The small circle of light didn't extend far into the darkness surrounding the fire. Merrily dancing flames tried to keep the oppressive blackness at bay without much luck as the two tried to hide their ambiguous stares over the small encampment. "Do you think Shippou will be all right?" Kagome finally asked, breaking the silence that had fallen since dinner. Slender of frame, the girl who had grown into a woman before his eyes gazed into the dancing flames, her eyes dulled in her concern over the kitsune pup they had left behind.
"Keh!" InuYasha snorted, wrapping his arms around Tetsusaiga, his father's legendary sword, as he settled back against the thick tree behind him. Crimson haori bathed in shadows, he sat on the outskirts of the light sphere, watching, waiting, pulsing with the night. "He's with Miroku and Sango. He'll be fine."
Kagome shrugged, noticeably recoiling at the hanyou's surly answer. He stifled a sigh. He hadn't meant to make her feel worse. "I know he'll be fine. I'm just used to having him travel with us."
"He's more trouble than what he's worth," InuYasha argued in a stilted attempt to pacify the young miko.
Kagome looked as though she disagreed. In the end, she clamped her jaw tight and shifted her gaze to the side. "I'm just not used to leaving him behind."
Opening his mouth to say something, InuYasha thought better of it and sighed instead. Sitting alone with her hands resting on her bare knees, Kagome looked sad—too sad. "He was having fun with them," he said softly. "Shippou isn't really your pup, anyway."
She shook her head, and he flinched at the hurt in her tone. "I know he's not but he might as well be."
"That wasn't what I meant," InuYasha said, trying to keep Kagome from getting any more upset with him than she already was.
Her eyes took on an angry glow, and she pinned him with a formidable glower. At times like these, when she skewered him to the spot with a simple look, InuYasha was all too aware of the full power she possessed, both spiritual as well as her power as a woman. "You really know how to kick someone when they're already down, don't you?"
"Keh!" he cut in, trying to forestall the argument he had a feeling was brewing behind those fathomless brown eyes. "You're taking it wrong."
Kagome sighed and dropped her gaze back down to her hands in her lap and nodded slowly. She sighed, and her voice was tiny, barely more than a breath, "I know. I'm sorry."
The perverse desire to shake her swept over him, and InuYasha tightened his arms around the sword to keep himself from giving in to the urge. Kagome was behaving strangely. She had been for the last few weeks, come to think about it. He tried a few times but couldn't get her to tell him why that was.
"Better get some sleep," he remarked, trying to change the subject. "We'll be there in the morning."
She nodded slowly and crawled into her sleeping bag. He could feel her gaze on him for a long time.
He didn't look at her. "What?"
". . . I think after this, when we go back to the village . . . I think it's time for me to go home."
That got his full attention. InuYasha's head snapped toward her, his eyes flaring in the dim firelight. "What? I said I was sorry, I said I didn't mean anything by it!"
She rolled over, facing away from him, as though she couldn't stand the sight of him. "It's not that, InuYasha," she said softly. "I think my job here is done, that's all."
"Your job?" he echoed, unable to keep the irritation out of his tone. "Is that what this whole thing has been to you? A fucking job?"
"Yeah," she said, her voice strangely rough. He could hear the tears in her voice even if she wasn't crying. "A job, like any other job. There's no reason for me to stay. The Shikon no Tama is complete, Naraku is gone, Shippou's not mine—you said so, yourself . . . There's nothing left for me here."
InuYasha winced at the frustration in her tone, the pain in her voice. "Kagome . . ."
"Don't make it harder, InuYasha. It's already hard enough."
He got up and stomped around the fire. She stubbornly tried to ignore him. He wouldn't let her do it. Flopping down beside her, InuYasha pulled her onto his lap, sleeping bag and all. "What's wrong with you? Why have you been acting so weird?"
She sighed, trying to pull away from him. He held onto her. "Let me go."
"Not until you tell me what the hell is wrong with you."
"Nothing!" She choked back a sob and shook her head. "Everything . . ."
Pushing the hair off of her face, staring into her eyes as crystalline tears shined in the wan light. "You're not making any sense."
Frowning at the hopeless note in her voice, InuYasha shook his head slowly, wishing he could read her mind, know her thoughts. `What is she thinking? Why doesn't she talk to me?' He sighed as she pulled away, her chin dropping, her eyes skittering downward, as though she feared to look at him. "Is this about Shippou? Kagome . . . maybe he is better off with Miroku and Sango. They're going to give him a home. He needs it."
"Don't you think I know that?" she asked quietly. Her eyes sparkled with the tears that didn't fall. Pooling in her eyes like moonlight on the horizon, yet the moisture wouldn't fall, wouldn't comfort. The ache of it welled up in her throat. As if she had already cried out all the tears she possessed, she shook her head slowly, sadly, stumbling off of InuYasha's lap and out of her sleeping bag.
She smiled. It was thin and a mere shadow of her usual smiles. But it was from the heart, and it warmed him. He smiled back. "Where do I belong?"
InuYasha's gaze fell away as heat filtered into his cheeks. Normally he'd make some cocky statement. But, looking into Kagome's eyes, he knew, either he said something now or he'd lose her forever. Still, it took a minute longer to gather the right words. It seemed so easy. To him, it was like saying the impossible. "Your place is wherever you want it to be."
He shrugged. "Of course. Do you . . . want to leave? I mean, really?"
Something cold drifted over her. Kagome glanced up into the skies. The familiar silvery blue snake-like bodies of Kikyou's Shini-dama-chuu—her soul collectors—writhed and twisted like a cynical smile high above. "You'd better go," she said, her voice oddly disengaged from her emotions.
InuYasha didn't move. "I'm not going," he said quietly. "Kikyou doesn't need me anymore."
Kagome sighed. They'd had this discussion a hundred times, and a hundred times, it was the same. "It's not a question of need, InuYasha. I know you still . . . love her."
He didn't confirm it, but he didn't deny it, either.
Nodding slowly, as though she finally understood, Kagome closed her eyes and walked out of the circle of light. As quietly as a shadow sweeps over the land, she disappeared from his sight.
InuYasha stared after her. His heart told him to catch her, to bring her back, to make her understand that he needed her there, as necessary to him as air, as water, as fire . . .
Golden eyes shifted to stare at the beckoning Shini-dama-chuu. `Kikyou wants to see me,' he thought dully. With a sigh, he got to his feet staring balefully at the flying soul collectors the entire time. `I owe Kikyou . . . but Kagome is . . . I . . .'
Before he could think about it too long, InuYasha lit out in a run, sniffing the air for her scent.
She wasn't in a hurry. Even if she could see where she was going in the darkness, she wouldn't have run. The night didn't frighten her any more. It held her now with the familiarity of an old friend. The one she'd given her girlish heart to years before, the one she'd die for now . . . A curious sense of resignation seeped over her. `He's with her now.'
`Don't think about it.'
The trees offered her a solitary kind of peace as she wandered. With no actual destination in mind, Kagome thought maybe she'd just keep walking. `Which would run out first?' she wondered. `My will to continue, or the land to walk on?' She smiled at her strange sensibilities. The smile didn't last.
`Where do I belong?' She'd been thinking about it more and more often lately, especially since Sango and Miroku's wedding. What she'd said to InuYasha was the truth. Shippou, as much as it had hurt to see, had preferred to stay with Sango and Miroku, wishing for the stability of a home life that Kagome couldn't offer him. She didn't blame him for wanting that. She, herself, missed it, too.
For so long her life had centered around finding the Shikon no Kakera, to reconstruct the jewel that she had inadvertently destroyed. Along the way, the center of the quest had shifted to Naraku. It had been over a year and a half since they had defeated him. That confrontation was one Kagome wasn't ever going to forget. She relived it all the times, especially in her nightmares. Those nightmares had diminished lately, replaced by another one, a more vivid one, one that hurt her far worse than the memory of destroying the evil ever could.
After that had come the purification of the jewel. The trouble was, no one really knew how to do that. In the end, it had been accidental. Kagome stood with the jewel in her hands, staring at the shining orb as she pondered what to do with it, how to get rid of it so that it couldn't come back, so that it couldn't be used to hurt anyone ever again.
She still remembered how her friends had come close to her. Shippou, the child who had so needed Sakimitama. In their quest, he had found that, and so much more. Shippou's love was bathed in the sacred pink aura. Sango, the youkai exterminator, on her quest to learn why Naraku had so callously slain her entire family, why he turned her brother against them all, had sought Kushimitama. Sango's wisdom was bathed in the sacred pink aura. Miroku, the monk who desired to stand strong in the face of his kazaana, the family curse that might have otherwise destroyed him, had yearned for Aramitama. Miroku's courage was bathed in the sacred pink aura. Then InuYasha, the outcast, the hanyou, the one who neither needed nor trusted a single soul, the one who desperately needed Nigimitama, had come forward to complete the circle around her. InuYasha's friendship was bathed in the sacred pink aura.
As the four souls came into alignment with the jewel, as the four friends stood around Kagome, the light of their souls, the aura of their inner balances had worked together to purify the Shikon no Tama. It exploded in a flash of white light, leaving nothing but a trail of stardust in the air in its wake.
She had been the bearer, the jewel's protector but it was the balance in her friends that was the true balance needed to purify it completely.
Trouble was, even if she went back through the well, there weren't any guarantees, not for her. Flunked out of school, she might be able to test out, if she tried hard enough. She'd all but given up any hopes of being able to actually catch up in any of her classes. At nearly eighteen years old, she was considered too young to get married, even if she had anyone in mind for that, and because of her constant trips into the past, she wouldn't be able to just pick up where she'd left off, either.
`Baka, you! You thought you'd stay here with InuYasha; you know you did.'
She sighed. She had never really thought that so much as she had hoped . . .
It all came back to Kikyou, to InuYasha's desire to rekindle what had literally died so long ago. He wanted to quicken her clay heart, to make her live on, even if it was only in his dreams.
It didn't matter what InuYasha said. He'd assured her time and again that his feelings for Kikyou weren't the same any more. But Kagome knew what was in his heart. She'd heard him call out in his sleep. It was probably the reason the hanyou hated to give in to the `weak' necessity.
Weeks ago, as they traveled to check in on Jinenji, they'd camped out; just the two of them. Normal enough, it had seemed. InuYasha dropped her bag and stomped off into the forest to find something for dinner. It never took him long.
Ten minutes later, he'd returned with a plump rabbit, cleaned and skinned and ready to cook.
Dinner had been a quiet affair. Kagome was feeling a little pensive. Sango and Miroku had remained in the village to finish the preparations for their wedding. Shippou had stayed behind that time because Kaede, the old village miko, had been a bit under the weather. `Old bones,' Kaede had called it. Kagome had a suspicion it was more like rheumatism.
It had been swelteringly muggy. Kagome had been wearing a pink tank top and khaki colored shorts for the bulk of the day. It had been so hot, though, even after the sun went down. She ended up begging InuYasha to take her to the nearby pond to bathe. In the end, he'd conceded, albeit with ill-grace, and had taken her there.
The cool water had done the trick though. Not five minutes after arriving back at their campsite, she had been asleep, curled on top of her sleeping bag.
She hadn't been sure what woke her. It may have been the wind that picked up suddenly, rattling the leaves on the trees above. It could have been the way the flames of their small fire had flared up with the increasing winds. Whatever it was, though, Kagome had sat up, still feeling groggy, to see InuYasha, leaning against a tree trunk not far away. His head leaned to the side, and he reminded her of the first time she saw him. Pinned to the sacred tree, the wind playing with his hair as though the wind had a soul, and the soul was a woman. She tousled his hair lovingly, caressingly. InuYasha was a creature of nature.
He moaned softly, a sound that the hanyou rarely made. That he did now brought Kagome wider awake, and she crept over to him, knelt beside him.
`Kik . . . you . . .'
Kagome felt her heart plunge to her feet, the blood in her veins running cold. What had she really expected? She sighed, getting to her feet and shuffling back over to her sleeping bag. She had just lay back down when he spoke again.
`Want to . . . die . . . for you . . .'
Burying her face in her arms, Kagome blocked out everything—the sound of his mumbles, the voice in her head that reminded her of that stupid promise that he'd made to Kikyou. `You said that my life is yours . . . and yours is mine.' Kikyou wanted to drag InuYasha to hell with her. Kagome had seen her try. Now, it seemed, InuYasha was almost ready to let her take him.
The whisper of the forest brought Kagome out of her musings. Sinking down on a rock, she willed away the rest of the memory and sighed. If she wanted to be completely honest with herself . . . it was because of his sleepy mumblings that she felt the way she did now. This complete upheaval in her emotions, the feeling that she'd made the wrong choices all along . . .
She'd given it a lot of thought though. She needed to get over InuYasha. Tired of clinging to half-promises and unanswered gestures, Kagome needed to give herself a chance to find what eluded her now. She didn't want to be a vague shadow of the one who would forever remain, in InuYasha's mind, the shiny example of perfection. Because she'd come after Kikyou, or because she was her reincarnation, it all lead to the same realization. He was bound inexorably to Kikyou. She was the one who possessed his heart.
A sudden sound startled her. Instinctively, Kagome reached over her shoulder for her bow and arrows only to realize too late that she'd forgotten them. She grabbed a fallen tree branch and stood, holding the limb like a baseball bat. She might have been foolish to wander off alone. But she wouldn't go down without a fight . . .