Careless Whispers

Disclaimer: I do not own the characters of Inuyasha.

A/N: This one-shot came about because of a conversation between myself and Angelica Pierce, author of an excellent award winning one-shot called Something Real. We both feel that so much of the angst on Kagome's part was glossed over in the anime and manga, and she wanted to see how I would go about writing a story around the damage that Inuyasha's words and constant running to Kikyou would have caused her. One thing that Angelica pointed out, and I think she made a good point, is that everyone – and I'm guilty of the same - always seems to set the two down together, Inuyasha says a few nice things, and then, voila, Kagome's happy and everything's good. But that really isn't reality... that much damage to a person will leave disbelief in its wake, and it would take time for Inuyasha to show her that he's serious, just the same as it took time for her to accumulate so much hurt from his words and actions to begin with.

So... on with the angst.

~oOo~

Silence.

Cold.

Darkness.

Kagome was surrounded by all three – and nothing else. She could feel something slimy, something hateful and evil crawling through her soul and contaminating everything it touched as it searched for any answering darkness from within her, and she cried out in terrible fear, begging and pleading for someone, for anyone to come and help her.

But there was no answer, only the frigid echo of her own fears and broken dreams rippling around her, and in that moment, when she felt smaller than she ever had and completely alone, that evil found its mark in her soul...

It found a taint that it could exploit.

Abandonment. A broken heart. Harsh words and broken promises.

In triumph, that dirty, evil thing laughed at her, mocked her.

"Alone," it hissed, "you are alone and desperate for anybody to lay their hands on your soul. To give you a reason to believe that you will see the light again one day... but you will not – because there is no longer any light for you. You are abandoned – alone. All that is left is the darkness – and the careless whispers within it."

"No," she cried back, "I'm not alone... I'm not!"

Laughter, icy and mocking met her ears.

"But you are. There's no one left to call, and even sleep cannot help you now. There is no escape from me."

"Inuyasha!"

Spite crept in, biting and direct. "This is your life now, Kagome. All the tears you've cried – for nothing! He runs to the other – and leaves you to face the creeping darknesses of this world all alone. It's time to change things... follow me, and you will never be alone again," it finished, its voice becoming soft, mesmerizing, beckoning her weary soul like a siren's call.

"Not alone?" she whispered, wavering. There was no other answer to her calls... no one was there, no one was looking for her, and she was desperate to get away from the frigid chill of fear – fear of being alone and forgotten...

Forever.

Kagome was physically unaware of the flare of triumph in Akago's eyes as he found the smallest bit of darkness in her soul and grasped it, her sightless eyes falling closed as he wrapped his hands around that darkness and took control of it.

"That's it, Kagome," he murmured. "How many times have you given all of yourself to Inuyasha and even to Kikyou - and the moment he hears anything of her, he forgets you and runs away, leaving you alone – leaving you vulnerable. How many times has he compared you – unfavorably – to the dead? Let go your grasp of your anger, feed it and the pain in your heart – he has betrayed you. Give me all of your pain, your anger – the bitterness! I will take it for you and hold it so that it doesn't hurt anymore."

She was only vaguely aware of the infant's words, floating in a strange limbo where the only things she could feel were all the negative emotions that she always buried away inside and refused to focus on. But for some reason, she couldn't reach any positive emotions this time – it was as if they had all been sucked away.

When it was all over, later, she never could say for sure how long she'd floated in that void, feeling nothing but pain, fear, and betrayal. It felt like forever to her...

The infant had her.

It had reached the darkness she carried in her soul, and under his grasp it was even beginning to grow just the slightest bit – but he made one mistake, and it was that mistake that saved Kagome in the end, not someone coming to rescue her.

He overreached himself by trying to convince her that she hated Inuyasha and Kikyou.

Despite everything, the abandonment, the torment of a heart that had been left behind, the insults and comparisons, Kagome didn't, couldn't hate where her heart told her to love, and because of that she saved herself from the darkness that Akago tried to drown her in.

Certainly, Inuyasha did finally return in time to make sure that he retrieved her physically from Kanna, Akago, and Kagura, but by then she'd already saved her soul from the infant – and that had been the real battle.

She'd been desperate... and had no one but herself to rely on.

It wouldn't be the last time she'd face the darkness alone in desperation and fear.

~oOo~

"The woman you loved most in this world is dead. You must be so sad... sad enough to follow her into death."

No matter how much Kagome tried, she couldn't get those words out of her mind, and the more they rolled through her thoughts, the worse she hurt. I can't believe he almost...

But in truth, believe it or not, he had... he had almost let himself go so that he could join Kikyou in death. I know... that in the beginning, he had promised to go to hell with her, but I had hoped that he had gotten past that. Is he still planning to do that after Naraku's dead? That thought sent a fresh pulse of pain through her entire soul, and she couldn't help the fact that it pushed that anguish into her aura, darkening it with fresh agony.

Apparently, it was strong enough to catch Inuyasha's attention.

Keh. What did Kaou mean about Kagome, anyway? Her soul was in that much pain? I know... he felt guilt slither through him at the knowledge of all the pain he had caused her over their travels, and there had been a lot. But he hadn't realized just how much... I know how much I hurt – and if she hurts even worse? He shuddered. I've got to take some time to talk to her. There's been so much going on lately that we haven't even had the chance to say more than a few words to each other.

His mind went back to Kaou. Those things he said to me... did she take them to heart? Is that why she's so upset? It wasn't really true, what that bastard said. There's no 'most' about it. I loved Kikyou, once, but at least this time I got to say goodbye. But though she'll always have a place in my heart, that doesn't mean that Kagome doesn't mean just as much to me.

After all, even Kikyou knew... that I love Kagome in the here and now. Back then, I loved Kikyou, but that was a long time ago. Now... I love Kagome. But I've never told her... he felt even more guilt, and glanced back at the little miko who'd stood by his side for so long and faithfully with a sense of urgency. Time was running out, he knew... they would catch up with Naraku before too much longer, and then...

Well, who knew what would happen.

He resolved then and there to hash everything out with Kagome at their next stop. He wouldn't allow this confusion between them to continue on – if nothing else, the whole mess with Kikyou had taught him one thing...

You always have less time than you think.

You shouldn't waste any of it.

~oOo~

Heart beating a thousand times a minute, Inuyasha ran full tilt into the shrine of Hitomiko, searching desperately for Kagome. After she'd been pulled into the shrine he'd spent the entire night trying everything he could think of to get inside – and he'd failed miserably.

This time, Kagome had saved herself – and Hitomiko as well, apparently, as he came to a skidding halt when he caught sight of his miko holding the now peacefully resting body of the maiden of the shrine.

"Kagome," he gasped, "are you alright?"

He didn't miss the fact that she never answered him but there was no awkward silence, as other things almost immediately took all their attention. But it wasn't a question he'd forgotten, and at some point, he'd be asking it again.

That point came later that evening as they settled down into a camp for the night. Everyone was quiet, lost in their own thoughts – except Inuyasha, who was lost in his worries about the miko he'd almost lost.

Now, he decided. Now... before something else comes along to interrupt us. With that worry pushing him, he didn't falter, asking, "Kagome? Can I... talk to you?" in a low tone, ears plastered to his head as he waited for her to answer.

Looking a bit startled, she stared at him for a moment, then shook her head as if to clear it and nodded solemnly. "Sure... I guess so." She didn't sound too enthusiastic, though, and he flinched inwardly.

I've really screwed myself here, haven't I?

He stood and held out a hand to her, not even caring that they were the focus of everyone's eyes as she -

rather gingerly - he noted with displeasure, took his hand and let him pull her up. He looked at their friends warningly.

"And all of you had better stay here and mind your own business, got it? I don't wanna have to chase some nosy people back to camp – and that mostly means you, Miroku... and you, Shippo." With that, he preceded Kagome out of camp, leading her away for some much needed privacy.

After a little while they came to a small clearing at the foot of a little brook, and he indicated for her to take a seat. It was silent for a few minutes, then, "I'm sorry I failed you, Kagome... you know, with Hitomiko," he said, his dejection evident in his voice. "I couldn't get through the barrier, and that left you to face her alone. I promised to protect you... and I didn't."

He was in no way prepared for her words.

"You didn't fail me. I'm not Kikyou, Inuyasha. She's gone," Kagome looked away, "and you can't fulfill your promise to protect her through me. You can't fulfill your obligation to Kikyou through me. Please... understand that I can't be your absolution – I can't be your burden."

Aghast, all he could do was stare at her for several horror-stricken moments, and then he snarled at what she'd said. "You take that the fuck back, wench! You aren't anyone's absolution!"

Kagome didn't even flinch at his anger. "Aren't I?" She chuckled mirthlessly, her expression sad and tired. "After all, you're only remembering your promise to protect me now that she's gone. Why is that? It's true, even though I've never said anything about it, because there was no point, but did you forget? You promised to protect me before Kikyou was brought back, but as soon as she was returned to life, you forgot that and promised her, instead."

"Then why did you come back after that and ask to stay by my side, huh? Did you think I wouldn't protect you after that?" he all but shouted.

"When I came back..." she trailed off for a moment, obviously lost in her memories, then continued slowly. "When that happened, I chose to come back even though you'd promised Kikyou. That meant that I was responsible for myself, Inuyasha. Obviously, your promise to her meant more to you than your promise to me, and I accepted that when I chose to remain. But that meant that I wasn't your responsibility anymore."

Leaping to his feet to loom over her angrily, Inuyasha's eyes haloed red in his anger. "Then why have I protected you so many times since then, huh, wench? Did you think I would just let you traipse around here with no one to watch over you?!" he asked incredulously.

She glared up at him, then. "We protected each other sometimes, Inuyasha – it's what friends do. The woman you loved most in the world... remember those words? Well, I do." She laughed, a hollow sound. "I'm beginning to even wonder if I really was her reincarnation. After all, when she... died, again... that part of the soul didn't return to me, you know?" She paused, taking in his astounded expression, then asked, "Tell me something. Are you still planning to follow her to hell? After this is all over, I mean?"

Stunned into silence at that question, he stumbled back as he stared at her blankly for several long seconds, his eyes flashing back to gold in his startlement. And then... "No! You should know better than that, wench! Why would you ask me something like that?"

She shrugged, looking away again. "Why would I know better? You obviously wanted to follow her. It's not like you've ever made any secret about your feelings about her. And just because she's gone again doesn't mean that those feelings have changed."

Inuyasha just looked at her for several seconds blankly, unable to process what she was saying. Have I really made her feel that way? "Kagome," he murmured, "do you really believe that? Kaou was just trying to get to me by saying stupid shit. Not like any of it was true. And just like every time before that something like that has happened to me, your voice brought me out of it. That should tell you something," he sighed as he plopped back down beside her.

"Yeah," she said, her voice echoing the sadness he could see in her. "That you have a very strong sense of responsibility, and know that I need protection a lot. But I have to stand on my own. I'm responsible for myself, and I did okay against Naraku on my own, ne? After all, no one could save me then but myself, and I did. So you don't need to apologize," she sighed finally. "I'm okay."

"That's not the point, wench!" He burst out again, reaching out to grab her arms and shaking her a little in his frustration. "You aren't a burden, or some responsibility! You're Kagome, and I protect you because I want to, not because of Kikyou! I protect Kagome because I want to protect Kagome. That has nothing to do with Kikyou – or whether you're her reincarnation, or not." He let go of her, flinching inwardly at his actions. "Sorry. I didn't mean to do that – I'm just frustrated."

"It's okay," she said distantly. "I understand."

He watched her for a moment from the corner of his eye. "No... I don't think you do," he said softly, flicking her another glance after looking down at his hands. "Have I really made you feel like this, Kagome? And what is this, anyway? Why would you think that I wouldn't protect you? You know I need you with me, don't you?"

It was silent for a while, Kagome's eyes pinned to the stars that could be seen at the apex of the forest, shining brilliantly, yet coldly – echoing how she felt inside. Distant and frozen.

Weary.

Alone... just like Akago had said.

"Kagome?" he prompted again after a while.

"I said I'd be there for you, Inuyasha. But that doesn't mean that you can backtrack now and vow to protect me. What would happen if, kami forbid," she rolled her eyes, "Kikyou got brought back again? You'd drop me in a heartbeat and go right back to protecting her." Her voice had gotten firm as she spoke; it was obvious that she completely believed her words. "It's better that I'm responsible for myself – that way, if I fail you can't blame yourself, it'll be only my fault."

His jaw dropped as his eyes widened, and he stared at her like he'd never seen her before. "What?" he whispered, shocked pretty much speechless.

"You heard me, Inuyasha. I didn't stutter," she said tartly. "We both know who you'd choose when it comes down to cases, because you already have. I know my place. I'm just the shard detector, anyway, ne? What difference does it make if I protect myself?"

What have I done? he wondered mournfully as he stared at her. I thought she knew... "Kagome, none of those things are true! I was just a stupid bastard who was trying to protect himself from you, from feeling anything again for anyone, and that was my dumbass way of doing it – by lying. You... you were never a burden, you were never just a shard detector, and you were never second best!"

Kagome looked up and met his earnest gaze with darkness in her own, then with a sigh she looked away, her eyes tracing the slight bit of moonlight that danced on the babbling brook at her feet. "I'm sure you think you mean it, Inuyasha, and I'd love to believe that, but I can't help but think that you're only saying these things because you feel guilty. You seem to equate guilt with love, and maybe that's because of what happened between you and Kikyou, but I refuse to fit in the mold you cast for me. I'm not your guilty sin – after all, I've faced the darkness alone... more than once, and come out on top. I'm sure I will again, so no worries. I'll still be around to fight Naraku."

Unable to even believe the crap that was coming out of her mouth, Inuyasha did the only thing he could think of in that moment – he yanked her into his arms and slammed his mouth down on hers, determined to get her to stop saying such heinous things any way he could. And he couldn't think of a better way to do it than that.

Shocked, Kagome could do little more than gasp, which Inuyasha took full advantage of, deepening the kiss with an impossibly dark growl and she shivered in his arms, uncertain of how to take his actions. Oh... but he's not really kissing me because he wants to, he's just angry. This isn't like he'd kiss Kikyou...

At that thought she wrenched herself away with a sob, dropping her face into her hands as tears spilled over and ran down her cheeks. Almost incoherent, she cried out, "Don't, Inuyasha! Just stop! Why did you do that?"

"Because I damn well wanted to, and you wanted me to do it! I'm so fuckin' tired of these games, Kagome – they have to stop!" he shouted. "You can't honestly believe that I think you're Kikyou. Have you forgotten that I'm an inu hanyou? Scent is everything to us, and there's no comparison between you two and your scents. Totally different. So even if I was stupid, which I'm not," he ground out, "I wouldn't ever mix you two up. I kissed you because I wanted to, and don't even think about saying I was just kissing Kikyou through you, because so help me, if you do I won't be responsible for my actions. I don't get what's so hard to believe about it, Kagome. I've told you before that I need you – didn't you ever listen to me?"

At that question her head shot up and she glared at him so harshly he was taken aback. "Of course I listened! But I think you've forgotten just what you've been saying to me all these months! Would you like a recap? One of the first things you said was you hated my scent, so why are you bringing it up now like it's a good thing? Over and over you've told me I wasn't good enough, that I wasn't like Kikyou, I wasn't pretty enough, I wasn't strong enough, I wasn't powerful enough. Nothing I ever did was good enough! You've been telling me these things for months – and every time there was even a rumor of Kikyou you'd go off half-cocked, leaving me alone to face whatever might come while you were with her. Now you're upset because I believed all your words? It's really strange that you're saying these things now, you know – when Kikyou's gone for good. But kami forbid you actually said anything when she was still around..."

She choked out a harsh laugh, then, turning her back on him to stare into the darkness under the trees. "Remember after Akago got his hands on me? What did you swear? That you'd never leave me alone again... and then you did. But I already knew you would – that's why I called you a liar. So how can you sit there now and act like I'm the crazy one here? Act like I should just know how you feel? Or even believe what you seem to be saying?"

"So what are you saying? That you don't care about me... anymore?" he asked softly, his voice a little choked.

And Kagome only cried harder, her vision blurring as past and present ran together and she let out all the pent up pain poisoning her heart. "N-no, that's not what I'm saying. But just because I... have feelings for you doesn't mean that I believe you have them for me in return. At least, not the same ones," she sighed, her shoulders slumping. "I can never stop how I feel about you, no matter what happens, and I know that. But you can't treat me like you have for so long, and then expect me to just believe that... you … care about me, too, in the same way. You just can't."

Ears pinned to his head, Inuyasha stared with glassy eyes at her back, taking note of the tension holding her so stiffly. "Keh. So... then, now what? Because I'm not gonna stop protecting you, Kagome, and you need your head examined if you think I will."

She shook her head wearily, turning back towards him a little as she glanced at him from the corner of her eye. "I don't know, Inuyasha. I guess... we just go on the way we have been. We still need to defeat Naraku, after all, and get the jewel away from him. And keep Kohaku's shard safe, too."

"The hell with that. I ain't goin' back to the way things have been. Believe me or not, but I meant what I said – I need you with me, and I'm not letting you pull away from me now. I'll give you time, Kagome, to take in what I'm sayin' to you and realize that I mean it, but I'm not backing off. I know how I feel, and soon, you will, too," he declared firmly, pushing his hurt to the back of his mind. Now was the time to fight for what he wanted, and one thing about Inuyasha - he was a fighter born and bred. Hell, he'd been fighting for every breath he'd taken all his life, and this would be nothing compared to that.

He would fight 'til doomsday for Kagome if he had to, and that was a vow he wouldn't ever break. When you're desperate, you'll do just about anything to get what you need, and he needed her like he needed air to breathe.

If only there was enough time left to find a way to prove it to her...

~oOo~

Kikyou's shadow, with the second-hand soul... and face.

Kagome stared up at the Goshinboku, her mind going back three years to that last part of the battle, when she'd been stranded in the void with the jewel. She'd been so scared.

It had taunted and teased her, tried to trick her, and she'd been so close to giving in to her fear. Memories of the darkness that Akago had tortured her with had only magnified her fears, because the place she was in was exactly like the place she'd been in back then – alone in the dark, bereft of light, bereft of companionship – bereft of Life.

And the whole time, all she could think was that she was Kikyou's shadow. Oh, she'd had no doubts that Inuyasha would come for her – after all, why wouldn't he? His attention was no longer divided, because Kikyou was no longer alive. He was an honorable guy, so yes, he still would have come for her even if the other woman were alive... eventually. But Kagome wouldn't have been his priority, not as long as the other woman was in any danger.

She still believed that, even these three years later.

But... as time had passed, allowing her to put some of her past to rest in her mind, she'd begun to see things a bit differently. Oh, yes, the pain was still there, and always would be. However... she had clearer sight, now, and some things that she hadn't been in the right frame of mind to understand from back then had made themselves known during her years away.

The bottom line was that it didn't matter whether she was second best or not. She'd promised to stay by his side – and she wasn't by his side. That was all due to her, and she knew it.

The well had closed because of her feelings, and it was still closed because of them.

Love. So many things have been written about it – but no one ever told me that it was really nothing more than a weapon that would destroy you from within, tearing away every part of you that made you who you were. I'm not the same person I was when I went into the past, and it's more than just growing up. I didn't just grow up – I changed. And it's all because of him. Because of my feelings, and his.

The great tree rustled as the breeze pushed through branch and bough, leaves tapping against each other gently. A few stray ones drifted down, and she caught one in her palm, staring at it, transfixed.

So fragile... like me. But I promised. Fragile or not, I promised. He does need me, even if it's not as much as he needed her. But she's gone, forever, and only I remain. Maybe it's not so important... what he promised her, as it is what I promised him. After all, I can't be responsible for any words but my own. And even though, back then, I knew where his heart was, I still chose to stay by his side. How can I take that back?

She couldn't, and she knew it. Looking back, her promise to him had been honest – but there had been a part of her, hidden somewhere deep within that had still hoped, that had still thought that one day he would choose her. She was ashamed to admit it, even to herself, but she'd viewed him as the prize – her reward for doing her duty to the kami and the past.

But he was no one's prize, and most certainly not for something as petty as good behavior.

And he hadn't chosen her, in the end. She was merely his fallback plan.

So... what do I do? Am I strong enough to return to him and stay by his side, like I swore I would? Her head dropped, and she stared at the cement below her feet. Pain stirred in her heart... but it was worse at the thought of never seeing him again. I could never tell him goodbye and mean it, she realized.

And that says it all. It will hurt to return, but it will hurt worse to stay away.

Walking away from the tree with resolve staining her features, she slid the wellhouse door open. She stared at the well, her hand still braced on the doorframe for several long moments, and then she stepped inside for the first time in three years.

But what do I face when I go back? Should I just be his friend, like I was for so long before? I know... what he wanted from me, back then, at the end... but maybe he doesn't want the same thing, anymore.

Maybe he's changed, too.

Closing tired eyes, she just let her thoughts whirl and tumble through her mind, still no closer to a resolution of her feelings and thoughts than she had been the night she'd had it out with Inuyasha so long ago. Gods... I wish there was a way to be sure... a way to know who he's really seeing when he looks at me. How can I ever be certain? I can't, she sighed morosely, and in the end, it doesn't matter - at least in whether I go back, or not.

I promised.

That means more than my feelings.

No, in the end it doesn't matter, because I will go back and I will give him anything he needs, even if that's me in place of her.

Because without Inuyasha the world is no kind of place for me, even knowing my place in his heart is behind Kikyou.

She wasn't really surprised when the well opened up as she grasped it and thought that last bit... nor that her mother just happened to wander out to the well at that one particular moment.

And in the end, it doesn't even take another moment for my future to bow to my past.

Her last sight of that world was of her mother, with tears on her face, waving goodbye.

I will never forget you, mama...

~oOo~

Drained, all Kagome could do was stare, hypnotized, at the fire in Kaede's hut.

It had been an emotional day from the moment she'd landed at the bottom of the well and felt the magic swell, touch her with affection and then fade, never to respond again.

She hadn't been particularly surprised to see Inuyasha's hand thrust into the well within moments of her landing, either. He'd always had a damn good nose.

What had surprised her had been the look in his eyes. Desperation... and longing.

He'd pulled her into his arms and she'd gone, not fighting it, because she understood that even if he never could only see her he still cared about her, and she knew he was glad to see her again. But that look in his eyes...

If she could have been sure that look was for her, Kagome, alone, she'd never have left his arms again.

But it had answered that one question in her mind... he still wanted the same thing from her that he had towards the end of their quest...

And she would give it to him.

She would be his wife.

"Keh. Kagome," Inuyasha murmured. "Can we take a walk for a little while?" he asked quietly.

She blinked in surprise at the interruption of the comfortable silence that had fallen in the hut after Sango and Miroku and their children had left, then sighed and nodded. "Sure... we really haven't had much of a chance to talk, have we?" she chuckled, wry acceptance within her as she took in his golden eyes.

A small smirk lifted his lips, and the hanyou shook his head a little. "Nope, not with the bouzo and Sango taking up so much of your time – and let's not forget the runt." He stood up and offered her a hand again, just like earlier, and as Kagome's gaze met his she caught that same expression in his eyes.

If only...

Allowing him to pull her to her feet she stepped over to the door and slipped her shoes back on again, then let him lead her outside. Ducking her head to get under the matting, she smiled at the sight of the sky so brilliant with stars, completely unlike her time.

"It's so beautiful here. When I was back there with my family... I never stopped missing this place. I don't think I could ever have been happy staying there," she sighed quietly, and she knew he'd heard her words as one ear flicked back at her.

Folding his arms into his sleeves he began walking slowly, and Kagome walked easily at his side, content to wait for him to speak.

The silence reigned for some time, until they'd left the village far behind and found themselves at one of Inuyasha's favorite spots – an overlook that sat high above the village and his forest, allowing him to see the valley below lit brightly by the moonlight.

It was beautiful, and he'd come here many nights while Kagome was gone, just remembering and thinking of her.

Enchanted at the view before her, Kagome smiled as she sat down, curling her legs up neatly next to her. "It's breathtaking, Inuyasha." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. "Do you come here a lot?"

"Yeah... when I start to get too lonely and my memories are more painful than anything, I come here. It helps... to soothe me for a while, I guess you could say. Sometimes," he flushed a little, "when I'd start missing you too much and I couldn't stand it anymore, I'd come here and think about you."

Kagome blushed. Yeah, but was it really... she stopped that thought in its tracks. It didn't matter. "Hm."

"Is that all you can say?"

She flicked him a quick glance. "What did you want me to say?"

"Something more than just hm. What's that mean, anyway?"

"It means 'hm'."

He rolled his eyes at her, and as bright as the moonlight was up here, she could see him do it. She giggled.

"Keh. Wench," he said, a reluctant smile crossing his face. "You're still a pain in the ass, you know that? Three years ain't changed that. And..." he glanced at her for a moment, "... I wouldn't want you to change, anyway. You wouldn't be Kagome if you weren't a big pain in the ass."

Well, at least I know he's thinking of me when he says that, she thought ruefully. He'd never say something like that about Kikyou.

"Gee, thanks, Inuyasha." After a silent moment she nudged him with her shoulder. "So... was there something specific you wanted to talk about?"

"Mmm. Maybe. Why?"

"Well, if you're going to be that way about it," she began, acting as if she was going to stand up, "then I'll just go back to Kaede's and go to bed. It's been a long day, after all."

He grabbed her arm and pulled her back down, shooting an impatient glance at her. "Oi, stop teasin' me, wench. You know I've got something to say to you."

"So why don't you say it?" she asked.

"Keh! It ain't easy, that's why," he sighed, letting go of her arm as she curled back up. "Before... when we were still chasing Naraku... things were complicated. And after that talk we had that time, you remember, about... the things I'd said and done to make you feel like you were her substitute-" he looked away, his hands clamping around his arms tightly, "-we never really got the chance to work all that out. There were days and weeks sometimes where I was sure you weren't ever coming back because I never got the chance to prove myself to you. It's been a long time since then. I hope you've finally figured out that I never saw you as Kikyou. Not once."

It was silent for a few minutes and then, "Inuyasha," she murmured, "I... I don't know if I'll ever really be able to believe that you aren't seeing her in me. I jus-" she broke off at his impatient sound.

"Dammit, Kagome! I told you once before, back in the very beginning that you had it all wrong, woman – and you still do." Frustrated, the hanyou growled. "I don't want this hanging over our heads for the rest of our lives, you know?"

Ruefully, Kagome nodded, looking down at her fingers as they knotted into her skirt. "Inuyasha... it doesn't matter anymore. I promised to stay by your side, and I didn't make provisions in that promise. I didn't say you had to love me, Kagome, or I'd leave. I came back to be by your side, and that's what I mean to do. Nothing else matters."

Squeezing his eyes shut, hurt, Inuyasha shook his head. "No. I don't want you to stay with me just because you promised. I want you to stay because you want to – because you... love me, like I love you," he whispered. "If you can't get past this fixation with Kikyou, then... we won't ever be more than friends, Kagome. I won't be with you while you're thinking I want you to be someone else."

Kagome jerked back as if shot, hardly able to believe what he'd just said. He'd... reject me? "I... I don't understand," she almost whimpered.

Inuyasha looked up at the sky, his eyes glittering sadly. "Did you know that I made two wishes back then? When we were facing the Tama?"

She gasped. "What?!"

"Aa. In my heart... I asked that Kikyou find peace - and that you would stay by my side. I made two wishes – for two different people. If I had really wanted her back I could have wished that, instead. I didn't – because all I ever wanted was for her to find peace. I wanted a hell of a lot more than that from you, though, Kagome," he continued, pain etched into his voice. "I still do... more than ever. But if you insist on bringing Kikyou into this, then I'll stay alone – 'cause a marriage wasn't meant to have three people in it."

Dumbfounded, all Kagome could do was stare at him, eyes wide and defenseless. "Inuyasha," she breathed, unable to articulate anything else in her shock.

"Keh." He looked over at her, then. "I know... that most of this is my fault. I said and did a lot of stupid shit back then, Kagome. I know it, you know it, hell, everyone knows it. But despite that, I want to try to fix your faith in me. Can it be fixed?" he asked solemnly.

The silence around them deepened as Kagome stared into his eyes, spellbound at what she was seeing. In that moment, she knew without a shred of doubt that he was looking at her, Kagome. And it was the most wonderful feeling in the world.

Finally, she answered. "It isn't my faith in you that needs to be restored, Inuyasha. It's my faith in myself."

I hadn't realized... but that... it's true. It's my faith in myself that's broken, not in Inuyasha. I never lost faith in him.

It was his turn to look surprised. "What do you mean?"

"All that stuff that happened, back then... I lost my faith in myself – and it wasn't just because of the things you did or said," she admitted. "I felt worthless – because I wasn't Kikyou. I didn't know how to function in this world and I feared that you wouldn't respect me because of that. And then, here comes Kikyou, a miko, one who knew your world and how to survive in it. She didn't need a babysitter," Kagome said, an echo of old bitterness and pain in her voice.

She was startled at the sound of a hand hitting flesh and looked over at Inuyasha, who'd smacked his hand into his head in frustration.

"Kagome, you have Kikyou on more of a damn pedestal than I ever did. Fuck's sake! The woman wasn't perfect, and hell, even she needed protection." He glanced at her sideways. "You should know that... look at what happened in that priestess sealer cave."

Startled again, Kagome looked at him wide-eyed. "How...?"

"Kikyou told me... one of the last times I spoke to her before she... died again. Point is, if you hadn't been there she would have died then, and all because she wasn't paying attention. She shoulda known better. And what about the time you purified Naraku's damn miasma from her? She couldn't do it. But you could." He shook his head, silver glinting in the moonlight. "In my world, this place, everyone needs backup. People to help them. Hell, even Sesshoumaru, though he'd never admit it. One person alone will eventually run into something they can't handle by themselves."

Kagome thought about his words, she really did... and somehow they made her feel better. Because everything he was saying was true. He wasn't just saying them.

"You're right," she finally sighed. "I never realized that I was doing that... you know, holding Kikyou up and comparing myself to her all the time."

"Feh... if you want the truth, I never wanted you to be like Kikyou. If you were, you'd have been demanding I turn human before you'd ever touch me."

She blinked, startled. She'd never thought of that before, either. And that one she couldn't deny, because he'd always hated the thought of turning human. He'd mentioned before how she was the only one to ever accept him as a hanyou. She knew that meant a lot to him.

A quiet sigh filtered from her and she cast a sidelong glance at him, remorse in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Inuyasha. For being so dense. It's going to take me a little while to regain my belief in myself. But... I'll try."

"Don't try. Just do it." He turned to look at her, meeting her subdued gaze with that same expression she'd seen in his eyes earlier. "I don't want to have to be alone forever, Kagome. Especially since you're actually here. We were born to meet each other - and to be together." With that, he leaned over and touched his lips so gently to hers, sliding his mouth along her full bottom lip with such tenderness it made her cry.

"Inuyasha," she gulped in a small voice as he pulled away to look at her.

He smiled a little, sliding the back of a hand along her cheek. "Keh. You know what I want from you, Kagome. When you're ready to let go of Kikyou's shadow then let me know, okay? I'll wait for you. Hell, I'd wait forever. But I'd prefer youdidn't take forever, you know?"

She nodded. "Okay."

All was not right in their world, but it was a damn sight better than it had been. While it would take time for Kagome to heal from his careless words and her own disbelief in herself, at least now she would.

It was only a matter of time.

And Inuyasha had plenty of that.

~oOo~

A/N: And there we have it. I feel like that's a little more realistic when it comes to any possible relationship between the two – after all, as someone who just reviewed Kiss Me Goodbye said, and I quote, 'They didn't confront Inuyasha's feelings or Kagome's pain, Inuyasha didn't have to ever make a choice, he just got three years by himself to decide that he didn't want to be lonely... and then Kagome came back! She wins by default and they both just accept the situation. ' Very well put, I say, and I totally agree. (And yes, I left the end deliberately vague, there will be a sequel.)

Amber