~Freak Attraction

Chapter 12: Divergent Paths

Fresh snow crunched beneath her feet as Mrs. Higurashi made her way across the shrine grounds towards the street. It was still early in the day, the sun just cresting the peak of Mt. Fuji, and the air was full of winter's chill. An eerie quiet had settled over the hill where the Higurashi shrine rested, devoid of bird song or the whistle of wind through the empty trees. Usually with snow this thick, her son would have been knee-deep in it by now, but instead he was inside under the warm kotatsu. He'd been inside more than usual lately, but Mrs. Higurashi could understand why. It couldn't be much fun to play in the snow if you were playing by yourself, especially if you knew someone else should have been there playing with you. Mrs. Higurashi sniffled, trying to distract her thoughts and pretend her red eyes and runny nose were due to the cold, and mustered a stoic face as she continued on her way toward town. She'd been avoiding trips to the market lately; there were so many stairs to climb to and from their shrine, the gossipy shopkeepers would all whisper as she passed, and… well, she just didn't have as many people to shop for anymore. Grandpa ate little, Souta was never home, and Kagome hadn't been seen in two months. And as for herself, Mrs. Higurashi just never really felt hungry. How could she enjoy a warm meal when her little girl could be lying dead on the frozen forest floor? Appetite or no however, they had to eat, and so Mrs. Higurashi was obliged to make the long march into the city center to face another uncomfortable day as the mother of a runaway child.

It was an easy twenty minute walk into the center of town, though when she arrived it felt worlds away from the old hill-top shrine. Rattling horse-drawn carriages clattered down the cobblestone streets as rickshaw drivers weaved between the unmarked lanes. Young ladies with bustles and dark-hair piled high on their heads strolled beside men in coats and top hats, and even the women wearing kimonos sported kid gloves and parasols. The buildings were new and industrial as well, made of red brick and mortar with chimneys spewing black clouds into the white November sky. Mrs. Higurashi glanced about casually, admiring the expanding modernism and trying not to look as morose as she felt.

Making her way to a corner of the street where the country women sold their produce, Mrs. Higurashi faked a smile at the sellers and bent herself over a cart to inspect their goods, trying to close her ears to their conversations.

"They've been in and out of the square all morning Hitomi. I think they're lost."

Her attention piqued as she realized the women were ignoring her in favor of new gossip fodder. What could have so distracted them that they'd ignore their favorite subject of scandal?

"Well they've been stopping to ask directions of nearly every person who's passed through! Though it seems to me that young man is more interested in wooing all the ladies in town than in finding his destination."

The other woman giggled lightly, responding "I don't think his companion approves of his efforts though. Look, there they go again!"

Mrs. Higurashi found herself looking in the direction of the nosy woman's pointing finger as well, and saw two very strange young people. A young man with black hair pulled into a small knot was gazing charmingly at one of the Japanese girls in western dress; his hands reached for the young woman's, but before he could take hold, the brown-haired woman beside him tugged him away, saying something over her shoulder to the confused girl as she dragged the man further along the sidewalk.

The women giggled again as they watched, picking up their conversation as they observed the two. "His young lady isn't much competition in a ratty worker's coat!"

"But look at him, Asuka! Isn't that black robe the type of thing a Buddhist would wear?"

"Don't be silly Hitomi, no one's a Buddhist anymore. Besides, a Buddhist wouldn't go out into public in his robes!"

"I should hope not, especially if he's hoping to woo one of the modern girls. Oh look! They're coming this way!"

Mrs. Higurashi turned abruptly back to her shopping, not wanting to be caught staring as the other ladies had been. Picking up a plum and inspecting it with much distraction, she felt the strangers walk up beside her and the food carts.

"Excuse me my good ladies" the young man said in clear handsome tones that left the older women giggling behind their hands like school girls, "you wouldn't happen to be familiar with this town, would you?"

"We come here often enough sir" Hitomi said lightly, enjoying the attention "but I'm afraid we ourselves don't live in the city. Are you in search of something?"

"We are" the woman beside him said, and her voice was feminine but harsh; she sounded to Mrs. Higurashi as though she'd seen too much of the world. Lightly shoving her companion to the side, she stepped forward and said urgently "Could either of you tell us where we might find the Higurashi Shrine?"

The silence that fell over the two country women would have been unsettling had Mrs. Higurashi been paying attention to them anymore. As it was, her head shot up to stare in confusion at the strangers, Hitomi and Asuka turning comically slow to stare at her instead. Noticing the sudden change in mood, the two young people turned as well to look at the silent shopper beside them, and at their confused faces Mrs. Higurashi snapped back to reality.

"That's my home!" she said quickly, then paused as she noticed her slip in demeanor. She gave them a friendly smile and continued more calmly "That is to say, my family owns and runs that shrine. What can we help you with there?"

The brown-haired woman smiled suddenly, a bright smile that seemed strange on her previously scowling face, and leaned over to her companion saying softly "You see it don't you?"

He smiled back, leaning down to whisper to her "Indeed! They have the same kind expression and warm eyes." The woman nodded enthusiastically, and Mrs. Higurashi had little time to ponder their strange comments before the young man approached her and took her hand, though his attitude was not flirtatious as it had been, but genuinely pleased. "We've made quite a long journey to find you, Lady Higurashi."

"I-I'm sorry, have we met?" She asked politely, though her mind was racing. What was going on? Had she fallen asleep under the coal-heated kotatsu and this was all some strange dream? Why did she feel as though… as though something big were about to happen?

"No, you would not have had opportunity to meet us" and he grinned as though enjoying some secret joke, "but we've had the privilege of making your daughter's acquaintance, and we've come on her request."

Her mind must have been numbed by the cold; it wasn't processing things properly. This young man couldn't have meant what she thought he did. This couldn't mean what she hoped it did.

"You're classmates of hers?" She asked quickly, though she was sure it couldn't be. They looked too old for school.

"Uh, no" he said slowly, as though not quite comprehending the question, "We only just met her a month ago, but we've all become very close friends, and she asked us to deliver a message to you."

"Message?" Mrs. Higurashi repeated breathlessly. A dying wish perhaps? An explanation for her sudden decision to abandon home and family?

"That she is alive and well" the man said happily, "and she's on her way home."

The brown-haired woman caught Mrs. Higurashi as her legs gave out beneath her, the basket she carried clattering to the cobblestone under their feet. Holding her up with a supportive arm, the young woman said quietly "Lady Higurashi, if you'll just take us back to the shrine, we'll explain everything there. Easy now…."

With a nod and mumbled directions from Mrs. Higurashi, the two women started on their way. The young man stayed behind for a moment, watching them go, then knelt to pick up the discarded basket. He handed it to the still shell-shocked women watching the scene, then reached into his robe to pull out a small but heavy coin purse. "Please fill this with an assortment of whatever you have to sell and have it delivered to the Higurashi shrine as soon as possible. I'll trust you to put whatever amount is in here to good use." And leaving the pouch atop a pile of radishes and sending them a dazzling wink, he followed after the two women, leaving Hitomi and Asuka with enough gossip to last them weeks.

"Alright Shippo, you and Hachi keep yourselves hidden while we're in the village, okay?"

The little fox bounced excitedly, puffing out his chest and saying courageously "Don't you worry, Kagome! We'll be as good as ninjas! No one in the village will know we're here."

Kagome smiled, confident that despite the boasting, he'd follow through. "I'm not sure how long we'll be" she said, glancing over at Inuyasha who was impatiently shouldering a large wicker basket, "so just stay hidden and wait for us. Inuyasha will find you when we're ready to go."

"Don't worry Miss Kagome!" Hachi piped in jovially, "I'll keep an eye on Shippo and make sure he doesn't cause any mischief."

"I wouldn't!" Shippo responded in a rush, and Kagome giggled at the both of them.

"Thank you Hachi! I'll trust both of you to keep out of trouble. We'll see you soon!" She waived the pair of demons off as they sat beside a tree, and then followed Inuyasha through the thick forest toward Kaede's village. They walked in silence, each focused on the task that had brought them back to the old burakumin town. A half-hour passed before they could finally see the roofs of huts through the treeline, and they circled round until they were as close to the vine-covered shrine gate as they could be while hidden. The sun was still high overhead, but luck was on their side, as the villagers seemed to be centered in the fields and not near the shrine. Exchanging a nod with Inuyasha, Kagome slipped out of the trees and quietly approached Kaede's dwelling.

"Excuse me" she called out from the porch, pushing the reed mat aside. A fire burned brightly in the pit at the center of the room, and Kagome easily made out Kaede's hunched form, the priestess getting a good look at her as well.

"Kagome! My my, this is a surprise! What on earth has brought you back here?" She rose quickly, motioning for Kagome to join her by the fire, but Kagome stayed in the doorway, lifting the mat a little higher up beside her.

"It's a long story Kaede, but… we brought something back for you." She turned back to the forest and gave a nod, and in a blur of red and white, Inuyasha leapt over the threshold, landing gracefully and setting down his cargo. Kaede jumped at his sudden appearance, but was quickly distracted by the large basket he brought which was almost her height.

"So you've both returned!" she said with a surprised smile, nodding to each of them as she approached the wicker case. "And what is this that you've brought?" Reaching out her hand to lift the lid, she paused before she could touch it, and her eyes grew wide. The hand she had outstretched went to cover her heart, her voice shaking as she started "Th-this is…"

"Kikyo's bones" Inuyasha said, the indifference in his voice sounding slightly forced, "They should all be there – at least, it's all the ones Naraku had."

"Naraku?" Kaede answered in confusion, reverently touching the basket containing the precious bones.

"It was Onigumo" Kagome said suddenly, and Kaede's head shot to face her, disbelief covering her features. "It's kinda complicated" Kagome continued, "but it was Onigumo stealing the bones all along. He… he joined himself to demons, and had found a way to use the power in Kikyo's bones for himself."

"How terrible" Kaede murmured, her forehead creasing in worry, "and what has become of Onigumo now? Will he be coming back?"

"Heh, you won't have to worry about him anymore" Inuyasha said smugly, looking across at Kagome with a smirk. She caught his eye and flushed; he hadn't mentioned it much, but she knew how proud he was of her for defeating Naraku, and his pride made her heart soar.

"I'm glad to hear it" Kaede said with a smile, returning to her spot by the fire. "I was just fixing my meal – there's plenty to share, and I'm anxious to hear about your travels and how you managed to procure these bones. After the meal, perhaps you, Inuyasha, could help me rebury them?"

Inuyasha gave a solemn nod, joining Kagome as she sat down on the floor beside the old priestess.

It was dusk by the time their meal and story were finished, which suited Inuyasha, as there would be less chance of nosy neighbors wandering about Kikyo's shrine. The task of re-digging the earth and laying the bones in their proper place was quick with the half-demon's strength, and the last rays of sunlight had only just vanished as Kaede offered a prayer of protection over the priestess' restored grave. The shrine grounds seemed to glow despite the dark of night, and Inuyasha wondered if the old woman could see it too.

Finishing her prayer, Kaede turned back to Inuyasha, eyeing him appraisingly. "What are your plans now, Inuyasha?"

Caught off guard, Inuyasha found his chest tightening in apprehension. This was a topic he'd been avoiding for days now. "Whaddaya mean?"

"Where will you go?" Kaede questioned, her hands folding behind her back and face turning up to gaze at the sliver of moon. "You're free now to do as you please, but there are not many places these days where a half-demon may live and be welcome." Her head dropped back and her eyes met his once more. With a small smile, she stepped forward and placed a weathered hand against his arm, saying softly "You might consider returning here for good; making this place your home again. It wasn't always so bad, was it?"

Inuyasha was stunned at the request, his voice failing him as the offer played over and over in his head. Was she serious? Would… would he really be welcomed here? It seemed unlikely; his last experience with this village hadn't been promising. But then… where else could he possibly go? Kagome's beautiful smiling face appeared in his mind; wouldn't she want to be with him? She'd gone through so much for his sake back at the circus… hadn't she said she would stay with him? But the brief flutter of hope brought on by that thought quickly fluttered away. She hadn't mentioned their future since that night she'd defeated Naraku.

It had only been a few days since their fight against the ringmaster, and Inuyasha repressed a shiver at the fresh memory. He could still feel the sticky webs pulling his limbs this way and that way, and hear the sickening taps and clicks made by the thick shell of the giant spider as it curled its legs around his limp form. But the feelings hadn't lasted long, as Kagome had saved him yet again. The pride he felt over her control of her powers was still burning strong; he'd never doubted her, and she more than came through. After her killing blow, Naraku's body had disintegrated to ash, leaving only the tattered shreds of a baboon pelt as evidence that he was ever there to begin with. Kagome was exhausted under the strain of so much spiritual energy, and although Inuyasha was untouched from her spell as he knew he would be, he was still weak and drained from his previous brush with her powers. They had both needed a long nights rest. The group had returned to the near-empty circus to sleep (and to collect on some long overdue earnings), and the next morning they'd separated, Miroku and Sango taking Kirara back to Tokyo, and himself and Kagome taking Kikyo's bones back to the village with Shippo and Hachi's help.

Despite the trip having taken several days, he and Kagome had hardly had a moment to themselves since the battle, and their conversations had stayed light and impersonal for their companion's sakes. All she'd said was how happy she would be to finally see her home. Not once had Kagome brought up where he would go after their task was completed, and she had certainly never offered for him to come with her.

He wondered if perhaps that was why they'd brought both Hachi and Shippo with them; they had needed help transporting Kikyo's bones, but somehow he had known… or rather, he had feared that their presence also meant Kagome would be whisked back to her modern life with her family, and he'd be left alone to head elsewhere. Even on the night of the new moon, when so much had been said, she had only ever expressed a desire to visit him… not for him to follow her to Tokyo. 'Just like a lost puppy' he thought sullenly, angered at his own neediness. He couldn't help the desire to be with her, but he also couldn't change her mind if she wanted to leave. And if Kaede was really willing to let him stay… wouldn't he be a fool to turn down such an opportunity? Would anyone ever show him such kindness again?

"Do you really think the villagers would let me stay?" he asked warily, almost unwilling to believe this was an option.

"Once the villagers learn of how you rescued Lady Kikyo's stolen bones," Kaede answered thoughtfully, "I have no doubt they will welcome you into the village. Perhaps they'll even give you back your mother's home."

Swallowing a lump in his throat, Inuyasha gripped the shovel he still held, trying to ground himself and sort through the typhoon of emotions in his head. Could he really go back? Back to a place he had once called home? Would it be like it was in the past, before the tragedy of his mother's death? The more he thought on it, the more tempting the offer became. Perhaps… perhaps if he tried to rebuild the life he once had here, it would erase the memories of everything that had gone wrong since. How many times had he wished to go back to that simpler life, when he'd felt loved and protected; before he'd known what the world was really like?

"I…" he started, his voice strained, "I don't know."

"Consider it, Inuyasha" Kaede said patiently, "Kagome will be returning to her home and loved ones. She has a place she belongs. Do you not also wish to have a home to return to?"

"Of course I do" he mumbled, brows furrowing in thought. So this was it: his one and only chance at a life and a home. Though… he couldn't help feeling disappointment. Somewhere in his mind, he had started to think of 'home' as wherever Kagome was. But he couldn't just decide such a thing for her; he couldn't sit around waiting for a dream to come true. "Thank you, Kaede" he said softly, his usual attitude melting away in his muddled state, "I… I think I will stay, after all."

Kaede smiled brightly at him, her voice soft as she answered "I'm glad to hear it", but suddenly her attention was drawn back to the steps of the old shrine. "Oh Kagome! You're just in time – we've finished restoring Kikyo's grave."

Inuyasha was stunned to have missed her presence, but the smell of dirt clinging to his clothes and claws had distracted his nose. Now, with his attention refocused on her, he could tell she'd been near them for a while… and she'd been crying.

"I know, Kaede, I felt her spirit!" The young woman responded cheerfully, a genuine smile on her face and not a trace of tears in her eyes. But Inuyasha knew better, and it tore at him to realize what had caused her tears. 'She knew we would have to part' he told himself vehemently, 'no matter what I said when I was human, she had to know I couldn't live in her world. This… this is the only place I can stay.' His mind warred against itself as he watched her approach, noting that despite her cheery smile, she was avoiding even looking in his direction.

"I'm glad to know she's at rest again" Kagome said once she had reached the stone grave-marker. "She helped me so much… I'll always be grateful that I got to meet her."

Kaede smiled warmly, responding "Indeed, and I'm sure she will always be grateful to you as well. Come, it is late. Why don't you rest here tonight; you're welcome to stay as long as you need."

"Thank you, Kaede" Kagome said, "But I think I'd like to leave first thing in the morning. I… I think it's time I got back to my family." Kaede nodded understandingly, and the two women started back down the stairs to the hut, moonlight leading their way. Only a few steps down Kagome paused, and in a friendly tone called over her shoulder "Oh, and Inuyasha…." Inuyasha stared at the back of her soft black hair shining blue in the light of the waning moon as she continued, "I think it's wonderful that the village will let you stay." She turned suddenly to face him, her eyes shut tight in a strained smile and said with all the honesty of a broken heart "I'm glad you've found a home." She turned to catch up with Kaede, skipping lightly down the steps, and Inuyasha watched her go with his own broken heart, unable to shake the empty feeling that little word 'home' had set in him.

Sleep was evading her, and her frustration over the fact only made her tossing and turning worse. She hadn't slept well for weeks, and now that she was finally safe on a soft futon with warm blankets and a warm fire, she had thought things would be different. They weren't. She rolled onto her side, burrowing into Kaede's thick winter quilt and squeezing her eyes shut against the dying embers of the fire-pit. She wondered how Inuyasha was handling the winter cold, not having come inside at all since he'd finished work on the grave. 'He's probably out inspecting his new home' she thought bitterly, and then with a heavy sigh burrowed deeper into her covers, angry at her own pettiness. It wasn't fair of her to be mad at him for finally finding a place to settle. She hadn't bothered to stop and think about what he'd want to do after finally being free; somewhere in her romantic mind she had pictured them the way they were before, traveling aimlessly through the wild woods, just the two of them. It had been unrealistic, and what was worse: it had been selfish. She had responsibilities, and he had people here whom he could help. She could just see it: the strong and loyal half-demon protecting the village, tanning leather for the tailor, building homes for grateful families… her heart burst to think of all the good he could do, and how appreciated he would surely be.

And what did she have to offer? He couldn't come to school with her, no one in the city would offer him a job with no credentials and no experience, and with his half-demon traits he would hardly be able to join in public activities, much less be seen in town. Honestly, what did she expect him to say? "No Kaede, I won't take your generous and practical offer – I'm going to give up my freedom and future and go play house with the crazy girl who keeps getting herself and everyone around her into trouble"; she laughed derisively at the thought, her heart caving in on itself even more. Could she really expect him to give up such an opportunity just because she couldn't bear to be without him? 'But then what do I do?' she questioned, 'I can't just let him go… not after all we went through, but I can't just abandon my life at home either. Everything was so clear in that circus: he was all that mattered to me. But… what do I do if I'm not all that matters to him?'

Settling further against her buckwheat pillow, Kagome tried to clear her mind of the depressing thoughts which plagued her. No sooner was her mind cleared then a woman's voice rang inside her head, in a tune as familiar to her now as her own name. 'Kagome, Kagome.' Her eyes popped open, her pulse beating faster, but for once it was not from fear of the song. The way Kikyo sang it now… it was like a lullaby, sweet and gentle. All the same, she knew it was not meant to put her to sleep. With growing anticipation Kagome sat up on her borrowed futon, and in the faint moonlight coming through the windows, she could see the iridescent outline of Kikyo's ghost, standing at her feet and smiling softly.

"Kagome" the spirit crooned, her face showing a depth of serenity that hadn't been there when they'd last met, "are you really going to change your mind so quickly?"

For a moment Kagome couldn't respond out of awe, but after gathering her wits, she found she wasn't really sure how to respond at all. "I don't understand… what do you mean?"

"I think you know" Kikyo answered in a chiding, motherly voice. "Your devotion to Inuyasha. Are you so willing to part with him after all you did to save his life? Several times, might I add? Are you really so eager to close this book you have opened?"

"I don't want to!" Kagome said fervently, "I just… I want him to be happy." Her gaze fell, her hands clutching the comforter in a death-grip.

"And you think he cannot be happy with you?"

Kagome turned to Kikyo's teasing face, her expression torn. "It's not that simple…" she huffed, trying to convince Kikyo as well as herself that she believed what she was saying. "Here he'd have a purpose; people would need him. He… he'd fit in better here than he would in the city. I have… nothing to offer him."

Kikyo's hands folded before her, her face pensive as she asked softly "That's very noble of you, Kagome… but have you bothered to ask Inuyasha what it is he wants?"

Melancholy became surprise at the other woman's blunt retort, and Kagome found herself incapable of any come-back.

"You and I are more alike than we seem" Kikyo continued, her fingers tapping on one hand. "We put the needs of others above our own wants and desires. But if there is one thing I've learned from my meeting you and Inuyasha, it's that we are just as deserving of happiness as those we seek to make happy. Inuyasha told me, when you were dead in his arms and I was unwilling to help, that it was pointless to worry about a future out of our control when there are things we can do now for those we love. So you see" Kikyo paused, smiling softly again "I can't sit idly by and watch two young hearts suffer when the key to their happiness lies in plain sight."

Kagome leaned back as tears pricked her eyes, her mind catching one phrase in particular and filling with burgeoning hope. "Two hearts?"

With a subtle nod, Kikyo prodded gently "Go – speak with him. Tell him what you feel. You may be surprised by what he reveals in return." Kikyo's form shimmered violently, and before Kagome could form a word in response, the apparition had vanished. Kagome saw the world around her fade, and suddenly she was blinking, her tired eyes meeting her cloth blanket and the cold wood floor, the embers in the pit long since burned out. A dream? It had been a dream, but she could still hear Kikyo softly humming in her ear, and she knew the conversation had been real.

Scrambling out from under the heavy blanket, Kagome wrapped her green-striped kimono around her shoulders and stood, not even bothering with her shoes as her sock-covered feet padded across the wood floor. There was no time for shoes. Her heart thundered in her chest as she reached for the mat to step out into the night, but her world came to a screeching halt as the mat was moved for her, and she came face to handsome face with the very half-demon she sought. He stared down at her with matching surprise, both of them breathing hard and wide awake. With a whisper of his name Kagome stepped forward… and gasped loudly as she was suddenly lifted off her feet. "We need to talk" was all he said before he whisked her out into the night, ducking under the tree-line and heading further into the forest. She clung to him tightly, having missed such closeness with him. There had been so many other people around lately –having it just the two of them made her heart beat wildly.

He set her down in a patch of moonlight; not too far from the village but far enough that they would have their privacy, and crouched in the grass beside her. Even in the low light she could see the intensity in his eyes, and it gave her chills. She had meant to seek him out and lay her heart bare, but now… now she could barely speak a word.

"Kagome" he began in a rough voice, "I don't… I don't express emotions easily, you know that, and I don't read people well. I've tried figuring you out, but you don't make any damn sense." At her slight look of consternation he plowed on, scooting closer to her in the dirt. "You're too damn kind, and I almost let you get away with that. But I hate givin' up, and I ain't givin' in to this without a fight."

"Inuyasha" she began softly, one eyebrow raised as she stared into his determined and angry eyes, "what are you getting at?"

"Did Kikyo speak to you?"

Kagome's breath caught, her mind whirling as she questioned back "how did you know?"

"Because she talked to me too" He said abruptly, leaning forward well into her personal space.

Curiosity burned at Kagome, and she couldn't help wondering "what did she say?"

"She talked to me about my mom" he said quickly, his tone hurried, almost eager to share the information. Kagome was in awe at his openness, but guessed that he wasn't sharing just for the sake of conversation, so she listened carefully to every word. "She apologized for not being able to protect my mother, but said that some things have to happen, even if they hurt. She said that if I'd never had to leave the village, if I'd never been in that circus… I probably never would have met you."

Kagome felt her heart race and her cheeks warm, but at the same time, she mourned the fact that someone so dear to him had to die for their paths to have crossed.

"That wasn't all though" Inuyasha continued, his voice deep and steady "Kikyo told me that she'd made mistakes, in life and in death, and all her mistakes taught her important lessons… but they taught her lessons too late. Helping Onigumo was a mistake she couldn't have seen coming, but the problems that came from trying to solve it all herself were things she could have avoided. She said… she said if I hadn't told her to return your soul… she would probably never have done it, and she would've regretted it later. She would have learned her lesson the hard way." He reached out then, his hands grasping her upper arms, squeezing lightly as if to ensure him of her presence, and continued with repressed intensity "But she didn't have to learn the hard way, because she let someone help. And… and she told me… she wanted to return the favor."

Her dark eyes scanned his light ones as he paused to gather his thoughts, and Kagome found herself leaning toward him instinctively as his thumbs began to stroke her arms. "Kikyo told me… that there's a lesson for me to learn here, now, and it'll be a lot less painful for me to swallow my pride and talk it through than to live with the consequences of a bad decision."

"What decision, Inuyasha?" she pleaded, her eyes boring into his, "what's the lesson she wants you to learn?"

He fidgeted, taking a moment to build his courage, and said haltingly "It's… that… that if I leave you now, I'll regret it for the rest of my life."

Her breath left her in a shaky whisper of his name, and his tone became urgent in response and his grip became stronger as he said "Kagome, I need to know what you want."

"I…" her voice faltered as her own conversation with Kikyo played through her head; but for all the courage she'd shown to the Ringmaster and his demons, for all the fiery feelings she felt for her dog-boy, under his insistent yellow gaze, she buckled. "I just… want you to be happy."

"No." Her eyes flew wide at his angry retort, and his hands fell from her arms as in a gravelly whisper he said "stop thinking about me; just stop forcing yourself to be so selfless dammit, and tell me what it is you want!"

Kagome's face heated in frustration. Couldn't he see how wrong it was for her to be selfish here? He was the one who'd been cheated; he was the one who had suffered, who'd had a happy life torn away from him. If she left him, her heart would suffer, but she'd still have her home and family. If she forced him to come with her, he'd have nothing but her company, and she just didn't know if that would be enough. His expectant frown was getting on her nerves as he waited for her response, and before she could second-guess herself, she found the words leaving her in a heated tide "I told you Inuyasha, I want you to be happy, and I meant it. Believe it or not, if you're unhappy, then I'm unhappy. Is that not selfish enough for you?" His angry expression became startled at her increasingly agitated state, but she was only getting started. "You have to know… it just makes sense for you to live here! You thought so yourself, didn't you? When you told Kaede you'd stay?"

His brows creased, and suddenly his anger faltered as doubt crept in behind his eyes. "Then… you really do want me to stay here? In the village?"

She growled at him, really growled, and Inuyasha's eyebrows shot up at the familiar and yet out of place sound. "I never said that! You really want selfish, Inuyasha? You wanna know what I want? I want to go home. I want to take a nice, long bath, with soap and oils and everything. I want to hug my mother. I want to see my brother and grandpa. I want to go to school and spend time with my friends and be a normal girl for once!"

With every word she said, Inuyasha winced, his ears flattening against his head. It was just as he'd feared: there wasn't a place for him in her life. She was ready to put it all behind her. So much for Kikyo's advice.

But then Kagome sighed heavily, and her anger seemed to drift away on the breath. Her head bowed, and their small clearing filled with silence, before Kagome lifted her eyes to meet his downtrodden ones, and she smiled softly. "But you know what else I want?" He waited, holding his breath, his clawed fingers digging slightly into the skin of his feet as he sat cross-legged before her. "I want to hold your hand." Tentatively she reached out, pulling his tensed hand away from where it left angry marks on his skin and entwined it with her own, her eyes focused on their joined fingers. "I want you to meet my mother. I want to walk with you around town and show you my home. I want to introduce you to my friends, and thank them, because despite all that happened, meeting you was the best birthday present I could ever receive."

"Kagome…" he whispered, his voice shaking, unable to contain his awe at her sweet yet firm declarations. Her eyes rose uncertainly to meet his again, and nervously she plunged on "I want to fall asleep against your shoulder; I want to walk with you, and sing together. I… I want to touch your ears, because they're just so soft, and so… you. And I want… to kiss you again." Her cheeks flushed, and Inuyasha's heart pounded so loud in his chest he was sure she could hear it. "But most of all, Inuyasha" she said, her voice more confident and sure, "I don't want you to leave me… and I don't want to leave you. I don't want to go back to my life before that demon circus; I don't want to pretend this never happened. I could never forget you, and it would only hurt to try."

He blinked at her, as if unable to believe his eyes, and then his mouth quirked and a smile slowly stretched across his face which he could barely suppress. He let loose a breath of pure relief and leaned over toward her. "Just imagine how stupid it would have been" he said lightly, closing the gap between them and pulling her back with him to lean against a nearby tree, "if you'd kept that all to yourself. You woulda been pining away at home, I'd a been pining away out here, and the whole time we'd have been wantin' the same things without even knowin' it."

Her eyes sparkled as she leaned against his side, looking up at him and loving how it felt to be so close as she whispered in wonder "You want those things too?"

Inuyasha smirked at her, pulling her closer with an arm around her shoulders and said"Well I ain't too keen on being paraded around your village, but… I'd put up with it, for the other stuff."

Kagome felt a blush and a smile creeping onto her face, and casting her eyes at the ground, she fiddled with the edges of her sleeves, asking in a small teasing voice "What other stuff would that be?"

"Oh, you know…" he answered, his cocky tone somewhat undermined by how long it took him to get the words out, "I'm pretty sure there was somethin' in there about my ears, and uh… about a kiss."

Biting her lip in a grin, Kagome chanced a peak at him from the corner of her eyes, and saw him doing the same. Their awkward meeting of glances brought pleased but nervous smiles to both faces, and Inuyasha was the first to move, turning slightly to face her, the hand not holding her shoulders rising to meet her cheek. Kagome's heart flipped and flopped and her insides were a storm of butterflies as he leaned closer, and she brought a hand to lay against the warm fabric over his heart, feeling the muscle beating wildly even under his thick skin. She didn't want to close her eyes, but the closer he got, the harder it was to focus on him, and so with his lips a breath away from hers, she gave in and let her eyelids slide shut as she felt his warm lips against hers.

They were both hesitant for the first few moments, and Kagome noted with interest how kissing the same person could be so different from one setting to the other. Their first had been hard and needy; now, Kagome just wanted to stop time and feel, because she was sure she'd never again experience this hardened man being so gentle and timid. When his thumb stroked her cheek and his fingers delved a little deeper into her hair, Kagome knew the spell had been broken, and was unsurprised when his kiss became a little firmer and a little more… wet. She smiled against his slightly parted lips, unsure really of how far to go, but contented to know he was as much in the dark as she, if not more.

After the briefest taste of her he pulled back, a fang peeking out under his idiotic smile. Her returned grin became a laugh, and as giddiness swept through her, she grabbed him and swung backwards, falling onto her back in the cold dirt and pulling her half-demon alongside her. The air left his lungs in a whoosh at the unexpected move, but she was happy to see him still smiling as she looked over at him, prompting him to ask "What's up with you?"

She shrugged, too happy really to respond, and looked up through the circular break in the canopy to see an ocean of twinkling lights. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight; the stars were so bright she felt she could reach out and touch them. Maybe it was just her imagination, but she didn't think she'd ever seen the sky so dark or so full in Tokyo. For a moment she lay back in silence, taking it all in: out in the forest, gazing at a flawless sky with a dog-eared boy beside her… it was like something from a dream.

"Will you be ready to leave tomorrow?"

Kagome was startled from her trance by Inuyasha's ragged voice, and she tensed for a moment, unsure what he meant until –

"I know you want to get home soon, but… I was thinkin' maybe we could send Shippo and Hachi on ahead… to help Miroku and Sango break in your family. It… might be nice to just walk there… don't you think?"

She didn't really trust herself to speak, afraid of saying something wrong and scaring him away, but regardless she found herself asking "Are you sure Inuyasha? You… you wouldn't miss this place?"

He scoffed, saying in gravelly tones "What's to miss? The old woman? Pfft, she'll survive just fine without my help. And Kikyo's safe now that Naraku's gone, so what would the point be? Besides, didn't you say you'd show me around Tokyo? That sounds a lot more interesting than staying here chopping wood all winter."

"Still…" she mumbled, her gaze focused on a constellation of stars, "it'll be hard living in the city."

"What's so hard about it?" He grumbled, sounding as surly as ever. There was a moment in which neither said a word, but then Inuyasha broke the stillness, continuing in a softer, more sincere voice "Hard… hard would be living here. Hard would be spending even a day without you."

She smiled up at the night sky, the stars looking less bright and less interesting than they had before, and Kagome left them where they were to turn over and cuddle up against Inuyasha's side. She felt his hand cautiously brushing against her arm, and she pulled tighter, one hand reaching up to pet a fuzzy ear as his arm encircled her waist. "Heh, what're you doin'?" he asked with amusement, and Kagome couldn't help a grin as she answered simply "being selfish" before scooting up slightly closer to his head for a better reach. Inuyasha merely chuckled in response before turning to face her on his side, burrowing his head in the crook of her neck and taking a deep breath of her scent as she tended to his dog-ears.

Kagome sighed against the crown of his forehead, ruffling his messy white bangs with the breath, and let her eyes drift closed as her body warmed from contact with his and his breathing evened out sleepily at her ministrations.

Birdsong and streaks of sunlight brought Kagome back to wakefulness, and it only took moments for her to register a pillow beneath her head and a quilt over her body. Her wide eyes were filled with the sight of a black pot over the fire-pit of Kaede's hut, and all of a sudden she felt numb. That hadn't… that hadn't been a dream, had it? All those things she'd said to Inuyasha, him agreeing to come with her… had it all been in her head?


She jumped harshly at the light tap against her shoulder and turned to see Inuyasha crouched beside her bed roll, looking just as startled as herself at the reaction. "What's with you? I thought you wanted to get an early start! Damn, at this rate I'll be carrying you the whole way back!"

Her earlier fears were quickly dissipating as the cobwebs of sleep left her muddled mind, but she had to make sure. "Back where, Inuyasha?"

"Back home, of course!" He said gruffly, giving her a look which clearly questioned her presence of mind. "You forget everything already? Unbelievable." With a shake of his head he stood and walked to the door, checking through a burlap sack evidently provided by Kaede, and Kagome was quick to follow.

When they informed Kaede of Inuyasha's change of decision, she was understanding, and Kagome thought she looked almost pleased at the news.

Telling Shippo that they'd be taking separate journeys was a little more difficult, but at Kagome's insistence that her mother needed the warning, and assurance that they'd meet up again at her house, the little fox eventually agreed and set off into the air with Hachi.

"You know," Kagome started teasingly, a little later in the day after their journey had begun and they'd already covered a fair amount of ground, "we probably could have just taken Shippo and Hachi with us. I'm sure Miroku and Sango have things covered."

"Feh, you kiddin'? They'd only slow us down."

Kagome rolled her eyes, not at all believing his excuse but not really caring either. She was more than happy to travel with him and him alone. Smiling at the thought, Kagome couldn't resist reaching out and taking Inuyasha's hand in hers, swinging it slightly as she walked beside him. His hands were so warm compared to the frigid winter air around them, and although Kagome had a nice, thick coat given to her by Kaede to protect against the harsh wind, its comfort paled in comparison to that of the fingers wrapped around hers.

A tiny flake of ice perched on Kagome's nose, and with a gasp of delight she cried out "Inuyasha, it's snowing!"

"What's the big deal? It snowed last night too!" He answered, not bothering to slow down or look away from the path before them. "Why do you think I bothered to take you back to the hut? I can't go presentin' you to your mother half frozen. I'm sure she'll be ready enough to kill me as it is."

"Oh I don't know" Kagome said distractedly, lifting her free hand to collect the falling snow, "You'd be surprised by how accepting she is."

"Well… she is your mother after all."

Kagome smiled, playfully brushing her snow-filled hand against her companion's shoulder and eliciting a perturbed "Hey!" from the man. She laughed as the snow started to fall more thickly, and for the first time in a long time she gladly let her mind drift to thoughts of home, knowing she'd be there before too long, surrounded by those she loved with yet another to add to the list. She could just picture the new brick buildings in the square topped with white, see the festive foreign decorations in the shop windows, and could hear the children singing and playing in the streets as they built snow-forts. One song in particular stuck in her mind, and Kagome almost laughed at the irony of starting yet another journey with a children's song as she began humming the old winter tune.

Inuyasha's ears perked at the sound, and for a moment he simply listened to her breathing the melody, but he couldn't resist his curiosity for long. "What song is that?"

Kagome glanced up at his innocent and intrigued face, and in that moment she became determined to fill his life from now on with all the wonderful, simple, and joyful things she could; because if anyone deserved to experience them, he did. "It's a children's song I used to sing during the winter. Catchy, isn't it?"

"It's not bad" he responded casually, though with obvious interest.

"Alright then" she said, pretending the matter was of little consequence to her while her heart did cartwheels, "how about I sing it for you, and you chime in whenever you think you've got it, okay"

At his grinning nod, she started, her gaze falling to the building white beneath her feet as she sang out

"Snow is slowly falling, Hail is thickly falling

Piling up, piling up, falling fast to the ground

The mountain and the meadow sat, covered with a cotton hat

Bare trees are blooming white like blossoms in the spring

Snow is quickly falling, Hail is thickly falling

Steadily, steadily, piling up without stop

Little dog is prancing, through the snow he's dancing

Little cat is by the fire, curled up in a ball"

Over and over she sang it, until finally she heard him hum it along with her, and after a few rounds of that he joined in the lyrics, their voices harmonizing in the silent surroundings of the forest. Even when Kagome began to slow, her feet dragging and eyes drooping, Inuyasha simply hoisted her on his back and continued singing to himself, the vibrations she could feel from his deep tenor lulling her to sleep against his red coat and long blanket of snow-colored hair.

~The End~

... until the sequel. :P

*Author's Note:

First of all, to all of you who have followed this story from its early days to those who just recently found it, thank you for sticking around and making it all the way here! Your reviews and faves and follows have helped motivate and inspire me, and I'm so so SO grateful to all of you for your support!

This story has been so much fun to write, and I'm SUPER excited to get into the next phase of it. The sequel "Freak Attraction: Seven-Man Circus" will be starting up soon hopefully - I've been planning it almost since I first started writing this, and it's pretty much all planned out at this point. I hope you guys all enjoy it as much as you enjoyed this, and I hope you'll enjoy the additional characters, additional fluff, and additional circus acts which await! ;)

also, a note about the song at the end: it's the Japanese children's song "Yuki" (snow), but I slightly altered the English translation of the lyrics to fit the tempo of the song better; so basically, if you were to hear the tune by itself, you should be able to sing these lyrics along to it and have it sound correct.