Author's Notes: Sorry. Just… sorry. Getting a chapter of AB out of me is like trying to get blood from a stone. And I just want to throw out a thank you to everyone for being so patient. A not so big thank you to those who got impatient and rude and started cussing me out (go laugh at them in the review board). But a really big thanks to Midoriko-sama who helped me figure out what the hell is going on. XD
Anyway, I urge people to reread. Because if you've forgotten the story (like I had) then this is likely to make as much sense as a Gorilla in a banana suit.
The scream had been awful. Everyone in view had just stopped and looked about in a daze as the terrible sound had split the air. The chatter had died down in an instant, and the sound of people clattering through Kikyo's hut wreckage fell quiet as the workers had just listened. The birds took flight from the trees below, and I could have almost sworn that every living creature within a mile of the castle had just shut up.
That sound was barely human.
But I could tell from the pitch of the scream, as well as its volume, that the only one voicing it could be Kagome.
And three days later, the sound still reverberated up my spine with a shiver.
"So… what's the matter with Kagome?" I slid nonchalantly into conversation with Sango.
The handmaid gave me a cantankerous glare over whatever new broth she was boiling for Kagome's mother. She'd been giving me this look a lot over the past couple of days – probably because I'd been asking this particular question just as many times.
"For the last time, I – don't – know," she ground out and went back to brewing the medicinal herbs. "Believe me – if she was even remotely inclined to tell anyone, I would be the first to know. Maybe she's just getting pre-menstrual tension?"
"Uh… never mind." Sango shook her head at me. She sampled a little of her broth before quickly pulling a face. "Yuck… needs more tea leaves."
I handed the bundle of leaves over absently. "But why is she avoiding me, Sango?" I pressed. "Every time I walk into a room, she walks out the other end. Every time she sees me coming towards her down the corridor, she suddenly turns around and all but runs away from me! And we were supposed to meet up and play Shogi this morning, but she didn't even turn up!"
Sango's sigh was droll and loud. "Inuyasha, have you forgotten the fact that you both hate each other! You've hated each other for the past ten years!" She shot him a confused look. "Why is it so strange that Kagome is avoiding you?"
"Because normally she'd rather find me and pull my ears if she was upset with me!" I snapped back. "This is weird. This isn't like her."
A strange expression slid over the other girl's face as if something had just dawned on her. "That's true…" Her stirring slowed down. "She is being awfully quiet."
"See!" I jabbed a finger at her triumphantly.
"And to be honest, she does seem a little paler than normal… and I haven't seen her eating in a few days." She tapped her chin thoughtfully.
That last comment made my stomach drop a little. "Not eating?" I demanded.
"Yes, but she promised me this morning that she was when I wasn't… looking…" she trailed off under my incredulous stare. "But I guess that was a little naïve of me, huh…?"
"Well… where is she now?" I asked.
Sango shrugged. "How should I know? She won't even talk to me anymore."
And a Kagome who wouldn't even talk to her best friend was a very isolated girl indeed. But my concern had been building over the last couple of days, and now I was beginning to realise that it was ridiculous… Kagome was being ridiculous. Kagome was stubborn, but she wasn't an idiot – so why was she acting like this?
I left Sango to her brew and stormed my way through the castle to the room where Lady Jun was resting. The woman was asleep when I arrived, and there was no sign of her daughter anywhere in the room. So then it was off to her bedchamber, but again, Kagome was nowhere to be found.
I literally ran into my father in the hallway outside, and proceeded to bowl myself off my own feet and into the wall. That man was more rock than youkai. "Careful, boy, you almost made me sway." He chuckled as he pulled me upright again.
"Have you seen Kagome?"
"Why?" His stare was very intent all of a sudden. "Are you going to propose to her, son?"
"Uh… no… I'm just curious."
He made the usual effort to contain his disappointment – i.e. he didn't. "No, I'm afraid I haven't seen her since this morning at breakfast… I seem to recall she left just around the time that you arrived."
"Right. Thanks." For nothing, old man.
I asked several more people – servants and maids – but not one of them could say that Kagome had been in the castle since breakfast. My search led outside…
"Miroku!" I pounced on the monk who was busy trying to impress a gaggle of young girls. "Where's Kagome?"
"No idea." He looked at me sourly as the girls mooched away. "Have you tried asking Sango?"
That's when it dawned on me. Kagome was missing.
Actually, it dawned on me after half an hour of searching the entire outer compound of the castle. Particularly when I caught a lingering draft of Kagome's scent curving towards the castle gates. I only had to ask the guards standing there to determine that, yes, Kagome had left the castle grounds earlier that day and had yet to return.
"Stupid, stupid girl." I muttered angrily under my breath as I spend down the hillside, away from the castle and on the trail of her scent. I was more inclined to blame the guards for letting a princess go unescorted out of the castle, but for some reason, I doubted that Kagome was totally innocent. She was always looking for trouble at one time or another, and the last few days certainly had been very troublesome where Kagome was concerned.
But it wasn't just Kagome who had been weird over the past few days.
I'd been weird too.
I wasn't sure where I stood with the girl anymore. I wasn't sure what she wanted… what I wanted. Maybe I wanted to go back to the way things were – with me hating her and vice versa – but if that happened, would I be satisfied? Especially after all the things that had happened so recently?
Why did I think of kissing her more than throwing her down the well? And why did my chest ache every time she saw me and ran away?
I wanted answers, and if she tried to run away… then… I'd really throw her down the well so she'd just have to sit down, shut up and listen to me for once.
I ran past an old, gnarled oak tree, dead with age and decay. I spared the tree a small glance, remembering the landmark as one that I'd passed several times before. What on earth was Kagome thinking, coming out this far from the castle? Didn't she know that demon attacks were common around here – and the victims were usually innocent young women and stupid princesses?
Her scent trail veered north very suddenly, and before long a wide meadow opened out before me. It was green and fertile, with speckles of red and yellow wildflowers dotted amongst the grass. And there in the middle stood my princess.
Except, something about the way she stood made me freeze in my tracks. She was facing away from me, holding something in her hands before her, but her entire posture indicated that she was slumped and miserable. An old dream came back to me in a rush, one in which she'd stood in exactly the same way but in the middle of a lake of blood. In the dream, she'd turned and her sadness had faded away to happiness at the sight of me…
But when the real Kagome turned and saw me standing at the edge of her meadow, her expression didn't even flicker. It was almost as if she were looking through me, as though I wasn't even there at all.
It was almost as if I were looking at Kikyo.
I wondered who would break the ice... or who would run away first.
"Hi." She opened her mouth and that one clear syllable fell out. My eyes darted down, and I realised that she was holding a bunch of daisies in her fist. I looked to her face again, amazed that not even a small smile had twitched the corner of her lips.
"What are you doing out here?" My brow furrowed and I strode towards her.
"What does it look like?" She bent down and plucked another wildflower by the stem. "I just wanted some time alone for once."
"For once?" My temper was getting more and more riled by her nonchalance. How dare she run away from me – from everyone – and then give me a breezy shrug. "You've been isolating yourself from everyone for the past few days! What the hell's wrong with you!"
She sighed loudly and really did give a breezy shrug this time. "Everything. Nothing." She fiddled with the flower arrangement in her hands. "But I've been doing some thinking today, and I've decided."
This girl was beyond infuriating. "Decided what exactly?" I practically spat at her.
"That… it's ok," she said impassively, her face still oddly blank. "You can't change people, and you can't change how they feel or what they do, so why worry about it? Why fight what you were born to do?"
She was beyond infuriating and well into confusing now. I wondered if she'd had some mental breakdown over the past few days that I wasn't aware of. "Just what are you talking about?"
"Nothing important…" She lifted an arm to tuck a wildflower into her sleeve. "Hey, Inuyasha… do you remember this field?"
I looked around, wondering if this was some sort of trick question. "Should I?"
The rest of the flowers twiddled in her hands, and her eyes narrowed slightly – the first hint of expression that had crossed her face since she'd turned to face me. "No… I suppose not."
Obviously I'd said the wrong thing – as impossible as that seemed – so I rushed to correct myself. "I seem to recall you stole my pudding somewhere around here," I said, trying to sound casual. I actually remembered where exactly it had happened, but I didn't want to look like a fool who clung to every precious memory of her when she obviously hated my guts.
But again, I seemed to have said the wrong thing. Her chin dropped and her eyes closed tightly for a brief moment before she turned away. She went back to picking flowers as calmly as if I wasn't there, and although her voice was steady when she said "Something like that," I knew she was crying.
Of all the ways Kagome could make me feel like a complete jerk, crying topped the list. I swallowed hard and looked around, dearly wishing that I could just flee into the forest and escape the guilt she caused me. But that would only make matters worse. And besides… what had I done that deserved this guilt trip?
And perhaps the fact that I didn't know… was the whole reason she was miserable?
My shoulders wilted enough to match her slumped posture. "Kagome…" I began quietly and saw her hand pause in its motion of snapping a poppy stem. "What have I done?"
You made me fall in love with you, that's what!
I'm amazed the words didn't tear from my throat, despite being on the tip of my tongue. One look at his despondent face told me his side of the story. He thought he'd done something to upset me. He thought he was the one making me miserable.
It was best to just come clean.
"I'm sorry," I said quietly, speaking to the flowers in my hands rather than Inuyasha. "You must really hate me."
His silence was all the affirmation I needed. It hurt, I admit, but it wasn't unexpected.
"If it wasn't for me… you'd be free to do whatever you wanted," I pointed out. "You wouldn't be forced to spend these stupid Autumns with me, and you'd probably still have the tip of your little finger."
He shrugged and raised his hand. "It grew back last year."
"Oh, that's a relief." I'd felt quite bad about that one.
"What's this all about, Kagome?" Inuyasha demanded shortly. "What the hell are you apologising for? It's not like you enjoyed these Autumns either."
"No… I didn't," I replied honestly as nervous fingers meticulously shredded the poppy I was holding. "I hated them. I wanted to kill you half the time because you were so infuriating. But…"
"But what?" He was scowling at me again. It was rather off-putting.
Even though my face was composed and my voice was steady, a treacherous little tear ran down my cheek. I tasted salt, but I ignored it. I hoped he would do the same. "But I wouldn't change it for the world," I said, giving him a helpless shrug. "All this time we've endured together… it means something. To both of us. It's a pain in certain parts of the body that ladies shouldn't mention… but I wouldn't change it. I don't want things to change."
At this, a new look dawned across Inuyasha's face, like he'd just figured out what on earth we were talking about. "Right! I don't want things to change either."
He was so stupid.
"But they have!" I snapped, my face contorting into something that probably wasn't lovely. "Things change! People change, Inuyasha! There's no preventing it, and whether we like it or not, we have changed!"
"How?" he cried, growing alarmed.
"We're not kids anymore!" I threw my flowers down and stomped a foot, almost in defiance of what I'd just claimed. "I'm a woman – and you – you're this weird man-child thing that refuses to grow up – but it's time you did! Because it's going to be your decision, Inuyasha."
He was so confused, it was almost endearing. "What's going to be my decision?" he asked, clearly lost.
"Whether or not we get married," I replied simply.
His mouth dropped open, and he gaped at me in so much horror that I wondered if he'd actually seen a youkai behind me. But no. That was just his knee-jerk reaction to talk of marriage. His good old temper overrode his shock eventually. "My decision! Why the hell does it have to be my decision!"
"Because I don't care anymore." I said stiffly. "For people like us, marriage has very little to do with love and everything to do with property and power. We don't have to like each other to get married. So I for one don't care. It's up to you."
I watched him as closely at he watched me. From the unnerved glint in his eye, I could see he suspected a trap of some kind. He had every right to be suspicious.
"You're saying… you want to get married?" he asked slowly.
I wouldn't make it easy for him. "Only if you want to," I said, examining my nails.
He frowned. "But I don't."
My stomach dropped out.
"I'm not marrying a mousy twit of a girl who obviously can't stand to be around me," he spat, circling me. "Is that why you've been so ridiculously miserable these past few days? Because the thought of being married to me makes you shrivel up like an old woman?" He moved out of sight behind me, and I heard the tearing of grass and plants. Before I could turn to see what he was up to, a cold hand had been shoved down the back of my kimono. My shoulders went up and I squeaked. Grass trickled down my spine.
Inuyasha moved in front of me again. "I'm not marrying a 'woman' who would rather avoid me than confront me. Not one that mopes around in fields and asks confusing questions." He poked me hard in the shoulder. The jolt made the grass slide to the small of my back where it itched intolerably. I wondered how many bugs were now in my clothes. "Not one that-"
I shoved him back. Hard. I glared at him mutely as he stared straight back at me in a calculating way. His hands came up and he pushed me again, making me stumble back. I retaliated by throwing my whole weight forward to send him staggering.
"You're talking like I care if you want me or not," I said hotly. I knew my cheeks were burning and my hair had come loose to hang across my face in swaths. "I was simply demonstrating the fact that I was the mature one. I know that we will be married one day, whether we like it or not, and it's simply up to you to grow up and decide if it will be sooner rather than later. It's not like I've suddenly fallen in love with you or anything."
The last sentence came out a little awkwardly. Anyone else with more than two brain cells would have seen what a blatant lie it was and realised my true meaning. But Inuyasha wasn't graced in the mental department, so I hoped it had flown straight over his head. Certainly his expression didn't give away much.
"You're right," he said finally. "We are going to get married. We've always known that."
"It doesn't mean anything," I told him quietly. "We'll only be married in name. Once it's over, I can go home. I won't have to come back next Autumn either. We'll get a nice long break from each other." And in that time, maybe I would be able to put Inuyasha out of mind and learn to fall for someone else – someone who didn't hate me. Maybe I could get Hojo back once my mother was appeased with the marriage. "We'll both just get on with our lives at last. And it's not like you're shackled to me – there's nothing preventing you from getting a mistress."
"If you're thinking about Kikyo, forget it," I said sharply. "She's a miko."
"I wasn't thinking about that!" he snapped. "I was thinking about… other stuff."
I rolled my eyes. "Marriage is in our best interests if you think about it. No more Autumn bane. No more overbearing parents. Our lands united as one. And we don't even have to kiss."
Inuyasha refused to meet my eyes. "Except we will…"
"What?" I asked.
"Kiss. We will have to kiss. At some point. And do more than that." At my clueless look, it was his turn to roll his eyes. "You have to give an heir."
"Oh! Yes – I know that!" I exploded, my face hotter than ever. "But not for ten or twenty years at least. Don't start getting ahead of yourself. You haven't even agreed to marry me yet."
He sighed and shook his head. "What brought this on?" he asked me, genuinely confused. "Why are you suddenly so willing to do this?"
I shrugged. "I grew up," I informed him. "I'm not thinking about myself anymore. I'm thinking of what's best for everyone – including you. You don't want me here and you think I'm always in your way. It's obvious. So marry me and then just forget about me. It's what you want, isn't it?"
"I suppose…" he muttered to his chest.
I inhaled deeply, drawing myself up with dignity whilst trying to ignore the grass tickling my back. "So… shall we get married?"
He glanced at me. "I told you. I don't want to marry a mousy twit."
So I kicked him right then and there in the shin. There was no point pulling your punches with this boy as he viewed stab wounds the way others viewed a splinter, so I didn't hold back when I aimed the kick. The result was a delicious gasp and a recoiling hanyou. He fell back onto the grass and clutched his leg in what could only have been melodramatic agony. I folded my arms, letting him know that I wasn't falling for his theatrics.
Then he did something bewildering.
He looked up at me and grinned. "I'll marry you though."
I stared, completely at a loss. What on earth did that mean? "What on earth does that mean?"
"I don't care if you hate me, Kagome." He got to his feet, making a show of wincing and leaning on his 'injured' leg. "Just don't do that passive-aggressive shit. If I piss you off, I want you to punch me and kick me until you feel better. I don't know what I did to make you angry this time, but don't act this way again. It's weird."
A slow smile crept across my face. I suddenly felt strangely serene, like a warm breeze had arrived to sweep the black clouds away. It was a sunny day and there was grass in my kimono. There was no better feeling. "I don't hate you, Inuyasha," I said with an easy laugh. "I love you."
A wild horse could have kicked me in the chest, and it wouldn't have winded me more than Kagome had just done. I tried to form a suitable, intelligent response but my mind drew a blank. I made a funny noise in the back of my throat as I continued to gape at her, and she smiled at me.
Eventually I said something, but I fear it wasn't the most suitable or intelligent. "You're joking, right?"
She wrinkled her nose slightly. "It would be a bit tasteless, don't you think?"
"Extremely," I agreed.
"I'm not joking," she said, shaking her head slowly. "I think I'm sick or something, because you've been nothing but an ass to me since the day we met, but I still love you." She gave herself a shake. "But, that's not important."
"Not important!" I screeched. "You're insane, woman!"
"Yes, I know," she sighed, waving a hand absently. "But we're going to marry, aren't we?"
I seemed to recall agreeing to that. "Yes…" I murmured dumbly.
"This Autumn?" she asked.
"Sure." If she'd asked for a golden carp on a silver platter at that moment, I would have agreed to fetch it for her. I was suddenly very pliable. I wasn't sure I liked the sensation.
"Good." She beamed at me. "Then we should be free of each other by Winter."
"I think so too." She picked up her skirts and marched past me. Her flowery scent drifted over me in her wake. "I'll go tell my mother to start making arrangements. I'm sure this news will perk her right up." She suddenly came to a stop and looked back at me with concern. "Inuyasha?"
"Yes?" My hands fidgeted, sweeping back my hair one second before pressing it over my mouth. I wasn't sure what to do with myself. I didn't even know how I was supposed to stand. I seemed very awkward all of a sudden.
"You won't tell anyone what I said, will you?" She grimaced. "It's embarrassing enough that you know."
"Oh no – no, no!" I gave an awkward sort of wave of reassurance that somehow mutated into a very non-nonchalant scratch of the head. I was a gibbering puppet of a man, feeling as if someone unseen was pulling randomly at my strings. "Uh… it's fine. Don't worry." I said that, but I myself was beginning to hyperventilate.
Maybe she noticed, because she looked very concerned. "Are you ok?"
"Fine." I would have sounded more convincing if I hadn't wheezed the word out.
I had no idea what was running through her head as she sashayed (that was the only way to describe that vivacious slink), but I knew what was running through mine.
Oh. My. God.
The grass was unbearably itchy down my back, making me wiggle slightly as I walked away, but nothing in the world could have gotten me down. I'd just laid my hand on the table and put my heart on the line and said what I'd been terrified of feeling for the last ten years. But it was so worth it just to see the look on his face. Not even love could remove my sadistic desire to see that rat squirm like a worm on a hot plate, and nothing in the world would ever top the way he'd wheezed.
But by the time I reached the old oak tree, I was crouched down and moaning in horror. "Oh… my… god…"
What had I done!
Of course, there was no going back now… unless I ambushed Inuyasha on his way back to the castle and beat him over the head with a rock until he'd forgotten the entire conversation. But I'd already tried to do that once when I was eleven, and since it hadn't worked then, there wasn't much reason why it should work now.
So instead I assured myself that this was good. This was healthy. Admitting the feelings was the first step to recovery. Pretty soon I would be a married woman and on my way home to do what a wife did best: nothing in the quietest way possible. Possibly in time I might forget my feelings. I never really had believed in the 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' nonsense. Absence in the past often only served to galvanise the ugliness that was Inuyasha's soul. It was time together that had messed me up.
The marriage was the best option. For everyone.
AN: Now you'll have to wait another two years for the next chapter:gets flailed: Ouch…