She ran. Her feet connected with the ground, digging deeply into it, pressing the dirt to drive her faster. Inside her skull, her blood pounded in her ears and the harsh gasps that came from her throat nearly deafened her. It hurt a bit to breathe but she pushed herself harder all the same. Her legs were beginning to ache and it wouldn't be long before she tired, but she couldn't stop. A sound came from behind her, spurring her on. Furrowing her brow, she made a panicked little gasp before putting on a short burst of speed. He was closing in on her...it was only a matter of time.

Her eyes blurred a little and she felt the searing need for water burn in her throat. She couldn't pass out...just a little farther...Her foot caught on a rock and she cursed as she tumbled to the ground in a heap. She cried out as she tried to control her fall as she'd been taught, landing hard on her shoulder. Groaning, she tried to force herself up. She couldn't be caught, not like this...it was just too humiliating. She hissed in pain as she pushed herself up, lifting a hand to inspect her injured arm. The grass rustled, and her injury was quickly forgotten. He was close. Her eyes darted around, searching. Why did she have to be so clumsy? Where was he? Get up, dammit, just get up and...

A bundle of fur hit her at roughly the speed of light, toppling her back into the grass. She squealed as she fell over, her back digging into the hard ground as she landed. Her eyes squeezed shut as she prepared for the inevitable.

"TAG! YOU'RE IT!!"

She felt a small hand pat the top of her forehead before the slight weight left her chest. Kagome sighed and sat up in time to see the small fox demon become a red streak as he ran away giddily. A light laugh escaped her lips.

"YOU BETTER RUN FASTER THAN THAT, SHIPPOU!!"

The last two and a half hours had been pure and utter bliss. A welcome break from the relentless drudgery of shard hunting that she looked forward to, on the rare occasions when they were allowed such free time. She smiled slowly before dusting herself off and chasing after him, her mind pausing to think as her body surrendered to the chase. Kagome had learned long ago to think and act at the same time.

The last two years sometimes seemed like a dream that was alternately exciting and horrible. When she was younger, Kagome Higurashi entertained thoughts of living in another era, what girl didn't? She used to close her eyes at night and imagine what it was like. Modern day Japan was sometimes so cold and brash and without romance. Everyone was always so hurried, trying to get where they had to go. There was the ever present stress of her many exams and it was nice to get away from all that, to think back to a time when things were simpler. It was the lack of complexity that charmed her.

But reality and dreams have little to do with each other and everyday she learned this lesson with brutal clarity. The past was nowhere you wanted to be. It was dirty, violent and nothing like the movies or comic books told you. Those things were constructed upon a romantic image of the past. Taking only that which was palatable to the modern eye and pushing the more detestable elements under the rug. Looking at that simpler time with rose colored glasses, she saw now how foolish she was to dream like that. She'd taken her own time sorely for granted, that was for sure.

Still, there were some parts of traveling in the feudal era that weren't so bad. This was one of them. Kagome followed the blur of red into the nearby forest, farther away from the camp made by the rest of her friends. In the back of her mind, she knew they probably shouldn't be wandering so far, but right now she didn't much care. Inuyasha had been ruder than usual lately and she was feeling rather peevish at the moment.

Four days ago they'd run across Naraku's fortress...or what was left of it. There had been a vicious fight, which Inuyasha seemed bound and determined not to talk about. The most she got out of him was that Naraku was there, as was his half brother, there was a fight and Naraku got away. All things considered, she felt lucky she got that much out of him. He was grumpy and uncommunicative after that and had spurred the group on, hoping against hope to find Naraku's trail. It was obvious they'd done their enemy great harm, wounded him severely and if they played their cards right, they could corner Naraku while he was weak. But there was no trail to follow and as the days passed, this fact became increasingly obvious and with that realization, Inuyasha became harder and harder to deal with. The situation had finally blown up yesterday, when they ran across Kikyo, who apparently was drawn here...for whatever reason she was. Kagome didn't like to think about it. Kikyo's reasoning for doing anything was beyond her and she viciously wanted it to stay that way. It was bad enough that they could practically be twins, if she had to think like the undead priestess...well that would just be the last straw.

There wasn't much to say about the encounter. Well, there probably was but she had managed to block it all out. In fact, she hadn't even been listening. While Kikyo and Inuyasha exchanged words and threats, Kagome had found a sudden interest in her shoes that defied all reason. There was a new stain on her left shoe and she was sure this time that she wouldn't be able to scuff it away. The feudal era was murder on suede.

She knew the basics. Kikyo had probably felt the rise in demonic power that went along with a vicious fight between powerful youkai and she had come to investigate. Finding Naraku's castle abandoned and in ruins, she had been wandering around, looking for signs of the evil hanyou and turning up nothing, she had decided to leave when she felt Inuyasha's presence. Never one to leave well enough alone, Kikyo decided for a nice, friendly visit to tell them all things they knew already....and of course her obligatory threat to drag Inuyasha to hell and his requisite response that he'd go willingly.

Sometimes she really, really hated her life.

Kagome pushed the thoughts aside, as they threatened to make her think about deeper things...and thinking in general was something she'd tried to avoid lately. Right now, there was nothing but this game and the afternoon. She was free right now and she'd be damned if she let him ruin yet another perfectly good day.

And it was a perfect day. She breathed in deeply, forgoing running for a leisurely stroll. Shippou was far ahead of her and she had no real hope of catching the tiny fox demon. He was much too fast...but she didn't mind acknowledging that fact. Besides, he'd get bored if she let him wait long enough and go looking for her on his own. Ever since she'd met the fox kit, he'd been permattached to her side--glued to her as if she were a life line of sorts. In a way, she was. The poor kid had lost his entire family and Kagome was really the only one who treated him with anything resembling true sympathy.

Inuyasha plainly didn't care about him and had found him to be a nuisance right from the start. He fought with Shippou like an uncouth, older brother, which at times could be as annoying as it was amusing. Miroku was friendly enough, but he tended to keep people at arm's length. Kagome had noticed that fact straight away...and she understood. His life was bound to be short and his death violent, and so he dealt with it in the best way he could, though she really did wish that dealing with it didn't involve as much ass groping as it did. Sango was warm and affectionate as she could be, but as of late, she'd become distant. Her eyes had become dull and there was heaviness in her step. She hadn't even beaned Miroku that hard this morning when his hands roamed where they shouldn't have. Worse, she didn't even have the energy to accuse him of being a perverted monk. Kagome was beginning to worry about her, actually.

Again, it all had to do with what happened four days ago. Kagome couldn't imagine what the demon hunter was going through...and she didn't want to. The very idea of her own little brother becoming a helpless puppet to a demented half-demon, it was sickening. Sango was a stronger woman than she was...Kagome didn't know what she'd do if something like that happened to Souta. No matter how annoying her kid brother could be, she loved him and she knew she'd die inside if anything awful befell him. She felt the same way about Shippou...speaking of which, she began to look around for the kit, worried that he'd run too far. He was a bit of a baby sometimes and she didn't want him to lost...he was so much like her little brother. She smiled, her fingers teasing the tops of the grass as she strolled towards the forest.

In a way, she'd kind of assigned Shippou the role of her little brother in the feudal era. She took care of him like she took care of Souta. Actually, she was a little nicer to Shippou, but she'd never tell anyone else that. He needed her. She realized that a long time ago. Everyone here could get along without her. Inuyasha, Miroku, Sango...all of them she loved like family but she knew that she was more of a burden to them than anything else. Her only real purpose in the group was to detect the jewel shards...it was really the only thing she did with reasonable skill. If she wasn't here, well...finding the shards would be harder for them, but they'd manage. Probably do a damn sight better without her. She'd thought about that often lately. Kagome was acutely aware that she didn't really belong here and all in all, had very little to offer anyone other than her tenuous connection to the shikon jewel and her seemingly innate skills, which she couldn't even control half the time. The only one who really needed her was Shippou. If she wasn't here, he wouldn't have anyone...and if he wasn't there, well...she had Inuyasha, sort of. She'd gone along with all of this in the vain hope that something more would happen between them. But everyday that hope became less certain, and she began to see that whatever affection was between them wouldn't lead to anything long lasting.

Kagome was angry at herself. She'd promised herself she wouldn't do this but she did it anyway. Gods, what a fool she was! What was wrong with her? Really, was there something so terrible that kept her from being loved? What was it that held Inuyasha back? Was it the fact that she looked so much like his beloved Kikyo and was so different, or worse, was it because she was the same? A shadow. She was a shadow of Kikyo to him, or maybe she was just hiding in her shadow. Either way, she knew that whenever he looked at her, he saw Kikyo. Or at least a faded photocopy of his priestess, and it killed her. She didn't belong. There was only room for one Kikyo and Kagome was a pathetic replacement for the original. Some days, she considered just giving the feudal era the figurative raspberry, taking her things and going home.

Kagome sighed wearily as she entered the forest proper. It was pointless to think about the should haves and could haves when there was really nothing she could do about it anyway. Reflecting on the past was one thing but obsessing over it was another and doing either in the ACTUAL past was just downright confusing. Her brain hurt just thinking about it. It was better to just simplify things. Trees pretty. Fire bad. Besides, she wasn't really being fair.

Inuyasha did care for her, so what if it might not be in the way she wanted. He was her friend. Her BEST friend and that counted for something. And Kikyo? She wanted to hate the woman she was a reincarnate of but she just couldn't. The undead priestess had her own reasons for doing the things that she did and Kagome pretty much agreed that if she was in the same position, she might not act so differently. And it wasn't just the whole Inuyasha thing either. There were more similarities than differences, which was kind of hard to come to terms with but she'd done her best, or at least gone as far as she felt sane enough to. Kagome would only admit in her most secret heart that there were things she and Kikyo shared that had nothing to do with a certain hanyou. With painful silence, she drew out the little bottle that contained the few jewel shards they'd collected. This, they had this in common. Both of them were destined to protect the shikon jewel.

Kikyo had until her death and now her duty fell to Kagome. They were tied to each other through this jewel...same responsibility. Same burden. Sometimes it was more of a curse than anything else. It was easy to see how Kikyo must have felt all those years ago, chained to this awful thing that brought only pain and misery. She rolled the bottle in her hand, watching with fascination as the shards tumbled over each other inside. They winked and sparkled as the sun hit them and she could almost fool herself into believing in their beauty.

She really didn't belong here. Every time she left and came back, it became more obvious or maybe it didn't. Maybe she did belong here and she just hadn't found her purpose, beyond the destruction of the jewel. On one hand, it would be easier to just give up and go back home to modern day Tokyo. Resume her life as a normal high school girl but...she didn't really belong there either. She missed her friends back home and when she visited she was happy to see them...but... More and more she felt as if they were growing apart. She felt detached in their company, as if listening in on a conversation she had no part of.

They'd talk about things and people she'd never met or heard of and they'd always try to help her catch up, but she was usually left feeling a bit lost and left out. Then they'd turn the conversation to more uncomfortable topics that she didn't really want to deal with, much less talk about with people who had no idea what was really going on. It was easy to judge and moralize when you only knew the basic information on a given subject. So her friends felt very comfortable chiding her over her choice in company, not realizing it wasn't as simple as all that. But it wasn't like she wanted to explain it any further.

So she found herself torn between feeling left out and annoyed at their presumption to tell her how to live her life. She knew they only did it because they cared, but damn it, her life was hard enough to figure out on her own. And all the conflicting opinions were not helping. Sometimes she wished she could be as frivolous and carefree as they were, but that was just not an option. She longed to giggle over what guy she liked and who might like her. She wanted to think about the next dress she'd buy or whether or not to paint her nails. But that life was closed to her now.

Okay, to be fair. She wasn't that much better than them, with her confusion over her relationship with Inuyasha but that wasn't the only thing she thought about. In fact, she'd been quite good, up until today that was. She hadn't really thought about him and their relationship in awhile. Lately, she'd been worried about Naraku's next move and what might happen at the end of all of this. The jewel. Inuyasha wanted it to become a full fledged demon. She'd promised she'd give it to him. But... Lately, lately she'd thought long and hard about that promise. That wish, it wasn't right. Giving him the jewel for that wish was not a good idea. She might as well give it to Naraku for all the good it'd do. The result would be the same.

Wishing to become a full demon was NOT an unselfish wish and it would corrupt the jewel, there was no way around it. Kaede had warned her on several occasions that she should find a way to dissuade Inuyasha. How was she supposed to do that? He had his heart set on it and it wasn't like Inuyasha was the easiest person to talk to. The big idiot didn't listen to anyone, especially her. She'd tried think of something that'd change his mind but she'd come up empty. Whatever it was, she knew it'd have to be something big. A grand gesture and so far the only grand gestures she could think of were far too embarrassing to try.

She shook the jar again, this time with more frustration than wonder. Stupid jewel. More than anything she wanted this thing purified for good. Inuyasha could call her an idiot all he wanted, but she was thinking and he wasn't. Or maybe he was and he was just hiding it really well. It didn't matter. The jewel was evil. Okay, not really. It wasn't evil but it could be used for it and the only solution to this conundrum was to destroy the damned thing. It had no place on this earth and she wanted the evil that it caused to end.

She didn't really belong here, had no personal stake in this quest. This was not her time. Not her business. She was a weak, mortal girl with no control of her power but she was determined to see this out none-the-less. Her desire to see such a hated thing destroyed was as strong as any of her companions. The lives touched by the jewel had been ruined. Every last one of them. Demon or human, it didn't matter. When the jewel came into your life, pain and loss followed. She wouldn't have it. It would end, so help her, if she had to die to do it. Sango had lost her brother. Shippou lost his father to it, indirectly albeit. Miroku would lose his life. Inuyasha had lost his love. Kikyo her soul. And Kagome...she had lost her future to it.

There was little doubt of that in her mind. Her travels to the feudal era had affected her life in the modern day profoundly. She was absent most of the time and because of this, had fallen behind in her school work. Taking her study materials with her had helped but she didn't have the time she needed to study properly. There were always one too many distractions and when it came down to it, sometimes she just forgot to study altogether. I mean really, when you had a choice between running through a field like this with childlike abandon and algebra, which would you choose? The field won every time. She had enough stress with the battles and Naraku's many attempts on their lives. Plus all the countless other things out there who tried to kill them on a daily basis, it really made those story problems she should be doing seem not so important. And who really cares what the hell X plus Y equals anyway?! Not like she'd get stopped in the street one day and have to answer that question.

She could just see some mugger dragging her into an alleyway, demanding the answer to a story problem.

"Two railway trains, one 400 feet long and the other 200 feet long, run on parallel rails, each at its own constant speed. When they move in opposite directions, the trains pass each other in 5 seconds. When they move in the same direction, the faster train takes 15 seconds to pass the slower train. How many MPH is each train moving?" He'd whisper hoarsely while holding a knife to her throat.

And because she flunked math in high school all she'd be able to do is scream and cry, "I don't knooooooooooooooooow!! IF ONLY I'D STUDIED MATH INSTEAD OF GOING TO THE FEUDAL ERA! CUUUUUUUUURSE YOOOOOOOOOU!!"

Kagome shook herself out of the rather hilarious daydream. This was serious, as much as she wished it wasn't. Her future in the modern era was precarious. Despite her absences, she'd managed to make pretty decent grades but they weren't good enough. There was no way any university worth its salt would accept her. Not the ones she really wanted to go to anyway. Perhaps a few of the smaller, less prestigious ones would but degrees from those kinds of universities would get her nowhere. Well, maybe she could get a job as an office lady but who in their right mind really wanted to be an office lady. She couldn't imagine herself spending the rest of her life getting some businessman his coffee while trying to avoid his unavoidable sexual advances. It'd be like working for Miroku...only without the charm and appeal. If she were more like her friends she could hope to marry a rich man that'd take care of her. Kagome frowned and grunted. That was an entirely unappealing idea, not like her at all.

She wanted a future she could control. One that she worked hard to build. She tired of being the weak one, hated leaning on others when she could just as well help herself. There was a time to accept help and there was a time when you had to do things on your own. If there was one thing she'd learned during this adventure was the strength to believe in herself and the power she had to make things happen. The future was hers and whatever she did, she wanted it to happen because she worked for it. Not because it was handed to her on a silver platter. This, of course, didn't solve the problem of her grades and the possibility that her future really did look kind of bleak. There was always the shrine. She could take it over for her grandfather. He was getting rather old. That wouldn't really be all that bad...

"GAH!" She exclaimed, running a hand through her hair in frustration.

This was getting her nowhere. Stuffing the jewels back into her pocket, she realized with some seriousness that she had no idea where Shippou had gotten off to. Stupid daydreams and worries about the future. She sighed and kicked a rock as she thought that, looking around in a halfhearted attempt to locate her friend. The forest surrounded her in quiet repose. The only noise was the occasional chatter of the birds and soon she found herself basking in the peace it offered her. She breathed in deeply, revealing in how fresh the air was here.

This was heaven compared to what the air was like at home. The sky was a deep, pristine blue, untainted by the pollution that was prevalent in her own time. Pure white clouds drifted across the sky, billowing in large, puffy waves. She squinted her eyes as she tipped her head skyward to watch them through the forest canopy. The sun filtered down through the trees, briefly kissing her face as it moved brokenly through the leaves. She paused in her search, standing still as she looked to the sky for answers she couldn't find in her heart. Suddenly wistful, Kagome closed her eyes and let the sun warm her skin.

Her life wasn't perfect but it could be much worse and even if she didn't belong here, it didn't matter. She wasn't going to give up because this was worth fighting for. Even if it wasn't her own... Kagome smiled softly and opened her eyes with languid grace. Yes, things weren't so bad after all. Her smiled widened as she felt a gentle tug on her sock. Shippou gazed at her with his bright green eyes from the forest floor. Cocking his head curiously, he made a little sniffing sound before smiling back at her.

His brows creased a bit and he asked her in a very small voice, "...Where'd you go? You didn't follow and I was worried..."

She bent down and ruffled his hair, giving him an apologetic grin, "I'm sorry, Shippou. I just got thinking, that's all."

"Thinking?"

"Mmhmm."

"'Bout Inuyasha?" He asked, with not just a small amount of suspicion.

"...Yeah." She replied, hesitating.

Shippou had always disliked the way Inuyasha made Kagome feel. When he wasn't being a jerk, Kagome was happy and fun to be around...and he was rarely not a jerk. He liked it when Kagome was happy. This was their time together, without that big jerk to ruin it. It wasn't fair. Even when he wasn't here he was ruining things.

"Hmph! You should just forget about that jerk, Kagome! Besides...you promised..."

Yes, she'd promised that during these little sojourns she wouldn't think about Inuyasha. And here she'd gone and broke it within hours of making the promise in the first place. This was Kagome and Shippou time. No Inuyasha to interfere. No worries to ruin their fun.

She sighed, "I'm sorry...you forgive me?"

He crossed his arms and gave a little huff, pouting as he purposefully looked away from her.

"I don't know..." He said slowly, turning to give her his best doubtful scowl, which was more cute than threatening.

"Well, then I guess I have no choice..." She replied, simply.

He eyes widened and he tried to run away, only to be caught before he could go anywhere. Kagome giggled and picked him up, tickling him until he was howling with laughter. The sound was loud enough to send the birds in the canopy into flight. It echoed through the forest in a most pleasant way. For a split second, Kagome felt something that gave her pause, a ripple of power. They should be more careful, more quiet. The jewel shards attracted enough demons on its own, no need to give them something to lock onto. She stopped and narrowed her eyes as she tried to sense the source of her unease. Nothing. She was just worrying for nothing. Shippou had noticed her divided attention and scrambled onto her lap, looking in the direction she was staring.

"What's wrong?"

"Hmm? Oh. Nothing. I just thought I felt something..."

They looked at each other for a moment before a grin spread over Kagome's face. She set a finger on his nose and giggled, before leaping up and running off as fast as she could.

"You're it!" she called after him.

"HEY! NO FAIR! WAIT UP!"

The tiny fox demon immediately set after her, running through the forest as fast as his small legs would carry him. She tilted her head back and laughed as hard as she could. The forest blurred and there was nothing but the wind in her face and the joy in her heart. She could hear the sounds of her footsteps as they hit the ground and the laughed inhalation of her own breath. Exhilaration. For the fist time in as many days she forgot about all those things that worried her and buried them deep. This was their time. Right here and now. She could hear the little fox catching up to her. He was really stronger and faster than he gave himself credit for. True, he was still quite young and his power wasn't developed yet, but Kagome felt with time and practice he'd grow up to be a capable young man...demon...

While she corrected herself, she failed to take notice of a particularly large root sticking out of the ground right in her path. And she certainly didn't notice her foot catching onto it until it was much too late to do anything. This time her fall was as graceless as it was hard. Sky and trees and ground tumbled around her and just as suddenly it all stopped whirling. She was lying on the ground, flat on her stomach, staring at the ground dully. Kagome winced and groaned, turning herself over she looked at the sky. Why did she have to be such a damn klutz? She could hear Shippou calling her name and it didn't quite register at the moment. The pain in her ankle and her knees...and her everywhere did. With a grunt, she pushed herself up with agonizing slowness. Everything seemed to be in place. Her knees were scuffed pretty badly and she might have twisted her ankle a little, but nothing seemed to be broken or anything. Just sore. It was made slightly worse by Shippou's usual hyper-speed greeting. He rammed into her so hard he nearly knocked her over again. She hissed in pain but returned the fierce hug he gave her all the same.

"KAGOME! KAGOME! Are you all right?!!"

"Yeah. Just super!" She said tightly, trying not to show how much she really hurt.

The little fox paused and pulled back, tilting his head in an unusually mature manner.

"Then how come you're making this face?" He asked, scrunching his own face up to mimic her expression.

Even for a very young demon he was eerily perceptive. Maybe it was some trait in fox demons. In any event, several responses to his question came to her mind. All were appropriate and funny but at this moment, she wasn't feeling terribly verbal.

She smiled and poked his nose with one finger, making a little honking noise as she did, "Mmrrp."

The fox kit giggled, his bright green eyes sparkling with mirth...and mischief. Again, he mimicked her, gently poking her nose back.

"You're it!!" He said brightly, before leaping over her shoulder and running away.

Her eyes went wide and she turned to watch him go, "You little sneak! GET BACK HERE!"

"COME AND GET ME!" He called back to her with a light laugh.

Dusting herself off quickly, she got up, trying her best to be careful. It still hurt a little to move.

"NO FAIR! YOU BIG CHEATER!" she shouted back as she hobbled after him, "I'M AN INVALID NOW! THE GAME WAS OVER!!"

"SORE LOSER!!" He chimed, his voice sounding farther away.

She was about to give him a real good threat that she didn't really mean until she heard his soft gasp, followed shortly thereafter by her own. Kagome limped forward, standing near a now immobile fox demon. Spread out before them was a carpet of living color, gently swaying in the wind as they stared at it in open awe. At the edge of this forest lay a field and in that field were more flowers than Kagome had ever seen in one spot, even when she went to the Jindai Botanical Gardens last year for a field trip. It was simply put, the most beautiful thing she'd even seen. It was ethereal, so unreal that it made it that much more alive. Tempting in its blissfulness, its true and perfect beauty. This was what she always imagined heaven to be like. Immediately forgetting her bum arm and the scrapes on her knees and her slightly twisted ankle, Kagome skipped forward with a bubbly laugh. She turned when she noticed Shippou hadn't followed her.

"What's wrong?"

Shippou stood at the edge, between the forest and the field, with a look that was a mix of wonder and worry.

"...Nothing, Kagome...it's just..."

She paused, thinking back to that flicker of power she felt. It had to be nothing...just a twitch. She'd learned to trust her instincts, maybe she should be worried. Kagome concentrated on that feeling she had before, exploring it. Trying to find where it originated but there was nothing. If there were demons in the area, she'd feel them. She knew it...and the only thing she felt were Shippou, Inuyasha and Kirara.

"Just being silly", she thought, calling out to Shippou, she said, "... Do you feel anything?"

"No. Just feels...weird."

She nodded, wading back through the flowers until she stood in front of him, "I know. It feels weird for me too. But...I think we're just on edge...I don't really feel anything and if you don't. Then it has to be...somewhat okay. Plus, Inuyasha's near. Probably followed us, knowing him. So, I'm not worried. Besides, you promised..."

"Yeah. I guess you're right." He replied reluctantly.

It might have been slightly foolhardy to be so trusting of an open field and Inuyasha would undoubtedly call her stupid if she got into trouble. But HONESTLY! She didn't feel anything wrong with this place. It was too peaceful and maybe that's where she made her mistake.

Despite any warnings in her heart, the two friends ran through the flowers heedless of danger and laughing the entire time. There was a hill and even though she was still sore, the urge to roll down it was irresistible. With a laugh, she flung herself down the slope, until she stopped tumbling at the end of the hill. Giggling like a fool. Shippou had followed suit and had soon landed on top of her, laughing as hard as she was. He sat on her stomach and looked down at her, a sunny smile on his tanned face.

"Wanna do that again?" She asked, pushing herself into a sitting position.

He hugged her around the neck and replied, "Yeah, I--"

Shippou stopped mid-sentence and stared over her shoulder, a small growl emanating from his throat. She frowned and suddenly felt that strange aura she'd ignored from before. This time much, much closer. Fear gripped her and she quickly turned to see what the kit was looking at.

Not ten feet way was a little girl and with that little girl was a medium sized two-headed dragon. They were wandering through the field, just as she and Shippou had been, apparently completely oblivious to their presence. That dragon had to be a demon of some sort. How had she missed its presence? Unless it had been enchanted by something or someone...or perhaps covered over by a much stronger demonic aura. Either way, the fact that she hadn't been able to detect it was alarming. And that little girl, she was human, what was she--Kagome narrowed her eyes. She recognized that little girl. From four days ago. The little top knot, the orange and yellow kimono. She smiled at the dragon as she brought flowers up to the dragon's nose, as if she expected it to sniff them. That was the girl she'd seen with Inuyasha's half brother.

She could still see her as she did that night. Running up to Sesshoumaru joyously, looking more like she'd just won a carnival teddy bear rather than anything else. She'd held no fear of the demon and Kagome wondered in the moment how the hell that could be. Her past encounters with Inuyasha's elder brother had led her to believe he hated humans with a vicious passion and she was still perplexed by the little girl in his company. And now...here she was. At the time, she thought to ask the kid about a million questions but there hadn't been time. And now...there was. Slowly, Kagome rose from her spot and as quietly as she could, she walked towards the little girl. Shippou followed after her, his small brow knit with worry.

"Kagome!" He hissed, "Kagome! What are you doing?"

"That little girl, I recognize her." She whispered back.

"So!!? Something's not right here...Demons that can hide their scents like that are dangerous...We should leave before they come back!"

Yes, that made sense but sense and Kagome weren't always well acquainted. She almost snapped out a response she'd typically saved for Souta. Don't be a baby. But she didn't. The kit had a point, but she was feeling curious dammit...and Shippou didn't really know that this was Sesshoumaru's ward and even then, it wasn't like he was around right now. She could just ask her questions and leave and no one would be the wiser! Right!?

A twig snapped and the dragon looked up, eyeing the new comers suspiciously. Kagome swallowed hard and froze, suddenly feeling less brave. Maybe he told that dragon to kill anyone who came near the girl. It'd make sense. The little girl looked up at the dragon and then at Kagome, her face betraying complete and utter confusion. She patted the dragon on the nose and instantly it relaxed. The same could be said of Kagome.

"Hello." The girl said, her voice full of cheery bemusement.

"Hello." Kagome replied in kind.

"What're you doin' here?"

For a moment, she stumbled for a response, "....Well....we were....the flowers...."

Shippou jumped to her shoulder and answered for her, "We were playing tag and we found this field...What're you doing here?"

"Picking flowers." the little girl replied shyly, holding the flowers up to her face as she fidgeted back and forth, "I'm not appousta be talking to strangers no more. Sesshoumaru-sama said so."

At this, Kagome was not surprised but felt bad when she could see the little fox blanch and look up at her fearfully. She nodded. Yes, this was true and no she wasn't worried.

"But we're not strangers. We met. Remember? Four days ago. I met you...there was a boy and he tried to hurt you..." She actually winced at that part, glad that Sango wasn't with them. "...there were all those demons you ran from..."

The girl frowned as she thought, the sour look disappearing almost instantly, "Yeah! You were that pretty lady that hugged me before Sesshoumaru-sama came!"

"My name's Kagome and this is Shippou. What's you're name?"

She gave a little gap toothed smile, seemingly happy to have someone else to talk to. Kagome didn't imagine Sesshoumaru to be very big in the conversation arena.

"Rin," the girl replied, her voice a lilting sing-song.

Kagome nodded and smiled, daring to walk forward a little, "That's a very pretty name. But...What are you doing here all alone?"

"Sesshoumaru-sama had business, so he left me here with Jaken. But Jaken is mean and he said he didn't want to watch a stinky, stupid human and he went away. So me and An-Un decided to stay here and pick flowers like we're appoused to. We told Jaken that he should stay, but he didn't listen. Even when we told him that Sesshoumaru-sama would give him the boot if he did...but he did anyway. It's funny when Jaken gets the boot."

She laughed at the innocence of the little girl and wondered exactly what the boot entailed. Perhaps it was better if she didn't know.

"Aren't you scared?"

"Nope."

"Huh," Kagome said, sort of stumped for what to say next.

Again, Shippou saved her.

He was nervous being so close to someone who hung around Sesshoumaru but the little girl didn't seem all that bad. A new playmate might be nice... Feeling emboldened by Kagome's presence, he made up his mind.

"Wanna play with us for a little while?"

The girl considered it for a moment, warring between really wanting to and worrying about displeasing her lord.

"We can stay right here, if you want. That way you won't get in trouble." Kagome said helpfully.

Rin smiled widely, and nodded, "Okay! What d'ya wanna play?!"

"No laughing contest!" Shippou announced without a second thought.

Kagome groaned. She hated the no laughing contest but it was two against one. So they had a no laughing contest. It was an old game she and Souta had developed for long car rides. Actually, it stemmed from one particular car ride where they got on each other's nerves so much that their mother actually pulled the car to the side of the road to rank them out. Once back on the road they began to make faces at each other. It had stared out maliciously but that didn't last. After around ten minutes they'd forgotten what they were fighting about in a torrent of giggles. She'd taught the game to Shippou recently and he'd glommed onto it with an obsessive fervor bordering on the wrong side of annoying.

Kagome shook her head and shrugged. C'est la vie.

Things got off to an awkward start, which was always the case when you brought in a new player to a no laughing contest. After a few faces, things got silly, as they were supposed to be and the atmosphere lightened up considerably. Of course, there were ground rules. Shippou being a demon couldn't use his powers, because that was just cheating. Other than that, anything went. It was all pretty typical. Sticking tongues out. Making googley eyes. Scrunching up your face and sticking your teeth out funny. Rin managed one face that was so funny that it sent everyone into a ten minute straight giggle fit. It was sort of a weird head turning, vacant looking face with her mouth half open. Kagome reflected that you just had to be there really. Shippou got a good one off with the help of a small flower and his nose. After awhile, she tired of the game and allowed just the kids to keep it up. It was more fun to watch them anyway. There was a part of her that was getting too big for this, even if she wouldn't admit it. Kagome looked out into the distance and sighed. This was nice. If only every day could be like this. The sun was setting, she noted with a detached air. Wouldn't be night for at least another two hours, but it had begun to sink. It was still just over the trees, so they still had some time. She smiled serenely, taking in the gentle tide of yellow and gold as it drove away the light blue of day.

"HEY! YOU'RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION!!" Shippou cried, pointing a finger accusatorily at her.

Kagome barely noticed, too wrapped up in her own personal universe to care. Until, of course, she was forcibly knocked on her back by two irrepressible children bent on tickling her to death. She laughed until her stomach hurt, her eyes watered and her face turned beet red. With breathless gasps, she begged the little mercenaries to stop. They didn't. Kagome launched a counterstrike and tried to tickle them both back. It helped but didn't stop anything. After a bit, it became a free for all, which then ended in a truce. The truce was then promptly broken, then amended, then broken again. Soon all three lost their energy for it and lay back on the grass to look at the clouds, now touched with the pink of early evening. Kagome grinned, thinking up another game.

"Hey, look. A bunny." she exclaimed, pointing the bunny shaped cloud out.

"I don't see it." Rin replied.

"Well, see...there's the ears." Kagome said, turning over and tracing them with her fingers, "And there's his head...and his cute little nose...and right there is his tail...See?"

"Yeah." Rin breathed, excitedly pointing her finger at her own cloud, "A flower! See!!?"

"Uh-huh. What about you, Shippou? What do you see?"

"An acorn...over there." He said thoughtfully, liking this game almost immediately.

All three nodded slowly, examining Shippou's cloud acorn with grim seriousness. This game continued, longer than the tickle war and even longer than the no laughing contest, it started with simple objects and gradually delved into more complicated images. A flower turned into Jaken wearing a garland of flowers. Shippou's acorn turned into an entire tree. And Kagome felt it was best no one knew what the bunny turned into. If Miroku was here maybe but...

"Over there. Fox eating Kagome's bunny..." Shippou chirped, a little too excitedly.

"Ick. Just ick. You've been spending too much time with Inuyasha..." Kagome replied, giving the kit a sideways glance of disapproval before finding a cloud of her own, "Um...little kitty with fluffy wings...to your left."

It took a few moments, but soon everyone saw it and nodded at it solemnly.

"Sesshoumaru!" squealed Rin.

She was so excited by this discovered that she actually sat up and pointed. Kagome looked over to where she was pointing and frowned.

"Well, I guess it looks like him. If he was a lot shorter...and had bigger ears...and maybe lost a pound or twenty..." She paused, completely missing Shippou's sharp tugging of her sleeve, "You know...I'm just not seeing it, Rin...."

And then she did. It wasn't a cloud that looked like Sesshoumaru. It was Sesshoumaru himself and at that moment, Kagome prepared for death. She prayed to every god there was that it'd be quick and preferably painless. The little girl they'd spent the better part of the afternoon with didn't seem to notice. She jumped up from her spot and skipped over to her protector with joy in her every step. Meanwhile, Kagome and Shippou felt every bit of blood drain out of them very, very slowly. The Western Lord didn't say a word, and he certainly didn't look at them. His eyes were on his ward, who had reached his side. Showing him her flowers, chattering about what she did and then she pointed at them. Kagome had hoped he might have not noticed them or if he did, that he didn't care enough to... "Boy, that plan went out the window toot-sweet.", she thought grimly.

She had never in her life seen one person as incapable of emotion as Sesshoumaru. His face was totally and completely devoid of anything. Regally blank. Yes, that's what he was. Regally blank. "Oh, crap. He's looking at us." She mused inwardly, tensing a LOT as his golden eyes locked with hers. Her heart stilled and it seemed as if every minute lengthened ten fold. She didn't look away, but God, she wanted to. He gave nothing away, he barely even moved. It was like he was a still picture, or a statue.

The only thing that betrayed him was his clothes and his hair as they fluttered around him. It was strange, but all she could hear was the flapping of silk and the very distant sound of crickets in the meadow. The snapping sound his clothes made as they shifted in the wind was quite menacing, as menacing as his inert form. He looked so calm, so relaxed, but she knew from experience that he could snap into action in the blink of an eye. So, she waited and even though her blood ran cold with fear, she didn't look away. She held his eyes, resolutely refusing to avert them out of fear. If she were to die by his hand, she wanted Inuyasha to know that in her last few minutes, she was at least somewhat brave.

Shippou's hands grabbed onto her neck as he buried his head in it. If he was gonna die, he didn't want to have to see it coming. She barely even felt it, though she reflectively hugged him back. And they waited and waited and waited. And all he did was stare at them impassively before turning around to the dragon they'd all forgotten about, Rin following behind him happily. Kagome had forgotten how to breathe and hadn't noticed she'd been holding onto Shippou with a death grip that whitened her knuckles. It was then that Rin chose to pause and run back to them, the Western Lord looking on with disdain.

The little girl hopped up to Kagome, flowers in hand, "Thanks for playing with me, Kagome-sama, Shippou-sama. Can we....Can we play again sometime?"

She noticed Rin looking at them oddly as they cowered before her protector. The girl simply didn't understand who she was traveling with or maybe she did and she just didn't care. Kagome took a deep, calming breath and pushed all her fear away. It wouldn't do to scare or confuse the child, even if she had latched onto one of the most deadly youkai in the world. She placed a gentle hand on the girl's forearm and smiled warmly, not missing her protector's narrowed eyes as she did so.

"Of course, sweetie. Anytime...as long as it's okay..." She trailed off, looking apprehensively at the demon whose eyes bored into her very soul. "God, how does he DO that..." she whispered inwardly, hoping the emotion in the statement didn't show.

The little girl looked back at her protector, who nodded imperceptibly. Whether it was an affirmative or negative was anyone's guess. Rin smiled and threw her arms around Kagome with a giggle. Apparently she knew.

"He says it's okay..." Rin whispered before pulling away.

"Great. We'll see you soon then..." Kagome said, in as warm a voice as she could muster, "Right Shippou."

He squeaked when he nudged her, looking up at Rin with fright before remembering himself. She had to be proud of her little ward, he was a good actor. The fear on his face melted away and his smiled was almost convincing. He nodded and snuggled closer to Kagome, keeping his eyes away from the terror in white.

"Rin, come."

His silken voice carried over the almost silent field with weight. It was meant to be obeyed, it meant business and the little girl wasted no time in complying with it. She skipped away from her new friends, waving as she did. Rin soon reached her protector's side, hoping up onto the dragon's back as they walked away. She turned and kept waving as they moved out of sight. Timidly, Kagome and Shippou returned it.

"SEE YA LATER!!" She called in the distance.

"Bye!" They called back weakly.

Soon the trio was a speck on the horizon. There was a vague bit of amusement as the retainer, Jaken, emerged from the foliage to find the ward, his master and mount gone. Kagome and Shippou wordlessly pointed him in the right direction and would have laughed as he scrambled away, screaming his master's name...that is if they weren't scared nearly witless.

"I think that's the dumbest thing I've done this week..." Kagome stated, once she was quite sure Sesshoumaru was nowhere near the area.

"Mmmhmm." Shippou agreed, looking up at her with wide eyes, "...But it was kinda fun for awhile..."

"Yeah. I could have done without the last part though..."

"Yeah." Shippou replied, pausing before adding, "Scary."

She nodded slowly, "Mmmhmm."

"So, what d'ya wanna do now, Kagome?"

"We probably should get back. Bet Inuyasha's havin' puppies..."

"How can Inuyasha have puppies?" Shippou asked innocently as they stood up together and left the clearing.

And in the deepening sunset, Kagome tried to explain what that particular bit of hyperbolic slang meant as they walked slowly back to camp. It only occurred to her once she'd been back with her friends for well over an hour that she hadn't gotten to ask any of the questions she had.

"There's always next time"...She pondered absently, her eyes going dark as they looked into the crackling campfire.


Author's Note

Right. This is my first Inuyasha fic, so please be kind. I cry easily. But I kid. I'm a heartless beeyatch. Go ahead, ask anyone who knows me. So. I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, IF I'm going anywhere at all. This was mostly a fun little side project to get the juices flowing for my other stuff. I might write more. I have a couple of ideas for future chapters in mind...so I suppose I might continue, depending on the response.

Cultural Notes

Yeah. So I did some research. Not as much as I usually like, but I was feeling lazy. Though, I'd like to note that The Metropolitian Tokyo Jindai Botanical Gardens DOES exist. If you've seen the first Sailor Moon movie, it's actually in there! They have a lovely rose festival in the Spring if I got my facts right!

You might note that I have little in the way of Japanese, in comparison with other fics. The overuse of foreign language is a bad, bad thing. I've done it before myself and thankfully had a reviewer with the cajones to wallop me on the head and tell me to stop it. (And if you find the irony in that statement, you get a cookie!!) Though I did include some common Japanese vocab that you find in most IY fics. So, for the newbies!

Hanyou--Half-Demon

Youkai--Demon

--sama--Sort of like Lord or Master. An honorific title that is actually infrequently used in modern Japan.

If I use any other specific terms, I'll note them down here. Just an FYI. Though don't hold your breath. This'll probably be it. We have English words for stuff for a reason and using the foreign ones for common words, like fox, doesn't make it sound more authentic. At least, IMHO. Feel free to disagree. Just don't pelt me with radishes. They really hurt. I used hanyou and youkai because number one...they sound cool....number two...they are names for a specific thing, which doesn't really translate well into English. Sure, we can say a youkai is a demon but if you look into the mythology of youkai, really ain't that simple. I used --sama with Rin and Rin only, because it sounds cute when she says it. Stupid reasoning? Yes. Shut up. There's nothing more after that. DENY ME NOTHING!!

Okay. Sorry for that outburst. I sat down...drank some soda....and I feel better now.

Now, I'm not sure on the correct Romanization of the names and such. So I'm going with the common parlance, so to speak. I decided to keep the the U's in Youkai, Hanyou, because it rounds the word out better. The same can be said with Shippou's name. It gives that long o...which is needed, if you want it to sound right. Pronunciation-wise. If I'm wrong, feel free to beat me with vegetables. I'm used to it. It's okay. Then I'll change it and apologize profusely and then maybe cry and I'll only stop if you give me a cookie. For real.

Okay. I sleep now.

Ciao,

Noa