And here we are with another chapter. I cannot believe how hard this one was, it just didn't want to be written, especially the middle part. Ugh. Believe it or not, this chapter is the one I was stuck on during my last two-month-break. Like I said, it just refused to be written. *sigh* But at least I'm happy with how it finally turned out. Hope you guys enjoy it, too.

And holy crap, we're already well past the 800 reviews mark! *stares at you with tears in her eyes* Seriously, I never expected to get that far… and we're nowhere near finished… Sooo… how about trying to get to 900, huh? *smiles sheepishly* Yeah yeah, I love hearing from you all, so sue me :p


That-Other-One: Actually, I think I know what you mean by your 'feedback loop' metaphor. But I'll refrain from responding outright, the answer to your question is somewhere in this chapter, anyway. As to whether or not it will somehow play into the romance, only time will tell. And you're wrong, the pairing has been revealed already, if only in my ANs (otherwise most of my readers would have probably abandoned me already LOL), but since you seem to be unaware still, I'll keep my mouth shut. It's good to have at least one person who seems to be in the dark. It's refreshing LOL And it's goo because I know if I'm doing a good job of keeping the story interesting, which I seem to be doing since you're still curious :D Thanks for the review.

Tracks for this chapter: none (Geez, how long has it been since that happened? O.o)

Standard disclaimer and Reader's Key apply.

What happened last time: Feeling responsible and thus guilty after Kagome's latest near-death experience, Inuyasha decides to train himself in the use of his spiritual powers with Kaede's help. Things prove harder than he expected, but he's stubborn and doesn't give up. It goes to a point that he seems to overexert himself, something neither Kaede nor Kagome fail to miss, and they attempt to make him rest for a day, deciding that if a day of repose doesn't help, Kaede will seal Inuyasha's powers away and the teen will be send back home for good. Figuring they're exaggerating, Inuyasha goes to train regardless, which results in a rather painful accident that causes him to collapse. Unable to figure out what really caused the problem, a worried Kagome brings Inuyasha to Kaede for inspection in the hopes of finding out what is wrong with him.

Chapter 47 – The Shikon's Evil & Kagome's Sorrow

"The binding… what did it do?"

Kagome growled angrily. Try as she might, she couldn't get Inuyasha's question out of her mind and, even more frustratingly, couldn't get the answer out of her mind, either. An answer she had refused to voice, knowing it would only make Inuyasha feel even lower than he already did.

'A leash,' she thought as she bared her fangs at the skies above. 'A fucking leash.' And that was what it had been, though she hadn't even realized it herself at first. In fact, she only did once the binding was gone. She should have had her first doubts when she had been forced to keep her distance from the future-born teen back when he believed she had attacked him courtesy of a cursed sword given to him by Naraku. Back then she had felt pain when she was away from the priest, but she had believed he had simply grown on her more than he had expected. She should have known better. That feeling had been too intense to be simply due to losing Inuyasha's trust. Besides, if it had been that, then it wouldn't lessen, much less fade entirely, once she simply got closer to the black haired teen despite him not wanting her close.

Still, she hadn't paid much attention to it then. It was only once the bow broke and she felt free for some unexplainable reason that she started to wonder. The binding's disappearance could, as far as Kagome was concerned, be compared to when Kikyo's seal had been broken and she was freed from the Goshinboku. And yet, it had been different. It took her a while to get to the bottom of it, but once she did, she had been angry. It was a good thing that realization struck shortly after they had reached the devastated taijiya fort, otherwise she would have undoubtedly taken her anger out on Inuyasha when it wasn't even his fault. Well, technically, it was. He was the one who put the binding on her, after all. But then again, he had zero control of his powers back then, not that now was much different, so she couldn't possibly blame him. Not really. It was probably all subconscious on his part. He had subconsciously known that he'd be coming back here and that he wouldn't survive by himself, so he secured himself a protector, even though consciously he denied ever needing one. Why the binding had never bugged her whenever Inuyasha was on the other side of the well, Kagome wasn't sure, but she didn't even care to find out by this point. Not that she could, anyway.

"Sounds like someone royally got on your nerves. Do you need to vent?" Kirara asked softly as she transformed midair back into a kitten to land on Kagome's chest, her kitten form being too small for her to be able to jump onto the roof of the hut Kagome was lying on by herself, Shippō having long since gone to play in the village. It wasn't the roof of Kaede's hut, though, as the old miko had asked Kagome to keep away for a bit while she tended to Inuyasha (or at least tried to figure out what was wrong with him).

Forcing the growl that was still coming out of her throat to cease, Kagome took a deep breath to calm herself. Thinking about the binding still got her majorly annoyed. She was a free spirit, damn it, not to be tamed or caged by anyone. She went where she wanted, when she wanted and did only things she wanted to do, not what someone else wanted her to do. She was free and she wouldn't stand for that freedom to be taken away by anyone in any way. But in the end, the whole problem of the binding wasn't really a problem. She would have stayed by Inuyasha's side regardless, it was just who she was. Besides, the binding was gone now, had been for a longer while, and she still remained by his side, simply because she wanted to (and because of her promises, which bound her more to Inuyasha than any binding ever could, but those were her own choice). So the spiritual leash never held any special power over her, it didn't make her do anything she wouldn't have done either way. And if one took that into account, then what was the point in getting angry?

She still wouldn't tell Inuyasha anytime soon about it, though, if ever at all.

"No thanks. I'm fine," Kagome replied to the cat demon once she calmed down fully. "Really," she added when she noticed the doubtful look Kirara was giving her. It was kind of surprising how mature the young neko yōkai could behave sometimes, at least to Kagome it was, but then again, Kirara wasn't a kitten anymore. That is, she was, but she was also growing up. A few more demon years and she would be an adult and would no longer be able to turn into a kitten. So it was only natural that she didn't behave like a kitten all the time, although those times were still kind of rare outside of battle.

Before Kirara could question her again, the hanyō's ears twitched on her head and she immediately sat up, her hands reflexively holding on to Kirara so the surprised cat didn't fall from her chest into her lap. Ears twitching again to confirm she had indeed heard right, Kagome then stood and leapt from the roof she had been resting on to land right in front of Kaede's hut just in time for the old priestess to come out of it.

"I'm finished, though there is nothing I can do to help him. Worry not, however, he is in no danger right now. Ye may come in," Kaede said before Kagome could so much as open her mouth to question her, obviously not surprised in the least that the half-demon was in front of the hut. "In fact, I suspect it might even be better if ye do," she added next before stepping to the side. Kagome shot her a confused glance, but nodded and entered the hut nevertheless after releasing Kirara, her feet quickly carrying her to Inuyasha's side where she crouched down in a position similar to that of a dog. Her ears twitched on her head as she listened to his breathing and heartbeat, both of which were slowly evening out as the priest's state of unconsciousness turned into deep sleep.

"Interesting," Kaede muttered as she came to stand at Kagome's side to glance at Inuyasha's now peaceful face, which had still been marred by a frown a few seconds ago. A frown that betrayed that he was uncomfortable, if not even in pain. Glancing questioningly at the old woman, Kagome couldn't help but inquire.

"What's interesting?"

"I have seen a change in his condition when ye left, though I had thought it was a coincidence. It would seem that is not the case, however," Kaede replied before sitting down at the fire pit and getting ready to prepare something in the pot that hung above it, either the next meal or some sort of medicine for Inuyasha when he woke. Glancing at the assortment of herbs prepared next to the fire pit, Kagome leaned towards the latter.

"What are you talking about, exactly?" the young half-demon questioned, not so much because she didn't understand what she had just heard but because she was unsure what it meant and what Kaede was getting at. "And even more importantly, what's wrong with him?" she added before looking up at the priestess, not even attempting to hide the worry in her golden orb. If she knew what was wrong, maybe she could figure out a way to help.

"I'm not quite sure," Kaede replied gravely, her head also rising so her eye could meet Kagome's. "I suspected it had something to do with his powers and the fact that he cannot control them. However, the signs I found when checking his soul were different from what I expected. They seem more like a regular response to a youki-infection… and yet different."

"Youki-infection?" Kagome repeated in surprise. "The name is pretty clear as on what that is, but how is it even possible for a human, much less a priest, to be infected with youki?"

"It isn't as uncommon as ye might think, Kagome, although most people are unaware that that is what it is," Kaede replied calmly. "One of the simplest examples would be when a demon possessed a human through his abilities or some spell. What do ye think would give any yōkai an ability like that?" the question was obviously rhetorical, so Kagome didn't bother answering. Kaede didn't expect her to, either, and went on without pause. "It is actually quite similar to being poisoned, although poison attacks a living being's actual physical body, whereas youki attacks his spirit."

"That's… kind of obvious. I mean, youki isn't exactly a material thing, either, even though it can interact with the physical world if it's concentrated enough," Kagome said with a shrug, knowing that Sankon Tessō and the Wound of the Wind were perfect examples of such. "Although it is true that it's mostly used to somehow change or strengthen another physical object. It takes less energy to do that," she added after an additional moment of thought. "That's how the Hijin Kessō works for one – I infuse my blood with my youki and turn it into blades that can cut my enemy.

"But back to the original topic. If what happened was that Inuyasha was infected with youki, why did he react to it so strongly? Shouldn't his reiki simply purify the youki and be done with it?" the silver haired girl asked, only allowing the most urgent question to be voiced in her head. 'And why did he seem oblivious to his own condition until I grabbed him?' Why she didn't voice the question and instead kept that tiny detail to herself, she wasn't sure. Logically, it would be better to tell Kaede everything. And yet somehow, Kagome felt like this wasn't the best time to mention it. She would tell the older priestess of it, of course she would. But somehow, she felt like she shouldn't do it now, though she was unable to explain why, even to herself.

"Ye should know that better than anyone, Kagome. After all, ye are not unaffected yourself when your youki is purified," Kaede replied with a sigh that betrayed disappointment. She had obviously expected Kagome to know that on her own, and the hanyō-girl could only marvel that she hadn't when it was actually evident. "Reiki and youki are two opposites with reiki usually winning and purifying youki. It is a natural process, but one that should not take place inside a human's body. Even though both energies are spiritual, when they clash, it also takes its toll on the body and in most cases, it is more strain than the body can take," Kaede continued explaining, even though she didn't really need to anymore. Kagome got the picture quite clearly.

'That would explain why yōkai turn to dust when purified. Their body simply can't take the strain and breaks into tiny particles, I guess,' Kagome thought with a frown, another rather intriguing detail jumping to the forefront of her mind. 'I've been purified quite a few times already, though, and the initial pain during the purification aside, I didn't feel like anything was wrong afterward. I should have if purification really took such a big toll on the body, though, shouldn't I?'

"In Inuyasha's case, it seems like that is what happened. However, the signs I sensed are also slightly different from those of a simple youki-infection. Not to mention I have never seen a reaction as strong as this," Kaede continued, unaware of Kagome's thoughts. "And even more intriguing, it would seem that ye being near makes the after-effect of that internal battle easier to bear for Inuyasha."

"Wait, Kaede-chan. Are you telling me that me being near actually physically helps him somehow?" Kagome asked, now truly baffled. Of course, Inuyasha had told her that 'her being near was help enough', but she hadn't thought it was meant literally. She was even more surprised when Kaede nodded.

"Aye," she said simply, quickly elaborating at Kagome's obvious confusion. "As I told ye, Inuyasha's 'injuries', while clearly affecting the body, are of a spiritual origin, and thus of rather spiritual kind. While he feels pain, there are no actual physical injuries to heal from. That is why usually, there wouldn't be much I can do for him. However, it would seem your youki is somehow able to help him. As certain herbs can somehow dull the pain of a physical wound, your youki seems to work like a balm on his spiritual wounds."

"But how can that be? Up until now, his reiki always reacted to me and purified me. Heck, the same thing happened just a few hours ago, right before I brought him here. Why would my youki suddenly help then?" the young half-demon asked, getting only more confused by the minute. Kaede's knowing smile wasn't helping her, either.

"I believe that would be for the same reason that his power no longer reacts to ye," she said while motioning at the floor between Kagome and the sleeping kannushi. Blinking, Kagome glanced down, only now realizing that sometime during the conversation, she had grasped Inuyasha's hand. And as Kaede said, there was no reaction from the priest's reiki. Kagome raised a confused brow and quickly let Inuyasha's hand go, unable to stop her cheeks from flushing in mortification and because of this refusing to face Kaede again.

"Alright, now I'm officially confused," she said to keep the conversation going, as if she hadn't been feeling that way before. Kaede, for her part, decided to spare the half-demon the embarrassment and humiliation and kindly didn't comment on her unnoticed show of affection, because that was what it was, really. Instead, the old miko shed some more light on the current situation, or at least shared the theory that might explain what was going on.

"I believe it was thanks to whatever his reiki had been fighting before that he no longer reacts to ye," she said in a serious tone, her demeanor quickly switching to what Kagome already learned to associate with a rather grave situation. "Ye see, Kagome, as far as I am aware, no spiritualist can tell two yōkai apart by the feel of their youki. Inuyasha is the first I have ever met," she said, confirming Kagome's thoughts that Inuyasha's abilities were not exactly normal. "However, there's one difference we may feel, although many never realize it. Kikyo-onee-sama and myself only realized it after meeting you, actually."

"And what would that be?" the young half-demon asked, cocking her head to the side. She had never expected that she had taught Kikyo and Kaede anything about their powers – the mere idea was simply ridiculous, as she knew little more than nothing about their holy energy. So to hear that she actually had helped them learn something surprised her a great deal. It turned out, however, that the lesson in question was something so basic that the hanyō barely stopped herself from snorting at hearing it.

"Youki doesn't equal evil," Kaede said simply. Kagome's answer to her was simply a flat look. 'Youki doesn't equal evil'? Seriously? That was something she'd known even as a pup.

Then again, if she thought about it, it was obvious to her, but not necessarily everyone else. That was why hanyō were feared by humans, just like demons, after all. Kagome herself was part-yōkai and she wasn't evil, so she had always known that youki isn't necessarily evil. But spiritualists who were taught from the very beginning that a thing such as a good, pure yōkai does not exist wouldn't ever think that. To them, youki was evil, probably even evil in the purest form.

"Kikyo-onee-sama and I learned that lesson once ye entered our lives, Kagome, because even if we could not tell yōkai apart by their youki, we did sense a certain difference between ye and the demons that attacked the village for the Shikon. It is my belief that the same now happened with Inuyasha. While he consciously knew ye were not evil, his subconscious didn't fully realize that. He learned to associate youki with danger, and thus when his power stopped listening to him completely, it reacted instinctively to any youki it felt, even yours. But now, it had encountered something more powerful, more evil and thus learned the difference," Kaede finished explaining, her words causing Kagome's ears to twitch as they caught the priestess's peculiar choice of words.

"I guess I no longer need to worry about being purified by him then," she commented quietly, her eyes narrowing in thought. 'And it would also kind of explain why he realized he wasn't fine once I grabbed him. The youki he's been fighting within himself tried to hide the battle from his conscious mind and my youki forced that veil to lift, I guess,' she added in her thoughts, once again keeping a detail to herself instead of sharing it with the old priestess. "But why do you call what Inuyasha's reiki has been fighting off 'something'? Didn't you tell me it had to have been youki?" she asked instead.

Hearing the question, Kaede sighed worriedly, the emotion easy to read in her eye when she turned her head to meet Kagome's also one-eyed gaze. The hanyō-girl immediately tensed, a sudden uneasiness settling in her gut. After all, the old miko before her rarely showed worry to this extent, unless it was truly a matter worthy of fussing over.

"As I told ye, the signs are similar to youki-infection… and yet they aren't quite the same," Kaede said gravely. "Besides, ye have been with Inuyasha at the worst of it. Tell me, Kagome, have ye smelt any yōkai nearby that could have possibly done such a thing?" she asked, not seeming surprised at all when Kagome shook her head. "Not to mention Inuyasha has been training at that time, even though he should not have, and while his control leaves much room for improvement, I do not think any demon could get close to him at that time."

"I gather you don't believe it was youki, then. But if it wasn't youki, then what was it?" Kagome asked, her uneasiness only growing. As if sensing her growing agitation, Inuyasha's brows furrowed and he started to thrash lightly in his sleep. He was still out cold and thus didn't hear anything of the conversation, but he could obviously feel the change in Kagome's mood, since her youki grew as agitated as she was. Laying a comforting hand in his shoulder, the silver haired hanyō forced herself to calm down for the priest's sake, sighing in relief when the future-born teen calmed once again.

"I can think of but one thing, but I hope that I am somehow wrong," the old priestess replied, causing Kagome to turn back to her. "The only other thing I can think of that could cause it would be spiritual energy, although it would have to be evil energy. The kind of energy Dark Priestesses use for their curses," the old priestess finished. Kagome gulped at the possibility. She hadn't dealt with a Dark Miko in her life, luckily, but even she knew what they were. Priestesses who strayed off their pure path and allied themselves with demons, miko who used their powers to hurt other people and even kill them instead of helping them, that was what a Dark Miko was. A truly terrifying enemy who could destroy any demon with her reiki even if the power was defiled, not to mention someone who could hardly be defeated without a sacrifice as they specialized in curses. Curses that allowed them to hold someone's life in their hands, rendering any helper useless. If you attacked in an attempt to help, she'd kill the hostage on the spot. If you didn't do anything, the cursed person would die anyway. It was a situation with no way out except sacrificing the one who was cursed and killing the Dark Priestess so she couldn't harm anyone else. Or at least that was what Kagome had heard. Whether it was really impossible to save a cursed person remained up in the air for the half-demon, it was a question only first-hand experience could answer, but it wasn't a question Kagome really wanted to have an answer to, much less if it meant she needed to find out the hard way.

But if that was what Inuyasha was dealing with, she just might. And the possibility that there was really no way to save Inuyasha this time scared her.

Just then, the mat in the hut's entrance was lightly pulled to the side and a certain taijiya peeked inside cautiously.

"Kaede-sama? May I enter?" she asked, only pulling the mat to the side fully and stepping over the threshold once Kaede answered with an affirmative. Kohaku and Kirara followed close after Sango.

"Ye are just in time. The food is just about ready," the old miko said as she continued stirring whatever was in the pot. Kagome sighed almost inaudibly as her brain registered the scent in the hut, once again proving how poor her knowledge about herbs was. What she had taken for medicinal herbs were in fact simple spices, meaning that whatever Kaede was cooking was not a concoction for Inuyasha, but a usual meal.

"That wasn't actually why we came," Sango admitted before turning her head to glance at Kagome and the teen sleeping on the floor.

"How is Inuyasha-sama?" Kohaku asked from Sango's side as both siblings gently sat down, not daring to come closer to the half-demon and unconscious priest. Kagome raised a questioning brow at their behavior but did not comment. She merely shrugged in silent answer to her own thoughts before hiding her arms in her sleeves in an attempt to prove she wasn't looking for a fight even though Sango already knew she wasn't that kind of hanyō.

"He should be fine," Kaede replied evasively, calming the taijiya's worries but not promising anything, a fact Sango had definitely noticed if the look in her eyes was anything to go by. Before the slayer could voice any other question, however, the mat was pushed aside again and the last two members of their odd little group walked in.

"I heard Inuyasha has gotten himself into trouble again and was paying for it. Is there any way I might help you, Kaede-sama?" the monk asked kindly, the way he phrased it striking Kagome as odd for a moment. Miroku was not the type to talk in such a roundabout way. But her keen ears quickly picked up on the undertone of his words and all was clear. The monk was actually quite irritated, or rather exasperated, probably because he knew without having to ask for the reason why Inuyasha 'got himself into trouble'. Looking at his expression, Kagome felt like she could almost read his thoughts and she couldn't help but chuckle mentally, even though she had to agree with them, sadly.

'I swear, if he doesn't learn to listen to people and do what he's told, he'll meet his end sooner than he needs to, huh?' she thought, reading the thought from Miroku's strained smile, a poor attempt to hide his anger. 'Ain't that the truth…' she couldn't help but think, although surprisingly enough, she wasn't as mad as she should be. In fact, Miroku was obviously more riled up about it than her. And in all honestly, how could she blame him after all the times he saw Inuyasha's pride get the better of him only to cause problems for everyone, and mostly himself, afterward? If she were to be honest with herself, it was actually a miracle she was as patient as she was and Miroku was feeling the way she knew she should have felt.

"If you came an hour or two earlier, you probably could have helped, Miroku-sama," Kagome replied nonchalantly in Kaede's stead. "But I guess a certain someone couldn't run fast enough to find and inform you on time," she added, her eyes moving to the young fox sitting on Miroku's shoulder. Shippō pouted at the half-demon's teasing, immediately attempting to defend himself.

"It wasn't my fault! Miroku kept telling me to come back later because he was busy with some village girl. And when I tried to talk to him anyway, he wouldn't listen," the kitsune complained, not really taking note of how the air in the hut seemed to immediately chill at his words as two of the three females turned rather frosty stares on the monk.

"That sure explains it," Sango muttered flatly, her frosty gaze immediately transforming into a warning glare when the monk came closer and moved to sit on her other side, as she sat beside Kohaku. Miroku smiled sheepishly in response to the glare and slowly moved back, now finding himself beside Kagome. The hanyō barely spared him a cool glance, one that told him she was keeping an eye on him even when it didn't look like she did before looking away, silently allowing him to sit beside her on the condition that he would behave himself. She knew the monk was aware that she wouldn't be responsible for her actions if he tried anything, however, so everything depended on him. Any other man might have avoided such a situation and sat down away from the group, or at least further away from Kagome and Sango, but then again, Miroku wasn't just 'any man'.

"Ne, Kagome, Inuyasha is fine now, isn't he?" Shippō asked, easily drawing Kagome's attention to himself as he crawled into her lap. The young half-demon smiled slightly and nodded.

"Yeah, he seems fine," she replied. Shippō smiled, easily accepting her answer, but the other adults in the room unsurprisingly caught on to Kagome's odd wording. Not that she didn't expect them not to.

"'Seems'? So you're not sure whether or not he's truly alright, Kagome?" Sango probed immediately before she could be interrupted again.

"Hey. You called Kagome by her name!" Shippō piped up, completely missing the most important part of what the slayer had said. His comment went ignored, however, as the other people in the hut easily realized what the more important topic was.

"We cannot be fully sure if he's fine if we know not what is wrong with him to begin with," Kaede answered while distributing the stew into different bowls. There was one bowl too many, one that that the old priestess left empty, and Kagome quickly figured it was Inuyasha's share for whenever the priest woke up.

"His ailment isn't one you recognize, Kaede-sama?" Miroku asked, truly astonished. And he wasn't the only one, although the surprise only became palpable once Kaede actually shook her head in response.

"I do not know for certain, houshi-sama. But I do have an idea of what it could be."

"Could you tell us, Kaede-sama? We want to help if there's anything we can do," Kohaku said quickly while Sango nodded her head in agreement.

Kaede sighed but nodded, repeating once again what she had told Kagome but a short moment prior. Kagome didn't hear her, however, too focused on an object she had discovered in the folds of her haori. Brow furrowing in confusion, the half-demon fingered it in an attempt to figure out what it was. It felt like a beaded necklace. But she didn't have any necklaces like that, she knew that for sure. The only necklace she knew of was the one Inuyasha had…

Suddenly, her clawed finger brushed over a bead slightly bigger than the others and in the exact same moment, Kagome froze as a wave of unexplainable fear washed over her. She shivered and quickly removed her hand from the necklace without uncrossing her arms. She forced herself to breathe normally and forced the fear down as its cause, an evil like nothing Kagome had ever encountered before, disappeared as suddenly as it appeared. But that split second of feeling it was enough and the half-demon knew what the object was.

Taking a deep, but quiet breath to remain calm and not let anyone see how unsettled she suddenly was, Kagome closed her eye and allowed her mind to wander, though not aimlessly. The answers she was searching for came quickly enough and the situation suddenly made a lot more sense than it had a minute ago, but the half-demon was far from happy at that fact. How could she be when it was now so blatantly obvious that the situation they had found themselves in was much worse than anyone would have expected?

Sighing audibly, Kagome opened her eye once again and glanced at every person in the small hut (except Inuyasha who was still sleeping), all of whom had heard her sigh and were now glancing at her questioningly. Letting her eye move from face to face, Kagome finally settled her gaze on the monk sitting beside her. He met her eye steadily, his expression showing no signs of being uncomfortable in any way save the questioning eyebrow he raised at her prolonged, silent stare.

"Kagome-sama?" he inquired, just as the half-demon came to a decision.

"If you recall, Miroku-sama, you have come to Inuyasha and I with a request the first time we met," she started calmly, startling most of the people in the hut at the seemingly sudden change of topic. "I denied it then. But it would seem now I have no other choice but to agree to it, if you're willing," she continued, ignoring the growing confusion. She would explain in a bit.

Miroku blinked and merely looked at the half-demon for the next second or two before a smile blossomed on his face – one that any other female (bar Sango) would have been all too happy to be the reason for.

"My my, Kagome-sama, I wasn't aware you were harboring such feelings towards me. But while I must say I'm humbled and more than willing to oblige…" his words were cut short when Kagome smacked him upside the head with enough force for the monk to fall forward, his face becoming very well acquainted with the wooden floor a split second later. Glaring at the half-conscious houshi, she huffed in irritation.

"Not that request you goddamned lecher," she hissed through gritted teeth as she glowered down at him, though her cheeks flushed slightly at the reminder. She blatantly ignored the questioning glances she was getting from an elderly miko and two confused siblings. "The other one. The one concerning this," she explained for the others' sake as she pulled the necklace she had just found out for everyone to see and placing it on the floor in front of her. It was the necklace Inuyasha usually wore with the Shikon in its middle. Kagome had ripped it off Inuyasha's neck in the forest and had taken it with her when she carried him to the village, but had forgotten all about it due to her worry and the following conversation with the priest while waiting for Kaede. But now that the pearl reminded her of its existence and its involvement in her and Inuyasha's life, it was almost all too clear what had probably happened.

"The Shikon Jewel," Kaede barely whispered the gem's name, though unlike many other people it was not because seeing it awed her. On the contrary, the second Kagome revealed that she held the pearl and the elder miko laid her eyes upon it, her scent her been filled with such fear that the young half-demon would have stared in disbelief had she not had an idea just why Kaede was so afraid. After all, the silver haired hanyō herself had felt the evil of the now tainted Jewel and it had made her shudder as well.

"And an extremely defiled one at that," Miroku added quietly as well as he glanced at it before pushing himself back into a sitting position. He flinched slightly at the movement and his hand rose to rub at the back of his head where Kagome had hit him before his eyes narrowed in thought and he sobered up. Slowly, his inquiring eyes moved from the black gem to Kagome, although they held no suspicion or blame in them. "May I ask why you had it in your possession, Kagome-sama? I believe Inuyasha should have been the one to hold on to it at all times…" the monk trailed off, not needing to elaborate on the statement any further. The young half-demon sighed.

"I had it because I ripped it off Inuyasha's neck the moment I realized it was probably the source of what was harming him," she said as calmly as she could before proceeding to tell everyone once again exactly what happened in that clearing, this time not leaving any information out. How the moment she had found him she had seen that he was pushing himself way beyond his limits, and how Inuyasha himself was completely oblivious to it. How he seemed to suddenly realize that he wasn't as fine as he thought he was when she grabbed him, her youki skyrocketing in her worry. And how the moment she ripped the Jewel off his neck, the agony he'd been in visibly lessened, if not disappeared altogether and he passed out. Silence met her story, but it didn't last very long.

"So it's not a curse made by a Dark Miko, but one cast by the Jewel itself?" Kohaku asked quietly as he regarded the gem with newfound fear obvious in his young eyes. There was another emotion hidden in those brown orbs, however, and that was disbelief. "But that doesn't make much sense…"

"Actually, I think it does," Sango cut in, her own expression betraying her emotions as much as her brothers. She was definitely uncomfortable with the idea Kagome had come up with, and for understandable reasons. "Think about it, Kohaku. The Jewel was born from the souls of the miko Midoriko and countless demons. Its essence is both reiki and youki, the manifestation of each depending on whether the Jewel is defiled or pure."

"Exactly. And currently, the Jewel is defiled, most likely because Inuyasha is unable to control his powers, which in turn haven't kept it pure like they should," Kagome continued where Sango left off. "If it were to try and affect anyone, its energy would be comparable to youki, yet different because it's not demon in the same sense as any other yōkai, just as its pure energy probably doesn't equal a spiritualist's reiki. And you said, Kaede-chan, that it felt like Inuyasha was infected with youki… and yet different. It's also much more evil than anything Inuyasha might have ever encountered here, at least in its current state."

"Aye, so it is," Kaede agreed as she also stared at the seemingly innocent, black pearl. "But Inuyasha has made a seal to stop the Jewel from affection anyone around it, did he not?" she then asked, first glancing at the sleeping priest in question and then at Kagome. It wasn't the hanyō who answered, though.

"To my understanding, the seal was supposed to keep the Jewel from calling out to yōkai to come and find it," Miroku said. "And in this case, it works just fine as Kagome-sama, Shippō and Kirara show no signs of hearing it calling to them in any way," he added, though he glanced at Kagome for confirmation, causing the half-demon to shake her head in a mute reassurance that she indeed didn't hear anything from it. "But there's no telling as to affecting the one who keeps it, be they priest or a normal human."

"But why would the Jewel try to destroy Inuyasha like that? And why now? Why not before?" Shippō suddenly piped up, the once again forgotten kit reminding everyone of his presence in the hut a second time. Kagome frowned at the barrage of questions, especially the first one which she could not find an immediate answer to.

"My guess would be it didn't do anything before either because it didn't feel the need to, or because it couldn't. It's acting now because Inuyasha's current condition concerning his powers is favorable for that kind of action. And as to why…" she trailed off, her glance automatically moving to the sleeping priest, her expression unreadable to most as she hid how uncomfortable and scared she was to the best of her abilities. Shippō was right, as things stood now, it seemed that the Jewel was dead set on utterly destroying Inuyasha. It was unsettling to know that, especially if one considered that, as far as the hanyō knew, there had never been another situation such as this. Even Kikyo, who had been a protector of the Jewel as much as Inuyasha had been, and even a better one since she could control her power, had not been on the receiving end of such an obvious attempt at destruction. And if she had been, then she had also been damn good at hiding it.

'Had something like this ever happened to Kikyo? Had she ever sensed the Jewel doing something to her to kill her? Had it ever attempted anything?' Kagome couldn't help but wonder, her opinion of the gem turning more and more unfavorable the more she learned about it, its mind and its abilities.

"I wish I knew," the hanyō finally said out loud, both to answer her own thoughts and to finish what she'd been previously saying. 'I really wish I knew…'

"Alright fine. So now we probably know what caused our current problem, but not the reason for it. What I want to know is, do we have any way to deal with it?" Sango spoke up, going straight down to the most important business as always.

"If it is really the Jewel that is causing the problem, then it is fairly obvious we need to keep it away from Inuyasha, at least until he can once again control his power, at which point he may attempt to purify it again. But the question remains, what to do with the Shikon until then?" Kaede said calmly, her voice betraying her exhaustion. And who could blame her? She had to deal with the blasted pearl whenever it caused problems when her sister guarded it fifty years prior and even now, she was still being haunted by it.

"You thought about entrusting it to me, Kagome-sama?" Miroku asked calmly, though he was somewhat surprised as he turned to meet the half-demon's eye. As she had already said she was thinking about agreeing to his request dating back to their first meeting, that was really the only conclusion anyone could come to. And just as Miroku expected, Kagome nodded.

"I hardly see what else we can do. Inuyasha can't possibly hold on to it for now, leaving it with me is too risky and entrusting it to a human without any kind of spiritual power isn't much better. I wouldn't want to burden Kaede, either. That leaves only you, Miroku-sama."

"And you would trust me with it?" the monk inquired, as if surprised by the mere idea. The half-demon shot him a questioning look.

"Is there a reason why I shouldn't?" she couldn't help but ask and raised an eyebrow. "You have traveled with us for quite a while now, Miroku-sama. You haven't tried to take the Shikon from Inuyasha even once after our initial refusal to hand it over, nor had you done anything else that I could consider suspicious. On the contrary, you've helped us on numerous occasions. I see no reason to not trust you," she then added calmly, although she narrowed her eyes in thought. "You might be a pervert, Miroku-sama, and you might be fond of 'convenient lies', as you call them, but you're not the kind of man who would run off with something that is not his after being entrusted with said something by a trusting companion. At least, that's what I think and I'd like to believe that my ability to evaluate people is pretty accurate."

The hanyō's words were met with silence, which was quickly broken by a somewhat stunned taijiya.

"Well, if a couple of weeks ago someone told me I'd meet a half-demon who was actually trusting a houshi with anything, I'd think they were crazy," Sango said calmly, although her eyes betrayed that despite having heard Kagome's words herself and knowing the hanyō-girl was nothing like she had been taught hanyō were, she still had some trouble believing her ears had not deceived her. Kagome snorted.

"Believe me, Sango, if I was somehow able to travel back in time some hundred years or so, met my younger self and told her that in a hundred years time she'd be traveling around with a monk, a pair of taijiya and a kannushi who couldn't control his power and was thus a walking bubble of reiki waiting to burst and destroy all that's demonic in her, my younger self would have thought I was insane, too," she commented, the irony of her statement being lost on the taijiya siblings and the little cat-demon. Sango, Kohaku and Kirara were, after all, the only ones in the group who had yet to find out that Inuyasha was from the future and that originally, Kagome had been able to time travel to his time period as well. "But back to the problem at hand…"

"I have wanted to have the Shikon in my possession for reasons you know of, Kagome-sama, for a very long time now. I would have to be a fool to refuse. This is the perfect opportunity to take it, after all," Miroku cut in when the half-demon trailed off. His words seemed off to everyone in the hut, even the two taijiya who didn't know the monk nearly as well as Kagome liked to think she did and the hanyō-girl narrowed her eye. While she was glad Miroku had agreed, there was something in the words he said that rubbed her the wrong way. It just… didn't sound like something Miroku would say.

"However, I would also have to be a fool to betray Kagome-sama's trust, especially since if I did attempt to run off, no doubt you would be able to find me long before I even figured out where to go next," the houshi added while reaching for the pearl, as if reading the thoughts running through the half-demon's head. When his fingers came within mere inches of the corrupted Jewel, the gem sent small tiny, black lightning bolts into the air and caused the monk to withdraw hastily. Frowning, the young monk glared at it before trying again, this time grasping the necklace it was strung on as if the Jewel hadn't just tried to fry his hand a second before.

"What was that?" Kohaku's voice shook slightly, though he sounded more astonished than scared at the sight of the Jewel's obvious rejection of the monk's touch. Not that he was the only stunned one. In fact, there were only two people in the hut who didn't seem surprised at this turn of events.

"I've seen something like that before," Shippō said quietly, his little body trembling in Kagome's hold. "When Kagome had a poison shard in her, it rejected Inuyasha the same way," he added quietly, his shivering increasing in fear born from the mere memory. Sensing his growing distress, Kagome growled quietly in an attempt to reassure and calm him.

"As it is now, the Jewel is far too evil for me to touch it, much less to purify it in one go. What you have just seen was the clash of its evil energy with my houriki," Miroku explained calmly as he inspected the pear with a frown. "Given enough time, I should be able to purify it, of course, but I am unable to predict how long it will take. I have never encountered anything this evil before."

The monk's words were met with silence, Kagome's growl slowly ceasing as Shippō visibly calmed once again. The atmosphere in the hut was suddenly very heavy as everyone processed everything that had been said in this short amount of time. Of course, each and every person present knew from the beginning that the Shikon Jewel was far from innocent and harmless no matter in whose hands it was – although it was visibly less dangerous when handled by a spiritualist who could keep the pearl in check. They had even suspected that it had a mind of its own and its own agenda. But none of them ever expected the entity that seemed to inhabit the Jewel to be as evil as it now presented itself as – truly, if something could be called 'pure evil', it would have to be that entity, that half of the Jewel that had been born from the souls of yōkai. And that realization, in turn, had some of them wondering: just how powerful was the legendary miko Midoriko really to have battled this being to a draw, and after several days of combat at that?

'She had to have been more powerful than any of us can imagine. And in that case, it would stand to reason to assume that only another spiritualist of the same caliber could ever hope to truly purify the Jewel. The same or even more powerful than her,' Kagome thought grimly, her golden eye moving to glance at the priest who had slept through the whole conversation. The half-demon was well aware that Inuyasha was quite powerful. She was even sure he was much more powerful than the average kannushi or houshi. He had to be, otherwise he would have never been able to keep the Jewel pure as he had before his powers ceased to obey him. But the question was, was he really as powerful as Midoriko had once been or, dare Kagome assume, even more powerful than her?

She sincerely hoped that he wasn't. While it would mean holding the Jewel would be more dangerous for him in that case, it would be better for him in the long run if he was not. If the legends were to be believed, then Kikyo most certainly hadn't been as powerful as Midoriko, but she had been quite powerful in comparison to the average spiritualists. And that power had brought her nothing but trouble, especially once the Jewel came into her possession. She had never been able to get rid of it, either, be it through giving it to someone else or through simply purifying it out of existence, despite wanting to.

Inuyasha was the same as Kikyo in that regard. He also had been entrusted with the Jewel, apparently since birth, and ever since he had actually been made aware of it, the Shikon brought nothing but trouble and danger with it. Just like Kikyo, he also wanted to be rid of the pearl so that he could go back to his life before he fell down the well, a time when things were normal. But unlike Kikyo, he was ready to simply entrust someone else with it if it meant he'd be free of it.

However, if he turned out to be as powerful as Midoriko had been or, even worse, more powerful than her, then the normalcy he longed for would be a thing of the past, something he'd never regain. He'd be stuck with the Shikon for the rest of his life, or until he somehow managed to destroy it – if that was even possible. And he wouldn't even be able to take it to his time to live his life in peace in a time period where no demons lurked around to attempt to steal the gem because the pearl would continue calling trouble to him through the well. If Inuyasha really turned out to be as powerful as the legendary miko who created the Shikon to begin with, he would have to leave his former life behind forever. And that was something Kagome couldn't, in good conscience, ask of him. It was not something she could ask of anyone.

No, she decided, it would really be better for Inuyasha in the long run if he wasn't as powerful as the legendary miko. And Kagome sincerely hoped that all those little hints she had been seeing with Kaede lately weren't pointing to the conclusion that he actually was.


A few hours later found the hut almost empty safe two people: the still sleeping Inuyasha and Kagome, who was more or less bound to remain by his side, as her presence obviously affected his recovery somehow (at least according to Kaede). The old miko herself had left and ushered everyone else out under the excuse that Inuyasha needed peace and quiet to recover faster. Kagome wasn't about to complain about that, however, as she felt more at ease when she was truly alone with Inuyasha as when the others were there, mostly because of the position she was currently in.

Inuyasha had woken some half-an-hour before, although he had been still visibly out of it and not really fully awake yet.

"Kagome?" he had whispered, his voice sounding a bit strained. He had tried to move, too, and the hanyō had been quick to lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder to stop any such attempts.

"I'm here. Lie back down. You don't look like you should be moving yet," she had replied gently, although her voice had left no room for argument. "Are you feeling any better?" she had asked once he had settled down, her eye never leaving his face as she watched him with worry evident in her gaze.

"Yeah…" was all he had managed to reply, the answer having caused Kagome to sigh in relief.

"Good. I was worried."

"… Why?" he had asked after a moment of silence, though he had not moved to glance at her and instead kept stubbornly looking away. Kagome had glared at him, but had managed to control her temper enough to not yell or even growl. To anyone who knew her, however, it was plainly obvious that she hadn't been as calm as her face had looked.

"What do you mean 'why'?" she had hissed, "You suddenly collapsed on me after a pain attack as though someone had run you through with a blade or worse. I could see that much in the way you were acting. But I didn't know what was causing it or what repercussions it would have. Of course I was worried you idiot," it had taken all of her will power not to growl at him at first, but the anger had left surprisingly fast as the dread had hit her once more at remembering the event. "I didn't know what was wrong. I didn't know what to do. For all I knew, you could have been dying right there and I was completely powerless to stop it," she had continued, barely whispering as her hands had clenched to fists on her knees in an attempt to stop her body from shaking. She hated being powerless. "I couldn't do a damn thing…"

Inuyasha hadn't answered her soft admission at first and had merely continued to stare at the wall. It had been a few minutes before he had spoken next, and when he had, his comment had had nothing to do with the previous conversation.

"Your lap…" he had said quietly, Kagome's ears twitching in response as they had caught the sound, but not what the priest could possibly mean. The hanyō had raised a questioning eyebrow and had looked at Inuyasha to elaborate, which he had without being asked to, though he had yet to turn and actually look at the half-demon. "Could you put me on your lap?"

Kagome's eye had visibly widened at the question and her cheeks had turned bright red in embarrassment at the mere thought. Her first instinct had been to refuse. But looking at the black haired teen as he had been right then, so frail and so weak after his ordeal, she simply hadn't been able to make herself refuse him, her own embarrassment be damned.

"Sure," she had replied after a moment of hesitation. She had changed positions then to sit senza style so that Inuyasha could be more comfortable as she had gently lifted him off the ground and put his head on her thighs. "How's this? Are you more comfortable now?" she had asked, trying not to think how intimate, not to mention compromising a position she had found herself in.

"Yeah. I… can feel it better now," Inuyasha had replied quietly, his eyelids closing again and an expression of peace coming to his face. Kagome had blinked.

"Eh? Feel what?" she had asked, genuinely confused.

He hadn't hesitated to answer, a fact that would have surprised him if he had had the strength to feel surprised. Not so long ago, he had felt the same thing, that unexplainable, but comfortable, soothing feeling, and had been unable to guess what it was. But now, the answer seemed so simple it was surprising he hadn't realized it sooner. It had been this very feeling he had been following back in the illusionist's cave, after all, this very feeling he felt every time Kagome battled anyone (though it was slightly different then)… only this was the first time he could feel it so strongly and actually realize what it was he was feeling – or maybe 'sensing' would have been a better way to put it.

"Your youki," he had replied, his voice betraying that he was almost asleep once again and would probably not remember what he was saying once he woke. "It feels soothing. It's… nice." Then he had fallen asleep once more, completely oblivious to the effect his words had had on the half-demon in whose lap he was currently resting.

And that was how Kagome found herself in her current situation with a sleeping priest in her lap, a racing heart in her chest and a face bright red in embarrassment.

'Wha… What the hell?!' her mind yelled again and again as the stunned hanyō stared at the priest on her knees, her body completely rigid with a mixture of shock and embarrassment. Inuyasha was most certainly not aware of it, but if Kagome had any doubts about his possible growing feelings for her, that admission had just blown them all away. There was no longer room for any doubt that Inuyasha didn't, in fact, think of her as just a friend, whether he himself was aware of it or not. He couldn't think of her as just a friend. Not after admitting that, even if he was only half-conscious and unaware of what the admission implied, or what it meant. And its meaning was, essentially, that he enjoyed feeling Kagome near and that he wanted her to be near him. This the hanyō knew for the simple reason that demons told each other the same thing when they meant just that – only in this case, they would say the same about the scent, not the aura. A yōkai's aura could only be felt by a spiritualist, after all, just like a yōkai's scent could only be caught and appreciated by other demons with a good enough nose. To enjoy another's scent meant to enjoy that person's company and wanting to be near them and Kagome was positive the same could be applied to one's aura – youki, in this case.

Just as the first time the thought had entered her brain, the realization that Inuyasha truly was developing feelings towards her that went way beyond friendship terrified her. It terrified her because she knew it would only hurt him in the end, for several reasons. One was the simple fact that her heart already belonged to another. And there was also the fact that he was from another time period, a time she could probably live to see where it not for the fact that there were no hanyō or yōkai in his time. Meaning she, along with every other yōkai, would die long before Inuyasha was even born. If he didn't stop his feelings from growing further, he would end up feeling extremely strongly for a person he shouldn't have even been able to meet, much less be with. He would set himself up for heartbreak, plain and simple. But the sad truth, and Kagome knew it, was that Inuyasha couldn't possibly stop what he was feeling even if he realized what was happening, which he probably didn't. The heart was never one to listen to reason, after all.

Still, even though she knew that, Kagome couldn't stop herself from trying to think of some other way to deal with the problem before it actually arose. Unfortunately, no matter how much she tried, unsurprisingly, she couldn't find a single way to handle the situation except one: leave and never come back.

If she left, Inuyasha would have no more contact with her and his feelings shouldn't develop any more than they already did. In fact, if she left, it was safe to assume he would actually start to dislike her, because she would be essentially abandoning him. He'd probably be hurt, too, but that pain would have been nothing compared to what he'd go through if she stayed. Truly, leaving was the best option.

There was just one problem with that. It wasn't a possibility. No matter how many good things would come of it, and how many bad would come of her staying, Kagome knew she couldn't leave. Or more like she wouldn't be able to. She had grown too attached to this mismatched group of people she had been travelling with lately, a group that were the closest friends she had ever had (well, maybe minus Sango, but they were turning over a new leaf and who knew how things would go from there). No matter how many reasons her mind would come up with, her heart, her 'weak' human heart that longed for an end of her nearly life-long loneliness, would not allow her to leave. She might have never let it show in any way, but she had been lonely for most of her life. Why else would she come back again and again to Kogarashi's village, even long before the man himself was born, to visit his ancestors and, to her, descendants of her uncle? Why else would she become as close friends with Kikyo as she had? Why else would she mingle with Kōga once it became apparent that his feelings for her were not only genuine, but still growing, until her feelings started to match his? She might not have been alone for the last few years (her fifty years of sleep notwithstanding), but what was five or so years compared to the nearly hundred fifty of being alone after her mother's death? What was a few years to the centuries that would follow once all her friends passed away?

Just the mere thought made her shudder and her eye watered, though no tears spilled. She would not cry. She hadn't ever since her mother's death, not while hanyō, at least. As a human, she could cry. But as a hanyō, her eyes would fill up with tears that she'd eventually blink away, tears that would never spill. As a hanyō, her pain would remain closed within her heart, as it always has been.

But at the same time, she couldn't just push the thoughts away. She couldn't tell herself not to think about it, because then she would get too attached and losing her friends would be like losing her mother all over again – only this time, she couldn't be sure she'd recover. So she kept that thought in the back of her mind always and at all times, so that she could make friends but didn't get so attached to them that losing them to time would mean losing a part of herself – a little part of her always remained detached and unmoved by anyone.

Kōga had been the great exception. He was the first, and probably last person since her mother, who ever got as close to her as he had. But he was a demon. And because of that, Kagome didn't have to worry about time taking him away from her. Still though, her feelings for Kōga, feelings which were definitely requited, were not enough to keep those foreboding thoughts of eventually ending up alone again away. They were not enough because, despite her feelings and the wants born from them, Kagome couldn't be sure Kōga and her would actually stay together. After all, they weren't ever truly together to begin with, they had always been separated by their different responsibilities – Kōga's to his pack and hers to her own honor. And there was also the fact that Kagome knew that, should a situation ever arise in which her heart would pull her in one direction, but her honor in the opposite one, she would chose her honor in a heartbeat, even if it meant unimaginable emotional agony. If a situation ever arose in which she had to chose, for whatever reason, between Kōga and her honor, she would chose her honor – even if it meant losing the one she loved.

One could think that in that case, what she felt for Kōga wasn't love. But Kagome knew it was. It was simply a matter of priorities: would her feelings and personal wants be more important or would her honor be what she had to keep. If she ever lost Kōga, Kagome knew it would be a heavy blow to her, one she would only recover from with much difficulty – she knew because the mere thought of it made her want to howl as though her heart was being ripped out of her chest. But if she ever lost her honor, the only thing to her name that she truly had, it would be worse. If she lost her honor, she would lose everything. Without her honor, she was nothing. Without Kōga, she would eventually learn to live again. Without her honor, she could not, would not even deserve to. And that was why the fear of eventually being alone in the end lingered in the back of her mind and kept her from truly and completely opening up to others, not that anyone would have been able to tell. And it was because of that lingering fear that Kagome knew she would not be able to leave her new found friends, would not be able to leave Inuyasha, no matter how much pain it would cause him in the long run. She was just selfish that way.

But even if she hadn't been, even if she could force herself to leave, or if she had wanted to, she could not. She couldn't because her heart wasn't the only thing keeping her by Inuyasha's side.

"I will protect you for as long as the fates allow and I will protect the Jewel until it is either destroyed, or until there's no drop of blood, demon or human, left within my body. I promise you that, Kikyo, and I'll keep that promise even if it kills me!"

That was one of the greatest promises she had ever given to anyone. An oath she swore on her honor, her life, her very soul, an oath she would never dare to even think to break. An oath that tied her to the Jewel. An oath that would not allow her to leave its protector, no matter what. Nothing short of death would allow her to leave, as death was the only thing that could release her from that vow – a vow she had made without thinking because it was something she felt Kikyo deserved and the only way to really show her just how important the priestess had been to her. A vow she had given because she had wanted to ease the priestess's well hidden suffering caused by the Jewel she was protecting.

"That way, you can also live like any other priestess, without having to worry too much. If not as a normal woman, then as a priestess just like any other, because even if you have to deal with more responsibilities and danger… you know you'll never have to face it alone. I'll be there. I swear I will. Always. Until the day I die."

And she had kept her promise. She had remained by Kikyo's side until she was killed by the priestess herself, though she did not blame her. How could she when she knew it was not Kikyo's fault, but Naraku's for tricking them both?

But even though part of her promise had been fulfilled, the other half still was not. The fact remained that she was alive and the Jewel was still in existence. She had sworn to protect the Jewel so long as her heart had blood to pump through her body whether Kikyo was the one protecting it now or not. Which was why she could never leave the Jewel's protector. She was honor bound to the Shikon. As she was to Inuyasha himself.

"If you do come back, Inuyasha, then I swear I'll protect you to the best of my abilities. I'll protect you with my life if I have to."

That had been a promise that had not been voiced. It had been a vow she had given in her mind, a promise Inuyasha knew nothing about. But that didn't make it any less valid. And even if it hadn't been valid, it was not the only promise she'd given him.

"I will not let Naraku or anyone else kill Inuyasha and repeat that cycle again. I'll keep him alive and protect him until Naraku's dead and the Jewel out of his hands even if it costs me my own life. That, I swear to you."

She couldn't help but remember the day she had given him that promise – another one on a growing pile. Once again, she swore to protect him. But that time, she had went even further. She had sworn to keep Inuyasha alive no matter what until he was free of the Jewel and the yōkai that was the biggest threat was dead. She had even gone as far as swearing she'd die before she let anyone kill him – again.

"As long as you need me to, I'll stay by your side. I promise you that."

The icing on the cake, as someone of Inuyasha's time would have called it. She had sworn to protect him. She had vowed to keep him alive and to not let him die even if it meant her own life. Both of those oaths were implied to be valid so long as Naraku lived and so long as Inuyasha had the Jewel. And now, just a few hours before, she had created another bond between Inuyasha and herself, one that she would never really be free of until he told her he no longer needed her. And this time, she didn't even promise something as difficult as protecting him. She had merely promised to stay by his side.

She hadn't thought much of it back then. She didn't think much of it now, either. Not in the sense of second guessing if it had been a good idea to promise such a thing, anyway. The only real thought she could have about that promise, or any other promise she had made to Inuyasha, was that it was simply there and that through making it, she had bound herself to him by her own choice. She was now honor bound to stay with him, had been almost since the beginning of their journey together and she wouldn't be able to leave because of that even if she wanted to. To leave would mean to break all those promises, to leave would mean to abandon her honor and to destroy it completely – something she'd never be able or willing to do. So like it or not, she had no choice but to stay, even if she knew that staying would only hurt Inuyasha in the end – not that she actually wanted to leave, as selfish as that sounded.

She was a hypocrite. Just a few hours before, she had been getting mad at remembering a spiritual binding that hadn't been there for the longest time because she considered herself a free spirit. But if she really stopped to think about it, she really didn't need any binding to take her own freedom away, she was doing a better job of tying herself to someone else on her own than any binding ever could. How ironic was that?

For a second, she entertained the thought of the only possibility she had to leave without breaking her promises, to free herself from all her binds even if she had willingly created them herself: the possibility of death. But she had discarded that thought even before it had fully formed in her head. She wasn't very fond of the idea of dying, after all. Quite the opposite, in fact, she wanted to live. And now that she thought about it, now that she was calm and could think rationally, the realization suddenly hit her that she couldn't even allow herself to die.

"So now I'm stupid because I don't want you to fucking die on me? How's that stupid, stupid? Or did you think you were the only one who was worried someone else would be gone from your life before you even knew what was happening?!"

Inuyasha's words rang in her mind, her memory easily placing them at the moment after they all woke from the dream induced by the Baku. Inuyasha had chewed her out then because she had been willing to risk her life if it meant saving his. That had been the first time she could recall that he openly admitted that he didn't want her to die. That he really cared. Not that she hadn't thought he cared long before that… but it was one thing to figure it out on your own, and another thing entirely to have it yelled in your face.

"Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe I care about you? Did you ever think that just maybe I don't want you to die? Every time you fucking risked your life to save mine, did you think about how it would make me feel to know I was the reason you died?"

She hadn't really thought much about what he had said. She had been selfish. She hadn't spared a thought to what her possibly dying while protecting him would make him feel like despite having experienced it herself, simply because for some selfish reason, it had never occurred to her that he would think her death was his fault. Somehow, the idea that he'd blame himself for her death if she were to die while protecting him never crossed her mind. Even though it probably should have.

"If I had left, it would be like I was running away. Like I wanted to live like none of this had ever happened. It would be like I wanted to forget and I fucking couldn't do it! No matter what I'd try, there's no way I can possibly forget all that happened while I was here and I sure as hell wouldn't be able to forget you! I don't even want to!"

Now that her mind wasn't clouded with her own worry and anger, the hidden message in his words suddenly hit her hard, although whether Inuyasha himself had known such a message was there was another matter entirely. Still, Kagome felt safe to assume that he knew, if only subconsciously, so reading between the lines shouldn't be considered over-analyzing things. And if she tried, the message was loud and clear.

If she were to disappear from his life, Inuyasha would never be able to forget her. He would never be able to live as he would have, had he never known her. Apparently, without even realizing it, she had changed something about him, though she had never planned to. And he didn't mind the change. Quite the opposite, he was glad to have changed as far as Kagome could tell. If she were to die, he would never forget her or all she did for him. In a way… he would never truly move on.

"I wasn't thinking straight, alright?! And how could I have?! I was sure you were fucking dead! You are the first friend I ever had and I thought you died because of me! How the hell do you think that made me feel?!"

Oh, she knew very well how that felt. Better than Inuyasha could ever think she did. She had, after all, a life on her conscience as well. Well, more than one, quite honestly, but there was one that she had never wanted to take. Her mother, the one person she had wanted to protect more than anything and had ended up killing instead. Kagome didn't think it mattered if it was one's own hands or not that did the deed, the feelings of blame were probably still the same. That same crushing despair she had experienced and only barely overcome. From what she had seen, Inuyasha's reaction to believing she had died was pretty close to what she had lived through when she was but three years of demonic age. Not quite the same, but astonishingly and frighteningly close. The biggest difference was that while a hanyō could hope to survive in such a state, a human most definitely would not, as Inuyasha had proven himself – if Kagome had not found him by the well then, he probably would have died. All because she was no longer there.

'He needs me,' she thought, her eye widening as her mind truly understood the idea behind the simple statement. In and of itself, she should have been nothing surprising. Inuyasha had needed her ever since he met her. He had needed her to survive because he was nowhere near strong enough to protect himself in her world. He had needed her as a protector.

But now, Kagome realized that somewhere along the way, that need had evolved. She didn't know when, nor how, but somewhere along the way, most likely without Inuyasha really realizing it, he started needing her in a different manner.

"You don't have to do anything. Knowing you're by my side… and knowing that you care… that's enough."

Then again, he probably did notice. Maybe he didn't really know what it meant, but he definitely knew he needed her differently now than he did before. In the very beginning, he had needed her skills in a fight and her strength. He had needed a protector. But now… now, he simply needed her to be there. He wanted and needed her to live.

'It's too late already, isn't it,' Kagome thought sadly as she ran a hand through Inuyasha's hair, gently brushing a few stray strands out of his face. 'Even if I wanted to… even if I could leave and actually did… it's already too late, isn't it. You already… feel something much stronger for me than mere friendship and camaraderie, don't you,' she thought, not daring to voice the observation aloud for fear Inuyasha would wake and hear her. Though then again, did it really matter if he did in the end? Kagome didn't think it did. Whether the priest realized what it was he was really feeling or not, the feelings were there and, in certain situations, the pain would be as well no matter how much Kagome might want to avoid it. It was simply too late to avoid it by that point.

And some little, selfish part of the half-demon was actually glad. Some part of her selfishly enjoyed being needed that way and was very happy to know it was too late to change anything.

Ears drooping and head lowering in shame, Kagome closed her eye so that no one could see the pain and grief she couldn't disguise, or the tears she knew were starting to well but would never spill, should anyone choose to enter the hut in that moment.

'I'm sorry,' she couldn't help but think, apologizing for both not doing anything to prevent what had happened (even if she couldn't really have done anything about it, just as Inuyasha couldn't have, no one had control of their feelings, much less someone else's, after all), and for the pain she knew she would eventually cause him no matter how much she might try to fight against it. 'I'm so sorry…'

For the first time in more than a century, Kagome found herself wishing she could have cried freely.

And that's that. A heavy atmosphere for most of the chapter, a little fluff close to the end and some serious drama to finish it off. Don't you just love it when I shuffle feelings back and forth? :) Anyway, hope you enjoyed. Drop me a line? *gives you her best puppy-eyed look and a sweet smile*

Next chapter: Interference

See you then.