“Kaede.” The voice was quiet, but it roused Kaede from sleep instantly. She sat up, sleepily rubbing her eyes and blinking up at her older sister.
“My duties will not allow me to visit the cave until this afternoon,” Kikyou told her. In her hand was a comb, which she handed to Kaede in a wordless suggestion the girl tidy her hair. Taking it from Kikyou, Kaede began to neaten her bed-rumpled head. “Will you bring breakfast to Onigumo for me?”
The question was a mere formality; Kaede would do whatever Kikyou asked, and they both knew it. Still, that Kikyou would make it a request made Kaede happy; it was a mark of consideration, even if it were tiny—even insignificant.
“Yes, of course, onee-sama,” Kaede replied, and hopped up from her pallet to wash and dress.
Once ready, she took the bundle of food and began to make her way to Onigumo. The day was lovely, with a clear sky, and the tree branches waving gracefully in the light breeze. In spite of it, however, Kaede’s feet moved slower and slower over the sun-dappled ground as she approached the cave. The closer she came to it, the darker and colder the day felt, as if everything that was good in the world ebbed with proximity to his foul presence.
Kaede hated Onigumo; hated the dark, dirty energy that rolled off him in waves, hated the sly and speculative glances he shot Kikyou’s way when she wasn’t looking. In the days since they’d discovered him, many were the times she’d wished Kikyou weren’t so compassionate, or that Onigumo would just die.
Most of all, she wished that she herself weren’t such a coward. She’d had so many opportunities just like today, where she would be all alone with Onigumo, and he was so feeble that it wouldn’t take but a minute’s work to kill him, to rid the world of his presence just a few weeks sooner.
She’d had the opportunity, yes, but not the courage. What if Kikyou somehow found out what she’d done? Kaede lived in terror of losing those little shows of respect that her sister graced her with. She’d do anything to keep them, anything at all.
The mouth of the cave loomed ahead, a gaping maw to swallow whoever scrambled inside and down the jagged incline to its occupant. At the bottom lay the familiar figure of Onigumo, a crumpled pile of rags and useless limbs.
Kaede picked her way carefully to the bottom of the slope. At the bottom, she inched cautiously toward him; though he couldn’t move without assistance, there was something about him that put her in mind of something deadly and quick, something that could bite you and skitter away before you knew what happened.
Kaede knew the final battle was nigh even before the first death-cry of a villager; Naraku’s youkai was such that it had been pressing inward on her all morning, doubling and redoubling her apprehension until she felt ready to scream.
She took her time preparing, however, and waited until Shippou came to fetch her for fear of getting in Inuyasha’s way. Sighing, she gave surveyed the interior of her little hut and hoped it would not be the last time she saw it. Outside, she joined Shippou, who’d been left to accompany her to the clearing around the Bone-Eater’s Well.
“An appropriate venue,” she said with a chuckle, fingering the string of her bow as she stumped as fast as she could down the path. “Where it began, where it shall end…” Shippou gave her a strange look, but said nothing.
Breaking through the treeline, they saw that the combatants were at loggerheads, so evenly matched than any headway made by one’s attack was immediately countered and negated by the other’s. Sango and Miroku had their hands full deflecting Byakuya, Inuyasha and Kagome were battering rather fruitlessly against Naraku, and her sister, Kikyou, was taking on the monstrous Mouryoumaru all by herself.
Kikyou had already taken a hit; her white haori was torn, and she looked even more pale than usual. Kaede wished she’d taken more haste in preparing, had gotten there sooner, had done something to save Kikyou, but hadn’t that always been her failing? Never asserting herself, when doing so would have had a better result?
Kaede cursed her lost opportunity to kill Onigumo that she hadn’t taken because of her fear of losing Kikyou’s respect. If only she hadn’t been so afraid, if only she’d known that some things could be worse than losing Kikyou’s love…
Her mind seized, then, and seemed to unwind like a reel of thread, spinning back to a moment-- a single, specific, precious moment during which everything could have been rendered so very different.
Kaede unwrapped his bandages and set to work washing his wounds with the same care her sister would have provided.
She twitched in surprise, then frowned as irritation rose within her. “My name is Kaede.”
His chuckle was a weak, watery thing that rattled in his chest. “Kaede… just so, just so.”
Her feeling of unease was increasing; she had to get out of there soon. But it seemed he was in a sociable mood; peace was not to be hers as she tended him.
“Your sister... “ he continued slowly, thoughtfully. “She's got that thing... it’s called the Shikon Jewel, isn’t it?”
Kaede froze, hands gone still as she knotted the last bandage. “How... how did you know that?” she demanded, her lips feeling numb as they formed the words.
A smile twisted his scaly, misshapen lips. “All the bad men are after it, I think.”
“And you’re a bad man, too?” It was an unnecessary question; they both knew what he was.
“They say the more hateful blood the jewel absorbs, the more evil it becomes!” The scent that rose from him, sickly-sour, intensified until she could taste it in the back of her throat. She pushed back from him, her hand across her nose. He only closed his eyes, smile widening, a slash across the disfigured face. “Ah, that's sweet!”
“My sister is purifying it,” Kaede declared, but her voice shook. “It will not become evil.”
“Yes, such a pure woman, your sister... a pure woman. I wonder if it’s possible…” His words trailed away, and his eyes opened once more, skipping lazily over the girl beside him to focus, speculative, on the sliver of bright blue visible at the mouth of the cave.
“If what is possible?” Kaede’s fists knotted themselves into the fabric of her yukata, warring with the anger that burgeoned, hot and heavy, in her belly. How she hated him!
Onigumo seemed surprised, when he looked back to her, as if he’d forgotten she was there. “Oh,” he said, smiling, “if it’s possible for Kikyou to be…”
Kaede stood. “To be what?” she shouted, making no attempt at courtesy anymore. “To be what?”
“Defiled by evil,” he replied finally, eyes glowing in delight at her fury. “It gives me shivers of pleasure, to think of it.”
Kaede stared down at him a long, stricken moment. She had known, at a certain level, that evil existed and that men were filled with it, but never had she encountered it in person. Once again, she felt the urge to kill him, to snatch the pillow from behind his head and press it over his face until there was no breath left in him, and her fingers twitched with the longing, but— but what would Kikyou think?
Kikyou knew Onigumo was a villain; if Kaede could figure it out, it was certain that Kikyou had known from the beginning. And still, she had saved him, had helped him and made him comfortable and eased his pain as best she could. She would know what Kaede had done, that she had gone directly against Kikyou’s wishes and taken a life instead of preserving it.
Kikyou would be sad, if that happened; she would be disappointed in her, and Kaede found that even more than she hated Onigumo, she could not bear for her sister’s eyes to lack that quiet affection they held for her. The very idea made a fear rise up in her that made her hands tremble and her eyes tear.
And so Kaede ignored his taunting, ignored his jibes. She carefully, silently fed Onigumo—just as Kikyou would have done—and wiped his mouth and cleared the area of old bandages and empty bowls. She crept from the cave and returned to Edo, and when Kikyou asked her how Onigumo was, she replied, “The same.”
The impact of Inuyasha’s blow jarred the Shikon from Naraku’s hand. An odd hush fell over them all as it arced through the clouds of dust and miasma befouling the air. It purified the surrounding air as it went, and drew everyone’s eye with its vivid, sparkling beauty. When the jewel landed, finally, its thud on the hard-packed ground seemed to snap them out of their reverie.
“Get it!” Naraku screamed, and Byakuya began tearing after it.
But the jewel’s journey was not yet finished; Inuyasha sliced off the nearest tentacle and sent it flying. It impacted not far from the Shikon and sent it skittering away, right through Byakuya’s outstretched fingertips to bounce once, twice, before rolling to a gentle stop…
…right at Kaede’s feet. With an alacrity belied by her aged appearance, she stooped and snatched it into her hand. It was cold and hard against her calloused palm, worn from many years of work, and she could feel the pulse of power within it like a heartbeat.
Across the field of battle, she saw Kikyou turn and gaze at her.
“Kikyou-onee-sama,” Kaede whispered, struck as always by the empty sorrow on her sister’s face. There was just the scantest remainder of Kikyou’s legendary compassion remaining, the compassion that had led them all into this mess in the first place.
The irony of it all was enough to kill a body, she mused, and fixed her lone eye on Kanna. The nothing-girl was nearest and making her way closer, mirror held delicately, fingers deftly angling it in preparation for its use.
I was that young, once, Kaede thought, and knew what she had to do.
“Goodbye,” she told her sister, who could not hear her. With a deep breath, she cupped the jewel to her chest, and wished.
Once again, she felt the urge to kill him, to snatch the pillow from behind his head and press it over his face until there was no breath left in him, and her fingers twitched with the longing. Fear of Kikyou’s rejection lashed at her, tightened her belly, but a fresh and strange resolve filled her until, hard and bright, there was nothing else. Leaning forward, she brought her face close to his. The sickness was strong in her nose, and she could see every horrific inch of his face in close, relentless detail.
“I will not let you,” she whispered, and slid the pillow out from under his head. She gripped it in both hands, one at each edge, and held it to her chest a moment, pondering this one last moment before she, too, became just like him: unworthy of her sister.
Onigumo said nothing, just smiled and closed his eyes. Waiting, for her to decide. Slowly, carefully, Kaede leaned forward and placed the pillow over his face. She was exquisitely conscious of her own breaths: the sound, the motion, the feel of air passing in and out of her body. There was a tiny flutter in his wasted limbs, a token protest, and then the cave simply felt emptier, as if the echo had somehow grown larger.
“Goodbye,” she told Onigumo, who could not hear her. With a deep breath, she packed up the old bandages, and left.