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Blame by wonderbug

Blame

Disclaimer: I don't own Inuyasha.

WARNING: This story features dark themes (death, madness, etc.), strong sexual content, and dubious consent.

Author's note: The censored version of this fic has been posted on Fanfiction. This story has been revised from the original version, which was originally published a few years back under my old FF account (Taney). Feedback is greatly appreciated. :) Hope you enjoy!

Blame

With a firm hold on the ledge of the well, Kagome hoisted herself up and over, displaying all the grace of an eighty-year-old man. Making a mental note to restore her trusty ladder to its position of importance in the well, she reached down and dusted off her hakama before trudging to the door of the shrine.

Outside, the Modern Era greeted her enthusiastically, cars and bikes rushing past her home in a confusion of color and sound. In the distance, skyscrapers loomed through the haze—an analog to the mist-shrouded mountains of ancient Japan.

Tugging at the overlarge sleeves of her miko's garb, Kagome felt like a stranger in her own time. She wished fervently that she had not turned the only modern outfit she possessed into bandages upon her last trip to Sengoku Jidai. As she crept up to the back door of her home, she glanced surreptitiously about her, but, luckily for Kagome, it appeared that none of Souta's friends were around to point her in the direction of the nearest cosplay convention.

Slowly, she eased open the back door, praying her surprise visit wouldn't startle Jii-chan out of his wits, should he be lounging in the kitchen unaware. But she needn't have feared; her grandfather was nowhere in sight. Nor was her mother. As Kagome stood in the empty kitchen, a peculiar chill overcame her, the quiet of the room seeming more stale than tranquil. Scanning the countertops, she noticed a pile of take-out boxes, dirty chopsticks scattered nearby. Shocked that her mother would allow such an accumulation in her beloved kitchen, Kagome moved in for a closer inspection.

"Onee-chan?"

The miko stopped in her tracks, her neck cracking audibly as she whipped her head around to face her brother. Looking beyond the surprise that was evident in his features, Kagome discerned several other transformations in Souta. A mere two years' time, it seemed, had been long enough to sculpt her kid brother into a handsome young man. He towered over her now, broad in the chest and shoulders. All the roundness in his face had vanished, leaving behind a straight nose and a sharpened jaw. There was a severity in the line of his brow that both amused and unsettled his sister, a jaded expression in his eyes that alarmed her. Had she not recognized his voice, cloaked though it was in the deeper intonations of manhood, she would probably be brandishing a butcher knife and yelling at him to get out of her house.

"Souta!" she exclaimed instead, rushing forward and seizing him in a hug.

When he failed to respond after a few seconds, Kagome backed away, her arms falling slack. She looked searchingly at his face, at his downcast eyes.

"Souta?" she finally asked, worry saturating her tone.

Moments passed before his weary eyes met her gaze.

"Sorry," he spoke stiffly, "I just…didn't expect you to come back here."

"Yeah, neither did I," Kagome said, a corner of her lip rising in chagrin. "To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure that I could."

She attempted to peek around him, into the living room beyond, but his new larger frame effectively blocked her view. When she then tried to squeeze past him, he reached out suddenly, grasping her upper arms. Unease flooded her.

"What's wrong?" she implored, her brow creasing heavily.

When he didn't respond, she began to squirm in his grip, eyes darting left and right. "Where's Mama?—and Jii-chan?"

Souta's hold on her tightened, his fingers trembling. A deep frown twisted his lips as his gaze became pained. For the first time since her final battle with Naraku, Kagome felt a stab of true fear.

"Souta," she asked again, whispering, "what is it?"

His eyes locked with hers, darkened by despair. The words he spoke were faint, agonized.

"Mama is dead, onee-chan."

For a while Kagome just stared at him, uncomprehending. Then, without warning, she reeled, her back slamming into a kitchen cabinet behind her.

"No…" she breathed at him, her eyes pleading. "That can't be true—Souta, tell me it isn't true!"

His breath caught in his throat, and he turned away from her, bracing his palms on the kitchen table. Swallowing, Kagome approached him, her fingers trailing listlessly along the wall. When her hand fell through the empty space that linked the kitchen and living room, she turned slowly to look through. She saw her grandfather dozing fitfully on the couch, a bottle of prescription sleeping pills on the floor below. Beyond him was the family altar. Heart pounding, Kagome changed her course, wandering toward the altar as if in a dream.

Reaching her destination, she collapsed to her knees, fingers quivering as she fumbled with the cabinet doors. They opened with a sharp click, revealing a golden statue of Buddha and a small stone tablet that displayed the names of the deceased. Her eyes seized on the last name engraved in the stone—her mother's.

Kagome's right hand flew to her mouth, stifling her cry of pain, the other clutching her stomach. Her eyes stung, brimming with tears that soon spilled over, washing hotly down her cheeks. All too soon, she felt Souta grip her upper arms once again as he hauled her to her feet.

"Don't," he whispered hoarsely, his own eyes glistening. "If Jii-chan wakes up and sees you crying, I don't know what he'll do."

Her brother tugged her along, in the direction of the stairs. Kagome glanced toward her grandfather, but the back of the couch now hid him from view. Together, she and Souta advanced rather clumsily up the staircase, hurrying toward her old room. As soon as the door closed behind them, Kagome fell in a heap to the floor, her brother quickly joining her.

She looked at Souta brokenly, her voice cracking as she posed the question.

"How?"

He clasped his hands together tightly, averting his eyes.

"She," he began with difficulty, "she was on her way back from the store. She had been there earlier that day but went back to"—he paused—"went back to get some snacks for me that she'd forgotten to buy. On her way home, she was mugged. Some guys stole her purse and beat her terribly."

Eyes flashing, he turned suddenly to his crying sister, causing her to start. "You know as well as I do that Mama would never have put up a fight. I'm sure she handed over her purse immediately. They," he broke off, slamming his fist into the hardwood, "they sent her into a coma out of meanness, those bastards!"

"A coma?" Kagome repeated, swiping at her tears. "So she never…" She stopped for a moment to choke back the rising hysteria. "She never woke up?"

Breathing heavily, Souta seemed reluctant to answer.

"Souta?" she pressed him desperately.

He stared hard at his bedroom door. "She did once—right before she died. She opened her eyes, looked past me and…" His eyes finally slid to hers, glazed with sorrow. "She spoke your name."

Kagome's face crumpled, both hands covering her mouth as she sobbed. Souta scooted over, wrapping his arms around her. For hours they stayed this way, until, at last, the wells in Kagome's eyes ran dry.

"I wasn't there," she rasped, red eyes wide with hurt. "I wasn't there when she needed me."

"You can't blame yourself, onee-chan," Souta stated calmly, his hands resting firmly on her shoulders. "That's all everyone's been doing for the past six months. Especially Jii-chan."

Wrapped up in her own grief, Kagome had forgotten about her grandfather.

"Oh, Jii-chan!" She exclaimed, a fresh wave of sorrow washing over her.

"He had to make the decision to take Mama off life support," Souta said sadly. "He's in terrible shape. He barely eats anything and wouldn't even be able to sleep if it wasn't for the pills."

Kagome nodded, remembering the bottle she'd seen in the living room.

"I shouldn't have come back," she said after a while.

"Why did you?"

"Things in Sengoku Jidai didn't turn out quite like I expected," she said with a frown. "Sango and Miroku are busy with their family, Shippou with his training, and Inuyasha…" she trailed off, biting her lip. "Inuyasha is a gone a lot these days. He won't tell me why he leaves or where he goes, but every time he comes back he's colder to me than he was before. That's why I came home—to talk to Mama, to get some advice." She laughed half-heartedly. "For the first time that I can remember, Inuyasha didn't argue for me to stay."

"Onee-chan…" Souta said in concern, sensing his sister's volatility.

"And now, because of him, I wasn't where I should have been all along," she continued, trembling with anger. "I hate him. I hate Inuyasha for taking me away from Mama!"

"You don't mean that."

"I should have been here. I should've stayed," Kagome sobbed loudly, digging her fingers into her thighs. "I left her so many times, and she never complained. She always thought of everyone else before herself. And I—I took her for granted!"

"Get a hold of yourself," Souta scolded. "And lower your voice! Jii-chan's the one who's suffered the most."

Kagome complied, cradling her face in her hands. When her sobs finally subsided, she turned to her brother.

"And you…how are you holding up, Souta?"

"Some days are worse than others, but I'm okay," he replied, wringing his hands. "I managed to get a part-time job, so between the money I'm earning and the money Mama had saved up, I should be able to keep us going until I graduate. Luckily, we don't have to pay any rent."

"Of course we don't," Kagome said in mild confusion. "This house is ours. And the land itself has been in our family for generations."

Souta shook his head, a small mysterious smile playing at his lips. "That's not exactly right. I mean, our family has been living on this land for generations, but it has never been ours."

Kagome looked at him in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"Like you, I always assumed that we owned the land, but after Mama…after she died…I searched through our family's financial records and learned that neither she nor father nor even Jii-chan ever owned this land. What's even stranger is that, until a few years back, it looks like we'd been paying steady rent to a landlord who isn't related to the family at all."

"A landlord? I had no idea," Kagome spoke wonderingly.

Souta nodded. "Yeah, the rental payments declined sharply right after father died. I guess if they hadn't, we would've been forced to move away."

"But you said the payments stopped altogether just recently. Do you have any idea why?"

"I actually found a letter mixed in with the records. It's from the landlord and says that, for the foreseeable future, we are no longer indebted to him. And it's strange, but…"

"But what?" Kagome prodded him, her curiosity piqued.

Souta looked at her closely, studying her features as if attempting to divine an answer.

"The letter isn't addressed to Mama directly. It's addressed to 'The Mother of Higurashi Kagome,'" he quoted. "It's dated about five years back."

"Five years," his sister echoed wonderingly. "That would be…"

Souta nodded, following her train of thought.

"Yeah. Around the time you first went through the well."

.oOo.

Matsumoro Yo

Kagome looked up from the slip of paper in her hands. Before her was a building that brushed at the heavens, gleaming like molten silver in the noonday sun. Even craning her neck all the way back, she couldn't discern the end of its skyward climb.

Awestruck, she glanced down once more at the address Souta had provided her to verify that this was, in fact, the place where she would find her mysterious landlord.

Three days ago, while visiting her mother's grave, Kagome had decided that it would only be proper to express her thanks to Matsumoro-san for the kindness he had shown her family. Not trusting that she would, in person, remember to include everything she wanted to say, Kagome had put pen to paper and, after much rewriting, composed a five page letter detailing her gratitude to this unknown entity. Delivering the letter by mail had seemed far too impersonal, and so she had set out to hand it to him in person.

Now, standing before this massive skyscraper in the middle of downtown Tokyo, Kagome couldn't help but feel somewhat intimidated. The modern atmosphere did nothing to bolster her confidence. The incessant noise wreaked havoc on her eardrums, which had grown accustomed to the quiet of Sengoku Jidai, the bright lights blinding her even in daylight. With great effort, she eventually suppressed her misgivings, striding forward into the lobby of the building.

Kagome's jaw dropped at the grandeur that surrounded her. Everything was glass, metal, and marble, and all of it gleamed like a finely cut gem. In the center of the room was a gigantic fountain of asymmetrical design, bearing what Kagome presumed to be a company logo: two interlocking crescents. Above the sweeping information desk at the back of the room, the logo was repeated in brushed steel beneath the words Hanone, Inc.

People in fancy suits bustled past her with briefcases in hand, chattering away on cell phones. Fighting her way through the throng, she approached one of the available receptionists at the desk.

"Hi," she said uncertainly. "Is there a Matsumoro Yo in this building?"

The receptionist gave her a quizzical look.

"Yes, there is."

"Great!" Kagome said excitedly, forgetting her nervousness. "Where can I find him?"

"Top floor," the receptionist replied slowly, blinking.

"Okay…how do I find his office once I get there?"

"Trust me, you couldn't miss it if you tried," the receptionist said, laughing lightly.

Kagome failed to see what was so funny. She uttered a short thanks and darted off toward one of the elevators. The doors were still open when she approached, and she just managed to squeeze herself in, stepping on the toes of more than one person in the process.

"Excuse me," she spoke to a large man standing between her and the elevator controls, "could you please press the button for the top floor?"

He complied with a huff of annoyance as the elevator shot upward. Slowly, the people inside filtered out, the elevator stopping at least fifty times on its way to the top. At last, only Kagome was left. With one final chime, the doors opened, and she stepped out into yet another grand lobby.

Exotic plants lined the mahogany walls, a beautiful mosaic of the crescent logo spreading out beneath her feet. Doors of another rich wood she did not know loomed before her, set in a wall of cut glass. To the right of the doors, emblazoned in silver on an onyx plaque were the words Matsumoro Yo, CEO.

The receptionist's strange behavior suddenly made sense. Kagome's cheeks flared with embarrassment. In the midst of all this modern luxury, she had never felt more unimpressive than she did right now. Her fist clenched around the letter in her hand. What did this important man really care about her family, anyway?

But she hadn't traveled all this way for nothing. Mustering her courage, she pulled open the heavy doors to find herself faced with yet another lobby. Kagome's eye twitched—this was starting to get ridiculous.

Muttering a little under her breath, she entered boldly, her eyes seizing at once on a gigantic mural that occupied the back wall. In striking detail, it depicted the landscape of ancient Japan—the wild forests, the mighty mountains, the gleaming rivers. Kagome felt she could almost pinpoint the very hill from which one could obtain this view. For the first time without the well and its burdens, she returned to Sengoku Jidai.

"Excuse me? Hello?"

The feminine voice shattered her blissful reverie. Kagome tore her gaze from the painting, focusing on the secretary to her left.

"Can I help you with something?" the lady asked kindly.

"Oh, um, that is," Kagome spluttered, further strangling the letter in her hand. "I was wondering if Matsumoro-san was available?"

"Do you have an appointment?"

"No," Kagome said lamely. "I just wanted to speak with him briefly and give him a letter."

The secretary smiled softly. "Well, I'm afraid he's out at the moment. You could wait here for him if you like. He should be back within the hour."

"Okay, I'll do that. Thank you."

The secretary nodded, gesturing toward one of the black leather armchairs that stood near the entrance. "Please, have a seat while you wait."

Kagome gave her a tiny smile, hurrying over to collapse in a chair. This little visit had turned out to be a lot more exhausting than she would have guessed. She placed the crumpled letter in her lap, attempting to smooth it against her thigh. The final result wasn't much better than before. Sighing, Kagome set the letter aside in favor of adjusting her dress and necklace. Even in her best clothes and her mother's pearls, she felt acutely underdressed.

Eager for distraction from this thought, Kagome again took to studying her surroundings. Matsumoro-san's office door resided in the right wall, bordered by urns and more paintings. The subject of these paintings appeared to be the same: a young woman whose face, for some reason, was vaguely familiar. In one painting, the girl sat in a field of flowers; in the other, she leaned against a tree, a small flute at her lips. The images were peaceful and happy, and looking at them, Kagome began to paint her own picture of what Matsumoro-san must be like.

"They're lovely, aren't they?" said the secretary, following Kagome's gaze.

"Yes," Kagome agreed quickly, turning to her.

"Matsumoro-sama painted them himself from memory."

"Really?" Kagome blurted out, very much impressed. "Is the girl his daughter?"

"Yes, she is," the lady replied, a sad look entering her eyes. "I heard she passed away many years ago. But she was quite beautiful, wasn't she?"

"Oh," Kagome said, remembering her own loss as she gazed upon the paintings. "Yes, very beautiful."

More than ever, Kagome wanted to meet Matsumoro-san. He must be a very warm-hearted man, indeed, and, though she had never laid eyes on him before, she suspected that every bit of his enormous success was well-deserved. Her mental image of Matsumoro-san thus took on the shape of a joyful old man, with a large belly and kind eyes.

The Matsumoro-san who walked through the door, however, was quite different.

"Ah, Matsumoro-sama! Welcome back."

Heart-pounding, Kagome peeked around the potted tree that shielded her landlord from view. His back was to her, and all she could make out at the moment was a slim, tall figure in a sharp suit. The hair that crowned his head was of the purest silver, the glistening strands just barely brushing his suit collar at their longest.

"Any calls?" he asked briskly, shrugging out of his jacket.

"Yes, sir," the secretary said at once. "Takeru-san from Ichigawa left a message. He wanted to know if—sir, are you all right?"

Matsumoro-san had gone rigid. Perplexed, Kagome watched as he pivoted on his heel, turning slowly in her direction. By the time he faced her fully, she was on her feet and in clear view.

Though lacking some of their previous embellishments, the features of the man before her were too sharp, too imperious, too unearthly for her to fail to recognize them at once. Amber eyes locked with her own disbelieving gaze as the letter sailed silently from her hand to the floor.

"…Sesshoumaru?"

.oOo.

Kagome fidgeted with her seatbelt, glancing every now and then at Sesshoumaru's still profile. He stared resolutely ahead as he drove, determined, it seemed, to ignore her existence. She let out a frustrated breath. After their surprise meeting, he'd snapped at his secretary to cancel his appointments and herded her out the door, commanding her not to speak until they had left the building. Now, even with the skyscraper far behind them, Kagome hadn't come any closer to formulating a complete sentence than she had back in his office.

Through the car window, she watched as they left the city behind, traveling westward into the mountains. She still couldn't believe she was in a car with Sesshoumaru, of all people—the last time she had been this close to him, he'd been trying to slash her to bits. In fact, the only thing harder for her to grasp was that Sesshoumaru himself was driving the car, weaving in and out of traffic with perfect ease. It was all so comical, so surreal. But no matter how many times Kagome pinched herself, the situation didn't change.

"I assume Naraku has been defeated."

Kagome jumped at the sound of his voice, causing her seatbelt to dig into her neck. She certainly hadn't expected that he would be the first to speak.

"Yeah," she replied, looking at the profile of his face. "The last battle was fought over two years ago."

He nodded. "Why did you seek me out?"

"I thought you were my landlord."

"I am your landlord," he corrected. Kagome had forgotten just how haughty he could be. "So, I will ask again: why did you seek me out?"

Kagome wanted to smack him. However, she valued her life.

"I don't see how it really matters now," she said hotly, crossing her arms over her chest.

Sesshoumaru seemed to weigh this. "Very well. Perhaps it doesn't."

The minutes trickled by in silence. To Kagome, it became apparent that some things never changed. Even after five hundred years, Sesshoumaru was still about as conversational as a floor lamp.

Gazing out at the countryside, she thought of Souta, of Jii-chan, of her mother. She thought of their home and of the one who had, for some unknown reason, ensured that it remained their home. The urge to know the motives of the daiyoukai beside her grew irrepressible.

"I wrote a letter," she blurted out. "To my landlord."

"Ah," he acknowledged quickly—too quickly. Kagome's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "And what did this letter contain?"

"My thanks," she replied, still glued to the scenery, "for the generosity he has shown my family over the years."

He laughed lightly, nearly startling his passenger out of her wits.

"If you're referring to a change in rental payments, I can assure you that generosity had very little to do with it."

"Then why…"

"Why do you suppose I would make such a change?" he interjected cryptically.

"I guess you might have lowered the payments to make sure that I remained near the Bone-Eater's Well at fifteen. But that still doesn't explain why you stopped the payments altogether," she countered. "And, at any rate, how would you have known about the well in the first place?"

The scenery suddenly gave way to a sprawling estate, the likes of which Kagome had never seen. Distracted by the view, she completely forgot about her question.

.oOo.

Kagome set her empty tea cup down on the table.

"Why did you bring me here, Sesshoumaru?"

"To continue our game," he replied evenly.

"Game?" Kagome echoed blankly. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Ah," he commented, as if everything suddenly made sense.

On that point, Kagome strongly begged to differ. Her face said it all.

"I suppose I should explain then," he continued. "Here, in the future, I trade you knowledge of the past. In the past, you trade me knowledge of the future."

Kagome looked at him doubtfully. "This seems like a very dangerous game."

Sesshoumaru nodded. "Then let us agree not to disclose our trades. You will not tell my past self anything I say, and I will not tell you anything you said to me in the past."

Kagome considered this proposal and its ramifications until her brain began to hurt. Instinctively, she knew this whole business should be avoided; logically, she realized that they were already five hundred years into the game. For the sake of both the past and the future, she really had no choice but to play along.

Besides, she could really use the distraction.

"All right, then," she finally agreed. "Let's continue."

Undeniable amusement flickered in the daiyoukai's eyes. "Well, it's your turn. What would you like to know?"

Kagome blinked. Now that the opportunity was before her, she really had no idea what to ask first. Maybe, then, it would be best just to start at the beginning. She looked at him steadily, her decision made.

"I guess I'd like to know how the game began."

.oOo.

Back in Sengoku Jidai, Kagome wandered through Inuyasha's Forest, beginning to feel like a total idiot. She had been keeping her eyes peeled for the past several hours, but so far she hadn't seen a trace of Rin. Maybe the Sesshoumaru of the future was simply off his rocker.

"When we met, you were with my ward in the woods bordering Edo village."

"Well, here I am," Kagome grumbled, wiping sweat from her brow.

As time passed, she began to wonder if perhaps she had gone too far in her search. After speaking to Kaede earlier in the morning and learning that Rin had volunteered to fetch the old miko some herbs that grew at the edge of the woods, Kagome had taken off at once to search for the girl, suspecting that game day had finally arrived. Not finding Rin anywhere around the forest's perimeter, Kagome had ventured deeper and deeper into the woods, her doubts rising the further she progressed. Surely Rin had been warned about the dangers of the forest—that she would stray this far in seemed very unlikely.

Just as Kagome was about to give up and head back to the village, a distant sound reached her ears. Listening closer, her eyes widened, the hand on her bow tightening. The sound was a scream—a scream from a human girl.

The miko raced through the trees, branches lashing her face as she barreled through them uncaring. The sound had grown louder, and Kagome soon realized that it wasn't inarticulate like she had first thought.

"Sesshoumaru-sama! Sesshoumaru-sama!" the voice of Rin clearly cried.

Kagome was close now. "Don't worry, Rin-chan!" she called back. "I'm on my way! Just keep shouting, okay?"

"Kagome-onee-chan!" Rin yelled in relief. "Over here! I'm over here!"

Jumping over a fallen log, Kagome turned right, breaking suddenly into a clearing. Beyond a small field of wildflowers, a mighty tree towered over the rest, Rin clinging to its branches. At the base of the tree a huge serpent youkai reared up, hissing at the terrified girl.

"Onee-chan, help!"

Kagome sprinted forward, nocking an arrow. Sensing her presence, the serpent whirled, unhinging its massive jaws. Satisfied that she'd drawn its attention away from Rin, the miko skidded to a halt, taking aim as it slithered her way in preparation to strike.

Inhaling sharply, Kagome released her fingers with a crackle of pure energy. Her arrow flew true, blasting apart the youkai's head in an explosion of white light. Stepping gingerly over the pieces that remained, her nose wrinkled in disgust, Kagome hurried over to Rin.

"Are you all right, Rin-chan?" she called up the tree.

"Yes!" Rin answered back cheerfully. "Thank you, onee-chan!"

"You're welcome," Kagome said, smiling. "Can you get down?"

"I-I'm not sure."

"Hmm…" Kagome looked at the giant tree in apprehension. Having spent her childhood in Tokyo, she had never been much of a climber.

Oh, where was Inuyasha when she needed him?

"Look, onee-chan!" Rin said in sudden excitement. "Look up at the sky!—it's Sesshoumaru-sama!"

Kagome gasped, shielding her eyes against the harsh sun as she raised them skyward. Sailing toward them on a cloud of white was the daiyoukai himself. As he passed by, he reached out, taking Rin by the waist. She threw her arms around him joyfully in return.

The miko watched him land gracefully upon the grass, the cloud vanishing as he leveled his gaze upon her. Her breath caught in her throat. This was the Sesshoumaru that she remembered—stoic, regal, radiating intimidation. She couldn't imagine him ever wanting to breathe in the same space as her, let alone play with her in a game of trades. The whole idea was ludicrous. Perhaps she could just escape quietly…

With that thought in mind, Kagome began to turn, freezing when Rin suddenly grasped her hand.

"Sesshoumaru-sama! Kagome-onee-chan saved me—she is so brave!" The young girl beamed. "She shot the youkai to pieces with her arrow!"

"Er…" Kagome said intelligently, her eyes flicking from Rin to Sesshoumaru.

The daiyoukai regarded her briefly before returning his attention to his ward. "Rin, have I not told you to stay within sight of the village at all times?"

"Yes, Sesshoumaru-sama. Rin is sorry," the girl said, hanging her head dejectedly.

Kagome glared at Sesshoumaru. Did he really have to be so cold to her? What a jerk!

"Oh! Wildflowers—how pretty! I will pick some for Sesshoumaru-sama!" Rin chattered excitedly a moment later, bounding away.

The miko gawked at the child's instant recovery. Maybe Sesshoumaru had to be harsh with her or nothing would ever sink in at all. Kagome openly studied the daiyoukai's face, watching him as he watched his ward. The conversation she'd had with his future self replayed in her head.

"You revealed something about me that you had no way of knowing."

"Really?" Kagome exclaimed, impressed by her former self. "But you can't tell me what that is, right?"

"No," Sesshoumaru replied brusquely. "That would be a violation of the rules."

Kagome sighed, her eyes wandering to Rin. The young girl skipped through the flower patch like an elf, laughing and lovely. The spring breeze picked up the loose petals, and they swirled around her, a shower of blossoms. It was a pretty picture, and Kagome wished that she had a camera with her to capture it.

Suddenly, the miko's jaw dropped, realization washing over her in a torrent. This picture would be captured—in a painting created by Sesshoumaru's own hand. A painting that, in about five hundred years, would hang next to his office door.

"You like to paint, Sesshoumaru," she stated, her eyes sliding to his face in triumph. "And you're very good at it."

He turned to her sharply, unmistakably surprised.

"Then you showed your back to me and began to walk away."

"Well, I guess I'd better be going," Kagome said loudly, about-facing.

She only made it three steps.

"Wait."

Repressing a grin, Kagome turned, looking at him innocently over her shoulder. "Yes, Sesshoumaru?"

"I questioned you."

"How did you come by that knowledge?" he demanded, amber eyes narrowed dangerously.

Kagome shrugged. "It's hard to explain."

"Again, you started to walk away."

Without further ado, the miko made for the trees. This time, it wasn't his words that stopped her, but his iron grip on her arm. Kagome flinched as he yanked her around to face him, inwardly seething at how imperfectly future-Sesshoumaru had described this part.

"But I convinced you to stay."

Staring into the daiyoukai's cold eyes, Kagome clenched her fist. Convinced. Yeah, no joke—forcible restraint had always been very effective in persuading her not to leave a place.

"Let go of me," she ground out.

"First, you should explain," he said lowly.

"Fine," Kagome snapped as her arm began to go numb. "I'm from the future—five hundred years in the future, actually. I've seen your artwork there, so I figured that you like to paint. I also know that you like Italian sports cars and designer suits."

To her relief, he released her. "The future?"

"That's right," Kagome said irritably, massaging her arm. "And you're still around—though you're a lot less violent."

Sesshoumaru ignored her, lost in thought. As his future self had instructed, Kagome waited for him to address her again.

"What else can you tell me about the future?"

Here we go. Kagome allowed herself a small smile.

"And the rest is conversation, which you know I cannot describe."

"Lots of things," she replied easily. "But not all at once. There are things I'd like to know about the past—things I won't live to see, no matter how long I stay here."

Sesshoumaru's brow quirked, seeming to indicate that he'd taken the hint.

"Then I propose a trade," he said smoothly. "I will, in the future, provide you with knowledge of the past, and you will provide me with knowledge of the future."

Kagome pretended to consider this. "I don't know. It seems like you'd have the ability to influence both the future and the past that way. There could be terrible consequences."

"The same danger rests with you," he reasoned. "Let us agree not to disclose our trades. You will not tell me what I say in the future, and I will not tell you what you say in the past."

"Okay," Kagome said, nodding. "So, what else would you like to know for now?"

Sesshoumaru's reply surprised her.

"Tell me how you arrived in this era."

As Kagome opened her mouth to tell him how she first discovered the well, a sudden thought occurred to her. Perhaps that was not really the beginning of the story.

"In five hundred years, you'll own the land on which the Bone-Eater's Well now sits," she began instead, striving to keep the tremor out of her voice. "My family will live there, and the head of my family, a man named Higurashi, will die."

Kagome paused, choosing her next words carefully. She now realized that what the Sesshoumaru of the future had a called a game was not really a game at all.

"In order for my family to keep living on the land, you'll lower the, uh, tribute you demand from us," she continued. "And then, on my fifteenth birthday, a centipede youkai will pull me into the well…"

.oOo.

Kagome bent low over the koi pond, studying her dark reflection. The shadowy outline trembled on the surface of the water—her phantom self. She stared at the flimsy image, transfixed. Melancholy.

Months had passed since the renewal of the game. Every few days Kagome would switch times, sharing information with the Sesshoumaru of the past and gaining knowledge herself from the Sesshoumaru of the future. She asked him about the fates of people and places from Sengoku Jidai, about the youkai and how they had vanished from the earth over time, about how Tokyo had first begun to take shape. In turn, he questioned her about his future self, about major world events to come, about modern discoveries and inventions.

As the game progressed, trades of a more personal nature began to pass between them. Kagome told past-Sesshoumaru about her childhood, about her friends both past and future, about her family, her training and her fears. She found him surprisingly easy to talk to—perhaps because he himself talked so little. His quiet audience bestowed on her a kind of peace she hadn't felt in years. It was that very same sense of comfort that now paradoxically troubled her.

To whom did she run as soon as she was through the well? In whom did she confide? Around whom did her thoughts constantly revolve? Who was it that now made her happy, gave her purpose?

With no small amount of reluctance, Kagome admitted that it was not her husband.

A fat fish shattered her focus, peeking up at her inquisitively through her reflection in the pond. They gazed at each other for a moment, and then the koi swam lazily away.

"Kagome."

Her eyes darted to future-Sesshoumaru, who stood watching her from a few feet away. She frowned. It seemed that he was always watching her.

Compared to his reticent former self, this Sesshoumaru was a chatterbox. He told her of his younger years—his battles, his glory, his allies. He told her of his father and his lineage, of his power both then and now. He explained how he had managed to hold onto his wealth and influence over the years through various enterprises, including his current business, Hanone Inc. At first Kagome had just assumed that, after being reunited with a figure from his past, he was simply eager to reminisce.

Together, they had toured Japan, visiting various landmarks that held meaning for them. He took her into the mountains and showed her the ruins of his old castle. They traveled to the land where his father had died, to the spot where he had met Rin, to the places where she had met her friends. Finally, they had ended up at Kagome's home, at Goshinboku and the shrine. The way Sesshoumaru's eyes had lingered upon the well unnerved her still.

"Do you like this place?" he asked her casually.

She nodded, smiling slightly. "I've always thought it'd be nice to have a koi pond indoors. It's relaxing."

But you already knew that, didn't you? Her eyes narrowed imperceptibly. It seemed that his home was filled with a lot of the things she liked.

As certain as she was that Sesshoumaru had some sort of ulterior motive, she had been just as certain that she had no idea what that motive could be. Her ignorance on the matter, however, had largely been due to denial. She had refused to examine his actions too closely—afraid, deep down, of what intentions might lay behind them.

As time went by, she found that she could no longer overlook. She could no longer pretend. When her grandfather had fallen ill, Sesshoumaru had provided him with the finest doctors, the best facilities. He had invited Souta to his estate and taught him kendo. He had taken her to dinner, gone on walks with her through his grounds, presented her with gifts (which she had futilely tried to refuse), painted her, even called her. It had become impossible, absolutely impossible, for Kagome to ascribe his actions to the game, or even to friendship.

He moved toward her, and she instinctively took a step back, regarding him warily. There was something in his eyes that confirmed her suspicions. It gleamed red beneath the gold—thrilling her, terrifying her.

Kagome crossed her arms over her chest defensively. "I have a question for you."

"Oh?" he replied, arching a brow as he continued to advance. "Well, what do you wish to know?"

She hesitated, her fingers digging into her blouse. The question had been dancing on her tongue since the first day of the game. She had been avoiding it out of fear, but now that a greater danger loomed before her, her reservations about asking it had dissipated like fog.

"I want to know," she said slowly, looking directly into his simmering gaze, "what happened to Inuyasha."

He halted, and his eyes were suddenly very cold.

"He died alone," Sesshoumaru said shortly. "In disgrace."

Kagome waited for him to say more. When she realized that he wasn't going to elaborate, she could never tell whether it was anger or sadness that shaped her next words. Probably it was both.

"You killed him, didn't you?" she said thickly through her anguish.

His expression hardened into stone. "No."

"Liar," she choked, trembling. "I know he wouldn't just die. You must have killed him!"

"I did not kill Inuyasha," the daiyoukai said lowly.

"Then how did he die?" she challenged. "Tell me!"

He stalked toward her like the predator he was, Kagome quelling a little at his dark look.

"He fell on his sword. I found his body in the remains of Mount Hakurei, rats feasting on his flesh."

Kagome stared at him in horror, too devastated to cry. She didn't believe him. It didn't make sense.

But, Mount Hakurei…

She thought of her dark reflection in the pond. And of Kikyou, her other self.

"I have to go."

She turned away, cringing when Sesshoumaru grabbed her wrist.

"You could stay."

Kagome relaxed a little. Yes, she could stay. It would be so easy to stay. But she wouldn't. He made this request of her because he didn't understand. There were two of him and only one of her—how could he ever understand?

Again, she attempted to leave, but her still-captured wrist prevented the action. "Sesshoumaru…"

Frustrated, she turned to face the daiyoukai, eyes going wide when he pulled her into his chest. Her free hand flew out reflexively and she pushed against him, his left arm an iron bar across her back. She continued to struggle vainly for a few more seconds before swallowing her defeat. As his other hand slid from her wrist to her neck, she glared determinedly away. His trimmed claws grazed lightly over her skin, his fingers curling around her set jaw, cool and firm.

"Look at me, Kagome."

The way his chest rumbled as he spoke her name flooded her face with scarlet. Still, she resisted his attempts to angle her chin toward him, her neck beginning to ache from the effort.

"Kagome," he repeated sternly.

At his tone she acquiesced, allowing him to tilt her face to his own. Her stomach tightened traitorously at the intensity in his eyes, her hands fisting in his shirt. She read a promise in his heated gaze, felt its seal in the first press of his lips against hers.

The arms around her were strong, the body before her was solid. Of all living beings, he alone had endured through the centuries, strengthened by them in the same way that iron is strengthened by its passage through flame. Over and over, he explored her mouth, branding it with his assurances.

I could stay.

Panting slightly, she let her cheek rest in his open palm, lashes fluttering as he kissed her throat. Though his breath was hot and humid, she shivered, his tongue trailing wetly, languorously, over her flesh. Unconsciously she pulled him closer, the pressure of his lips and fangs increasing at her encouragement.

It would be so easy just to stay right here.

His hand slipped beneath her blouse, ghosting over her ribs, tracing the curve of her breast. Like an electric shock, the contact sent Kagome backwards with a start. Caught off-guard, Sesshoumaru released her.

Face still flushed with passion, she continued backing away, her arms wrapped tightly around her torso. When Sesshoumaru moved toward her again with hooded eyes, she shook her head violently.

"Don't come any closer!" she said frantically. "That was a mistake."

The daiyoukai ignored her, a furtive smile playing at his lips. Kagome whimpered as her back met with the wall.

"Stop, Sesshoumaru," she said weakly. "I'm married—I'm married to your brother!"

A few feet from her, Sesshoumaru paused. Before Kagome could breathe a sigh of relief, his hands shot out, effectively caging her in. She yelped in alarm as he tilted his head to the side, regarding her closely.

"You are not married," he stated in a dry voice, baring his fangs to her in a brief, wicked flash. "Inuyasha has been dead for a very long time."

Tears stung in Kagome's eyes, blurring her vision. Despite this impediment, her hand managed to make a very solid connection with his face.

Ducking beneath his outstretched arm, she stormed from the room, leaving an extremely stunned and dissatisfied daiyoukai in her wake. Even outside the main house, she could feel the sear of his distemper.

No, she thought grimly as the driver bore her away, this will not end well.

.oOo.

"Sango-chan!"

The taijiya turned.

"Welcome back, Kagome-chan." Her warm smile faltered as she perceived her friend's distress. "Are you all right?"

Kagome nodded hastily, catching her breath. "Have you…have you seen Inuyasha?"

"No." Sango shook her head. "He's been gone since yesterday."

"Why does he do this?" The miko bit out angrily, glowering down at the ground. "He just leaves without a word!"

When the taijiya said nothing in reply, Kagome looked up to find her friend gazing at her rather critically, her mouth a thin line.

"Forgive me, Kagome-chan," Sango said finally, "but aren't you guilty of the same thing?"

Kagome's mouth opened only to snap shut a second later. She bristled.

"No," she said bitterly, glaring at Sango. "If he had just stayed to begin with, I never would have left. My leaving is his fault."

"And you don't think it's possible that he leaves more often now because you're gone as well?" Sango said carefully, brown eyes piercing.

Kagome hesitated, mulling this possibility over in her mind. Even if what Sango said was true, Kagome reasoned that Inuyasha was still, ultimately, to blame.

"That doesn't matter," the miko ground out, fists clenched at her sides. "It isn't my fault." Her voice trembled as it rose in pitch. "None of this is my fault!"

Before Sango could even attempt to counter, Kagome spun on her heel, fleeing in the direction of her home. Once inside, she fell to her knees on the tatami mats, burying her face in her hands.

Kagome spent the next two days in total isolation, afraid to venture beyond her hut for fear that she'd run into her friends—or worse, Sesshoumaru. She tried to plan out what she would say to Inuyasha upon his return, but before her speech could ever take shape, an image of her husband's broken corpse would rise unbidden in her mind, filling her with hopeless dread. If the past was fixed, wasn't the future fixed also? What could she do, then, to prevent that which would inevitably take place?

Her mind ran in circles around the future and the past. There were no beginnings, no endings. There was only the in-between, and everything was interconnected. No matter her actions, the outcome would always be the same. Within the unbreakable cage of time, all the events that had ever been—that would ever be—were neatly contained.

It was in this state of half-madness that Inuyasha found her. He entered cautiously, averting his gaze from her too-blank eyes.

"Hey, Kagome," he greeted her stiffly.

"Hi."

"What's the—"

"Why do you want to die, Inuyasha?" she interrupted softly, her words sounding far-off even as they left her lips.

He stared at her in silent shock.

"I know," she continued tremulously, clasping her hands. "I know why you keep leaving the village. I know that you've been searching for a way to die."

Since it was useless to prevent his death, Kagome had decided that she would do her best to understand it. To understand him. What else could she do?

"I thought that things would get better," he said quietly, still avoiding her gaze. "That bastard Naraku was gone, and I had you to wait for. But when you came back and everything settled down, I couldn't relax. I kept thinking about the past, regretting it. I can't escape it."

"You can't forget her."

He finally locked eyes with his wife. The resignation in them saddened her.

"Maybe," he said with difficulty, "maybe, I should've just followed her in, after all."

Kagome inhaled sharply, turning away.

Some wounds never healed. Even with the arrow removed, Inuyasha still ached for Kikyou. Kagome thought back five years to the sleeping boy pinned to Goshinboku. Had she never traveled through the well, had she never interfered, both he and Kikyou would have gone on sleeping forever. The outcome, she realized, would have been the same as this.

"Then go join her, Inuyasha," Kagome whispered, her eyes brimming. "Go to Mount Hakurei."

.oOo.

Kagome knew now that there was no point in running. The path before her had been set by some great universal will, and she couldn't deviate from that course no matter how hard she tried. Like everyone else, she was stuck in a cycle. She just happened to be aware that she was stuck.

The burden of that knowledge oppressed her.

"I wish I hadn't asked so many questions," she said wistfully, watching Jakken chase Rin around Ah-Un.

"Perhaps you shouldn't have," Sesshoumaru responded serenely, sitting a few feet away from her in the grass, "but it's useless to regret."

Kagome sighed. "I guess you're right."

A sudden breeze lifted her hair, sending about half of it flying into her face. As she fought to secure the wayward strands, she noticed that Sesshoumaru was watching her, his eyes unreadable.

"I have a question," he said eventually.

"Okay," Kagome replied, a bit uneasy.

"How do we meet in the future?"

A thousand lies rose instinctively on her tongue, but she disregarded them all at once, knowing that they would accomplish nothing, feeling the shackles of Fate and Time weighing heavy around her neck.

"Around the time I first go through the well, you'll write a letter to my mother, telling her that my family no longer owes you any payment to live on the land. My brother will find the letter five years later and tell me about it because he thinks it's strange. From the letter I'll know where to find you, and I'll go there to thank you in person."

Amusement flickered in his eyes. "Hn. How generous of me."

Kagome couldn't help but laugh at the irony, remembering the words he had spoken to her in the future. Lighter of heart than she had been in days, she gazed out at the horizon from their perch. The scene was majestic and, again, familiar. Kagome immediately recalled the landscape painting in Sesshoumaru's office.

"You must like this place," she said, smiling.

He looked back at her, and it was as if his two selves had suddenly merged into one. She blushed under the weight of his regard.

"Truthfully," he said, "I have never noticed its beauty until now."

.oOo.

Wrapped in soft old sheets, Kagome lay curled on her bed, tears spilling down her cheeks. From her open window, the first breath of autumn entered, washing chillingly over her back and shoulders.

Lying here, surrounded by objects from her childhood, she could almost pretend she was a normal girl who had lived a normal life. She wanted to believe that there had at least been a chance that things could have turned out differently. But no matter how desperately she searched her memories for that point of divergence, she could never find it.

Everything was connected, and everything was hers to blame.

So she wept for Inuyasha, for her mother, for her brother and grandfather and friends. She wept at her own powerlessness, at her loss of self. Where did Higurashi Kagome truly belong? She couldn't answer, didn't have the slightest idea. Five years of foray into the past, and for what exactly? It was difficult for her to decide whether the good she had done there had been enough to make up for all the trouble she'd caused.

The rush of air against her back had ceased. Senses prickling, Kagome slowly raised herself up from her dampened pillow, lashes still sparkling with tears as she glanced over her shoulder.

Ever the silent observer, Sesshoumaru rested against her windowsill, barricading the breeze. Kagome turned toward him, gathering her covered knees to her chest as she wiped her eyes.

She looked up at him plaintively. "How does it end?"

"The game?" He crossed the distance between them, lowering himself to her bed. "One day, I discovered that the well was full of rubble. You never returned."

He reached out to cradle her cheek, his thumb brushing lightly against the fringe of her lower lashes.

"And this?" she breathed. "How does this end?"

He leaned in, his lips curving into a smile against her mouth.

"It doesn't."

He tasted clear, like water and glass.

Kagome broke away with a sigh, tangling her fingers in his hair as he kissed her temple and wrenched back the sheets. The curtains ruffled in the wind, and she shuddered.

Where were the cries of her accusers? She strained her ears, seeking the sound, doubting that the walls of Hell and Time could truly muffle it. Doubting so many, many things.

His hands glided down her arms, the thin straps of her nightgown hooked in his claws. The rest of the fabric descended, bunching at her waist.

"Wait," she pleaded, shielding her bare chest.

Sesshoumaru snorted as he yanked off his loosened tie and threw it to the floor.

"I have waited long enough."

Drawing her arms apart easily, he bore her down to the mattress. Kagome shivered as his mouth latched onto her neck, her nipples hardening into tiny peaks as they brushed against the fabric of his shirt. His tongue traced a searing pattern over her pulse point, his lips and fangs soon moving in a tantalizing scrape down her collarbone and across the soft upward slope of her breast.

Warm breath ghosted over her sensitive flesh, heating to a blaze every time his mouth pressed against each quivering swell. Kagome shifted beneath him, trying in vain to escape the maddening course of his lips, her nipples tightened almost to the point of pain from his deliberate neglect. Noticing her efforts, he chuckled lightly against her breastbone, and she trembled, flushing red with shame and anger. She rubbed her thighs together in frustration, the evidence of her desire pooling hot and wet between her lower lips, dripping down onto the sheets below.

Just as she began to hate him with every fiber of her being, Sesshoumaru ducked his head, capturing her right peak between his lips. Kagome moaned in relief, her back arching off the bed as he pulled and sucked at her puckered flesh, his rough tongue flicking relentlessly at the tight little bud. He paused in his ministrations only to switch to the other needy breast. Kagome arched again to meet him with another soft cry, straining against his hold on her arms, lifting her hips in a desperate attempt to grind against him, to soothe the aching heat building in her core.

Abruptly, Sesshoumaru released her nipple with a wet pop. A knee slid between her thighs, and she gasped, tensing.

"Please…" she rasped, no longer sure what she was even begging him for.

His hands left her forearms, his fingers gripping the material pooled at her hips, shoving it the rest of the way down. Reflexively, Kagome clamped her legs shut, but his knee soon interposed itself once more as he drew her own apart, the cool breeze licking at the wetness that soaked her center. Kagome inhaled sharply. Sesshoumaru slid back, dipping his head to her cleft, his ragged breath replacing that of the wind, shivering heavy and damp over her slick, swollen flesh. She whimpered as his fangs grazed her inner thigh, unconsciously parting her legs for him further.

He buried his nose in her small thatch of soft dark curls, scenting her as his hands cupped her behind, lifting her, opening her fully to his hot, hungry mouth. Kagome’s breath escaped her in a keening whine, her fingers digging into the sheets. He laved at her tender folds, ravenous, his tongue spearing inside her randomly, stoking the fire building deep within. She rolled her hips against his face in feverish abandon, striving to bring him in contact with the blood-ripened nub pulsating at the apex of her thighs.

At long last, he crushed his lips and tongue against that teeming bundle of nerves, and Kagome let loose a throaty scream, tears leaking from the corners of her closed eyes. The universe was imploding around her, within her. She could feel the foundations of her own existence shake and crumble, dissolving in a flash of white light, an explosion of blissful, agonizing sensation.

Then she breathed again.

In the pause that followed, she cracked her heavy eyelids open, watching hungrily as he divested himself of his clothes. Whatever illusion he employed to hide his markings had been dispelled by passion, and Kagome traced the bright stripes with her fingertips, wondering vaguely how they would taste.

He hovered above her, all lean muscle and pale perfect skin. Kagome pushed back the bangs that hid his brilliant, reddening eyes, her own eyes shining with tears. She wanted to ask him why, wanted to scream the question at him until he shattered and Time shattered and she was finally free to reassemble the pieces in a better way. But he covered her lips as soon as they parted, joining their bodies together with one smooth thrust.

Kagome held on for dear life as five hundred years of desire lanced through her, guiltily grateful that Souta had decided to spend the night at the hospital with Jii-chan. She cried out until her vocal chords rebelled completely, her blunt nails digging into his back, her inner walls still spasming around him in the aftermath of her own release. He seemed to drive into the very heart of her, hollowing out a space inside her which only he could fill—and he did so. Again, and again, and again.

She could feel him teetering on the edge of his control. Biting her neck, he slammed into her almost painfully deep, stiffening further as his claws lengthened and pierced the skin above her hipbones. Before she could scream at him to stop his assault, he ended with a growl, crushing her against him as he rode out the last waves of his pleasure, his face buried in the junction of her neck and shoulder.

Nearly an hour later, Kagome's thighs still twitched. She had rolled onto her side, Sesshoumaru at her back, his claws stroking idly over her hip. Beyond the window, the stars gleamed in the night sky, as bright now as they had been five centuries before.

.oOo.

"Onee-chan! Onee-chan!"

Kagome woke abruptly as Souta crashed through her bedroom door.

"Onee-chan, the—"

Her brother choked loudly, staring at her. Suddenly, all the events of the previous night flooded her mind, and she blushed violently, clutching her rumpled sheets to her chest as she sat up wincing. Her head pounded behind her crusty eyes, her lower half sticky and sore. She studiously avoided glancing in her vanity mirror, afraid the sight of herself would shock her just as much as it had shocked Souta.

Sesshoumaru, of course, was nowhere to be found.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, her brother recovered enough to speak.

"Onee-chan, you should come outside," he said briefly, already heading for the door.

As soon as it closed behind him, Kagome eased herself out of bed, her brother's strange behavior making her anxious. She plucked her house robe from its peg on her closet door and wrapped it tightly around her, hurrying out of the room as fast as she was able.

Souta stood waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs, his expression solemn. Wordlessly he turned, leading her out the back door. Heart pounding, Kagome followed.

She saw it as soon as she cleared the entryway. The roof of the shrine had caved in, reducing the well and its housing to a jumble of boards, stones, and shingles. Fragments lay scattered across the grass, as if the place had been blown away by some sort of minor explosion. Kagome gazed blankly at the wreckage, struggling to come to terms with the fact that her portal to the past had been irrevocably destroyed.

"Who could have done this?" Souta murmured in sad disbelief.

He jumped at the sounds issuing from his sister, turning slowly to face her. She stood hunched over the porch railing, her features hidden from his view by a curtain of tousled hair, her body shaking with soft, hysterical laughter.

"One day, I discovered that the well was full of rubble. You never returned."

"You win, Sesshoumaru, you win," she laughed brokenly, watching her tears rain down upon the earth below.

Heavy with hate and love, her heart thudded painfully in her chest.

.oOo.

One year later…

Kagome sighed in boredom, wandering through a maze of paintings, sketches, and sculptures.

This had to have been the twentieth art gallery she'd visited since her arrival in New York three weeks ago. When her husband's business had required him to spend about a month in the United States, it hadn't taken much to persuade her to accompany him there. She'd been downright ecstatic about the prospect of leaving Japan for the first time in her life, the fact that she'd be able to see all the famous sights in Manhattan only adding to her excitement.

Truly, she had been enjoying herself immensely—and it wasn't that she disliked art. It was just that she wasn't a connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination. And so, after a while, everything had begun to look the same. Besides, her feet hurt something awful these days. She spied her husband in a corner, her hopes failing as she saw him still conversing with one of his many art-dealing acquaintances.

Looking at him, her hand strayed absently to her swollen belly.

Deciding that she might as well keep wandering for a while, Kagome headed toward the back of the gallery, her eyes scanning the artwork that lined the walls. Nearly hidden in a corner, a small, curious painting caught her attention.

From a distance it appeared to be merely a stretch of blank white canvas, and Kagome's first, rather silly thought was that the painting must have been framed backwards. As she drew closer, however, she soon realized that, though the painting was white overall, it was actually underscored by many colors, traces of which peeked through the pearly surface—particularly at the edges.

She saw red and blue, green and black and yellow. Her eyes followed the individual strokes and colors until they merged with the whole and became indistinguishable. Absorbed with the painting, she didn't even notice that her husband was beside her until he placed his hand on the small of her back.

She started at the unexpected contact, looking up at him. He studied the literal object of her attention, nose wrinkled. Clearly, he was not impressed by what he saw.

"What does the title say?" she asked him anyway.

"Innocence," Sesshoumaru read disinterestedly, arching a brow at her mystified expression.

One week and one thousand American dollars later, the painting hung in Kagome's personal sitting room. Often she would visit it over the years, sometimes contemplating it for hours on end to the undying astonishment of her family. When her children asked her why she seemed to like it so much, she'd only smile and tell them it was hard for her to explain.

"Life's complicated," she'd finally say when they refused to stop pressing her for the reason. "Just like this painting."

But, for the life of them, they could never see what was so complicated about it.

 

INUYASHA © Rumiko Takahashi/Shogakukan • Yomiuri TV • Sunrise 2000
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