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there's no place (for us/like home)

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The strange snarling noise turns her feet towards the alleys, even though she knows better, she's known better for years. It's not her fight, it's not her concern, and still she hears them before she sees them as she steals down the adjacent alley anyway, listening hard.

"Filthy half-breed," is followed by a pause and a laugh. "What, nothing to say for yourself?"

The snarling grows louder, wilder.

Kagome starts to run.

"That's right, growl like the miserable dog you are," a different voice says, followed by a softer noise, the too-familiar noise of flesh hitting flesh, followed by a pained grunt. "You'll die like a dog as well."

Kagome forces herself to stop and look around the corner before rushing in- she learned that lesson long ago.

But right now there's one man on his knees, arms twisted awkwardly behind his back, snarling and shaking his head as though he can get the strange mask on his face off if he just shakes hard enough. He's kneeling in his own blood and surrounded by at least six other men who are all on their feet, and Kagome draws her bow and unlearns that lesson in a hurry.

Her first shot takes down the ringleader. Her second cracks the stranger's mask, but isn't enough to break it off, and now they know she's here so she takes aim at one of the men holding him in place. That one drops as well. As she's felling a third, the man on his knees succeeds at tearing free entirely and springs upright, taking a vicious swipe at his closest attacker before backing away, nearly falling as he puts weight on his right leg. Odd red ropes dangle in shreds from both his wrists, tied tightly enough to draw blood. He's favoring his right side and the snarling is growing louder again.

Kagome's been shooting to disable, not to kill, but the look in the stranger's eyes makes her pause. It's wild and furious and hurt. It's not fear that gleams in them- it's anger and humiliation.

The strangeness of the mask resolves as she looks at him. It's not a mask at all; he's been muzzled, and the dog ears that flicker upright from where they'd been pinned back hint immediately as to why might be.

Kagome narrows her eyes and shoots another of his attackers through the knee. She means it to be painful, to be permanent; she means for it to heal badly, if it heals at all. She means for the man to never be able to do anything like this ever again.

Kagome's grown a little more violent than she used to be, after living so long with demons in the woods.

Demons aren't quite as rare in the area as they once were, but they're unusual enough that Kagome's distantly surprised to see a dog demon here at all. The only local demon she knows of is Shippo and he lives out by the well with her, far from the populated part of the forest, and Shippo doesn't come with her when she stops for supplies.

They live that far out in the forest for a reason.

There's only one enemy left and the dog demon takes another snarling swipe at him as he tries to close in. Kagome can't get the clear shot she wants, but she fires at the attacker's heels and forces him back, and the strange demon blurs past their bolting enemies to glare at her.

She looks to his wrists instead- the red ropes are glowing. When she looks with more than just her eyes, she can sense that they're spelled to weaken him and keep him subdued, and to keep him from getting them off. Whoever laid the spell meant it to last- it's strong enough that it's remarkable he was able to tear them at all.

"Let's get out of here, and get all of that off of you," she says.

He growls at her and flings a hand up towards his face. The muzzle crackles with pink energy, forcing his hand away before he can tear it off, and he shudders as a second bolt from the rope on his wrists rips through him, stiffening a moment later as though not wanting to let her see that it hurt him. 

Careful to telegraph her movements, Kagome grabs his wrist and pulls him after her as she turns, trying to yank the rope off as they go. It comes free, but not without a lot of reluctance and a few more brief sparks that make both of them flinch. Blood streaks both their hands now.

"We'll get it off," she repeats, pulling him down another alleyway and into a stumbling run as she claws his other wrist free. The ropes fight her; they don't want to come free, but Kagome is a brand of stubborn that only living alone in demon-inhabitated woods with a fox kit can cause. She is getting them off. "We'll get all of it off, but we need to get away from here as fast as we can."

The demon growls at her again, but he does follow. She's not entirely sure he can make sounds beyond snarling and growling with that muzzle on so she isn't going to take that too personally.

They run for hours. Kagome knows her destination, so she's able to keep to an easy lope that lets them keep speed without tiring too quickly, and she suspects the pace is easier on her injured stranger.  They're well into the trees but not even halfway to her destination when she feels safe enough to stop. If they were pursued at all, she won't have been followed this far past the boundaries- the forest is strangely lenient with demons, but still particular about who it lets in.

She doesn't need to convince it to let the dog demon in. She'd needed to argue with it for herself initially, and even for it to let Shippo stay with her, but this demon, remarkably, it immediately likes.

Kagome stops running and the demon skids to a stop, ears flicking wildly as he whips around to glare down their backtrail.

"We weren't followed," she says, catching her breath and stepping forward, only to freeze when he whirls back to her with his claws aimed to strike, eyes still wild and frantic. He's still growling.  She's not sure he ever stopped.

"We weren't followed," she repeats firmly. "They can't get into the forest- it's picky." She reaches forward, but stops when his ears pin back and his pupils narrow. She holds up her empty hands, her bow already slung over her shoulder from the run. "I just want to get this thing off of you. Like I did with the ropes."

The growl dies down, though it doesn't subside entirely, and his eyes are still wary. He does incline his head towards her, very slightly.

Kagome wants to reach over and wrench the damned thing off, but she doesn't know how it's fastened and she doesn't want to hurt him.  He clearly feels threatened enough. She doesn't think he'll like anyone at his back any more than she would, so she slowly steps as far into his personal space as she dares and reaches up to feel for where the muzzle is fastened. It leaves her closer to him than is comfortable for either of them but that's unavoidable, and it's still better than stepping into his blind spot.

The stranger startles slightly but doesn't move back, expression unhappy and slightly confused.  He has the most expressive eyes she's ever seen. His ears, pinned back now, also make it easy to read what he's feeling.

Unfortunately it looks like what he's feeling is mostly cornered and unhappy.

Kagome frowns as she feels for a catch or a latch, surprisingly silky hair slipping through her fingers as she searches. The muzzle is knotted up so thoroughly behind his head that large chunks of his hair are caught in it. Finally she finds an end and starts to tug it free.

The demon makes the first noise she's heard from him that isn't a snarl or a growl, but it's a low noise of pain and that's not better. She preferred the growling.

"Almost got it," she says intently, tugging loose strap after strap. There are fastenings but whoever put it on hadn't bothered with them, opting instead to tie it into a tangled mess that makes it difficult not to yank at his hair by accident.

"Kagome!" a voice shouts, startling them both. The demon tries to leap away and Kagome tries to freeze at the same time, but with her hands still behind his head it only results in the both of them toppling into a tree.  The demon catches himself with claws embedded in the bark, steadying her for a moment with his free hand before dropping it as if scalded.

"Kagome!" Shippo shouts again, barrelling through the trees and leaping to her shoulder, then to a branch so that she can see him. He glares distrustfully at the strange demon and demands, "What are you doing with him? Who is he? What's that stupid thing on his face?" He sniffs, and a strange look settles on his features, one she hasn't seen in years. The kitsune turns his back on the demon and sniffs again, this time with disdain. "You shouldn't bother with him, Kagome. He's only half a demon."

"Shippo, don't be rude," she scolds the kit, finally locating the last knot and working it free as quickly as she dares. "I don't care what he is, he needs help." She'd be lying if she said she wasn't intrigued, though.  Demons in the area are rare enough; hanyou are unheard of.

Kagome supposes she should be afraid, but she should have been scared of Shippo too, and it's not like anything she'd known about kitsune had turned out to be true.

As soon as the muzzle comes free the half-demon bats it away with a snarl, despite the burst of energy that burns at his hand, and he stumbles back to glare at them both, bristling as he spits, "I don't need- I don't need help!"

"He's rude," Shippo informs her haughtily.

"Shippo," Kagome says mildly. The kitsune subsides in an instant, grumbling. She turns back to the stranger.  "Okay, so you don't need help. I have food and medicine, though, if you'd like to share those."

He's still glaring, distrust written all over his face, but his ears do twitch towards them at the mention of food. He'd backed away to crouch against a tree, but he straightens slightly now. His voice is rough with pain or disuse or both. "What's... the catch?"

Kagome shrugs. "I'd like to know your name?"

"Why should I... tell you?" He hasn't stopped glaring at them, but one hand's snapped out to latch claws into the tree and she's starting to suspect it's most of what's keeping him upright.

"Fine, don't," Kagome retorts, exasperated.  Injured or not the man is quickly getting on her nerves. She can't entirely blame him, but she's also under no obligation to put up with it. "I'm Kagome, and this is Shippo. We're going home so you can do whatever you'd like from here."

"Kagome, I don't want him to follow me home," Shippo protests immediately, jumping from his branch to her shoulder.

The half-demon flinches at the sudden movement or at Shippo's words or possibly at both.

"You stay with me most of the time anyway," Kagome tells Shippo dryly, before turning to leave.

"Wait!"

She glances over her shoulder in time to see the stranger lurch away from the tree, pressing a hand to his right side with a grimace. "What is it?"

Now that he has her attention again, he seems lost for what to do with it. He stares at her long enough that it's clear he hadn't thought of what to say if she answered him.

Kagome swallows- he is surprised she'd answered him. From his expression, he didn't expect her to.

"Inuyasha," he says suddenly, his rough voice almost too loud in the silence between them. He looks away from her and huffs as he says, "My name, it's Inuyasha."

Imaginative, Kagome almost says, but she stops herself in time.  She hears Shippo draw in breath like he's about to comment, but he stops when she reaches up to touch his tail. "Nice to meet you, Inuyasha.  It's going to be dark soon, so I really do need to get home." She brushes her hand down Shippo's tail as she turns to address the kit, giving the hanyou privacy. "Are you staying tonight, Shippo?"

"Yes, you've been gone for days, Kagome," Shippo says reproachfully, leaning into her shoulder for balance as they move off through the trees. "Did you bring me anything?"

"Oh- of course I did," Kagome smiles and fishes in her pack, retrieving a ball to hand to her friend. "You lost your old one, right?"

"Yeah!" Shippo tosses it once and catches it with delight. "Thank you!" Tiny feet press down on her shoulder as he leans in and says eagerly, "Did you get me anything else?"

A grouchy hanyou, Kagome thinks wryly, listening to Inuyasha crash along somewhere behind them. Uninjured, he's probably graceful. Right now he's very much not. His low cursing doesn't sound all that different from the growling before. It might still be growling. "Not much, Shippo. What about you, have you been hunting?"

He puffs up proudly.  "Yeah! I got lots of rabbits Kagome, lots and lots of them, and some squirrels, too!"

"Good job Shippo!" she praises him, even though she's wincing a little internally. She's glad to hear about the rabbits, but the local squirrels tend to be a lot of work for not much actual meat.

Inuyasha's stopped cursing.  She thinks he's probably too busy with listening to them (and, if his attitude before had been any indication, with staying on his feet).

She can't blame him, really. She and Shippo are- odd.  Humans don't typically live out in the forest like this, not when- at least in a more usual forest- rogue demons attack near constantly. Most demons, even young ones like Shippo, don't typically live with humans.  They definitely don't hunt with or for them.

But then, Shippo did say that Inuyasha's a half-demon.  The concept can't be that strange to him.

Shippo gets grumpier and grumpier as they come closer to the hut and it becomes clearer and clearer that Inuyasha isn't leaving.  He follows them the whole way, although he doesn't say anything to them, and every time she tries to sneak a glance at him he refuses to look at her.

He's limping a lot worse by the time they reach her home.

It isn't much, just a one-room hut and a clearing with a fire pit that she shares with Shippo, but it's hers. She can come and go as she pleases while keeping her home isolated and safe.  Until now, only Shippo and Kaede have known where she lives. Not even Souta knows how to find this place.

Of course, Souta would never know to look, but that's not something Kagome thinks about.

Kagome continues into the clearing with Shippo, dropping her pack besides the fire pit as the kit jumps down and races to leap onto a log.  Inuyasha's stopped at the edge of the clearing under the trees and she studiously doesn't pay any attention to him. She doesn't want to scare him off.

"Where are the rabbits, Shippo?" she asks instead.

He sits upright to puff out his chest proudly and grins at her. "And squirrels!"

"And squirrels," she agrees, smiling.  "Why don't you go get them and I'll show you what else I've brought back?"

His eyes go wide. "Did you get spices?"

"Go and get your kills and you'll find out," Kagome suggests.

Shippo scampers off, so she raises her voice to address the shadow in the trees. "Would you like to join us?"

Inuyasha doesn't answer her, but when she looks again he's moved further from the trees, still not quite in the clearing but close. He'd still be easily able to dart for shelter from where he's crouched.

Well.  Shippo had been like that at first, too, a little bit, and he'd been a lot less injured and a lot more trusting.

When Shippo brings back the rabbits, Kagome sets aside more than usual to prepare closer to Shippo's preference than her own, and when she holds one out to the side she feels the weight vanish from her hands almost immediately.

Shippo sniffs, but at a look from her he doesn't comment further.

The kitsune has been busy.  Kagome's glad for it; she's more than full enough, but by the time a third rabbit has vanished into Inuyasha's claws even Shippo is looking between the squirrels and  the half-demon and looking conflicted.

"Kagome?" the little kitsune says uncertainly, looking away from the edges of the firelight and back up at her.  "I, uh, I don't really like squirrel."

This is manifestly untrue; Kagome's seen the kit eat more than enough squirrels before.  But Inuyasha's obviously hungrier than either of them, and proud besides.  "I don't really either, Shippo."

The kit looks relieved before snatching the last squirrels out of the fire and bounding over to Inuyasha, who recoils slightly.  "Hey, you take these! We don't want them, anyway."

Inuyasha swipes them and glares at Shippo. "Don't need your pity."

"Yeah, yeah.  You said." Shippo sniffs again and his face contorts. "You're still bleeding, though, it smells awful."

"Hey-" Inuyasha growls. "Does not!"

Kagome stands, slowly.  "He didn't mean it like that, Inuyasha." He might have. She isn't sure.  "Shippo doesn't like the scent of blood.  I have bandages and medicine in the hut, if you'd like."

"I'm fine," Inuyasha snaps, huddling in on himself. Kagome notices he doesn't loosen his hold on the squirrels, though.

Kagome shrugs and turns towards the hut.  "Suit yourself, I'm turning in for the night.  Shippo? You said you were staying tonight, right?"

"Yeah!" Shippo leaps for her shoulder again.  "You've been away so long."

"It was only a few days," Kagome says, laughing.

"Hey." She almost misses Inuyasha's low voice under the crackle of the flames, but she turns towards him and raises an eyebrow.

"Is he-" the hanyou gestures towards Shippo with a half-eaten squirrel, eyebrows drawn together but expression oddly unreadable otherwise. "Is he- yours?"

Shippo bristles, tail bushing out.  "I'm a full demon!"

"Shippo," Kagome says, exasperated. "No, he's not- we look after each other, that's all.  He lost his parents just before he found me."

"Right." Those golden eyes are glaring at the ground again and Kagome blinks.

She can't be sure, but she thinks maybe he was hoping she'd say yes.

Maybe, on another day, that would have been her answer after all. Shippo's not hers by blood, and they're not the same species, but she's been doing her best to raise him for the past few years. In a very real sense he is her kit now.

But there's blood pooling under Inuyasha when he moves, and his wrists are still visibly scarring, and she's still far too aware of finding him bound and kneeling in an alley with a muzzle on.  She's not making any claims that leave too much room for interpretation.

Inuyasha says nothing more, so Kagome retires to the hut.  Normally she'd never leave the fire to burn itself out but tonight she leaves it for Inuyasha and settles herself on her pallet with Shippo.

She's glad the kit is here.  She always sleeps easier with him around.  Living in the middle of the forest as they do is not without its dangers, and Shippo's senses are much sharper than her own. And- she doesn't want to bar the door, tonight, and she's not sure she'd quite be willing to leave it alone without Shippo here.

Kagome made sure to leave her medical supplies near the door before she went to bed.  She wakes partway through the night to see that they're gone, smiles to herself, and falls back asleep.

Inuyasha lurks around for the next few days but he doesn't actually leave. He won't come close, he won't get in grabbing range of either of them, but his wrists and side are inexpertly bandaged and when she asks Shippo the kit says he doesn't smell blood anymore.

Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, Inuyasha starts to creep closer to the fire at night.  Now that he's not so injured, he's begun to vanish into the woods and come back to throw down rabbits and once a badger at the side of the hut, and Kagome hasn't had to worry about finding enough to eat as the air starts to turn colder. He hardly ever talks to them, or at all, and he won't come close enough to touch- he never comes as close as he had that first day again, but he stays.  She never catches him at it where they can see him but he's definitely helping to carry water from the old well and to collect firewood as well. He's no help in her garden, but even accounting for leaving enough food for Inuyasha as well she's more well-prepared than the last two winters. She wouldn't give up Shippo for the world but it is a lot harder to look after herself and the kitsune than it had been for just herself.

She's not sure why Inuyasha hasn't left, but she's glad for it.

Inuyasha watches her in the garden, sometimes, too, showing a fair bit more interest in the plants than Shippo ever has.  It worries her, a bit; Shippo is basically carnivorous, but she doesn't know if the same is true for him. Kagome starts to talk out loud while she's weeding, naming off each plant and whether it's for eating or for medicine, listing medicinal uses. To her own surprise she wants him to stay. She still doesn't know very much about him, but if he'd intended them harm he's had more than enough chances. Instead he's starting, slowly, to help.

Normally Shippo would go back to his den more nights than not but the kit doesn't show any signs of leaving while Inuyasha's still here.  Kagome finds she doesn't mind that. She's always worried about the kit when he leaves her, but she's never before tried too hard to get him to stay.  Shippo doesn't have very much besides his independence and her.

The reverse is true, too, but she's never known if Shippo sees it that way.

Even after such a relatively short time there's already no way she'd ever ask him to leave, but as he's healed Inuyasha seems to have taken up the role of their protector, as though trying to earn his keep. Not much makes it through the forest's defenses and close enough to their home to be a threat, but there have always been exceptions, and Inuyasha easily takes down a centipede demon that might have left her and Shippo seriously injured without his help. The hanyou doesn't stick around the immediate area after, so Kagome can only hope he's listening when she shouts her thanks after him. He drives off a rogue bear youkai as well and his presence alone seems to warn off the lesser demons of the forest that have plagued them the past two winters.

It's weeks past when Inuyasha must have fully healed, and Kagome's gotten in the habit of talking to the air as she works. She still doesn't really know why he's stayed all this time but by now she's relatively confident he isn't about to leave again.  "The first winter with Shippo was hard, you know? He'd only really just started hunting for himself right before his parents were killed, and he wasn't very good at it yet. And I- well, let's just say my aim has improved since then.  I used to go into the village more often for supplies, but I couldn't get too much or they'd get suspicious.  I know that they can't get out here but I still get paranoid, sometimes."

Inuyasha's somewhere in the trees above her and she sees red fabric flash at that.

Kagome pauses, reviews what she's just said, and elaborates.  "The forest is a barrier.  People, well, humans mostly, with ill intent can't get in.  Sometimes it doesn't let people with good intent in, unless it likes them a whole lot. I had to argue with it for Shippo- it always gets a little weird about demons, like it can't quite read them as well." She glances up and drops the pretext of talking to herself as she adds, "Not with you, though.  It let you in right away."

Usually when she addresses him directly Inuyasha withdraws into the trees. This time, however, he drops down next to her, landing in a crouch.

For the first time since the day she dragged him out here, he's come close enough to reach out and touch. Even in battle he keeps his distance. 

Kagome carefully doesn't make any kind of move towards him, threatening or not.

"Why would it let a... let me in?" he asks darkly, but years with Shippo lets Kagome pick out the undercurrent of uncertainty.

Kagome shrugs. "I really don't know how the forest makes its determinations. Shippo and I live here, and there's an elder who lives at the edge of the forest, but it's always let some demons through and not others. Most of what it keeps out seems to be human bandits, and they don't usually realise it's the forest.  They just- find some reason they need to go around."

Inuyasha doesn't say anything, but his ears are trained towards her attentively.

She inhales and sets down her basket, privately glad that Shippo's unbent enough to hunt while Inuyasha is here with her. "Those men that had you-" Inuyasha flinches heavily, and Kagome amends what she was about to say.  She does want to know what happened to him but not at the expense of what trust he's still willing- or able- to give.  "They wouldn't have been able to get in here. I didn't know if there were any more, and I knew I'd gotten the forest to allow me and Shippo in the past, so I thought we'd be safest here."

"You don't... know me." His voice has never gotten any less rough than when she'd first heard it; it startles her a little every time, especially with as rarely as he speaks.

Demon ages are often deceptive, and he's had a bad time since before they met.  She doesn't know how old he might be although he seems to be the equivalent of her age- she doesn't know how long he'd actually been muzzled. He hadn't been able to touch it or the ropes that had been on his wrists, and the more she's thought about the more she's realised the men in the alleyway hadn't had that kind of power. Someone else had done it to him. Someone else had left him there, or at least left him where those men could find him.

He'd healed too slowly for someone with demon blood, too. Kagome has a half-formed suspicion, but she'll have to wait for Lady Kaede's yearly visit to confirm it, and the older woman only comes in spring. It's only late autumn.  Inuyasha might not still be here by then.

She hopes he is.  It's only been a few weeks, and this is the closest he's ventured since that first day, but already she knows she'll miss him if he leaves them.

"I didn't need to know you," she says finally, staring at the tea plants on the far end of the garden.  "I knew you hadn't tried to hurt me, even though you couldn't know who I was or why I was there, and I knew they were going to hurt you." She almost says hurt you more, but every brief interaction they've managed with the hanyou has taught her that he's both touchy and proud.

"Keh." He shifts his weight unhappily.  "Like those humans could really- really hurt me."

His wounds had bled for days.  She still isn't sure why, the wounds she'd been able to see hadn't been that bad, but he'd bled for days with no sign of stopping.  Even as a half-demon he would be dead if he hadn't chosen to follow them after all. He'd needed the medicine and bandages she'd offered and now that she's grown more used to him she's just glad he hadn't been too proud to take them.

Or too afraid.  She'd never say anything about it out loud, but even this much later he's the most skittish person she's ever met.  He doesn't let them come close, he hardly talks. He must have reached just inside the hut that first night for supplies but he's never come that near again.  She can't really blame him, not when she doesn't know how he'd been caught the first time, but she hurts to see how wary he still is. He's been hurt in more ways than just the physical.

"Well," she says at last. "They could have hurt me or Shippo, so I'm glad they couldn't follow."

He makes another low noise and glares at the ground, swiping at the dirt almost absently with one clawed hand. "Wouldn't have. Wouldn't have let'em hurt you or the runt."

Kagome blinks, startled. "You wouldn't?"

"No!" His head jerks up and he turns his glare on her.  "Whaddya take me for? The runt's just a runt, and you're-" He stumbles to a halt and turns away from her again rather than finishing his sentence.

She doesn't push him.  This is already the most words she's ever heard from him at one time, and it's more than she'd hoped for.  For a while he hadn't spoken to them at all and she hadn't been certain that he would again.  "Thanks, Inuyasha. You know... you are welcome to sleep inside the hut with us." She honestly isn't certain if he knows that. Shippo likes to be inside at night, but maybe Inuyasha doesn't.  He might be staying away purely out of personal preference.

She doesn't honestly think that's why he does it, but it could be.

"Keh." Inuyasha sniffs and shifts away from her.

"Maybe just when it storms, then," Kagome suggests.

He doesn't reply beyond his ears flickering in her direction.

He doesn't say anything else, but he also doesn't retreat into the trees this time until Shippo's back from his hunt, and he comes closer than usual that night to get his share of the meal without prompting- for once she doesn't have to toss it towards the trees or leave his share on the log when she turns in for the night. By now Kagome's learned to cook Inuyasha's food somewhere between what she does for herself and what she does for Shippo, and she adds the same vegetables and herbs for him that she enjoys herself.  He's never commented- he never does- but she's caught him surreptitiously licking his claws clean more than once, and he brings back more from his hunts when she's been preparing the food the way he seems to like it.

If it gets all of them through the winter without a scare like the last one, she's more than willing to pay that price.  Of course, not all the herbs grow in her garden, and none of them grow through the winter, but she'd stocked well on the same trip that she'd found Inuyasha on. At the time she hadn't planned for another mouth to feed, or for Shippo to stay here all the time when he's never done so before, but she's glad for them both even if she does have to be careful to ration her herbs and spices.  Kagome chose to live out in these woods a long time ago but she can admit that it's been lonely sometimes.

After that day in the garden, Inuyasha starts to allow her closer again.  He won't do it when Shippo's around, and he continues to sleep somewhere outside, but he'll come near enough to her that she could reach out and touch him.  She never does, not when he still tends to startle badly if she or Shippo moves too suddenly, but it feels like a turning point that he's letting her near him at all.

He still doesn't say very much but by now she suspects that might not be entirely by choice.  His voice tends to falter and fail at odd times and Kagome tries very hard to pretend not to notice. That he's at least trying to talk to her is more than she'd hoped for.

And then, one night once it's become well and truly winter, Kagome wakes without knowing why and sees a shadow in the hut.

She holds very still- Shippo is asleep by her feet, and that can only be true if the shadow by the door is Inuyasha. No other scent could be so familiar as to not wake the little kitsune.

But- her heart stutters once, briefly, and she winces as she recalls that Inuyasha's senses will have more than told him that she's awake by now.

But- he's never come inside the hut before, except to get the bandages.

"Go... back to sleep, Kagome," he rumbles from the dark, voice stumbling on the words the way she's grown used to.  She's privately come to the unhappy conclusion that he probably really was muzzled for a long time; even now, he doesn't seem terribly comfortable with language. "Storm's coming."

"All right," she says at last, before her vaguely-shaped concern solidifies and her eyes shoot wide. "Oh, no..."

"What?" He shifts, darkness on further darkness, remaining near the exit. "What is it?"

"It's- it's Shippo," she says hesitantly.  "His parents were killed by storm demons."

"Keh." His restless shifting stops. "S'just a storm. But." He hesitates, then says gruffly, "But y'can tell the runt that I'll protect him."

Kagome beams at him, hoping he can see her. "Thank you, Inuyasha."

"Don't... mention it." He settles, back against the wall, in easy distance of the door.

By mid-morning she can see why he came inside.  The storm's a bad one, far worse than usual, and she thinks grimly of the garden.  At least it's winter and she doesn't need to worry about losing the plants. More pressing is Shippo's fear.

The kit is trembling against her, four fuzzy limbs clutching at her as he ducks his head, and whimpering as lightning flashes outside.  It's cold in the hut, but Kagome doesn't dare let go of Shippo long enough to reach for her bedding. 

To her surprise, Inuyasha leaves his post by the door to crouch beside them, ears trained forward as he looks at Shippo.

"Hey, runt," he says quietly. 

Shippo lifts his head, his face streaked with tears.

"Safe," Inuyasha tells him.

Shippo shakes his head and buries his face in Kagome's robes once more.

Inuyasha glances up at her. She shrugs back at him, a little helplessly. She never has been able to do enough to reassure Shippo when the weather's turned on them.

"Kit," Inuyasha tries again.  "Kid. Shippo. Lookit me."

Reluctantly, Shippo does, staying pressed close to Kagome.

"S'just a storm," Inuyasha tries, watching the kitsune intently. "Normal storm. No. No demons."

Shippo shakes his head again and turns back to Kagome.

Inuyasha sighs, nearly inaudibly, and grits his teeth once before offering, "An' if there were demons, I wouldn't. Wouldn't let'em near you two."

Slowly, Shippo stills. He squirms around in her hold, looking up at Inuyasha. "Do you mean that?"

Inuyasha starts to scowl, but catches himself and worries at his lip with his fangs instead. He nods.

The kit's eyes narrow. "You don't talk very good, do you."

"Shippo," Kagome scolds, upset with him, because Shippo isn't stupid, far from it.  He was there when Kagome got the muzzle off of Inuyasha.  He's baiting the hanyou on purpose, because sometimes when Shippo is scared he turns mean.

Surprisingly, Inuyasha doesn't rise to the bait.  He shrugs and rises to his feet instead.

"Wh-where are you going?" Shippo asks, fear creeping back into his voice.

Inuyasha doesn't turn around, edging towards the door. He never turns his back on anyone but this is as close as he gets. Kagome's started to get the sinking impression that whatever happened to him had been at the hands of someone he'd trusted once.  "Y'don't need me, right?"

"I-!" Shippo squeaks and ducks his head. Voice full of tears and resentment, he says, "Don't go. I don't want you to go."

Inuyasha stops short.  From the way his eyes are widening, that's more of a reaction than he'd bargained for.

"Kagome doesn't want you to go, either," the kitsune cries, unhappy and hurting and flinching at every peal of thunder that's a reminder of his lost parents. "Don't go Inuyasha."

The half-demon sighs and slowly sits back down.  "Not goin' anywhere."

"Promise?" the kit demands, and Inuyasha hesitates. "Inuyasha, do you promise?"

Kagome's eyes meet Inuyasha's.  She won't ask him to promise, but she can admit she'd be devastated if he left. These past few months she's grown to enjoy having him around. His presence is worth the extra hunting; he's doing most of it, anyway.

"Promise," he says finally, voice fading out to a cracked whisper.

Shippo lets out a sob and, at another burst of thunder, turns to launch himself from Kagome's arms into Inuyasha's.

Kagome freezes.

So does Inuyasha, who's just gone very suddenly from avoiding all contact to having an armful of terrified kitsune child. Hesitantly, his arms come up around Shippo.

"I'm so glad," Shippo sobs.  "I've been so scared, you're outside all the time and the weather's getting so bad and, and there're monsters in the woods an' what if the demons got you like they got dad, and I thought you were just gonna vanish one day and I, I wouldn't-"

"Shippo?" Kagome says, bewildered. Inuyasha looks even more lost.

As far as she'd known Shippo had been tolerating the hanyou at best. She'd never have guessed at this, not when Inuyasha hardly comes near them and never talks to Shippo at all. He still barely talks to her.

Maybe Shippo's been talking to Inuyasha the same way she has, by addressing the trees and surrounding area.  She knows Shippo knows about her doing it- she's long since learned there's no hiding something like that from his senses and she's never really tried to.  She can't imagine that Inuyasha had been answering him, not when he's only recently started to haltingly answer her.

But Inuyasha does have a tendency to creep close and observe how they do things here, how she tends the gardens and how she cooks their meals, even the way she prefers to arrange the firewood. Shippo's hunting has been improving exponentially lately- maybe Inuyasha's been showing him, in his own way. For a man who remains unhappy and uncomfortable with his own voice it would be a simpler form of communication.

Shippo, who doesn't like or trust many people himself if they're being honest, ends up crying himself to sleep in Inuyasha's arms.

"Thanks," Kagome tells him, once Shippo's asleep again.  "He's not usually here all the time like he has been- he was more scared of you leaving than I thought."

The look Inuyasha gives her is oddly lost. He's gone wordless again.  Sometimes it's almost as though he only has a limited number of words at any given time, as if once he's used them all he has to wait before he has any more.  She has no way of knowing if he's always been like that or if it's a symptom of his past.

Kagome shrugs, fighting off a shiver down her spine.  His eyes aren't any less expressive up close than she remembers. "We've liked having you here.  It's just been us for a while now, and the nearby villages- they don't care for us much." She sighs.  "Tricksters aren't very popular and I would never leave Shippo for longer than a few days. He's-" She hesitates, because she thinks the wounds will always be fresh, but she also thinks she can say this without hurting either of them now.  "I was telling the truth when I said he's not really mine, but- we're, well, I guess we're each other's.  We don't have any other close family. I should have guessed- he never stays here this long, he has a den he goes to.  He must have been really scared that you'd go and not come back."

Inuyasha's still giving her that terribly lost look.  It makes her hurt for him and she's not sure what it's about. He opens his mouth and she hopes he'll give her a hint, but he shuts it again without saying anything, out of words for the moment. 

"We don't want you to go. We like having you here," she repeats on a suspicion, and his ears flicker. His gaze drops and she wonders if no one's ever said that to him before.

The storm rages for most of the day. Shippo sleeps uneasily in Inuyasha's arms, and there's not much to do in the hut, so Kagome talks quietly about anything that comes to mind as she picks up their living space.  She sets out the second set of bedding that she keeps for guests, even though she's never had guests.  Inuyasha looks at it, but doesn't comment. He says nothing for most of the day, although his ears follow her every movement and his eyes widen and narrow at appropriate parts in her stories.

When she talks about her family and how she'd lost them to a demon years ago, he makes the low pained noise she's becoming familiar with.

"It was a long time ago," she assures him quietly.  "And I didn't lose everyone- Souta still lives, but it's safer if we live apart. And I have Shippo." She hesitates, unsure if she should say it, and then sighs.  The decision may be a poor one but her heart's long since been made up. "And I have you, I hope."

His ears flick again.  His voice is quiet.  "Yeah, you have me."

He says nothing else, but Kagome smiles for the rest of the day.

Kagome's glad when the storm finally begins to die down.  As attached as she is to them both, it's not wise to spend too long in an enclosed space with a restless demon, much less two. Although, she reflects, as Inuyasha shifts but doesn't wake Shippo, it's not as unsafe as most people think. 

More of her family might have lived, had someone like Inuyasha been around.

Inuyasha still mostly sleeps outside, but he'll come in when it rains, after that. He rests upright by the door rather than take the guest bedding, and Kagome doesn't actually see him sleep, but he does come inside. He's started to help more with daily chores while they're there instead of waiting until they're hunting or asleep.  He still doesn't really talk, but he listens. He sits closer at night when they gather around the fire.

On a good day, he lets Shippo climb on his shoulder. He doesn't flinch half so often as he used to and Kagome can reach into his space or hand things to him without worry.  He still startles easily, he still has days where he wants no contact from either of them, but he's getting better.

She thinks he wants to talk to them more, from times she's caught the sound of his muttering to himself out in the woods, but his voice is still uncooperative. Kagome hardly minds but he seems almost ashamed and Shippo's occasional mean-spirited taunts don't help. Kagome scolds the kitsune, but she doesn't think he'll stop entirely unless she explains exactly why he should, and there's no way to do that without Inuyasha overhearing.  Promises or not Kagome's afraid that might be enough to drive him away.

She hasn't learned anything more about him before the night the monk comes.

Chapter Text

She hasn't seen Inuyasha all day, but that's not really unusual.  Even now that he's spending more time with them they all have good days and bad, and his bad days are worse than theirs.  It's a little more odd that she hasn't seen Shippo but sometimes that happens, especially if the kit is having a good hunt.

When the stranger stumbles into their clearing, though, and her surprised yelp brings Shippo running but not Inuyasha, she starts to worry.

"Miss!" the man blurts, catching sight of her, only to blanch when Shippo leaps to her shoulder. 

"Who're you?" the fox kit asks curiously, leaning forward on a precarious perch. "Inuyasha didn't say he smelled anyone."

The monk recovers himself quickly, smiling weakly and brushing off his robes. Kagome's eyebrows go up when she sees how heavily wrapped his right hand is, but most of her attention now is on being worried for her hanyou friend.  Inuyasha takes protecting them seriously- it's strange that anyone got this close to them with no warning.

Kagome frowns, worrying at that thought.  It's more than merely strange. She would have said it was impossible.

"Forgive me, I am called Miroku," the monk says, reclaiming her attention.  "I came into these woods to escape some rather unmannerly pursuit and I'm afraid I've become quite lost.  Might you know of a place I could stay?"

Kagome hesitates.  The forest wouldn't have let the monk in if he was truly dangerous, but she knows better than to let strange men approach her and ask her to stay, and she wants even less to let him near Inuyasha.

Wherever he is.

There's a noise from behind her and Kagome steps back from Miroku to turn aside and look to its source.

The man that stares back at her is human, and for a heart-stopping second she wonders if the appearance of two strange men at once means the forest's protection has failed, but then his features register properly and she can't stop herself from staring in turn.

If she hadn't recognised his face, the familiar way he works his way up to grating out a rusty, "Who," would identify him as Inuyasha right away.

Shippo starts to say something. Kagome grabs his tail, not gently, and turns back to Miroku.  She moves just enough to put herself between him and Inuyasha.

For all that he's become their protector, Inuyasha has never seemed to know that they'll protect him as well. She catches his eyes widening just before she turns.

"Miroku," the monk says again, smiling and inclining his head.  "As I was telling your friends, I am rather lost. I was being chased by some unsavoury characters but they seemed unable to come into the forest."

"There's... a barrier," Inuyasha says, stepping up beside her. She can't help but sneak an anxious sidelong glance at him, only to catch him doing the same to her. It reassures her and strengthens her resolve. Whatever decision they make, they'll make it together.

"That explains the loss of my pursuers," Miroku says mildly.  "However, would I be correct in assuming that they can find me again should I leave?"

Reluctantly, Kagome nods. Inuyasha tenses beside her and she swallows- he never stands so close. She can feel the heat of him, a line of warmth along her side. She can feel the tiny twitches of tension in his frame.

Kagome realises she's yet to actually say anything.  She's spent the winters before this with only Shippo, and Inuyasha doesn't talk; she's forgotten already how much most people do.

She's finding now that she'd come to prefer Inuyasha's way of only going to the trouble of speaking if he has something important to say.

"They won't find you here," she says finally. "We're not really equipped for guests, though.  You'd be better off finding a place to camp." Preferably, far enough away that she can sort out what's happening with Inuyasha in peace.

Miroku's eyes go wide and liquid with hurt and she's immediately suspicious.  "You would let a lone stranger such as myself fend for himself in these cruel winter woods?"

"Yes," Inuyasha grates out immediately and Shippo nods approval.

"How cruel," Miroku laments. "Ah, but you, you're a fair maiden! Surely you would be kind to me?"

"I can direct you to a suitable campsite," Kagome says slowly, only to retract it a moment later when she hears Inuyasha's low, rattling growl.  It doesn't sound right from a human throat, not quite the reassuring sound she's used to. "That is, I can tell you where to find one."

The growling subsides.

Miroku wilts.  "Ah, I see. Could I at least trouble you for some firewood?"

"Take some," Kagome says simply, gesturing at their woodpile. With Inuyasha's help, it's far larger than they truly need, even had the winter had been worse than it actually is. 

The monk bows. "I thank you for your kindness. Could I also perhaps-"

"Don't have food to spare," Inuyasha gets out. "Hunt your own." With that, his expression locks up, and Kagome recognises what he looks like when he's struggling to get words out at all. It's definitely a bad day if that's all he's managed.

"Sorry, but he's right," Kagome says hastily, wanting to get into the hut with her friends, away from this stranger.  "We only hunt for enough for ourselves."

"Then I shall give you my thanks once again and take my leave," Miroku says.

No one moves from their spot before the monk is out of sight, and even then Kagome waits until Shippo confirms the monk's scent has faded beyond sensing range. 

As soon as they're clear the fox jumps down to whirl and stare at Inuyasha. "What's happened to you?"

Inuyasha grits his teeth and glares at the ground.

"Come on," Kagome says, very gently taking his arm and turning him towards the hut.  He lets her-  he doesn't flinch from her, which makes her heart swell. She never tries to touch him so she doesn't know how long ago he might have stopped retreating from her touch. "We can talk inside."

He darts a glance at her and she smiles gently back.  "It doesn't have to be right away."

It's not going to be right away, they can tell that immediately. Inuyasha's throat works but no words come, and from the way he lowers his head and looks away she can perfectly picture the way his ears would be pinned back.

Kagome gets up to make them tea while Shippo climbs into Inuyasha's lap.  To her relief the kit doesn't tease; he knows the signs that the hanyou's having a bad day as well as she does.  Even without accounting for the monk, Inuyasha has been scarce all day, and he'd gotten out far fewer words than usual. Whatever the reason for his human appearance is it's made him a lot more anxious than they're used to, and he isn't exactly a calm person at the best of times.

"Here," Kagome says at last, handing Inuyasha the cup first.  She's never had more than a handful of dishes and she'd never gotten more, but it's not as though they stand on ceremony out here; she's not entirely certain Inuyasha or Shippo have ever been taught manners anyway.  She probably should have taught Shippo, but it had never seemed important.

Inuyasha takes the cup from her and she finds she misses the brush of carefully turned-aside claws against her hand. He doesn't drink right away, staring at the tea instead.

Shippo turns in his lap to face him.  "You're not hurt, are you?"

Inuyasha shakes his head right away and Kagome regrets not thinking to ask that immediately.

"So... this is something that happens to you sometimes?" Shippo asks hesitantly, earning a nod.

Kagome sits down so that she isn't looming.  "Why didn't you tell us?"

"'ve never told anyone," Inuyasha rasps softly, still not looking at them. "Not safe."

Kagome's heart breaks a little. She's always hoped he felt safe here, but at the same time she's always known it to be unlikely. Even though he comes inside with them now, even though he eats with them now and tries to talk to them, she doubts he's felt safe since before they met.

She's known for a while that he isn't recovering as well as he wants them to believe. At first she'd thought him a naturally quiet person, but by now she knows he isn't so by choice; when he hadn't become any less skittish in the first few weeks she'd thought that maybe he was shy but by now she can see it for more of the wariness and fear it actually is. Inuyasha doesn't know how to trust anyone.

And then Kagome's heart lifts again, because he'd still come when he thought they might be in danger. Even though he's human and he's miserable he'd come for them. If Miroku had been a threat he'd have been a threat they'd face together.

"Will you turn back?" Shippo wants to know, reaching one hand out to bat very lightly at Inuyasha's hair. Very lightly- for all of the kit's tricks and thieving, Shippo does like Inuyasha; he knows not to startle him.

Inuyasha nods, and it isn't until he turns to stare at her that Kagome realises she's relaxed at his response. 

"It's just," Kagome fumbles for an explanation.  "I'm not used to seeing you human.  It feels... strange."

Inuyasha's throat works again, and there's a strain in his already-rough voice when he says, "Strange how?"

"I don't know," Kagome says helplessly, watching as he winces and raises the tea to gulp at it.  Inuyasha doesn't exactly have table manners either, but again neither does Shippo, and Kagome's have certainly fallen by the wayside since moving out to the forest.  It's never been a concern, but it is admittedly more disconcerting to her when Inuyasha looks fully human. "You don't look like yourself.  I mean, you do, obviously, but it's, oh, I don't know!" She makes a sharp gesture- too sharp, and she reels it in as he twitches back, eyes wide. "Sorry! Sorry. I'm just used to you, I guess."

Inuyasha stares down at the the floor as he passes the cup to Shippo. She can see the way his ears would flicker if he had them right now, and she misses them; but she especially misses how communicative they are, and that's not something she wants to say to him.  "S'not a big deal. Be back to usual in th'morning."

"Oh, good," Kagome says, not even trying to hide the relief in her voice this time.  He lifts his head slightly and raises an eyebrow at her. "I'm serious! You... seem unhappy like this, is all." He does, and it's strange, because had there been anyone to ask she would hardly have said he seemed happy before. Content, maybe, at least sometimes, but not happy.

Inuyasha makes another of those low noises and Kagome sighs.  "Look, I know we're not exactly in the lap of luxury out here, but I thought you liked it here with us."

He throws his head up like a startled deer. "Of course I-" His voice fails, but he furrows his brows and forces it through, and Kagome fights back a wince.  He doesn't do that often, but when he does he always pays for it later.  "Of course I like it here.  Why, did you... want me to leave?"

It's her turn to recoil. "Of course not! It's your home too!"

"Yeah, Inuyasha," Shippo chips in, hopping from his lap to her shoulder so he can turn to face the hanyou.  "You do more work around here than anyone, did you not think it was your home?"

He's stopped meeting their eyes again. For once, Kagome doesn't stop herself when she reaches for him, grasping lightly at his sleeve and tugging towards herself. "I think you've misunderstood.  We've never wanted you to go, and what you are doesn't matter. We like who you are."

He puts his hand over hers, very lightly, and Kagome can't help the sharp inhale. Sure, he lets them closer now, but he's never initiated contact before. He doesn't say anything, but she can see in his face that he wants to believe her.

Kagome's too uneasy from meeting Miroku to sleep, and she's never seen Inuyasha sleep any of the times he's come inside, so the only one who gets any rest that night is Shippo. Kagome's more than used to being alone with a silent Inuyasha, so she chatters softly as she gets up to do some of the chores she'd normally save for daylight hours- it's dark inside once the fire and the torches are out, too dark with no moon tonight, but she can still see a little bit and she's well used to where everything is.

Inuyasha doesn't move from where he's sitting with Shippo. It occurs to Kagome very belatedly that if it's dark to her, it must be worse for him, when he's used to having much better senses. His ears would usually flicker to follow the sound of her moving about, while now whenever she catches a glimpse of him he's turning his head to follow the sound of her voice.

Kagome's not sure what's more of a relief, the sun coming up, or the color bleeding back out of Inuyasha's hair and eyes.

No one is rested, though, not even Shippo with as restless as the kit's sleep has been, so no one is prepared when they trickle back out into the clearing to find Miroku sitting on the logs before their fire.

She blinks. "I thought you left to make camp."

The smile he turns to her is wan and she realises belatedly that he's very pale, paler than he was.  "Ah. Yes.  I'm afraid that I didn't want to impose on you before, but I find I need to ask if you have any medicines to spare."

Still behind her with Shippo, Inuyasha sniffs the air once before lowering his head to speak directly into her ear. Kagome fights a shiver- she'd expected the hanyou to reclaim his usual distance now that he's his usual self, but he hasn't yet. "Kagome, he's injured."

"Huh?" She wrenches her thoughts away from how close Inuyasha's standing and turns her attention to the monk. That heavily-bandaged hand catches her eyes again. "Why didn't you mention this before?"

Miroku lifts one shoulder and lets it fall, wincing faintly. "I'm afraid I overestimated myself. I have the knowledge of medicine, but not, I am afraid, the supplies I need."

Even after Inuyasha's injuries, they're well-stocked here with healing herbs and other medicine. They can spare some for Miroku without worrying for themselves.

She turns her head and keeps her voice down. "Inuyasha? Shippo? What do you think?"

"He doesn't seem malicious," Shippo says slowly. Indeed, Miroku is watching them and waiting patiently, with no sign of interrupting their conversation. "He might be useful.  Not as much as me or Inuyasha, but he could be."

"Inuyasha?" Kagome asks. The hanyou's glaring in Miroku's direction, but he isn't growling at him. "I can still send him away if you want."

Inuyasha turns towards her so fast she worries about whiplash.

"It's your home, too," she reminds him.  "Do you want him to leave?"

Inuyasha glares a moment longer, but he shakes his head. After a moment he says, "Can stay til he's healed."

"That sounds reasonable," Kagome agrees, privately thinking that Miroku's likely to be healed long before Inuyasha is. She raises her voice again as Shippo leaps from Inuyasha's arms to her shoulder.  "Okay. If you'll wait there, I'll get my supplies from inside."

Miroku straightens slightly on the log and she only sees the tension in his frame when it drops away. "You have my thanks." He glances at Inuyasha as the hanyou moves past Kagome to crouch near the fire, still well away from the monk. "All of you do."

"Don't mention it, really," Kagome suggests, fetching the supplies and returning to take a seat next to Miroku. She doesn't miss it when Inuyasha sidles closer to her. Shippo, too, is clearly reluctant to leave her alone with the monk. Kagome can't say she minds. Sure, the two of them can be overprotective, but Kagome kind of enjoys that if she's honest.

Miroku's wounds aren't bad, although compared to the condition Inuyasha had been in when they'd met not much would look too serious to Kagome anymore.  He has a lot of deep scratches and bruises that quickly add up and aside from that she only sees his heavily-wrapped hand, which she reaches for once they've determined there aren't any more serious injuries.

To her surprise, Miroku yanks it quickly away from her, looking uneasy for the first time since she's met him. "Ah... not that. That is an... old wound."

Inuyasha sniffs. Shippo jumps down next to him, imitating his posture, and sniffs as well before announcing grumpily, "It smells really weird, Kagome."

She narrows her eyes at Miroku.  "Is there something you're not telling us?"

"Many things," Miroku replies plainly. "We've only just met. But I pledge you, this one means you no harm."

A growl rumbles out of Inuyasha, fighting with his words to get out so that his voice is even lower and rougher than usual when he demands, "Show us."

Miroku pauses and looks at the hanyou strangely, but his voice is calm again as he says, "I will if you so wish it, but not here. There is a... destructive power in my hand. It has been prevented from spreading for the time being, but it is still very dangerous."  Said dangerous hand is creeping less than innocently towards Kagome, and her eyes start to narrow, but Inuyasha's growl suddenly pitches up and both Miroku's hands are quickly drawn back to his lap. Kagome flashes the hanyou a grateful look.

They settle on going to the nearby stream so that Miroku can demonstrate without risking too much of their surroundings.  Even with his warnings, the wind tunnel is devastating enough to leave Kagome and Shippo speechless, and she thinks the only reason Inuyasha hasn't leapt back into the shelter of the trees is that he wouldn't leave them unprotected like that.

Miroku's pale again as he rewraps his hand.  "It's a generational curse that will one day destroy me as well. As I said before, it's stable for now and will cause you no harm. It's the source of the strange scent your companions are picking up." He hesitates, then visibly restrains himself from asking any of the questions he must surely have.

Kagome says nothing.  The three of them owe no one an explanation. How they choose to live is their business.

She expects Inuyasha to want to drive Miroku off now that they know his injuries aren't threatening, but Inuyasha leaves him alone, even though the monk keeps returning over the next few days. Miroku doesn't exactly stay with them, continuing to sleep at the campsite he'd found the first night and retiring there often, but he's back during most of the daylight hours.  Like Inuyasha before him he fetches wood and water without being asked, and once he has better range of movement he begins contributing to their stores as well. He doesn't make much of it but he obviously has a better idea of where and how to find winter-hardy plants than they do.

He has to have realised Inuyasha and the human he saw on the first night are the same person, but he never mentions it.

He does talk to them quite a bit- it takes some getting used to, that he's both talkative and polite. He draws her and Shippo into conversation and he's much better than she'd expected at not leaving Inuyasha out. Miroku addresses the hanyou frequently, but he doesn't wait or press for an answer, and doesn't tease him like Shippo still sometimes does. He never makes any mention of how rarely or oddly Inuyasha replies, in fact.

Inuyasha is warier of Miroku than he had been of her. It's hard to say if it's because Miroku's new, because he wasn't there from the beginning like she and Shippo were, or even if it's just that Miroku's an adult male, but for all that Inuyasha has to like the monk at least a little or he wouldn't still be here. Still, the hanyou doesn't want Miroku in his space.

Inuyasha stops sleeping somewhere out in the trees and starts sleeping on the roof of the hut or just inside it. For the first week she' s not sure he sleeps at all, not until exhaustion brings him stumbling inside one night. Miroku has his own campsite and never makes the slightest indication of even wanting to join them in the hut but that hasn't stopped Inuyasha being territorial about it.

He's gotten territorial about herself and Shippo, as well, and normally she might have been offended by that, but Miroku's proved to have wandering hands and it only takes one instance of Inuyasha snarling at him before the monk learns Kagome is off-limits.

She can put up with Inuyasha deciding that they're his to protect, so long as he doesn't tip over into become controlling, and she very much doubts that he would do that to them.

Miroku can't know any of their pasts, and they don't tell him, but he proves to be adept at reading them. He never approaches Inuyasha unless he's approached first, and after those first few aborted attempts he never lays hands on Kagome. He tells Shippo stories and he teaches her how to brew teas and medicines even Kaede has never mentioned. Once it's been a few weeks, it feels like he's been with them much longer.

Inuyasha turns human only once again in that time. This time, he ducks into the hut well before sunset, expression fixed and unhappy, and she realises he doesn't want Miroku to see. Not that the monk ever comes around in the dark but they've all learned it's better to be paranoid than to risk being unprepared.

Before, though, Inuyasha wouldn't have wanted her and Shippo to see either. He would have found somewhere in the woods to hide, the same as he does most nights.

Like the last time, Inuyasha doesn't sleep. She's seen him sleep now, sometimes even in the hut, but she doubts he ever sleeps while human. He sleeps too lightly even as a demon to risk falling asleep without the full use of all his senses.

Kagome doesn't ask or comment, just greets him sleepily and waves him towards the guest bedding- not that it's for a guest anymore, not now that they've all acknowledged that this is his home too, but he never uses it anyway. He prefers to sleep where he can guard the door. She'd be lying if she said she didn't find that reassuring.

Gradually, Miroku is able to get closer to Inuyasha- to all of them, actually, since Inuyasha isn't warning him off half so much when he approaches Kagome or Shippo. Shippo jumps onto the monk's shoulder sometimes, or scrambles up his robes, and Inuyasha doesn't snatch him back and hand him to Kagome the way he had at first.

It's not until the four of them fight off a wolf youkai pack together and drive it out of their territory that they see evidence of how much Inuyasha's grown to accept Miroku as part of their strange group.

Kagome nearly misses it. She's busy fussing over Shippo, who's lost a chunk of fur from his tail but who seems uninjured otherwise, but her ears perk up at the sound of Inuyasha snarling out words. "Sit... down, monk. You're injured."

"Inuyasha, while I appreciate your concern, it isn't-" Miroku starts, trying to rise again.

Inuyasha reaches out with another snarl and shoves Miroku back down. "Sit!"

Miroku freezes. So does Inuyasha, eyes wide and ears pinned back, but he recovers quickly and raises his voice as much as he ever does. "Kagome!"

She leaves off tending to Shippo to join them. The little kit is already staring at the two adults, his much-maligned tail forgotten- because although he tolerates her and Shippo far better than he used to, Inuyasha has never touched Miroku before and Miroku's always been very careful not to touch Inuyasha in return. "What is it?"

The hanyou makes an expansive gesture in the monk's direction, glowering at the ground, and Kagome recognises his expression as the one he gets when he's strained to get too many words out at once. After the fight with the wolves that isn't surprising. All of them are used to battle, and they listen to each other's ideas roughly equally, but Inuyasha does tend to take the lead in a serious fight.

"I believe he thinks my injuries are worse than they are," Miroku attempts, shifting as if about to stand again, only to still when Inuyasha turns his growl and glower back on him.

Kagome brings the bandages and medicines over without any further information than that. The injuries really aren't that bad, largely because Inuyasha inevitably insists on putting himself between the worst blows and the squishier kit and humans, but Miroku won't be returning to his own campsite tonight.

When the monk tries again to stand, Inuyasha ducks under him to pull one arm across his shoulders, startling everyone.  After a long, breathless moment that no one seems willing to break, they all get into the hut without bringing up the singing tension in the air. Once inside Inuyasha immediately drops Miroku to the guest bedding and takes up his usual position by the door.

Miroku inspects the inside of the hut with clear curiosity and his eyes fall on the pack from that expedition to town she'd brought back Inuyasha from. It feels like it's been years since then, even though it's been only months. Anything still in the pack is either something she keeps there or something they've never needed so she doesn't mind letting Miroku look through it when he asks.

Whatever Miroku finds pleases him. He tries to get up to make tea with a combination of leaves from the pack and herbs he keeps on himself, but Inuyasha growls every time he moves and Shippo climbs on top of him, so he settles for directing Kagome while he rests enough to satisfy their demon friends.

When Kagome tries to hand him the finished brew, though, Miroku shakes his head and levers himself up on his elbows, nearly dislodging Shippo. Hesitation touches his voice as he says, "No, it's for Inuyasha."

The growl that started to rise when the monk started to get up cuts off, replaced by Inuyasha's brows drawing together. He tilts his head at them.

"It's for," Miroku falters and Kagome blinks. Miroku is almost always self-assured and calm. She understands when he draws in a breath and then forges onward.  "It's for your voice."

Inuyasha draws back against the wall, one hand half-raising in a warding-off gesture, and Miroku hurries to explain. "I don't know that it will help. But you-" He stops, starts again. He's been here long enough now to be as aware of Inuyasha's touchy pride as the rest of them. "It could help."

Kagome turns to Inuyasha and glances into his eyes. He looks uncertain, but not unwilling, so she hands over the cup.

"It isn't likely to have any effect right away," Miroku cautions as Inuyasha sniffs the tea once, before he downs it with a grimace. "I don't know if it will work at all."

Shippo shrugs and sits up. "It isn't like it can hurt him, though, right? So there's nothing to lose. We'd just go on the same."

Inuyasha starts to say something, then stops, frowning.

"You don't have to do anything," Miroku tells him, starting to get up again only to freeze when both demons and Kagome herself glare him back down. "Don't think about it too much. Just drink this every few days, and talk as much as comes naturally."

That earns him another, much more vicious glare.

Miroku raises his hands, palms up. "Inuyasha, I'm serious, and I mean no offense. Either it will help or it won't. We can only know with time."

Time's something they have plenty of. Both Inuyasha and Shippo familiarize themselves with the scents of the herbs Miroku used, and all of them learn to brew the specific kind of tea he makes.  It promotes healing for the rest of them as well but they unanimously try to refuse it when Inuyasha offers it to them, preferring to leave it for him. (That doesn't always work- sometimes he refuses to drink any of it until whoever has injuries he's worried about drinks first).

For the first few days he doesn't try to talk at all, reminding Kagome far too much of when he'd first come to them. All three of them know better than to act like they've noticed. Inuyasha goes from seeming afraid to try (not that anyone is going to point that out) to seeming like he does want to try, but doesn't know what to say.

"Ask him questions," Miroku suggests, one afternoon when Inuyasha and Shippo are both out hunting and the two of them are tending the fire.  Miroku doesn't really have a reason to be at their clearing instead of his own right now but Kagome can't bring herself to mind. "Surely you have some. Has he always been like this?"

Kagome hesitates. She trusts Miroku these days, but she doesn't know how much Inuyasha wants him to know. "Ah, at least since I met him."

Inuyasha himself chooses that moment to drop out of the trees, drop an armful of rabbits beside the fire pit, and grit out without looking at them, "You can tell him."

It's the first time she's heard him speak without needing to work up to it first, unless he did that while he was still somewhere above them. "Are you sure?"

"Tell him," Inuyasha repeats, straightening up again. He still doesn't turn to them. His voice is rough but not sticking on the words as he adds, "I'm taking Shippo out to get a deer."

He's gone before she can ask again, and Kagome sighs and waves Miroku over to the fire. Miroku picks up a rabbit as he takes a seat, ready and willing to help her prepare it for later, even though Miroku himself only eats what meat he has to in order to stay healthy. Still, he's taken to helping with meal preparation as readily as he has all the other chores, and equally without them having asked him to. "What is it you have to tell me?"

Kagome sighs and sets aside the rabbit she's skinning. Inuyasha is better at this task, his claws much sharper than either of their knives, but she and Shippo had done it long before the dog demon had joined them.  "We only met Inuyasha late this past summer."

"Ah," Miroku says noncommittally, his own knife falling still a moment before resuming its motion.  "Forgive me, I had assumed you'd all known each other far longer."

As well he might have, Kagome reflected.  Miroku's never asked whether Shippo's hers the way Inuyasha had, and more telling he's never asked if Inuyasha's hers, even though there are a number of conclusions he could have drawn by stumbling on the three of them living out here together. "Shippo and I have known each other for years, but in the past he's spent a lot more time at his own den. When I came back with not just our usual supplies but Inuyasha as well, Shippo chose to stay here permanently."

"Oh," Miroku says, stilling again. "He was... in the marketplace, then?"

"No," Kagome retorts immediately, horrified, but then she winces as she's forced to consider the possibility. There are humans that buy and sell demons.  She'd just now been thinking about how glad she was Miroku's never made that assumption before. "Or at least, not when we met. He  was..." It's a lot harder to say out loud than she'd thought it would be. "There were a lot of men, in an alleyway, and he was..."

"You don't have to tell me," Miroku says softly.

Kagome sighs. "But he wants me to tell you, or he wouldn't have said anything.  I don't like remembering it. How much worse must it be for him?" She takes a deep breath, then lets it out in a rush. "They were going to kill him. He was very injured, but worse than that, he was- tied up, and- muzzled." She can still see it, Inuyasha kneeling in his own blood and snarling, eyes lit from within by wild hurt and fury.

She can see why he didn't want to be the one to tell Miroku. Kagome hates reliving it, and even if Shippo had been there, and she's glad he wasn't, he's a child. She wouldn't ask this of him.

"Oh," Miroku says, very faintly, and Kagome looks up at his tone of voice. It's faint with horror, but by his question about the marketplace he'd already suspected, so why would he-?

Miroku is worrying at the wrappings around his wrist and staring into space, rabbit entirely forgotten.

Kagome frowns. "Miroku?" She's never asked the monk about his past.  She's never asked Inuyasha, after all, and all she knows about Shippo the kit has told her freely. They've all kept their pasts relatively private. It isn't as though Miroku himself is at all prone to prying questions.  "Miroku... is there a reason you asked about the marketplace?"

The monk startles slightly and shakes his head, the shadows falling from his gaze as he looks back at her.  "Ah... yes. I'm afraid that I... well, that I..." He stumbles to a halt, and Kagome has the strange and deeply unwanted experience of seeing Inuyasha's lost-for-words look on Miroku's face.

Her brows draw together. "You were running when you found us.  You were injured, but you were running, too."

He sighs and sets his hand down on the log. "You don't leave the woods often, I take it?"

Kagome shakes her head, still frowning. "Of course not. I didn't leave much in the first place because I don't like leaving Shippo, and with Inuyasha here there's been no need." Miroku knows this, though.  He knows they're as self-sufficient as they can be out here- he's been a part of it. His knowledge of winter plants and scavenging alone have helped negate her usual need to resupply partway through the winter.

"Well." Miroku leaves off fiddling with his wrist and hand wrappings entirely to rub his forehead. "There are more than demons in the marketplace, these days. I'm afraid I made the wrong sort of people rather angry at me and, well, I was unprepared for the consequences."

Kagome stares at him. "Miroku, are you saying you were-"

"Keh." Inuyasha drops out of the trees to land beside them lightly, notably without Shippo. "You too, huh monk?"

"You didn't actually go hunting at all, did you," Miroku says flatly. "Have you been up there this whole time?"

"I know how they got me," Inuyasha continues, undeterred, before reaching out and grasping Miroku's wrist lightly. His claws are carefully turned away, giving the wrappings the respect and caution they deserve. "How in the world did they get you?"

Miroku doesn't draw his hand away, letting Inuyasha inspect it while Kagome sits back and watches. She's known for some time that Miroku is very firmly in the 'not a threat' territory, but this is the first she's really had it brought home that Inuyasha's come to consider the monk one of their own. It was one thing for Inuyasha to come close when Miroku was injured.  It's another for him to do it now. "It is significantly easier to inflict a serious wound on a human, and it tends to put us out of commission for longer. The wind tunnel is no help when you're in real danger of bleeding to death. Tell me, then, have you been having an easier time of finding your voice?"

"Don't change the subject, Miroku," Inuyasha says mildly, although he does let the monk go to take a seat beside Kagome. She can't help but lean in to his warmth, and these days he almost always lets her. "What happened?"

"Perhaps you should go first." Miroku picks up the knife and rabbit again, but doesn't resume his work.

Inuyasha narrows his eyes. "Your medicine isn't magic."

They both turn to blink at him.

He sighs before admitting gruffly, reluctantly, "I won't make it through an explanation." His eyes narrow further.  "You, however."

"Me," Miroku agrees, and leans back, snatching up his staff from the ground nearby to balance it across his knees and taking a deep breath. "Well. I told you of the wind tunnel. I told you, as well, that the spread has been stopped for now. That is only possible because I attacked the demon who laid the curse, directly. And while I wounded him badly it is I who came off the worse from the encounter.  As the demon in question is a shapeshifter, he found it child's play to make it seem as though I was wholly in the wrong." He shifts uncomfortably. "There is not much else to tell, between that and my arrival at your fire."

"Thank you for telling us," Kagome says softly, although she's sure there is more. Miroku had come to them, after all, not the other way around, and a hut in the middle of the forest is hardly around the corner from the marketplace.  "Is he likely to be looking for you?"

Miroku shakes his head. "It's unlikely.  I believe he thinks me dead, and demon or not I don't think the barrier woods would let him in anyway."

"Well, if he did try to come after you, he'd have to fight us first," Inuyasha says too carelessly, cracking his knuckles as Kagome nods.

Miroku's smile transforms his face.  If anyone had asked, Kagome would have said she'd seen Miroku smile often, but she's never seen that expression before. "I thank you for that. You did not have to let me stay."

"We've grown pretty fond of you, though," Kagome teases him, though she makes a point of moving away from him and closer to Inuyasha as she says it. No matter how fond she truly is of the monk, and she is, she is less fond of his wandering hands, and she doesn't want Inuyasha to be jealous besides. (The hanyou denies that he's ever jealous but he's also very far from being subtle). Her voice softens. "I'm glad you stayed. I'm glad you both stayed."

"I'm glad you'll have us," Miroku tells her, before gesturing with his staff. "For now, perhaps we should attempt to actually prepare dinner before Shippo returns."

They work in companionable silence. Miroku tries once more to get more information from Inuyasha, but the hanyou makes it clear that he's done talking for the day, and Miroku himself seems a little drained after opening up to them.

Kagome's own thoughts are troubled. She knew about the changes in the marketplace, in a distant sort of way. Her world and her family are here, aside from Souta, who lives far away and safe- safer if she keeps her distance.  She's never concerned herself too much with the way the world outside is changing, aside from remaining armed and cautious, aside from her wariness and reluctance to let others near Shippo or her home.

Kagome's been forced to realise over the past months that she'd been ill-adjusted and alone for a long time.  She hadn't known how unhappy she and Shippo had grown until the addition of Inuyasha had reintroduced happiness as a possibility.  She had thought they'd been doing well, and it's only with the contrast that she can see that they'd actually been increasingly depressed and lifeless. The hut in the woods was meant to be her retreat and her safety, but it had become more of an isolated trap.  Without Shippo to care for she doubts she'd have made it long enough to be in the right place to meet Inuyasha at all. At this time last year Shippo would have gone back to his den, and she'd be tending to her meagre stores alone and wondering whether she could make it until spring without venturing out of the relative safety of the forest. Having more people here has saved her in more ways than one. More inhabitants has meant that they've drawn more youkai attacks, but it also means that they've repelled them with ease, and with four of them working together their stores have never been a worry this winter.

Kagome doesn't often go to the actual marketplace, preferring to trade at the edges of the civilised areas. It's unsettling to think that she could have gone there and found her friends. She hates the thought of it. She hates that it happened to them at all.

She hates that it could be happening to someone else, right now.

Inuyasha shifts and knocks his elbow into her side, dragging her out of her thoughts, and gives her a concerned sidelong glance.

"You are thinking too loud," Miroku says mildly. "You should know that what happened to me, at least, is quite unusual. Even had I not found an opening to flee, I very much doubt they'd have found a buyer."

Kagome and Inuyasha wince in unison. It's somehow worse, hearing Miroku casually admit out loud what had happened to him. She's always sort of suspected as much about Inuyasha but that hurts even more to think about, and it hasn't been relevant, so she hasn't thought about it.  Miroku she hadn't expected to hear it from at all and now she's worried about both of them again.

Inuyasha's claws brush lightly against her side, turning her thoughts away. They're here with her and safe now.

Shippo doesn't return until dinner is nearly ready. The little fox is empty-handed, so he must have cached his kill, as he does sometimes when they have enough already. Before Inuyasha they'd never had enough at one time to worry about a cache. Since Inuyasha's been there, they've had to build more than one, especially as Shippo's gotten far better at hunting with his guidance.  As much as Kagome loves Shippo, hunting as youkai do is one thing she could never teach him, and Shippo never has taken to a bow. Last year if Shippo had come back empty-handed Kagome would have assumed he'd been unsuccessful. Since Inuyasha started unofficially teaching the kit, Shippo hasn't had that bad a hunt in months.

Once they've eaten, Miroku gets up to head back to his campsite and Inuyasha stops him with a growl.

"I'm just going back," Miroku says cautiously, one eyebrow creeping up. "I'll be right here in the morning."

"Stay," Kagome says, recognising the tone of the growl for what it is. "I mean, you will be right back here in the morning, it's kind of silly to keep asking you to go."

Miroku stands straighter. "If you're sure as well?" he asks Shippo, voice not betraying the faint shake she can see in his hands. It's no secret that Miroku prefers to be in company- sleeping alone and away from the rest of them each night can't have been easy on him. Kagome doesn't like it when she's alone at night, but she'd been used to it before, and at least she has the shelter of the hut. Miroku's been sleeping outside.

Shippo shrugs at him. "If Inuyasha says it's okay, then yeah. Stay here. It's easier to keep track of everyone that way."

"Inuyasha?" Miroku asks carefully. "Are you sure?"

"Stay," Inuyasha says, the word nearly lost in a growl.

The hut's not quite crowded, not yet. Inuyasha sleeps against the door and Shippo sleeps on top of one of the others, so even with Miroku taking Inuyasha's bedding (which Kagome discreetly moves further away from herself than she'd left it for the hanyou) there's still space. It is warmer, and somehow the air inside feels lighter, and they start to stay up later in the evenings talking and teasing each other and to wake slower in the mornings, knowing where all the others are without moving.

Inuyasha's talking to them more, too. He still doesn't say very much, Kagome doubts that he'll ever be talkative and he still tends to default to growls and snarls when he's trying to get a point across, but he does join in their conversations, and they're all easing up around each other. There's less and less flinching from everyone (and Kagome doesn't notice until he stops just how much Miroku had been flinching away from them, too).

They have bad days, sometimes. Miroku quickly ends up abandoning his original campsite, but there are still nights when he takes one look at the way Inuyasha's knotted up on himself in the corner by the door and goes to sleep outside by the ashes of the fire. There are still nights when Inuyasha sleeps up in the trees or not at all. Very rarely, they both have a bad night at the same time, and then Inuyasha tends to take the roof so that Kagome and Shippo aren't unprotected while Miroku stays by the fire and stirs at the dying embers rather than sleep.

Kagome has bad days too, but she's never thought of them that way before. She can tell now, in a way she couldn't before, by the way the men will go quiet for a day or two and not respond directly when she snaps out something sharp without meaning to. She must have done it before now but since Shippo used to leave so frequently there was never anyone to react until Inuyasha, and those first few months she'd never have consciously snapped at him, not with the way it makes him retreat into the forest even now.

Shippo hardly has nightmares anymore. He likes to scamper between them all when it storms, begging for stories and attention, and it makes Kagome even more fiercely glad for their friends.

The kit is the one who tells Miroku about his parents and Kagome's family being slain by demons, but otherwise they don't bring up their pasts again.

 

Chapter Text

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.