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Became by susie

The Game

Hojo woke alone in the flimsy tent he had bought last weekend for their annual camping trip.  The one he had used for years was still in good condition, but it was small; and he had high hopes this year. 

Ever since they were twelve, he had been the lone male escort to the four childhood friends, and they would spend one night of their holiday break from school sleeping under the stars and basking in the serene solitude near the mountain’s base. 

There was no homework, no city noise... no parents.  Kagome and her classmates were responsible enough to be trusted without adult supervision, but their safety was still their families’ top concern.  So, at their mothers’ request, Hojo had been invited to serve as their protection from any possible dangers that could come to the girls during their night away from home. 

He was always a perfect gentleman; and there was nothing about the fresh-faced young teen that stirred any worry that he would behave inappropriately.  He was harmless; which earned well concealed pity from Mrs.  Higurashi. 

He was a dear boy, and obviously head over heels for her only daughter.  She wouldn’t have minded a bit if Kagome had granted him a date.  But even though he was often permitted to take her to dances, or movies, or trips to the arcade, it was clear that Kagome’s only interest in the polite young man was that of a platonic nature.  Especially after she began making trips to the past, to spend time adventuring with her much more exciting new acquaintances. 

It was funny to her now; thinking that Hojo could possibly offer any protection to the now seasoned young camper.  Fighting demons in the past, and serving as defacto den mother to her pack on noble travelers would probably see Kagome out preforming even the highest-ranking eagle scout.  But they had been making this trip together for years now, and it was tradition at this point. 

This year, however, things were different.  It was the last year of high school, and Yuka’s mother had arranged a week-long Christmas vacation for the girls, inviting them to come along with her daughter to visit her auntie in The States. 

Kagome was the only one who had turned down the generous offer.  A week was too long, and Naraku was only a few shards away from completing the jewel.  She had to get back to the past as soon as possible. 

With the other three gone, Hojo saw a golden opportunity to finally get some time alone with the girl he had been smitten with since childhood.  Kagome was resistant to the idea at first, but his persistence paid off, and she agreed to come to the familiar camping spot with her long-time friend.  They would graduate this year, and be going their separate ways to college.  It only seemed right to make the trip this last time. 

Hojo had other plans, however.  He bought himself a tent that would be much more comfortable for two, and tried to subtly persuade his companion to bunker down and huddle for warmth.   He was more than a little disappointed when he came to pick her up, and she had elected to bring her own personal tent, as she had done every other year.  But he was no cad.  If Kagome wanted to sleep alone, he would respect her wishes. 

He hadn’t meant to sleep so long, but considering how late they stayed up the night before, it wasn’t wholly unexpected.  They had sat together by the fire, keeping warm as they toasted marshmallows and regaled each other with exciting ghost stories.  Kagome’s were always the most terrifying... and gory.  And this year was no different.  He did his best to keep his fear in check as the night went on, while she described graphic tales of death and demons in the woods.  Where did she come up with this stuff? 

He stepped out of his tent, rubbing his hands together as his breath resembled a steam engine train.  After a quick survey of their campgrounds, it appeared that Kagome was late to rise as well. 

“Higurashi?” he called out, but received no answer.  Packing up camp would take some time, and the drive back home was long.  They would need to eat their breakfast soon and begin gathering their belongings if they wanted to be off the road before it got dark. 

After a moment of resignation, he cautiously zipped back the flap, and peered inside her shelter.  He was worried she might be cross with him for invading, but found no relief when the only sight that greeted him was an overstuffed backpack and an empty sleeping bag. 

A second surveying of the grounds finally alerted him to the solitary set of small footprints in the freshly fallen snow that appeared to make a lap or two around the cooled off fire pit.  Looking to the side, he saw where she finally broke from the camp, and disappeared into the thick woods that encompassed the clearing. 

‘Where did she go?  Must’ve had to pee,’ he surmised. 

Unconcerned, he grabbed a couple of cold logs that had been wrapped and protected from the snow, and added them to the burned pile in the pit.  They were dry, but the wood was still cold.  It took him a few minutes to get them heated enough to ignite, but finally succeeded.  Pleased with his progress, he remained near the flames as he readied some water to boil.  Hopefully, he could have their breakfast started before she got back. 

Once the water was ready, he returned his gaze to the cluster of trees for what felt like the thousandth time.  Pulling out his cell phone, he could see that it had been well over twenty minutes since he discovered her absence, and she still hadn’t returned.   Paranoia was setting in, and he confirmed that his cell had no service. 

‘Where would you go off to all by yourself?’ 

Though the sun was high, the woods were thick.  He pulled his flashlight out of his pack, and assured himself that he still had his pocket knife on him, before following the trail of her footprints and beginning his search. 

Her prints told a story. They were placed deliberately.  Purposefully.  There was no hesitance in her meandering, no uncertainty in her steps.  It looked like she knew where she was going, and he wanted to know why.  They had been to this clearing many times, but didn’t often venture far off the beaten path.  He wondered what could be out there, and what she was looking for. 

The trees around him were leafless; appearing lifeless, as the weight of the snow caused the thinner branches to bow and bend, and creak in relief when a clump of the white slush would alleviate the pain and drop down to the ground around them. 

This wasn’t right.  There was nothing out here.  But the prints continued on, far off into the distance.  He pushed his encroaching fear as far back as he could, and simply focused on following her steps. 

He was listening hard for any sounds ahead, but only his own ragged breath echoed off the mountainside.  He must have been walking for half a mile, and the sweat from the trek only enhanced the effects of the freezing temperatures. 

He did a double take as his eyes traveled ahead in their course, and he jogged to the spot up ahead to confirm his frightening suspicions.  From the brush to his side, a second set of prints joined hers down the path.  They were not side by side. The new set of prints told him that they had been made after hers had been put down. 

Calling on his old scout training, he recognized the shape of the paws, and a painful shudder shot through him.  

‘It's a wolf!... A big wolf!’ 

He pulled his meager knife from his pocket, and flipped it into position. 

He quickened his pace as he followed the trail; only restraining his speed enough to keep from tripping over haphazard roots. 

‘This is bad.’ 

Did she know it was behind her?  Did she get away?  Kagome was smart.  Perhaps she was able to scare it off.  He was optimistic by nature, but couldn’t stop the images of the girl he loved being stalked and pounced on by a vicious predator overcoming his jangled mind. 

It was imperative that he reach her, and fast.  But he stopped in his tracks as the story in the snow unfolded.  His heart tore in his chest, and he realized that her fan club had now doubled.  A third set of prints had appeared on the path out of nowhere. 

But these... This wasn’t another wolf.   

He had never seen any tracks like these.  They almost resembled a dog’s, but that was impossible.  They were big.  Too big.  Confusion barely overpowered his fear as he tried to conjure up images of what could possibly make prints that large. 

He had to keep himself from retching in the snow as his traitorous mind supplied that he might be searching for a corpse at this point.  But despite his consuming fear, he gripped his knife tighter and discarded his flashlight. 

The space between her footprints grew, and his pulsed raced further still.  He knew what that meant.  She had started to run.  So he did the same, as fast as he could go in their direction. 

He was led off the barer path and into the thick of the forest, and still no signs of life, other than the imprinted evidence in the snow.  His heart roaring in his ears was the only noise he could hear, and his palm ached from tension as he squeezed his dulled weapon. 

It was getting harder to discern the prints, but he started as he noticed that they were suddenly back down to two sets.  He crinkled his brow and tried to conceive of how.  Kagome’s were still there, and he released a heavy sigh at the realization.  But the wolf’s were nowhere to be found.  It was as if he just...disappeared.  How could that be? 

He looked around for clues.  But no blood... no struggle... no bodies.  How could a wolf just vanish into thin air? 

He slowed his pace as he tentatively continued on.  The larger prints kept going, and so did hers.  But this time, they were side by side. 

He could see that the larger prints had vanished up ahead, and he jogged to that spot in the snow to investigate.  Two sets of prints still remained, but where the dog-like prints had vanished, a new set of bigger human prints appeared. 

He stopped, and looked up the trail, and saw that the two sets of prints continued far off into the distance, but he would follow no further. 

He returned to camp, and packed it up.  When she hadn’t arrived by dark, he left the woods, never to return. 

 

********* 

A/N:  Inspired by the Atmosphere song  

 

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