SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1Disclaimer: I don't own Inuyasha.  I just own an empty six-pack of soda.  It's worth sixty cents in a state I don't live in.  Oh well.

Summary: The darkest places are the places of the heart, and the darkest desires are those we don't know ourselves.  The gang faces a new threat from Naraku – one that can destroy the bonds of affection and forever change their relationships.

Spoilers: Very late in the manga.  Basically an AU continuation of the series beginning at the end of manga volume 33, chapter 326.  Why?  I don't like rats.  I'm avoiding them.

Warnings: Haha!  Darkfic and unresolved sexual tension are like bread and butter to me.  This fic deals with some dark themes, and has more pairings, both canon and non-canon, than you'd be wise to shake a stick at.  Yes.  Lots and lots of pairings, some blatant, some implied.  If you're looking for fluffy Inu/Kag action, this is not the place for you.

Credits: The title comes from the song All My Little Words by The Magnetic Fields.  It seemed appropriate.

All My Little Words

by

Resmiranda

Chapter One: How to Fight Loneliness

"The first thing that you want

will be the last thing you ever need."

  –Wilco, How to Fight Loneliness

***

In a field of late summer flowers, Higurashi Kagome dreamed...

... of waking up.  Her eyes open to the brilliant blue sky, dusted lightly with clouds, and out of the corner of her eye she can see the rich, verdant green of the treetops where the forest meets the meadow.  The sky looks so close, she can almost touch it.  Just a few outstretched fingers, and it will be within her reach – she could drop into it, fall forever into space, and leave behind her troubles.

A pitch and roll in the pit of her stomach, so much like falling down the well, and she shakes her head violently.  No, she thinks.  That would leave... her thoughts trail off, burning for a finish, something to latch onto that would complete them, ... leave them, too.  I couldn't do that.  A movement makes her turn her head, and there they are, standing and staring at her lying in the grass: Sango, Kirara, Miroku, Shippou, and... Inuyasha.  Kagome smiles in the eternal serenity of the moment, doesn't want it to end, a smile plastered on her face, but in her soul, she cries, hoping, praying to hold their faces forever in her heart...

Then, one by one, they turn, and disappear without a glance backwards, and Kagome is left alone in a field of flowers that cloy and suffocate, the thick pollen creeping down her throat, filling her lungs like glue, slowing her heart.  She can't breathe, cannot breathe, and high above her the sky yawns open, into the empty spaces of thought and memory, tumbling her into darkness, perfectly still –

Kagome awoke with a gasp, eyes flying open, heart pounding against her ribcage like a frightened bird, seeking release.

In front of her eyes, Shippou blinked curiously.

Abruptly, she sat up, sending the kitsune tumbling head over heels.  "Wah!  Kagome!" he squealed in protest, his little feet kicking uselessly at the air as he rolled a little way down the hill.

Kagome pressed a hand to her chest and took a deep breath, struggling to hide the fear and trying to right the landscape in front of her.  Slowly the world was asserting itself on her conscious mind again, and Kagome shook herself a little, unwilling to let her friend see her in such a state of panic.  "Shippou-chan," she scolded, "it's not very nice to loom over someone while they are asleep.  I nearly jumped out of my skin!"  She squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself to forget the dream, but her blood was like ice water in her veins and the hand splayed across her sternum was trembling ever so slightly.

When she opened her eyes again, Shippou was further down the gentle slope, and appeared to think about this, pursing his lips and staring at the clouds.  It took him so long to respond that Kagome wondered if he hadn't started watching the birds rather than formulating a thought.  "I think that would be funny to see," he finally ruled.

"Shippou-chan!" she exclaimed.  "I wouldn't look very nice with no skin!"  Shippou just giggled in response before bounding back toward her.  Kagome braced herself for a flying hug, but instead he flew right past her and dove into her giant yellow backpack, no doubt in search of something sweet to munch on.  Kagome let him.  She was still off balance and didn't have the heart to tell him to not go through her things. 

Kagome could feel her heart begin to slow, and the adrenaline that had washed through her limbs left her feeling weak and trembling just a bit.  She took a deep breath, inhaling the scents of spring all around her, sucking in the beautiful warm air and letting it calm her soul, while in her backpack Shippou muttered to himself about candy.  Kagome smiled indulgently – it was always so refreshing to see Shippou, who had suffered so much and who lived in such a violent world, revelling in the joys of childhood – joys that she had never given much thought to when she was younger, but now realized the luxuries she had been afforded.  Of course, always thinking about children, and Shippou, and her own childhood, Kagome was forcibly reminded of her mother.

Mama...  So far away in time and space.  Recently, every time she thought of home, Kagome felt a stab of blue steel through her heart, and she turned her head away from the little fox kit so that he would not accidentally see her face.

A cool breeze blew across her skin, drying the sweat of fear that had bubbled up as she dreamed, and she lifted a hand to brush it away before anyone saw and sighed inaudibly.  She wished her mother or grandfather were here so that she could tell them about the dreams that had been increasing in frequency and intensity every time she closed her eyes.

At first they had seemed innocuous, even silly.  She would be standing on the edge of a cliff and next to her stood the silver-haired hanyou.  They would be speaking and then he would brush against her – so innocently, it was just an accident – and she would lose her balance and begin to fall into the grey air and toward the rocks below.  But she always woke up before she completed the fall, or before Inuyasha even had time to react.  And then she would be laughing with Miroku or Sango, and suddenly they would stop and their faces would grow hard and they would turn their backs on her, leaving her hurt and wondering what it was that she had said to cause them to be so angry with her.

Now, though, she dreamed of deliberate, angry gestures, and a never-ending emptiness spiralling in their wake.  No matter how she pleaded or cried, the shoulder was always turned, and the loss and loneliness would crash down like a wave sweeping her away as she stood stock still, unable to believe what was happening.

Kagome frowned at the ground and tried to think of when the dreams had started.  The frown melted away into a slight smile and she shook her head a little bit.  It was always so difficult to remember this sort of thing, because when something starts, one has no idea how long it will last.  But the first time she could remember – the very first – was right after she, Sango, and Miroku had been poisoned by Mukotsu of the Shichinin-tai.  She could remember so little except the pain and the overwhelming exhaustion.  Even now, trying to remember it, she had only little flashes of memory, dipping and surfacing like silver fish in a stream – the scowling face of Inuyasha's brother, swift, flashing blades, the false monk that seemed so concerned and malevolent, and then flames and fire creeping in, closer and closer – and all the while, the dreams of emptiness and fear, knowing that as she lay dying, her friends could not help her, nor she them.

No, she thought.  That had been a while ago now, and they had all been able to pull through and defeat the enemies in their path, and they would do it again.  Positive thoughts, Kagome!  Don't be so negative!  Trying to rouse herself from the dark turn her thoughts had taken, Kagome sat up a little straighter and reached for the Shikon shard around her neck – the last Shikon shard – and looked at it as it glowed in her fingers.  All this, she thought.  All this for power.  And now it's ours – mine – to protect.  Since she had been trying to cheer herself up, she had to admit that she had failed miserably.  Remembering that she had to guard such a precious piece of the jewel was a depressing thought.

She had been thinking of Kikyou more often, lately.  It was one thing to share a soul, but the memory of Kikyou, floating timelessly in a pool, and her own hands on her cracked and broken body was more urgent, more unsettling.  Even now, she could feel the miko's cold, inhuman skin slide beneath her fingers, could feel the power of her arrow against her palm.  All her power that was so pure and strong, whereas her own was so weak.  How could she protect the world with such weak hands?

Kagome wondered if Kikyou had felt the same way when she had first been entrusted with the sacred jewel.  Kagome was guessing not; after all, Kikyou's power was enormous, and could protect the jewel easily.  Even now, unbidden, the calm, gentle, untroubled face of the miko floated across her mind – when Kikyou was at rest, it was so difficult to envision that lovely, placid expression ever twisting into something angry or hateful or ugly, and if she hadn't seen it for herself Kagome would never have believed that Kikyou was capable of an unkind expression.  No, Kikyou had been a worthy protector of the sacred jewel.  Herself, on the other hand... well.

"Why the sad face, Kagome-sama?"

Kagome looked up.  Cresting the hill behind her was Miroku, staff in hand, and a soft but questing smile on his face, though Kagome was not at all convinced by his innocent act.  He may have proposed to Sango, but it was probably too much to hope that he had ceased his lecherous ways; in a strange part of her mind, Kagome decided it was comforting to think that he wouldn't change, although Sango most likely did not hold the same opinion.  Kagome let the shard drop smoothly back under her shirt and stood up, brushing her skirt free of clinging grass and wracking her brains swiftly, trying to think of a response that wasn't as disheartening as what she was really thinking.

"Miroku-sama – "

Suddenly the kitsune's voice cried out.  "Pocky!"  Shippou suddenly squealed with obvious delight.  "Chocolate pocky!"  He leapt out of Kagome's backpack and ran in very small, tight circles, waving the packet of pocky high over his head, and, unable to contain himself in his overwhelming joy, turned into a pink balloon.  Kagome giggled.

"I was just worried that Shippou-chan wouldn't find the candy I was saving for him," she said, turning to the monk.  She hoped he bought it – she was a terrible liar.  But Miroku smiled at her as Shippou transformed back into his old self, still literally bouncing with happiness.

"Ah," he replied, "Kagome-sama, you have such a kind heart."

Kagome blushed, feeling mildly dirty for lying to him.  "Thank you, Miroku-sama," she said, looking away.

"Keh."

Kagome felt that familiar flip in her chest whenever she heard that voice – she hadn't even known he had been there, listening to her and watching her.  It made her feel slightly giddy.  She and her companion looked around in surprise before locating Inuyasha perched in the branches of a tree only a little ways away.  Kagome bristled.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded, unconsciously adopting a defiant posture, spreading her feet, placing her hands on her hips and leaning forward, challenging.  Slightly behind her, Miroku tried not to notice what her posture was doing to her little kimono.  Inuyasha mumbled something unintelligible.

Kagome stamped her foot.  "What?" she said angrily.

Inuyasha sighed.  "I said, you never bring me any pocky."  His face was pulled into a horrible pout.

"Inuyasha, I bring you ramen all the time," Kagome said loudly.  "Don't say I don't bring you anything!"

The hanyou jumped lightly out of the tree.  "Not lately!" he shot back.

"Ooooh!" Kagome fumed, all tender thoughts engendered by the dream quickly fleeing.  "I haven't been able to go home lately!  In case you'd forgotten, there haven't been any Shikon shards around for me to go home with!" she squeaked.  "And besides, I have more ramen for you!"  Kagome bent over and looked for the extra cups that she knew she had stashed somewhere in the bottom of her bag.  Behind her, the monk looked at the... trees.  Or tried to, anyway.

Inuyasha, however, was not impressed.  "Keh.  S'not pocky, is it?"

"Now, now, Inuyasha – " Miroku began, admonishingly.  Experience told him that he could probably not head this scenario in a different direction, but he tried valiantly anyway.

"She never brings you any pocky, does she?" Inuyasha suddenly demanded, arms crossed defiantly.

In spite of himself, Miroku was brought up short.  "Hmm," he said.  "No, she doesn't.  I wonder why."  He laid one long finger on his chin and appeared to ponder this great mystery of the universe.

"That's what I thought."

"Gah!"  Kagome dramatically threw her hands up in the air and whirled around, refusing to look at her infuriating companions any more.  She just might do something she would regret.

"You can have some of mine, Inuyasha," came Shippou's voice.  Kagome could see the little fox-kit in her mind's eye, giving Inuyasha a huge smile and offering him the smallest piece of candy in the packet.  It was all so comfortingly predictable.  Kagome started to count backwards in her mind.  Ten... nine... eight...

Behind her, Shippou squealed. 

...seven... six...

"I said some, you greedy jerk, not all!"

...five...

"You've been getting pocky from day one, you little brat!  Time to share!"

...four... three... two... one, she finished.

"KAGOMEEEEE!"  Right on cue.

It was always the same story.  It was a comforting, if bizarre, familiarity that allowed this sort of drama to play out over and over again.  Kagome suppressed the smile that threatened to tug at her lips and betray her strange contentment and turned around to see the hanyou holding the tiny kitsune at bay with one hand while he devoured the candy with the other.

"Inuyasha..."

Inuyasha froze, eyes widening.  He really should be used to this by now, Kagome thought to herself, mildly amused.

"Osuwari."

His face plunged toward the dirt, and Shippou and his pocky went flying in opposite directions.  After several bounces along the grass, Shippou managed to right himself and land on his feet, digging small furrows into the ground where he landed.

"Heh!  Serves you right!" he exclaimed, dashing past Inuyasha's prone figure to grab the pocky, which was laying in the dust.  Kagome grimaced slightly, thinking of how sanitary the candy was now, but reasoned that since Shippou was, technically, a demon, then the germs that were on the candy now probably wouldn't hurt him very much.  Kagome shook her head and sank back to the ground, smiling slightly as Inuyasha made a noise of displeasure and turned his back to her.  She was looking for his ramen when she heard Miroku speak again from behind her.

"Kagome-sama?" he asked.  She turned to look at him.

"Will you be returning to your country soon?" he continued.  "Now that you have the Shikon fragment?"

Kagome frowned.  "I don't know.  I want to, but part of me says that we're really close to the end of our quest.  I'm not sure if it would be wise to go back home now."

"Do you want to?"

Kagome laughed a little bit.  "I do."

"Idiot," Inuyasha said without turning around.  "You can go back.  We'll be fine without you, since there aren't any more shards to find."

Kagome was unsure as to what to say to that.  "You don't want me here?" she asked.  Her heart was twisting a little painfully, even though she told herself it was silly.

"I didn't say that!" Inuyasha exclaimed.  "Geez, you are so quick to jump to conclusions!"

"Then it's settled!" she said.  "I'll stay."

Miroku cleared his throat.  "Are you sure?" he asked her.  Kagome could see the doubt in his face, swirling just below the surface.

Kagome hesitated, and tilted her head.  I want to see Mama and Grandpa and Souta again... but...  There was a deep, persistent tugging in the pit of her stomach.  Something was pulling her, telling her to stay with her friends, and Kagome clenched her hands together, worrying her thumbs a little bit.  If she were to be completely honest with herself, she was worried that if she left, there would be no one to come back to.  She felt ten times better than she did not half an hour ago when she had awoken from her dream, but her skull still felt a little dusty and cobwebby, as though the empty spaces of her dreams were clinging to the inside of her mind, ready to invade her life, ready to steal her companions away.

But that's silly, she thought.  Isn't it?  They'll still be here.

Of course they will.

But I still don't want to go.

Kagome turned a bright smile to the monk.  "No, Miroku-sama, I think I'm happy to be with you guys.  I can go home later, right?"

Miroku nodded.  "Of course," he said, though his eyes still looked troubled.

Kagome's brow furrowed.  "Miroku-sama?  Are you all right?"

"Well," he said, drawing out the word and looking uncertain.

Kagome waited.  "Yes?" she finally prompted.

Miroku shrugged.  "Well, I was hoping to get some pocky of my own, but alas, I can see it is not meant to be yet."

Kagome hit him with a cup of ramen.

*          *          *

Several miles away, something moved in a tree, high above the ground.

A small mouse, scurrying across the forest floor, suddenly halted as primal fear bolted down its tiny spine, causing it to freeze.

If the thing in the tree had been human, it would have smiled.  All around it was a cacophony of life, silently buffeting its senses, and the quicksilver horror that coursed through the creature below it filled it with joy.  If it had a tongue, it would have thought the fear of the little rodent tasted sweet.

The mouse was petrified.  Above it, something slid off a branch, and made its way down the mighty trunk.

If it had been an animal, it would have slithered.

The mouse never had a chance.

There was no noise.  Nothing happened for a long moment, until, very slowly, the mouse tipped over, dead.

The thing from the tree writhed with what could only be described as a cruel joy.  It had only taken a few lives so far, but each one coursed through it, filling it up with energy, making it a hundred times more powerful than it had been when it was born, only an hour ago.

It was good, this feeling.  It hungered – no, craved the spirits all around it that scuttled and flew and crawled and dashed through the forest.  Only small things could feel its presence at the moment, but that would change, when enough had been sucked dry.  And when it was strong enough, it would move onto its true objective.

If it had possessed a head, it would have lifted its nose to the wind, smelling the breeze so fraught with scent and sound.  But it had no body, and it was not limited by such a dismal prison as the prison of flesh; all that contained it was its own mind, and to something so free, even the quiet whisper of thoughts, even the gentle fragrance of feelings wafted on the currents of air.  It could smell its target, but it was nothing if not patient.  Only a few more hours, and it would be strong enough to take what it truly needed.

A small fox kit passing by was suddenly and inexplicably gripped with terror.  In all its young life, it had never sensed something so malevolent as what it could sense now.  Slowly, it turned its ears and nose this way and that, trying to find what was causing his paws to tremble and his heart to race, but there was nothing. 

Nothing at all.

It began to run.

If it had been human, it would have smiled.  Instead, it sprang.

It was good.

*          *          *

The wolf prince was having issues with finding dinner, and his loyal comrades were being their normal helpful selves.  He was beginning to develop a truly royal headache.

Kouga barely refrained from rubbing his temples with his forefingers, and settled for glaring daggers at Ginta and Hakkaku.  It wasn't that they were bad at hunting per se, but in a forest so devoid of life even he was having problems picking up a useful trail, and he couldn't help but feel that they were holding him back just a little bit.

Hmph, he thought, absentmindedly rubbing the back of his neck where his hackles had risen.  This forest gives me the creeps.  If he were completely honest with himself, he would admit to just wanting to find something to eat and getting the hell out of there, but necessity drove them here, and pride anchored him to his course.  Normally he wouldn't have ventured within a hundred yards of a place that was so bizarrely quiet, but his pack members were starving and he needed to do something to relieve the pains gnawing at his abdomen.

"Kouga..." Hakkaku began.

Kouga groaned, waiting for an annoying suggestion of some sort to spill out, and rubbed his forearm lightly before realizing the unconscious gesture and yanking his hand away.  The forest was really getting to him.

"Ano..." Hakkaku stumbled over his words.

Kouga narrowed his eyes.

"Shouldn't we go hung somewhere else?" Ginta suggested quickly.  He and Hakkaku were standing extremely close together, peering into the deepening shadows of the evening anxiously.  They both seemed nervous, and the few wolves they had with them had tucked their tails low as they gazed around, ears flat against their heads.

Even they're nervous, Kouga realized.  A slight breeze rustling through the leaves made him jump slightly.

Damn.  The place was making him downright twitchy.

"Keh," he replied, sounding more confident than he felt.  "We won't find anything in this place anyway."  He dug his heels in and took off back the way they'd come, leaving his hapless followers to groan with chagrin in his dust as they tried their level best to follow him.

Something watched them go, satisfied.

It had found a vessel.

Soon, it thought.  So soon.

*          *          *

Hakkaku and Ginta, having found a nest of weasels and contented themselves with those, slept while Kouga, sitting on the nearby riverbank, envied them their comfort, but made no move to wake them.  They weren't as strong as he was, and even though that sometimes became a nuisance, it would be cruel to hold it against them, even though the unseasonably warm night was making his limbs heavy and his muscles relax into an uncharacteristic slump.  The prince had elected to stay awake and keep watch for the night, but he couldn't sense any danger nearby and instead was compelled to entertain himself by watching the water flow by, floating the moon along its surface.

Unfortunately, he was less inclined to appreciate the beauty of the night as he was in the middle of losing the valiant struggle against melancholy that was threatening to pull him down.  It had been a while since he had nearly been absorbed by that bastard, Naraku, but Kouga wanted to roar with rage and frustration each time he thought about it.  It was almost too much to bear, knowing that the smug asshole was still floating around out there in the world, while most of his tribe slumbered, cold and dead, in the earth.  It made his claws itch just thinking about his unfulfilled revenge, but there was little he could do.  He didn't know where his enemy was hiding now, and he hadn't seen Kagome since he'd realized...

Kouga squeezed his eyes shut quickly, trying to block out that particular trail of thought, but once begun, he had to follow it to the inevitable conclusion.

...since he'd realized that she was completely hung up on that stupid mutt.  Just thinking about it made him want to break something – preferably that damn hanyou's face – but that wouldn't do anything but possibly bruise his hand.  Nothing would be achieved. 

Dropping his head between his hands, he sighed quietly.  He might as well face it: there was nothing he could do about Kagome's feelings.  If she insisted on staying with that stinking mongrel, he'd have to...

...dammit, win her some other way.

His hand snaked down into the cold water, brought up a handful, and splashed the freezing liquid over his face, jolting himself a little bit.  He was getting too absorbed in his thoughts, which was always a bad thing for a sentinel to do, and Kouga scanned the area quickly, subtly sniffing the air and letting his eyes travel over the landscape, looking for anything out of the ordinary.  A youkai attack, or a bear, or anything really, would be a welcome distraction from the annoying turns his thoughts were taking.

Unfortunately, the surrounding trees entirely failed to produce something to beat up – just his luck.  Kouga slowly leaned back against a large boulder and gently banged his head against it, going on the assumption that it was better than thinking about his failures, and also that it would feel good when he stopped.

Kouga had just been pleasantly surprised to find that the rhythmic thumping had been soothing in its own way when all the hair on his body stood on end.

He didn't even stop to think, leaping to his feet so quickly that his head spun and turning his back to the river.  Flashes of instinct, barely formed thoughts, scorched across his mind. 

...back to the water, less likely attack, where, where, what, where, no scent, what, where...

He couldn't smell anything untoward, but there was something out there.

"Hakkaku!  Ginta!" he hissed urgently.  He whipped around on the balls of his feet, scraping them against the ground, but the slight pain hardly registered.  Tingles rioted up and down his spine, like a thousand tap-dancing fingers, and he suppressed a shudder.  Frantically he ran his gaze over the rocks and trees and river.  He couldn't see anything, even with the help of the moon's light.

His faithful companions were standing back-to-back the next time he turned to look at them, both of them bleary-eyed and slightly worse for the wear, but at least they were awake and struggling to alertness.

"What is it, boss?" Ginta asked, clearly on edge.

Whatever it was, it was watching him.  Kouga felt his skin crawl.  "I don't know," he replied sharply.  "Can you feel it?"

Hakkaku shivered and nodded.  "Feels cold," he whispered.

The whisper sounded like a shout.  Dimly, over the thundering of the blood in his veins, Kouga became aware that it was as silent as a tomb.  As silent as that creepy forest.  The muscles in his legs twitched, wanting to run, run, run from that spot, run away, but he had no idea which direction away actually was.  The horrible feeling crept in from all sides, and there was no where to go to escape.  The wolf prince felt the first white hot twinges of fury deep in his chest.

Something was toying with him, and he didn't appreciate it one bit.

"K-Kouga – " Ginta stuttered, looking around wildly.

It was as if something was staring at him, straight through his skull and into his mind.  Straight through my skull... straight through the back of my skull...

Kouga whipped around.

Nothing.

He whirled around again.

A silent grove of trees, a windswept sky, a sullen moon.  Nothing more.

A sudden gasp, from either Hakkaku or Ginta, and his entire left side tingled as time slowed down, and Kouga turned toward the river, a cry caught in his throat –

*          *          *

"Kagome-chan?"  Sango's voice cut through her sudden trance, bringing her back down to earth with a sudden jolt.  No matter how many times it happened, Kagome had never become used to the sense of something outside of her affecting her reactions.  She smiled ruefully at Sango.

"Shikon shards," she replied.  "Coming this way.  Two of them."

"Keh," said Inuyasha.

Miroku just smirked.

"Ah," said Sango.  "That would be Kouga, right?"  On her shoulder, Kirara mewled.

Kagome just nodded.

"I don't want to meet with that wimpy wolf,"

"Inuyasha!" Kagome admonished.

He just grunted and kept his back to her.  "Keh.  After what happened last time, I can't believe he'd even think of showing his face around here!"

"He really is impossible," Sango whispered to Miroku for the two hundred and seventeenth time.  Miroku nodded sagely, as always.

"Hey!" Inuyasha whirled around.  "Don't think I can't hear you guys!"  Sango just gave him a look.

Kagome, for her part, was gazing behind her, waiting for Kouga to catch up with them.  She didn't have to wait long.  A few seconds later and the wolf youkai skidded to a stop ten yards away.

"Yo!" he greeted, waving his hand.

Kagome smiled as he moved toward her.  "Good morning, Kouga-kun!" she replied.  "How have you been?"

Before he could reply, Inuyasha stepped between them.

Kouga scowled.  "I have business with Kagome, mutt.  Get out of my way."

"Hmph," Inuyasha replied.  "Like she'd want to talk to you."

Honestly, this is getting a little old, Kagome thought to herself.  She neatly sidestepped her companion, and addressed Kouga directly.  "What do you need, Kouga-kun?" she asked.

"Kagome," he returned, gathering her hands in his, causing her to blush like always.  "I need to talk to you."

"So talk!" Inuyasha yelled from behind her.

The wolf glared at him.  "Alone," he said pointedly.

"Yeah, right."

"Inuyasha!" Kagome groaned.  "It's okay.  Kouga-kun, we can talk over there, behind those trees.  Okay?"

Kouga smiled down at her warmly.  "Thank you, Kagome."  As Kagome began to walk away, the demon followed her, pausing only to glance back over his shoulder and smirk at his rival.

Inuyasha fumed.

Miroku drew up to his side and patted him on the shoulder.  "It will be all right, Inuyasha," he said reassuringly.  "Kagome-sama would never treat you the way you treat her."

"What's THAT supposed to mean, lech?"

Miroku smiled, waving a hand placatingly.  "Nothing!  Nothing at all.  I didn't even say anything, did I?"

Sango rolled her eyes.  At least the yelling would drown out whatever Kagome and Kouga were talking about, so no one would be tempted to eavesdrop.

Unfortunately, it was a full five minutes before Inuyasha calmed down enough to realize that Kagome had not yet returned.

"Where is she?" he demanded, squinting at the trees where the wolf and the girl had disappeared, as though hoping to make them burst into flames by sheer willpower.

The little group fell silent, each member straining to hear.

Finally, Shippou spoke up.  "I don't hear anything!" he said.  "What are they doing?"

Inuyasha growled.  "I don't know.  But I have an idea."  Rumbling obscenities under his breath, the hanyou stalked the fifty yards over to the grove of trees where he had last seen the couple go.

There was a tense, drawn out moment.

"KAGOME!"

Within a second, the rest of the group burst through the foliage to see a stunned Inuyasha standing in the middle of the clearing.  It was deserted, except for him.

"Where is she?" Shippou squealed.  "KAGOMEEEE!"

Inuyasha had dropped to his hands and knees, inhaling a good amount of dust in his desperation to seek out Kagome's scent.

"I'm not sure!" he cried, moving aimlessly.  "Her scent's all over!"

"Why didn't Kagome-chan call for us?" Sango demanded.

Miroku looked troubled.  "There's only one way."

Inuyasha leapt to his feet.  "No.  No way.  She wouldn't do that.  She would tell us where she was going first, right?"

Miroku shrugged, clearly puzzled and a little upset.  "Maybe."

Eyes wide and already filling with tears, Shippou voiced what everyone was thinking.  "You mean... she left us?"

Looking at the ground in front of him, unmarred by any sort of struggle, Miroku shook his head.

"It seems that way."