries or so of hatred. If he'd done something himself to earn his brother's contempt, then he could accept that. If it was just a general disdain for humans, well, that was all right too. But to suddenly find out that Sesshoumaru would go so far as to nurse him back to health, for some scrap of a human girl. . .just cast aside the past for her. . .when he would have simply let Inuyasha die if she hadn't needed him for this one, tiny thing. . .

Something bitter and foreign bubbled up inside him, and disbelievingly he realised it was dangerously close to jealousy. The emotion was so alien to him that for a moment he almost stumbled in his hasty flight through the trees. Hollow laughter bubbled in his throat, tasting like copper nausea and acid. Ridiculous. If Sesshoumaru gave enough of a damn for the girl to save him just to help her, well, fine. But if there was a debt to repay now and he thought that his stupid hanyou brother was going to roll over for him. . .

Inuyasha had never owed anyone a single thing in his life.

That wasn't going to change, but neither was Sesshoumaru going to get his way.

Not if he could help it.

The brief flicker of foreboding that filled him as the afternoon wore on did not go unnoticed. Tonight was the new moon, but he had no intentions of being anywhere near Sesshoumaru come nightfall. No, he was going to be somewhere else entirely.

It was half an hour before he picked up the scent of his brother, and by the time he did it was because he was almost upon him. Inuyasha burst into a clearing on the bank of a tiny stream, barely stopping himself in time before he actually slammed into Sesshoumaru. The tall youkai was sitting against a boulder embedded in the bank, one knee pulled up slightly, his golden eyes remote as he studied the water. He didn't even glance up. "You reek of mud," he said, his voice empty of inflection. "Or should I assume you're too afraid to bathe in that creek now, Inuyasha." He lifted his head slightly, his face expressionless as he ran his eyes over the hanyou's dishevelled form. His lip curled slightly in disgust, but that was the only movement he betrayed. Then an odd flicker crossed his face. "You've fully recovered, I see."

The reference was enough to have his hackles back up in seconds. His jaw was clenched so tightly that it actually hurt a little to relax it enough to speak. "Enough with the bullshit pleasantries, asshole," he grated, his breath hissing through his teeth. "Tell me just what the hell you're playing at. Sending the kid up to me to try and, what, sucker me into saving you the trouble of teaching her the pointy end of a knife? That's what you lowered yourself into saving me for?" A ugly smile twisted his mouth. "Is that how your pride gets around recognising that you're helping a human girl? By twisting me into a position to do it for you? Go fuck yourself, Sesshoumaru." The acid, poisonous words were spat directly at the youkai, intended to enrage and insult him. Honestly, at that point, Inuyasha could use an excuse to draw the Tetsusaiga on him. But Sesshoumaru didn't take the bait. Oh, fury flashed in his gaze and his expression turned darker than a thunderhead, but he didn't do anything more than flex his hand, the knuckles cracking loudly in the silence after his words.

"Your temper tantrums are unbecoming, little brother," he eventually replied, his voice smooth and even. "So ungrateful, even after I saved your worthless life. You should be thanking me."

Inuyasha paled. "Go to hell." Then, with a deep breath to steady the rage threatening to usurp his reason, "did you really think I'd agree to this? If you think I'm some human-loving saint, you're out of your damned mind. She's your kid. If she dies, it's on you."

Sesshoumaru's mouth curved in a cold smile. "She's quite taken with you," was all he said in return. "A foolish endeavour, I expect, if you care so little of her welfare."

"She's not my responsibility!" Inuyasha said explosively. "Take your fucking guilt trips elsewhere, you son of a four-legged whore! If that was why you did it, then you should have just let me die!"

Whatever trigger was in his foul reply, it cracked Sesshoumaru's cold mask and replaced it with something feral and bloodthirsty. "Watch your mouth, hanyou," he said dangerously, getting to his feet in a fluid motion that reminded him of a snake uncoiling. Which was too close to another memory to do anything other than further fuel Inuyasha's already blazing temper. "I brought you back from the brink of death for a reason, but if you're going to refuse to repay the debt I could be persuaded to simply end your miserable life once and for all. I assure you, no one in this world will mourn your death for long."

Something reckless and wild filled him then, and he laughed, knowing it sounded slightly unbalanced. He didn't care. "You know what? I do. I completely and utterly refuse. So you might as well just kill me, Sesshoumaru. Go right ahead. I'm just a goddamn hanyou. Naraku's dead. There's nothing left to fight, nothing left to do, and I'd die before I ever helped you find a loophole around your fucking pureblood youkai pride. Here," he said, his smile daring and absolutely fearless. At this point, he was beyond caution. Beyond caring in the slightest. He pulled Tetsusaiga from his waistband, sheath and all, and tossed it at Sesshoumaru's feet. "Now I'm unarmed. So why don't you just put me down like the mongrel dog that I am. Then you can take the blade, take your little servants, and live happily ever after." Jaw set, the devil-may-care humour slid off his face as he stepped forward, right over his beloved sword, and got right in his brother's face. "After all, if you saved me on a whim, you can kill me with as little thought. So go on, Sesshoumaru. Here I am, persuading you." Expression grim and eyes steely, but blank of apprehension or unease, he stared up into his brother's eyes and dared him to end his life.

Gazing back down into Inuyasha's face, Sesshoumaru didn't move at first, instead choosing to study the features turned up to his. From his mud-stiffened white bangs, over his dirty cheeks and the twitching muscle in his jaw, Sesshoumaru's eyes grazed over his brother. Down to the exposed arch of his throat, where his pulse beat an unsteady cadence. Back up to the taut line of his lips and onto his mutinous golden eyes, somehow bleaker and emptier than the older youkai could ever remember seeing. Nothing gave away exactly why his younger brother was overstepping such deeply engraved lines in their history. Leaning in just a little, closing the distance between them in the tiniest way possible, he breathed in his scent until it filled his lungs, his throat, lingered over his tongue. Searching. But the taste he found was steeped in dirt and mud, and sweat. Nothing, other than aggression and fury, and the salt of his skin, the blood in his veins. And all the while, Inuyasha did not back down.

It was no bluff, Sesshoumaru eventually realised, his eyes widening imperceptibly. He leaned back slightly. Inuyasha was serious.

While he was not above refusing simply to anger the hanyou, and he knew he could easily take that path, the youkai raised one pale hand and placed the tips of his claws against the jugular vein visible just beneath the smooth skin before him. His claws stirred the drying mud on the skin as Inuyasha breathed, causing it to flake away slightly. The sight of his claws positioned against the vein, in such a dangerous place. . .it didn't invoke any satisfaction in him. His mouth tightened, but he couldn't seem to glance away. Inuyasha was offering up his life; it was his for the taking.

"Go on," the hanyou said eventually, his voice low. "You've wanted to do it all this time, so go ahead. Either kill me now, or see to it we never, ever meet again. I'm not leaving the village—all you have to do is never come back. There's no need for you and I to ever cross paths again. I get that you hate me, that I'm some disgusting freak in the family tree. I get that you think I'm at fault for the old man's death. I'm a stupid hanyou that should have been drowned at birth, right? Right?" Gritting his teeth, he was mortified to feel something sting in his eye. "I was okay with that. You—you messed it all up. You should have let me die, damn you. If it was going to be for something that small. . .god, you should have just finished me off when you came back."

"You're telling me too much, Inuyasha," Sesshoumaru murmured, a strange light in his eyes.

Inuyasha swallowed thickly. "Yeah? So what. You fucking humiliated me, you bastard. I've been trying to figure out why I so pissed off, and this is it. You couldn't give a damn about me if you tried, but you'd spend a whole night nursing my worthless ass back to health so I could play teacher to some orphan human you picked up along the way? Some—some human kid. You'd try to kill me just because of the way I was born, but. . ." Realising Sesshoumaru was right, he was saying too much, Inuyasha reared back, mortified eyes darting away from his brother's. "Forget it. Just forget everything. Forget I exist."

It was enough. Finally, enough. Stepping back, almost stumbling, he shook his head slowly and turned away, feeling hollowed out. Sesshoumaru's hand remained in the air for the briefest of moments, before it slipped back to his side with a whisper of fabric. He just watched Inuyasha as he bent and retrieved Tetsusaiga, sliding it mechanically into place at his hip. Unseen by the hanyou, he rubbed his fingers together as though they itched as his younger brother turned to leave. His expression never shifted by so much as a millimetre.

Head lowered, Inuyasha was almost out of the clearing before Sesshoumaru spoke.

"And if I said she was my excuse?"

Inuyasha stopped dead, his eyes blank and unseeing as he took in his brother's smoothly spoken question. Then he blinked, and with a soft laugh, he turned his head and smiled self-depreciatingly. "But she wasn't, was she," he said knowingly.

Sesshoumaru looked away. His eyes turned to the water once again. He never replied.

Inuyasha's eyes fell to the ground, and he let out a long sigh. "A debt, huh. . ." Then he laughed to himself, shaking his muddy hair back from his shoulders. A debt was still a debt. But he couldn't save Sesshoumaru's life in return. Perhaps though, there was still one thing he could do. It had been a while, a long while, but there was something to be said for the resilience of youkai flesh.

Raising his eyes to the sky, taking in the orange-pink hue of the late afternoon, the hanyou shrugged to himself.

It was worth a try.

Chapter 6: A Dangerous Accord

Good deeds, no matter what form they came in or who they were for, were not Inuyasha's thing. He didn't do good guy that well. He looked after what was his and that was it. And he didn't have anything, he looked after himself.

He looked after himself.

"I'm going to die," Inuyasha muttered to himself, attempting to lighten the situation with a little negative prophesising. He was fairly sure it was a side-effect of his terrified hysteria, which was deeply buried beneath his macho pride, but on the rise. Risking his life for his pride was something he did a lot of, but never, never when he was human.

And to top it off, he was wearing nothing but his goddamn pants.

This was why he should have been left after the snake bit him, the hanyou decided. Being indebted to Sesshoumaru left him nothing more than pissed off and half naked. Dragging his hair over his chest a little to protect it from the low temperature of the night, he crossed his arms and tried not to openly shiver as he made his way through the country. He'd made good time during the late afternoon, but as soon as the sun had gone down his speed had slowed a great deal. But he'd gotten far enough that it didn't matter too much; he was out in the open, where there were less low-level youkai to directly try and attack him. They favoured the woods more than open plains, being the cowardly hunters they were.

The question remained, though. Why was he out in the open on the night of the new moon? Why was he willingly walking on ground level, instead of nestled in the branches of the tallest tree he could find? Well, the answer wasn't exactly elusive – it was his macho pride, out to kill him again. The knowledge of the debt he owed Sesshoumaru was like a lead cloak on his shoulders, heavy and cold with unease. The easy option would have been to give into his brother's demand and try to train that kid of his into holding her own, but actually following that bastard's orders like a trained mutt rankled. No, he sought to regain his pride through another means.

There was one thing Sesshoumaru still wanted. One thing Inuyasha could give him.

Midnight blue eyes sought the familiar sight of the Underworld Spring – the final grave of Sou'unga, the fearsome and terrible Sword of Hell.

Funny, that every encounter with it led him full circle back to Sesshoumaru.

The hole that had closed over when the sword had fell inside, that closed Hell like a curtain passing over the void, it still stood like a silent testimony to something that had felt almost like a bad dream. But it had all been real. It was a natural spring now, almost mammoth in size. It had filled to a deep pool. . .months and months on, it was almost a lake. Nothing grew in it, nothing lived in it. It was his guess that the water was probably tainted with something; no grass grew at its edges. Feeling trepidation skate through his chest, Inuyasha walked to the very edge of the pool, and dipped his toes in the water.

It was almost impossible to feel, eerily the exact temperature of the air. If he didn't know better he'd say the water was something other than what it so innocently appeared to be. The hair on the back of his neck quivered, but he frowned, irritably shaking off the sensation. It was just water. Just a pool of goddamn water, and he wasn't afraid to get his ears wet this time.

Stripping out of his hakama to make sure he wouldn't freeze to death later, he cast momentarily doubtful eyes to the inky water. Even if there was nothing there, he would at least know for sure.

Grumbling at his own insanity, standing there with only the breeze to dress his naked skin, Inuyasha dove into the pool.

It was nearing midnight, the sky black with the loss of the moon, the only light coming from the flickering campfire Rin had created so she didn't grow too cold. Jaken was asleep, propped against Ah-Un, his staff clutched tightly in his hands, as though worried it would be taken from him. He was cursing Inuyasha in the slumber. Rin was, oddly, sleeping once again wrapped up in Inuyasha's haori, claiming she'd found it abandoned in a field. Her kimono was hanging over a branch to dry through the night, having been splashed liberally with mud and in need of a wash.

Sesshoumaru was seated against the base of a tree, his eyes turned to the inky night sky. The only sounds were the crackle of the fire, and the gentle gurgle of the stream nearby. A peaceful night, but he had no use for sleep.

He was wide awake when an uneven pattern of footsteps began to echo in his ears. Laboured breathing, he picked up, relaxing slightly. Just a human. The snap and rustle of twigs and branches as they moved. A missed step; the night traveller had stumbled. A rustling crash; they'd fallen. This close, he heard chattering teeth. The night was far from freezing. An ill human, he decided, fleeing from something. Perhaps a lower youkai. Or perhaps it was a thief, making a desperate flight of passage from the village. Sesshoumaru closed his eyes to concentrate on the sounds. No. The village was in the other direction. This person was heading for them, probably having spotted the firelight.

It was then, when the person stumbled again, that a choked curse was issued and Sesshoumaru's eyes sprang open in surprise.

Wary despite what his senses were telling him, Sesshoumaru flowed to his feet beneath the shadows of the tree.

The forest was out to kill him, clearly.

Unable to see in the almost oppressive darkness, he was relying on his latent sense of direction to get him where he needed to go, but that didn't stop him from tripping on every tree root and falling into every thorny bush on the way back. Twice he'd gotten lost, and twice he'd had to follow the stars to get himself back on track. But Inuyasha could see the firelight now, and mixed relief trickled through him. He was cold, wet and dirty, and bleeding from small scratches here and there. Not to mention exhausted down to his very bones. He was about as fit as a person could be, but his nerves were frayed to the point of paranoia and it was draining to be on ultra-high alert for seven hours straight. Being ground level and alone the night he turned human. . .he was going to give himself a stroke if he didn't find somewhere safe to rest.

Why he saw Sesshoumaru's camp as security in the clinging darkness of the night, he had no idea. Maybe it was just the light. Hopefully he wasn't about to give his brother the weapon he needed to kill him. Reaching up with a none-too-steady hand, he pushed dark hair off his sweat-damp face, his midnight eyes narrowed in resolve to do this and get the hell out of there. Briefly, the idea of just throwing it from a distance crossed his mind, but knowing his luck it'd land in the fire. Water was one thing, but he wasn't sure that his prize would survive a good roasting. Licking his lips, he drew in a long breath and released it—

—and blinked hazily. Had something just moved? It had felt kind of like. . .

Cool breath brushed his shoulder, and Inuyasha yelped, brandishing Sesshoumaru's severed arm like a sword as he spun, nearly blind eyes searching for his attacker. "Who the fuck was that? Show yourself so I can beat the living shit out of you!" Eyes wildly scanning the surrounding trees, he couldn't make out anything definite that would point out his visitor. Had he imagined it? Oh god, had he finally lost it? But something moved again, just a faint rustle to his ears, but it was there nonetheless. Inuyasha swallowed with difficulty and grit his teeth, a frisson of quiet horror curling in his belly. He was almost completely defenceless. Tetsusaiga was just a beat up piece of shit when he was human, and wouldn't do squat against anything that could hide itself this well.

Then he blinked, his expression smoothing out. Straightening slowly, he cast his eyes about surreptitiously for anything that moved. Nothing. He scented the air. Just forest, wood, and damp earth. Smoke. He curled his toes against the ground. Not a single vibration. But something was most definitely there.

He took a stab in the dark. "Sesshoumaru? Stop stalking me, you creepy bastard."


Then a hand grabbed him by the throat from behind, pulling him back against thorny steel armour that dug into his bare skin. "Your empty bravado is unimpressive, Inuyasha. I can smell your fear," a smooth voice said beside his ear, breath stirring the hair that fell forward over his shoulders. Claws flexed around his throat, his grip tight but far from lethal. Strangely, knowing it was his older brother actually drained off his feeling of being hunted, somewhat. Not because he wasn't a threat, but because he wasn't a mindless youkai hunting for food. Stupidly, it was that thought that haunted him most, those moonless lights. Coming to his senses, he snorted weakly and grasped Sesshoumaru's wrist, attempting to break the hold. A token effort, but he wasn't going to just stand there like an idiot. Instead, he opted to turn his face to the left slightly, trying not to flinch when his eyelashes brushed the pale skin of the youkai's jaw.

"Let go of me," he said flatly, turning his eyes up to his brother's. "Have you got a thing for my neck or what? I swear, every chance you get—ow." Blood suddenly seeped from five tiny punctures. "Great. I'm guessing you don't want the arm then."

Sesshoumaru shifted slightly as Inuyasha lifted the arm up for closer inspection, hanging limp and pallid in his grasp. It was essentially untouched – perfectly unharmed despite everything. It had taken him over an hour of diving and blind searching before it had revealed itself, nestled in the protective valley between two large submerged boulders. It really had been suspiciously easy to find; he didn't want to think of who might have had a hand in that.

"It's useless," came Sesshoumaru's eventual flat reply, tossing all his efforts back in his face with that one blunt statement. "Severed for over a year, not to mention sullied by that fool of a human, Takemaru. It was Sou'unga's tool. I've no use for it."

Inuyasha stared at him for a moment, then laughed shortly. "Sullied? This from the asshole who attached a human arm and used a shikon shard just so you could use the Tetsusaiga to kill me? You're just scared it won't stick, or whatever. Take the damn thing. I won't do your dirty work, but I'm not just going to forget you saved my ass, even if it was for a goddamn errand. She said you couldn't help her because you only had one arm, well, now you've got two." His expression closed and resolute, the effect of his words was still dimmed slightly by the fact he was unable to storm off in a huff, since he was still being held by the throat.

His brother dipped his head slightly then to meet Inuyasha's eyes, though the hanyou couldn't really see them too well, even as close as he was. "Does your intelligence dim with your powers on the new moon? Or are you simply deaf? The arm is useless. Just because it hasn't rotted down to bone—"

Inuyasha's temper ignited with the frustration at hearing his brother flatly refuse his 'gift'. Growling weakly with a human throat, he twisted around with one painful wrench so he could face Sesshoumaru, raised his arm, and hit him.

With his own severed arm.

Sesshoumaru snarled gutturally as the shock of the impact wore off, his hand tightening around Inuyasha's throat like a vice. But the damage had been done. He'd copped a square slap across the face with his own hand, and it had shocked the hell out of them both. But before even the idea of laughing could cross Inuyasha's mind, the youkai had tossed him back and few feet and struck him viciously across the face in retaliation, his claws catching the fragile skin of Inuyasha's cheek and tearing deep gashes down the smooth flesh. Blood filled them immediately and flowed off his chin, leaving him biting his tongue against a pained yelp. Tossing the arm away, he scrambled backwards, one hand pressed to his face to staunch the bleeding, his eyes wide and wary on his brother. Shit. Shit. He always picked the stupidest times to antagonise Sesshoumaru. Doing when he was human was practically suicide. Subtly, with his right eye closed from the pain of the furrowed wounds below it, he glanced around in vain for an escape.

He glanced back in time to see Sesshoumaru advance on him again, and flinched back reflexively. Blood spilled steadily down his face, over his hand and down his forearm, where it dripped slowly off his elbow. Why did humans bleed so goddamn much? He was going to attract all kinds of predators to the area, with this much pooling in one spot. But for the moment there was only one predator he needed to worry about, and he was currently standing not three feet away from him.

But Sesshoumaru's eyes had fallen to the arm.

Slowly reaching down, he plucked the cold appendage from the forest floor, running his eyes over the flesh that used to be part of his own body. Before Inuyasha had cut it off as his first victory wielding the Tetsusaiga. By rights, that arm was the hanyou's trophy. No other youkai that had challenged him had ever left a bigger mark on him that the one his own half-brother had. A lucky blow, it certainly had been. But true nonetheless that he had been defeated, if only temporarily.

The arm, in the basest terms, belonged to Inuyasha. His prize. Given back as payment for a life saved.

Sesshoumaru could afford to be gracious.

Inuyasha stared as his brother raised his eyes to regard him in silence, his shadowed expression written in lines of deliberation. Warily Inuyasha stepped back to find his back supported by the rough, craggy trunk of a tree, his eyes steady on Sesshoumaru's and unwilling to break and glance away. Then, slowly, the tall youkai reached to his left shoulder and slid aside the soft folds of his haori, carefully shrugging the ruin of his arm out of the material, baring his only flaw to the night air.

And the whole time, his eyes never left Inuyasha's.

Seeing the unnatural stump of his brother's arm made than hanyou edgy. He'd never seen the damage he'd wrought before—after he'd cut it off, there'd just been an empty sleeve to contend with. Not this. . .awkward uneven rounding off, the arm slightly wasted from disuse. The toned musculature that Sesshoumaru boasted was lacking in the bicep, leaving it thinner looking, and weak. Disfigured, down to the knot of scar tissue that had closed over the cracked bone he'd sheared through with the Tetsusaiga. Somehow shamed at the sight of it, he turned his face aside, his eyes seeking the darkness over the flat, unreadable gaze that bored into him.

"Squeamish, Inuyasha?" Sesshoumaru questioned coolly, taking a step toward him. "You should be proud you could inflict such an injury on me. Not even Naraku himself could say he'd done the same."

Inuyasha swallowed, his hand pressing almost convulsively harder to the gashes on his face, the pain distracting him from his confused disgust. "Shut up. You—you got what you deserved. You tried to take what wasn't yours, and what you couldn't get it, you tried to kill me— and you tried to kill Kagome." Bolstering his courage, he turned his head and looked squarely at his brother, his hand falling away from his face. "You got what you deserved."

Even in the darkness, he could still make out Sesshoumaru's face as he absorbed what he was saying, the words tired, but truthful and lacking his usual thoughtless fire. Watched his face melt from cool perfection to. . .well, he wasn't sure.

"Are you trying to convince me?" the youkai lord asked, his eyes now so intense they seemed to shine in the darkness like that of a feral dog. But his brother was no such thing. Then he took a step forward, within touching distance and with Inuyasha pressed against the tree, painfully within his personal space. Shit. He tried not to squirm as hair that did not belong to him picked up in the gentle breeze, flickering across his skin, clinging slightly where his own wet hair dripped paths of water down his chest. Then he was too close, close enough for the hanyou –human- to smell the heady, stormy power that seemed trapped beneath the cloak of removed perfection that Sesshoumaru wore like armour. Strangely dizzy with it, he inhaled, barely noticing that his brother's silky baritone was right beside his right ear, all warm breath and mocking words. "Or is it yourself you desire to convince? You cringe like a guilty mongrel, Inuyasha."

He'd been ducking his head slightly, angry and uncertain, but at those words his head snapped up, sparks flashing in his midnight gaze. "I don't feel fucking guilty," he spat, teeth clenched in a snarl. "Like I care enough to feel guilty. I just don't want to look at the fucked up leftovers of your arm." With that last he deliberately put a sneer in his voice, jerking his chin in the direction of the mutilation. Tried desperately to hide the distraction he'd been victim to just moments before. When Sesshoumaru's expression didn't change, he felt the uncertain bitterness bubble up, and boil over into something corrosive and hateful. "What, you think I feel bad? Think I brought you that arm so I could make amends? You think I give a shit about you? That I wanna be friends?" Barking a short, gruff laugh at the stupidity of it, he pointed to his face, where Sesshoumaru's deep claw marks still dripped dark blood. "This is what you are. And you can save my life for a joke, and I might give you back your arm, but it doesn't mean anything. Because even a stupid hanyou won't go chasing after a kick in the face."

There was a soft thump at his feet at the arm hit the ground like so much refuse, then there were fingers gripping his chin, tilting his head up further until his eyes met his brother's. Sesshoumaru stared at him hard for a moment, his expression blank of the ferocity he'd usually expect after such a tirade. Then brilliant golden eyes skated to his wounded cheek and lingered. "Human flesh is so sickeningly fragile. Perhaps this humanity does not suit you as well as I had originally surmised." And before Inuyasha could so much as pause at the backhanded compliment, Sesshoumaru was gliding his thumb over the curve of his jaw, until he drew it away, slick with blood. "Then again, you survived each new moon just like this." Running his tongue along the pad of his thumb, his eyes narrowed at the insipid taste of blatant humanity, Sesshoumaru asked one question. "How?"

"Wh—" Already reeling from the strangeness of his brother's behaviour, that last completely threw him for a loop. He'd never been asked a question quite like that. The idea that his brother was the one doing the asking was damn near unbelievable. Shifting uncomfortably, he tore his gaze away and stared out at the surrounding trees, the dark night—anything but Sesshoumaru. "Who cares?" Brushing it off was easier than having to think about it. Inuyasha wasn't the type to dwell on his past all that much – there was precious little to look back on and cherish. Kikyou. Kagome. A handful of months with each of them had made a big impact. . .but while he didn't age much on the outside, he'd been alive for over two hundred years. That was a lot of moonless nights spent huddled inside the hollows of trees, staring blindly out at the night, hands clenching his knees to his chest. Nights where youkai had found him, tore into him, nearly killing him before the sun rose and his body could heal like a youkai. Nights of cold tears on his cheeks when he'd been small, still aching from the loss of his mother, desperate for safety and finding none save that which he grabbed hold of with his own two hands.

He liked to think those days gave him character. It certainly gave him the skills to survive alone. How could he tell Sesshoumaru that? Inuyasha didn't advertise his innermost thoughts, his fears – not to anyone.

Certainly not to his bastard half-brother.

"It was. . .difficult, I expect," Sesshoumaru said finally, his eyes turning toward the campfire, which still glowed faintly through the trees. "I know nothing of having to fight merely for the right to live. You do. Rin trusts me to pull her from the path of danger, but before that, I wish for her to know how to save herself. Travelling with me cripples her survival, ultimately. Which was why I sought a method in which to force you to teach her, in my stead."

Inuyasha just snorted softly. "Just stop saving her," he said, somewhat harshly in his confused exhaustion. His mouth pulled in at the corners as something writhed in his stomach. "It should be easy; you're great at ignoring people who need help. She'll learn the ropes eventually."

"I did stay my hand on one occasion, merely watching the entire scene unfold," he replied, turning his eyes back to the hanyou, almost his gaze measuring. "You saved her."

He started, staring at Sesshoumaru with wide eyes. "You—in the woods? When she was running away from that wolf?" Granted, it had only been a starving wolf, weak with hunger but no less desperate for food, but his opinion of his brother suddenly dropped even lower. He'd watched her run for her life, screaming for him with all the breath in her lungs, and he did nothing? "Holy shit, you're one cold bastard."

"I do what is necessary," his brother intoned quietly. "She was never in any real danger."

"Bullshit!" Inuyasha cursed. "I'm fucking hyper-alert on the new moon, and I didn't sense you anywhere."

"You protected her."

"Well what was I supposed to do?" The hanyou finally exploded, glaring up at him. "Let the damn thing rip out her entrails? She's just a fucking kid!"

"Then what happens, Inuyasha, the next time I am genuinely not there? Tenseiga can only revive a soul once. If you refuse to mentor her—I have no alternative but to leave her with the humans," Sesshoumaru almost spat, as though the idea was something filthy. But Inuyasha barely noticed it, still reeling from the surprise of what he'd said just before.

Tenseiga revives only once. . .

"She's already died once before," he said slowly, wondering why the idea of that bothered him so much. A little girl like that. . .too damn innocent, too damn weak. "How?"

Sesshoumaru's eyes narrowed slightly, a knowing smile just barely curving the corners of his mouth. "You've a great weakness for children in need, don't you, Inuyasha. A shame you won't aid her," he said offhandedly. Inuyasha shot him a dirty look, but didn't say anything in reply. Why was he refusing so wholeheartedly? Because Sesshoumaru was trying to manipulate him, he reasoned. But he was doing it so that the kid wouldn't get herself killed the next time he wasn't around to save her. Ultimately, his cold-hearted bastard of a brother was doing something not entirely selfish. Sesshoumaru wouldn't gain much from his help, but the kid –Rin, her name was Rin, he told himself- would. He could always tell the older youkai to teach her himself—but he'd said it himself. Fighting he knew. Surviving. . .for a youkai born with that much status and power, he'd never had to fight to survive. And from the way he'd sliced open Inuyasha's face so easily, maybe it wasn't such a brilliant idea for him to teach Rin anything about fighting. She'd end up minced meat.

Inuyasha fidgeted. "Why don't you just ask Sango? She's a girl, she's human, and she can take down just about any youkai she comes across. She'd be way better at that kind of thing," he hedged, casting about for any other alternative he could find.

Sesshoumaru frowned. "Rin doesn't trust humans," was all he replied with, but there was a strange glint in his eyes. "And she has taken a shine to you, for some unfathomable reason."

Inuyasha screwed up his nose at the blatant distaste in that last comment. He snorted. "Must be my rugged good looks." Actually, he was fairly sure it was his resemblance to Sesshoumaru, but damned if he was going to say something like that.

Before the youkai could voice his inevitable disagreement, there was a crackling of leaves and rustling of bushes, and a little girl dressed in a suspiciously familiar garment stumbled out into their tiny clearing. "Sesshoumaru-sama? Are you here?"

"Dammit, is that my haori?" Inuyasha blurted out once she'd gotten close enough, and her head jerked around to search him out in the darkness. "Where the hell did you find that?"

"Inuyasha!" Rin cried out, running toward them. "Sesshoumaru-sama! I heard voices but I didn't know it was you so I hid but then I heard my name and oh wow is that Sesshoumaru-sama's arm?" Nearly tripping on the hem of his haori in excitement she raced over and bent down, picking up the severed limb in her hands like it was a holy item, her eyes almost glowing with reverence. Then she sniffed it, weirdly, making Inuyasha's eyebrows hike their way up into his hairline. She blinked up at him. "Did you bring this here, Inuyasha-san?"

"Just Inuyasha," he said automatically. "And yeah, I guess. . ." It was too late he realised he should have thought through his response, maybe even denied it, because suddenly the kid was beaming up at him like she'd just realised the sun shone out of his ass. Then her face changed, crumpled slightly, and she hugged the arm to her chest as though it was a pillow.

Her eyes were upset when she looked back up at him. "Is. . .I'm sorry I bothered you before, Inuyasha. Please don't hate me!" She said suddenly, earnest plea written all over her small features. "I really like you! I just. . .Rin always slows everyone down, because I get into trouble a lot—" She darted Sesshoumaru a guilty look then, and lowered her head. Inuyasha had the horrible feeling that she was beginning to cry again, and his gut twisted. Shit. He couldn't be the bastard here.

But he wasn't going down that easily.

"We'll fix that, kid," he said tiredly, turning his eyes up to Sesshoumaru with a silent message in them. Don't think you've won.

Sesshoumaru's lips curved slightly, his eyes relaxing in knowing triumph.

But the hanyou was not finished. Placing a hand on Rin's head as she gasped in delight, he knelt slightly and caught her elated gaze. "I'll teach you everything I know," he said, sincerity ringing in his voice. His gaze rested on the youkai watching the small exchange as he spoke next. "Soon you won't need anyone but yourself. Just like me."

Watching the cool satisfaction in Sesshoumaru's eyes melt into sharper narrowed thought at that last was worth the brief moment of defeat he endured, by far. Because while Inuyasha could show her everything, it would be left to his brother to think on how Inuyasha's own jaded view on the world around him might rub off into the bright-eyed little girl. Would she too, suspect betrayal in every smile, doubt every outstretched hand of kindness? Would she strike out on her own when she grew old enough to handle herself? Would that please her youkai guardian, that cold taiyoukai who despised her entire race, but never hesitated to keep her by his side?

Questions, Inuyasha thought grimly, that Sesshoumaru would find the answer to soon enough.

He'd forced his hand – and he'd pay the price.

Chapter 7: Nature of the Beast

While Inuyasha had all the contempt in the world for Sesshoumaru's plot to guilt him into giving Rin a hand with her training, there was very little he could complain about once he'd actually gotten started. For one thing, it gave him something to do other than practice his swordsmanship and chop wood. And teaching the clueless little girl a thing or two about survival actually felt a little satisfying.

A little like he had a purpose again.

"So, these mushrooms always gave me the runs whenever I ate them. Since you're a human, they'd probably do a lot worse. So stay away from those ones, okay? The big ones are good, but they're kinda bland. Good if you're so hungry you don't care what you're scarfing down. Also, check for bugs. Nothing worse than a crunchy mushroom. You getting all this?" They were hunkered down in the damp earth on the outskirts of the forest, eyeing off different varieties of edible growth and fungi.

Rin was nodding fervently, her eyes bright. "Sometimes if I'm not sure, I give one to Jaken as a present and see if he gets sick. One time he went to sleep for a long time and Sesshoumaru-sama had to wake him up with his foot."

Inuyasha frowned in confusion. "With his foot?"

Rin made a kicking motion. Inuyasha blinked. "Oh. Well," he said, wondering why he'd bothered to question her. "Anyway, if you're clear on what you can eat and what you can't, we can move onto the more important stuff, like what to do when you're coming up against youkai. Since you're a tasty little kid and youkai like squishy little girls, that's probably going to be sometime in the near future. What do you usually do when a youkai attacks you?"

"Scream," Rin said promptly. "And run away."

"What if you can't run away?"

"Then Rin just screams for Sesshoumaru-sama and he saves me."

"What would you do if Sesshoumaru wasn't there?"

"He's always there."

Inuyasha withheld a sigh of frustration. "But if he wasn't? If you were stuck by yourself with no Sesshoumaru and a bad youkai, what would you do besides scream?"

Rin thought on that for a while, straightening up to her unimpressive height and leaning on a nearby log. "Maybe die?"

The hanyou stared at her. "What?"

Rin shrugged. "That's what happened last time Sesshoumaru-sama wasn't there to save me. Except they weren't youkai, they were wolves, and they bit me on the neck."

Against his will, the hanyou felt a stab of pity for the kid. Perhaps it was more like empathy, really, since he could remember all too well the familiar situations in his past that could have turned out just like hers. . .except he wouldn't have been resurrected with the Sword of Heaven. "Well, that's not going to happen again, do you hear me? Next time you come up against something bigger and stronger than you are, you fucking go for its eyes and gouge them right out," he said, his voice hard and intense. "There's damn few youkai that can handle being blinded, no matter how it can track you down. You injure anything soft and vulnerable—don't waste time beating on armoured flesh, shells, hard plates of skin, anything. You hear me?"

Rin's eyes were huge. "I don't think I could do something like that, Inuyasha-san!"

He smiled humourlessly. "You'd be surprised at what you can do when your life is on the line. Just remember what I'm saying. As a general rule, anything soft on an animal youkai is a weakness. Eyes, nose, throat, even ears, sometimes. Hurt them enough to get yourself free and to safety. How are you at climbing?"

"I can climb trees to get fruit, and I've climbed a cliff this one time, except I fell off and then Sesshoumaru-sama caught me," she admitted. Her brown eyes sparkled as she smiled. "But that was a long long time ago! I haven't fallen since, really!" To demonstrate, she was off and halfway up the tree next to him before he could voice a proper protest. Not that he was going to—she was actually a damn decent little climber.

He grinned as she hooked her legs over the lower branch of the tree and flipped upside down to smile at him. "All right, monkey, I believe you," he said, poking her in the forehead with the pad of his finger, mindful of his claws. She giggled as the poke made her swing slightly. "If you're being attacked by a ground-crawling enemy, whether it's a youkai or a wolf, get yourself higher than it can jump and call for help. Remember that night in the woods? You ran, instead of climbed. Panicking will get you hurt, so you gotta keep a clear mind."

The little girl nodded, her face turning red as the blood rushed to her head. "What if it can climb, Inuyasha-san?"

He sighed. "If it can climb, then you run like a sonofabitch. If you don't think it can swim, get to water and dive on in. If you know there's an enemy of it somewhere nearby, head toward it. Few youkai will risk running into a natural enemy of its kind for a free meal, unless it's starving." Reaching out, he gently took Rin by her armpits and plucked her from the tree, letting her blink off the stars she was probably seeing by now. "Am I making sense, kid?"

"Think so," Rin said dizzily, blinking up at him. "You sure know a lot, Inuyasha. Maybe even more than Jaken-sama, and he's very old."

"I'm not exactly young myself," he muttered, making her tilt her head curiously, but to forestall her questions he started out towards the field between the forest and the village, stretching. The sun was beginning to set, which signalled the end of their little lesson. "Time to finish up, kid—"

"Aaah! Inuyasha-san, look! What's that?" Rin squealed, running towards him, pointing at the mouth of the forest. Silhouetted against the dying sunlight was a large huddle of. . .oh, man. Villagers. With pitchforks.

Inuyasha scowled. "It looks like the entire population of the village. Thing is, I can't remember doing anything to piss them off recently, so I'm guessing they're not here for me. . ." Raising an eyebrow, he glanced down at the girl. "Rin, have you been a bad girl? How many times have I told you not to attack the village?"

"I didn't!"

Snorting, he made his way to the fearful group of humans, one arm shielding his vision from the sun. "Just what the hell is going on here? I swear to God I haven't stolen the Shikon no Tama and attacked your priestess. I keep telling you guys."

The huddle seemed to deflate. One of the men spoke up. "It's just Inuyasha," he called to the rest, sounding haggard. "The girl's not our Suki." Muttering to themselves in low, worried voices, they began to move off. But the name had piqued his interest.

"Suki?" He called out curiously. "The little midget with the pigtails? Keeps getting her friend to propose to me for her? I saw her yesterday afternoon with a bunch of brats in the field." Exiting the shade of the forest, he realised that it wasn't all the villagers, simply most of the men, and one very frightened looking young woman, clutching a cloth doll. Half of its head was torn off, straw visible poking out of its neck. He vaguely remembered the girl carrying it around. She alwayshad it with her, come to think of it.

Inuyasha suddenly felt something foreboding drop in his stomach. "Someone's taken her," he realised, his brows snapping together, his levity dropping away. His eyes flashed.

Squeezing her eyes shut, the girl nodded like it cost her to do it. "She never came home from playing in that field," she whispered. "Just this was left behind." She held out the doll to him, its head flopping at a sad angle, almost grotesque in its appearance.

Rin stole up next to him, her eyes wide and scared. "A girl was taken away?" She asked him sadly, tugging his sleeve. He silently placed a hand on her head without looking down at her, his eyes pinned on the doll in thought. He looked to the men, who milled about, trying not to make eye contact with him, except that some of them were, and the look of hope in their faces was enough to tell him that if they would ask for his help, then it had to be a dire situation indeed.

A kid going missing was enough for them to put aside their bigoted hatred of him.

That was enough for anyone.

"Give me the doll," he said roughly, holding his hand out to the girl. She swallowed and thrust it out to him, clumsily brushing his hand in the process. It surprised him, but he put the thought away as he raised the doll to his nose and inhaled deeply, deeply. Closing his eyes, he tried to focus on the myriad of scents that the bundle contained.

"What the hell does he think he's doing?" One of the men said angrily, confused by his strange display. "Goddamn hanyou—"

"—shut up please, Hiroshi," the girl said tightly. "Please."

"Inuyasha-san is a dog demon," Rin piped up brightly. "He can smell things a lot better than humans." There was a sudden murmur of understanding amongst the men, and while that would have usually sparked some kind of satisfaction in him, what he was scenting on that doll was taking precedence over any petty smugness he might have felt.

"Youkai," he growled, his teeth gritted on a snarl. "Something with enough youki that it's clinging to this doll, more than a day later." His golden eyes popped open, flashing at the men. "This is too much for humans to handle. You'll get your asses handed to you if you go after it with a couple of pitchforks."

"I'm coming anyway," the girl said, her eyes wide. "Suki is my sister!"

"Then don't get yourself killed going after her," Inuyasha snapped back. "Because she's going to need you when I bring her back." If she was still alive, a traitorous voice whispered in the back of his mind. "Idiot girl, you're just a human."

"Well—well you're just a hanyou!" She cried out almost crossly, her eyes full of tears. "I won't sit here and—and knit socks while she's in danger."

"Listen to me," he growled, dangerously enough that some of the men started nervously. "I don't know what this thing is. I don't know how strong it is. All I know is that it smells like old blood and youki potent enough to stick to a frigging doll for a day without fading. Now you go back to the village, sit your ass down, and knit some fucking socks. I'll be back before daybreak. If I'm not, then it's not a total loss for you lot, now is it?" His glare sent her back a step, along with most of the villagers.

"The girl is likely already dead," came a cold voice from his far left. "The youkai is a soul eater. Once it has removed her soul and devoured it, it will wear her corpse for up to five days, at which time it needs to find a new body, and a new soul." Sesshoumaru stood between the trees as though he'd been there all along, a stark brilliant contrast to the lush greenery of the surrounding foliage. His narrowed golden eyes flickered to Rin. "You are late."

While Rin was spitting out apologies, her eyes shining with delight at his arrival anyway, Inuyasha was quietly reeling. A soul eater. Shit. Before him, the girl had fallen to her knees, eyes wide and unseeing. The men suddenly looked grey and ill. With those words, they'd already given up hope.


"Well, it's not a total loss," Inuyasha mused. "I'll go after it, grab Suki is she's still in one piece. If she's already had her soul taken, I'll return her body for a proper burial and kill the youkai sonofabitch before it snatches any more kids." It sounded all pretty logical to him. The girl flinched and wiped her eyes, shooting to her feet again and yanking the doll back from him in one fluid movement.

"If she's dead, don't bother coming back," she spat, her eyes streaming. "The only reason we kept you around is because you protected the village—and you can't even do that right! You couldn't even tell there was a youkai in the village, taking my sister! Now she might be dead, with some filthy stinking youkai,probably some relative of yours, wearing her body like a suit! My Suki!" She burst into piteous sobs, her shoulders shaking, clutching the doll to her chest like an amulet. The men tried patting her shoulder in what was probably a consoling gesture, but she shrugged it off angrily.

"How grateful they are for your assistance," Sesshoumaru observed, his eyes hooded and rich with disdain. "Heart-warming."

Inuyasha had been studying the ground, his jaw clenched to stop any stupid words from escaping. The girl was practically grieving already, right, so she'd gone over the edge.

Except no, they all thought the very thing she had the reckless guts to say.


He swallowed, and lifted his head to stare straight into Sesshoumaru's eyes. "If she's dead, will you use Tenseiga?"

He didn't even blink. "No. I'm less than endeared to these miserable fools. After all," he said, cruelty in his voice as his eyes scanned the huddle, "if they insult the freely given aid of a hanyou, they hardly deserve the strength of the youkai Lord of the Western Lands."

They nearly went into a full-blown panic at those words, as they registered in the eyes of each human there. Youkai. Youkai Lord. Imagining what they saw, a tall, ethereal man who was not a man at all but a fearsome demon who would sooner kill them all than save one small girl. The blood drained completely from already pallid faces.

"She's just a kid," Inuyasha argued. "A defenceless kid. It could just as easily be Rin out there with that thing and you know it. So grow a fucking shred of moral decency and help out for once, if you know so much about this thing. Give me a hand here."

Sesshoumaru stilled, blinking once, slowly, at the unexpected request. Inuyasha was actually asking for his assistance. Over some faceless human girl, he'd give up the pride he'd clung to so fiercely, the same pride that had stopped him from asking for aid when even the very world itself had been on the brink of destruction. His life was not on the line here, yet he still. . .for one thankless task. A fool's errand.

He had hope, the youkai lord decided, that the humans would accept him eventually. Like a pathetic mongrel begging for scraps of attention. Performing tricks for its master. He didn't even realise what he was. What they were. It infuriated him, somewhere cold and quiet, where the steady golden eyes of his half-brother could never penetrate. And he wasn't certain why.

Emerging fully from the shadows he stood in, Sesshoumaru closed in on the humans, ignoring their panicked jostling as he swept past, well out of touching distance. He stared at Inuyasha coldly. "Give you a hand," he repeated, tasting the request in his mouth. Arch humour flickered in his eyes and drained away instantly. "I believe I've given you as many as I can spare, little brother."

Inuyasha almost flushed. He could have worded that better, he supposed, his ears flattening. "Whatever," he muttered, looking away. "Forget it then, it's not like I need your help. I'll just get to her before that thing can eat her soul." Turning away in the direction of the scent trail, he straightened Tetsusaiga at his hip and prepared to leave.

"Wait," the girl said behind him, almost shrill with panic. "Don't go without me. Please. Let me come. I won't get in your way Ipromise."

Whipping his head around, he fought the urge to sneer at the girl. "If you can handle riding on my back, you can come," he said roughly. "But I can't guarantee you won't catch hanyou from me."

As the girl stared at him, stricken, Rin fidgeted at Sesshoumaru's side, looking back and forth between the brothers. "Sesshoumaru-sama," she whispered, "can Rin go with Inuyasha-san and watch him fight the youkai?"

Inuyasha heard that, and turned to shake his head at the girl. "Too dangerous," he barked. "Stay here where it's safe, Rin." Then he added nastily, "just like Sesshoumaru is doing."

Crimson-lidded eyes narrowed into slits. "It is not wise to goad me, Inuyasha," he said, his voice lowering to something like a growl.

"Bite me," he returned with a malicious grin.

"Don't tempt me, hanyou," the daiyoukai replied, lifting his lip slightly to expose a flash of fang, his eyes glittering dangerously. "I know Toukijin especially is simply burning to taste your flesh again."

"Miss me, do you?" He laughed, and without waiting for a reply he extended one hand to the crying girl. "If you're coming, get on. It'll be a lot faster, trust me."

"Trust you," the girl repeated, wiping her cheeks and tucking the ruined doll into her thin kimono. "I'll try anything once." She took his hand and allowed him to help her onto his back, pushing his thick mane of silver hair to one side. Inuyasha gave a fangy grin.

"That's the spirit," he said. "Hold on." Adjusting his grip on her knees, he waited until she'd moved her hands to his shoulders before loping in the direction of the youkai scent, rapidly gaining speed until the countryside blurred past them both, the girl shrieking her head off into the space between his shoulders. Thank god it muffled the noise somewhat, he thought, concentrating on his destination. It took his mind off the nostalgic feeling of having someone riding so closely with him again, a space that had only ever belonged to Kagome in his mind. Now he had some nameless villager girl who hated him clutching to him like a lifeline, because 'some relative of his' had stolen her little sister. It was a sad state of affairs.

He didn't really know himself why he was going out of his way like this. Maybe it had something to do with training the kid. Was he getting attached to Sesshoumaru's little midget human? Or was it because on some level he agreed with the girl? Besides, if he hadn't taken off on the kids like he had, the youkai would never have gotten a chance to take Suki away.

"How you doing back there," he called after the first fifteen minutes, swivelling his ears around. "Still alive?"

"Yes," the girl replied loudly over the wind. "Can't you go any faster? I thought you were faster than this!"

Inuyasha scowled. "Well yeah, but you're heavy! Cut back on the rice when we get back to the village. Your thighs are huge," he informed her, grinning as she started to scream curses at him. At least she wasn't scared anymore, he decided. He preferred the yelling over the crying. Always had, really.

After another ten minutes or so, the girl abruptly shifted, letting out a shrill scream of shock. "There's a falling star following us!"

The hanyou jumped. "A what?" Craning his neck around, he looked to the sky and started in surprise. It was Sesshoumaru, in ball mode. Or whatever it was when he coalesced his entire form into a glowing sphere of light. Inuyasha had seen him do it a couple of times, most notably when he'd cut off his arm in the youkai graveyard. He was shooting through the sky at a speed that was almost unfair. The bastard had too many modes of travel. The pair almost dazedly watched the streaking light pass over their heads and keep going.

In the same direction Inuyasha was heading.

He blinked.

That fucker was going to steal his kill.

"Hold on!" Inuyasha roared, flared his youki, and took off like the hounds of hell were on his ass. "I'm not coming back for you if you fall off, fat-ass!"

"Stupid hanyou!" The girl shrieked, pulling his hair. "Shut up and run!"

They ran.

It was the hardest he'd run in his life, or it felt like it after so long, sitting around doing nothing. His legs burned with every fluid step, muscle shifting and rippling, his heart pounding like a hammer in his chest. Breath tearing in his throat, eyes fixed on one target, one prey. He ran like he'd never run before, and it felt fantastic to be moving again.

It felt like only seconds had gone by before they reached their destination. Sesshoumaru was nowhere in sight, but for the moment it didn't matter. They were standing before a typical youkai burrow, more a cave that had been dug into the rock of a cliff, and something gold-glowing and decidedly insect-like was emerging from the darkness inside. It looked like a praying mantis in shape, with a translucent pouch at its stomach the hanyou could only guess was meant to house the souls it took. It glowed white and full.

Sickeningly, caught in its stick-like feet was the corpse of a small girl, grey-skinned and milky eyed. It was standing in the burst-open spine of the girl like it had been caught undressing from her.

But it wasn't Suki.

"Prey, prey," it hissed, sounding panicked, sounding insane. Its huge red eyes settled on Inuyasha and narrowed into slits. "Thief!"

Thief? He didn't have time to argue the accusation when it suddenly lashed out with its feet, throwing the corpse straight at his head. Leaping into the air, clasping the girl to his back, he got out of range and dropped her on her feet. "Stay here," he hissed, "and don't move until I tell you." His eyes fell to the ruined body of the little dead girl, sprawled brokenly before him. "That thing's crazy."

From the look of still horror on her face, he didn't have to worry about her moving anywhere. He turned back to the youkai, one hand at Tetsusaiga's hilt.

"Where's Kagome's bug spray when I need it," he grumbled, cocking an eyebrow at the thing as it skittered side to side on seemingly unsteady legs. "Where's Suki?"

"Thief," it rasped, like a broken record. "Don't mock me!" Darting forward, then back, but it seemed hesitant to outright attack him. Perhaps it wasn't meant to be out of a body like this for long. Which begged the question, where was Suki? It had a belly full of souls, but where—

A thought occurred to him, giving way to an almost startled burst of irritated approval.

So he didn't trust him to kill the thing and save the girl? Keh.

He drew his sword, the fang transforming into its crackling unsealed form. "Mock you?" He repeated, grinning madly. "I'm going to kill you, you messed up sonofabitch."

Drawing his sword up, he prepared to let loose an almighty Kaze no Kizu, when he realised he couldn't. Decimating everything was probably not the best option, judging by that glowing belly full of Suki's soul. Sheathing his sword, he pulled it from his waistband and tossed it to the girl behind him. "Look after that," he ordered, and cracked his knuckles. His claws flashed. "Let's get down to business."

He attacked.

For a spindly-legged bug, it could move, he grudgingly thought, as swipe after swipe of his claws was met with air. Instead it kept backing up, further and further, hissing furious breaths through its jagged jaws. Further and further, until it was standing at the ledge of the cliff, its back to a drop of what could easily have been seventy meters. Straight down onto jagged rock. Not even a youkai could survive that kind of fall without some serious firepower, something he doubted this body-snatching bug had.

It was all kind of anti-climactic, he had to admit. "Give up already," he said harshly. "You're gonna die either way, so you might as well just let me to it. It'll be quicker than a slow death all squashed at the bottom of that drop."

"The only one going to die here is you," it wheezed, sounding clearly coherent, and downright triumphant. Then it sprang.

It moved too fast.

One second it was in front of him, the next gone and two dagger-like legs were stabbing though his chest from behind. Mouth open, eyes shocked, he felt the great rush of blood filling his lungs moments before he coughed, spraying it everywhere in an attempt to get a breath. But everything was agony, and it was ripping them back out, serrated blades that weren't blades, but his enemy's legs and they shredded his chest as it pulled them free.

He couldn't fight as it kicked him straight over the edge of the cliff. Everything was already going black. But it was a funny kind of black—not death, just agony and a slow-motion fall into something that laughed in a voice too guttural to be his own.

Falling inside his own mind, where a surge of primal rage reached for him.

He reached back.

The world turned crimson.

Sesshoumaru watched the transformation take place in the hanyou, an abrupt thing that soaked the air with his youki, allowed him to flip in mid-air even as he fell off the cliff. He caught the lip of the cliff in his claws and swung his legs around in a spinning motion that carried him back up onto the edge.

His eyes were blank, animal crimson, his fangs elongated and more demonic in appearance. Youkai markings appeared on his cheeks, jagged purple streaks that reminded him too much of their father.

The growl that emerged from the depths of Inuyasha's chest was bestial, low, and deadly.

The youkai never had a chance.

While Inuyasha tore it limb from limb, the tall youkai made his way from his place of observation to the cowering girl, who was watching the display with abject horror and awe. She was clutching the Tetsusaiga to her chest as though it would protect her.

"Give me the fang," he ordered, extending his hand to her.


"The sword," he elaborated coldly. A wet, wrenching sound of dislocated bones sounded behind them both, followed by a three-chord scream of agony. The girl went nearly green with nausea, but her eyes lingered on Inuyasha.

"He's going to die," she whispered, handing the sword to him with shaky hands. He took it by the sheath. "Holes, holes in his chest and he's still fighting? Why?"

Sesshoumaru turned slightly to eye the one-sided battle with his usual remote interest. At this point, Inuyasha knew nothing of his own actions. His youkai blood had taken over his mind, forcing him to simply kill anything in his path. He could easily tell the human of the transformation he'd gone through, how in only a moment the soul eater would be dead and he would then turn on the girl. It would be all too easy to ensure Inuyasha would no longer have a place within that filthy little human village.

For some unfathomable reason, he felt an inexplicable urge to do just that. To erase their hatred and venom with the blank terror of natural born prey.

He heard his own voice, distant and preoccupied. "Hanyou do foolish things to be accepted."

He barely saw the girl flinch in realisation, so intent was he on watching events unfold. Yes, Inuyasha did altogether strange things to earn the affection of those useless humans. Risked his life time and again for them, and whether he realised it or not, every step he took was for the approval of people he had no business spending his time with.

And yet. . .of all the people who refused to acknowledge him, Inuyasha had never once attempted to win the acceptance of his own brother. Not once.

Do you hate me?


Oh. But I don't hate you. Is that okay?

Sesshoumaru frowned suddenly, shaking off the centuries-old memory as the death rattle of the soul eater vibrated in the air. Clenching the sheath of the Tetsusaiga in his hand, careful not to touch the hilt, he strode forward and disappeared from sight.

Inuyasha had only just settled blood red eyes on the human girl when he was slammed once, brutally, over the head with his beloved sword.

The high yelp that left him unsettled the youkai, who watched him pitch forward into the dirt, unmoving. It was the cry of wounded dog, not a mindless animal, and it seemed to hang in the air in the moments it took for Inuyasha's body to revert to normal. Satisfied with his work, Sesshoumaru dropped the fang at his side and drew Tenseiga, skirting the entrails and severed joints of the soul eater until he was standing before the still-glowing pouch that housed the souls of the two girls it had ingested. With a flick of his wrist, he sliced it open, and watched the two orbs rise out of the mess. One simply flew up into the air and vanished, while the other drifted around the corner of the rocky crag where the stolen child's body lay.

Sheathing the sword, he frowned speculatively down at his younger brother. He was face-down in the dirt, blood tricking down over his temple from the strike he'd dealt him. Claws still soaked in all manner of viscera. Sesshoumaru had never seen him truly unconscious before. Even ill, he'd never stayed still, always moving, whimpering, thrashing about, and trembling. This close, he could make out the shadow of his eyelashes resting against his cheek, his mouth turned down slightly in unrest, his expression no longer filled with brash confidence and bluster. He looked. . .younger.

He looked defenceless. Normally that would have angered the youkai lord, except that he himself had put Inuyasha in his vulnerable state.

"Is he going to wake up?" A small voice asked from behind him as the young child, Suki, approached him, rubbing her eyes. A gasp sounded from his right.

"Suki!" The girl cried in relief and shock. "Oh my god, you're alive!"

"Uh-huh, but Inuyasha—" Whatever else she'd been about to say was smothered by her sister's embrace. The pale youkai tuned it out, pondering exactly what to do with his unconscious brother. Leaving him to his own fate was out of the question; Rin hadn't learned nearly enough in one day, despite her excited ramblings on the subject of edible fungi.

He turned his head and regarded the pair of siblings with a critical gold gaze. "Are you aware of your surroundings?"

The elder of the two wiped her cheeks and peered at him in confusion. "What?"

He fought the urge to sigh. "Do you know where you are, human."

"Oh. Mostly. You aren't going to just leave us here are you? We're—we're girls! We'll get killed! We'll—"

"Silence." Glancing back at Inuyasha, he grit his teeth and had to put some real effort into not beating him over the head again. Taking his shoulder, he shook him none-too-gently, to no avail. He was well and truly senseless.

Coldly furious at what he was being reduced to, he shot to his feet and pinched two fingers between his lips, resulting in a piercing whistle that echoed throughout the countryside. The girls jumped in surprise, the younger plugging her ears at the shrill sound. Her eyes were wide and fixed on him with wonder and a little fear. It seemed she hadn't picked up the village's teachings of hatred toward all youkai. Or perhaps she was simply very stupid. He watched dispassionately as she trotted over to Inuyasha and sat down beside him, petting his hair and pushing it off his back.

He'd braced himself for her shriek of horror when she uncovered his twin wounds. "Ohmigod, ohmigod, Hina, he's hurt! He's hurt real bad! Inuyasha's gonna die! I can't marry him if he's dead!"

Sesshoumaru nearly rolled his eyes heavenward. Was he getting a headache? It certainly felt like it. But a dark shape then made itself visible on the horizon, steadily getting bigger, and satisfaction flickered through him. Ah-Un. The dragon was racing across the skies toward his master's call, thankfully about to collect the humans and get them out of his sight. It wouldn't do to kill them both when he'd just aided them. Bad form, perhaps, and a waste of effort.

Inuyasha began to stir just as they'd both mounted the dragon, both looking inordinately excited. No doubt they'd never seen a dragon before, being the backwater humans they were. He didn't need to give his faithful dragon a word of direction, both heads simply blinked and him and then they were in the air. Watching them go with no small amount of relief – Rin had never been such a handful, had she? – he turned back to observe the hanyou's feeble attempts to push himself into a kneeling position.

He fell forward again, letting out a strangled sound of pain.

Sesshoumaru did sigh then, irritated, and pulled him by the hair out of his own pool of blood.

How he'd managed to survive without him was suddenly a great mystery. Had his life up until now just been one immense game of chance?

He didn't know, but it was beginning to appear that way.

"I have holes in me again, don't I."

They were the first coherent words out of his mouth once he realised how much pain he was in. He wasn't saying them to anyone in particular, but almost immediately his nose caught the scent of his brother, who was strangely sitting beside him, one knee drawn up, propping himself up by his hand. He looked faintly bored.

"You do."

He let out a breath of irritated resignation. "I hate getting holes in me," he slurred. "Do you know how long it takes for them to heal? At least three days. And people are all like, 'hey! Did you know you have holes in you?' and I'm like, 'no shit, really? I just thought it was fucking windy today'." Aware he was being far too chatty to long-time asshole brothers, and deciding to blame it on the punchy blood-loss-induced mood he was in, he pushed himself upright and swivelled his hips to sit straight, panting at that small exertion. He pulled his upper clothing off and examined the damage. Two puncture marks, each the size of a large fist, through his chest just below each shoulder blade. Straight through the meat, thankfully missing his lungs for the most part. Strangely relieved, he cast his eyes to Sesshoumaru. "At least it wasn't as good a shot as you. Remember that time you got me through the stomach? The only thing I could think when that happened was 'am I really going to die hanging on my own brother's arm?' Then I had visions of hanging out in hell, or heaven or wherever, and Mother's scolding me for ticking you off when you're busy." He balled up his undershirt and began sponging the wounds with it, hissing at the pain.


Inuyasha's head came up. "Yeah?"

Sesshoumaru shook his head slightly, his eyes speculative. "You just referred to me as your kin," he stated, with absolutely no inflection whatsoever. Like the question didn't matter to him one way or the other. The hanyou blinked hazily, mouth pulling into a confusion frown.

"What am I supposed to call you?" He scowled. "You call me your brother, sometimes. And you are, I mean, so it's not like it's stupid or anything. But I should have guessed the rules would be different for me. Don't worry, I won't do it again."

Sesshoumaru just continued to watch him with those oddly measuring eyes. Then he blinked, glancing away suddenly. His claws scratched against the stone lightly. "Your head may pain you. I rendered you unconscious when you lost your senses and destroyed the soul eater," he said smoothly, staring out at the deepening evening. "You should be more careful where you leave our father's inheritance lying around in a fight. Or were you so cocky you believed you didn't need it? Or perhaps this was another valiant attempt to have someone end your life for you. I was unable to accommodate you this time." There was a trace of something almost sharp in his voice, something Inuyasha recognised as a rebuke.

He blinked in surprise. "I wasn't trying to kill myself," he said stubbornly. "I just. . .didn't think it could move that fast." Why were they talking? It was the undercurrent thought running below all others. Was he really having a conversation with Sesshoumaru, without insults, and bloodshed? Did something change when he wasn't looking?

"So you were overconfident," Sesshoumaru stated matter-of-factly. The hanyou shifted uncomfortably and looked away, but he didn't miss the youkai's small huff of derision. "Then it was a fortunate thing I was here."

He didn't want to say it out loud, but Inuyasha had to agree. If Sesshoumaru hadn't been there when his demonic blood took over, he'd probably have killed the girl and gone on a rampage. Without Kagome to Sit him when he went berserk, it would have been a certainty that he would have killed a lot of people. "Thanks, I guess," he said wearily, one eye squinting closed in pain as he applied more pressure to his wounds. "Free shot for you. Bet that felt good."

"Ask Tetsusaiga," the youkai replied coolly. "It was your sword I struck you with. The power in the sword that keeps your blood sealed was necessary to immobilise you."

Inuyasha blinked, mystified. "Oh," he said finally, wondering at the explanation. Then he blinked. "Wait a minute. . ." When had the others ever needed to hit him with his sword?

For a moment there, Sesshoumaru's lips seemed to curl upwards at the corners. Inuyasha just bristled with indignation.

"That was for slapping you with your arm, wasn't it," he bit out, angrily embarrassed. "I hope you got your hand burnt off by the barrier, you sadistic asshole." Shifting, he turned to glare at his brother and found himself presented with two unblemished palms. Figured he didn't get hurt by it, the fucker had probably found some way around the barrier or something clever like that. Which was just frigging great.

Suddenly he stilled, his brain relaying something back to him he didn't notice right away.

Two unblemished palms.

Inuyasha's eyes flew wide.

Sesshoumaru had two hands. Two arms, and they were all perfect ivory skin and razor claws, all the way up to his twin-striped wrists and disappearing into his sleeves. Arms. Hands. He was whole again.

"It worked," Inuyasha croaked, incredulous. His hands twitched, once, towards the fingers of that left hand, which had been cold and slack and slightly damp the last time he'd touched them. He could hear the pulse beating in the wrist, smell the hot blood storming those long-disused veins. He lifted disbelieving eyes to his brother's, and felt a slow, triumphant grin part his mouth, indenting his lip with a flash of fang. "It worked."

Inclining his head regally, Sesshoumaru agreed to that much with seemingly easy grace. "It did." His eyes met Inuyasha's, a steady clear shade of gold that owed little to his usual cold demeanour. "Once Rin gave it back."

Inuyasha felt his mouth twitch into a rueful grin. He knew all too well the kid's love of all things Sesshoumaru. Scoring his arm must have been like a gift from god for her. Watching his brother uncoil and rise to his feet, wondering if he had the strength to do the same despite his injuries, he was unprepared to see the hand that was suddenly outstretched in his line of vision. One pale hand was reached out to him, long, elegant fingers relaxed in a way that couldn't possibly be a method of attack.

He looked like. . .he wanted to help him up.

Ears flicking in confusion, the hanyou raised uncertain eyes to his brother.

Sesshoumaru just stared calmly back, and waited.

The fact that it was that hand wasn't lost on Inuyasha. Mouth flattening at the challenge it seemingly presented to him, he soon realised he couldn't do it. He couldn't take that hand and rely on him. Reaching out in trust, expecting him not to deceive him, betray him. . .he'd lost that faith and he knew it. Wanting it, on whatever level, didn't change a thing. Eyes smouldering in defeat, head lowering, Inuyasha summoned his strength and tried to push himself to his feet of his own accord.

He missed the way that hand slowly withdrew, the way eyes the very mirror of his own darkened in understanding.

He'd forced himself to his knees, blood-soaked hakama dragging and filthy. Blood trickled anew from his wounds, burning from the dried gouges torn open again too soon. Gritting his teeth at the pain, at the weakness in his muscles, Inuyasha tensed and shifted his balance, pressing into the hard stone with his palms and placing himself on his feet. Rising out of his crouch, wavering dreadfully, he ignored the dark-bright spots invading his vision at the exertion and tried to lift his head.

When his legs dissolved, and he knew, he knew he was a fool, he fell forward and two arms wrapped around him, holding him aloft against a body that felt like a pillar of armoured stone. Angry with his weakness, his absolute ineptitude seemingly only whenever his brother was around, Inuyasha stubbornly tried to fight the arms holding him up in one piece, mindful of the holes in his body. Claws skated over his sides, but did not slice deep. The scent he'd only ever associated with bad blood and pain surrounded him from head to foot, but he only breathed deeper to trap that memory of storms and leashed youki deeper within his mind. And if he wanted to admit it, that instinct frightened him. What the hell was he doing? He'd barely even relied on his friends, even towards the end, and yet—

"Let me," Sesshoumaru said.

Inuyasha laughed shortly, the sound bordering on a harsh sob more than anything else.

"I don't know how," he said hoarsely, but turned his face to one side, where his cheek rested on silk and his eyes stared out into a thousand silver strands of moonlight as they wove in the evening wind. He barely even started, too lightheaded and thrown by what was happening to react when his brother lowered his head and, jaw brushing his temple, repeated his request against the soft velvet of one snowy ear.

"Let me."

Eyes staring unseeingly into the gathering dark, Inuyasha reached up and curled his fingers in the flowing white and red sleeves that seemed to surround him, pristine against his bloodied, sweaty form. It was the only evidence agreement he gave, that small assent. Perhaps he was just tired of everything, he thought as they both began to shine with brilliant white light, the stormy scent of power rising up in the air tenfold with the bloom of power. Perhaps he too was sick of the same old argument, the same old battle.

That didn't mean he was ready for things to change.

But it seemed they already had.


Chapter 8: Turnabout

Kaede's hut really was the most boring place in the universe. And she needed to get that hole in the roof fixed.

Inuyasha had stumbled into her hut three days ago, after Sesshoumaru had transported them both back after the soul eating youkai had been defeated. Well, to be honest Sesshoumaru had all but shoved him in there, his earlier mercy gone without a trace. Which really was how Inuyasha preferred it. With a curt order to resume training Rin once he'd recovered, eyes not even bothering to linger on him, Sesshoumaru had strode out of the hut and vanished into the night. The old priestess had tended to his wounds, pressing healing herbs to the wounds to speed up recovery and stave off infection. He'd slept through most of it, his body sapped of strength as it tried desperately to close the wounds and replenish the blood it had lost.

He'd woken up late the next morning to find Kaede peering out the entrance of her hut, her expression surprised. "The villagers are taking your actions quite seriously, it would seem," she commented.

"What?" He asked, pushing himself into a sitting position. He winced as it pulled at the wounds.

She shook her head. "Never mind, Inuyasha. Stay put until you're fully healed. That means no leaving the hut, do you understand?"

Coughing painfully, he'd nodded. "Whatever. But I'm not gonna be your love slave, no matter what you say."

Kaede had tossed him a dry look. "It's not me you have to worry about."

On that strange note, he'd gone back to sleep, waking only to eat. Once or twice he'd snuck out in the dead of night to relieve himself, and hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary in the village. The idea that Kaede really did want him as her love slave suddenly had more weight to it. Sick old lady, she'd probably been feeling him up in his sleep. The thought had amused him so much at the time he'd repeated it back to her, not understanding why his next meal turned out to be stale bread and tough meat.

Three days came and went, and his body healed. There was now no sign of his wounds, barring a soreness in the muscles beneath the smooth skin. Kaede had washed his clothes for him, and thankfully the fire rat fur had mended itself. The fire rats once had serious regeneration powers, which remained in its hide, meaning that the tears in his clothing he'd sustained over the years actually healed themselves. It was all a little crazy, but as long as he wasn't marching about in rags, he could live with it. Pulling on his clothes and freeing his heavy mane of hair from the collar, Inuyasha raised his head and took a deep breath.

Time to get back into it.

He was halfway through the village on his way to find Rin when he realised someone was stalking him. If you could call their half-assed attempt of jumping between huts to avoid being seen such a thing. Deciding to play dumb and see where it went, he slowed his pace and meandered through the village, mildly perturbed when one set of footsteps became two, then four, and then seven. What the hell was this?

Disgruntled by the idea that they were playing some kind of trick on him, he finally stopped on the outskirts of the village and fuelled himself with enough speed to make it look like he'd vanished. Voices cried out in surprise.

"Behind you," he said idly, scratching his head. They screamed and spun around, wide eyed. It was just the kids, led by Suki, who was pink-cheeked and grinning up at him unashamedly.

"Hi Inuyasha!" She chirped, linking her hands behind her back and rocking up on her heels. It was such a Rin-esque motion that he blinked. But this little midget had two pigtails and muddy green eyes. Her prized doll was mended and clutched tightly behind her. "Are you already healed? You're so cool. I told all the kids what you did, and we're gonna be your helpers from now on!"

Helpers? Well, if that didn't just scream trouble. He frowned. "Help me with what?"

"Killing youkai!" She cried, and the other kids cheered.

He smacked her over the head.

"Dumbass," he growled, ignoring her cry of pain. "You're youkai food, not youkai killers. Now beat it, I've got work to do."

"What kind?" A boy asked curiously. "My dad says you don't do anything useful and just mooch off Kaede-sama for food."

"You're dad's just bitter that your mom wants to bang me," he said, bored. The boy started crying.

He left the disgruntled bunch of kids behind in favour of heading for the forest, not exactly looking forward to the impending meeting. Somehow, he really hoped that Sesshoumaru would be off pillaging and plundering, or whatever it was that he did for fun. That way he could just snatch Rin and bugger off into a field for some practice. He could do with a day markedly lacking in confusion, bloodshed and puncture wounds. All of which he usually received when in the vicinity of his brother, lately. Before it had just been bloodshed and puncture wounds. Inuyasha didn't really know what was going on, whether they'd come to some kind of truce or not, but he was fully aware that something had changed. Before, Sesshoumaru would never have followed him to kill a useless soul eater. Certainly wouldn't have stuck around until he woke up, or helped him get back to the village. Sesshoumaru just didn't help, full stop. For that matter, Inuyasha wouldn't have allowed it, even welcomed it.

He felt a little like he'd lost control of things somewhere, and it pissed him off.

He followed the usual trail to where the trio had made camp, if one fireplace by a stream could be considered such. He could hear it crackling happily despite the fact it was the middle of the day, and not even a little cold. If anything it was uncomfortably hot, tempting him to strip out of a layer or two. Fire rat fur was handy, but not exactly practical in summer. Hooking a clawed finger in the neck of his haori, he pulled it away from his skin slightly to get some air flow. With his other hand, he balled up his mane of hair and pulled it off the back of his neck. If he didn't look like such a girl, he'd probably tie it up more often, he thought sourly. The look sure didn't work for that wanker Kouga. And the fur sweatband? The only thing worse than that wolf's scent was his fashion sense. Sniggering to himself at the mental jab, the hanyou didn't even notice that he'd found his way into Sesshoumaru's camp until a flash of white moved in his peripheral vision.

"Wandering in here so unguardedly is unlike you, Inuyasha," the youkai lord commented, his back resting against a tree.

Tensing, Inuyasha dropped his hands, his hair unravelling heavily around his shoulders. "Wear a little bell or something, would you?" He grumbled, turning his gaze away almost immediately. "I didn't even notice you."

"Hardly my fault. You're not what one would call an astute individual." Sesshoumaru turned his face toward the stream, but his eyes tracked every movement the hanyou made. Currently, he was frowning indignantly.

"Whatever," he muttered, scanning the campsite. They seemed to be the only ones there. Damn it. "Rin's not here?"


Irritation burned in Inuyasha's stomach. Asshole. "Fine," he grunted, turning around to go. "Tell her to meet me tomorrow at dawn in the field behind the village." Shoulders stiff, he was almost past the bushes he'd burst through when his brother spoke again.

"She's merely fishing upstream with Jaken. She'll be back soon, if you can sit still long enough to wait," his brother said coolly. Inuyasha glanced back and found him watching the stream again, his expression implacable. He blinked. Sesshoumaru was inviting him to wait? Casting his senses about, he couldn't catch a whiff of the girl, which meant she was a fair way away with the toad. Far from keen to meet the damn imp again after the attack last time they saw each other, he decided against tracking them down. Well, it was a twenty minute walk back to the village. . .and if he cared to admit it, he might have been healed but he was far from full strength. There was still a weakness in his muscles that pissed him off. He was spending an inordinate amount of time lately injured and or dying.

"Fine," he muttered again, turning back and heading for a decent place to sit. He ended up plunked down on the boulder half-embedded in the bank, staring at the stream and trying to figure out what was so interesting about it that Sesshoumaru could hardly look away. He couldn't see anything, except for the occasional silvery flash of a fish, and—

He swore, pulling his feet up higher onto the rock. The dark slithering shadow of an eel flickered through the stream and carried on its deceptively merry way. Inuyasha felt his mouth twist into a grimace. Maybe the stream wasn't such a great thing to stare at. Swivelling around, he found himself locking eyes with his brother. "What?" He asked aggressively. "I don't like eels."

Sesshoumaru frowned slightly. "You're frightened of them."

"You deaf?" He snapped. "I said I don't like them. Imagine being bare-ass naked in the creek having a bath, and feeling one of those slimy bastards wriggle around your thigh. They're frigging perverts, is what they are."

Sesshoumaru blinked, his face suddenly smoothing out of all expression. "You believe the eels are trying to molest you?"

"N—" He bit off his words before they could escape, his cheeks flaming red. "I'm not having this conversation with you," he muttered. "Dirt probably doesn't even stick to a pureblood like you, so the concept of bathing is probably foreign to begin with."

They fell into a heavy silence, with no reply forthcoming from his brother. No surprise there. Mentally Inuyasha beat himself to a pulp for even offering up such admittedly strange information. If it wasn't enough being seen as the bad fruit on the family tree, now Sesshoumaru probably figured he had some kind of repressed fish fetish. Which he didn't. Because that would be weird. Scowling, he settled himself cross-legged on the rock and began examining his claws for rough edges and chips. It had been a while since he'd used his claws for fighting, but he knew they had been his weapon of choice when he'd shredded that soul eater. For all that messy killing, his claws were in fine condition. Heh. He was in the process of experimentally pricking the back of his other hand to test for sharpness when a voice caught his attention.

". . .Tanuki," said Sesshoumaru. "They make me suspicious."

Inuyasha blinked hard, then slowly swung his gaze around to his brother. "They. . .they what?"

Straightening from the tree he was reclined against, the proud youkai made what was quite possibly the weirdest frigging admission he'd ever heard. "Their markings resemble a mask," he explained slowly. "It makes me believe they're hiding something."

It took about five seconds for that statement to sink through the hanyou's layer humming incredulity. Then his mouth twitched. "Seriously?" He choked out, raising one clawed hand to hover near his mouth, ready to slap over it should he be unable to hold in his laughter. He'd only just healed.

Sesshoumaru paused, then nodded once. "The last time I saw one, I had Jaken chase it for four miles," he admitted.

Inuyasha slapped his hand over his mouth, hard. His ribs creaked with the effort of holding in what felt like an explosion of howling laughter, gleeful wriggling, and quite possibly tears. His brother noticed, and frowned slightly. "If you wish to laugh, you may," he said finally, crossing his arms and strolling over to the edge of the stream as though he didn't have a care in the world. Pointedly ignoring him, Sesshoumaru proceeded to cup his hands and drink from the stream.

Inuyasha rolled over and died. "Tanuki!" He cracked up, curled up on his side on the rock. Gripping his sides, he laughed until tears rolled down his face. "And you made him chase—! You paranoid fuck!" His muscles ached from the completeness of his amusement, and he wondered with absent concern if he'd piss himself if he laughed any harder. But he couldn't shake the mental image of Sesshoumaru and Co traipsing through the countryside, spotting a Tanuki going about its business, and the youkai lord demanding to know what nefarious plot it was up to. Every time he thought he was over it, and he could get himself under control again, he imagined Jaken chasing one of the little bastards into the sunset.

"I'm okay, I'm okay," he eventually wheezed, pushing himself into a sitting position and wiping his eyes. He pulled in a huge breath and released it in a long rush. "Whew. Tanuki. Oh, man." He couldn't stop grinning. He had no idea his brother actually had a pet hate, even if it was as queer as a vehement mistrust of Tanuki. He snorted and rubbed his face with his hands.

"I'm pleased you find it so amusing," he heard Sesshoumaru say, his voice mild. Then something thumped into Inuyasha's lap, making him blink down in surprise.

"What—oh fuck me sideways," he roared, as a long brown-gray eel thrashed in his lap, sharp translucent teeth protruding from its gaping mouth. Leaping to his feet, it fell from his legs, bouncing off the rock to land in the dirt, where it wriggled and shimmied desperately in some obscene dance. He stared at Sesshoumaru, jaw agape. "Did—you sick bastard!" Leaping gracefully, he cleared about three meters before landing beside the campfire, glaring balefully at his brother. "That was so not funny. You complete dick."

The last shot got its intended response, as Sesshoumaru's expression darkened and he vanished from sight, reappearing to knock Inuyasha to the ground, one clawed hand ready to plunge into his throat. Inuyasha screamed. "Oh god I'm sorry don't kill me!" He begged, hands clasped together as though in prayer. Sesshoumaru's eyes widened, and he actually hesitated. Inuyasha pounced, whipping his legs out from under him by twisting his own around his brother's knees, then threw himself on top of the furious youkai. "Sucker!"

Sesshoumaru snarled gutturally, and the glance he shot Inuyasha through a veil of silver was shot with demonic crimson. "Inuyasha," he growled, "release me."

The hanyou's grin could have split his face. "Say you're sorry and I'll think about it," he said daringly. Then he clenched his knees around Sesshoumaru's hips as he suddenly bucked. "Whoafuck!" Try as he might, he couldn't keep his grip, and managed to get himself sent tumbling into the grass. He sat up, spitting out blades of grass in time to cop a fist to the jaw. He didn't sit up right away after that, instead wriggling about in silent agony, having bitten his tongue. How did he get himself into these situations? Eels, tackles, yet another near-death experience, and now he'd bitten his tongue. He was getting rather used to the taste of blood filling his mouth. Spitting into the grass, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and gingerly prodded his jaw, slightly surprised that was all he'd earned for such a daring move. To his recollection, he'd never dived on his brother's back before. "Good times."

When he didn't receive a response, he squinted over at Sesshoumaru, who was sitting across from him, the heel of one palm pressed against his eye. "Tell me I accidentally punched you in the face," the hanyou said, with little hope. Sesshoumaru grimaced, but didn't reply. Inuyasha frowned curiously. "What the hell's your problem?"

"Nothing you need concern yourself with, hanyou," he said icily. Inuyasha shrugged.

"Whatever. You've got grass in your hair," he said, sticking out his tongue to see if he could see the damage. It had probably healed up anyway. He slid a look at Sesshoumaru again, who was actually beginning to look like he was in some kind of pain. Inuyasha blinked. "You got something in your eye?" He shuffled over to him on his knees and studied the hand covering his eye. "Gimme a look."

Sesshoumaru punched him in the face—again. "Ow!" He yelped, rubbing his cheek. "Fine! Go blind then, asshole."

"Do you honestly think I'd allow your filthy claws near my eyes?" He snarled, one fang glinting dangerously. "What manner of fool do you take me for?"

Inuyasha flushed. "I'm the more trustworthy one of the two of us, and if I say I'm gonna help, then I will! Fuck! You expect me to trust you out of fucking nowhere, why the hell is it different for you to let me help?" He yelled, grabbing Sesshoumaru's wrist. "Now give me a damn look, before you give yourself pinkeye. You've been touching eels, you know."

A small tug-of-war ensued, before Sesshoumaru finally relaxed his wrist and pulled his hand from his eye. Inuyasha sucked in an inaudible breath, his eyes flickering. He knew. . .it was stupid, but. . .

A single drop of liquid was trailing from under the closed eyelid, streaking down Sesshoumaru's cheek.

It was just a reaction from having something foreign in his eye, he knew that, but Inuyasha found himself transfixed for a brief moment, watching that tear slide over his skin. Not daring to comment on it, or make a stupid joke, he rose up on his knees and knelt in front of his brother, one knee positioned between his. Looking down on him, Inuyasha suddenly realised he felt incredibly nervous. "Tip your head up," he said quietly, his hand hovering underneath his chin, not quite daring to touch him just yet. "I'll take a look."

He half-expected the youkai lord to rethink his decision and shove him away, as though his voice had broken the spell. But he didn't. He just lifted his head, expressionless, and looked up at him. His injured eye slid open a crack, slightly reddened and moist with the promise of more tears. Clearing his throat slightly, Inuyasha tried to make it look like an accident when he lifted that eyelid, and his sleeve brushed away the telltale wetness on that cheek. Eyes vivid with concentration, barely breathing, he focussed on the task at hand.

Getting something in your eye wasn't usually a big deal, he knew. Except that like Sesshoumaru, Inuyasha had incredibly sharp claws, which meant that if you copped some dirt in your eye, you couldn't just dig around in there by yourself. Last time he'd had that problem, Kagome had pulled out some kind of water squirting bottle and flushed it free until she could get it out. But there was something undeniably scary about letting someone near his eyes. He wouldn't have been surprised if Sesshoumaru had told him where to go, and let that be the end of it. But he hadn't, and now he had a pretty delicate job to do.

As he searched for the offending particle, he found himself reluctantly noticing small details of the face so close to his. The length of his eyelashes, dark and spiked with moisture. The way the pupil staring up at him seemed to flicker, then expand into a wide pool of darkness, leaving a ring of gold surrounding it, flecked with slightly darker shades of amber. They were the same as his own, he knew. It was the one feature they shared, perfectly identical where their bone structure was different, their hair not quite the same shade of silver. Their pallor was different, also; Sesshoumaru was pale as the moon where Inuyasha's skin tanned with the sun. Small differences, but the flaws in the hanyou marked him as different to the pureblood staring up at him with such silent intensity. Maybe this was weird for both of them.

Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea, Inuyasha reflected as he thumbed down Sesshoumaru's lower eyelid slightly, feeling him tense. He hissed in sympathy when he spotted it. "Don't move," he whispered, as though speaking might dislodge it. "It's an eyelash. I can see it."

"Get rid of it." Sesshoumaru reflexively tried to blink then, forcefully holding it back. His eyelids twitched. Inuyasha nodded, placing one hand on his cheek to steady him, his thumb holding down the eyelid.

"I'm gonna have to get a claw in there," he warned, his eyes fierce. "So don't freak out."

"Just do it," he replied, but his mouth compressed into a taut line, clearly unhappy with the situation.

"Trust me," Inuyasha said without thinking, leaning in until his eye was mere inches from his brother's, seeking out the best way to remove the crescent-shaped eyelash, laying thick and dark against the irritated white of his eye. He didn't want to shove the tip of his claw in there in case he stabbed him in the eye, and it was in there pretty deep. Instead he licked the back of his pinky claw, carefully placing it against the eyelash, drawing it up and out. It came as far as Sesshoumaru's lower eyelid, before falling amongst its still-attached brethren. Inuyasha forgot to breathe, his fingers still flexing against Sesshoumaru's face as they cradled his cheek. "Don't blink," he warned, as his eye watered again, sending a trail of salt-scented liquid dripping down his fingers. With a quick brush of his bent knuckle, he retrieved the eyelash, where it sat balanced on his finger in a droplet of liquid. "Got it."

They both sagged with the release of tension. Sesshoumaru let out a long breath against Inuyasha's throat, fanning warmly. The hanyou jumped minutely, which went unnoticed as his brother rubbed at his eye freely, his frown easing. By the time he opened his eyes again, all traces of redness were gone. He sure healed like a sonofabitch, Inuyasha thought jealously. He pinched the eyelash between his claws and studied his prize. "I think this is the longest damn eyelash I've ever seen. No wonder it was pissing you off."

He glanced at Sesshoumaru in curiosity to find him watching him strangely. "What?"

"Get off me."

Inuyasha blinked hard as he realised he'd sat down where he'd been kneeling—straddling Sesshoumaru's thigh. "Oh." Mortified beyond all possible comprehension and fairly sure his head was going to explode with it, he shifted to one side and sat in the grass, half obscured by the fur that graced his brother's shoulder. Damn it, why hadn't he noticed sooner? He'd been there a good thirty seconds before Sesshoumaru had said anything. Scowling at nothing in particular, he reached up and fiddled with his ear, rubbing the base of one to relieve the slight itch growing there. Something crunched under his fingers, and he drew away part of a leaf. "Why do these things always end up there?" He muttered, perplexed. He flicked his ears madly, feeling blindly for anything else that might be caught in his hair from his impromptu tumble in the grass.

A striped wrist moved into his field of vision, and long fingers fished another fragment of leaf out of his hair. Then his hand paused, hovering, before digging out a twig near his other ear. Too surprised to protest the sudden movement, Inuyasha let him go about his ministrations, holding his breath for some reason. Was he lulling him into a false sense of security before ripping off one of his ears? Sesshoumaru's claws brushed a particularly sensitive spot just beside his ear, and Inuyasha reflexively pushed back against them, angling his head slightly. The hand stilled. Realising what he'd just done Inuyasha froze, stunned at his own actions. He didn't dare look at his brother, instead staring straight ahead, horrified. His ears protectively flattened to his skull. "Sorry," he said woodenly. "Had an itch. Don't worry about the crap in my hair, everything ends up in ther—rrrr-r!" He broke off on an embarrassing whine as Sesshoumaru experimentally scratched his claws along the base of the hanyou's furred ear, his leg twitching oddly as shivers travelled up his spine. His eyelids slid to half mast, hazy with pleasure. He thought he heard his brother make a thoughtful sound, but it was reaching him as though down a long tunnel.

"Are you actually going to sleep?" Sesshoumaru asked faintly. All the while, the attention didn't cease. Inuyasha managed to frown half-heartedly, sliding his eyes to the youkai.

"Not a chance. If I did," he began, his jaw cracking on a sudden yawn, "I'd probably wake up with eels in my pants, right? That just happens to be my favourite scratching spot. 'S why I don't let people mess around with my ears." Even to him, his voice was sounding drowsy. His eyes slid closed. "Makes them think I'm just like a dog, you know, scratching behind my ears. . .Kagome tried to make me fetch a stick, once. . ."

The hand stopped. "What?"

Inuyasha's mouth turned down slightly, but he replied without opening his eyes. "Playin' around, I guess. Threw a stick and told me to fetch it—" He broke off with a sudden chill as youki slid across his skin, and fingers gripped his chin, whipping his head around. His eyes sprang open in guarded expectation for a blow, his forearm up to protect his face, but Sesshoumaru just stared at him with blazing eyes, fury bleaching his lips. "And did you allow such conduct, Inuyasha?" He asked, his voice low, and deadly.

Blinking rapidly, the hanyou tried to figure out what he'd done to make him angry. "What? I yelled at her, I guess," he said, and try as he might he couldn't keep the uncertainty out of his voice. His arm lowered. "It was only that one time." He shifted his lower jaw slightly, trying to pull his chin out of the grip it was in. It wasn't until some of the ferocity in Sesshoumaru's eyes had died away that he was able to do so. The youki hanging in the air around them vanished, leaving behind only the scent of his brother.

Looking away, Sesshoumaru crossed his arms and tucked them into his sleeves, his brow creased in an expression that he could only interpret as angry. "Humans," he snarled, almost entirely beneath his breath. His fangs glinted for a split second before his lips concealed them once more. "Youkai is youkai. Even a hanyou is not a friendly mongrel to humiliate and—tame." He slashed his gaze to Inuyasha, who was frozen, eyes wavering in shock. "You're the son of a daiyoukai. A pureblood youkai you will never be, but if you continue to allow those humans to treat you as something beneath them, I will kill you. I will rip out your throat and kill you."

Inuyasha stared.

He knew. . .he knew he should have some reply to make to that, but he couldn't think of anything. All that ran through his mind was his brother's words. A hanyou. . .even a hanyou shouldn't be. . .? Swallowing, his eyes larger than he could do anything about just then, Inuyasha ducked his head, allowing his hair to obscure them. Maybe he hadn't meant that the way it sounded. He tried desperately to explain away those words, the ones that threatened his eyes with a telltale sting. It almost sounded like Sesshoumaru didn't like the way the villagers had treated him, the way Kagome had made fun of him, even though she hadn't meant it like that. But his half-brother wasn't protective of him at all.

Raising his hand, he rubbed the tip of his ear and wondered exactly when everything he'd trusted and believed about his brother had been turned on its head. He just didn't get any of this. It was driving him insane. The fleeting thought that he'd have some peace of mind when Sesshoumaru finally moved on and disappeared again drew a sudden sharp wave of negation. Like he'd just leave him there, going quietly nuts. He wasn't good with the thinking. Inuyasha preferred being blunt and to-the-point, even tactless if he was totally frustrated.

Maybe he should just say it.

"Do you hate me?"

Sesshoumaru froze, his eyes unseeing as the question rung in the air between them.

Inuyasha was staring blindly at the ground in front of him, the curl of a self-depreciating smile tilting his lips. "Don't take it the wrong way, I'm not having a girl-moment right here where I wanna talk about my feelings and shit. I just want to know."

Memories from over two centuries ago came swirling back to Sesshoumaru. A forest clearing; a dirty hanyou child with too-large eyes and a hesitant smile. And a question; the very same question he asked of him again. His mouth twitched into a displeased line. To ask that. . .

"You should know the answer to that."

Inuyasha stiffened, his head whipping around to glare at him. "Yeah, well I don't anymore!" He yelled explosively. "Are you just—are you just fucking with my head? Is that it? Buttering me up so I don't leave Rin up shit creek to be eaten by youkai? Gonna kick me back into the gutter after your precious human kid is able to defend herself? Because you can save it, asshole. I survived this long without a brother—I don't need you now. So you can just quit—quit whatever it is you're doing." His hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists, digging into his palms, all the confusion and bitter anger welling up in him until he thought he might choke on it.

Sesshoumaru watched him carefully, taking in the turmoil rioting in his eyes, his bitten-down lips, and the tension thrumming up and down every muscle in his body. Inuyasha had no idea what he wanted, that much was obvious. If he were honest, even he wasn't entirely certain of his own intentions. He'd learned, that was all. Brief glimpses over the years, curses, battles and blood; they never showed him anything like what he'd discovered over the past weeks. This brash, cocky hanyou he'd resented for so long was in reality a bruised youth with knowledge of the darker aspects of life that spanned further than even his own. Betrayed, forgotten and scorned for everything he was, yet he still searched for some acceptance, in whatever way he could find it. Grinned that overconfident grin of his and hid his scars, searching for a place to fit. Fought against a monstrous evil to protect a world that didn't even wish him to be in it.

Yet through all of this, the hanyou had never tried to seek his acceptance. The only other person in all of existence who shared his blood. Had his estrangement truly been so complete?

"I'm done waiting," Inuyasha finally muttered, not noticing the sharpening of Sesshoumaru's eyes as he jumped to his feet. "Just tell Rin to meet me tomorrow—uff!" He hit the ground on his back hard enough to knock the wind from his lungs, staring dizzily up at the sunlight pouring between the branches overhead. Sesshoumaru had yanked his sleeve hard enough to pull his haori off his shoulder, but before he could right himself hands were pinning his wrists to the grass, and blazing sunlit eyes were looking down straight into his own. Silver hair that didn't belong to him was pooling across his chest and stomach, and he suddenly felt very, very uncomfortable. "Let go of me!" He growled, fighting against the tight grip on his hands, arching his back and using his shoulders to try and push himself into a sitting position.

Then teeth closed on his ear.

Inuyasha stopped moving.

It was only a warning nip, probably to shut him up. The sharpness of teeth vanished, leaving only the warm pressure of lips as they tugged firmly, shaking his ear slightly. He heard a warning growl growing in Sesshoumaru's chest, and wasn't sure of what to do. Was this a youkai dominance thing he didn't know about? Then Inuyasha realised he was staring straight up at a white throat, bared and unprotected. Without thinking, he lunged up and closed his teeth around the side of Sesshoumaru's neck, his pulse beating hotly in his mouth. He had no idea what he was doing, knowing only that his fangs were a millimetre away from piercing the translucent skin of his brother's neck, severing the pale blue vein that held his life within it.

Yet Sesshoumaru didn't even react. Didn't bite off his ear, claw his sides, or snarl in that voice that meant something was going to die, and soon. He just breathed out and spoke. "You won't," he said, sounding so quietly matter-of-fact that Inuyasha almost wanted to clamp his jaws down to spite him. He trembled with the strain of holding just the right amount of pressure –what the fuck was he doing- and it was then he accidentally nicked his skin with a fang. Sesshoumaru tensed minutely, as though recalculating what the hanyou would and would not do, but Inuyasha's nerve broke as blood spilled across his lower lip and he released the youkai lord, his head falling back to rest in the grass.

"You're fucking crazy," he breathed, feeling strangely out of breath. "I could have killed you." He squinted at the filtered sunlight, closing his eyes briefly and tasting the potent youki-laced blood coating the roof of his mouth. "Your blood tasted like crap though." Just another lie.

"I wouldn't know," was the odd reply, and then he shifted slightly, releasing Inuyasha's wrists. His eyes scanned the hanyou's bewildered expression. "You are the only one who ever spills it."

Feeling a little smug at that admission, Inuyasha turned his head slightly to look at his brother more clearly, a little blinded with the sun—and felt a warm tongue stroke slowly over his lower lip, velvety rough and moist against his mouth. He froze, processing that yes, this was Sesshoumaru. By extension, that was Sesshoumaru's tongue.

Then he nearly had a heart attack.

"Gyah! God!" He yelled, freaking out in the worst way, cheeks flaming. "Holy crap, did you just kiss me?"

The youkai blinked. "Of course not," he said coldly, running a claw along his own lips. "Your mouth was bloody, imbecile. It offended me."

"Everything offends you!" He yelped. "If you went around licking everything that offended you, you'd have to lick every inch of me!"

A sudden, mortifyingly awkward silence descended.

Sesshoumaru just stared at him. "That does make sense," he eventually replied, nonplussed. "Though I'd rather not."

"Agreed," Inuyasha said weakly, contemplating suicide. "Now let us never speak of this again."

"As you wish."

They sat there uncomfortably until Rin and Jaken returned to the campsite, Inuyasha spending the entire time worrying his lip with his teeth, trying to ignore the taste of heady blood and Sesshoumaru that was trying to invade his senses. He sent a promise straight up to god that he was never sticking around the bastard without some kind of supervision ever again. It was bad for his health, mental and otherwise.

During the wait, Sesshoumaru broke the silence to answer a question. "I don't," he said quietly, out of the blue. "Perhaps I never did."

By then Inuyasha had no idea what he was talking about.


Chapter 9: Lonely

Inuyasha wasn't quite sure how, but before he realised it, his life had changed.

Not in great leaps and bounds, but in such a way that he'd barely realised it until he caught himself thinking back, back to the days just after Kagome had left. He'd been alone, then.

Now. . .now he had to put some serious goddamn effort in just to take a piss without someone creeping up on him.

He put it down to Suki and Hina, sibling pains in his ass that they were. Apparently they'd told the whole village of his grand heroic deed, probably throwing in a few added details he couldn't remember, because he was fairly sure he hadn't kissed that bugshit little kid or her thunder-thighs sister. Whatever else they'd said, the villagers were suddenly smiling at him and waving—and not in the 'look this way while my friend hits you from behind with a stick of wood' kind of wave, either. It had thrown him off for the first week or so, but three weeks on and he was actually starting to relax a little around them. It was. . .different.

Kind of nice.

Except for that rumour that he had a thing for Hina. That kind of sucked.

For one thing, Suki wouldn't leave him alone anymore. She was the main culprit when it came to people popping up out of nowhere when he was taking a leak. He'd nearly pissed on her head when she'd leapt out behind him, being in the middle of certain things you can't just comfortably halt mid-stream while spinning around. They'd both been kind of traumatised after that, and she'd buggered off for a few days. He could handle it for the most part, but he had to draw the line somewhere. Inuyasha supposed that having some measure of acceptance from the humans that surrounded him did a fair job of placating him.

When he wasn't in the village, he was with Rin. They'd trained together daily for the past three weeks, and she was actually coming along pretty damn well, all things considered. He'd never thought he was anything much of a mentor figure, but the ease with which she picked up on things gave him a bit of a surprise. Then again, she was willing as hell to learn everything she could. Edible food found in the forest, where to strike a youkai to wound it, distinguishing features of human-eating youkai and where to find them, how to defend yourself against a human attacker, what to do if bitten by a venomous creature –he'd stuck that last lesson in as a joke, but like everything else she drank it in, bright eyes sparkling with interest. He found himself growing fond of the kid despite his best intentions. This was Sesshoumaru's human girl, he had to remind himself, and at the end of everything she's going to skip away, following her youkai lord wherever he decides to go.

Still, he couldn't help but like the gutsy little kid. Inuyasha was used to people leaving, anyway. And things weren't so very bad, after all.

Sesshoumaru, he hadn't seen since the day at the campsite, which the hanyou still wasn't entirely certain what to make of. He'd left with Rin a scant hour after she'd returned with Jaken, and his brother hadn't seemed inclined to even glance in his direction, seeming deep in thought. He only prayed that he wasn't thinking about his horrible slip of the tongue. Oh god, now he was making puns in his own head. Which led to another incident he was pretty sure was going to haunt him forever. But absence had done its job, it seemed, and as time stretched on, he found himself wondering if Sesshoumaru had gone completely off his tree from boredom yet. Damned if he was going to go see, though. The toad would probably roast his ass.

So life fell into a pleasant routine, and Inuyasha stopped being bothered by the humans who smiled instead of scowled, and tossed him apples instead of hurling stones.

He'd finished up with Rin for the day, and the two of them were sprawled in the field near the forest, Rin completely wiped out, Inuyasha chewing a long piece of grass, his hands stacked behind his head. He'd been giving her a practical lesson on fighting, using himself as the attacker. She'd actually given him a fair punch in the thigh, but it was his ear that hurt like hell. She'd yanked on it when he'd hauled her over his shoulder.

"Inuyasha," Rin said suddenly, "don't you think that cloud over there looks like Ah-Un?"

"Nah. Looks like a giant snail's head. And those two things sticking up are its little. . .snail. . .pokey things."

"Then where is its body?"

"Got eaten."

"Oh. What about that one over there? It looks like Sesshoumaru-sama's fluffy shoulder!"

Inuyasha snorted. "It's not part of his shoulder, dipshit. He just puts it there so it doesn't drag. And I'd say that cloud looks more like a dog turd."

"Like yours?" Rin giggled. Inuyasha spluttered and swatted at her, intentionally missing.

"I mean a real dog!"

"Do you go around looking at dog. . .turds?" She didn't wait for his reply, instead choosing to crack the giggles at the foul word she'd just used, rolling around on the grass with glee. Inuyasha felt pretty sure she'd been poking fun at him then, and didn't know what to say to that. Instead, he started slightly when she rolled her way over next to him, flipping onto her stomach to stare at him. "Hey, Inuyasha. . ."

"Not chucking that stupid suffix onto my name anymore, I see," he said approvingly. "What?"

"I wish you were my brother," she said earnestly, suddenly.

Startled by the admission, and a little flustered, Inuyasha snapped his eyes to hers and found her expression to be hopeful and sincere. Weird kid. His lips curved upwards, too faintly to be called a real smile. He turned his eyes back to the sky. "Course you do. Dunno what you'd want with me though kid—" He stopped when she threw herself across his torso, smooshing her face into his shoulder in an awkward hug. He sighed. Why hadn't he seen that coming?

Then a shadow fell across them both, and he sucked in a surprised breath.

"Inuyasha, we can't leave you alone, can we? I turn my back for four months and you're already seducing younger women," Miroku said ruefully, shaking his head in mock despair. "I miss those days like. . ." The monk trailed off as Sango joined them, eyeing him suspiciously, before continuing his train of thought. He blinked. ". . .crabs. Yes, glad to see the end of them."

Inuyasha's face soured with disgust. "Shit, Miroku, you don't change." Sitting up, he pulled Rin upright with him, but she didn't seem inclined to remove her arms from around his neck. Her eyes sparked with recognition as she laid eyes on the youkai exterminator and the monk.

"Oh Inuyasha, it's your friends!" She exclaimed, as though he might not have known. Miroku just looked blank for a moment, but Sango cogged immediately, surprise lighting her features.

"You're Sesshoumaru's little girl, aren't you?" When the kid nodded, Sango held out a hand, kneeling down slightly. She was wearing her pink kimono without the green wrap that usually accompanied it, hiraikotsu nowhere to be seen, and it give her a softer aura than she usually carried. "My name is Sango. Nice to properly meet you!"

Amusingly, Rin looked to him for approval first before clambering out of his lap and taking Sango's hand. "I'm Rin! Nice to properly meet you!" She parroted back, her cheeks staining pink when Sango laughed at her antics. Inuyasha hauled himself to his feet and scratched his head, noticing Miroku's slightly thoughtful expression as he watched Sango. He got the feeling that this wasn't just a random visit, but perhaps it was just his paranoia talking.

"So don't beat around the bush," he said casually, glancing off in the direction of the village. "Got something you wanna tell me?"

"Can't we visit an important friend?" Miroku replied innocently. "Sango thought you might have crawled into a hole and died, you know. We'd planned to come back here after six months to see how you were doing anyway—"

"Like I need babysitting!" He interrupted, his face twisting with displeasure. "I dealt with it, okay?"

A hand came into his personal space then, and wrapped around the beads that clinked softly around his neck. "Yet you still wear these," he said, sounding altogether too knowing. The bastard always put that stupid face on, but the hanyou knew better. He snorted and jerked out of his grip.

"Can't get 'em off, can I?" He said, brushing off the comment like it didn't bother him to wear the beads of subjugation long after their user had moved on. "Besides, they complement my eyes."

The monk laughed then, and an almost unnoticeable tension leaked out of Inuyasha. No one had commented on the beads, and he'd preferred it that way. Turning back to Sango and Rin, he allowed himself to smile genuinely, and reached a hand out to Sango. He had missed them, after all. Sango just blinked at his outstretched hand.

"Inuyasha, don't be so distant!" She cried, and wrapped her arms around his shoulders in a quick hug. "We're friends, aren't we?" Over her shoulder, he saw Rin's expression turn speculative. Great. Patting her awkwardly on the back, he disentangled himself from her as quickly as he could, feeling vaguely weirded out. He'd never hugged Sango before.

He turned back to see if Miroku was upset about the hug—then grunted as the monk swamped him from behind in a smothering embrace of epic proportions, his cheek nuzzled against his own. "See? We're all friendly here, Inuyasha—"

"—get the fuck off me," the hanyou yowled, shoving him away, hair frazzled. "Lunatic. Where's Shippou, anyway?"

"Back in the village with Kirara and Kaede-sama," Miroku answered, as though he hadn't just been shoved back three feet under the amused watch of two girls. "I think he was worried you'd be so glad to see him you might just beat him to death."

"Smart kid," he muttered under his breath, then straightened his shoulders. "Well, we should head down there, I guess. . ." his eyes wandered to Rin then, followed by Sango and Miroku's. "You're due back by now, aren't you?"

The small girl looked unhappy. "Yes. . ." She said hesitantly, her expression clearly conveying that she didn't want to leave just yet. "But. . ."

Inuyasha felt it before the others did; his senses were too finely attuned to him now. But he knew the moment Sango and Miroku noticed his brother. A veritable gust of youki blew across them all as Sesshoumaru strode out of the forest, revealing his presence with languid purpose. Sango's eyes flashed, and her forearm twitched to release a spring-loaded dagger, while Miroku just rested one hand against his chest, doubtless inches away from the ofuda he kept tucked within his robes.

Inuyasha just scowled at his brother. "Where the hell do you come from?" He asked grumpily. "I'm starting to think you really are stalking me, you know. Were you up that tree? You were, weren't you."

His brother didn't change expression. "You are late," he stated simply, ignoring Inuyasha's paranoia. "I dislike being kept waiting."

"Deal with it," the hanyou yawned. "Company arrived. You want me to be rude? You're always on about my manners." The youkai lord didn't react to that either, simply sliding his eyes to Miroku and Sango in silent appraisal. Then his mouth twitched, pulling in at the corners.

"Hn," was all he replied with, his eyelids lowering slightly, veiling the brilliance of his suddenly disdainful gaze. "You waste your time with these two, who openly check their weapons at the sight of me?" There was a sharpness in his tone that was unmistakable. The hanyou just shrugged.

"I used to do the same," he said without inflection, then frowned. When had that changed?

His brother seemed to be reflecting upon the same thing, his eyes scanning Inuyasha's face for a hint of his thoughts. Finally he just crossed his arms, sliding his hands into opposite sleeves as was his habit. He seemed to allow the affront to slide in that one action.

"Inuyasha?" Sango ventured to ask. "What's going on? Why is Sesshoumaru here?" She said his name strangely, and it was enough for him to frown and flick his eyes to the youkai lord, who was paying them no mind, his gaze turned inward again, as it had been when he'd last seen him. Irked by it and not knowing why, Inuyasha shrugged.

"Hanging out. He keeps proposing to Kaede but she won't make an honest man of him."

Outraged golden eyes slashed to him, showing he had very much been listening, while Miroku and Sango's jaws dropped to the ground. They knew he'd been joking, of course, but they seemed to think that now his life was about to end. Really, it wasn't stupid of them to think so. Inuyasha just grinned, glad to finally get a decent reaction out of him. "You're gonna hit me for that later, aren't you."

"You are learning," Sesshoumaru replied, one eyebrow slightly raised, mouth pulled into a frown. His eyes flicked to Rin then, who was looking between the two of them with rapt curiosity. His expression didn't change much, but something prickled Inuyasha's instincts as he picked up a telltale flicker in his brother's golden eyes.

"I will return. Rin, you may do as you please." Even to Inuyasha, those words were unspoken permission to stay with him, and not return with Sesshoumaru to that lonely campfire. He must have heard her earlier. The hanyou's eyebrows lowered slightly in contemplation of that. He had no doubt that Sesshoumaru didn't need anyone, let alone a fizzy little girl running about the place. And while he would never outright say he wanted anyone around him, the fact remained that Rin was the only person he allowed stay with him for absolutely no reason. She wasn't the useful sort.

There was no reason to make her stay with him.

Especially not if Rin didn't want to.

I wish you were my brother. . .

Bothered by the sudden, unbidden sensation of something being just outside his grasp, he watched as Sesshoumaru silently turned and began to make his way back into the forest. Beside him, Rin watched the youkai lord go with unsure eyes, but she didn't follow him. Instead, she grasped Inuyasha's fingers and squeezed tightly, as though seeking reassurance that it was all right. He managed a weak twitch of his fingers to placate her, his eyes searching the forest long after the last glimpse of Sesshoumaru had vanished.

"Well, now that he's gone, let's all go into the village, shall we? I'm sure Kaede-sama has something good cooking for us," Miroku said cheerfully. "Rin, I'll introduce you to Shippou. Feel free to braid flowers into his hair. He'll put up a fight, but he secretly likes their scent."

Rin's eyes turned round with solemn understanding. "I'll use boy flowers," she promised. Miroku smiled at her, his eyes turning into crescents of merriment.

"Good girl."

Clicking his tongue angrily, Inuyasha grabbed Rin's hand and yanked her with him in the direction of the village. "Stop using her for your twisted amusement!" He snapped. "That goes for you too, Sango."

"But I only wanted to put makeup on her!" The demon hunter said, offended. The hanyou shook his fist threateningly, then rethought his movements and pulled Rin up into his arms instead, ignoring the girl's whoop of delight.

"Stay away from those vultures," he ordered the girl under his breath. "They're all smiles till you're being accused of being a cheating bastard."

Rin just blinked at him, her small hands braced on his shoulders. He wished he hadn't used that wording. It brought back home the sense of wrongness he'd felt the moment she'd hesitated at the idea of returning to Sesshoumaru. Somehow. . .he felt wrong. When he'd thought about using the girl to get his own revenge on Sesshoumaru for trying to blackmail him, it had only been a passing thought. He'd never really thought about dragging the kid away from his bastard older brother. Now, without any effort on his part, it seemed to be happening anyway.

Or was this what Sesshoumaru had been after?

The thought made him angry. Fobbing the kid off onto him, was he? Sick of her, then? And this whole 'training' thing was just to get her attached to him or something? Sesshoumaru had always commented, since ages ago, that he thought Inuyasha was fond of the kid. Tried to get him to admit it. Feeling out how willing he'd be to take her on full time? Was that it?


Stubbornly, some part of him refused to believe that. He didn't know why, but he just couldn't picture it. The proud set of his shoulders as he'd left earlier wasn't quite. . .wasn't quite the same as usual. Something was off. Something was off, and now it was completely bugging the hell out of him. He shifted his grip on Rin. "C'mon. We'll eat dinner, and after I'll take you back to the camp. We good?"

"We're good," she agreed firmly. He grinned a little despite himself; the midget was starting to talk like him.

"C'mon then."

Dinner was an interesting affair; a sprawl of humans and demons seated outside Kaede's hut in the evening light, laughing, joking, sharing stories. It was a warm atmosphere, something that brought back memories for the hanyou of their days hunting jewel shards. While the keen lack of Kagome did not go unnoticed, it didn't create a damper on things. Acceptance of the way things had to be had never been the problem. Instead, he busied himself pestering Shippou till he bit him on the arm, using the time to steal his hair tie so Rin could properly thread her wildflowers through the orange mop. Seated closer together than they'd ever been on the road, Miroku and Sango looked much the same as they always had, but there was an unmistakable difference in the way they glanced at each other. Or perhaps it was simply the lack of molestation and subsequent concussion that piqued his curiosity. Then again, they were gettingmarried. It'd be weird if they were still beating the shit out of each other.

Married. Heh. He didn't know why, but it somehow seemed like he'd been left behind in things. Not that he was bitter, he had his own places to go, his own space to fit. . .maybe it was all just part of being a hanyou. He'd gone so long without people around him, aging slower than humans, than when he finally surrounded himself with them, he only now realised how much faster their lives seemed to flash by. While he stayed the same. Forever mired in his teens—or at least for another fifty years or so. During that time, Sango and Miroku would be old and grey, if they were even alive at all.

Just one more reason, he decided musingly, that hanyou and humans, demons and humans, just shouldn't fall for each other. He didn't know much about mathematics, but even he could figure that out.

"What has you brooding so, Inuyasha?" Kaede asked quietly over the top of Rin's head, where she sat between them. Her single good eye regarded him with wise gravity, as always. "You'll strain something at this rate."

"Whatever," he grumbled, rising out of his deep thoughts. "I'm not thinking about anything. Gimme more of that stew, would you—" He broke off as a steaming bowl was passed to him before he could finish his sentence, Kaede already having prepared it while he was zoned out. "Huh. Usually I gotta threaten to brain you before you give me seconds. Did you poison it?"

"So I could have your brother sweep down to save you again?" She asked with a snort as he took the bowl and scented it. "The less I see of that frightful youkai, the better. His disdain for this village is more than clear."

That perked his ears up. "Huh?"

Kaede shook her head slowly. "Merely a comment he made he made when you were ill. Something to the effect that you were not a pet of the village," she said. "It may very well be that his attitude toward you has changed, Inuyasha."

Sango, having overhead that last part, made an enquiring sound and leaned forward on her knees. "It did seem that something had definitely changed, Inuyasha. You two were almost. . .well, friendly." Then she wrinkled her nose and shook her head. "Perhaps that's too strong a word. Civil, perhaps? And not a single sword was drawn. Is it only because he needs you to look after Rin?"

Ears flicking nervously, he realised everyone was staring at him, waiting for an answer he didn't have. "Probably," he eventually said, hedging a little. "Who knows with that guy, right?"

Sango sighed a little wistfully. "I think it's sad," she admitted, taking Miroku's hand as he lay his arm across her shoulders. "You're all each other has, but you don't get along. Must be lonely."

At that, Inuyasha felt his pity sensor go off, and he scowled. "Hardly. Can't miss what you never had," he growled, eyeing Sango unfavourably. "Who cares about that bastard, anyway." He dug into his stew, hoping that if he filled his mouth enough no one would ask him any more questions. As it was his stomach was twisting doubtfully. Lonely, huh?

The conversation topic forgotten by the rest of them, the night wore on, until Kaede retired to her hut for the night, while Rin and Shippou fell asleep in a slumped pile inside with her, their heads resting together. Inuyasha just prodded the fire with a stick, lost in thought again, while the couple on the other side of the fire seemed to glance at each other and come to some kind of decision. Miroku smiled and nodded faintly.

"Inuyasha," Sango said hesitantly, her brown eyes warm, "we've got something to tell you. It's why we came a little earlier than we'd first planned."

Drawing himself up, he blinked and tilted his head questioningly. "You guys finally got married?"

Miroku scratched his cheek and tried to look innocent. "No, but it is somewhat related to that issue," he said, his mouth twitching. Sango elbowed him in the ribs, her cheeks flushing pink.

"What our eloquent houshi-sama is trying to say is that. . .I'm pregnant. We're having a baby." Then she smiled helplessly as she waited for his response.

His eyes widened.

"Pregnant," Inuyasha repeated, floored. The first thought that went through his mind was a rather immature recoil from the idea of those two having sex of any kind, followed by the full impact of her words. "Babies. Fuck. You guys are gonna be parents. . .with babies. Fuck."

"That's usually how it happens," Miroku said cheerily, his double entendre caught by the demon hunter and hanyou at the same time. Inuyasha's shock broke apart, and he grinned widely, reaching forward to pound the unsuspecting monk on the back in congratulations.

Inwardly he was reeling. His two friends, starting a family. Had started a family. With kids and a house and parents, husband and wife. . .all those normal things humans did were coming to life before his stagnant eyes. It was great for them, and he was happy they were happy. They deserved peace and a normal life, after everything they'd gone through before now. All the pain and blood and anguish, the loss of Sango's family and her brother, Miroku's inherited curse and his father's death. The torment Naraku has inflicted on them. They'd lost everything; they deserved this. He was happy for them.

So why did he suddenly feel so left behind? Stupid, he thought viciously, behind his smiles and laughter. You selfish fuck. Don't ruin this for them with your own shit.

Swallowing down his whirling emotions, he forced himself to smile and listen to their plans for the future, genuinely interested in everything they were saying. Because they cared about what he thought; his opinion mattered. So while they laughed about Miroku finally scoring on Sango despite her best efforts to wait until they were married, and watching the girl turn five shades of crimson and complain about their crude jokes even while grinning a little herself, Inuyasha let himself forget.

When the pair eventually bade their goodnights, preparing to sleep on the spare pallets in the shrine, when they'd gone and it was just him and the dwindling campfire, he finally allowed his smile to fade. Pulling in a deep breath, he dropped his forehead into the heels of his palms and let out a shuddering sigh. This. . .this was all right too. Things had just been weird lately. This kind of thing went with the territory, didn't it? Aging slower, and being. . .well, his mixed blood was unfavourable to human and youkai alike. The hanyou knew all these things. Families weren't for his kind. Love. . .well. That was something that had only ended in hurt; times he didn't want to remember again.

Must be lonely. . .

Flinching, he cursed Sango's words, pulling his knees up and resting his chin on them. Lonely. He'd think by now he'd learned to get over that. No family to care, no friends to travel with—just a squirt of a kid and a cold half-brother who used him for his own ends.

"Shit, I'm such a fucking girl," he snarled under his breath, his expression twisting with frustration. Knowing he wasn't going to get any rest, he found himself walking through the village, which was silent and dark, the scent of smoke and grass hanging in the air. The stars shone brilliantly overhead, not a single cloud to hide them from sight. It was a nice night, if a little cool. He'd left his haori back with Rin, since she'd latched onto it in her sleep. He'd meant to take her back earlier, but she'd fallen asleep after eating and he didn't really want to lug her sleeping ass through the forest like some kind of child-stealer. He wondered what Sesshoumaru thought of her absence. Maybe he didn't even care. Must be nice to be him, he thought with an inner snort. Maybe he could teach him a thing or two about not giving a shit about anything or anyone.

It came to his attention after a while that his feet were walking the well-worn path he'd wound through the forest to the small campsite, as though his mind was taking him there on sheer habit alone. In the darkness he could now make the trip without losing his footing once, despite the close-pressing greenery and low-hanging branches that marked the path in some places. His memory knew the map of this route like the back of his hand. Pausing, he realised he was three-quarters of the way there. Stupid.

Then he realised he couldn't see the glowing light of the campfire at all.

From this distance, he could usually see. But there was nothing but darkness ahead, and no scent of smoke to tease his nose. Had he—had Sesshoumaru left?

The thought galvanised his feet into action, until he was jogging down the path toward the well-protected clearing by the edge of the stream. Slowing before he actually broke through the leaves, he paused and ran a hand through his hair in agitation. "Stop being a pussy," he lectured himself under his breath, then barged through the bushes. If there was no one there, fine. If he was there, well, that was fine too.

It took him a moment to locate everything in the clearing, and search out a familiar white shape amongst the dark outlines of the surrounding trees. There was nothing.

The campsite was deserted. No toad, no dragon, no Sesshoumaru.


Shocked, he fell back a step in denial, trying to refute what his eyes clearly saw.

Hands caught his shoulders, and he jumped with a gasp—he hadn't even sensed—! Jerking his head up, he looked backwards up into the downturned face of his older brother.

"Inuyasha?" From this distance, he could see the slight widening of his brother's eyes as he realised who his intruder was.

"Sesshoumaru," he breathed dumbly, his wide eyes taking in the features he knew so well. "Um." Think, moron! "Rin fell asleep. So. I'll bring her back in the morning." It took him a moment to remember to pull himself out of the long-fingered grasp on his shoulders, and turn around. Shit. For a moment there. . .

"And you came here, at this hour, to inform me of this," his brother said, obviously sceptical of his intentions. He crossed his arms over his chest and regarded him with some suspicion.

Inuyasha opened his mouth, but nothing came out. How could he even explain? He wasn't even sure what the implications of walking here when he was lost in thought were. Had he been worried? It was a little hard to deny now, with relief a calm wave in the back of his mind. Nothing had changed. Hesitating, he eventually let out a breath and shrugged. "I was just walking," he muttered.

"In the middle of the night," the youkai added. "Half-dressed." When Inuyasha didn't reply, turning his face away and scowling, his brother took his chin between two fingers and pulled his face back so their eyes met. "Something, is wrong."

Surprise crossed his face for a moment as he stared up at Sesshoumaru, disbelieving that he could see so clearly. Or that he'd even comment on it like—like it mattered. "Rin's fine," he assured, raising both hands, palms out in placation. "Nothing's wrong with her. Why is no one here? Why the hell don't you have a fire going? Shit, I thought for a second you'd ditched her with me and pissed off somewhere." Pulling himself out of his brother's grip he stomped into the centre of the camp and began kicking fresh pieces of wood into the centre of the circle of rocks that formed the campfire, glancing around for some dry grass and the rocks they used to spark the fire. He pointedly ignored Sesshoumaru as he worked, mostly because he felt like if he didn't, he'd stare right through him and pull out the thoughts he'd been pondering over the whole evening.

"I don't require light or heat to survive, and I know you know this," Sesshoumaru suddenly said, even as he closed in on the pale flames of the burgeoning campfire. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Where's Jaken?" Inuyasha returned, avoiding the question. "Where's that freaky dragon of yours?"

"Why aren't you with your comrades?"

"Why were you sitting in the dark like a loser?"

"Why did you seek me out?"

"Why haven't you kicked me out?"

Sesshoumaru growled with frustration, wringing a fangy grin out of Inuyasha despite everything. "Wretched hanyou."

"Stuck-up youkai." He expected a good punch for that, but found that he was guarding against air when he turned to see Sesshoumaru seating himself in the grass beside the fire, his back to the large boulder embedded in the ground. Inuyasha watched him for a moment, his eyes following the way he swept his hair to the side, how he arranged himself so his armour didn't bother him, how he steadied the fur decorating his shoulder. All that just to sit down. What a freaking hassle.

"You're staring," Sesshoumaru informed him with a frown. Inuyasha blinked and drew himself out of his reverie.

"Why do you wear all that?" He asked, waving his hand at the decorative protection. "Your body's tougher than that brittle armour anyway. And the fur—now I know you can make that disappear. I don't get it."

He was faintly gratified to see Sesshoumaru's eyebrows rise when he commented on the fur gracing his shoulder, and tried to smother the smug grin that threatened to rise. His brother ran his fingers across the fur lightly, then switched his eyes to the fire. "My trappings are customary of a daiyoukai when in my sealed form. Our father wore the same. It is tradition."

"Oh." Inuyasha felt like he should probably backtrack on the subject, since any mention of their old man usually cost him a couple litres of blood by the end of things. "Isn't it uncomfortable?"

"I am accustomed to it," he replied indifferently. Inuyasha found he was able to actually read behind what he was saying, and his mouth quirked.

"Itchy as hell, right? Hot in summer, and probably, from the looks of things, risks poking you in the crotch when you sit down," he said mischievously, making a show of relaxing comfortably by the fire, languorously stretching out on his side and propping his head up on one hand. "Must be hard. Not that I'd know about it. I get to run around half-naked and no one gives a shit. Barefoot, too."

Sesshoumaru looked annoyed, and it delighted the hell out of the hanyou. "Your lack of stature affords you the freedom to do as you please," he acknowledged, but he was frowning as he said it. Inuyasha just flopped over into his back and turned his head to look at his brother, but his face was cast in shadow from that angle, making only his eyes visible as they reflected the light of the fire.

"Hrmph, Daddy's boy," Inuyasha grumbled. "Who are you trying to look good for? In case you hadn't noticed, our old man's partying in that big kennel up in the sky." He yelped as fingers yanked on his sore ear. "Dammit! See, that's called picking on your little brother. Bad Sesshoumaru. Go to your room."

"Imbecile," the youkai muttered under his breath, but Inuyasha could have sworn that there had been a thread of warmth buried in that insult. "Disrespectful mongrel. I do, however, concede there is no one in this backwater territory who will remark upon my attire." There was a rush of youki then, and a splinter of light flashed around Sesshoumaru, making the hanyou blink and flip over to stare at his brother in surprise. Was he actually going to. . .huh. He was. By the time the light died, Sesshoumaru had sealed away the last remnant of his true form; the length of plush fur that he'd never been without in all the years Inuyasha had known him.

Without commenting on it, Sesshoumaru got to his feet and loosened the knot of his obi, winding it around his hand as he worked on the buckles that seemed to actually close from the inside of the armour, since there was nothing visible from the outside. Just smooth black plates that bound his brother from chest to thigh. Pushing himself up onto his elbows, Inuyasha studied the effort involved in taking all that crap off. "Need help?"

At that moment the sound of a buckle popping free was heard, and Sesshoumaru lifted the whole thing over his head on one fluid movement. He placed it on the ground with care, the spiked pauldron glinting in the firelight. It looked huge with no one wearing it.

"You couldn't pay me to wear that thing," Inuyasha said firmly, shaking his head. "Even as often as I get skewered through the guts." Sesshoumaru didn't reply, busy tying his obi in place and sliding his swords into position. When he did lift his head and shake his hair back over his shoulders, the hanyou found himself struck by the difference in the youkai lord. Without the volume of the fur looping over his shoulder and the armour he never went without, there was a marked decrease in size all over that surprised Inuyasha. He was still broader in the shoulders and taller than him by a good measure, but with the removal of the armour the narrow plane of his waist was easily visible; his haori thin enough to cling to the lean muscle of his chest. "Huh," he finally said, mystified.

"What is it?" Sesshoumaru demanded, looking down at himself then back to Inuyasha.

"You look different, I guess," the hanyou replied, which really could have meant anything. His ears twitched, and his eyes slid to one side. "Plus I didn't think you'd actually take that stuff off. You're. . .not as uptight as I thought, are you?"

"I'm certain I am," his brother replied smoothly, seating himself by the fire once again, one leg drawn up. Inuyasha grinned, then nodded and flipped over onto his back, the firelight warming his side. His head was right near Sesshoumaru's knee now, which meant he was in punching distance, so he didn't comment further on his disposition, though it was damn tempting.

They fell into silence after that, Sesshoumaru staring into the flames, Inuyasha blinking up at the cold brilliance of the stars. He wasn't sure exactly when he'd realised, but for an arrogant bastard Sesshoumaru wasn't exactly bad company. In fact, he was hard-pressed to remember why he'd been so torn up earlier. Lonely? He couldn't say he was, not just then. He didn't connect with his brother, not the way siblings should—but there was some bond there that he had no choice but to acknowledge. He didn't hate him, at the very least, but on the other side of things. . .hell, he liked his brother. Down to his blank looks, his surprisingly sadistic sense of humour, and randomly violent tendencies. When he didn't treat him like scum, Sesshoumaru was almost. . .likable.

Inuyasha felt his lazy mood fade into cold clarity. "Rin should be finished her training in another couple days, I guess," he found himself saying. "You won't have to stick around the village anymore." Or me, he thought, but it went without saying anyway.

"She is a quick study," came the quiet reply, cool and composed. "And you? Are you content to rot in this tiny human village?"

Inuyasha shrugged jerkily, resting his arms above his head as he frowned up at the sky. "It's the closest thing I've got to a home," he said, though it didn't really answer the question. He tried again. "No reason to go anywhere else."

"I see."

Another silence fell, this one more uncomfortable than the last. He heard Sesshoumaru shift slightly above him, and didn't jump when a white sleeve brushed his cheek by accident. Pausing at this, the youkai lord spoke again. "What reason would you require?"

Inuyasha blinked, rolling his eyes up to look at his brother, who was gazing just as intently down at him. For some reason, his heart rate picked up, just a little. "Last time it was Naraku. What's that tell you?"

"You are suicidal," his brother replied evenly. Inuyasha accidentally punched him in the thigh as he stretched his arms, and Sesshoumaru pulled out some of his hair. "And too easily provoked."

"You can talk," Inuyasha grunted, swatting away the clawed hand that was yanking his hair. Pinching his leg in revenge, he shifted to lay back down when he was cuffed up the back of the head, none-too-gently at that. "Oh you're going down." He leapt at the unsuspecting youkai, throwing him on his side in the grass. A small scuffle ensued, surprisingly lacking in bloodletting and cursing as they fought for the upper hand, lowering only to punching and the odd kick. It was almost. . .playful. The memory of dappled sunlight and blood in his mouth rushed back to Inuyasha, startling him enough that Sesshoumaru was able to roll him over, pinning him beneath his larger body.

Breathing a little raggedly, hair fanned around him, Inuyasha stared up at his brother. "When. . ." he panted lightly, "did we stop trying to kill each other?"

Sesshoumaru didn't answer at first, and instead gazed down at him, his breath gusting warmly across Inuyasha's cheek. His eyes slid over each shadowed curve of his face before he leaned in, his nose brushing the hanyou's cheek as he drank in his scent. Shifting slightly, Inuyasha just stared up at him with confusion, uncertain but unwilling to betray it. He whined softly in his throat as Sesshoumaru ducked his head, pressing his nose just beneath his jaw, the warmth of his breath a comfort and a warning all at once. He didn't like the comparison, but he felt like he'd bared his belly to a dominant creature. Inuyasha didn't. . .didn't submit like this—

"The scent of humanity boiling in your blood no longer offends me," Sesshoumaru finally said, his voice strangely throaty in such close proximity. Drawing his head back, forearms bracing his weight, he locked eyes with his brother. "And you are not responsible for our father's death, Inuyasha. What reason do I still have to kill you? Hate you?"

"I—I don't—" Realising he was stammering, Inuyasha bit his lip, his expression wide open to reveal the disbelief storming his mind. The sudden, almost panicked burst of joy he couldn't smother with comforting bluster and lies. He didn't know what to do. Sesshoumaru didn't—

Oh, oh fuck.

Mortified, Inuyasha squeezed his eyes shut and whipped his head to the side before the wet sting in them could turn into something else. He didn't care, he told himself viciously. He didn't care if he was hated, he didn't care he didn't care

Gritting his teeth, he tried to control himself. But a single scalding droplet escaped the confines of his tightly closed lids, sliding along the curve of his eyelashes and gathering in the corner of his eye. How long? How long had he wanted to hear that? How long had be tried to pretend it didn't matter?

So intent on gathering control was he that the wet swathe of a warm tongue running over the hollow of his vulnerable eye socket didn't register right away. He belatedly realised Sesshoumaru had smelled the salt of his tears, even if he couldn't see them in the fire-lit darkness. He made a half-hearted sound of annoyance, raising his arms to rub at his eyes. "You just licked me. Again. Pervert," he said, his voice slightly hoarse with the tightness of his throat. "Stop getting all youkai on me."

"Then stop crying," Sesshoumaru replied, drawing back from him to sit up. Inuyasha choked.

"You're not supposed to talk about it!" He said, aggrieved. He sprang up into a sitting position and stared at the ground in quiet horror. Crying. Shit. "There's rules for that kind of shit, Sesshoumaru. Guy rules."

"Oh? That would imply you had some semblance of masculinity."

"Oh my god!" Inuyasha practically howled. "That's rich, coming from you, you fucking she-male. I swear before you pulled off that armour I thought I had a sister."

Sesshoumaru threw him into the fire for that.

By the time Inuyasha had pulled himself out of the coals and built up the fire again, the youkai lord looked like he'd simmered down enough that he wouldn't attack again.

"Ow," the hanyou grunted, sitting down beside him. "I'm calling a truce. Fire-rat fur only does so much for coal-on-ass contact, you know." He wasn't sure, but he might have seen a glimmer of laughter in Sesshoumaru's eyes at that. God, what a night it had turned out to be. He raised his eyes to the sky. It was about an hour after midnight, and he felt like the day had caught up with him at last. Trying to stifle a yawn and failing, he saw his brother glance at him out the corner of his eye, then look away almost immediately. Weirdo. Flopping over onto his side, his head closest to Sesshoumaru so any sound he made didn't disturb him, Inuyasha turned his stomach to the flames and closed his eyes. Like hell he was walking back now.

"You're not leaving." Sesshoumaru's voice was muted as he made the obvious statement. Still, there was a hint of a question there.

Inuyasha heaved a relaxed sigh. "No shit."

And that was that. Lulled by the crackling of the flames, the swirling scent of smoke and Sesshoumaru surrounding him, Inuyasha felt himself drifting into a warm slumber. But before he could drop completely into unconsciousness, the warm pressure of a hand settled on his hair briefly, before it drifted away.

And after that, nothing.

Inuyasha slept.

Chapter 10: Shatter

Inuyasha wasn't exactly what one would call a stealthy individual. In fact, he was more prone to making the loudest possible entrance anywhere he went, whether it was intentional or not. Sneaking about was for losers, he always thought.

Until he woke up on the ground in Sesshoumaru's camp, a bug crawling up his left nostril and no sign of the bastard save the lingering youki that drenched his surroundings. Dawn had broken a while ago, the scent of sun-warmed earth filling his lungs. Twitching his ears against the whisper of grass brushing them, he pulled in a deep breath and sat up, rubbing his eyes. It wasn't like him to sleep so late. Especially when he'd just spent the night belly-up on the ground, sprawled like he didn't have a care in the world. Maybe that suicidal crack Sesshoumaru had made had a bit of credence to it.

When it became apparent that his brother wasn't currently in the vicinity of the small camp, Inuyasha decided it would be a great idea to sneak off before he laid eyes on him. With all the weirdness of the night before, he needed some down time from the crazy sonofabitch before he pulled another embarrassing declaration out of his ass. Didn't hate him; that one was going to be echoing in his ears for quite a while.

Truth be told, Inuyasha didn't really believe him. How could he? Two centuries of hatred didn't just disappear because he did him a favour and trained his pet human, nor because he whipped an eyelash out of his eye. There had to be something else to it. How else could it be explained? No one changed their mind that fast.

Uncomfortable with the thoughts buzzing in his mind, the hanyou hopped to his feet and brushed himself off, plugging one nostril and blowing a ladybug clear out of his nasal passage. It was followed by a rather powerful stream of snot, and he cursed loudly and stomped to the stream to wash his face. Great start to the morning, he thought in disgust. Should have just inhaled and eaten the damn thing. Splashing his face and scrubbing vigorously, the quick routine brought into relief how long it had been since he'd actually washed. Night before last, if he was counting right. Having a sense of smell as strong as his, it was impossible to go for long without having a decent bath every few days. Forced hygiene, Kagome had jokingly called it. Catching a whiff of himself, he grimaced.

Eyeing the stream speculatively, he shook his head. Too shallow; barely up to his ass. Plus, Sesshoumaru would rip his eyelids off for bathing in his drinking water, no matter how free-flowing. Sighing, he stood up and stretched hard, groaning as bones popped and muscles ached in just the right way. Yawning, he turned toward the familiar path back to the village, frowning slightly as he realised it was actually looking well-trodden, the grass flat and ground smooth. Well, he supposed, a few daily trips between himself and Rin would do that. Still, it seemed to bring into relief just how much time he'd spent walking that track, when a few months ago you couldn't have begged him to go hunting after his brother. Whatever.

He'd been about to head back when a gust of unnatural wind blew against his back, and a loud thump grabbed his attention. Spinning back around, Inuyasha stared for a moment, then groaned.

"You touch me with that staff, toad, and I'm gonna ram it up your ass," he warned as Jaken hopped off Sesshoumaru's two-headed dragon and squawked at the sight of him, staff at the ready. The little bastard looked like he was gagging for a good hanyou-roasting.

"Where's Sesshoumaru-sama?" He demanded, bulging yellow eyes darting every which way. "What have you done with him?"

Inuyasha eyed him irritably, then scratched his cheek and shrugged. "Well, we had a fight," he sighed, "and I kind of lost my temper and vaporised him with the Bakuryuuha. It happens."

"You did not!" Jaken shrieked, eyes wide with outrage. "How dare you spout such lies! Sesshoumaru-sama would never be killed by the likes of you, hanyou!"

Inuyasha just shook his head in mock-pity. "No, really," he insisted. "All that was left of him was his armour. See?" He pointed to the spiked pauldron and armoured plates that were still sitting next to the boulder from the night before. "I didn't know what to do with it, so I brought it back here in case you wanted to sell it off—"

Shocked to his disturbing, sycophantic core, Jaken let out a strangled sound and started bawling. Dropping the staff, he ran over to the gleaming armour and threw his arms around it, wailing like, well, his only friend had just died.

Snickering silently, knowing he should feel bad and amused that he didn't, he 'respectfully' left the bastard imp to his grief and resumed his trek back to the village.

It was going to be a great day. He could feel it.

"—so I said to Kouga, I said 'yeah, well I wouldn't talk about being a man if I was wearing a fur skirt and leg warmers'," Inuyasha cracked, watching Miroku burst out laughing. "He then went into this way too detailed explanation of wolf youkai customs and shit, but really, who wears that? Not only that, but he showed way too much leg for a fucking wolf demon. I'm not even gonna talk about the sweatband and high ponytail." Leaning back on his hands, he watched his friend chuckle, his shoulders shaking with mirth.

Wiping the corner of one eye, Miroku shook his head ruefully. "Perhaps he was only ever after Kagome-sama so he could try on her clothes."

Inuyasha gagged. "There's a mental image I could have lived without," he grumbled, but he was grinning as he said it. "So when are you guys heading back? Not that I'm trying to get rid of you so I can return to my harem of little girls, or anything." He jerked a thumb at Suki, who was seated behind him, brushing his damp hair with avid concentration. Since she wasn't keen on leaving him alone, he figured if it'd shut her up she could get rid of the snarls in his hair while she was there. It was always a mess after he washed it.

Miroku rolled his eyes. "You certainly are popular, I'll give you that. I can see I won't have to worry about you being lonely after we leave. I still say you should come with us, but I know better than to push you. This village can survive without you, you know. It handled itself for fifty years while you were nailed to a tree."

"It was a sacred arrow, dumbshit, and I know all that already," he said sourly. "I'm not here because they need me. I'm here because I don't want to be in the same town as two of my best friends, who are currently screwing like a couple of wild animals. Do you know how sensitive my hearing is?" He'd meant to at least rattle Miroku or make him uncomfortable, but all the damn monk did was laugh.

"Well, you know you're always welcome, so I suppose I can't do any more than that. But really, Inuyasha, maybe you should at least guilt the village into building you a hut. Sleeping in the trees is so pedestrian. Don't you get splinters in your—"

"No naughty words!" Suki interrupted, glaring at Miroku over Inuyasha's shoulder. "You're a monk!"

Said monk looked put out. "Inuyasha swore!"

"Inuyasha's allowed."

"What? Why?"

"Because he's handsome, and he lets me put lavender oil in his hair."

Golden eyes widened. "Wha—oh, man!" One quick whiff of his silver mane told him more than he needed to know. "You snuck that in because I was upwind, didn't you? You little shit, get out of here before I spank your ass raw. See if I ever let you brush my hair again." Swatting at the little girl, he sent her on her way, shaking his fist at her when she stuck out her tongue and ran off. He slumped to the ground again after she was gone, depressed. "This stuff isn't going to come out for a few days, is it."

"Probably not," Miroku said placidly. "Lavender. Not exactly what I'd choose, but it does make your hair shine quite brilliantly, I must say. When your hair is brushed properly, you look almost pretty, Inuyasha-chan."

"Go to hell, you corrupt bastard," Inuyasha grumbled, punching him half-heartedly in the stomach. Now that he was focussing on it, the smell was filling his head, sharp and sweet. Admittedly, she hadn't used much, so it wasn't killing his nose, but he knew for a fact he was going to have a headache later. "I guess I should count myself lucky that Kouga isn't anywhere nearby. He'd have a fucking field day."

They talked some more, collapsed under the shade of a tree, watching Sango teach Rin a few tricks she'd learned in her years as a demon exterminator. Figuring Rin would be fine as long as Inuyasha was watching over them from a distance, he'd agreed to take the day off training her so that Sango could pad out some of the blank spots in his training. Right now she was teaching the little girl how to use a tiny dagger to its maximum advantage, attacking a straw likeness of Naraku, of all things. They'd actually done a decent job of getting all that hair of his looking pretty much spot on. Only, Rin had given him a dorky smile and crossed eyes, and earrings made of the inedible berries that dotted some of the bushes in the forest. Currently, Sango was overseeing Rin as she repeatedly stabbed Naraku in the crotch.

"I miss this a bit," Miroku said nostalgically, a faint smile teasing his mouth. "Don't you? The camaraderie, joking around, heading for a common goal. . .sometimes I feel like everything has ground to a halt. I'd never really thought about life once Naraku had been defeated. Actually, I wasn't sure I'd make it before the kazaana shattered and swallowed me whole. It's a bit surreal to think that Sango and I will be married soon, with a child on the way. A child who won't be cursed as I was." Turning to his friend, the monk reached out and pulled on one long skein of hair that fell over the hanyou's shoulder. "Are you listening? I'm pouring my heart out here."

Inuyasha had been listening. Actually, he'd been listening very hard, because Miroku had been saying some of the things he'd felt in the first weeks after Kagome had left. Time had slowed, direction had been lost, and life had been cast adrift. Luckily for Miroku, he had Sango, and a life to lead now. But by the same token, things had somehow worked out for him as well—worked out as best things could for a hanyou. He had something resembling a home, humans who liked him, purpose, and a sense of peace. It was more than he'd ever had, even if he missed the old days sometimes. Things had worked out as best as they possibly could. Lifting his head, he grinned at the dark-haired monk and impulsively threw one arm around his shoulders, jerking him into a quick man-hug.

"God, you do smell nice," Miroku muttered, and buried his face in Inuyasha's hair. Cursing, the hanyou recoiled, shooting his friend a disgusted look.

"All right, that's enough," he growled, shoving the monk back from him. "God, were you always so hands on? No wonder Sango abused you on a daily basis."

"I'm an affectionate soul," was the wounded reply. "I can't help it you smell like spring."

Inuyasha stared for a moment. "Right, I'm gonna. . .check on Rin." Getting to his feet, he jogged down the gentle slope into the field where the little girl was training, Sango looking on fondly. Grudgingly, because he still wasn't sure about the idea of his friends going at it, he thought Sango would make a pretty incredible mother. Not as good as his own, but she'd do all right.

"Inuyasha!" Rin cried happily, brandishing the dagger at him. "Sango-san is going to let me keep this! Isn't it pretty?" It was a ridiculously small knife, so he could understand the demon exterminator being okay with giving it to the girl; it wouldn't damage much. Then again, if an army of straw Naraku's appeared, he was gonna hide behind the kid while she went a-castrating. She was at that uncomfortable height for her age. Taking it from her carefully, he ran the blade along the pad of his thumb to test for sharpness before Sango could protest. Swearing loudly, he watched in horror as the meat of his thumb opened up like ripe fruit, blood welling up immediately in the deep cut.

Mouth agape, he looked at his thumb, then Sango, then his thumb again. "Ow!"

"Well really Inuyasha," the young woman said, upset, "if you're going to play with sharp things, this is what happens! You know I don't carry any dull knives." Reaching into her sleeve she brought out a small container of something that smelled foul. "Give me a look—"

"Ah, get away from me," he warned darkly. "I'll heal. I don't need to smell like ass while I do it." He cast a quick glance down at Rin, who was looking grossed out. Taking the knife back from him, she wiped the blood off on the grass and tucked the blade neatly inside a leather sheath, which she then hid in her obi. Her eyes were alight with excitement at her new present, but there was a sense of edginess about her; she kept glancing toward the trees. Sticking his thumb in his mouth to clean the wound, he could pretty much guess what her problem was. He liked to tease the kid, but he knew she wasn't stupid. She knew that there was no reason to remain in the village now; she'd been taught everything he knew, and even a little he didn't, thanks to Sango. Her brown eyes were darting to the trees because she was watching for her Sesshoumaru-sama, who would no doubt soon continue his journey across the country, wandering lands and paths he'd followed all his life.

It sucked, but Rin would be leaving today. Inuyasha figured he could admit it; he'd miss her a bit. Maybe even miss taunting the toad, who whether he knew it or not brought a smile of pure deviltry to the hanyou's face. As for his brother. . .well, they'd probably meet again here and there. They always did. No sense missing someone who would run into you –or run you through- in another couple of months, maybe years.

It didn't matter. If there was one thing he'd learned, it was that he had to stop watching the people in his life come and go.

"Are you listening to me?" Sango was frowning worriedly at him, one hand coming to rest on his shoulder. He blinked in surprise, and she blew out a small breath. "I said it's probably time we headed back, Inuyasha. We were worried at first, thinking you might need the company, but you seem to be doing just fine. Besides, I have to get back to the smithy pretty soon. . .there's some orders for weapons waiting that I have to attend to, and you can imagine what the villagers are like with their favourite monk gone. The girls will have a fit." She was rolling her eyes at that, seeming finally secure in the knowledge that Miroku understood that if he cheated she'd strangle him with his intestines. Popping his thumb out of his mouth he straightened, nodding at her with easy acceptance of their imminent departure. Two in one day? Son of a bitch. Casting the heavens a dirty look –way to test his resolve then and there- he flexed his injured thumb and winced at the uncomfortable feeling of the skin splitting, and turned to eye Miroku. He, for all intents and purposes, was dozing under the tree. Suki had returned and seemed to be holding a small wriggling animal. Maybe a mouse. Before the trio's amused eyes, she pulled back the monk's robes and shoved the rodent inside, running for the village the moment he sat bolt upright and screamed in horror. Actually screamed. Seconds later, Sango was covering Rin's eyes as he began pulling off his clothes in panic.

"Ugh, my appetite," Inuyasha groaned as he accidentally caught a view of more naked skin than was strictly necessary. He turned away and grabbed Rin, who was trying to peek between the youkai exterminator's fingers. "Quit looking, you little pervert. If you're gonna crush on older men, at least let it be someone whose glowing white ass doesn't wink at distant travellers in the night. Understand?"

"Okay!" Rin agreed earnestly, and he patted her on the head proudly. "I don't like boys, anyway," she continued. "Jaken-sama tells me that boys are only after one thing. He won't tell me what it is though, but I think it must be something bad because he yells at me when I ask."

Unwilling to pursue the subject in case she asked him the uncomfortable question, he decided to change the subject. "So. . .training's finished," he said randomly, as Sango slid her hands from the girl's face. Miroku seemed to have gotten his robes back on, though he looked exhausted and edgy now. Before him, Rin's face fell slightly, before brightening in a too-quick smile.

"Thank you very much, Inuyasha," she said politely, giving him a small bow. "I know a lot more now than I did before. I think I can look after myself now."

Well, there it was. "No problem, kid," he said, and realised he meant it. Despite all the hassle and manipulation that had gone into getting him in this mess, he really hadn't minded his grudging mentor status. If nothing else, he'd had a reason to get up in the morning. "Let's say goodbye to Miroku and Sango, then I'll take you back to the camp. You're way overdue for return, anyway."

Goodbyes were getting easier, he reflected as the four packed their meagre belongings and readied themselves for the trek back to their village. Shippou, for his part, hadn't spent a great deal of time around him during the visit, but he kind of got that. Second only to himself, he'd been damn attached to Kagome. Seeing him probably brought it all back home a little clearer. Inuyasha wasn't an idiot; he knew he wasn't the only one who missed her. It was for that reason he'd eased up on the torment a little, settling only for indulging Rin's fascination with the little fox youkai's hair.

"Take care of yourself," he found himself telling the tiny youkai gruffly, feeling a strange frisson of commiseration. Shippou blinked up at him in surprise, perched on Sango's shoulder with Kirara as they stood on the outskirts of the village. His nose screwed up in distaste.

"Yeah, yeah. Do something about yourself first, Inuyasha. You gonna sit around like a loner forever?" Sea green eyes sparkled at him mischievously at that, and Inuyasha tensed in irritation. Now he remembered why the kid ticked him off. "You can't even do your own hair without help, lavender-dork."

"All right, you can all fuck off now," he said abruptly, annoyed. Shippou made a rude gesture and hid it by running his hand through his hair immediately after. Miroku and Sango just laughed, starting down the road with a casual wave. Beside him, Rin was loosely gripping his fingertips in one small hand, looking awed.

"You just said a really bad word, Inuyasha."

"Sometimes," he said serenely, "it's either that or kill them all. Come on, we've got ground to cover. You wanna ride on my back? It's quicker." Normally he didn't really offer that kind of thing, but he figured she'd probably get a kick out of it. Something told him that she didn't play around too much in his brother's company, and between him and that bastard imp, it was a wonder she was still as cheerfully happy as she was. He couldn't figure it out.

Brown eyes sparkling with excitement, she jiggled his hand for a moment as she started to nod, then a shadow passed over her face that wiped the smile clean off it. "Umm. . .let's walk, Inuyasha! I can ride on your back next time."

He didn't like the idea of giving her false hope. "You know kid, Sesshoumaru's not too likely to come by these parts again," he told her. "You know he and I don't really get along."

She paused at that, then nodded unhappily. "I don't know why," she said softly. "You're nice, and Sesshoumaru-sama is nice, why aren't you friends? Brothers are supposed to like each other! Why do you hate him?"

The hanyou nearly choked at that. Him? "Oh yeah, suddenly it's my fault," he griped. "Listen, kid, I hate to break it to you but he's not that nice. For some reason he just tolerates you more than most people. Why, I don't know, since you're such a chatty little shit." Without warning, he grabbed her and swung her up into the air, seating her on one shoulder, his arm curved up to hold her in place. "Now c'mon. I'll walk, you just hang on—and try not to pull on my ears." With that he set off at a brisk march, or about as close as he could get to one with a giggling little girl attaching herself to his head. It wasn't his most dignified stroll through the village, but he didn't mind it so much now that the women of the village were waving fondly and commenting on his 'soft side', elbowing their husbands meaningfully. Apparently being the adopted big brother of all the kids in the damn place came with its own perks. Then he remembered the lavender in his hair and decided the perks didn't really outweigh the grief he constantly endured.

They moved in silence for a long time, navigating the land and entering the dense earthy green of the forest, the moist scent of growing things surrounding him, the thick lush greenery pressing in like a living blanket around them. It always seemed so much quieter inside the forest, as if taking a step through the bushes granted him entry to another world. The village, only a field away, felt like it was dimensions from where he stood. It wasn't his forest, the Goshinboku was on the other side of the small settlement, but it carried the same sense of ethereal wonder. Used to the bustle and busy energy of the village, just walking through the place made something inside him relax.

Rin spoke occasionally in the hush, usually a random question here and there he didn't mind answering.

"What's your favourite colour?"

"Probably red."

"What do I smell like?"

"You smell like girl. Soap and stuff."

"What does Sesshoumaru-sama smell like?"

"Evil. No, I'm kidding, I don't know. . .it's mixed in with his youki. Storms, maybe. Something sharp."

After that, there was no shutting her up on the subject. Why she was fascinated with his sense of smell he didn't know; probably one of those youkai-loving quirks she had. From then on it was all questions about his damn brother. What did he think of him, what were those markings, how old was he, why did he wear shoes, did he go to sleep, and why did tanuki make him angry? That last one cracked him up to no end.

He was still snickering as they emerged from the trees into the small sunlit camp, the sound of water and the memory of the path guiding him. Crouching down, he slid Rin off his shoulder until her feet touched the ground, then stood up and stretched. Working his stiff shoulder with his other arm, Inuyasha glanced around. Everything was the same as it had been earlier in the morning. Same stream, same dead campfire, same grass, same rock. Same complete lack of anyone in the vicinity, save himself and the kid. Great. While the temptation to leave her there and go flickered for a moment, he decided he didn't have anything better to do even if he did ditch her.

"Wait here," he grumbled, "I'll go and see if I can find Sesshoumaru or the toad in the area." Even the dragon would do, he guessed. "Might wanna catch yourself some lunch while I take a look around."

"Ooh, fish! Okay!"

Leaving the girl to set up the campfire, he carefully made his way up the stream, following the vague scent of his brother that the wind was carrying down to him. It wasn't particularly strong, but it was pretty fresh. With any luck he'd be able to find him and get the hell out in under half an hour. After the way things had been the night before. . .Sesshoumaru had said, honestly said, that he didn't hate him. And as much as he wanted to deny it, it had meant something to hear that from him. It shouldn't, he knew that, not after so many years, so many fights. He thought all the hope had been beaten out of him. Cringing at the memory of his response, the hanyou scrubbed a hand over his face, as though that traitorous tear still lingered on his skin. Showing his face now—what if his brother thought that he'd really taken it to heart? The last thing he wanted was to be mistaken for some born-again worshipper of the bastard. He was not the trusting kid he'd been before, full of awe and ready to follow him at the slightest hint of an invitation. One he'd never received.

Tense now, he felt his steps slow a little as his sense of Sesshoumaru strengthened. He'd told Rin the truth earlier, when she'd asked about his scent. The only thing he could liken the cold tang of his brother's scent was the air before a storm, something crisp and dangerous. The scent of leashed power. Inuyasha wasn't sure what he himself smelled like, but he figured it was probably just sweat. Silently he cursed the kid for getting him thinking about it now; who mused over something as stupid as a damn smell, anyway? Blinking, he took stock of his surroundings and shook off the thoughts that had been bogging him down, realising that he'd travelled further than he'd meant to in his search. He'd also left the bank of the stream, moving deeper into the forest than he'd intended. He'd just been. . .heh, following his nose.

The sound of movement hit his ears then, and the hanyou swung back to the stream. Finally, he thought, relieved and agitated at once as he changed direction. Why the hell did he have to go so far from the damn—


Inuyasha blinked.

And blinked again.

"Okay, I know you heard me rustling around, so don't look at me like I've jumped in here like a depraved bastard," he said defensively, crossing his arms. "And. . .and why are you so stripey?"

Sesshoumaru shot him an unfriendly look. Inuyasha thought it was a valid question, really, because since when had there been striped dogs? Youkai shouldn't be that different.

But perhaps the frown had less to do with his question, and more directed at Inuyasha's unflinching attention to the expanse of skin exposed to his eyes. He'd effectively barged straight out of the bushes and nearly headlong into the stream where the youkai lord was currently bathing. Absently, he congratulated himself on his earlier assessment of the depth of the water; it was barely lapping at the dimpled curve of Sesshoumaru's buttocks, and oh god why was he noticing that.

"You seem to have a problem with staring," the youkai said calmly, turning away from him to wring out his hair. The movement revealed matching sets of magenta stripes curving from his hips around to his back. "The fact that I am nude right now does raise some uncomfortable questions."

Okay, he was pretty sure that was all the blood in his body rushing to his face. Nevertheless, he snorted at the comment. "Asshole. You should be nicer to me, since I'm pretty sure I can piss on your clothes before you can get out of the water. I've had a lot to drink today." He received a dirty look for that, but no reply was forthcoming. Maybe he'd believed him. Folding himself to sit cross legged on the bank of the stream, he turned himself to the side so that he wasn't directly facing his bare-ass brother. Picking up a small pebble, he rubbed it between his fingers thoughtfully as he ran through what to say.

"If you are here in the middle of the day, I can only assume something unexpected has happened."

Inuyasha frowned at the pebble. "Not really," he muttered. "Rin's done. She's back in the camp, setting herself up some lunch." Swapping the pebble to his other hand, he examined his thumb again, scowling. "She also has a sharp knife, thanks to Sango, so don't tick her off. She's a kid on the edge." He held up his thumb for inspection. Sesshoumaru glanced at it and exhaled in exasperation.

"That appears self-inflicted. And if not, I'm certain you deserved it."

Inuyasha threw the pebble at him.

Without missing a beat, Sesshoumaru ducked the small projectile and slung his arm forward, a green whip of energy cracking the shocked hanyou on the thigh. With a sharp wrench, he was reeled straight into the water by that same whip, fully dressed and swearing his damned head off. Hitting the water with an almighty splash, he floundered under the water for a moment, his hair a choking cloud around him before he found his footing on the slippery rocks below. Rearing upright, hair flying in every direction, water sluicing off his body, Inuyasha glared at his coldly amused brother with one visible golden eye. "You got water in my ears," he snarled softly. "I hate water in my ears." Pulling Tetsusaiga and its sheath from his waistband, he tossed it back on the bank, hoping the shield on the blade extended to rust-proofing it as well.

Then he cracked his knuckles, pushed his hair back behind his shoulders—and dove for Sesshoumaru's clothes, so neatly folded beside the water's edge.

He was pretty sure he got at least two droplets of water on them before he felt an arm curl around his waist, hauling him backwards into the water, and against a slippery wall of flesh that didn't yield in the slightest. "Fucking no!" He howled, hands still outstretched for the white cloth. "I'm going to kill you!"

"I've heard that somewhere before," a faintly amused voice said against his temple, warm breath brushing his sodden bangs. "Perhaps you should come up with a threat you can actually make a reality." When he wrenched violently the arm around him tightened, pinning his arms to his sides so he could do little more than thrash ineffectually. This went on for a while nonetheless, until eventually he subsided; a shivering, sodden mass of pathetically furious hanyou. He felt miserable. Getting soaked to the bone was not his idea of fun—getting water in his ears was even worse. It swished around uncomfortably, deafening him by turns. He'd shaken most of it out, but they still flicked and twitched madly. And all this over a pebble.

"What, you gonna drown me now?" He said eventually, when it became apparent that he wasn't being released. "Because you should do something. Having my severely naked brother pinning me against him is raising uncomfortable questions." As far as barbs went, he thought that was pretty good, probably more than enough to gain his freedom. Instead he felt a small breath of amusement gust along his cooling skin, and his brother leaned forward over his shoulder, just enough that Inuyasha could see the curve of his jaw and his lower lip as he spoke.

"You'll retaliate the moment I release you," Sesshoumaru mused. "Don't think I do not know this. And yet, I have no desire to keep you restrained. This creates an interesting predicament."

"Don't blame me," came the offended reply. "I didn't even hit you with the damn rock. This is your fault." Swivelling his forearms, he brought them up and found that his claws could just reach Sesshoumaru's arm, enough to plunge in and easily tear through the veins and tendons there. If he turned his head and exerted enough pressure, he might be able to sink his teeth into his brother's windpipe. These options spun through his head as soon as he relaxed enough, both probably completely successful plans to get him free. And yet. . .

"Hm," his brother said after a moment. "You're not going to, are you?"

Inuyasha tensed, almost cringing as he realised he'd been given those opportunities on purpose. What test had that been? It seemed like the more time he spent around Sesshoumaru, the more insight he had to his thoughts. While that would bother him under normal circumstances, he couldn't help but wonder now just where along the way a youkai lord had learned to think like a hanyou. Or why he'd even want to. Letting out a harsh breath, he dropped his eyes to the water-slicked arm around him and felt the last of the fire inside him extinguish itself. "It's not like it matters," he muttered. "Maybe it's listening to the kid ramble on about you every day, but ripping you open has kind of lost its appeal—even when you'd probably deserve it." Inuyasha felt the arm around him loosen at that, but he wasn't completely released as a long-fingered hand captured one of his and used it to turn him in the water, until he faced those implacable eyes that had never seemed so similar to his own as they did in that moment. Dimly, it occurred to him that maybe even his self-assured, pure-blooded sibling had his own moments of uncertainty.

"What?" He demanded with an unhappy jerk of his hand, which was still entangled in pale fingers. "Let go of me, damn it. Or are you trying to get your final kicks before you leave by pissing me off good and proper? Trying to fuck with my head with a few fun mind games? If you want me to rip your throat to shreds, you. . .you don't have to—ow!" While he'd been talking, filling the air between them with hot bluster and the confusion that seemed to smother him every time they met, Sesshoumaru had very calmly lifted his restrained hand and pressed his mouth to the angry cut on his thumb.

The pressure hurt at first, and he flinched at the raw sting in the wound, but at the warm-wet stroke of a tongue against his injured skin his eyes got real wide, real fast. "What're you doing? It's not—ow, it's healing on its own!" Something mortifyingly close to panic flashed through his stomach as narrow golden eyes settled on his, regal and remote even as his lips moved carefully over the frozen hanyou's skin. Trying to break the connection in that gaze, Inuyasha foolishly lowered his eyes to the movement of his mouth; pale lips and the hint of teeth and a long, wet, rough stroke of heat. He swallowed with difficulty and felt his thoughts crumble into raw sensation.

Just when he thought he might lose all sense of reality and start hyperventilating, his brother drew away, lazy eyes intense and filled with realisation.

"Flowers," Sesshoumaru murmured, his voice threaded with what almost sounded like confusion. "You taste like flowers. How disconcerting."

The words came like a bucket of ice water in his face, and Inuyasha could have howled. As it was, he couldn't contain a visible cringe at the words. "Don't say taste," he said, his voice hushed like he might be overheard. "Suki put some lavender crap in my hair this morning. It's probably spread all over me now. Let go, would you?" Pulling away with more force than he was sure he needed, he quickly waded out of Sesshoumaru's range and headed for dry land. The bastard had absolutely no sense of—of anything. It was getting beyond a joke. Grunting to himself as he hoisted himself up onto the bank, he pulled the fire-rat haori off and let it hit the ground with a wet slap. His shirt was soon to follow. Saturated. Shit. This was going to take days to dry. Would he ever catch a break?

Unhappily committing himself to the task of wringing out his heavy mane, using the repetitive action as a smokescreen to silently freak out inside his own mind, he squeezed as much water as he could out of the waterlogged mass before straightening and pinning Sesshoumaru with a frustrated glare. "You're really messed up, you know that?" He barked, fists clenched by his sides and wet skeins of hair clinging to his cheeks. "How the hell do you go from practically vomiting at the sight of me—to, to sticking my fingers in your mouth? What the hell is it you think you're playing at? No one changes their mind that fast. Not about me." Feeling his frustration and confusion boil clean over into anger, he snatched up his clothes and began twisting the water out of them, his hair veiling his eyes.

"For a brash, reckless creature, your personal opinion of yourself is almost non-existent," said Sesshoumaru. The sound of disrupted water followed the statement, and the rustle of clothing. Inuyasha didn't look up. "Or you would not question me so desperately."

"Yeah, and maybe you've got no idea what you're doing, either." Folding the sodden clothing over his forearm, he straightened and dared a burning look over his shoulder. "Or you wouldn't completely avoid the question." The youkai lord watched him for a moment, expressionless, before turning away with a quiet breath and slipping his swords into his obi, passing him Tetsusaiga in the process. Inuyasha slid it into place at his waist and pushed his hair off his face in time to see an odd expression cross his brother's face as he halted in his movements. Then, with a slow blink, Sesshoumaru turned away and began walking back toward the camp.

"We will depart at sunrise tomorrow," he intoned, glancing once over his shoulder before he vanished into the forest. "Do as you like."

With no reply worth making to that, Inuyasha watched him disappear, and stood there for a long time after trying to decipher exactly what had just happened. How like the bastard to completely ignore his questions and state something completely random like that. Do as you like. What the hell was that supposed to mean? Coming from anyone else, it was an invitation; a careless one. But this was Sesshoumaru, and if he was saying something like that, it probably meant he was leaving him wide open for a kick in the—

Blinking, Inuyasha's mind finally caught up to one tiny detail that had escaped his notice. His lips parted in silent shock, eyes flickering, before his hand slid slowly to the sword at his hip. His sword; the Tetsusaiga.

The fang which rejected a cold heart.

Swallowing, he realised with a jolting tremor exactly what had just happened.

The barrier had accepted Sesshoumaru.

Chapter 11: Bonds

Leaving wasn't even a possibility, Inuyasha thought as he stared up at the Goshinboku. This village, this forest, everything that had ever really mattered to him, had happened here. Kikyou, and Kagome. The bone eater's well. And here, the site of his imprisonment, where the sealing arrow had pierced his heart. Too many memories.

Leave this?

Eyes distant, he lifted one hand and ran his clawed fingertips over the small, indented wound in the tree.

Do as you like.

His hand curled into a loose fist, and he swore softly. This was stupid. What the hell was he doing, staring at the damn tree anyway? He hadn't been back there in ages. It was just a stupid tree. Inuyasha wasn't going anywhere—there was no need for him to stare at it like he was saying goodbye.

Turning away, he scowled at his hand in the dim pre-dawn light. The healing cut on his thumb was just a faint red line now, but it stood out clearly to his sharp eyes. He hadn't slept yet, too unsettled and edgy to do more than pace through his forest, inspecting the markers of his history. It seemed to calm something in him to do it, and after the day before, and Sesshoumaru's confusing parting words, it was no small feat. He felt like there was a choice laid before him, and a risk to take.

Inuyasha was no coward. Risks were something he thrived on, and barrelling headlong into danger was his trademark. Sitting back and pondering his options was something he'd never been good at. Miroku had been the strategic planner in the group; he'd been the brute strength. This though. . .truth be told, half of him was still convinced that he'd misheard. Misunderstood. Heard what it would please him to hear. And admitting that to himself had been the hardest damn thing he'd done for a while.

In the safe silence of his own mind, he could admit. . .that maybe it would be. . .

"Forget it," he growled to himself, slamming the heel of his palm into his temple as though to knock the idea loose. It had to be the lack of sleep talking. Like he'd ever subject himself to the daily insanity that was Sesshoumaru's bugshit little tribe. He'd be dead within a week.

Looking up the sky that filtered in between the canopy of trees, it was with a defeated sigh that he realised the day had moved forward as he'd been lost in thought, and they'd be leaving soon. For once agreeing with his –admittedly rare- better judgement, Inuyasha trudged back toward the village, resigned to another day of comfortable village life. It was really the only option he could take, anyway.

He'd been conditioned by humans. He understood humans. He belonged with humans.

And that, well, that was that.

Life went back to normal in the weeks that followed, or as normal as things could get. Time passed, and it was soon almost like the trio had never even set foot in his village. Despite his own keen awareness of them, the villagers didn't even really recall the little girl that had followed him around so eagerly, probably mistaking her for Suki. Hina had assumed Sesshoumaru was some random friendly youkai, something that disturbed him on a deep and instinctive level. But it was almost enough to convince him those few weeks had all been some insane mushroom dream.

Now his world once again consisted of wood-chopping, the occasional slaying of a low-level youkai, eating, sleeping, and running away from small children. It took him a while to admit it, but he decided he had it pretty damn good. Inuyasha no longer glanced at the area of forest that Rin's campfire smoke used to rise from, and ceased checking the long grass for a familiar angry imp with a two-headed stick.

The scent of an oncoming storm still got him, though. Every time.

And so he passed away his days semi-peacefully, falling into the routine his niche in life had created for him. But there were certain days that were more enjoyable than others, and currently he was experiencing one of them.

"All right," he grunted, shifting his grip, "on the count of three, you guys pull. But before I count, let me just say that this idea is bullshit. Any friction burn you get is so totally your own fault."

One of the men grinned at him. "Remember, if you win, it's all the salted meat you can fit in your belly. If we win, you're searching in the latrine for Suki's doll!"

Inuyasha rolled his eyes. This was almost too easy. "Then I hope you like digging, because the term 'life is shit' is going to have a whole new meaning for you lot when I'm through," he taunted, flicking his wrist and sending a wave down the thick rope. "Now let's do this, ladies." A laugh went up among the men at that, and they got into position.

It was the new game in the village, something they'd come up with once they realised that having a hanyou around was worth more than protection from the infrequent hungry youkai crossing their paths. Placing a bet on his strength, they'd come up with a new challenge. This time, it was a line scratched in the dirt, a huge length of rope, and seven of the village men. The aim was that the team to haul the enemy over the line won the challenge. Except, it wasn't a team, it was Inuyasha versus whoever was dumb enough to think they could beat him.

"All right," Inuyasha said with a feral grin, "one, two. . .three!"

He nearly had all five of them over line on the first yank. Clawed toes sinking into the dirt for purchase, he set his stance and hauled hard, feeling every muscle grow taut and burn with the strain of pitting his strength against seven fully grown human men. Surging forward in shock they cried out as the line grew dangerously close to their feet, one of them yelling 'no, not the poo!' so loudly Inuyasha's grip almost slipped as a bark of surprised laughter escaped him. Using that opportunity, Hiroshi in the front wrenched back, and the game was on.

He had them on the line time and again, but they were persistent bastards. Still, with his incredible sense of smell, no way was he going to be rooting around in a swamp of shit looking for Suki's straw doll. How she lost it in the crapper he had no idea, and it didn't matter to him anyway. All he had to do was win this challenge, and it was free food and dignity, all the way. With that thought to bolster his strength, he let out a guttural growl, switched his grip, and pulled on the rope like the damn thing was the last lifeline at sea.

"Buddha save us!" Hiroshi howled as they all came barrelling toward him, heels digging trenches in the dirt that led to that precious line. The other men voiced similar prayers, impending doom written on their horrified faces. Inuyasha grinned.

"Oh yeah," he grunted, shaking his sweaty hair out of his eyes. "A few more inches and you're mine, assholes." Then he felt the slick burn of friction burst a blister on his palm and he hissed sharply, one eye closing in pain as the rope slid in his grip. Shit! Fucking Buddha, interfering in his fight! The hanyou saw red. "Goddamn. . .stupid. . .I'm not gonna lose!"

"Yes, you are!" One of the guys at the back said desperately, but it was in that moment that Inuyasha set his teeth, flexed his toes, and bodily dragged them all over the line.

The screams were music to his ears.

"Damn your insane strength!" Hiroshi cursed breathlessly, sprawled on the ground somewhere near the hanyou's foot. Inuyasha grinned up at the cloudless summer sky, flat on his back, sweaty and triumphant.

"Take it like a man," he laughed, pressing his dirty foot on the human's cheek. "You guys will never learn." While the older man swore and rubbed the footprint off his face, one of the other men good-naturedly held out a hand to help him up. He took it with only a little hesitation, dusting himself off and wiping his forehead. "Good match. You guys made me bleed this time. Look, a blister." He held up his hand for inspection. They looked inordinately pleased by the oozy little wound.

They weren't so bad, now that they weren't treating him like he carried the plague. They'd never really had any idea what he was, and it was only the oldest of them that had remembered him from the days when Kikyou had been the priestess of the village. No one remembered Naraku posing as him and doing those terrible deeds, but the stories had still been told. Course, the old hag had done her fair share of smoothing things over, with her acceptance of him. They'd all just been taught that he was evil incarnate, that was all. A vicious animal that would turn on them as soon as help them. Mulling that over, he wondered if he set himself up as some sort of god, he could demand food to appease his wild temper. That'd be a sweet deal.

Taking off, after wrangling a promise out of them for the meat – he'd also graciously advised them to search the latrine at evening, when the flies wouldn't be such a bother – he left the village to clean himself up.

The old trail through the bushes and grass to his spot in the creek was getting overgrown. Frowning to himself, he glanced at his sword speculatively, before shaking his head. Don't do it, he warned himself. Cracking his knuckles, he flared his youki and slashed away the overgrown grass and hanging vine-like greenery, clearing the way. It wasn't until blood splashed his cheek that he realised what he'd done.

It wasn't a vine, it was. . .

"Oh yeah!" He crowed, shaking blood off his fingertips as a very familiar snake dropped from the branch over his head, in two pieces. "Take that, you scaly bastard. I said I'd get you in the end, didn't I? God I love today." It was clearly some kind of sign, he thought, cheered by the idea that if there was some kind of heavenly being upstairs, it hadn't forgotten about him completely. Whistling to himself, he practically swaggered the rest of the way to the creek.

Almost expecting his day to turn up that chunk of Kagome's soap he'd lost ages ago, he spent nearly an hour in the water, before deciding it had probably dissolved away. Slightly more subdued with the minor loss, he got out of the creek and dried off, only bothering to put on his hakama since the heat was getting pretty intense. Folding his clothes over his forearm, he decided that he might as well stop in and see the old bag to get some of her herbal whatever to stop the sting in his palm from his blisters. The last thing he needed was his sword hand messed up. With an annoyed squint at the sun, he blew out a breath and trekked back to the village, ears flicking.

An unusual scene met his eyes as he closed in on the old priestess' hut. People were milling about everywhere. Frowning, he jogged over when he spotted Hina. "Oy, why's it so popular over this way?"

She shrugged. "Kaede-sama isn't praying today. We thought she might be in her hut, but she's not answering. Probably on a walk. Moki-san is peeved, because he was next in line to get a good luck charm, or something," she said wryly, waving her hand at the people crowding. "Suddenly it's an emergency. Self-important moron." Her brown eyes fixed on his state of dress then, and she blushed crimson. "You heathen! Put on some clothes!"

He shot her a weird look. "My clothes are made of fur. You want me to die of heatstroke? You're lucky I'm wearing pants, and I'm only doing that because you'll totally stare at my stuff."

"Stuff?" She asked blankly, then screwed her face up. "Ugh." He grinned.

"You want me. It's all right, I would too, if I was a chick. Maybe even a guy." Stacking his hands behind his head, he turned on his heel and strolled off before she could properly form coherent words. He only got about five feet before he remembered what he'd come for. Checking his hand and finding it still sore, he wondered whether or not to just man up and deal with it, or wuss out and get some of her ointment. Figuring no one would really know what he was doing either way, he weaved his way through the muttering crowd and pushed aside the heavy fabric covering blocking the entrance to her hut and slid inside. Wasn't that the one she used at night? It'd be stifling in there when she got back—

His eyes adjusted to the darkness in seconds, but it felt like minutes crawled past as his mind registered what he was looking at.

Kaede, slumped on her side by an unlit fire.

"Oh fuck," he groaned, leaping forward and crouching by the priestess' side. "Oh shit, Kaede, shit!" Propping her up with careful hands, he cradled her body in one arm while he pressed his ear to her chest, completely unashamed as fear suddenly thundered in his own. But there was nothing, not even warmth in her body to tell him that whatever happened, had only just occurred. Instead there was stillness, and an absence of breath. The pallor of her skin told him the only other thing he needed to know.

Stunned, the hanyou slowly drew his head back to stare at the old woman.

Kaede was dead.

But she wasn't allowed to do this, he thought stupidly, as his vision wobbled on the edges.

"Someone help," he said, his voice strangled and lacking strength. Inuyasha squeezed his eyes shut. "Someone get in here!"

After that, his world went curiously silent as sunlight blasted away the shadows of the hut, forms blurring and moving as people lurched back and covered their mouths in horror. Wept. Some fell to their knees. Others just stared in uncomprehending shock. But he was more grateful than he knew how to say when Hiroshi knelt and carefully pulled his hands away from the dead priestess, his eyes avoiding the dark blood that dotted her shoulder from his claws. It didn't flow anymore.

He was led outside somehow after that, into the brilliant summer sunlight. Hina was at his side, her lips forming words he couldn't pay attention to. This was how it always happened, he thought faintly, and something in the back of his mind seemed to fracture. This was how it was going to always happen. To Hiroshi, Hina, Suki, all the other villagers. All the children.

All the humans.


Inuyasha managed to stumble behind the hut before he threw up.

The dark, storm-grumbling afternoon sky was fading into evening when Hina finally found him perched on a bare, thick branch of the tallest tree surrounding the village. Hands on hips, she stared up at him impatiently, and it was almost like she was another girl with dark hair and eyes. "You missed the funeral, but you could at least pay your respects! Inuyasha! She was like a grandmother to all of us, not just you, and we all miss her. How long are you going to pretend you're so very different—"

Inuyasha didn't mean to scare her. He didn't mean to snarl so wretchedly, until the sound rolled through the village like thunder. But Hina jumped back, the cold scent of unease rising up to him. Seconds later, his ears registered the fading footfalls as she ran away. "I'll come back tomorrow!" She called stubbornly. But she left him in peace, and the silence that blanketed him was a welcome relief.

The hanyou's eyes were full of shadows as he let out a soft sound, and leaned against the trunk of the tree. Exhaustion whispered to his bones, but he couldn't really rest. Too much was flooding his head, making it impossible to relax. It had been that way since he really woke up, really glanced around after wandering aimlessly for nearly a day. He'd found himself staring at the Goshinboku once again, and suddenly, in a split second, he'd hated everything it stood for. Time, fate, destiny—all it said to him was that he was going to stand vigil as everyone he cared about either left, or died. The helpless fury it had woken in him was something he didn't want to experience again.

Now that his anger was spent, he finally found himself wishing he'd been able to talk to her—had some warning. She'd been the only voice of wisdom he'd had, for a while there. But it wouldn't have mattered, he thought unforgivingly as he watched distant lightning crawl across the clouds. Old people died all the time. Humans didn't live very long at any rate. But him though—he aged like a youkai, one of the few doubtful blessings he'd inherited from his father. This was just the first time he'd ever naturally outlived someone who had been even slightly close to him. He'd adjust.

A warm wind touched his skin then, and he briefly thought about putting his haori back on, but he wasn't quite ready to jump down and inspect the pile of food and the discarded clothes Hina had brought for him. He barely even remembered dropping them in the hut. Instead, he yawned and let his eyes slip closed, resting his right side against the line of the trunk, letting his legs hang over the edge.

Breathing in the scent of storms, he spoke.

"Whatever you're after, skip the detour," he said, listening to the surprisingly hoarse timbre of his own voice. "Keep walking, Sesshoumaru."

There was silence, broken only by the whisper of wind through trees. "Such a rude welcome," his brother replied, his voice clear even meters below him. "If you won't deign to leave your undignified post, you could at least look me in the eye when I speak to you, Inuyasha."

"Like I care," was the tired reply. The hanyou could almost feel the brief anger rising in the air, before it faded into something unidentifiable.

"Then you haven't seen Rin," said the youkai. "She left with Ah-Un for this village hours ago." The news lifted his eyelids, and for a moment he stared out at the blackening sky as he processed the information. Rin had left Sesshoumaru to visit him? Sesshoumaru had let her? What the hell was he doing if she never arrived? Stopping for a chat?

"So go find her. She never came here."

His brother didn't reply straight away, probably gauging his tone and reading into things, the way he always seemed to before he'd left. Finally he broke the silence, his voice decisive. "Get out of the tree, Inuyasha. You will look at me." But the hanyou never moved, didn't turn to connect his gaze with the one burning into the back of his skull. Of all the nights to appear out of nowhere, he thought humourlessly. It almost made a twisted kind of sense. But it wasn't enough for him to care. "Then I assume you're tired," Sesshoumaru continued, "after the destruction you wreaked on the forest."

Inuyasha's head came up at that, his mouth pulling tight. Sesshoumaru let out a long breath. "Don't think I do not know the shape of the scars your blade creates in the earth. Messy, uncontrolled gouges from the Kaze no Kizu with no specific target. . .yet you seemed to intentionally miss the tree that you were imprisoned on for fifty years." The question in buried in the statement was obvious, but the last thing the hanyou wanted to do was talk about it. Why wasn't he leaving? He had no reason to be doing this, especially not if he was looking for Rin.

Drawing himself up, he twisted at the waist to finally glare down at his brother. "Look, it's none of your damn business! Just get out of here, Sesshoumaru." His claws dug unintentional furrows in the bark as he watched narrow golden eyes rake over his face with cool calculation, and in that moment, Inuyasha knew he shouldn't have looked. Those eyes could pick apart his every thought. Whipping around, putting his back to the youkai lord, he gripped the branch under him and hunched his shoulders. His brother wouldn't bother now, he knew that. A good enough insult and the asshole always turned away—it was the one thing he knew would still work. Nothing was worth the abuse to his stupid noble pride, or whatever it was that fuelled him. And even if he didn't, short of knocking him from the tree, even Sesshoumaru couldn't do a thing to make him listen. How could he tell him that he'd lost control back in the forest, all because of—of how different he was? Sesshoumaru hated the village. Hearing Kaede had—

Stiffening, Inuyasha felt the gathering of youki behind him moments before the tree shook violently, and for one stunned moment, he thought the youkai had actually cut it down. "Shit—!" He turned his eyes to his brother in disbelief.

"That you reduce me to such actions is mildly appalling, Inuyasha," Sesshoumaru said stiffly. Expression closed, he shifted slightly on the branch he now shared with his brother, and folded into a sitting position.

Silenced by the display, Inuyasha glanced down at the ground, then back to his brother. He'd leapt up there in one solid spring, his landing shaking the whole damn tree to its roots. Now, less than a foot away, he was plucking a twig from his sleeve and frowning at it like it had insulted him. It was too bizarre. "Are you insane?" He asked, horrified. "Get off my branch! You want it to break?"

The look he received was unfriendly at best. "How heavy do you assume I am? The tree is sound. Or have you decided that hiding up here like an animal is no longer such a fine idea?" When he didn't reply right away, the youkai released a soft breath and allowed his frown to fade slightly. "Perhaps if you'd merely accompanied me that time, you might have avoided whatever troubles you now. I certainly wouldn't be in this undignified position if you had."

"I didn't invite you up here," Inuyasha muttered, his eyes sliding away. "And accompany you? Why would I? If you need a babysitter for Rin, you're looking in the wrong place. She's a cute kid, but all the flowers and giggling in the world won't compensate for having to hang around you all the time." That was nastier than he'd intended to be, but once it was said he refused to take it back. Shit. He was sitting in a tree, with Sesshoumaru. Close enough to probably shove him right out of it, if the inclination hit him. Close enough to feel the brush of a soft white sleeve against his arm. Biting the inside of his cheek, he looked away.

"I did not realise you still held such animosity toward me." The words were spoken with no real inflection, but Inuyasha's stomach tightened guiltily before he could tell himself it didn't matter. Wasn't it past this already? Why the hell was he doing this? If the almighty Sesshoumaru would lower himself to do something like this, for his sake, what the hell was he doing, trying his hardest to shove him away? Well-schooled in the art of throwing petulant tantrums, even Inuyasha knew that this was probably only going to hurt him in the end. Because the sad fact was, sitting beside him Sesshoumaru was probably the only person he could count on not to leave him in the position Kaede's death had. If anything, Inuyasha would die long before his brother. Faintly, the hanyou wondered if that would matter to him.

Keeping his face turned to the stormy view, he slid his eyes to the side and swallowed. "Kaede died yesterday," he blurted out. "Just old age, I guess. She was the only person who still accepted me, after the seal broke. She helped me, and all I ever did was. . ." His voice died away then, his brow knitting upwards as he stared down at his knees, his hair slipping over his shoulders. "No one ever really died on me, before. Kikyou, maybe, but this was different. You probably think I'm an idiot." It sort of went without saying, he thought to himself. Or it used to. Now, admitting that to his brother, Inuyasha had no clue what he'd say in response. Things just kept on changing—the knowledge that he could open up, even this much, to Sesshoumaru was a massive shift in itself.

"I think you're far too attached to humans," Sesshoumaru replied quietly, "and that it is not so hard for me to understand your thoughts." When Inuyasha looked at him wordlessly, the older youkai reached out and touched two fingers to the hilt of the Tetsusaiga at his hip. The silence in the blade, the lack of so much as a shudder in its sheath from the light touch confirmed what he'd realised at the stream that day. Tetsusaiga had accepted him. But the blade's barrier was based on the heart's capacity to love humans. When Inuyasha had first drawn the blade, it too had resisted him. Not to the extent that it had repelled Sesshoumaru, but enough. He hadn't been able to release it from its stone cradle. Did this silence of the barrier mean that Sesshoumaru had accepted humans? His admission almost seemed to prove it.

Unable to take his eyes off the sight, Inuyasha felt his mouth turn down slightly at the edges. "I wish it still zapped you," he admitted without a trace of guilt. "How am I supposed to go with you now, knowing you might steal the Tetsusaiga while I'm sleeping?"

The youkai lord blinked once, his head tilting just slightly at his words. It was his turn to calculate the weight of the meaning behind them, and take the risk of misinterpreting them. Closing his eyes briefly, bringing the streaked markings across his eyelids into sharp relief, Sesshoumaru's mouth twitched at the corners. "I believe you will simply have to trust me," he said, his tone almost dry. "Or at least trust that I would kill you in an honourable manner before making the sword my own."

That pulled a laugh from the hanyou. "That's more like it," he said with a snort, shaking his head. "Now, you want to tell me why we're sitting in a tree like a couple of lovebirds, instead of looking for Rin?"

"Because you insisted on clinging to this branch like a feral cat," was the pointed reply. "And you reeked of misery. I grew curious. I had thought there was no one left here to cause you such pain." Before Inuyasha could reply to the disturbing admission, his brother dropped from the branch, his heavy mane settling around him like a mantle as he landed on the ground with a light footstep. Inuyasha peered down at him with a slight frown.

"Feral cat? You're the one with markings that look like whiskers."

Lifting one eyebrow, Sesshoumaru spun and slammed his fist into the base of the tree. Something cracked. Then as the tree shed just about every leaf on its boughs, the hanyou swore and leapt down to earth. "You crazy asshole! I liked that tree!" He complained as he saw the huge fissure in the wood his brother's fist had created. "If it dies, I swear to God I'm gonna rip you a new one. . ." But the threat was markedly lacking sincerity, and might have been called weak to anyone who might have overheard. Because as he'd spoken, Sesshoumaru had inspected his knuckles with a surprised frown, finding blood on them. "Huh. Yeah, I forgot to tell you. Kaede used to sit here and pray with the kids. Guess some of that priestess juice soaked into the tree." Resisting the urge to cackle at the annoyed youkai, he stepped forward and gripped his fingers, pulling the injured hand down so he could get a look at it. "Ugh, holy priestess splinters, Sesshoumaru. They're gonna sting."

Eyeing him, Sesshoumaru blew out a quick breath. "Actually," he said shortly, "they will poison me. Get them out."

Inuyasha bristled. "You get them out, tree-killer! Besides, the only decent way to get them out is with your teeth, everyone knows that."

"Why is that relevant to this conversation?"

What? "Because I'm not sucking on your hand, you lunatic!" Why was he having this conversation? Was Sesshoumaru being deliberately stupid about this, or did he really just not get it? Then again, he admitted to himself, the bastard had always been kind of weird about personal space. Was it a dog thing? Or just a youkai thing? Or, god help him, maybe it was just a Sesshoumaru thing. Frowning speculatively, he watched as the youkai in question withdrew his hand, blinking at the blood welling in the wounds, and the splinters caught within like they were something foreign. Then again, this guy didn't exactly bleed often. What a princess. Rolling his eyes, he held out his hand with a long-suffering sigh. "Fine, give it here."

"You've made your feelings on the matter clear," was the cold reply, as his brother turned away. "You are far too human, Inuyasha."

"No shit," he shot back, not about to let that become an insult. "Who's to blame there? You treated me like I was so much garbage since day one. The old man was dead, my mother didn't know much—fuck it. I don't even need to explain it to you, you sulky bastard. Just gimme your damn hand before I rip it off." His temper quickly turning foul, he jumped in front of Sesshoumaru, snatched up his hand, and pressed his mouth to the wound.

He was rougher than he needed to be, putting the sudden tension in his brother down to that. Forcefully gentling the pressure, he let his hackles relax and stared at the stripes curving around his brother's wrist like they were something fascinating, while his tongue sought the foreign wooden shards buried just beneath the skin. This was by far the fruitiest thing he'd ever done, he thought, the knowledge curling through his mind as he swept his tongue over the wound. Anyone walking by would see him to all appearances kissing Sesshoumaru's hand, long fingers clutched loosely in his own. How embarrassing.

Well, no, he amended. The naked thing in the stream had been pretty bad. Seeking the sharp edge of a splinter, he nuzzled his mouth closer to it, his teeth closing on the tiny edge with blind precision. The fingers in his twitched, but he ignored it as he drew his head back, turning to the side to spit the offending piece of wood to the ground. One down. Tasting charged blood in his mouth, he wiped his lips and ran his tongue over his teeth, shooting Sesshoumaru a curious look. "Hey—your eyes are turning red." It was true; crimson was bleeding into the whites of his eyes, and the gold that matched his own was darkening into something else. It was turning almost blue. Was he going to transform? Youki was rolling off him in waves, prickling the hairs on the back of Inuyasha's neck in response.

"A mere minor reaction to the intrusion of miko powers in my bloodstream," he said smoothly. "It is of no consequence." Still, the colours didn't fade any, and the power emanating from him was actually beginning to sing low in Inuyasha's ears. Bothered, the hanyou lowered his head once more, noting that the magenta stripes on that pale wrist were losing their sweeping curve, becoming rougher, wider. Closing his eyes, he fixed his lips over the next piece of wood, tongue curling over it in an exploratory sweep. It was in deep, he realised with an annoyed spark. Nipping the skin around it, he sucked hard, hoping to draw it out a little. Above him, a guttural sound left his brother. He ignored it, wondering that if he prolonged this any, would he soon be holding a paw? It was obvious Sesshoumaru was having youki issues, trying to overcompensate for the polar opposite in his power. Man, how hard had Kaede prayed at that tree for it to be bothering a daiyoukai like this? Then again, maybe it didn't matter how strong it was—he himself remembered the flare of his own youki when Kikyou's arrow had punched through his ribcage, entering his heart. If it hadn't been a sealing arrow, he would have transformed on the spot, he knew that. Everything just rebelled instinctively. The idea of low-level power like that becoming a poison wasn't hard to believe.

Sighing inwardly, he closed his teeth on the second splinter and pulled it out. Maybe he did act too human for a hanyou. Half of him was still youkai, after all. Spitting his prize to the ground, he licked his lips and raised his eyes to see how Sesshoumaru was faring. "That's it, I think. . .oh hey, you totally fanged yourself." The lengthening of his incisor teeth during that brief spike of youki had caused the tooth to prick the fragile skin of Sesshoumaru's lower lip, a deep red bead of blood welling there. "Get it together," he muttered with a slight head shake, reaching up to thumb away the evidence. "Even I don't do shit like that when I transform."

His thumb was already back in his mouth before he realised the strangeness of what he'd just done. Sesshoumaru's eyebrows had risen marginally skyward, but he didn't comment immediately. Frozen, with the tang of youki-soaked blood still rolling over his tongue, Inuyasha tried to think of the best way to backpedal his way out of the situation. His ears flattened to his head as the seconds stretched, and he began to feel more and more mortified. What the hell? He growled at himself. Touching his brother's mouth? Shit, he was still holding his hand like a girl. Springing away, a miserable flush cresting his cheeks, he scowled and turned to collect his clothes from the base of the tree. Suddenly he felt strangely naked. Yanking the shirt and his haori on, grateful for the encroaching darkness, he tucked some of the dried meat Hina had left for him into his sleeve and tugged his hair out of his collar. Yet again, he thought moodily, the insanity that only Sesshoumaru can summon from him rears its creepy head. What was it about the bastard that made him feel like it was okay to do completely random, touchy things like that, and not expect to get a claw to the face?

The knowledge that Sesshoumaru had often done the same?


He was fiddling with the prayer beads when he felt a firm tug on his left ear. Not enough to hurt, but a definite squeeze as the furred point was tugged back upward. Biting back a sound, he spun around to stare at Sesshoumaru—but he was halfway down the road. Unsure, he raised one hand to his ear, swivelling them slightly. What. . .

"Are you coming?" The command in his imperious voice was obvious, making it less of a question and more of a hurry up. Blinking, Inuyasha lowered his hand slowly, trying not to look as mystified as he felt.

Then with an inner shrug, his ears pricked up and he started down the road after his brother.

Why not.


Chapter 12: Instinct

"So. . .no sleep, huh. Not that I'm complaining about not having slept in two days, and now we're walking in the dark and I just stepped on a frog."

"You stepped on a frog."

"Yeah. Poor bastard's stuck between my toes."

Sesshoumaru slowed his pace and cast him a regal look over one shoulder. In the moonlight, his pale colouring made him look like a ghost with reflective eyes. "Clean yourself off," he advised, tugging his sleeve over his wrist. "I thought I scented something."

Naturally, he doesn't mention it, Inuyasha thought, pissy with the idea that his brother might have thought it was just his bad hygiene. Finding a decent patch of grass just off their trail over the open countryside, he set about repeatedly wiping guts off his foot. Casting his eye about for water, he spotted a muddy-looking puddle and hobbled over to swish his foot around in it. It would have been almost funny if he hadn't been the one to do it, he thought tiredly, yawning and wiping his watery eyes. "So, remind me again why we're not panicking about Rin?"

"Jaken and Ah-Un are with her," was the curt reply. "They know the consequences if anything should happen." There was little doubt in the hanyou's mind exactly what consequences Sesshoumaru was referring to. "In addition, your time spent with her should be worth something."

At face value, it was a compliment to his skills. Snorting softly, the hanyou shook his head. "I taught her how to survive on her own," he said flatly. "But up against a dangerous youkai? If she's got nowhere to run or hide, she's still just another dead human kid. Even I can't turn her into a hanyou—and that's what kept me alive. I can't turn her into some kind of one-brat army. She doesn't even have the spirit for it." Facts were facts, in his head. He wasn't some stupid idealist that thought that a positive outlook and determination could get you through a bad situation. It took brute strength, and more often than not, a really sharp sword. But the more he thought on that, the stronger that irritating twist of unease in his stomach became. Could the kid actually have gotten herself in that much trouble? The toad had a stick that breathed fire, sure, but it wasn't really a threat to anything with half a brain. The dragon, well, he didn't really know. It was just another dumb youkai beast of burden.

Glancing up, a little angry for talking up the situation and worrying himself, Inuyasha suddenly stilled as his eyes met Sesshoumaru's.

"If your words are true, you may be more useless than I first surmised," the youkai said coldly. There was a layer of ice that seemed to crawl over the hanyou's skin as their eyes remained locked, and he felt the unfair bruise of his brother's words. Wordless, he stared, waited, but nothing further came from him. There was just the stiff set of the youkai lord's shoulders, the raised and regal tilt of his head, and those chilling eyes. Silent, Sesshoumaru then turned and continued his path, leaving Inuyasha frozen in more ways than one.

What. . .what the hell. . .

Was Sesshoumaru going to blame him if anything happened? This was shit! The bastard had to know that he couldn't—couldn't—

Gazing ahead at his brother, his fists slowly clenched, and he started after him, bristling with anger. "You asshole," he bit out. "So I'm the easy target, right? Anything goes wrong, blame Inuyasha. Fine. But fuck you, Sesshoumaru. Useless? You want useless, take a look in the fucking mirror; you can't even keep track of one goddamn human girl." Jaw clenched, eyes blazing, he spat the words at his brother's back like darts, too angry to even think about tempering his words. This was just too perfect. He knew it wouldn't last. The only thing under the surface of Sesshoumaru's so-called change of heart was just another set of circumstances to look down on him for. Well he could go to hell. Once again, all it came down to was Rin. He didn't know what she'd done to win Sesshoumaru over like she had, but facts were that she meant a hell of a lot more to the bastard than he could, now or ever. When it really came down to it, Rin was the only creature with human blood the daiyoukai could bring himself to stand.

As if to prove it, Sesshoumaru whipped around, his expression darkening with fury. "Watch your mouth, hanyou."

Hanyou. A word that had always dripped disdain when spoken from his brother's lips. Inuyasha laughed, once. "Sure," he agreed easily, his eyes hard. "Whatever. See you around." With that, he changed direction and split his path from his brother's, heading out into the long grass covering the field. Head down, hackles up, he shoved aside the long stalks that barred his path and got the hell out of there. The new moon was one night away, anyhow, he reasoned stiffly. It was stupid in the first place to just take off, whereabouts unknown, because of some stupid whim. The others in the village would be wondering where he got to, probably. He wouldn't be adding anything new to the search for Rin—nothing Sesshoumaru didn't already have in spades. Shit. Hanyou.

Inuyasha had said before, that even a stupid hanyou wouldn't go chasing after a kick in the face. But that was exactly what he'd done, in the end.

He made the mistake of looking back, from halfway across the field. Just a glare, a mutinous glance that said exactly what he thought of his brother. A glare that crumpled into confused frustration when instead of a proud youkai, he saw something that for a moment, he couldn't reconcile with his cold half-brother.

Eyes strangely fixed, Sesshoumaru's gaze seemed to blindly search the sudden expanse of distance between them, like he didn't know how it had gotten there. The anger was gone from his expression; his malevolent aura vanished. By his sides, his fingers twitched, his lips parted, but instead of words there was just a soft exhale of breath, and his head lowered almost imperceptibly. Then it was gone, and he was turning away. It dawned on Inuyasha that as much as he didn't want to see the discord written all over his brother's pale features, it seemed like he couldn't help but read him that much more clearly, these days.

Inuyasha realised then that he just might be a complete sucker.

"Oh, goddamn it," he muttered in disgust, raking an agitated hand through his hair. This was in no way going to benefit his mental state. Turning back, he stomped angrily back to his frozen brother, pissed off, hurt, and more than a little angry with himself. "Let's just find Rin. You can apologise later." The words were sharp and caustic, and the hand that gripped Sesshoumaru's pale wrist and tugged him into motion was rough. It was obvious now that despite the fear-driven protection from Jaken and the dragon Sesshoumaru knew Rin would have, he was worried. Since it was pretty much impossible for him to admit it, maybe he'd just lashed out. It wasn't so crazy to think of—hell, Inuyasha did a bit of that himself. It didn't change anything, though. They were going to find Rin, and after that, he'd take off. He'd been kicked in the face once too often.

"Are you going to release me?" Even Sesshoumaru's words were lacking his earlier fury, like it had all drained off and vanished. "Or do you plan to persist in dragging me behind you like—" The youkai lord didn't even get to finish before Inuyasha released his wrist, eyes staring straight ahead, expression flat and unforgiving. Behind him, he heard the shifting sounds of sudden movement, but he ignored it.

He just ignored everything.

Another hour passed in complete silence as they trekked through the countryside, their path lit only by the weak moonlight and their own sharp eyes. Sesshoumaru had drawn even with him in pace a while ago, his golden eyes sliding to the side when he thought Inuyasha couldn't see. There seemed to be something agitated about the way his eyes kept returning, as if he didn't know exactly what he was looking at anymore, and couldn't figure it out. Was his refusal to acknowledge him that annoying? Probably, Inuyasha thought nastily, considering he was accustomed to being treated like the centre of the universe. Served him right. The thing was, he knew if he spoke he'd end up spilling way more than he intended to ever let his bastard brother know about. Why give Sesshoumaru more weapons to stab him in the back with? Knowing the extent of the damage his words had caused—that would just make him look like a pussy if the bastard knew. Inuyasha shouldn't even care anyway.

Except, a traitorous voice taunted in the back of his head, you're too soft not to. Weak little hanyou boy, you're still just the dirty-faced child in the forest, asking if it's okay not to hate him.

Mouth compressed into a severe line, he willed his ears to remain pricked and alert, despite his instinct to flatten them to his skull. He just had to find Rin, and go. Just to make sure it couldn't have been his fault.

It couldn't be his fault.

But maybe, he found himself thinking, if she hadn't gotten so damn attached to him. . .she wouldn't have come back to visit. The thought bothered him more than he wanted to admit. Lifting his head, straightening, he shook off the heavy thoughts and drew in a long breath, seeking to find to resolve. What he met with, the scent floating on the night breeze, stopped him dead.

The wind carried the scent of youkai blood, drenched in the familiar feral musk of a dragon.

Rin's dragon.

"Oh, no," whispered Inuyasha.

The change in Sesshoumaru was incredible. Eyes blazing as the heavy scent of his dragon's blood hit him, his youki exploded around him like a storm. Cursing, Inuyasha leapt back, but a clawed hand shot out and snatched him back by his collar, reeling him straight into the crackling red aura of raw youki. Striking his unarmoured chest, Inuyasha gripped the edges of Sesshoumaru's kimono and stared up at him in shock. He only caught a glance of a fury-twisted mouth and lengthening teeth before both their forms condensed into light, and shot high into the sky.

Wherever his heart was in this form, it was pounding hard enough to burst. Shapeless yet still aware, Inuyasha knew he'd never get used to travelling like this. Last time he'd been badly injured and passed out halfway; this time he was wide awake and something short of horrified. The world rushed by beneath his eyeless sight, surrounded in the protective cocoon of Sesshoumaru's power as they blazed a trail through the stars, hunting down the scent of death. That's what it was, the hanyou thought with a sick pang. Nothing lost that much blood and lived. It was old blood, cold blood, and it meant that maybe Inuyasha had been useless, after all.

Was that why he'd been brought along? He thought suddenly, wildly. If Rin was dead, Tenseiga couldn't revive her again. They know the consequences. . . She meant that much to Sesshoumaru.

But if she was dead, he might just accept those consequences.

His thoughts were forgotten as they abruptly dropped from the sky, plummeting and transforming so fast Inuyasha barely had time to find his feet –literally- before he dropped at a run straight out onto a flat cliff-top, where two dead youkai lay tangled in a pool of congealed, sticky blood.

A snake youkai, coiled loosely about a two-headed dragon. . .or what used to be one. Punctured all over, one head missing, the other firmly wedged between the dislocated jaws of the massive serpent, they were frozen in a tableau of death.

Inuyasha felt the faint flutter of fear sour into dread. "Oh, shit," he whispered, too low for his brother to hear. Oh god, where the fuck was Rin? Inside that thing, that goddamn snake? Turning to Sesshoumaru, he saw only rigid control superimposed over animal rage. The hanyou turned back and forced his feet into action, heading for the ruined carcass of the dragon. He'd pull it out and go in there after her if he had to—no way was he gonna let that be her grave.

"Sesshoumaru-sama?" A trembling voice said from behind the youkai. "S-sesshoumaru-sama!"

Inuyasha stopped.

He'd know that voice anywhere. Rin stumbled out from her gory hiding place, blood splashed up one side of her face and down her arm; not hers. Dragging an unconscious Jaken by one leg, she eventually lit eyes on them both and released the imp in favour of running straight to her guardian. "Sesshoumaru-sama, I knew you'd come!" She cried, losing her respectful composure for the first time since Inuyasha had met her, barrelling straight into the youkai lord's legs and slinging her arms around them. "I waited and waited, and I hid because Inuyasha said blood lures things—a-and I'm sorry, Sesshoumaru-sama! Ah-Un is dead, and it's because of me! I'm so sorry!" Sobbing unashamedly, her little hands clenched in the loose silk of his hakama, Rin apologised to Sesshoumaru for surviving the attack. Chest constricting at the sight, Inuyasha looked away.

"Ah-Un was protecting you," Sesshoumaru said quietly, one hand settling on the top of her head, smoothing over the blood-stiffened locks of hair. "As I had ordered. Do not think this is your fault." While the girl continued to cry, Inuyasha walked away from the pair to inspect the remains of the battle. He felt like he shouldn't be watching the tiny reunion. From the way the ground was stirred up, and the colouring of the snake youkai, it had been nesting nearby, camouflaged. Likely they'd landed on the flat rock of the cliff to rest, or relieve themselves, and it had struck. Over twenty feet long, wide enough dislocate its jaws and try to swallow a lesser dragon whole, it was a hell of a youkai. Shit, he was really starting to hate snakes. It was probable the dragon had died from the venom long before it had begun to be devoured from the head down. Yet. . .

The serpent was dead. The dragon must have unleashed some kind of attack, but there were no wounds he could see. Confused, Inuyasha skirted his way around the other side of the youkai, where Rin had been hiding—and stopped dead.

"Holy fuck."

There was a stick—more like a branch, really—and it was shoved halfway into the eye-socket of the snake. He hadn't seen it with the dragon in the way. Disbelieving what his eyes clearly saw, he gripped the stick and hauled it out. Three feet of gore-covered wood emerged before it came free. Three goddamn feet of a thin branch had been lodged deep in that snake's head; into its brain. Eyes wide and flickering with shock, he slowly turned to look at the little blood-spattered girl. "Rin?"

Rubbing her eyes, she sniffled and seemed to really see him for the first time. Then her eyes swung to the stick. "Was that what you meant, Inuyasha? It was the only soft place I could find."

Soft place. . . The lesson rushed back to him. Stab it somewhere vulnerable. Avoid hard plates and scales. Attack like you'll die if you don't use your last ounce of strength. Swallowing with difficulty, he looked back to the snake, and the dragon half-jammed in its mouth. Rin had to have waited for it to fill its mouth, crawled onto the dragon's corpse, reared up and rammed that branch home straight through the serpent's right eye. The sheer impossibility of it, and the knowledge that he'd taught her to do it, rocked him on his feet. She could have been killed—it was too reckless—

—and exactly what he would have done in her place.

Holy god, Rin had killed a youkai.

And he'd taught her how.

"Guess I'm good for something after all," Inuyasha said, a little floored. "I don't know how you worked up the guts or the muscle to punch that stick through its eye, but you saved the toad and your own ass when you did it." Watching her uncertain expression melt into a trembling smile, he tossed the stick away and knelt down just as she came ambling over to him. His mouth kicked up at the corner in a crooked smile. "So, wanted to see me that badly, huh? Didn't expect you to go on the warpath just to make sure of it, but—hey, hey, quit with the crying," he said gruffly, wiping her face and grimacing as the moisture stirred the dried blood on her cheek. Sniffling wetly, Rin nodded and rubbed at her eyes.

"I'm sorry," she said sadly, "it's just that Ah-Un is behind you—"

Oh. "Shit," he muttered, and pulled her up into his arms. "Sorry, kid. C'mon, you don't need to look at that." Ignoring her blood-laden scent as it surrounded him, he carried her down alongside the length of the snake, shooting a pointed look at his brother. Or rather, his brother's sword. He received a long look, and a small nod in reply. Drawing Toukijin first, Sesshoumaru slit open the side of the snake's mouth, reached inside, and calmly removed the severed head of the dragon. Then, with a yank of the tail, he pulled the carcass free. Making sure Rin's face was pressed into his hair as he observed, Inuyasha watched with rapt curiosity as his brother lined up the body and the second head, and drew Tenseiga with a singing note of metal sliding free.

It was then that Sesshoumaru paused, his eyes settling on the sword like it displeased him. Then, with a clear throb of power, the blade seemed to come to life somehow, though it never changed form. It was just a pulse, the way Tetsusaiga did sometimes. With a graceful swing, the youkai lord cut through some foe visible only to him, and suddenly the dragon's flanks were trembling, swelling with a long breath. The punctures were gone, the head was reattached.

It was alive.

Inuyasha was so full of awe at the sight, he didn't even notice the sudden shudder of the serpent's body until the tail swung straight at him.

He barely had time to turn, to shield Rin from the impact. But it was as the hanyou did that he realised he was on the precipice of the cliff. Too far, he thought blankly, as the tail slammed brutally into his back, sending them both over the cliff.

Death drop. Let the kid go. Save yourself. Grab the edge.

The thoughts were instinctive, primal, flashing through his head in the instant that the impact hurtled them out into the darkness of mid-air, too far, too far for them both to survive.

But there was only one of them that really mattered. Inuyasha knew that there was no other choice. He closed his eyes as a lifetime of memories burned out into clear, steely resolve.

There were worse ways to go.

Inuyasha opened his eyes.

Twisting in a move that no human could accomplish, Inuyasha grabbed the girl and threw her, as hard as he could. Tossed her high in the air, screaming, back across the drop and hard onto safe ground.

Then Inuyasha fell, wide-eyed at the stars above.

And Sesshoumaru jumped after him.

It was too fast for transforming, for thought, for anything other than instinct. Inuyasha saw the white shape plummet with him into the dark drop, saw an expression raw and open with white-faced resolve the instant before arms grabbed him, twisted him, and they slammed into the craggy cliff wall with Sesshoumaru taking the full impact. Blood spattered Inuyasha's cheek, and a sound of pain might have touched his ears, but he couldn't see anything but white, white—

The arms were like iron around him, as they dropped in a full, seemingly endless freefall to the hard bedrock below. Again, a twist of lithe power, blind and dizzying, and Inuyasha was staring at the sky as they slammed into the ground.

Crying out with breathless agony, bile rose in the back of the hanyou's throat, choking him for an instant, and everything began to grey out. But the arms that had held him in place from behind were slipping limply away from his stomach, and something like terror ripped through his pain-wracked body, adrenaline chasing off the encroaching darkness in his head. Groaning, he rolled to the side, off his brother's body. Sesshoumaru didn't move. Inuyasha dragged himself upright, ignoring the dark-bright spots circling his vision, and reached out to place the palm of his hand over his youkai brother's heart.

He couldn't tell, he couldn't—

Realising he was shaking, he lowered his ear to Sesshoumaru's chest instead, listening to the muted heartbeat there, his nose dull with the scent of blood. Not dead. If he wasn't dead, he couldn't die. Not from that. Oh, shit. Crawling up to run a hand beneath the dishevelled hair fanned across the stone, he felt his way up the warm nape of Sesshoumaru's neck, over the curve of his skull as he searched for blood. The boneless slide of his brother's face into the palm of Inuyasha's hand as he drew away might have been the most frightening thing the hanyou had ever witnessed. He hung there a moment, frozen and staring with wavering vision at the bead of blood that ran from Sesshoumaru's nose, pooling in the hanyou's palm as it completed its journey over the pale curve of the youkai's cheek.

Sesshoumaru was unconscious.

Sesshoumaru was hurt.

Because he'd jumped over that cliff after him, even when he knew Rin was safe. He'd used his body as a wall of flesh and muscle between him and the unforgiving ground. There was no mistaking that snap and arch of his body the moment Sesshoumaru had gotten a hold of him. He'd used it himself more than once, when the frailty of his friends' bodies had startled him into blind action; he'd used his body as a stronger shield. But that he had. . .what the fuck had that arrogant bastard been thinking? No one walked away from a drop like that! Not even a daiyoukai. Not when he was unarmoured, when he was forsaking all defense just to catch Inuyasha in time. It might not have killed him, but the crunch and slam of the impact, doubled by the hanyou's weight above and the stone below. . .

"Are you stupid?" Inuyasha whispered, gritting his teeth against the strange ache in his throat. "No one does that kind of thing." Not for me. Lowering Sesshoumaru back to the ground with careful hands, he found the world spinning away from him strangely, darkness encroaching and retreating like the waves of the ocean. It occurred to him then that he wasn't quite all right, himself. His ribcage and back throbbed in agony, and one of his ears was torn and bleeding down the side of his face. It was his own goddamn blood he'd smelled, not his brother's. Painful relief flooded him and he laughed almost drunkenly, sliding a hand over his face. Shit. Sesshoumaru takes a swan dive over a cliff and doesn't even scratch, and he gets a free mattress to land on and bleeds like a stuck pig. Inuyasha laughed until tears swam in his eyes, and he didn't even bother to think about why they remained long after his mirth had died.

Dragging in a long breath, he tipped his head to squint up at the precipice of the cliff, where a dark head was carefully peering down, unable to see in the dark but assured in her faith in Sesshoumaru that both of them were absolutely fine. "Rin, we're okay," he lied up at the blurred shape. "Stupid snake thing was just in its death throes, probably tried to regenerate after I pulled that stick out. It's dead, right?"

"Right," she called down to him, unperturbed. "Kind of like how Jaken-sama kicks air in his sleep. I hurt my knees when I landed but you saved me so I'm not going to cry or anything, Inuyasha. Should I make a camp tonight?" There was a pause, and then, "it's very late and Jaken-sama is still sleeping after he hit his head. I'll take Ah-Un and make a camp, okay? We good?"

Against all the pain and turmoil rocketing through his body, Inuyasha still managed to huff one more laugh. "We're good," he called up to her. "I've uh, I've hurt my foot, so we'll come up when it's healed. Don't worry about us." Hoping to hell she wouldn't question why Sesshoumaru would wait if Inuyasha was the one injured, he listened for the sounds of her gathering up the newly-revived dragon and the toad. She bought it. Well, he reflected, the kid thought Sesshoumaru was some kind of benevolent force of good, so it didn't really surprise him that she was so damn gullible. It served his purposes anyway; he didn't want to deal with Rin if she got a good look at her beloved Sesshoumaru-sama now.

Unwillingly, Inuyasha cast his swimming gaze back to his brother, twisting his hips so he could painfully drag himself closer to his side. Everything abruptly spun and wobbled then, and with a soft sound the hanyou collapsed for a moment beside Sesshoumaru's arm, his cheek pillowed by the spread silk of one wide sleeve. Breathing in short puffs, he willed the sudden, oily bout of nausea back before it made even more of a mess. Had he hit his head? He'd smashed his ear pretty good, he knew that. . .there was something to do with balance there, but damned if he could remember. So he just lay there, golden eyes heavily lidded and sick with pain and vertigo combined. He stared unseeingly into the blanket of hair around him, and the dirt-dusted silk that covered Sesshoumaru's side.

Reaching out unsteadily, he brushed at it, and then paused as the warmth from the skin beneath soaked into his hand. He'd almost expected his brother to feel cool, like he was made of ice. But he was flesh and blood, and warm like living beings were meant to be. Unsure why it surprised him, he pressed lightly, his fingers finding the slope of muscle and shallow dip of his ribs, counting down the rigid indents. Must really be out of it, he decided with absent concern, to not even flinch.

Bothered again, he pushed himself up with aching arms and braced himself on his knees, and looked down into Sesshoumaru's face.

The blood annoyed him. It was only a trickle from one nostril, but the contrast it made against that pale skin was shocking. Leaning in slightly, Inuyasha bit his lip in hesitation, then shrugged to himself and wiped it away with his sleeve. His knuckles accidentally ghosted over Sesshoumaru's cheek then, and he stopped with a strange pang. That the hanyou could reach out and do something like this, touch him so freely and find no response. . .it was unnatural. His eyes flickered over the sleeping features below him, taking in the curves of jaw and mouth and nose, the black lashes resting beneath red-streaked eyelids and an indigo crescent moon he didn't understand. Holding his breath, Inuyasha reached out carefully, slowly, and touched one fingertip lightly to the symbol. It was warm, like the rest of his skin.

He was pretty sure that if Sesshoumaru was awake he'd probably be dead by now, or at least be missing a few fingers. Feeling like he was breaking some unspoken law by so much as touching his face, Inuyasha drew back suddenly, not sure why he felt so guilty. It was only—it was just curiosity. The same stupid fascination people had with his ears, that was all. But the feeling didn't fade until he drew away, glancing off into the darkness with one pricked ear, the other limp and sagging from the tear to the fragile tissue.

"You should probably wake up soon," he told his brother without looking at him, pulling his knees up to his chest. Shit, that made his back hurt. "I don't think I can haul you anywhere, and somehow I don't think you want Rin and the toad to see you so messed up. I should get them—this is your own fault, you know. Your own stupid fault for jumping after me. I don't know why you did it, but hell if I'm going to ask like it matters one way or the other. You'd never tell me the truth, besides."

There was no reply from the unconscious youkai, not that Inuyasha expected one. His mouth pulled into an unhappy scowl. "You'd better not die. I'll totally steal your swords. Maybe even your clothes. And I'll bury you in cat territory. That place is like one big litter box." This time the silence just made him angry, made him helpless. What if he never woke up? Don't be an idiot, he snarled at himself silently. You shouldn't even give a shit anyway, right? The plan was to leave as soon as Rin had been found. Well, here's the fucking chance. Leave.

Turning he glared at the prone form beside him, then swore softly. Leave? "Yeah, right."

Reaching out, Inuyasha spread one palm over his brother's heart, felt the steady cadence there, and closed his eyes. He shouldn't be so freaked out, he knew. You couldn't kill Sesshoumaru that easily. If there was one thing he could say about his bastard older brother, it was that he could take a hit and still come up swinging. Then probably insult your mother, as he seemed to like doing. He was tough.

He was also the only family Inuyasha had.

The—the only anything Inuyasha had.

And he'd just saved Inuyasha's life.

Letting out a shuddering breath, he felt the truth of that admission wash over him leaving his head feeling light and his chest constricted. His strength crumbling, his arms turning to rubber, the hanyou pulled back dizzily, but lost his battle with vertigo and felt his cheek thump down awkwardly on Sesshoumaru's stomach, just as the world flew from his grasp and winked out of sight.

Maybe. . .he'd just rest a minute. Just. . .until he woke up.



Sesshoumaru's eyes opened to the night sky above, and a bone-deep ache in his whole body. Perhaps he'd slightly overestimated his own resilience, this time. Feeling a warm pressure against his stomach, he raised himself up slightly until his eyes lit on Inuyasha.

Inuyasha, who wasn't moving.

He was breathing evenly, but the blood crusted down the side of his face said he wasn't entirely uninjured. Clenching his jaw against the grind of broken ribs, he pulled himself upright, panting lightly at the strain. This level of injury was unacceptable. The last time he'd taken a blow so heavy. . .well, Inuyasha had caused that, too. Under entirely different circumstances.

Now, instead of a silent human girl to tend him, he found his half-breed brother collapsed bonelessly in his lap. He would not have survived the fall alone. Reaching down, Sesshoumaru's expression did not change as he turned Inuyasha over, pulling his body closer to inspect the damage. It wouldn't do if his efforts had been in vain. Recalling the sight of that flash of red plummeting downward, the choking moment of realisation, of I won't allow it, and then the blur of his own movement as he leapt down into the abyss. It had been an impulsive, uncalculated move. Completely unlike him. However, he acknowledged that when it came to his foolish, stubborn half-brother, it almost seemed normal to behave on instinct alone. Perhaps he was picking up unhealthy habits.

Cradling Inuyasha in one arm, he slid his palm over the hanyou's cheek, underneath the heavy shock of white hair that spilled over his forehead, stiff and matted with his own blood. Satisfied there was no head wound, merely a ragged and abused ear, he allowed his fingers to travel back over the paler-than-normal planes of Inuyasha's face, stroking over the curve of one dark eyebrow, a sweat-damp cheekbone, the corner of parted lips as air escaped them in soft puffs.

So quiet, so unwillingly trusting in sleep. Sesshoumaru reflected upon the difference between the loud and boastful hanyou he'd spent his years detesting with all his being, and the younger brother who lay cradled in his grasp. He could not reconcile the two, and yet, nothing had really changed about the reckless idiot. Perhaps it had merely been his perception that had altered over time. Inuyasha had always displayed an almost suicidal tendency to sacrifice his own safety for the wellbeing of others—the fact that Sesshoumaru himself had just done the same spoke loudly of how things had changed.

Risk his life for Inuyasha? This Inuyasha?


His eyes remote, he watched almost indifferently as his clawed fingers slid over that parted mouth and the curve of his chin, down to the pulsing blue vein visible in that arched throat. Even a light press of his claws would suffice. . .

Inuyasha's breath hitched then, as dreams swivelled his torn ear of its own accord, and his expression crumpled in pain. Sesshoumaru lowered his mouth to the wounded triangle of fur which was almost comically wilted, and breathed warmly against the injury, allowing the heat to remove some of the sting he was likely feeling even in his senseless sleep. Forgotten, his hand relaxed against the warm pulse beneath his fingertips, and Sesshoumaru decided that to undo his work now would be the height of foolishness.

The youkai lord chose not to dwell on the ease in which he had convinced himself of that.



Waking up in Sesshoumaru's arms should have been one of those horror moments a person has nightmares about for the rest of their lives. But rising out of the troubled swarm of his dreams and finding himself encased in silk-draped arms and warmth, a mouth breathing comfortingly against his hurt ear and a careful hand curved around the side of his neck. . .it wasn't bad. It was weird, and he briefly wondered if maybe he was hallucinating, but he wasn't as bothered as he thought he probably should be in this situation.

Maybe because it meant Sesshoumaru was okay, if he could be bothered looking after him.

"I knew you had a thing for my ears," he said groggily. "No one can resist their fuzzy allure. You even jumped off a cliff for them. Don't think I didn't realise." He was faintly gratified to feel a quick, hard exhale against his ear—one that might have been a laugh.

"You mustn't be overly injured, if your warped attempt at humour is anything to judge," Sesshoumaru said dryly. "And your absurd ears are of no particular interest to me. Can you sit up, or do I need to persist in supporting you?"

"I think the term is 'cradling me like a girl', Sesshoumaru," he replied with a soft snort, rolling his eyes upward to look his brother in the face. "I'm not the one who recently became the filling for a delicious hanyou-bedrock sandwich. Thanks to some crazy youkai, I've only got a smashed ear and a sore back."

"Your gratitude is overwhelming."

Inuyasha grinned briefly, before his mouth relaxed into a thoughtful curve. "I'm not great with the gratitude," he said after a moment. "But—yeah. I'd be dead now if you hadn't. I'm surprised you aren't, you know. It was a hell of a drop."

Sesshoumaru shrugged. "I had anticipated Tenseiga's intervention, however it chose not to this time. My back broke, but my bones fuse faster than—" He broke off as Inuyasha bolted upright then and tried to struggle out of his grip, but was held in place easily as the scenery spun wildly at his abrupt movement. Groaning, Inuyasha slumped back and threw a hand over his eyes. Sesshoumaru paused, then placed a hand on his brow. "Imbecile. You took a solid blow to the head when you injured your ear. Remain still."

"You—you broke your back?" The hanyou said through gritted teeth, trying to get his nausea under control. "What else?"

"Three ribs, and my skull may have fractured, I'm not certain. I heal much faster than you, Inuyasha. I would not have made the leap if I was as easy to kill as you. I insulated your fall, and slowed it down when I threw us into the cliff wall," Sesshoumaru told him, a trace of irritation in his words. "I did not anticipate that youkai's death throes. Tenseiga's activation so close to its corpse may have triggered something."

Well, that explained it a little better, Inuyasha thought faintly, removing his hand from his eyes. "So you're healed now, right?"

The youkai paused. "More or less," he conceded. "The bones are no longer broken." Which was really an evasive way of saying he was in a fair bit of pain, Inuyasha deduced, unimpressed.

"Why'd you jump?" He finally asked the blunt question. "It's not like you to get yourself messed up for anyone, let alone me. Rin was already heading for the ledge by that point. Don't tell me you've got some new and improved scheme to keep me alive to play a part in."

Sesshoumaru just looked at him.

The silence that stretched in that moment seemed heavy, making the air around them thick and caused Inuyasha's heart to pound harder than usual. He didn't know why. Maybe it was because he was still sprawled in the cradle of Sesshoumaru's legs, the arm around his shoulders the only thing propping him up. Maybe it was the glint of moonlight off the single fang visible between his brother's lips, which were slightly parted now. Or maybe it was the strange light in his eyes as he watched him, a glance that was no longer questing or amused, but some eerie mix of intensity and hesitation as he scanned Inuyasha's face. Finally he blinked, and something shattered between them. The air became air again.

"No," the youkai lord said quietly. "There is no ploy here to manipulate you, Inuyasha. You may leave as freely as you decided to join me."

Inuyasha swallowed. "That doesn't answer the question."

"I have no answer to give." When Inuyasha rolled his eyes at the convenient answer, a clawed hand settled under his chin and jerked his head back to connect their gazes. Sesshoumaru frowned. "It became apparent that your death would not please me," he bit out. "What answer would you find more palatable? That I did have an ulterior motive? I did not."

"It'd make sense," Inuyasha admitted, his mouth turning down unhappily, his scorn dripping away. "Especially since you got so hurt."

"My injuries are not your concern."

"But they're my fault—"

Sesshoumaru snarled at him. An honest to god snarl; one of those threatening, rasping rumbles that emerged from the very back of his throat. "Mind your words, Inuyasha. No one guides my actions. Least of all you." The impact of his words was followed by a stare so icy that the hanyou nearly quailed. Instead, he stiffened, drawing back instinctively to break away from his close proximity to the source. He wasn't scared, he wasn't a fucking coward, he just—

Letting out a low breath, Sesshoumaru released his grip on Inuyasha's chin and leaned down until he buried his nose in the tangled hair of the hanyou's crown. Rubbing his cheek there briefly, almost in apology, he waited until Inuyasha stopped struggling and simply froze. Then, when nothing further happened, he relaxed, just a little.

"I knew I shouldn't have asked," he grumped. "Are you going youkai on me again? Just don't bite me."

"I alarmed you," Sesshoumaru stated, for once using some tact and avoiding the obvious definition for the hanyou's instinctive reaction. "I did not intend to. Inuyasha, you did not force me to go after you. My injuries were the result of my own actions. I am not blaming you." Each statement was careful and precise, as though he was trying to hammer the point home to someone who was a little slower than the norm. Normally Inuyasha would have been offended, but caught in the net of his brother's long limbs like he was, it actually helped.

Tipping his head back again, he squinted until he found the curve of Sesshoumaru's jaw. "I need a bath," he said finally, dismissing the whole thing. "One side of my face is stuck in a frown from all the blood. I feel like a stroke victim."

Sesshoumaru's reply was to lave a single stroke over his bloodied cheek, catching Inuyasha's eye on the process. "Augh, sick! My eye was open, you bastard. You licked my fucking eyeball. That was not the kind of bath I meant, you creepy—stop it!" He yowled as another wet stroke ran along the slope of his nose, then over the corner of his mouth. "God damn it, that one was almost a kiss!" Reaching up, he placed a hand over Sesshoumaru's face and shoved him away, literally crawling to freedom. Collapsing somewhere near his brother's booted feet, Inuyasha let out a mournful sound as the world proved once again that it was in fact made of dough, and decided to sink and rise while he lay there. "I feel sick," he groaned. "I think I'm gonna puke. God shit damn, my back hurts. And my ear hurts. Put me out of my misery."

"I'd like nothing more," Sesshoumaru said stiffly, running a hand through his own hair as he brought himself back into some semblance of order. "However, due to the sheer amount of effort I exerted in keeping you from death's grasp, it would be counterproductive to then kill you. Wretched hanyou."

"Stuck-up youkai," he shot back automatically, his voice muffled through the weight of the hair curtaining a good portion of his slack features. Sour saliva rushed into his mouth, and he swallowed it back desperately. "At least don't let me puke in my own hair." He closed his eyes to concentrate on the task.

Shifting sounds reached his ears, and he felt hands grip the front of his haori. "If it is a choice between your hair or my kimono, you can choke on your own vomit," he was informed regally as he was then hauled into the air, and over a shoulder that felt like a marble fist in his stomach. "Prepare yourself."

"For what—" Inuyasha had time to rasp out, before the world and his own existence condensed into light.

It was as they left the cliff base far below them than Inuyasha decided that maybe ball mode wasn't really that bad after all. Sure, it meant giving up all control of his movement, and Sesshoumaru gave him almost no warning when he used it, but at least when he finally did empty his phantom stomach in that saturating light, he managed to get the majority of it on his brother.

Good times.

Chapter 13: Misinterpretation

"You know, I think I really might have hit my head," Inuyasha mumbled blearily. "I feel weird, and it's not going away. Do you think I hit my head?"

"Your inability to stay silent for more than three seconds does bring head injuries to mind," Sesshoumaru agreed, but Inuyasha thought there was something funny about the way he said it. "Grievous head injuries indeed."

Oh, so he was still mad about the vomiting thing. Tripping on a tussock of grass, Inuyasha wobbled and lurched forward two steps, bringing him accidentally in line with the irate youkai. "Sweet mother of god, you stink," Inuyasha gagged, rubbing his nose to try to dull the acidic stench of his own bile. It saturated a yellow streak down half of Sesshoumaru's back. "Jeez, and I didn't even have anything to eat—"

"That will be quite enough," Sesshoumaru bit out, his expression rigid. "Speak another word on my scent or the manner in which my person was defiled, and I will rip off your jaw. Do you understand?"

Inuyasha stared at him for a moment, his hand slowly falling from his face. That was it? "Aren't you going to, uh. . .hit me or something?" He asked, failing to mute the scepticism in his voice completely. "Or are you gonna just strike when I least suspect it, that kind of thing. I did just kind of paint your back with my stomach juice."

The look his brother shot him was disgusted. "Your short memory is exceeded only by your obscene choice of words," he replied in distaste. "If I decide to retaliate, I assure you, you will be the first to know my plans."

"That's comforting," Inuyasha muttered. Somehow though, he didn't feel overly worried that Sesshoumaru was going to spring some secret vengeance on him while his back was turned. Stuck up, powerful, and violent as he was, sneak attacks had never been his style. Trickery, and taking advantage of opportunity, sure, but in some ways he was almost as forthright as Inuyasha was. Hell, even his attacks were usually preceded with a 'die, Inuyasha' in there somewhere. Despite himself, the hanyou snickered a little. Yeah, Sesshoumaru was anything but sneaky.

It got him thinking, in his sudden pondering mood, if he'd always been a stuck-up youkai lord. Had ever been a dumbass kid eating worms and getting busted for tracking muddy footprints inside? Somehow he couldn't picture it. Bet he was one of those snooty loner types, Inuyasha thought, wrinkling his nose. Someone who wouldn't have given the kid he'd been so much as a second glance. Mulling it over, the hanyou decided that a kid version of Sesshoumaru would have been exactly the type he would have spent his every waking moment tormenting. Probably until the bastard cracked and started bawling.

Glancing up and eyeing the vomit-streaked youkai in front of him, Inuyasha felt his mouth kick up in a faint, almost fond smile.

They didn't speak until they reached the source of the scent they'd been tracking, and Inuyasha found himself staring down at the wide curve of a stream deep enough to bathe in. It was clear enough, and trickled off into a noisy vein somewhere in the reeds where it turned shallow, but recent events that had occurred in water had him hesitating for the briefest of moments. Scrunching his face up, the hanyou sighed and started pulling off his clothes, trying not to wince as the muscles in his back groaned, pain reaching around into his ribs. "Where's a hot spring when I need one," he muttered to himself, rubbing the back of his neck. He was untying his hakama when he paused and shot a look at Sesshoumaru, who seemed at a loss. "It's easier to wash clothes when you're not wearing them, you know."

His piece of casual advice earned him a flat look. Reaching for his obi, Sesshoumaru deftly untied the knot and placed the length of silk at his feet, but froze oddly at the first movement to try and shrug out of the red-patterned white kimono. Then, with a set expression, he jerked the material free of his hakama and pulled both layers off in one sharp movement. It stirred the hair away from Sesshoumaru's back, and with the hanyou's keen eyes it didn't take him long to realise what he was looking at.

From the nape of his neck, blossoming out slowly into an almost diamond shape before vanishing into the white hakama, Sesshoumaru's entire back was one pulpy purple bruise. Hissing in sympathy, Inuyasha stepped closer to get a decent look at it. Shit, no wonder he hadn't kept him slung over that shoulder for long, he thought. The muscles looked like they were tense from the pain, bordering on cramping. And that bruise. . .that was a hell of a lot of bleeding under the skin. Their landing had done that, he thought sickly. Sure the important shit healed, like the bones, but this was. . .

Inuyasha swallowed and straightened up. "So you can bruise, too," he observed with a sudden, interested squint. "Can I poke it?" Reaching out, he hovered one fingertip over the mottled flesh beneath his brother's shoulder blade. He feigned innocence as he was levelled with a glare, only to yelp and stumble back a step as a bundle of white was thrust into his face.

"Clean that."

Inuyasha stared blankly at the outer layer of his brother's kimono for a moment, before he realised what he'd just been ordered to do. "I'm not your laundry woman! Clean your own damn clothes. I warned you I was going to throw up, but did you listen? No, like always, you fucking ignored me, so this is your fault, so you clean it." With that, he balled up the red-white bundle of silk and lobbed it at his brother's head. Just because the bastard had a decent bruise didn't mean Inuyasha was going to roll over obediently.

He caught it, of course. But golden eyes lit with anger for an instant, and suddenly Sesshoumaru was striding stiffly toward him, clothing clenched in one clawed hand. "I believe," he said, his voice deadly, "that you neglected to warn me of your intentions to do away with aiming and simply leak your stomach contents down my back like an infant pup—making this your mess." The clothing was thrust into his stomach, barely padding a well-aimed punch from the fist holding it.

Inuyasha grunted from the solid hit, doubling over briefly and shooting his brother a dirty look, the soiled kimono reflexively caught in his grip. "I didn't ask you to haul me up over your shoulder!"

"That is irrelevant—"

"It's not like I couldn't have climbed out without your help—"

"—in an addled, rambling daze? I see now I should have stayed my mercy and let you pursue such a foolish avenue," Sesshoumaru retorted scathingly. "How imprudent of me to offer you assistance. Should I have also let you fall to your death? Certainly you would have found a way out of that, being the self-reliant hanyou fool you are." Turning away from his brother, the fuming youkai lord stalked back to his original position and removed the rest of his clothing.

Unable to form a decent comeback, and a little perplexed by Sesshoumaru's outburst, Inuyasha petulantly tossed the bundle of material at his brother's feet and yanked off his hakama. "I'm not one of your servants," he said harshly. "Doesn't mean I'm not grateful just because I won't worship the damn ground you walk on." He strode straight into the water, stifling his recoil as the sudden shock of cold hit his heated skin.

"I don't believe I ever asked you to." Refusing to look at Inuyasha, Sesshoumaru bent and grabbed the kimono in one ungraceful movement, his expression tight with strain. His entry into the water was similarly jerky, but the hanyou refused to care. Golden eyes dropping to the inky water, he released a sharp breath and turned away altogether.

For a few long minutes the only sound breaking the silence was the trickle of water over skin and the stuttering song of crickets in the summer night. They'd come out far enough looking for water that he couldn't smell Rin's campfire, or sense the girl and her two youkai. Somehow, it made him very aware of Sesshoumaru at his back.

The longer the silence continued the more uncomfortable Inuyasha became. His pride wouldn't allow him to come out and say anything, however. That was practically giving in. There was nothing wrong with what he'd said, besides; he wasn't one of Sesshoumaru's pathetically grateful entourage, ready to wash his clothes and comb his hair or whatever else he wanted just because he'd given enough of a shit to save his life.

The hanyou glared at the water, seeing nothing but the rippling reflection of the moon looking back at him. Save his life. By his sides, his hands fisted, claws pricking his palms painfully. Okay, he could admit it. Had admitted it. He'd be dead now if Sesshoumaru hadn't jumped after him. For whatever reason he'd done it, facts couldn't be changed. And there Inuyasha was, being an asshole about it.

But what else was he supposed to do? He'd thanked him, which was more than he'd offered most people in the past. Except this was Sesshoumaru, not Miroku or Sango—or, or anyone else. Who the hell knew what had been going through that bastard's head. Just then he was probably thinking he shouldn't have bothered. The thought didn't sit well with him. Ears flicking unconsciously as he pondered the easiest way to smooth things over without compromising his pride, Inuyasha soon found himself growing frustrated with his inability to think of anything. He was a doer, not a thinker. Not that there was anything he could do, either. Why the hell was he even bothering, anyway?

Cursing under his breath, Inuyasha dove beneath the water. Scrubbing at his hair with his bare hands, he decided that cleaning the blood out of the matted mess was good enough to take his mind of the stupidity that was playing 'what's up with the youkai bastard now?' for the hundredth time. Of course, water rushed into his ears and drove him insane, soon forcing him to the surface again to shake it out with such ferocity his entire upper body twisted with the motion. Droplets of water scattered in every direction, and his now-clean hair whipped wildly in the air, slapping painfully against his cheeks and shoulders. His injured ear twinged, but he ignored it.

Behind him, Sesshoumaru growled warningly. "Must you persist in shaking yourself off like a common mongrel?"

Inuyasha turned to see his brother wiping the back of his hand over his cheek, where water had struck him. The hanyou glared and replied with automatic churlishness. "You're hip-deep in a fucking stream and you're at me because you got a few drops of water on your face? If you've got a problem with it, move further away." A voice immediately warned him that inflaming Sesshoumaru's temper now wasn't a great idea, and that he was probably making things worse, but he just couldn't seem to stop himself. The bastard had a way of making Inuyasha feel like his every breath was offending him. It wasn't something he was about to put up with, even after the shitty night his brother had.

The violent splash of disrupted water was his first cue. The hanyou turned to see his irate brother striding through the water toward him and reflexively tensed his body in preparation to deflect a blow—one that never came as instead of striking him, Sesshoumaru grabbed a handful of his hair and began doing. . .something that tugged and pulled on the long strands.

Speechless and bewildered, he allowed his head to be jerked back with the pressure while his mind tried to process just what the hell was being done to him.

Voice tight with quenched anger, Sesshoumaru didn't leave him guessing. "If you haven't even the presence of mind to bind your hair before shaking the water from your limbs, be thankful I am lowering myself long enough to assist you." Punctuating every emphasised word with a sharper-than-necessary tug on his hair, the youkai lord scraped together all the sodden strands and wound them together down his younger brother's back. "Foolish hanyou."

His usual retort flickered briefly in his mind, but for once Inuyasha's lips didn't speak the very thoughts that rose in response to Sesshoumaru's words. In fact, he couldn't really hold onto his annoyance, either. Eyes fixed, Inuyasha just stared down at the water in silence while deft hands tended to the tangled wet nest of his hair. His shoulders drooped. It was in those moments that the hanyou realised he was feeling guilty. He'd expected a punch in the face, or for his brother to tell him to get lost – that he'd had enough of him. But for the first time Sesshoumaru hadn't responded with equal anger. Well, sure, he was pissed. . .but it was different.

Maybe he's just too damn tired to bother, Inuyasha thought briefly, but it didn't seem to fit. Then again, it sure as hell wasn't like him to be so docile. Why couldn't he seem to find his feet around Sesshoumaru these days?

With a final tug on the bottom of his hair, Sesshoumaru released the plaited length and turned away sharply, giving the hanyou no chance to speak. Not that he could have found anything to say, anyway. He just watched his older brother sweep through the water with sharp, pained movements, creating a rippling distance between them even greater than the first.

Safe in the knowledge that Sesshoumaru wouldn't look at him for a while if he could help it, Inuyasha grabbed the woven length hanging down his back and pulled it over his shoulder, studying the heavy braid of wet hair. Which was exactly what he'd done, of course. He'd braided his hair like a girl. Under normal circumstances, Inuyasha was pretty sure he'd be furious with this kind of treatment – from anyone else. Clenching the length in his fist, he eyed the unfettered ends of his hair and thought about unravelling it all. Surely he'd end up with stupid waves in his hair if he left it, anyway. Who the hell wanted to look like a girl?

His jaw clenched briefly, but after a small pause his hand slid away, flicking his hair back behind his shoulder. Thinking too much like this wasn't going to get anyone anywhere, and there was no point in starting another fight when it just seemed stupid now. The whole fucking night had turned to shit, in his opinion. Not that it had ever been great, but—but oh hell, he didn't even know anymore.

"I know I'm kind of an asshole," he heard himself saying clearly, his back to his brother. "But you can be too, so I'm sure as shit not gonna apologise for it." It was as close to a truce as he knew how to offer.

There was an almost surprised silence behind him, as the sound of movement in the water abruptly ceased. Setting his jaw, the hanyou refused to peek, even as his toes curled in the sediment at the bottom of the stream as the silence continued. Then Sesshoumaru released a breath.

"I asked for no apology," he replied, his tone still fraught with irritation. But that was okay, because it wasn't fury, or hate, or disgust. Everyone got irritated with Inuyasha, at one time or another. So at Sesshoumaru's reply, something relaxed a little inside him, as though a fist had loosened inside his chest. Well. Okay then.

"Good, because I'm not apologising," the hanyou said firmly. "So—so there."

"Fine," Sesshoumaru said, his irritation deepening.

Inuyasha fidgeted. "Fine," he agreed.

Definitely annoyed now. "All right then."

Was he trying to have the last word? Inuyasha felt his lip twitch.



He laughed then, turning to see his older brother almost cracking a tooth with the pressure in his clenched jaw. "Don't burst a vein or anything, jeez," he teased, as Sesshoumaru took an aborted step toward him, his golden eyes alight with the burning fuse of his temper. For a moment he just glared lethally at Inuyasha, before closing his eyes for a moment and biting out a term that softened the hanyou's grin.

"Wretched hanyou."

His fang caught the corner of his lower lip as he smiled. "Stuck-up youkai. C'mon, I'm pruning up here. How long does it take to wash puke out of a kimono, anyway?" Swishing through the water, he strode over to his brother's side and pulled the sodden silk from his grasp, searching the material for any stains. Thrusting the cloth under the water, he rubbed it together brutally for a few seconds, knowing it was made of youkai spider-silk and therefore wasn't about to tear under his attention. Pulling it up to examine under the weak moonlight, he repeated the motion a few more times, as to all appearances he enthusiastically did his brother's laundry. Refusing to feel stupid about it –after all, if he left it to Sesshoumaru they'd be there all night, the freaking princess– he finished up in record time, wrung it out decently, and offered it back to the youkai lord, who was staring at him oddly. "Here. Tallying up your tab, you now owe me one apology for earlier and a fight in the near future. It's the going rate for my cleaning skills."

Sesshoumaru's gaze immediately sharpened. "A fight," he repeated guardedly. "I fail to see what manner of reward you class that to be. Do you enjoy pain? How depraved."

Offended, Inuyasha scowled, his ears flicking madly. "I'm not a pervert, damn it! Sorry for finding the idea of beating the daylights out of you appealing."

"Perhaps not depraved, then," was the murmured reply. "But certainly deluded if you think you can defeat me, Inuyasha." Leaning down slightly until they were eye-to-eye, the hanyou caught the glitter of arch amusement hidden in those similar depths. "But if it is what you wish, I can certainly oblige by spreading pieces of your overconfident carcass about the countryside."

Snorting, the hanyou levelled his brother with an amused look. "I know it's good to have goals and everything, Sesshoumaru, but at least keep them a little realistic, okay?" He actually reached out and clapped his shoulder encouragingly. "Less disappointment in the end, you know."

"Blustering idiot," Sesshoumaru growled, eyeing him dangerously. "Fine. On one condition."

Grinning widely, Inuyasha leaned in slightly. "Oh yeah? What's that?"

"Hand to hand. Single combat."

Startled, Inuyasha's smile began to fade. "Wait, you mean. . .no swords?"

Nodding, the youkai lord reached out and clapped him on the shoulder. His mouth curved upward slightly, satisfaction lighting his eyes. "I will completely understand if you would like to use this moment to scream like a woman and beg for a reprieve."

Pissed off and embarrassed, Inuyasha still couldn't hold in his grudging laugh of disbelief. He shook his head, punching his brother in the arm. "If you weren't half crippled right now, I'd beat the shit out of you for that." Then he frowned, pondering. "And you know, if we weren't bare-ass naked in the water. Seriously, why are you so stripy? I don't have any stripes." Suddenly unsure, he twisted and tried to look at his back, just to be sure there hadn't been one or two there hiding all along. Inuyasha paused. "Well, not that I want to look like you."

His brother eyed him with consideration for a long moment, seeming to come to some conclusion. "You do possess those particular physical youkai traits. The markings appear when your youkai side takes over," Sesshoumaru said calmly. "I have seen two on your face, at the very least." Reaching out, he took Inuyasha's face between his hands, his thumbs streaking wet trails along the edges of his cheekbones, just beneath his eyes. "Here. . .and here."

Mystified, Inuyasha reached up and touched the wet lines on his face, trying to picture real youkai markings in their place. With those, he'd look like a pureblood youkai, wouldn't he? Preoccupied by the thought, the hanyou didn't notice the way his hands were covering Sesshoumaru's, effectively holding them against his face. "That's crazy," he breathed. "No one ever told me. What colour are they? Are they like yours? How come I only get one on each side? You've got two. Is—is it because I'm a half-breed?"

"No," Sesshoumaru said, almost sharply. "You inherited the same markings our father had. The only difference of note is the colour; his were blue, while yours are somewhat mauve." The similarity didn't seem to anger his youkai brother the way it might have in the past.

But strangely, Inuyasha looked horrified. "Purple? They're purple? I'd look like a girl!" The idea was mortifying. Had he been snarling and growling and killing things in a manly fashion, and all the while his face had looked like he'd fallen into Sango's makeup bag? This was worse than having no markings at all. Great, he thought, impossibly annoyed. Perfect.

Then he started as Sesshoumaru abruptly gripped his hands and pulled them up to press against the twin stripes on his own cheeks, ignoring the sight of the hanyou's claws so close to his eyes. "And these? Make no mistake, Inuyasha, my markings are indeed a shade of pink. Pink," he repeated, the word almost a snarl. His fangs glinted dangerously. "If you complain about one set of mauve markings that only appear once in a blue moon, I will claw the skin clean off your cheeks." His fingers clenched warningly around Inuyasha's wrists before letting go, leaving his hands pressed against his face, appearing defiantly unconcerned with the contact. In fact, he actually looked pretty pissed off, Inuyasha realised. It occurred to him then that maybe all those pureblood markings weren't wholly badges of honour to Sesshoumaru. Did—did he really think. . .was he jealous? Of a hanyou?

The angry glint of his eyes and the flat line of his mouth said yes.

"They're not pink," Inuyasha argued, warm pooling in his stomach. Stretching up, he slid his hands down over cool skin to get a better look, leaning in until his eyelashes were almost touching them. "No, they're closer to reddish purple. Besides, I think they're cool." He leaned back and grinned at the surprised youkai lord. "I'd trade you. Idiot. I mean, sure, I'll be the big tough pureblood lord and you can be the outcast hanyou with purple markings."

"You don't have the poise for it," Sesshoumaru murmured, but his eyes had warmed slightly.

Inuyasha poked him in the cheek.

Sesshoumaru snapped his teeth at him.

"Yeah, because you're so poised," Inuyasha snorted, as fangs narrowly missed the tip of his nose. "Tanuki-hater." He received a dirty look for that. Snickering to himself all over again, Inuyasha drew away with the intention to get out of the water –preferably before Sesshoumaru threw another revenge-eel at him– but was stopped when two fingers caught the tip of his ear in their grasp. "Hey!" He complained. "Don't just randomly ow-ow-ow—quit it!" His protest ended on a yelping sound of pain, as Sesshoumaru inspected his torn ear by completely straightening the furred triangle, which pulled at the wound. "All right, all right, I'm sorry! Just let go!"

Making a small sound of annoyance, Sesshoumaru ignored him, instead tugging his hair away from the base of his ear. "This will not heal properly if left alone. Would you prefer to have a crooked ear for the rest of your life?"

"No," Inuyasha replied mournfully, one eye scrunched shut against the sharp stinging pain.

"Then do be silent," his brother muttered, leaning in until his chin brushed the hanyou's temple. It was the only warning he received before his sore ear was roughly tended to by an obscenely wet tongue.

Every hair on the back of Inuyasha's neck stood on end. His eyes rounded like saucers. "Hey—!" The remainder of his protest was silenced by a hand covering his mouth, complete with the warning jab of claws against his cheek. Shuddering at the next swipe of wet warmth over his ear, Inuyasha gripped the hand over his mouth and pulled it down desperately. "What are you doing? That's my ear! Don't put it in your mouth, you creepy pervert! I have rights!"

Sesshoumaru's response was to give the wound one more punishingly intimate lick, one strong enough that Inuyasha could feel the fur on it sticking up in the wrong direction. He'd had enough. "Why the licking? Why?" He demanded wildly, shoving his brother away and turning to face him aggressively. "Okay, you're a youkai, you have weird instincts, whatever – but how come you're never off licking Jaken's creepy little head? Why is it always me?"

Sesshoumaru stared at him like he'd grown a third ear. A decidedly less tasty one. "Surely you cannot be this ignorant. Or this ungrateful," he frowned. "Cleaning your wound in that manner accelerates healing. Your squeamish reaction is unreasonable." When Inuyasha continued to stare at him in confusion, he blinked as though something unpleasant had just occurred to him. "You find this act repulsive. Of course. Humans naturally do not practice such methods of healing. Youkai have. . .different customs amongst their own kind. The dog clans are no different." While his tone was even and his words were reasonable, there was a strange light in Sesshoumaru's eyes that said Inuyasha's reaction had not been well-received. It made the hanyou feel inexplicably guilty. Which was stupid. He was the one always getting molested, right?

Except he wasn't, to a youkai lord. It was. . .what? Looking after him? "Well, well what about before? After I woke up? I get the healing thing, but my face wasn't hurt. What kind of custom was that then, genius?" He asked, almost accusingly. Crossing his arms defensively, he studied his youkai brother as he straightened up stiffly, something like a door slamming shut in his golden gaze.

"It was one that shall never be repeated, I assure you," Sesshoumaru said coldly, turning away. "If you are quite finished with your outburst, I must return."

Frustrated with the lack of an answer but realising that he'd pushed too far, the hanyou shrugged jerkily and headed for the bank. "Whatever. Suppose I should say goodbye to the kid and piss off, anyway. My vision's not doubling anymore." Wading out of the water, he didn't bother to dry himself properly before pulling his clothes back on, fixing his hakama into place and brushing the dust off his upper garments, noting with small satisfaction that they had come out of the fall unscathed. Securing Tetsusaiga at his waist, he pulled the kotodama rosary out from under the material, realising as he did so that his hair was still bound together and not tangling in the beads like it usually did. Hesitating for a brief second, he shook his head and went about releasing the damp rope of hair back into its usual untamed style. No point in leaving that in like a sentimental loser, he told himself with a frown. He probably couldn't offend Sesshoumaru any more than he apparently already had. Nothing new there.

Inuyasha felt suddenly tired; a deep, bone-aching tiredness that reminded him just how little sleep he'd gotten in the past few days. In fact, he hadn't really slept well since before—


Something cold and painful gripped his chest as he realised he'd forgotten. How had one single fall jolted her death clear out of his mind? And he was going to say goodbye to the kid and merrily walk back there. . .back to grave markers and an empty shrine, to a dry well that Kagome no longer climbed out of and a sacred tree with the timeless wound of an arrow reminding him that time didn't touch him, not the same way it touched humans.

Turning slightly to look over his shoulder, he watched Sesshoumaru through the overlong fringe of his hair. Walking stiffly, still favouring his bruised back and shoulders, the daiyoukai strode to his clothing, clawed toes careful not to dig into the moist earth. Striped calves, striped thighs, striped hips. Biceps and forearms. Cheeks. Long white hair, limp from the volume of water that was being twisted out of it by clawed fingers. Golden eyes watching Inuyasha watching him. Flushing, the hanyou started, but Sesshoumaru just shook his head.

"I hope for your sake you were studying my markings," he said darkly, but didn't comment further, or attempt to embarrass Inuyasha. He seemed resigned to it. Or maybe he was used to being stared at.

"I was thinking," Inuyasha said faintly, his expression unsure, "that maybe. . ." Maybe what? Maybe he didn't want to go back to the village just yet? Maybe he wanted to pathetically cling to the company Sesshoumaru seemed unconcerned with offering? He'd be turned down flat. Especially after pissing him off about the licking thing. His wavering hope suddenly sank and drowned in the reality of things. He'd been lonely before. He'd grieved, before. The village wouldn't be so bad now that the humans didn't hate him. Hina and Suki would welcome him back, at the very least. They'd explain to the others that he hadn't meant to destroy half the forest, hadn't meant to scare anyone. Hiroshi wouldn't turn him away, not while his strength was so dependable.

"Maybe what?" Sesshoumaru asked, his voice muffled as he fastened his boots, the second layer of his kimono and hakama back in place. Without the splash of red from the outer kimono layer, he looked like a pale ghost, the markings on his face standing out more than ever. He reached for his obi, but paused to glance at the pensive hanyou when no answer immediately came forth from him. "Inuyasha."

But Inuyasha had drifted away again, lifting one hand to touch his injured ear, something wistful crossing his face. Then he blinked, clearing his throat and glancing away awkwardly. "Nothing. Sorry. I'm going on ahead." He turned to get the hell out of there, hoping it would stop him thinking useless thoughts.

"There is no need," came the unaffected reply, and with a few deft motions of Sesshoumaru's wrist the obi was expertly tied in place. Inuyasha vaguely wondered how he'd managed that when he'd only had one arm. The idea of Jaken helping him seemed hilarious—and disturbing. "Now answer me. What were you going to say, before you lost your nerve and aborted the comment?" Picking up Tenseiga and Toukijin, he kept his eyes trained on the fidgeting hanyou as he slid them in place.

Turning away, Inuyasha started to backtrack over their scents and follow the trail back to Rin's camp, wholly unsurprised when a blur of white matched him pace for pace. Shit. "Doesn't matter," he grunted, cursing when his foot scuffed over a rough stone hidden by the tussock. "I was just thinking out loud—and you know what, maybe you can just tell Rin I said bye, and I'll just head home from here—" His sudden about-face was met with a sharp look from Sesshoumaru, who had grown oddly tense. The click of claws striking each other in a clenched fist met his ears and Inuyasha slowed a little, breaking off his hasty goodbye. "What?"

"Home," Sesshoumaru repeated sourly. "That dank little village? Enlighten me as to what is so compelling about it that you must all but run from my side in a split second. Or have my actions offended your delicate, human-bred sensibilities so very deeply?" The startling bite of venom in that sentence was unmistakable. Had he hurt his weird youkai feelings? Inuyasha wondered, a little wide-eyed at the idea.

"Nah, I figured you'd had enough of me anyway," the hanyou mumbled, suddenly mesmerised by the star-blanketed night sky. He thought he spotted a shooting star for a moment, but his attention was diverted by a gusting sigh. Inuyasha glanced over in time to see Sesshoumaru rubbing his temples in a way that suggested he was getting a headache. "Haven't you?"

Inuyasha watched his brows knit together slightly, and received a look that was impatient and appraising all at once. Then his brother just glanced away with a small shake of his head. What was that supposed to mean? The hanyou might have pursued it further, but fate chose that moment to put a shallow hole in his path, pitching him forward onto his hands and knees with a surprised curse. His back snarled in pain as the sore muscles pulled taut, stealing his breath for a moment. "Are you a fucking bad luck charm?" He asked his brother in a muffled voice, his head down as stars sparkled behind his tightly closed eyes. "Every time I'm with you, I end up bleeding, poisoned, or otherwise nearly killed. Now my foot's stuck in a hole."

Ripping his foot out of the tangle of weeds it had ensnared itself in, Inuyasha was just about to push himself painfully to his feet when the earth in front of him burst apart with a crack of thunder, throwing him back on his ass. Dragging his hair out of his eyes, Inuyasha stared in shock at what seemed to be a ball of lightning, crackling right in front of him with a blinding radiance.

Above him, Sesshoumaru abruptly drew Toukijin, levelling it at the ball of light. The blade glowed crimson with the promise of pain. "Inuyasha, remove yourself from its vicinity."

He glanced from the light to his half-brother in confusion. "Why—"


The snarl was bestial in its ferocity. Inuyasha scooted himself on his ass back a good meter or so before he realised he was moving. Realising what he'd done, heat flooded his cheeks, embarrassed at his own surprised obedience. "Just a goddamn minute," he said angrily. "How about first telling me what the fuck that thing is?"

"I'm a youkai, obviously," said the glowing ball. "Sesshoumaru-dono, if you kill me she will chase you down herself. I'm very important these days. Not that you'd know that, prodigal son." The light faded abruptly, dimming to a vaguely incandescent glow. The youkai was a—

"You're a little dog," Inuyasha said in disbelief. "How are you a youkai?"

The fact that the animal was speaking really did give it away, he supposed, but it still didn't look anything like a real youkai. It wasn't even a foot tall, with a long white coat and a tuft of hair tied with a blue ribbon sticking straight up on the top of its head. It looked like one of those yappy dogs rich asshole nobles kept on their grounds to alert for burglars.

Liquid dark eyes stared at him, unimpressed. "Who's the mongrel?" He asked Sesshoumaru, who still hadn't sheathed his sword. "Smells like you, except—" The lesser youkai stopped to sniff the cuff of his hakama. "Huh. Hey, kid, get down here for a second. I need a good look at your face." Prancing on the spot slightly, it looked like it was suddenly interested in him.

Inuyasha was actually halfway to leaning forward on all fours when a fist clenched in his hair and yanked him upright. Growling, he raised his eyes to Sesshoumaru's snarling face. "Ow, jeez, let me the hell go—"

"Silence, hanyou. Keep your tongue in your mouth and your eyes on the ground. Disobedient cur." The fist in his hair yanked his head back further, nearly arching his neck with the force. But it was the words that stunned him into silence. Sesshoumaru hadn't talked like that since the days he'd been after the Tetsusaiga. On his knees beside his brother, bent into the most humiliating position he'd ever been in with a fist in his hair like a hand on a leash, he felt every inch the low-bred animal. Gritting his teeth, he reared up, only to be shoved back down. Claws scraped his scalp warningly, then tapped strangely against the back of his skull. Inuyasha's hand just twitched toward his sword.

"Huh," the dog said again, seemingly unimpressed with him now. "Looks like this one's only alive on your good graces, Sesshoumaru-dono. You always did have a taste for stray animals." It sneezed abruptly, as though ejecting his scent from his very nostrils. Inuyasha barely noticed, his vision wavering on the edges with pure humiliated fury. Looked down on by a fucking stuffed toy? What the hell—

"He has his uses, Inotoki," Sesshoumaru said smoothly. "Insignificant though they may be." The fist in his hair tugged warningly.

Inuyasha saw red.

Claws flying out in five golden arcs, he snagged the youkai dog by the scruff of its neck and tossed its yelping weight as hard as he could at Sesshoumaru's stupid noble face, using the momentary surprise attack to sink his teeth deep into his brother's thigh. With a snarl the hand in his hair abruptly vanished, as did he in the next second, rolling to the side and flowing to his feet with murder blazing in his eyes. With blood seeping down the corner of his mouth and a vicious growl threatening to burst from his chest, Inuyasha was ready to kill someone.

"Treat me like that again," he said softly, his eyes on his furious brother, "and you can forget about your fucking arm. I'll cut your head off." His feral gaze switched to the stunned animal now perched on Sesshoumaru's shoulder. "And you, you fuzzy little piece of shit, I'm gonna jam Tetsusaiga up your ass if you so much as blink at me wrong, and then I'm gonna punt you back to whatever mangy bitch you crawled out of. Got that?" Breathing hard, his jaw clenched, it took him a moment to actually move his hand away from the hilt of his sword. Fucking—nobles. Stupid dogs, and stupid youkai, and their stupid hoity-toity bullshit. "Now what the fuck is going on?"

The stiff aristocracy seemed to drain out of him then, and Sesshoumaru slowly closed his eyes. "Inuyasha, why must you persist in your unrelenting misinterpretation in my actions?" He asked, but it didn't seem like he actually wanted to know the answer. On his shoulder, the small youkai barked.

"Inuyasha? Tetsusaiga?" It said excitedly, jumping off his shoulder. It began running in circles around him, now actively dragging his scent into its tiny lungs. "This disobedient cur is Inuyasha? Sesshoumaru-dono, I'm hurt that you attempted to deceive me so. I thought you smelled familiar, you mouthy little pup. Accuse my mother of mange? You have no shame. My lady will be interested in you, yes she will indeed. She's been looking for you." This went on for a while, the dog now chattering its damn head off. Inuyasha ignored all of it, his unforgiving attention reserved only for his older brother.

His jaw worked soundlessly for a moment, before he sneered. "You really can switch that big brother bullshit off whenever you like, can't you? Go to hell." Spinning on his heel, he stalked away without another second glance, his lip curled in a ferocious snarl.

Sesshoumaru let him get about a hundred feet away before he moved. Inuyasha realised he should have seen it coming, as an arm hooked around his stomach and yanked him back, pinning him like a steel bar. But not even steel could have stopped him in that moment, and as it was the youkai lord actually had to strain to hold him back. "Inuyasha," he growled against his uninjured ear, before pinching it painfully between his teeth. "I have mere seconds before Inotoki finds us. He will make you an offer. You will decline it. Kill him if you like; it matters not to me—"

"—let me go—"

"—I will not," was the snarled reply, and for a moment something genuinely urgent entered his voice. "That lesser youkai is my mother's most trusted vassal. If she has an interest in you, it cannot be for anything innocent. The woman is mired in mysticism and manipulation—" He broke off on a growl as Inuyasha broke one arm free of his hold and blindly clawed for his face, finding only hair and breath as his quarry. "You thrice-damned hanyou, will you listen? I am trying to warn you!"

"I don't need anything from you!" Inuyasha roared straight back, twisting around and slashing as viciously as he could.

Blood flew from his fingertips.

Sesshoumaru released him.

Panting heavily, adrenaline storming brutally in his veins, Inuyasha watched four bone-deep gashes split apart Sesshoumaru's flawless face, slanting from the top of his ear to the corner of his mouth. It was hideous. Bloody bone and the hint of exposed back teeth glinted back at him in the split second it took for a pale hand to fly up and press against the wounds, his brother's eyes wide and wavering for the barest instant.

Then they turned ugly.

"I should have let you fall," he spat venomously as blood poured over his fingers. "You filthy little animal."

Inuyasha's heart stopped. The world turned again.

"Yeah," he whispered back, his voice shaking with rage. "Maybe you fucking should have. I'll tell your mother you said hi."

Inotoki padded his way through the underbrush, panting happily and complaining good-naturedly about being left behind. He didn't seem to even notice the scene he'd trotted into. Inuyasha didn't bat an eyelid, bending and grabbing the lesser youkai by the scuff of its neck and tucking it under his arm. "Let's go, furball," he said jerkily. "Anything to get the fuck out of here."

The hanyou deliberately turned away from Sesshoumaru, his head lowered over the excited dog in his arms. Hidden from view, his mouth trembled violently, eyes fixed on the blood soaking his claws. But Inuyasha refused to look back in the instant before they cracked out of sight, leaving no more behind than a smoking crater and a youkai lord who didn't know how to take it all back.