It came upon them suddenly. One moment he was running through yet another dark tunnel, and in the next, moonlight mingled with Kagome's aura to show their way. He didn't slow down as they emerged from their would-be tomb and charged down the slope, picking their way around obstacles and avoiding boulders tumbling down from above. But despite his concentration, Inuyasha couldn't hold back the genuine smile which came unbidden to his lips. He and Kagome had escaped almost certain death. The air was fresh, and the sight of the full moon glowing brightly overhead was nothing short of glorious. It was good to be alive.

He didn't dare stop running until they'd reached the edge of the forest growing on the flat ground adjoining the rocky slope. Tired but ecstatic, he turned back to the mountain and heaved a sigh of relief. Kagome's aura vanished abruptly, almost as though she had been subconsciously waiting for some sign that they were out of danger. Inuyasha's jovial mood soured in an instant, and he once again swore under his breath. Kagome's breathing was shallow, and a quick test of her forehead revealed that she was burning up, to say nothing of her dehydration or how exhausted she must be from using all of that spiritual energy. He needed to cool her down and get some fluids into her, and he needed to do it quickly. He couldn't smell any water sources from here, but if he searched long enough he was sure he would come across something. With this thought in mind, he turned and sprinted into the forest. The sounds of the mountain collapsing intensified behind him, but he had no desire to stop and watch the spectacle. The only thing that had been precious within that mountain was the young woman he had carried out with him.

Inuyasha had only run for a couple kilometers when his nose led him to a tiny forest stream. Since drinking and cooling Kagome down in there would be a real challenge, he decided to follow it for a bit in the hope that it drained into something more substantial. Again, fate seemed to be smiling upon them. The river was perfect. Easily narrow enough for him to leap in a single bound, it was probably only chest deep. But the current wasn't too strong, and he had little doubt that the water was cool. He waded in clothes and all, still holding Kagome in his arms. She stirred as soon as he immersed her in the water, shocked into wakefulness by the sudden drop in temperature. After an experimental sniff, Inuyasha urged his still drowsy companion to drink, which she quickly took to with gusto. He had to force her to slow down at one point, so she didn't make herself sick, but he let her drink until she was satisfied. Finally, Kagome sighed happily and lay back in his arms, smiling contentedly up at him.

"Feeling better, wench?" he teased with a matching grin.

"Yeah," she replied, her voice still a little raspy but much smoother than before. "So we made it out alive, huh?"

"Keh. 'Course we did. Nice job back there, by the way."

Kagome rolled her eyes, her grin turning wry. "'Nice job,' he says…after I purify something so evil it makes Naraku look like saint."

"It wasn't that evil," the hanyou retorted, though the glimmer in his eye told her that he was just messing with her.

"You're unbelievable," she told him, far more amused than frustrated by his underwhelming praise.

"Oi, you're the one who always finds trouble. I can't let you out of my sight for a second."

He obviously meant this as a joke, and Kagome might have taken it as one, if not for the ugly truth hidden beneath his words.

"Kagome?" he asked, obviously confused by her shift in mood.

"You're right, Inuyasha," she said quietly. "It's my fault you…were in the illusion. I shouldn't have let it lure me to the back of the cave…"

The hanyou's eyes widened in alarm. "That's not—I mean—don't be stupid, wench! It's not your fault."

Kagome could tell that his denial was sincere, so she nodded in acceptance. But it didn't make her feel much better, or dispel the suddenly subdued atmosphere between them. Inuyasha looked like he didn't know what to say, and she didn't want to say anything at all. The oppressive silence stretched on for several minutes, as he held her nervously in the middle of the river. Finally, he spoke.

"Uh…do you want to take a bath?" he asked, his tone indicating that he was trying to cheer her up. "I know it's not a hot spring, but…uh…"

Despite her misery, Kagome did find some appeal in his suggestion. Her skin needed to be scrubbed if it was going to come clean, even if it was only by hand, and her clothing was filthy. Inuyasha seemed encouraged by her nod, and set her on her feet in the river, remaining by her side until he was sure she could handle the current. Then he waded over to the bank, climbed out and settled against a tree facing the water.

"Can you give me a little privacy?" she snapped, guilt morphing into irritation. He glared at her and crossed his arms over his chest.

"I'll close my eyes," he promised snippily, clearly unwilling to concede anything further.

Kagome's ire rose at his obstinacy, then abruptly evaporated. His expression was sullen and stubborn, nothing she hadn't seen before. But the look in his eyes made her heart ache. Inuyasha was afraid. He didn't want to let her out of his sight. Given what he had been through, she could understand why. It was easy to become so consumed by her own misery, and forget that Inuyasha had demons to exorcise too. He had his own cruel memories to relive, at least some of which involved something terrible happening to her. And here she was, taking out her self-loathing on him.

Ashamed, Kagome averted her gaze and began to disrobe without further comment, keeping most of her body under the water. There wasn't much for him to see, even if he did try to peek. She rolled her clothing up into a ball and tossed it in his general direction, then did the same with his suikan, listening as both landed on the bank with a splat. She had to admit, this had been a good idea on Inuyasha's part. It felt great just to remove her soiled clothing, and scrubbing her skin left her feeling like a human again for the first time in two days. Most of all, she was glad that Inuyasha was here, watching over her. She didn't really want him to leave her sight either.

She eventually dared a glance in his direction, and found him gazing up at the moon through the canopy. She cringed, able to tell even from her position how uncomfortable he was. Inuyasha was in that hot cave just as long as I was, and he did a hell of a lot more running. He must feel as disgusting as I did. But she really didn't want to get out yet, and after grappling with teenage butterflies for a bit, she settled on an alternate idea. With everything they had been through, sharing such an innocent level of intimacy didn't seem so outlandish.

"Inuyasha?"

"I'm not moving, wench," he declared crossly, clearly expecting another argument.

"No, no…I was just going to ask…if you wanted to join me?"

Inuyasha looked at her as though she had sprouted another head, and Kagome could have slapped herself for her poor word choice. Great job, baka, make it sound perverted so he'll definitely get scared off.

"Wh-what I meant was…do you want to take a bath too?"

He studied her for a moment, then snorted. "I'll pass, wench."

Kagome recognized his refusal as one borne of embarrassment, so she decided to try one more time.

"It's okay, Inuyasha. I know you probably feel miserable too, sitting up there all sweaty and dirty. I really don't mind if you want to come in. It feels great to wash off and cool down."

She was proud of herself for finishing her statement without any stutters or hesitations. As a result, Inuyasha seemed to take her offer seriously for the first time. His gaze bored into hers, searching for any sign that she was being anything less than truthful, that she really didn't mind bathing with him, the hanyou who had once again failed to protect her. It was ridiculous for him to feel that way, but she knew him, and she would bet anything that his mind had been turning in that direction. Hopefully her gesture of reconciliation would do both of them a lot of good. Inuyasha either shared that hope, or he truly did desire a bath, because he slowly stood and began unfastening the ties to his hakama, keeping his eyes locked with hers the entire time. Eventually Kagome realized that he was waiting for her to look away, and she spun around with an intense blush staining her cheeks. She waded toward the opposite bank, not turning back until well after she heard Inuyasha enter the water.

To her surprise, she found him washing not himself, but his clothing. It made sense; why put dirty clothes on a clean body, especially when the garments were already wet from earlier? If I was smart, I would have done the same. Inuyasha squeezed each article dry and tossed it onto the bank, then proceeded to scrub himself in equally businesslike fashion. He surprised her again when he remained in the river afterwards instead of immediately getting out, settling into a relaxed, half-standing, half-floating posture. His expression, however, was not relaxed. His jaw clenched, clear evidence of considerable tension, and his golden eyes seemed to dull, taking on a troubled, faraway appearance. He was obviously no longer in the river with her.

Seeing this soon caused Kagome's own thoughts to drift back to the events of the past two days. Was she glad that none of it really happened? Of course she was. But at the same time, she knew she would never be able to brush it off as 'merely' an illusion. Because to her, it wasn't. The memories of what she had seen and done would remain with her until the day she died. The sickening squelch of the spear embedding in that poor boy's throat, the sounds he made as he struggled through his final throes. And later, the sight of the bandit lying on the ground, one eye destroyed by her arrow and the other widened in the irreversible emptiness of death. A sudden chill passed through her, and she hugged herself, running her hands over her arms for warmth.

Again, logic said that she was being foolish. After all, that bandit had been fully intent on raping her, and then probably killing her afterwards. From a legal and moral perspective, her actions were fully justified by self-defense. If one of her school friends had been through something similar, that was exactly what she would be telling them. But it was different to actually be the killer, to know that she had taken someone's life by her hand. It wasn't so easy to brush it off as justifiable self-defense, not when she saw the man's ruined face every time she closed her eyes. Not when she heard the poor boy's coughing and gurgling echoing in the silence of the night. She had learned two things about herself over the past twelve hours, two separate circumstances under which she would take a life. And she wasn't sure how she felt about that.

It would take time, she reflected. Probably a lot of time. Judging by his continued silence, Inuyasha was not going to overcome his own demons very quickly either. Was that okay? Would she learn to cope with this eventually, or would it slowly drive her mad? The uncertainty was downright frightening. Another shiver passed through her, this one making the water ripple audibly around her.

"Cold?"

Inuyasha's softly uttered question startled her, and it took her a few moments to truly comprehend what he was asking. At her hesitant nod, he stood and began wading toward the bank, forcing Kagome to avert her gaze for propriety's sake. That didn't prevent her from noticing the fresh spark of life in his eyes. Was it simply from having a task to complete? Maybe that was the key to coping with their experiences. If they focused on taking care of each other, would the rest work itself out in the end? It was clear that Inuyasha's desire to protect and care for her had not waned in the slightest, and she knew that she felt the same about him. It was an encouraging realization, one which gave her some small measure of hope.

Once she was sure that Inuyasha was no longer nude, Kagome settled back to watch him work. He was topless, not having bothered with anything more than his hakama. Not that she minded. Her head might not be in a great place right now, but Inuyasha was still very attractive. When he wasn't trying to posture and put on a tough act, he could move with this incredible natural grace which never failed to captivate her. Even the simple act of gathering wood and kindling for a fire exuded a certain beauty, his movements efficient and fluid. The gesture was touching as well. An experimental lift of her arm revealed that if she was cold in the water, she would be even colder once she stepped out of it. Emerging to a warm, waiting fire sounded very nice indeed.

Said fire took Inuyasha a little time to get started, forced as he was to use a friction-based method instead of matches. But his hands were well-practiced from his youth, and his superhuman stamina probably helped as well. Soon enough, he had a good-sized campfire going. He used tree branches to hang his suikan and kosode near the flames to dry, the former closer than the latter because he knew it wouldn't catch on fire. While they were drying, he stood close to the flames himself, periodically turning himself so that his hakama dried also. Kagome was sure that none of it was perfect, but he was in little danger of becoming sick or developing a rash from damp clothing. The reason for his efforts didn't become clear to her until he walked back over to the riverbank, his kosode and suikan draped over an arm.

"Inuyasha, can you toss me my clothes?"

He furrowed his brow. "What for?"

"Um…so I can wash them and squeeze them out," she replied, trying not to reveal how obvious she thought the answer should have been. What, does he expect me to walk around naked?

"Keh. I figured you'd just wear my suikan."

Kagome blinked in surprise. She had honestly never expected Inuyasha to verbally propose something like that. Usually he just gave it to her, like in the cavern earlier. Most of the time it functioned as a form of protection in dangerous situations, rather than an article of clothing to cover her nakedness. While it was true that she had worn it in that capacity as well, that had also been in dire circumstances. Once she got over her surprise, however, she realized it was a great idea. The heavy fabric would retain body heat much better than her thin cotton blouse, and he had already done a careful job of drying it. Now she knew why he had seemed to fuss over the suikan a little more than his other articles of clothing. Her heart warmed at the thought.

"I-is that…okay?" he asked, failing to conceal his nervousness. Realizing that her silence must have spooked him, Kagome hurried to provide reassurance.

"Of course! Thank you, Inuyasha. I really appreciate it." That earned a slight blush from the hanyou, but her words had obviously pleased him as well.

"Yeah, well…thanks for letting me take a bath."

"Sure," Kagome replied, knowing that one case of generosity was not necessarily quid pro quo for the other. Inuyasha was simply taking care of her like he always did, though he did tend to be more open about it when the two of them were alone. He had no idea how much it meant to her. She loved him for the small gestures of affection which nevertheless revealed the strength of his feelings.

Small gestures such as holding his kosode open for her like a towel as she stepped out of the river. His face was flushed red and he kept his eyes screwed shut the entire time, almost as though he had to force himself not to look. Kagome quashed that admittedly pleasant thought rather quickly, deciding that she was reading too much into his facial expression. She hurried to dry off, both to limit her embarrassment and the chilling effects of damp skin meeting cool air. She was eternally grateful for the fire-warmed suikan, which she fastened around herself in much the same manner as she had on that fateful night in Togenkyo, ending up with something of a short-sleeved robe which didn't cover that much less of her than her school uniform did.

"Okay, you can open your eyes now," she told Inuyasha, grinning in amusement. He glanced at her, from head to toes and back again, nodding in satisfaction before turning away. That was a pretty neutral gesture on its face, but Kagome didn't miss the delighted glimmer in his eye, or the slight upturn at the corner of his lips. If she didn't know better, she might think he liked seeing her wearing his clothes, at least in non-life threatening situations. Good thing she knew better. Now if she could just get her heart to stop beating so hard…

"Gonna stand out in the cold all night, wench?" he called casually back to her, which actually helped her solve her little problem.

"Baka," she muttered, nevertheless grinning merrily as she jogged toward the fire.

The warmth from the flames was wonderful, lending itself to twin good moods and a brief yet amicable conversation. Inuyasha offered to go hunting, but again Kagome sensed that he really didn't want to leave her side right now, so she declined. She was starving, but she could make it until morning, when Inuyasha might be able to catch some fish in the river. They discussed what might have become of their friends, and eventually decided that the others were probably camping for the night, having likely conducted a futile search for their missing comrades over the past two days. Kagome felt bad for worrying them, but neither she nor Inuyasha felt up to looking for them in the middle of the night. The reunion could wait until tomorrow as well. That settled, the pair lapsed into companionable silence. Inuyasha propped himself up against a tree close to the fire and closed his eyes, though Kagome knew he wasn't asleep. Her thoughts kept drifting to the recent past, as she sat facing the fire with her arms locked around her raised knees. But she found herself less prone to despair and more inclined to optimism this time. The prospect of moving forward didn't seem quite so daunting anymore.

Eventually fatigue caught up with her and she decided to try to get some sleep. It didn't take her long to realize how difficult that was going to be. The rough ground was a poor mattress, and she had nothing to use as a pillow. Not to mention the fact that the fire only warmed one side of her, leaving her back exposed to the chilly night air. She glared jealously over at Inuyasha, knowing that a tree at her back would be better than nothing. But it was far too small for two people to share, and she was too nice to ask him to move. She didn't really want the tree anyway. What she really wanted was…something which would never happen. Bathing at opposite sides of a river and wearing his suikan were one thing, but her delusional mind's latest proposal would undoubtedly prove too much for her easily embarrassed hanyou. Kikyou had passed on, and at times Kagome felt somewhat hopeful about her own relationship with Inuyasha, but she refused to guilt him into something he wasn't ready for.

Heaving a miserable sigh, she settled on her side and resolved to suffer in silence. So she was understandably surprised when, a few minutes later, Inuyasha spoke.

"Can't sleep?"

"I'm fine," she grumbled, willing him to drop the subject. Since he wasn't going to help her in the way her lovesick heart desired, the least he could do was not bother her. For several moments, he seemed to acquiesce to her unspoken demand.

"Kagome…are you cold?"

Something about his tone immediately perked Kagome's interest. It was in his hesitation, the slightly lowered timbre of his voice, and the way he stared searchingly into her eyes. Even his decision to use her name rather than 'wench' spoke volumes to her. If his body language was casual, it was merely a façade. Some of her most cherished memories had occurred in the rare instances when Inuyasha became like this, when he truly spoke from the heart. He had her full attention, a fact which obviously made him uncomfortable, but the glint of determination in his eyes suggested that he wasn't going to back down until he said what he needed to say. Or so Kagome thought, anyway. Inuyasha opened his mouth twice, but each time seemed to lose his nerve at the last moment. Finally he set his lips into a neutral expression and fixed her with a final, penetrating stare. Then he turned his gaze to the flames, unfolded his legs, and settled back against the tree with his knees raised, his forearms resting upon them.

It was an invitation if Kagome had ever seen one. A nervous, subtle invitation, one which he could easily pretend had never been offered if it was not accepted. Instantly Kagome understood how significant this was to him. This wasn't sharing body heat out of necessity. She wasn't freezing; she was just uncomfortable. He could easily leave her alone for the next several hours, satisfied that he had already provided a fire and something for her to wear. Earlier in their journey, he undoubtedly would have. So he wasn't making this offer as her protector, or even as her friend. In Inuyasha's mind, this was something shared by lovers alone. Kagome doubted he had done this with anyone before, not even Kikyou. Even without saying the words, he was leaving himself so vulnerable right now. That he trusted her with his vulnerability, and cared enough about her to offer himself in this way, was nothing short of incredible.

Blinking back tears, Kagome raised herself onto her hands and knees, a move which had Inuyasha's eyes snapping back to her. She held his gaze as she slowly crawled closer, giving him every opportunity to reconsider, silently asking him if this was really all right. She wasn't completely sure what this meant to him, in terms of their relationship, but she knew what it meant to her. Maybe Inuyasha understood that as well. He swallowed anxiously several times, but did not look away, nor close off his posture. Their eyes remained locked until finally Kagome crawled between his raised knees and settled herself against his chest, her cheek resting against his cloth-covered breastbone. She curled her legs up, and Inuyasha drew his knees in so the billowing fabric of his hakama sheltered her exposed skin. His arms settled hesitantly around her in the lightest of embraces, the sleeves of his kosode further shielding her from the outside world.

A contented sigh escaped Kagome, as she beamed uncontrollably. Being cossetted by Inuyasha's body quickly chased away the cold and replaced it with a wonderful warmth, the kind which both fulfilled her and left her yearning for more. She couldn't help but recall the truly breathtaking kiss they had shared in the illusion. Or inside the mountain, for that matter, though that one had been less about romance than providing her with oxygen. Still, she truly was content even if she and Inuyasha simply remained like this in silence for the rest of the evening. He didn't need to do anything else to make her deliriously happy. She closed her eyes and snuggled closer, releasing another blissful sigh. The nervous tension left Inuyasha's body gradually, though her obvious pleasure seemed to do much to ease his anxiety. Eventually she felt him relax completely beneath her, his arms tightening around her just slightly. Part of her wanted to stay awake and savor every moment of this, since who knew when it might happen again? She did figure sleep would claim her at some point, which was fine because she fully expected to find herself still nestled against his chest when she woke up.

Kagome's world narrowed to her and her hanyou. Surrounded by the warmth of his body and his clean, woodsy scent, she lost all track of time. She was just starting to nod off when Inuyasha suddenly shifted, sitting up and urging her to do the same. Kagome complied, blinking at him in confusion as he frowned and fixed his gaze somewhere below her eyes. Understanding didn't dawn until he gently lifted her chin with his fingers, his expression turning to one of relief as he studied her neck. She tilted her head to the side and favored him with an endearing look, one which had him flopping back against the tree and glancing away in embarrassment.

"Don't worry, Inuyasha. The wounds I received in the illusion stayed in the illusion." The physical wounds, anyway, she reflected with a grimace. Inuyasha didn't reply for a few seconds, and she was about to lie back down again when he finally spoke in a voice barely above a whisper.

"Part of me…still can't believe this is real. I…I'm…"

Afraid.

Kagome didn't need him to finish his sentence; she could see the doubt in his eyes, the familiar fear which she too had grappled with. She supposed some small part of her was still grappling with it. But that was only in her mind. In her heart, and in her soul, she knew the truth. And so did Inuyasha. She reached out and cupped his cheek, turning him to face her.

"Look at me, Inuyasha," she commanded gently, successfully drawing his distressed gaze. "I know how you feel. A part of me shares your doubts. But deep down, I know you're my Inuyasha. Just like deep down, I think you know I'm…your Kagome."

His eyes widened at her choice of words, but if anything he seemed humbled by them, as the doubt slowly faded from his eyes. The emotion which replaced it caused Kagome's heart to flutter, and for a fleeting moment she thought he was going to kiss her again. Then he seemed to think better of it, his eyes darkening once more with fresh pain, persistent memory. Nevertheless, he did manage a small yet sincere smile for her.

"Thanks, wench."

His oh-so-typical response might have amused Kagome, had the reminder of his suffering not immediately soured her own mood. Her guilt suddenly weighed too heavily on her to muster a smile, and instead a new compulsion arose within her.

"Inuyasha, I'm so, so sorry. I shouldn't have wandered off by myself, even inside the cave. I guess I really am—"

"Oi!" he snapped suddenly, interrupting her self-deprecation. His anger surprised her, as did the fire in his eyes.

"I already told you, wench. That ain't your fault," he repeated, clearly of the opinion that she was stupid for even entertaining those thoughts.

"Well you should," she retorted, clinging to her guilt like some sort of perverse lifeline.

"Oh, yeah, I suppose I should," he replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "You should have known that the fucking back wall of the cave was gonna turn into a gaping hole, and suck us to who the hell knows where? And that there was some kind of evil bastard on the other side, waiting to stick us in an illusion. 'Cause that kind of shit happens every day, right? Yeah, you should have known."

"Don't talk to me like I'm an idiot, Inuyasha," she growled, unwilling to take that from him, remorse or no.

"Well then don't act like an idiot, Ka-Go-Me."

"Jerk!"

"Bitch!"

'The word' was on the tip of her tongue, but the selfish realization that utilizing the subduing command in this position might result in more pain for her than for him made her pause just long enough for higher reasoning to kick in. What the hell was happening? Did I really just go from apologizing to smashing his face into the ground in less than a minute? That was the incredible infuriating power of Inuyasha, she reflected. Obviously she had the same effect on him. And judging by his expression, he now shared her reaction to their unexpected fight.

"Shit," he mumbled, gazing at her almost sheepishly. An apology did not pass his lips, but it did shine in his eyes.

"Yeah," she agreed. Suddenly looking at him grew too awkward to bear, so she started to lie down, only to hesitate briefly as she wondered if it was still okay with him. He actually pulled her down the rest of the way, apparently thrilled to resume their previous position. Things had been much more peaceful before they started talking, and both of them were content to return to silence for a time. But they knew that they would eventually have to confront the issues hanging in the air; it was only a question of who would open their mouth first. To Kagome's surprise, that person turned out to be her shy hanyou, probably because he still felt the need to get something important off of his chest.

"You know I really don't blame you, right? You shouldn't blame yourself either."

His words partially thawed the knot of ice growing in her gut. She wasn't sure if she was ready to truly accept what he was telling her, but his reassurance meant the world to her nonetheless.

"Besides," he continued, his voice lowering with what sounded like shame. "If there's anyone to blame, it's me. I should have realized it was an illusion."

Kagome sat up enough to glare at him. "Don't be stupid, Inuyasha. I didn't realize it was an illusion either. Not until we met."

"Yeah, but you're not a hanyou," he replied defensively. "I noticed some signs, but ignored them."

"I may not be a hanyou, but I am a miko, and traditionally those with spiritual power are supposed to be better against illusions anyway, right?"

Inuyasha opened his mouth to argue, but Kagome cut him off, already tired of playing the blame game.

"Inuyasha, I don't want to do this anymore. You're telling me that nothing is my fault, but you want to blame yourself. And I'm trying to do just the opposite. Can we just agree that what happened was no one's fault and leave it at that?"

The hanyou didn't appear especially excited about her proposal, but after a few seconds he reluctantly nodded his agreement.

"Fucking bastard," he swore, venting some of his frustration on their recently vanquished enemy. "What the hell was all that about, anyway? All that illusion bullshit just to so it could eat us. Stupid fucking…"

Kagome tuned out his expletive-ridden mutterings at this point, but not before his statement concerning the creature's motivations registered. For some reason, Inuyasha's assumption that the creature simply wished to eat them didn't sit right with her. She hadn't yet taken the time to consider all of the facts and form a hypothesis, but now was a good opportunity to do so. There was so much to ponder, so many factors to weigh, but she took to her task with determination. Inuyasha eventually fell silent, as seconds turned to minutes, and he evidently chose not to disturb his miko companion's obvious concentration. That was probably a smart move on his part. Kagome considered and reconsidered until her brain hurt, but in the end she arrived at what she thought was a plausible explanation.

"I think I know why that thing attacked us, Inuyasha," she whispered quietly, cuddling closer to his chest as a sudden chill came over her. To think about how close the creature had come to succeeding… Her hanyou's arms tightened around her, and she knew she had his full attention. Inuyasha wanted the truth, as terrifying as it might be, and she was going to oblige.

"You were right that the creature wanted to eat us," she began, "but not in the typical sense. If it wanted to devour our bodies, it could have done it while we were unconscious. I also saw…a complete human skeleton lying near me, as if the body had been left to decompose where it fell. So I don't think it was after our flesh. I think it was after…our souls."

"Our souls?" Inuyasha interjected, sounding confused but not skeptical of her reasoning.

"And not our souls as they were when it pulled us through the cave wall, either. If it wanted that, it could have just sucked them out while we were unconscious. Instead, it put us in the illusion. I think it wanted to feed on corrupted souls. Maybe it was unable to devour pure, strong souls, or maybe it didn't like the taste. I don't know. But that's the only reason I can think of for it to put us in the illusion. I think that's why it made us see and do those horrible things…and why it tried to make us give up on life…"

Inuyasha digested this information in silence for some time. Kagome closed her eyes and waited for his response, letting his heartbeat soothe her.

"It almost worked, too," he confessed quietly. "Twice."

"Same here," Kagome admitted. "And then, when trying to make me give up didn't work, it confronted me with an impossible decision. It forced me to choose between dying by your hand…"

"Or killing me and saving yourself," Inuyasha finished solemnly. The confirmation that he had experienced a similar test did not surprise Kagome, but it did sadden her. Then a new thought occurred to her, and a tentative smile came unbidden to her lips. This was taking the phrase 'finding a silver lining' to a new extreme, but the silver lining was there all the same.

"I think if either one of us had chosen to save ourselves, we would have lost our way…and our souls. It's nice to know that even with all of the horrors we experienced, even with how terrified we were at the time, you and I…we still cared for each other enough to put each other before ourselves."

"Keh," Inuyasha muttered. Kagome could hear the grin in his tone. When he spoke again, however, his voice had shifted completely.

"Of course I put you before myself. I promised that I would protect you with my life, didn't I?"

Kagome froze in shock, a profound sense of déjà vu settling over her. She had heard him make that promise before, in that same deep, intense tone. The last time I was home…Inuyasha and I were in my room…and Souta interrupted us right before we…

She sat up slowly, turning to meet his gaze. His eyes were that same shade of molten gold, churning with desires of the present and promises of tomorrow. He leaned forward, his lips parting slightly. She met him halfway.

The collision of their lips was a heady, intoxicating thing. Kagome sensed their mutual inexperience, the slight awkwardness of their movements, but an irresistible fervor burgeoned within them, sparked by the most delightful yearning. Questing for more of that feeling, she deepened the kiss, relishing in Inuyasha's startled moan. His voice quickly dropped into a growl, sending a shiver of pure pleasure coursing through her. He returned her passion eagerly, his arms encircling her body and holding her to him so tightly, as if he never wanted to let go. Nor did she want him to. His lips were her balm, her sweet torment, simultaneously scorching and soothing as they continued to devour each other. She accepted everything he was willing to give, silently encouraging him to throw down what remained of the crumbling walls around his heart once and for all. At last, he sighed and surrendered completely, his kiss softening, taking on a new passion. It was enough to bring tears to her eyes.

Perhaps sensing the tiny droplets, Inuyasha pulled away from her slowly, with obvious reluctance. Kagome started to reassure him that her tears were borne of joy, but his eyelids raised to reveal those breathtaking golden orbs, and her tongue was instantly paralyzed. He knew. Inuyasha understood everything, comprehended all that was in her heart. His irises were a tempest, a torrent of emotion, hiding nothing from her searching gaze. Kagome's lip quivered as an uncontrollable smile formed. This. This was what she had been waiting for, ever since she first realized her feelings for the temperamental hanyou many months ago. As he gazed at her for the first time without any invisible barriers standing between them, Kagome saw what she had always hoped was there. For shining like a beacon amid the simmering desire, there was love. Pure and adoring, it transcended both friendship and the need to protect. It triumphed over the residual sadness for the fate of his former love, a sadness which Kagome knew would never truly go away. But that was only a small part of the man she loved. What shone forth now, nearly blinding in its intensity, was something which he had concealed within himself, locked away so deep that only recently had he truly comprehended its existence, or understood what it meant. There was a promise in his eyes. He might not always be open with his affections. He might be gruff, or behave callously at times. But he would never again try to hide how he felt about her, either from her, or from himself.

He was not going to say the words, Kagome realized. Perhaps he didn't know how, or perhaps he simply wasn't ready. She had always imagined them confessing together, and perhaps that would come later, but in this moment it simply wasn't necessary. She did, however, desire to reaffirm a promise. As Inuyasha had already discovered, vows made earlier in their journey together could mean so much more when spoken now.

"I'll always be with you, Inuyasha."

The hanyou grinned, recognizing her words as the promise which had sparked their near-kiss in her bedroom. If he hadn't comprehended the totality of her meaning back then, he clearly did now.

"Kagome," he murmured, ducking his head and kissing her again. This one remained chaste, an expression purely of love. They spent several minutes exploring each other, their kisses alternately playful and passionate. Finally one of them recognized the light of the approaching dawn. Inuyasha carried them up into a tree, and they watched a beautiful sunrise together.

"So…" he hedged quietly, drawing Kagome's attention. "Will you be all right?"

Kagome found his choice of words telling indeed. Not 'are you all right now,' but 'will you be all right' eventually? The answer to that question was fairly clear. Despite the fresh, poignant memories, despite her persistent doubts concerning her own actions, it was immensely comforting to be with someone who loved her, to know that he understood what she was going through. Perhaps she would never share with him exactly what had occurred in the illusion, or ever learn what Inuyasha had gone through, for that matter. That was fine. Some secrets were better kept inside, provided that they did not fester and poison from within. As long as Inuyasha was by her side, Kagome knew they never would.

"I think so," she replied confidently. "What about you?"

Gradually his features morphed into a tentative smile. "Yeah, I think so too."

Kagome's reply was cut off by a cavernous yawn, prompting Inuyasha to move them over to a different branch. He settled against the trunk, using the tree's bulk to shield his beloved's face from the sun, and firmly ordered her to get some sleep. Kagome didn't argue, instead settling down in his embrace. She was asleep within moments.

Inuyasha couldn't seem to take his eyes from her sleeping face for more than a few seconds, as a hundred emotions rushed through him. Giddiness swirled within his heart along with fear and embarrassment, but above all rose true happiness. No matter what became of them, he would never regret this day, this new understanding between them. Someday soon he would tell her what she meant to him. He supposed he had always known, to some degree. But losing her and then miraculously getting her back had brought an unprecedented sense of clarity to his heart. Simply put, Kagome was his reason, the one and only thing in his life worth living for. He loved their other friends, but they were not enough to anchor him to this world. Kagome was everything. As long as he had her, he would possess the strength to stand, to fight for what he loved. Without her…

He shuddered, causing her to stir her sleep. He held his breath until she stilled, his spirits quickly souring. He really had almost lost her. And when he thought her dead, he had done unspeakable things. He couldn't even blame his inner beast this time. His full-youkai side had not possessed him; he had merely allowed rage and hatred to drive him to mass murder, butchering indiscriminately until all were slain, both the guilty and the innocent.

He had to be a better man than that. If he killed evil people for legitimate reasons, such as to prevent them from committing atrocities in the future, then so be it. But it couldn't be for revenge…or because he enjoyed it. And if there were truly innocent people, then he had to spare them, no matter how much he desired to simply shred everyone and bathe in their blood. The monster who had slaughtered those mercenaries was unworthy of the woman currently sleeping in his arms. The man he vowed to become would be worthy of her. She, who looked past all exterior faults and judged a person by the contents of his heart, would never be given cause to doubt that he was a good man.

The healing journey would be long and arduous, despite their newfound understanding. Kagome obviously had her own demons to conquer, and he knew that he would spend many waking moments reflecting upon his own actions, and how he could make sure they never became reality. But he had been honest before; he truly did believe that both of them would eventually be all right. Together, they would overcome.

Together. That thought was more exhilarating than scary, but his anxieties would probably linger for a while. This was something new, and if his track record was any indication, he would probably say something stupid pretty soon. That wouldn't be the last time either; he might end up spending more time in Kagome's dog house than in her good graces. If she expected him to start declaring his love for her for all the world to hear like that mangy wolf Kouga, then she would be disappointed. Nevertheless, he couldn't help but smirk at the prospect of rubbing that arrogant prick's nose in it. Would she 'osuwari' him? Probably. Would it be worth it? Hell yes.

Perhaps he was worrying too much. Kagome knew him, sometimes better than he knew himself. Maybe she wouldn't expect his demeanor to change very much when they were in the company of others. She had always lived for the quiet moments, the small gestures of affection which he only dared to show when no one was looking. Most of the time, they would have to behave like professionals on a mission. But when they were alone, when the relentless pressures of the world eased and allowed a few moments of peace, she would undoubtedly look to take advantage of the opportunity to reinforce the strength of their bond. And that would be when he had to prove what kind of man he was going to be.

Said reassurance would likely involve kissing. A lot of kissing. And that was a great motivation to stray outside of his comfort zone. He could be at least a little romantic, right? How hard could it be?

He gazed down at her sleeping visage, brushed a stray lock of hair away from her eyes. She smiled in her sleep and snuggled further into him. A bright grin lit up Inuyasha's features as he leaned his head back against the trunk and closed his eyes, simply basking in this moment, the knowledge that the woman in his arms was finally his.

Kagome…my reason…

The End