Kagome was mortified. She couldn't believe she'd said that out loud! True, she'd loved Inuyasha for a long while now, but she kept a tight rein on her own feelings, knowing that the hanyou had chosen Kikyou. She buried her face in Inuyasha's haori, feeling the rough fabric against her heated face as she tried to gather her courage. The Bone Eater's Well was only a few minutes away! Surely she could get there--

She felt a clawed hand stroke her hair before sliding down to cup her chin gently and raise her face until she was looking up at Inuyasha. Well, Inuyasha's chin, anyway; she wasn't about to look him in the eye after that little slip.

"Did you mean that?" His voice was soft as he looked down at the trembling girl in his arms. He brushed a few stray strands of hair out of her face.

"H - hai. I did." She still couldn't meet his eyes.

He chuckled softly and pulled her closer. He reached down and hooked his arm under her knees, picking her up to hold her as he turned to face Kouga.

Kouga stood in silent shock. He'd been afraid of this. He knew she'd loved the hanyou, but until now he'd thought that if he could just get her away from Inuyasha she would realize that he would love her more than the hanyou ever could. He saw the soft look on Inuyasha's face and knew it was a lost cause. He'd never thought they would actually act on the love that was so obvious to everyone but themselves.

Inuyasha moved closer to the wolf youkai, ignoring the wide-eyed stares of the taijiya and houshi behind him. He stopped a short distance away from Kouga.

"You should leave, you know. She's mine." He heard Kagome's soft gasp of shock and smiled at her.

"Inuyasha!" She flushed an even darker red, burying her face in Inuyasha's haori again. She wished that the ground would suddenly open up and swallow her. When it didn't, she sighed and opened her eyes again. She turned to look at Kouga again.

"He's right, you know," Kagome said. Kouga's eyes glittered with hurt. "I've always belonged to him, even if he didn't always know it. I'm sorry, but even if he doesn't return my feelings, I can't just leave him. I'll always be by his side. I can never just forget him. Don't hate me?"

Kouga felt the rise of tears and he ruthlessly stomped them down. He would NOT show that stupid mutt how much this loss hurt him!

He looked at Kagome, nestled in Inuyasha's arms as if she had always belonged there. He knew it was a lost cause. "I could never hate you, Kagome. Just promise me one thing?"

Kagome lifted eyes glistening with unshed tears. "Hai?"

"If he ever hurts you.....you'll find me?"

Kagome nodded. Kouga turned to the remnants of his pack and whistled to them. Ginta and Hakkaku sighed wearily and looked up in time to see the familiar whirlwind fading away in the distance. They knew he'd be hell to live with for a while, but he was their leader and they'd stand by him.

"Ja, neesan!" Ginta and Hakkaku yelled in unison as they began to follow Kouga's path.

Sango and Miroku looked at each other. They'd thought Inuyasha would pound Kouga for sure this time, but after Kagome's outburst, Inuyasha seemed to have forgotten all about the fight. Sango shrugged and turned to where Inuyasha and Kagome were standing.

"Kagome-chan? Are you okay?"

"Hai, Sango-chan. A little embarrassed, but yes, I'm okay."

"Keh! You two go back to the village. We'll meet you in a while." Inuyasha turned, with Kagome still in his arms, and walked to the other side of the clearing, where a small rock sat in a spot of sunshine. He slowed and sat, adjusting the miko in his arms so that he could hold her closer. Sango glanced at Kagome one last time, then turned and fisted a hand in the monk's robes, forcing him to turn away from the couple and walk with her back towards Kaede's village.

Kagome's embarrassment was slowly fading, to be replaced with confusion. Why wasn't Inuyasha saying anything?

"Why didn't you ever say anything before?" Inuyasha asked, his breath ruffling Kagome's hair. She was still refusing to meet his gaze and had tucked her head underneath his chin.

"Hello? You're in love with Kikyou, who happens to be trying to drag you to hell with her! How am I supposed to compete with that? Can't you just forget I said anything?" Kagome could feel her anger slowly building with each word. She was beginning to regret trying to stop the fight. Maybe she should have let the two idiots beat the snot ouf each other.

"Baka," Inuyasha's soft voice broke into her thoughts. "I paid my debt to Kikyou when she sealed me to the Goshinboku. The Kikyou that's wandering around stealing dead souls is not the Kikyou I knew. That Kikyou is gone now."

Kagome's eyes widened and she moved her head until she was looking up at Inuyasha. She wasn't prepared for the warmth his amber eyes held and she felt her cheeks flush again.

"I won't lie to you and say that I never loved Kikyou. I loved the Kikyou that was. I admit that in the beginning I did see you as another version of Kikyou-" he paused at Kagome's outraged grasp and tightened his embrace - "but I've known for a long time now that you aren't the same person as Kikyou. Where Kikyou was restrained, you're open and caring. Kikyou may have loved me, but it was in her own way and on her own terms. You're not like that. It's one of the things I love about you." He smiled and mentally counted down the seconds: three.... two....

"You what?"

"Kagome, somewhere along the line, between the battles and the travel, and even the angry fights with each other, I fell in love with you." He hugged her closer, inhaling the scent of her hair.

"I - Inuyasha?" Her eyes were sparkling with unshed tears. "I.... I love you, too."

He closed his eyes in relief. He was afraid she'd try to deny it after her impromptu declaration in front of everyone. His eyes flew open again, however, as he felt her lips on his jaw. He remembered to breathe again as he felt her small hands slide up his chest and rest, one hand on his cheek and the other resting on nis neck.

He looked down at her again. She was gazing up at him with damp blue eyes wide with hope. He heard her small intake of breath as he bent down and placed a small kiss on her forehead. Her eyes closed and he kissed each eyelid, tasting the slight saltiness of her tears. He kissed the tip of her nose, then stopped to gaze at her lips.

She opened her eyes again and looked at the hanyou she loved. Her heart pounded nervously -

His lips met hers. Her eyes slowly closed as she savored the sensation. Her hands slid under his hair to rest on the back of his neck as he deepened the kiss slightly. He cupped her head in his hands and growled softly as he let the tip of his tongue flick out to taste her lips. He felt more than heard her small gasp and used the opportunity to slide his tongue alongside her own, tasting and teasing. He felt her relax and hid his own small gasp as he felt her tongue hesitantly take charge, flicking lightly along his lips and tracing the outlines of his fangs. He growled low in his throat and pulled away suddenly, placing another light kiss on her now-swollen lips.

She blinked up at him in surprise. "Why did you stop?"

He shook his head to clear it. "Much more of that and I might not have been able to. You're young, Kagome. I don't want to do anything that would hurt you. Here, in this time, you're old enough to mate, but in your own time, you're too young, aren't you?"

Kagome laughed shakily. Mate? In her wildest dreams she never thought she would be discussing mating with Inuyasha! "Yeah, Mama is very understanding, but I think even she would be upset. Jii-chan would freak."

"I want to do this the right way, Kagome. You should be courted. Youkai court their mates as humans do. Trust me?"

Kagome nodded shyly. Inuyasha smiled again and set her gently on her feet in front of the rock they had been sitting on. He stood and slid an arm around her shoulders as they began to walk back to the village to meet the others.

He smiled as he felt Kagome's arm hesitantly snake around his waist. Someday, not too far from today, he would make her his.