It had been six months since the well had reappeared, delivering Kagome back to her own time.
Six months since she'd watched shock creep over Inuyasha's face when he realized he was being pulled back into the well.
Six months of trying every single day to get back to him.
Six months since… that kiss.
Most nights, Kagome lay in bed crying, unable to sleep, replaying their last moments over and over again. The moment when Inuyasha had found her floating in the darkness. The moment he had pulled her into his arms. The moment he had kissed her with such relief and tenderness etched across his handsome face.
He'd given her the strength to make the one true wish that freed them both from the hell they'd been trapped in.
So why? Why had the well stopped working?
She replayed those last moments over and over again. Dissecting them with a scientific brutality, trying to piece together the reason for what had happened, hoping she could find a solution that would allow her to go back through.
And every night, as the thoughts rolled over and over in her mind, she wept silent tears of longing and frustration against her pillow, eventually falling asleep like that, unable to think anymore…
And that's when the dreams would begin.
The enveloping blackness. The despair. The loneliness. The absolute hollowness of knowing that she was alone. That Inuyasha would not – could not – come for her. The dream would repeat all night long. She'd call out for him in the darkness, but would only ever hear the mocking call of her own echo in return.
"Good morning, Tokyo! Today's weather looks to be sunny but cool with a slight chance of rain in the afternoon.."
Kagome's alarm jolted her out of the dream. She felt as though she hadn't rested at all. But then again, she hadn't really had a good night's sleep since she'd been back.
Dragging herself up and out of the house, she floated mindlessly through another day of high school. She should have been happy. This was what she'd studied so hard for, fought with Inuyasha so many times over. Getting accepted into high school should have been a triumph. But her grades were suffering, she knew, and her friends were worried about her.
Looking down the hallway as she stood in front of her final class of the day, Kagome saw Ayumi, Eri and Yuka walking towards her with three matching too-bright smiles pasted to their faces.
"Hi, you guys." Kagome tried to sound cheery, but her smile didn't quite make it to her eyes.
Ayumi spoke up first. "The three of us wanted to know if we could come over to your place after school and just… you know… hang out and catch up."
Kagome rubbed her arm and looked away towards the floor. "Oh, I don't know. I'm not really feeling in the mood for that today."
All three girls eyed each other silently. They hadn't yet told Kagome what they'd seen. Arriving at her home to find the well had disappeared. Her mother, brother, and grandfather yelling at the ground where it once had been. And then the voice of Kagome's bad-boy boyfriend coming up from under the earth swearing that he was going to find her and bring her back.
When Kagome had finally reappeared at school a few days later they'd wanted to ask her about it then, but Kagome had looked so sad and broken – like a shell of herself – that they couldn't bring themselves to do it.
But the days had run into weeks, and weeks into months, and Kagome's mood had not gotten any better.
And so the three friends had decided amongst themselves that, even if they had to force her, they were going to make her tell them what had happened. They were her best friends after all, and they wanted to help.
It was Yuka who finally spoke the words that all three girls were thinking. "Look, Kagome. We see how sad you are, and we're here for you. We're coming home with you after school today whether you want us to or not!"
Kagome looked at all three of her friends then. Tears began filling her eyes, but she quickly blinked them away when the bell rang, signalling the beginning of the last class of the day.
"Okay," she finally conceded with a slow nod. "I'll meet the three of you back here at the end of school."
"Great! See you then!" said Eri. She continued with a smirk, "And don't even THINK of trying to leave without us. You know we'll just follow you home and barge right into your bedroom anyway."
Kagome did smile then, a half-smile anyway. "I know, I know…" She looked her friends in the eyes, grateful for their constant friendship, before turning on her heel and heading through the door into class.
"Just let me know if you need anything else, girls!" Ms. Higurashi called over her shoulder as she headed back downstairs.
"Thanks, mom!" Kagome called after her.
The four girls were seated around Kagome's bedroom. Kagome sat on her desk chair, faced towards her bed. Yuka had taken a seat cross-legged in the middle of Kagome's pink bedspread, while Ayumi and Eri sat on the floor, one beside the bed, the other under the window, knees pulled up under their chins.
"So…" Kagome looked down at the floor, unsure of what to say. She rubbed her hands over her knees in a nervous gesture.
The three friends shared another look between them. It was Yuka who then nodded to the other two. They'd already spoken amongst themselves, deciding on the tactic they thought would most likely crack Kagome out of her shell, forcing her to talk with them.
"We know what happened," Yuka said bluntly.
At those words, Kagome's eyes shot up from the floor. She looked between the unwavering stares of all three of her friends.
"What…?" She said in a hoarse whisper. "I don't know what you're talking about…" But even as the words left her lips, Kagome could tell that her friends knew she was lying.
It was Ayumi who took pity on her. "We were here, you know. All three of us. We came to look for you when you missed the high-school entrance ceremony. When we got here we found your family crowded in the well shrine, yelling at the bare spot on the ground where the well used to be." Ayumi motioned with her hand towards the window that faced the well shrine. "Then we heard your… boyfriend's… voice coming up from under the ground telling your family that he was going to get you back."
Kagome sat there for a long moment, completely dumbfounded. "But… you never…" She trailed off, processing Ayumi's words. Finally, she looked up. "They never told me."
"And we never asked," said Eri. "To be honest we were just too relieved when you showed back up at school one day, and we figured they must have mentioned something about us being there, and that you'd just come and talk to us about it when you were ready. Did your mom really never tell you we were there when it happened?"
"No," Kagome shook her head. "But I guess I can understand why. We've all been hurting. I haven't talked too much with them about what happened either. Not even with my mom."
Yuka piped up again then. "We want you to tell us everything, Kagome. I mean it, from the start to the finish. No matter what, we'll believe you. You can trust us. And after what we saw and heard that day, I don't think there's anything that you can say that we wouldn't believe. We're here for you."
Everything that Kagome had been holding so tightly inside herself for six long months broke free then. Massive shuddering sobs wracked her body as she slid from her chair down to the floor, hugging her arms tightly around her shaking body as though trying to hold her very soul together.
All three girls huddled around her, hugging her, allowing her to cry out her pain.
When Kagome's tears finally slowed, it was Eri who spoke next. "Are you ready?"
With a slow nod, Kagome dried her cheeks and began. "It all started on my 15th birthday…"
It was late when Kagome finally finished telling her friends everything. They'd taken a break at one point to eat something, giving all three girls a chance to call their parents and let them know that they were staying the night at Kagome's.
Ms. Higurashi had brought up some tea and a tray of late-night snacks before she herself had retired for the night. She'd been planning on reminding the girls not to stay up too late, that they had school in the morning, but when she saw the tear tracks staining Kagome's face, her heart broke. She understood then what the four girls were doing up so late, and if letting them stay up all night would help her poor daughter even a little, then she'd happily let them be.
The four girls sat silently for a while, sipping their tea.
It was Yuka who finally broke the silence. "But… I don't get it. Where are they now?"
"Huh?" Kagome looked at her friend.
"Well, you said that these youkai were practically immortal, that they lived for hundreds of years, right? It's only been 500 years or so since the Sengoku Jidai. If you really are trapped back on this side of the well, why haven't your friends come to look for you?"
"Yeah," said Eri. "I mean Shippō at the very least should've come to find you by now, right? He was only a little kid back then. He should definitely still be around today."
Kagome hadn't even thought about that. Were her friends still out there somewhere? Surely Shippō must still be alive. And Sesshōmaru. Could maybe even Inuyasha be–?
Her thoughts didn't get any further down that track before Ayumi spoke up. "But…" she said tentatively as a shadow crossed her face. "There are no youkai."
Kagome was confused. "What do you mean? Yes, there are. I just told you—"
Ayumi cut her off. "No, I know what you told us, and I believe you. What I mean is that, if you hadn't just told us the truth, if you hadn't fallen down that well, then all of us would've lived our lives believing that there was no such thing as magical creatures. That youkai were nothing more than a fairytale."
All four girls thought about that for a second longer before Ayumi continued. "Kagome, think about it. All those times that Inuyasha saved you when he came to our time, did any of those involve youkai?"
She thought about it. The Noh mask had been possessed by a shard of the jewel in the past before being sealed away. The ghost of Mayu was just that, a ghost. And the mindless youkai that had crashed the school's cultural festival had come back with her as dried foods from the past.
"No," Kagome said finally. "None of the battles Inuyasha fought here were with youkai that had originated in our world."
"So then… Where are they all? What happened to them?" Ayumi asked.
"I don't… I don't know!" The more Kagome thought about it, the more her heart sank into her stomach. Her friends were right. If Shippō, or Kirara, or any of them were still around, then surely they would've come looking for her by now.
It was Eri that spoke next. "What if…? What if something happened to them? Between then and now, I mean."
They were all silent for a moment, considering this. Then Yuka voiced the question she'd been pondering since Ayumi first spoke. "And what if it's not just youkai?"
Three sets of eyes turned to look at her.
Yuka explained, "An entire species can't have been restricted to just our tiny island. I mean, come on. That's unrealistic. We've all read the myths and stories in Literature and English classes. We've seen the movies. All over the world, there are folk tales about youkai-like beings. So, what if youkai were just called youkai here in Japan, but really these beings were… everywhere?"
Kagome blinked rapidly. "You think…? You think they're all real? All the world's folk tales? But some of those stories – some of those creatures described by other cultures – sound nothing like youkai."
Ayumi piped up then. "Well, a few hundred years ago, humans didn't even think that other humans were the same species! I mean, western conquerors thought Africans were so different that they convinced themselves they were another species, right? Only they weren't, of course…"
Eri continued. "If this is true… If all magical creatures are just different types of what we here in Japan called youkai… And if all of them are gone everywhere on earth…" She trailed off, letting her words hang in the air around the four girls.
It was too much for Kagome. "No! I can't accept that! It isn't possible! They can't just be gone. HE can't just be gone…"
Her voice hitched as her tears threatened to pour forth again. She closed her eyes against them, then whispered. "I have to go back. No matter what happens, I have to get back to them."
Ayumi, Eri and Yuka all looked from one to the other. They knew without needing the words that if the well ever opened again, their friend wouldn't hesitate to return to that world and never look back.
"Well…" Yuka began slowly, then continued, her voice firm. "Then I guess we have a lot of work to do."
"Work?" Kagome questioned, blinking a few times. "I don't understand. What do you mean?"
Yuka continued. "Well, if you're planning to go back there, then you can't just sit around here. We need to come up with a plan! Even if what we fear isn't the case – that they haven't gone extinct – what kind of friends would we be if we let you go back there without helping you prepare for the journey first?"
"Prepare?" Kagome felt like an idiot, dazed as she was by her friend's words, but Eri seemed to understand what Yuka was getting at.
"Yeah, Kagome! Prepare. You know, keeping up with practicing your archery, maybe take some sword-fighting classes or some self-defence classes. I know they have a competitive archery club at school…." Eri was getting excited just thinking about it.
Ayumi got in on the fun then, too. "Yeah, Kagome. And we can help you with research! If you're going to go back there you need to be prepared. We can help you research as much as we can about different youkai. We can even help you research other myths and stories from around the world. They might give us a clue on how you might be able to get back!"
Kagome couldn't help but feel her heart swell with her friends' willingness to help her. She smiled. "Well, I guess you're right…" But doubt quickly crept back in. She turned her eyes back down to the floor before saying, "But the well still doesn't work."
Yuka wouldn't let her friend fall back into despair. "You have to keep trying, Kagome! Don't give up. Try the well once a week. Don't stop. And in the meantime, we'll help you. Heck! I've always wanted to take a self-defence class anyway!"
All three girls nodded at Kagome, urging her with their eyes not to give up.
And for the first time in six long months, Kagome felt a small flicker of hope ignite inside her heart.