By the time Lady Kaede's yearly visit rolls around Kagome's honestly forgotten all about it. She hasn't been keeping very close track of time, and she's not waiting eagerly for Lady Kaede's visit to shore up her supplies like she has been in years past. They're well equipped and well stocked right now- she doubts she'll have to leave the forest any time soon, which is good, because she doesn't think the men will want her to go alone and she definitely doesn't want to bring them anywhere near other people, which is a reaction she doesn't want to examine too closely. All that means that when Lady Kaede doesn't show up at her usual time, Kagome has to admit she doesn't initially notice. She certainly doesn't expect Kaede to simply visit them later in the year than she has in the past.
Everyone is in the hut when Lady Kaede arrives, absently playing catch with Shippo while they talk about their plans for the day, which is likely the only reason she gets as close as she does before Shippo's head goes up and Inuyasha's ears go back.
"Someone's coming," Inuyasha growls, getting swiftly to his feet. "Miroku?"
The monk's already grabbing his staff and getting up. "Kagome?"
She grabs her bow and quiver as Shippo leaps to her shoulder. "I'll take Shippo and cover you."
That it could be Lady Kaede doesn't even occur to her.
Kagome almost doesn't recognise the older woman, because Lady Kaede's always come alone before. Kagome doesn't expect to see her ride in behind a young woman on a firecat youkai.
"Kagome?" Lady Kaede calls, accepting a hand down from the younger woman with a nod and scanning the area with furrowed brows. The firecat ducks her head and lets out a curious noise. "Easy, Kirara, it's likely only young Shippo that ye have scented."
Kirara shakes her head with a snort, but fixates on where Kagome is standing in the woods, bow lowered and forgotten. Months of working and living with them means it's easy to feel Inuyasha in the trees above them, easy to feel Miroku somewhere just behind and to her left.
Swiftly, Kagome darts into the clearing before either of her friends can attack. She hears Inuyasha crash after her with a low curse, hears Miroku's swift intake of breath, and knows she has to make it clear immediately that this is someone she knows. "Lady Kaede!"
"Kagome!" the elder greets her with palpable relief. "What are ye doing in the trees, child? 'Tis dangerous to lurk so."
Kagome opens her mouth to explain, with a guilty glance at the strange young woman, but doesn't have a chance before Miroku and Inuyasha have taken up positions on either side of her.
Miroku lowers his staff, tone polite but stiff as he says, "Who might you be?"
Inuyasha only growls.
"You two," Kagome sighs, shifting just enough that Shippo shifts his grip on her shoulder. "Lady Kaede is-"
Lady Kaede is staring, eyes wide as saucers, at Kagome's half-demon companion. "Inu... Inuyasha?"
His growl cuts out, replaced by words that are still nearly lost in a snarl. "Who wants to know?"
"Lady Kaede-" Kagome repeats, but she's cut off again as Kaede makes a warding-off sign and the yet-to-be introduced young woman steps up beside her, hefting a giant boomerang.
"Kagome, get away from there," Lady Kaede demands, eyes narrowing and fierce, voice full of fear. "It is not safe. The demon Inuyasha- I have told you of him before! It is he who slew my sister, Kikyo, those many years ago!"
Kagome's insides turn to snow, but even that revelation isn't enough to move her from her friend's sides. Kaede visits once a year. Inuyasha has lived here with her for months. Kikyo's death is why Kaede insists on checking on Kagome once a year, but Kagome might not be here to check on at all if Inuyasha wasn't here as well. "You've never mentioned a name. Inuyasha is my friend."
"Inuyasha is a killer," the old woman insists. "Sango, be ready to fight him!"
The woman- Sango- is looking between them with a frown, holding her weapon, but not attacking. "Lady Kaede... I know what you have said, but truly, I do not think anyone here means us harm unless we harm them first."
"That's true enough," Miroku says levelly. "Do you mean us harm?"
"No." Sango slings her boomerang back over her back. "Lady Kaede had offered to introduce me to someone she thought might aid me. I'll not turn away more help than I've looked for."
"What makes you think we'll help you?" Inuyasha says, voice low and dangerous, undershot with a rumbling growl. "You've come here to threaten us."
"I would threaten only ye," Kaede says sharply. "Ye who did harm to mine first."
"I didn't kill Kikyo." His familiar low rumble is reassurance enough that Kagome takes a step back, farther from Kaede and Sango, closer to Inuyasha. "I don't know what you heard. But I didn't kill her."
"I heard it from Kikyo herself," Kaede retorts, but she's starting to look troubled. "That the wounds which killed her were sustained at your claws."
Inuyasha's snarl pitches sharply up again. "I never touched her!"
"She went to meet ye, and she returned with fatal wounds," Kaede insists, taking a step towards them that makes everyone tense.
"She came to meet me and she sold me," Inuyasha snarls, rough-edged and hurt, and Kagome grabs for his arm without thought. He lets her, and he lets Shippo leap to his shoulder, and he lets Miroku shift into place at his back. "Kikyo betrayed me!"
Events and timelines tumble and click into place in Kagome's mind.
Kaede's sister died years ago.
Kagome's hand tightens on Inuyasha's arm. "Lady Kaede, I appreciate your concern, as always, but if you're going to threaten my friends than I think you should leave."
Sango is studying them, her own posture far from threatening, and she sounds thoughtful when she says, "Lady Kaede told me you lived alone out here. How long have you all been together?"
Kagome appreciates that Sango could have phrased that far less tactfully and didn't, so she's polite, if careful with her own phrasing, when she says, "Shippo's been with me for years. Inuyasha and I have lived together for nearly a year now, and Miroku's lived with us for several months."
"That's quite a long time if he'd truly meant any harm," Sango says to Kaede, before turning back to their group. "I don't know what happened, but I choose to believe you."
Inuyasha relaxes minutely, but doesn't take his eyes off Kaede.
"At least let me leave ye with a subduing spell, child," Kaede pleads, reaching towards Kagome, and now Kagome's the one who tenses so hard that Inuyasha grabs her arm in turn. Miroku doesn't, but then Miroku doesn't make sudden movements when Inuyasha's upset. Knowing he won't hurt them doesn't mean they're going to deliberately do things they know will startle him.
"No," Kagome says harshly. They don't talk about her abilities as a miko, but Inuyasha at least must know she has them, or she never would have been able to free him in the first place. Miroku likely knows she has them, because that's the sort of thing Miroku always seems to simply know, and Shippo's known for years. "I don't need a subduing spell for my friends."
Kaede's hand drops with a sigh. "Be that as it may. I don't like to leave ye here unprotected."
"This is as far from unprotected as I've been in years," Kagome retorts wryly, spirits rising with Inuyasha's answering growl. "And Shippo and I can look after ourselves, besides."
Kaede frowns. "I've brought ye the usual trade goods..."
"We don't need them," Miroku puts in quietly, lowering his staff. "I won't lie to you, a few luxuries wouldn't go amiss, but we don't need them, and if the price is your slandering our friend then we must ask you to leave." Like Kagome, he's beginning to put more emphasis on the word 'friend' each time he says it.
"Lady Kaede, I honestly think you may be mistaken as to what happened," Sango says, picking up a pack from beside Kirara. "These are not the actions of a bloodthirsty demon. Please, think on what I told you earlier."
"On the rumors of a shapechanger?" Kaede asks reluctantly, and Inuyasha's other hand lashes out to grab Miroku before Kagome has registered that the monk has moved at all.
"A shapechanger?" Miroku demands, keeping carefully still in Inuyasha's hold, but his eyes intent on Sango. "I fought a shapechanging demon before coming here. Is he still in the area, then?"
"I think he's left," Sango says. "It's possible that he's still here in disguise somewhere, but I doubt it. It's more likely he's moved on now that he's caused his havoc."
"His havoc?" Miroku says, and only Inuyasha's grip on him prevents him moving forwards again. The four of them are becoming hopelessly entangled by now, so it's a good thing Sango's shown no inclination to attack.
"Yes," Sango says tersely, carefully putting distance between herself and Kaede without moving too far into their space instead. Kirara follows her. "I've been tracking Naraku for years, since he slew my family and left the blame to fall on me. He was first active in this area roughly at the same time as Kikyo's death. The timing fits." She glances back. "Lady Kaede. I thank you again for the offer of introduction, but if Kagome and her companions will allow me, I would like to stay here for a bit and compare notes."
"Will we?" Miroku asks, too low for anyone not standing with them to hear. A moment later he amends it to, "Can we?"
"Keep your mind out of the gutter, monk," Inuyasha mutters back, but he sighs and says, "I want to know what she can tell us, too."
"Shippo?" Kagome asks, and raises her voice again when the little fox nods. "You can stay. We can show you to Miroku's old campsite." She's not about to leave anyone alone with Kaede right now, and she's not the only one who's going to feel that way.
"If ye are certain," Kaede says at last, watching them.
"We are," Miroku affirms, crossing his arms once Inuyasha lets him go. "I am sorry about your sister. But if Inuyasha says he didn't do it, then he didn't do it. I believe him."
"I didn't," Inuyasha says under his breath, raw and ragged, and Kagome leans heavily into him for a moment before stepping away. Inuyasha matches her, step for slow step, as she approaches Sango.
When Kaede throws the prayer beads, foxfire knocks them aside. The beads clatter to the ground and Sango scoops them up with an unreadable glance at Kaede before offering them to Kagome.
"Not to use," she says swiftly as Kagome's expression darkens. "That you might have possession of them, and none else."
Lady Kaede sighs as Kagome reluctantly takes the prayers beads and tucks them away. "I've said what I felt was needed, child. It is clear that ye do trust him, so I must simply hope that trust is not misplaced."
"It isn't," Kagome says shortly, gathering in the others with a glance. "I trust everyone who lives here with my life."
"I as well," Miroku puts in, leaving the shelter of the trees to put himself between Kaede and Inuyasha. "You, I've never met before today. Inuyasha has saved my life more than once this past winter."
"Keh," Inuyasha mutters, but his ears have flicked upright at the praise and look to be staying that way.
Sango observes them curiously as she says, "I think it's fine if you go on your way, Lady Kaede. Kirara can take you. She can find her way back to me."
Once Kaede leaves much of the tension in the air starts to dissipate. Kagome finds herself anxiously touching the prayer beads she's tucked up her sleeves. She doesn't want them, but she wants to leave them where anyone else could find them even less.
Inuyasha's claws brush her wrist, gently, and he can't quite look at her as he says very quietly and very intently, "I trust you, too."
Kagome has to look away immediately, blinking back tears, because she still remembers Inuyasha hiding in the trees and only slinking into view when she was safely out of reach. She remembers how he'd flinched from every touch, no matter how slight, and how he'd communicated almost entirely in growls and snarls and glowers for weeks.
She remembers the first night he'd slunk into the hut with them, human and afraid, and every night since.
Inuyasha draws away again and Kagome speeds her steps to stay beside him.
Sango is more than satisfied with Miroku's old camp. She's also just as careful about not intruding on their odd balance as Miroku had been before becoming a part of it, so she waits there until Kirara returns and invites them to sit while she tells them what she knows of Naraku.
It's less than they'd like.
"I know he was active around here several years ago," Sango admits, poking at the revived fire- Miroku hasn't stayed here in long enough that they'd long since cleaned up the site. "That's part of why I came. When I arrived, there were rumors that made me think he'd been here recently, as well." She looks up, and then over at Miroku. "I was right, wasn't I?"
It's telling that even with a beautiful stranger joining them, Miroku's chosen to sit with Inuyasha and Kagome where Shippo scampers anxiously between them. The monk's grip on his staff has gone white-knuckled.
Not for the first time, Kagome wonders how, exactly, Miroku had gotten away from the marketplace to find them. It's true he hadn't been so injured as Inuyasha had been but the wounds he'd had, or at least the number of them, had hardly been insignificant- and he'd been wounded in spirit as well, much like the rest of them.
Really, it's remarkable they all managed to live long enough to meet each other.
"Yes," Miroku says at last, as Kagome shifts closer to him and Inuyasha glances over beneath his bangs, golden eyes shadowed. Miroku swallows. "I fought him, and it did not... go well, for either of us. I... ultimately found myself here. I've no idea what happened to him, after."
Sango's brows fly up. "You never went back to see?" She studies them more closely, then says haltingly, "Did all of you need healing so badly, then?"
Everyone tenses at that, and it's Shippo who hops forward and speaks up. "Yeah, they did." He looks around himself and sniffs imperiously. "I know none of you want to admit it, but you did. Even me an' Kagome needed it."
Miroku relaxes minutely. "I'm afraid Shippo may be right. Truly, I had not intended to stay," he gives Kagome and Inuyasha both an apologetic look, "But it was... easy, to grow attached. To stay where I might feel... wanted."
Sango's entire demeanor softens, and she leans back into Kirara as the firecat treads silently up behind her. "Ah. I admit I understand the appeal. Well, I'll try my best not to intrude, while I tell you what I know while I'm in the area. It sounds like you deserve to know."
In the end, Sango stays, as well. Like Miroku before her, she sets up at the old campsite, although Miroku hadn't had Kirara or the level of woods-knowledge that Sango can claim. Sango explains about her job as a youkai exterminator, and about how Naraku had come for her family.
"He tried to trick me, and he almost succeeded," she says grimly, as they spend the next morning stacking enough firewood outside to last them all the next few days. "He had me chasing ghosts and rumours before I knew that he was a shapechanger, or that the rumours were ones he spread himself." She pauses and frowns. "Now that I know more... I know that some of those rumours were actually of Inuyasha, and even of Miroku. He must know that you yet live, and he considers you a threat."
"Good," Inuyasha mutters, tossing what must be half a tree on top of the woodpile.
Sango hesitates as though she wants to say something more, but ultimately she and Kirara leave for the night without making any further comments.
It's very shortly Inuyasha's human night again and when they gather in the hut for the night Miroku insists on taking the hanyou's usual protective position nearest the door.
"I thought you liked Sango," Kagome says, amused despite herself.
"She is a woman of incomparable strength and beauty and she is to be admired," Miroku says firmly, kneeling and arranging his robes so that he can sit more comfortably. "She is also a demon slayer of incomparable skill, and a stranger. I would rather not hand her any knowledge she might use against us."
Inuyasha shifts irritably, biting at his lip as though already missing his fangs, and says nothing. Shippo darts around Miroku to fetch tea from Kagome for the hanyou.
"Well, this is our chance to talk about what she's told us," Kagome says as Inuyasha drains the cup and returns it to Shippo, who darts back to Kagome for a refill and then runs that to Miroku. Maybe they should have held out long enough to see if they could bargain a second cup from Kaede- or another knife, or any of the tools they share between them, because the hut was only ever stocked for one person. Miroku had brought a few things with him, like his knife and staff, but he'd been running away too. He hadn't exactly stopped beforehand to stock up.
Maybe. Kagome can't really regret not asking. They do well enough, and she's more concerned with their overall well-being than the state of their utensils.
Since Inuyasha can't sleep when he's human, the rest of them never do, either. One night of sleeplessness is a small price to pay for all of them to feel safe.
Shippo runs to Kagome last, then goes to Inuyasha and curls up in his lap. Inuyasha rolls his eyes but rests a hand lightly on the kit's tail all the same. His voice is gravelly but fully present when he says, "What about it, exactly? Miroku already fought him once and lost."
Miroku's weight shifts as though he's about to answer, but Inuyasha's gaze zeroes in on him and he stills.
"We'd prefer you didn't do it again, considering the shape you were in," Kagome tells him, sitting down herself and completing their rough circle. "At least, not alone."
Miroku's eyes jerk up to meet hers.
Inuyasha snorts. "I knew you wanted to go after him."
"And you don't?" Kagome challenges, pointedly.
Inuyasha looks away and resettles himself, hand moving from Shippo's tail to the kit's shoulder. Shippo glances between them all without speaking.
"He hurt you," Kagome says bleakly. "He hurt Sango, but more importantly to me, he hurt you. Most of my family is long gone, and I never knew the name of the demon that killed them." Though she has suspicions, now, if Naraku is a shapechanger who's made a point of destroying one miko already. She knows the attack on her family was meant to strike at her. She's always known that. "I can't do anything for them. I can go after Naraku and stop him hurting anyone else."
Miroku sighs and picks at the wrappings further down his wrist, keeping well away from the ones on his actual hand. "Kagome, he's very powerful. He can catch and hold me, and he was clever enough to get Inuyasha out of his way."
Kagome looks at Inuyasha, who's still glaring at the floor and no longer looks up to talking very much.
Naraku's shapeshifting would account for why Kikyo might think Inuyasha had tried to kill her. Kagome can accept that, even if she's not sure how anyone who knows Inuyasha could ever think he'd betray someone he cared about.
But the bindings on Inuyasha could only have been placed by a miko. And those powers, Naraku could not have faked.
Maybe Kikyo had never meant it to be lasting. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe she'd only done it in the heat of anger and later regretted it. They can't know now, and it doesn't change the outcome.
Kaede may think that Inuyasha betrayed her sister, but Inuyasha knows that Kikyo betrayed him.
Kagome touches the prayer beads tucked in her robes again. With a great deal of reluctance, she can see where Kaede was coming from with them- Inuyasha is genuinely dangerous, and Kaede doesn't know that he's not dangerous to them- but even if she'd found them necessary she can think of far less severe binding spells than those laid on the ropes and muzzle. Kagome has never been formally trained, yet she can see several different options Kikyo chose not to take. There are far less restrictive spells that she could have used if she had felt she had to use a spell.
More than any of that, she could have simply listened to Inuyasha. He isn't great at talking now, sure, and they have no real way of knowing if he was any better at it before- well, before, but from everything she does know or can extrapolate Kagome has her doubts that Kikyo had ever even given Inuyasha a chance to explain himself. Someone who would trap and sell him for revenge is not likely a paragon of patience.
Kagome frowns, chasing that thought. Kikyo was supposed to have been a paragon, a pillar of the community. It seems strange that she'd so immediately seek revenge.
"Inuyasha," she starts, pulling the prayer beads free, not considering it too closely in case she loses the thought. "Do these work differently, when you're human?"
"Don't," he says harshly, immediately, slashing one hand through the air in a gesture that's forgotten he doesn't have his claws. "Don't, Kagome. I know what you're thinking but she did it and you don't get to make excuses for her." Inuyasha's glare loses focus as he huddles deeper in on himself, letting Shippo curl closer when the kitsune follows his huddle. "She knew exactly what she was doing."
"But how could she," Kagome starts, hurting for him, wishing that she knew what to do, what to say. She truly isn't trying to excuse Kikyo- she's trying to make herself understand, because she can't. Half demon or not, whether he'll admit to it or not, Inuyasha is a good person. Kagome would never deny that he's violent, he is violent by nature, but he's no more or less prone to it than certain humans she's met. The men in the alleyway had been violent. She and Shippo are often violent; they've had to be, to defend their woods. Even Miroku, though peaceful compared to the rest of them, turns easily to attack in defense of their sanctuary. Half demon or all human makes no difference to their reactions. "How could-"
"Because she thought she had the right," Inuyasha snarls back before Kagome can complete her sentence, his head jerking up again, eyes wide and wild and gone even darker with old pain. "Because I'm not human. Because I'm dangerous, and no one would ever question it. Because- and no one else was even surprised, they just wanted to know why she didn't do it sooner-" He snarls again and jerks away, flipping to curl around Shippo with his back to them, the line of his spine gone rigid.
Kagome aches, watching the way he makes himself small, the way he makes himself less of a target. The way he shields Shippo, still, even when he's hurting and human himself. "Inuyasha, no one has that right."
"No?" Inuyasha twists his head back again just long enough to nod jerkily at the prayer beads still in her hands. "That old hag thinks that you do!"
"But I don't," Kagome says firmly, tucking the beads away again. Inuyasha's upset, sure, and understandably so, but if he really thought he was in danger he wouldn't be inside with them. "No one does. I'll get rid of them as soon as we can do it safely, but I don't want to leave them where someone else can get at them, either." She tries her hardest to gentle her voice. It's difficult, when she still feels anger surging at Kaede's long-dead sister. Maybe Kagome herself was less violent than this, before. She's been living wild in the woods too long to be otherwise, now. "I don't want anyone to use them to hurt you."
Inuyasha scoffs and doesn't reply, settling more firmly in for the night.
Kagome looks over at Miroku, who's kept his silence during all of this, and the monk can only shrug at her unhappily.
"I can't say for sure that I would be willing to trust again, had someone betrayed me like that," Miroku says quietly, both of them all too aware that Inuyasha is still wide awake and listening, that he must be. "Much less someone with the same abilities."
Kagome sighs. "I doubt that I could, either. It's late, and I don't want to leave the hut again until it's light out. Let's- let's break the beads in the morning."
She doesn't think she imagines the twitch Inuyasha gives at that. She wishes they could make him believe it, that they would never mean him harm, but he's always been too deeply wounded to ever heal entirely. She knows that. He's not even the only one of them wounded, just the worst. She knows that too.
But he did say that he trusts her (and she still can't quite believe that he admitted that out loud). She won't give him reason to revoke that trust.
Sango gives them more space than Miroku had, in the beginning. Sango stays away until late morning at the earliest, and hunts with Kirara, and keeps to herself. Miroku hadn't done that. Miroku had seemed irrevocably drawn back to their fire, again and again, a moth with wings already singed returning helplessly to their flames. Even when they'd growled and threatened him off on bad days he'd hung around the ragged edges of their camp, helped with their chores without being asked, taught himself to read their habits and body language. He'd crept into their lives in a way that Sango just doesn't.
Miroku had been lonely. Kagome hadn't recognised it, because she'd been so lonely for so long, herself. Shippo hadn't recognised it, because he's used to living in relative solitude- he'd been out here with only his parents before her, after all. Inuyasha hadn't recognised it, because he hadn't been willing even to come close enough to see it, at the beginning, and he can't read people, besides. Sango has Kirara, and was among friendly people far more recently than any of the rest of them; she'll never need them quite so badly as they needed each other. As they still, to an extent, need each other.
"I'd understand, I think, if you four wanted to stay out here and be left alone for the rest of your lives. I think you've earned it," Sango says one afternoon, watching Kagome try to burn the prayer beads. Neither Inuyasha's nor Shippo's claws have scratched them, Miroku's staff hasn't made a dent, and they don't know what sucking the empowered beads into the wind tunnel might do to Miroku. Right now Inuyasha has taken Shippo hunting, and Kirara's gone with them, so that none of the demons are in range if the beads do decide to fight back somehow. Miroku's gone to follow them, as he sometimes does. Kagome has never been quite sure why, but Miroku does fight closer to the hanyou and kitsune than he does to her, so she's accepted that he prefers to hunt with them.
Kagome shrugs, poking at the beads with a branch. They aren't burning now any more than they'd broken before, but she remains hopeful that this might be what finally destroys them. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't sound appealing. But it's not really living." She'd thought it was, before this year. Now, seeing the changes in the others has made her aware of the changes in herself. Kagome had exiled herself out here willingly, to draw danger away from her remaining family, but in the process she'd quite by accident drawn herself a new family altogether.
The hut in the woods has been her home, but Kagome's not truly made to be a hermit. She never was. The years out here have been a kind of holding pattern. She hadn't even succeeded at her self-imposed hermitage- she had taken in Shippo without a thought, she'd been so relieved when Inuyasha had stayed. She may have been uncertain about Miroku at first but now she can hardly remember what it was like without him. She can't think about the way they almost hadn't let him in without breaking out in a cold sweat. Miroku is a part of her, like Shippo is a part of her, like Inuyasha and herself have become parts of each other, all unlooked for.
"Kagome," Sango begins uncertainly. "Forgive me, but... why are you all out here?"
Kagome shrugs and sits back on her heels, watching as the beads begin to char at last. "Healing, I think, just like you thought at first. We were all lost and injured. We needed each other." She gestures around, at the clearing, at the hut. "We needed this."
"And are you done, healing?" Sango asks slowly as the first bead cracks under the heat.
Kagome knows that her answering smile isn't exactly happy. It probably isn't exactly human. "I don't think we'll ever be done healing. But we're getting better, and that's more than we could have hoped for." Another bead cracks, and another. The halves fall into the glowing embers like cracked nuts, sending up sparks and ash.
"I see." Sango leans back and rests one hand on her boomerang. "I'm like that too, I think, a little bit. My family is gone, and I want my revenge... but I also know that they would want me to live. Some days I have to keep telling myself that."
Kagome also knows the sidelong glance she gives Sango is more warm and amused than her comment warrants. "Is that why you didn't listen to Lady Kaede?"
"None of you struck me as malicious." Sango shrugs. "Not even Inuyasha. Instead, you all looked like you'd lost something important to you, and I... I know what that's like." Her smile softens. "I suppose I was jealous. You also looked like you'd found it again."
Kagome snorts. "You were jealous of us? I think you might need to sort out your priorities."
"Of you," Sango agrees, not at all phased. "It's nice out here. Simple. Peaceful. And you do have each other."
"It's not really peaceful," Kagome says, shaking her head. "The barrier woods protect us from humans with real malice, but they're not reliable against demons. We've fought off a lot of them." But they do have each other. That part, she isn't about to argue with.
"Which is probably why it does feel peaceful. You've fought for it." Sango closes her eyes and the wind picks at her hair. "On a different topic, however... I would like to know... however do you keep Miroku away when you're bathing?" She frowns with her eyes still shut. "More than once I've caught him following after me. I don't think he does that to you."
"Inuyasha tends to guard me," Kagome says wryly. "Miroku may be a bit of a pervert, but he does have a sense of self-preservation. One time was enough for him to learn."
"Ah," Sango says, clearly amused. "Well. Do you have any advice for me? Normally, I'd just thump him over the head, but... well, Inuyasha is very protective of your monk, as well."
"Miroku isn't ours," Kagome says, more harshly than she means to. She knows Sango didn't mean it how it sounded but it's a touchy subject. It always will be.
Sango flushes. "Forgive me, that isn't how I meant it. But... surely you're aware you're all... rather possessive of each other." She hesitates a moment, then ventures cautiously, "If it won't offend you to ask, what exactly is your relation to each other?"
"Friends," Kagome says firmly, though she she can feel an answering blush rising in her face. "We're all very close friends. And... I suppose Shippo is mine and Inuyasha's, now, though that's more an accident of circumstance than anything."
Sango nods understanding, then says knowingly, "Very close friends, who share a hut with you, and raise a kit with you."
"You know, Inuyasha is half demon," Kagome says, suddenly desperate to change the subject, although from Sango's raised eyebrow she's far from succeeding. "He understands the value of an occasional good, corrective thump on the head. So long as you're not trying to actually harm Miroku, Inuyasha won't feel like he needs to intervene."
"I see," Sango says, and she doesn't ask about their relationships after that. She does thump Miroku a few times, but she never truly hurts him. (If she had she'd be risking not just Inuyasha's wrath, but Kagome and Shippo's as well, and Kagome thinks she knows it. Because he may not be theirs in the sense that conversations about their pasts dance around, but- Sango's not wrong, either. He is theirs. Like she's Inuyasha's, and Shippo's hers; they belong with each other and not to, but they do belong).
Kagome keeps expecting Sango to invite herself into their clearing or their hut the way Inuyasha and Miroku had, but she doesn't. The slayer seems perfectly content to stay with Kirara at Miroku's old camp. She'll fight demons with them and even hunt with them, but she lives and eats and sleeps separately.
It's only now, with Sango's example, that Kagome realises just how far from normal the rest of them have strayed. (And Sango, too, is a survivor, and has attitudes and reactions that others might not- but she's adjusted better than they have).
Although they no longer flinch from each other, they still do flinch from Sango, and none of them can quite work out what an acceptable level of personal space is supposed to be anymore- they're too used to each other, and not one of them has the kind of body language that can be applied to someone outside their own little circle. They know when to give Inuyasha space, or when Miroku needs someone to come sit next to him for a while, or when Shippo needs to be held; they have no earthly idea what to do with Sango.
Because they do talk now, Kagome had assumed they were capable of holding conversations with others. They aren't. They lapse into odd silences, and even she and Miroku have picked up a tendency to snarl and growl and show teeth when they're not feeling up to words, a habit that Miroku at least had been wholly unaware of developing. (Kagome hadn't known, but she also isn't surprised). They struggle to talk to Sango- all of them do, not just Inuyasha. If anyone is halfway decent at holding his end of a conversation, it's actually Shippo and not any of the adults.
They really need to get out of the woods and to be around other people again, but Kagome's not even sure that she's ready for that, much less that Inuyasha is, and it's impossible to know how Shippo would take to strangers. She's raised the kit for years now and he's hardly strayed from their woods in all that time. Until Inuyasha came the little kitsune didn't even spend this much time with her.
It's a little easier for Miroku. He hasn't been as alone for as long and he takes to Sango immediately, but he still finds himself retreating from conversations and still spends his nights curled up in the hut with the rest of them, and he seems oddly defeated over it- Kagome thinks she's not the only to find she'd been adjusting worse than she'd realised.
"You know," Kagome says, very late one night. It's been a bad day. No one is asleep, except for Shippo, who's chosen to bed down between Kagome and Inuyasha this time. They're more in each other's space than they'd like to be right now as a result. Still, no one wants to wake the kit, so they're trying not to let it get to them. "Miroku, if you wanted to spend more time with Sango, that'd be perfectly fine."
"Is this, perhaps, your not-too-subtle way of asking me for privacy?" Miroku asks brightly, but he doesn't meet her eyes as he says it, and his face is flushed.
Inuyasha's voice has been rustier than usual all day, but he snorts and says, "In your dreams, monk."
(In Kagome's dreams, too, a little, but she's going to keep that information to herself, possibly forever).
"We know you like her," Inuyasha continues hoarsely, leaning back against the wall as much as he can without disturbing Shippo, his trailing sleeves just brushing Kagome's knee. "We can tell."
"She is a very wonderful woman," Miroku begins, oddly hesitant. "But I have nothing to offer her."
"Oh, Miroku," Kagome says softly, aching. Miroku's such a valuable part of their strange little family unit that she'd never have thought he'd think that way. "You're you. That's plenty."
"Keh." Inuyasha crosses his arms, carefully. "Besides, you can hunt and heal, right? That should be enough for her."
"There's something screwy in your logic, I just know it," Miroku tells him, but he's already starting to smile again. "But all right. If both my dearest friends think I should, I'm obliged to at least try."
Try he does. Kagome's not as good at reading people as she'd believed she was, back before when the only people she was reading were her friends, but she thinks that Sango likes the monk, too. The slayer is always welcoming, always eager to spend time with him, and even though they've given their blessings (and isn't that a strange thought) Inuyasha and Kagome both sneak close to check on him enough times to know that Miroku is thoroughly enjoying the attention.
None of them will ever be entirely who they were before, not even Sango, but as they get to know her and work with her they begin to reach the end of their time healing here. Sango has a great deal of respect and deference for the life they've built, but she's also driven and determined to hunt down Naraku, and the more they get to know her the more they all want to join her- and not only for her sake.
There is, after all, still that minor detail that they're all quite sure that Naraku had a hand in each of their personal tragedies. The only one whose life he didn't lay waste to is Shippo, and Kagome and Inuyasha have long since begun making plans to hunt down the Thunder Brothers, and Miroku isn't likely to let them do that alone, and Sango and Kirara are becoming insistent about staying with them.
"I'm good at what I do," she says, nights before they leave. "I'm one of the best. But my father was the best slayer I knew, and Naraku's trap killed him. I'd be a fool if I didn't ask you to ally with me."
They aren't often able to stay in towns- no one's tattered nerves are up to that, nor are they likely to be any time soon. It will be years before Kagome's truly comfortable around so many other people, and Inuyasha isn't likely to be able to be among a larger group than theirs ever again. For that matter, and somewhat surprisingly, Miroku, too, handles large groups poorly. They all have the sense that- wasn't true, before. Small groups he can still do- small groups they find, when they do start to travel. Miroku's not above swindling a place to stay and the rest of them aren't terribly inclined to stop him, not if it means somewhere to rest in relative safety.
They can't talk to people. Or, well, Sango can, and Miroku starts out decent at it and rapidly improves by leaps and bounds, back to what's probably his previous standards; but Inuyasha can't, and Shippo doesn't want to, and Kagome quickly discovers that her own terrible tendencies to growl at people and to retreat from conversations that aren't going her way show no sign of abating. Even before this past winter, she'd had years of solitude, and it shows. She can't even say for sure if she picked up the growling from Inuyasha or if she'd already had it from Shippo, before.
The worst of it is that Kagome learns that they all like people. Even Inuyasha likes people. They can't be around them, or most of them can't, but if circumstances were different then they would want to. As it is now- people frequently don't like them, at least not at first. All Miroku's charm and swindling is sometimes not enough for strangers to allow them inside. Kagome and the demons like to sleep out in the woods and fields still, but she thinks Miroku and Sango might like a few more chances at sleeping in a village than they actually get.
A few times the two of them do stay in a village while the demons (and Kagome, whose body language no longer reads quite right to most humans, and who's mistaken for a kitsune more than once) stay out in the woods. It's difficult. Inuyasha worries about their companions all through the night, and Kagome can't sleep, and by the dark circles under their eyes when they rejoin each other in the morning Miroku and Sango have a hard time of it as well. Gradually they stop even making the attempt. Either they all secure a safe place to sleep, or none of them do.
They can hunt. They can help people. They can slay demons, easily, all of them, and working together means that they do so on a regular basis, and they slowly start to gain a reputation. People come looking for them, now, or at least for Sango, who takes up handling interpersonal negotiations for the rest of them without being asked. When he's a little less wary of strangers, Miroku joins her.
Kagome- doesn't. It's more important to her to hang back with Inuyasha and Shippo and make sure they're okay. If they're also making sure she's okay, well, they have been with her the longest. It's only fair. She'd expected to be with Miroku and Sango, to be happy to be among humans again, but she isn't, and she finds that that's all right. Maybe she would have been more outgoing than this, once. Maybe, if she'd spent more time with her human family and less in the forest with her demons, she'd be just as good at talking strangers out of information and into confidence as Miroku is proving to be.
But she wouldn't have found Shippo's den, and she wouldn't have been in that alleyway, and Miroku would have stumbled on only an empty hut, and though her first family is the same old ache as always Kagome doesn't regret the life she's lived.
People sometimes mistake Inuyasha for hers, and it never fails to wake a slow rage beneath her breast, and after the fifth time she goes off on a villager and Sango drags her away she almost regrets her explosive reactions but- that's the first time that she sees Inuyasha's face after she rages. He's staring at her, his eyes huge and his ears flat back, and even though it's the fifth time and not the first he looks- surprised, still, but relieved and glad as well.
One day someone mistakes Kagome as Inuyasha's. He snarls and threatens and shows claws back, but Kagome, standing in quiet shock beside him, tries in vain to keep her gaze from unfocusing on the middle distance as she realises that- well, that she doesn't much mind, if they think she's his.
She doesn't tell him that. She can't, the words have too many negative connotations for all of them. They have too many negative connotations even for her and even though she's realising she doesn't mind the feeling she's not certain that she likes it.
But she likes Inuyasha. She's pretty certain by now that she loves Inuyasha. And, though he may never be able to say it, she thinks he loves her back, too. (And anyway, she's not sure that she can say it, either). They've kind of gone about everything backwards- raising a kit together in the woods isn't usually a jumping-off point for a relationship, and adopting a monk into their odd little family is in no one's plans, and it's become clear that Sango and Kirara are going exactly nowhere. They could slay Naraku tomorrow, but Sango isn't going to leave Miroku any time soon, and Miroku isn't going to leave them, and they're the closest thing Shippo has to parents, and. Well. They've all become rather hopelessly entangled.
Even Lady Kaede sees it, when their hunt takes them through her village. They camp at the outskirts, as they nearly always do, and as Lady Kaede lives nearest those outskirts she's the one who comes to investigate the campfire.
"Sango," she says, unscarred eye wide, when she comes upon the outskirts of camp and six pairs of eyes look up at once. Inuyasha and Kagome are sitting with Shippo, and Miroku and Sango with Kirara, and because even Inuyasha has finally stopped spooking at unexpected noises no one had shown concern at her approach. "Kagome, Inuyasha. Miroku."
"Shippo," the kit chimes in, tail flicking over Kagome's lap with irritation at being left out. "Kirara. Kaede. Are we done?"
Kaede shakes her head, slowly, and sinks down onto the far side of the fire. "I knew that there were rumours... that someone has been following Naraku's trail of horror. When the old abode had been abandoned... I'd feared the worst had befallen ye."
Inuyasha snorts loudly before tearing at his food with his fangs. Through a mouthful of rabbit, he says, "Keh. Like I'd have let that happen."
"We've merely relocated for a time," Miroku assures her, although his posture remains wary. No one has forgotten the subduing spell, and Miroku, as their trained monk, has the best odds of deflecting one.
As it turns out they don't need to worry. Kaede hadn't known who it was she sought, but she had been looking for the people out to defeat Naraku, and she's brought them information. She tells them of the human thief Onigumo, and of his infatuation for and then his vendetta against Kikyo, and although she doesn't come right out and tell Inuyasha that she's sorry an apology bleeds from her words all the same.
Kagome leans into Inuyasha as his frame goes still and Shippo climbs onto his shoulder. She's always known that he didn't do it, but that's still not the same as knowing that he'd done nothing wrong and suffered the punishment all the same.
Kagome doesn't share in Kikyo's prejudices but she can admit that's an accident of fate. Demons had killed her family, and she might have hated them all, but then she'd found herself half-raising a kitsune cub in a barrier forest that had no problem barring evil humans but operated differently for demons. It kept out murderous humans, but let in hunting demons, because hunting demons aren't usually outright malicious any more than a hungry wolf pack or a wintering bear is malicious. Even with that object lesson, it might have been easy for Kagome to hate demons after she'd lost nearly everyone.
But after she'd lost nearly everyone, she'd found Shippo, or he'd found her. By the time she'd found Inuyasha and he'd followed her home Kagome hadn't thought of youkai very differently than she did humans. Shippo played more tricks on her than Souta ever had and he hunted better than Souta ever could, but for all that he was still a child that she cared for, and that was more important than teeth or tail or claws. They'd fought and bled for each other and Kagome knows that means almost as much to humans as it does to demons, whether or not most will admit it.
Once Kaede's finished her explanation and before she leaves them for the night she asks to talk to Kagome alone. Warily, Kagome agrees- but only because she knows Inuyasha is going to follow her anyway.
As it turns out she doesn't need to worry. With a shrewd glance back at the others, Kaede stops well within even human earshot, which is good, because if she stops to think about it Kagome's not actually sure that Miroku wouldn't follow them too.
"Ye are thriving, child," is the first thing Kaede says, low and warm. "I had worried so, when I first came upon ye living in the forest- and I'd worried yet more, over the next few years, even after ye took in young Shippo. It worried me perhaps the most when I found ye had somehow crossed paths with Inuyasha but ye are clearly good for each other. Kagome- I am not certain whether ye knew, but ye'd gone a bit- well, wild, living out in the barrier woods. That might be well for a pack of demons, but it's no place for a lone human." She pauses then, gazing over Kagome's shoulder back at her companions, who aren't even trying to look as though they aren't eavesdropping. "Of course, I had never thought that a human might solve such a problem by forming their own pack."
"A... pack," Kagome repeats, blinking at her, trying it out. She knows the word, of course, but she'd never have thought to apply it to themselves. She's come to think of the six of them as a sort of family, but always with some reluctance. To Kagome, who lost nearly all her original family, the word means something very specific- and she's not the only one with a similar history. No matter how close they are calling each other family feels too much like an insult to their memories of their first families. And even if it hadn't- Souta is still alive. Kagome hasn't seen him in years, and she's certainly not going anywhere near him when there's a demon after them all, and she knows that he thinks she's dead because she let him think that all those years ago and she's never come back to tell him that she live; but if they kill Naraku she does want to go and find her little brother and introduce him to her friends. She wants him to meet Shippo, the kit she'd never planned for; she wants to brag about Inuyasha to him. She wants him to know Miroku, and Sango, and Kirara. She wants him to know what youkai and hanyou are really like.
Souta might hate demons, the way she can't. Kagome's never gone back. She doesn't know. If he does- she owes him the knowledge that she's alive. But they were both children, when she left. She doesn't owe him the life she lives. If he won't accept Inuyasha and the others- maybe it makes her a terrible person, but if he won't accept them, Kagome will leave again. Not for anything will Kagome give up a single one of her friends.
She's raised Shippo. She didn't raise Souta. That's her fault, but it's also the truth.
Pack. Kagome tries the word out again in her head. She likes it.
"Kagome," Lady Kaede is saying, troubled now, and it drags back her attention. "Ye should know, that even if ye do not, Inuyasha will want to form a pack. His demon half is canine. It will be his instinct."
For once, Kagome's well aware that the slow smile she gives the older miko has more of a demon's influence in it than a human's. She doesn't smile so much as she bares her teeth and watches Kaede take a startled half-step back before catching herself.
Kagome doesn't say anything, but then she doesn't have to. Her own instincts weren't shaped among humans. They were shaped hunting alongside demons deep in the woods and the winter. They've been a pack for months; they only lacked the name for it.
Her messages delivered, Kaede leaves them well alone whenever they camp near her village.
Defeating Naraku won't be a short term project. It's not long before they know they might be years at this, and they do agree to years at it, to years with each other, even though the agreement might as well be a formality. They winter in the woods, still, though they never stay as long again, and they sleep in the hut when their search takes them back through the area. The locals have started calling the barrier woods Inuyasha's Forest.
"I mean, if it's anyone's forest it's Kagome's," Miroku says, bemused.
Shippo shrugs. "Sure, but Kagome's scary."
Kagome sighs as Inuyasha actually snickers outright.
Now the hut's grown crowded. It's a good thing Inuyasha can bear them coming close now, because with everyone squeezing into the tiny building together they're often half on top of each other. Shippo loves it. It has all the closeness of his old dens and all the comforting warmth of his pack.
Defeating Naraku is likely to take years, but they have each other. They're content to spend years together.
They don't do anything so solid as make plans, not when the making of them feels so much like tempting fate, but there's a general agreement that once everything is over- once everything is over, well, they won't be leaving each other's sides. They return to the forest again and again, after all, and now the hut is truly crowded, but the six of them together find it- not easy, as nothing in their lives is easy, but they find it possible to expand the hut. To build an actual woodshed, and soon another hut, although most nights they continue to prefer to stay together- but soon they have a circle of structures around the firepit, a path to the well and to the stream, a new den for Shippo, a storehouse. It becomes- not civilised, because they aren't civilised, anymore. Half of them haven't been in all their lives.
But it's a home. It's a place to return to.
It will still be years yet, but it's a place they will return to. All of them, together.