Events after Inuyasha's begrudging agreement to allow her to leave the court seemed to swirl together for Kagome into a flurry of motion and sound. She had rushed from the Tennō's residence before he could change his mind on the subject, and she could vaguely recall stopping at the Fujiwara residence to grab her bow and arrows.
She could not recall exactly what she had said when she had arrived at the Tachibana residence, but they had accepted her among their party as they readied themselves to depart and now she found herself saddled on the back of a large neko youkai in front of one of the clansmen.
The other members of the clan, Sango's father and brother among them, were similarly situated alongside her as they made their way over the land in leaps and bounds that no horse could ever hope to match. In another situation she might have found it thrilling, but for the moment all her energies were concentrated on attempting to remain calm.
Sango's father, Hidehiko, had informed her that it would take at least two days to reach the villages, even if they rode there without stopping to rest. It frustrated her to no end to find herself so far away when her village truly needed her, and she prayed to every kami she knew that Kaede would be able to hold out until she arrived.
Images of the wrecked villages after the last youkai attack welled up continuously from some poisonous spring in her mind, making her feel ill. She could not imagine what she would do if she found that anyone from her village had been harmed…her mother, her brother, her grandfather, Kaede…
It was awful, and the journey seemed to drag on interminably. Several times the miko nearly slipped from her mount, only to be caught by the man riding behind her. She was still weak after having been unconscious for three days, but nervous energy buzzed through her and kept her going.
They ate a few sparse meals while riding to keep up their strength and save time. Hidehiko and his clan seemed almost as determined as Kagome herself was to protect the villagers, and she admired them for it. Courtiers and distant though they were from the problems of the common born, they still did not forsake their fellow human beings in the face of crisis.
Kagome knew that they were getting close long before Sango's father spoke up to warn the men. The air nearly reeked of youki and she could sense their malice from miles away. It was much worse than the last time and she could sense far more youkai.
With a certainty that came to sit like a weight in her stomach she knew that they had destroyed villages already. There was as yet no way of knowing if her village was one of them, though.
The first charred ruins that they rode through confirmed her grim hunch. The small village had been completely razed, nothing left to mark its place in the world save the ashen piles of a few huts.
Hidehiko urged the Tachibana clansmen to continue on in the hopes that they might yet save other villages from a similar fate, though a couple of the men remained behind to search the wreckage for any survivors. The rest hurried on grimly, determined to catch up with the horde as quickly as possible.
They passed several more villages in similar states of ruin as they rode. Kagome felt herself growing colder at the sight of each one.
Why had she ever left? What had she been thinking? These people, the people of the land who lived every day with no defenses and no advantages, they were the ones who needed her.
They were the ones who needed her protection and while they had been suffering she had been playing a ludicrous game of dress-up and pretend in order to gain the loyalties of people who had no idea what it was to suffer.
What had she been able to achieve for these people? Nothing. She had abandoned even her own family.
Kagome felt very cold.
At last, after what felt like a long journey through the seventh level of hell, they reached the wreckage of a village that appeared to have been attacked very recently. A few of the homes still burned, and there were fresh tracks upon the scarred earth.
They were yet a few miles east of Kagome's village and her heart began to surge once more within her chest. There was still hope that they had not been touched. She might yet be able to save at least one village…
They sped onward, pressing their youkai mounts into one final burst of speed. Hidehiko pulled his mount up alongside her own as they passed the wrecked village.
"Miko-sama, I mean you no disrespect, but must inform you that my men will be wholly focused on their duties as soon as we reach the horde. I cannot promise that they will be able to protect you if you do not remain close," he said.
"I require no protection," Kagome returned, hefting her quiver of arrows meaningfully. "Tell your men to focus their energies on protecting the villagers. I will be responsible for my own fate."
He considered her for a long moment, his expression a strange combination of sadness and affection.
"My Sango has told me much good of you since my return to the court. I fear, though, Miko-sama, that you attempt to take on burdens beyond your years," he said gravely.
Kagome looked back at him, her expression blank. She was well aware that he was attempting to reach out to her, to offer her some sort of reprieve, but found herself incapable of reaching out in return.
"If I do so, then it is obviously done ineffectively at best," she replied, her expression closed off as she gestured towards the decimated landscape.
Hidehiko frowned, his eyes pained.
"Please take care of yourself, Kagome-sama. My daughter loves you as much as if you had been born her sister. She would be devastated if anything were to happen to you," he said, before kneeing his wolf youkai back to the head of the troop.
Kagome looked after him, but in her heart there was little room for the things of the court at the moment. Even thoughts of Sango were subsumed by her guilt.
An awful keening rent the air suddenly, and then they were upon them.
The youkai were a writhing mass of malice in all forms and sizes, by land and by air. There had to be at least two hundred or so of them and they were just beginning to converge upon Kagome's village.
She could just make out the hunched figure of her former teacher in the distance, stepping forward with bow and arrow at the ready to meet the threat. Several men in what appeared to be the garb of taiji-ya were ranged about her, as well, the remnants of the scouts from the Tachibana clan.
Hidehiko loosed a booming war cry that was echoed by the rest of his clansmen as they drew their weapons. At a signal from him they charged into the fray.
The mount on which Kagome rode leapt high, directly into a large clump of crow youkai. The man behind her struck out with his set of poison throwing kunai, hitting several of the birds with deadly accuracy.
The crows began to converge upon them, talons sharp and beaks rife with the stench of rotted flesh. They attacked the vulnerable hide of her mount, which thrashed and kicked out in turn. Both clansman and miko were nearly dislodged, and Kagome raised her hands and forced out a quick, instinctive wave of spiritual energy.
The nearest of the crow youkai disappeared in the flash and their mount descended back to the ground. Kagome pressed a hand to her stomach, feeling a bit ill at having expended such a large amount of energy without the use of a medium.
She cast a quick glance in the direction of her village, but they were not yet near enough for her to join Kaede. The man behind her unsheathed his katana, urging the neko youkai into a nearby clump of the horde.
Kagome quickly shook off any weakness. She leveled her bow and notched an arrow, firing at the farther out targets as the man cut down the youkai nearest to them. She fired in quick procession, gripping their mount tightly with her knees to remain seated, and many youkai fell beneath their assault as they bounded forward.
They neared the edge of the village as they cut a path through the youkai on the ground, narrowly avoiding claws, fangs, and columns of flame, and Kagome saw her opportunity as the neko youkai made to change directions.
Without a word she unseated herself from the mount and allowed herself to fall, rolling quickly to soften the impact. She barely avoided the clawed feet of several youkai, managing to come out in the clear on the border of her village. She scrabbled quickly to her feet, her eyes darting about to catch a glimpse of Kaede.
The elder miko was several feet to her left, firing arrows imbued with her spiritual energy into the mass. A few of the men and women of the village had come forward to join her, brandishing farming tools and a few rusted swords at any of the youkai that came too close to the elder of their village. Souta was among them, backhoe in hand as he swung away with all his might.
Kagome ran towards the group, hurriedly notching another arrow as she went. A cry went up among them as she joined Kaede, leveling her bow alongside her former mentor. The elder miko offered her no more than a grim smile before firing another arrow.
"Everyone, please stay back!" Kagome called to the villagers, loosing an arrow. "I will protect the village, but I need you to stay away from the youkai!"
They seemed to hesitate, watching as the two miko worked efficiently in tandem to pick off the youkai swarming nearest to the village.
"Go now!" Kagome barked at last, desperate to see them out of harm's way.
This got them moving. The group retreated quickly back towards the village.
Kagome planted her feet in a firm stance, eyeing the swarm. The Tachibana rode through, scattering the youkai into separate clumps and hacking away at them. Kaede followed their movements with her good eye, shooting to aid them when they got into trouble.
Kagome took up the role of protecting the border of the village, scanning the horde and picking off any of the youkai that managed to squirm past the control of the Tachibana.
They could do this, she thought as she fired. If they just kept it up, they would be able to eradicate the horde before it could even touch her village. A glimmer of hope began to lift some of the weight in her chest.
And then something seemed to shift.
One by one the groups of youkai began to cease their attacks and pull back. The Tachibana began to regroup, coming to form a solid barrier in front of the two miko. They all watched warily as the horde withdrew, the rage seemingly having gone out of them.
"What are they doing?" murmured one of the Tachibana men.
"I am not certain, but it allows us a moment to recollect ourselves. Hold the line before the village, men," Hidehiko commanded.
Kagome felt an abrupt tug at her spiritual senses and turned to Kaede. The elder miko seemed to sense it, as well. A frown deepened the lines of her face.
"It is not over yet. Brace yourselves," she called.
A sucking noise sounded across the field, like the air was being drawn from it. Their gazes turned to the youkai, whose outlines had become strangely indistinct. It was as if they had all gone blurry about the edges, and the blur began suddenly to warp and congeal into a solid mass.
It took shape slowly, devoid of light or color, until it had amassed into a hulking black spider. Several of the men cursed. Kagome's eyes widened.
She recognized the thing immediately as a grotesquely magnified version of the thing she had faced inside the little boy, Yuutaro. On top of that, the youki of the thing had magnified tenfold upon its formation. Dread trembled through her hands.
"Kaede-sama," she murmured through lips that had gone numb.
"I know, child," the old woman returned quietly. "But we must stand our ground here. I know that you can do this, Kagome. Have faith in the gifts that the kami have given you, as I have faith."
Kagome could say in all honesty that she had no faith in that moment, face to face with the monster that had nearly killed her once before. But she took a deep breath and braced herself as the thing began to move forward one slow step at a time.
She had failed the other villages, but she could at least save her own.
The spider scuttled out to the mid-point of the field before stopping once more. It lowered its hulking body near to the ground and opened its great maw wide. A roiling cloud of purplish gas began to billow forth, spreading rapidly out in a haze that instantaneously wilted and stripped bare everything in its path.
"Shoki," Kaede murmured, her face going pale. She reached out a withered hand towards the young miko.
"Child, I need your power. I know you are tired, but you must focus everything you have right now or we will all of us be lost."
Kagome nodded, taking the elder miko's hand tightly in her own. She felt the tingle all the way up through her arm as Kaede began to draw from the well of her spiritual energy. A barrier began to flicker to life, expanding out to cover the village and the Tachibana men.
"Concentrate, child," Kaede commanded, as the shoki reached the barrier and began to roil against it. Kagome nodded, closing her eyes and forcing more of her energy up through Kaede. She could feel the barrier growing more solid around them.
"Where did it go? It disappeared into the shoki. Can anyone see it?" she heard one of the Tachibana men say.
She did not dare to open her eyes to look, too focused on feeding her spiritual energy into the barrier Kaede had formed. She could not sense it, though, and her heart sped up.
It was too silent.
Kagome's knees nearly jerked out from under her as something crashed against the top of the barrier. There were exclamations from several of the Tachibana and Kaede's hand tightened around her own. Kagome struggled to regain her focus, lifting her eyes to see what had happened.
The spider youkai had leapt up on top of the barrier. It loomed over them, gazing down with its hundreds of eyes fixed on her and Kaede. Kagome flinched, her muscles beginning to tremble at the amount of energy she was expending to keep it and the shoki out.
The youkai, as if sensing her near-exhaustion, lifted its legs and began to pound away at the barrier. Its youki sparked brightly against her spiritual energy and she cried out, feeling every strike like a blow to her body. The spider's flesh sizzled and burned with each blow, but it continued doggedly as if it could feel no pain.
Kagome fell to her knees, only barely managing to keep her hand in Kaede's. She had to hold on. She had to protect the village. Her head was spinning.
"Miko-sama! Hold on!"
She could hear the Tachibana men calling out to her, yelling for her to hold out. She could feel the spider pounding away at the barrier. She was going to pass out. She was going to throw up. But the village…
The spider youkai brought three of its legs down at once in a particularly savage blow and the barrier flickered. Kagome found herself shoved aside, her head spinning as she rolled a few feet away.
She pushed up shakily on her hands, her gaze darting about frantically. The Tachibana mounts were rearing, the men in chaos as shoki leaked in around them. But where was Kaede?
She felt all the blood drain from her face.
Her teacher was on the ground, one of the spider's legs piercing her chest and pinning her to the earth. She had pushed her out of the way…
Kagome screamed, a wordless, keening sound that echoed even above the chaos of the battle.
A sudden surge of pink light erupted from her and spread out in a flash, cleansing the shoki instantaneously. The spider youkai shrieked, shambling backward as the light touched it.
Kagome climbed shakily to her feet, her breathing labored. She made her way slowly toward the writhing mass of the injured spider, notching an arrow with shaking hands.
"You will not…touch my village," she panted, standing before it and attempting to raise her bow with what little strength she had left.
A leg struck out blindly in the spider's agony, catching her across the side. She was knocked down, skidding across the ground. She groaned, laying face down where she came to rest.
Her limbs were growing numb. Too much of her energy had been expended in that last blast. Her vision was beginning to go black around the edges. She blinked rapidly, trying to gather enough of her wits to move again.
Something touched her, pushing her over onto her back. She lay there, looking up into the half-melted face of the spider as it loomed over her.
Move, she willed herself. Do something.
She could not.
"You! It's you!" hissed a voice, issuing from somewhere deep within the spider. "Those court whores were cleverer than I gave them credit for. A human vessel! No wonder you were able to become such a pest in the court so quickly, little miko!"
"But it's alright. I'll forgive you, now that you've given me this gift. I can finally finish what I began with that damned dog's death."
It raised one of its few undamaged. Kagome watched, her mind growing strangely more and more detached from the scene. There was simply nothing left in her.
A blur of red and white slid through her vision, severing the raised leg before it could descend upon her. Kagome could hear the spider howl in pain and the Tachibana men riding forward to aid in bringing it down at last.
She sighed in relief, slipping into unconsciousness. Her village would be safe.
Kagome awoke to darkness, relieved only by the glow of a small fire. It was silent in the small hut, and she found that her body ached all the way down to the bones. She groaned.
"Child? Are you awake?" The rasping voice came from somewhere to her right.
She levered herself up slowly and with no small amount of pain, turning to see Kaede laid out on a futon just across from her. The woman looked older than Kagome remembered in the faint light of the fire, her face deeply strained.
Kagome untangled herself from her own futon slowly, gritting her teeth against the protests of her muscles as she made her way over to the elderly woman.
"Are you alright, Kaede-sama?" she asked, but she knew the answer the moment the words had left her mouth.
The elder miko's wounds had been tended and wrapped, but she was pale as death. Her breathing was shallow-the slight wetness to the sound of it suggesting that one of her lungs had been punctured- and her good eye was glazed over with pain.
"K-Kaede-sama, hold on. I can-" she said, raising her palms over the woman. Kaede reached up, grasping her hands in one of her own. Her skin was cold as ice.
"Save your energy, child. You are yet very weak, and my time has come," she wheezed.
"What? No! I can heal you, Kaede-sama. I can-!"
But she could sense it through Kaede's hand.
The glow of her life energy was so faint inside her that it would have been impossible for the young miko to rekindle it even if she had been in peak condition. She could not reverse death.
"Kaede-sama…please…" she breathed, though she had no idea what she was pleading for.
"Hush now, my dearest child. I have not much time left to me in this world, and I have something that I must confess to you before I go. Please, you must listen to my confession," she said, clutching at her hands.
Kagome bit her lip, nodding even as her eyes began to burn.
Kaede took as deep a breath as her injured lung would allow, her eye sliding shut.
"I came to this village many years ago from the court," she murmured, her voice far away as her mind wandered back into the past. "I was attempting to escape the chaos and pain of the throne war. But that was not all. I carried with me also a burden that I had been tasked with caring for."
She wheezed softly for a few moments, attempting to catch her breath. Kagome clutched her hand more tightly between her own, fighting back sobs. Kaede needed to speak, and she would not interrupt.
"Hah…I grow tired, but I will not deprive you of this final truth," she breathed, more to herself than to Kagome. "I told you no lie when I said that I chose this village because of you, my child. Your aura was like a balm to my weary soul. But…it also struck me as a way to escape my burden."
"I was frightened, child, you must understand this! I was frightened and I was a coward. I passed my burden on to you when you were yet too young to understand, and I prayed to the kami I might be forgiven some day for my weakness. I fear, though, that I altered your fate irrevocably in that moment…"
"What are you talking about? I do not understand, Kaede-sama. You were never anything but kind to me," Kagome said, tears spilling down her cheeks. She found her heart was beating a mad tattoo inside her chest.
"Initially I took on your education in the hope of absolving myself," Kaede continued, too far gone to hear her any longer. "I hoped that if I watched over you, protected you, that I could be saved."
"But I…I grew to love you more than anything in the world. Your kindness, Kagome, saved me when I was lost to the world. I love you, and you must forgive this old woman for her sins against you."
A lone tear tracked through the deep folds of her face. Kagome reached out to wipe it away instinctively.
"What have you done, Kaede-sama?" she asked shakily, though she was certain she did not want to know.
"The Shikon no Tama," Kaede rasped at last, the words heavy with the weight of years of supression. "The O-Miko Midoriko-sama, my teacher, begged me to leave the court and take it with me. I know little of its true nature, but Midoriko-sama warned me that all would be lost if ever it fell into the hands of those with impure hearts."
She pulled her hand from Kagome's own, lowering it to the level of the younger miko's hip. She tapped lightly with one finger at a spot on her right hip.
A soft pink glow emanated from somewhere beneath her skin. Kagome gasped, a strange jolt going through her at contact.
"I hid it within you, child. I wronged you greatly," Kaede said, her voice growing fainter by the moment. "I thought if it were you, your heart would be pure enough. Your power would be enough to keep it safe. I handled your life without any thought for you, and then I grew to love you more than anything else. This is my punishment…I am…so sorry…"
Kagome could feel her slipping away, her light rapidly dimming. Her teacher. Her friend. One of the precious people who had taught her what it was to love and be loved.
She understood what the elder woman was saying. She understood that she had been used. Lied to. Perhaps even wronged very greatly.
In that moment, she did not care.
"You were scared. You were scared and you didn't know what to do, and you were in pain. I don't blame you. I don't. No one would, Kaede-sama. You cared for me. You watched over me. I love you, Kaede-sama," she murmured feelingly, tears spilling down her cheeks as she reached up to smooth the hair back from the elder woman's brow.
"Your heart is bigger than anything, Kagome. Thank you. Being your teacher has been my only salvation in this life. I believe that you will make your own fate, whatever I have done to alter it."
Kagome nodded, her hands trembling against the elder woman's face.
"I love you. I really love you, Kaede-sama," she babbled helplessly.
"I know. And that is all…that anyone could…"
And the light went out.
Kagome sat for many long moments, staring into her mentor's now still face. Slowly she bent forward, burying her face in the front of the woman's robes, and she began to sob openly at last.
"Kaede-sama," she rasped, clutching at her robes like a lost child. "I was…I w-was…I was supposed to save you! I was supposed to protect you for once! Why…like this…?"
She shook her head, caring little who it was or what they wanted. She was sobbing so hard she could scarcely draw breath. Everything hurt.
A hand tugged her upward away from the body. She spun to glare at the person, trembling all over.
"She's dead," she hissed, and she felt the words like a knife even as she realized that it was Inuyasha in front of her. "Kaede-sama is dead…"
Without a word the hanyou tugged her up against his chest, her head under his chin as his arms went around her tightly. Kagome clutched at his haori without a second thought, leaning her forehead against his chest as she shook.
"Inuyasha! She's dead! S-She's-!" she sobbed helplessly.
"It ain't your fault. You did everything you could," he said, a clawed hand coming to cup the back of her head.
She clung to him like a lifeline, feeling certain in that moment that he was the only stable thing left in the whole world. He held her protectively, listening to her nonsensical ramblings and replying with words that she scarcely remembered, but that comforted her nonetheless.
At last she began to regain a bit of herself, hiccupping softly as the tears gradually subsided. She lifted her head slowly, pulling back a bit. His arms did not loosen around her, and she blinked up into his face quizzically.
His golden eyes were dark, concerned. Kagome felt a small wave of gratitude sweep through her and suddenly realized something.
"You followed me out here," she accused softly.
His eyes shifted guiltily away from her. "…Yeah."
"But what about the court? Do you really think it was wise to come after me?" she asked, concerned.
"I promised to protect you," he insisted stubbornly. "And I made sure the court was taken care of. No one knows I left. Everyone here thinks I'm a personal guard the Tennō assigned to you. My word to you has to come first, Kagome, or what kinda bastard would I be?"
Kagome gazed at him, touched as much as she was worried. His duty should be to the court first, but still…
"You are a very good man, Inuyasha," she murmured, a little awed by him.
"Not good enough to keep you from nearly dying," he returned lowly.
Kagome looked up into his face, the guilt there obvious. Without a thought she levered herself up in his embrace, pressing her lips lightly to his cheek. His skin was warm beneath her lips.
"Good enough to save my life," she said softly as she pulled back. "Thank you."
He looked down at her for a moment, eyes wide, before his face lit up in a deep flush. Kagome felt herself flush in turn, realizing what she had done, and pulled back to a safe distance.
"W-what happened after I passed out?" she asked, her eyes fixed to the floor between them.
She heard him clear his throat forcefully.
"Between me 'n the Tachibana, we took down that spider. It was pretty weak after you got through with it, but it still managed to take out a couple of the huts here before we got it down entirely. No one got hurt, though, and the Tachibana'll stay behind to help rebuild," he said.
Kagome frowned, the image of the spider surfacing in her mind. It was too much of a coincidence that she would encounter the same thing twice in a row. That it would come after the villages surrounding hers specifically. And if she was remembering correctly, it had known something about her within the court…
"Kagome?" Inuyasha said, seeing the sudden shift in her expression.
She raised her eyes to meet his own, wide with dawning horror. He tensed, taking an unconscious step toward her.
"Inuyasha…I do not think that this was random," she said softly, feeling herself go cold as the words hung in the air between them.
"The spider youkai," she said. "When I healed that little boy, Yuutaro, the same spider youkai was inside him. The exact same one. And not long after the villages near my village were attacked! And the spider youkai today…it seemed to know me from the court. It said that I had been…troublesome, or something..."
"Kami, Inuyasha…was it after me? All these people…just to get at me…"
He grasped her by the shoulders, shaking her slightly before she could really begin to work herself up. Her shoulders were slight beneath his hands and he felt a twinge in his chest.
"Cut it out, Kagome. If all that shit's true, we need to get you back to the court where it's safe. The thing must've wanted to draw you out here, so we have to get you back," he said.
"No!" Kagome cried. "What if it comes back? I can't abandon my village again! I won't! They don't even have Kaede-sama anymore…"
"Like I said, the Tachibana are staying here. They'll protect your village. You have to-!"
Kagome shook her head frantically, pulling away from him.
"You go back to the court, Inuyasha-sama. I have to stay here. I will not abandon them when they need me," she said firmly, meeting his eyes stubbornly.
The hanyou glared down at her, his upper lip curling back in a slight snarl. She lifted her chin, refusing to back down.
"Fine then, wench!" he barked at last, his eyes flashing. "I ain't going back either!"
Kagome gaped at him. "What?"
"To protect you, I have to stick with you. So if you don't go back, I don't go back either," he said, a vaguely triumphant smirk turning up one corner of his mouth.
"Y-You…You're mad!" Kagome stuttered, stomping one of her feet emphatically. "You can't stay away from the court that long! Only think of what might happen, Inuyasha-sama!"
"I ain't going back on my word to you, wench. You said it yourself, if I hadn't come after you this time, you'd be dead. You look even worse now than you did before. You stay, I stay, simple as that. You want me to go back, then you're coming with," he asserted.
Kagome scowled at him in turn, well aware that there was no budging him now that he had made up his mind. He was incredibly stubborn. And impractical, on top of that. How could he even think of leaving the court unattended?
"A week," she said at last. "Give me one week to at least erect a few protective barriers in this area in case the thing decides to come back. As soon as I am finished, I promise I will return to the court with you."
Inuyasha nodded, a little bit of the edge going out of his expression.
"A week," he agreed. "The way I set things up, the court should be able to hold up until we get back."
She nodded, though she was more than a bit reluctant. She glanced towards the front thatching of the small hut-the temple, actually, now that she had a moment to look at it-and realized with a sinking feeling what she now had to do.
"I need to inform the villagers of Kaede-sama's passing," she said softly.
"Fuck, Kagome, it can at least wait 'til you-"
One look at her face silenced him. She looked more exhausted and grim than he had ever seen her before.
He breathed out in a huff, stepping forward to take her arm and loop it around his shoulders.
"You're still weak, right? Just lean on me and we’ll go tell 'em, alright?" he said, refusing to meet her eyes.
Kagome smiled faintly at the awkward show of support. He really was a good, good man.
"Alright. Let's go, Inuyasha."
The village was devastated at the loss of Kaede. She had been with them for many years, witnessed the births of their children, healed them when they were sick, given them guidance in times of trouble.
Many of them looked to Kagome expectantly in the midst of their sorrow and were further devastated to learn that she would not be remaining in the village to replace the miko.
Kagome felt their unanswered expectations like a weight on her shoulders as she informed them that she could only stay long enough to help with Kaede's funeral and erect a permanent barrier of protection around the village.
Inuyasha stood steadfastly at her side, though, glaring at anyone who looked like they might dare to reproach her. She took comfort from his presence, leaning a little more heavily against him than was strictly necessary.
It was settled upon that Kaede's final rites were to be held the following morning, a cremation in the Shintō tradition. After that Kagome would set up a permanent barrier around the village for its protection before heading out to do what she could for the next few villages.
She promised them that the Tachibana would remain for a few days to help with the reconstruction of the few huts on the fringe of the village that had been destroyed in the spider's final thrashings. This seemed to appease them a bit, but it was not hard to read the resentment in many of their faces.
Kagome could not blame them, though. She had left with promises that she would improve their lives, but she had done little to nothing for them in her time away. And now they had been attacked and lost their village miko only to learn that Kagome could not stay more than a day to aid them.
She was able to meet briefly with her family when she finished addressing the villagers. They embraced her warmly, peppering her with questions about her time away. She and Inuyasha were led into their hut and served tea, though her grandfather was more than a bit wary of the hanyou.
It was strange to sit inside the place she had considered her home for such a long time, feeling like such a stranger. Her family said not one word about her many failures on behalf of the village, did not even intimate that they felt the slightest twinge of disappointment, but Kagome could not help but feel separated from them because of it.
She could scarcely even enjoy the fact that she had at last been able to return to the home she had missed so desperately since her departure. It felt like a lifetime had passed between the two times.
When they offered her her old futon to sleep in for the night, she had to refuse. Somehow she could not even bear the thought. She begged off with the excuse of wanting to watch over Kaede's body inside the temple for the night. They were obviously disappointed, but allowed her to go without a fuss.
Now she lay in the dark of the temple once more, staring blankly up at the thatched roof. Inuyasha sat near the entrance somewhere, having refused when she offered him a futon of his own.
Her body ached deeply from the day's exertions, but somehow she felt very cold. Everything was wrong. She had failed so many people. She had gotten her village and a number of others attacked. Kaede had died because of her.
She did not know what to do. She had no idea how she might begin to redeem herself. Perhaps this was her punishment for attempting to play the games of the court.
"Oi, wench, what are you still doing up?" the hanyou's voice cut through the darkness.
"How did you know I was still awake?" she asked, squinting through the blackness of the hut to try and catch a glimpse of him.
"Your breathing. I can hear it, and it's obvious you ain't asleep. What gives?" he persisted.
"I’m...probably just over-tired after today's exertions," she hedged.
"Bullshit," he declared flatly. "You're beating yourself up again, ain't you? I already told you, there's nothing you coulda done for the old woman-"
"It's not just that!" Kagome burst out, unable to help herself. "It's everything! These people-all these people- I was supposed to help them by going to the court! I was supposed to protect them! And I've done nothing! Absolutely nothing…"
She pressed her fists hard against her burning eyes, desperately trying not to cry. She had no right to, not over this.
"You really think all the shit you've done up until now has been nothing?" he asked, his voice oddly soft in the dark.
"Look around!" Kagome said, flinging one hand out in a sweeping gesture. "Several villages have been destroyed. Kaede-sama is dead. Who knows how many others are dead? I could not even save my own village. And who can say how many other villages just like mine are out there suffering? What have I done, Inuyasha?"
There was silence for a long moment.
"…What have you done? Fuck, Kagome, what haven't you done!" he burst out at last. "You put your life at risk for them time after fucking time! You tried everything! If it were me, I'd expect 'em to grovel at my fucking feet for the things you've done!"
"But what good has it done?" Kagome snapped, sitting up and glaring blindly into the dark. "They're not safe! They're not well fed! Nothing that I have done in the court has touched their lives at all!"
Golden eyes seemed to materialize before her out of nothing, burning like candle light in the darkness. Kagome gasped, her heart jumping in her chest.
"You want it to reach them?" he said lowly. "Then you and me, Kagome, we'll make it reach them. We'll push those fucking courtiers until they have no choice but to help the villages. We'll make sure they're protected, fed. Whatever they need. But you need to stick with me here."
A warm, clawed hand wrapped around one of her own. His eyes caught and held hers. She hardly dared to draw breath, transfixed.
"You need to stick with me, Kagome," he said again. "Stay by my side. We'll fix this shit, all of it, if you can just quit fucking beating yourself up long enough to focus. Can you do that?"
Kagome blinked at him, caught off guard. Her heart was beating erratically in her chest, and she couldn't seem to make a single sound.
"Can you do that?" he pressed more forcefully.
"Yes," Kagome said, almost without thought. "I'll stay with you. I promise I'll stay by your side, Inuyasha."
The eyes softened.
"We're gonna do this, wench. I promise you."
She nodded slowly. Looking into those eyes, so bright and sure even in the dead of night, she felt some of her confidence return.
Together, they would do it.