Continuing Tales

Chasing Methuselah

A InuYasha Story
by Sandra E

Part 9 of 13

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Chasing Methuselah

As I was going up the stair

I met a man who wasn't there

He wasn't there again today

I wish, I wish he'd stay away.

-Hughes Mearns, The Psychoed

He dreamt, therefore, he existed.

He had enemies, therefore, he had a purpose. He had needs, therefore, he was alive.

But as Miroku-who was currently nursing a serious headache-opened his eyes, he certainly didn't feel alive.

Every bone in his body hurt. His muscles were taut with tension, stretched to breaking. His temples were throbbing, his chest felt oddly heavy, his back was just begging for a geisha's touch, and-

And the dreams.

Miroku could vaguely remember certain snippets-images and sounds, none remotely appropriate or innocent-all of which seemed to feature one unvarying constant.

Kagome.

Kagome, climbing into his lap. Kagome, addicted to his touch.

Effortlessly, Miroku could recall watching her as she closed her eyes and came through and buried her head in his shoulder. Could remember his own voice-that one soft, desperate groan, half lost and muffled by her slippery skin, knowing she wanted him, liked it, liked it when he touched her, liked curling up under him and crying, crying, crying his name over and over and over.

He could remember being on the brink, brimming, teeming, ready to fall in and spill over from leaning in and out.

And then, of course, no.

No.

The dreams were... normal, he told himself. A healthy man, traveling with women-why, it was practically habitual. He could easily have replaced her face, if he so wished. Which... he did. So, he would. He would replace her face.

Tomorrow.

Because it was wrong.

He respected her. He didn't want to use her. Didn't want to mend his troubled mind with senseless (though, admittedly, extremely enjoyable) physicality. Not with a nice, hot, wet-

Not that he'd get a chance to, anyway. She was in love with Inuyasha. And that was... that was how it was supposed to be. Destiny, fate, Buddha's will, whatever. So, he wouldn't. Next time, he wouldn't enjoy his little cerebral escapades so much. He wouldn't.

Besides, there were other things Miroku needed to worry about.

The weather (they'd been traveling through an icy snowfield in search of a shard), food, and, well... his impending death.

He just... couldn't think about it. He'd spent years searching for an answer, knowing all the while his efforts were most likely quite useless. But he hadn't given up. Because he was good at fighting. And-and he was...

Tired.

He'd had more than the recommended amount of sleep-comfortable, soft mat and sunny, bluebird mornings-but he felt far from awake. Rested, yes. Relaxed, maybe. Awake? No. It seemed like there were layers of dust on top of an old, wooden trunk that was his mind, its surface beyond dulled; routine and ruts and stairwells with no end in sight.

And it was so frustrating, this not waking up.

He needed something, he knew.

That revitalizing spark of something that he was lacking. It was right in front of him, dangling before his face, but he just couldn't put his finger on it and-

"Miroku-sama," came a cheerful voice, "you're going to freeze to death. And then, five hundred years from now, someone's going to excavate you and wonder what kind of a mental problem forced you to sit barefoot in the snow."

Miroku jumped up from where he'd been meditating, surrounded by a thin blanket of snow. "Kagome-sama," he burst out, pleasantly surprised. "When did you return?"

Kagome yawned. "Inuyasha got me a few hours ago. I guess we're looking for a shard?"

"As usual," nodded Miroku, tilting his head happily. Kagome was standing there, wearing her short little kimono and shivering. "I suppose I won't be alone when they find me."

Kagome wrapped her arms around herself, her lips turning blue. "Well, it's not my fault. No one told me we were going to Antarctica!" she pouted. "And... how are you? Are your wounds better? Did Inuyasha bother you too much? Did Kaede make you take those antibiotics I left with her? Did you-"

Suddenly oddly gratified, Miroku rose. "Excellent. Yes. No. Yes. And please, Kagome-sama, let us return before Inuyasha accuses me of trying to put you in harm's way. Again."

Kagome paused, blushing. "Um. Has he been doing stuff like that a lot lately?"

Miroku frowned, dusting snowflakes off his sleeve. "Inuyasha has been acting somewhat peculiar, yes."

For instance, he'd been watching Miroku like a hawk. And sniffing Miroku's robes, then narrowing his eyes suspiciously, muttering, 'Same scent-' and being exceptionally grouchy and-

"I'm sorry," said Kagome sheepishly, then smiled cheerfully. "Sango-chan is waiting for us at the cabin... er... hut... er... I don't know what to call it. It has four walls, but that's about it."

Miroku grinned, nodding. "This area isn't exactly inhabitable. We're lucky to have found shelter, regardless of its... less than attractive interior."

Kagome scrunched up her nose. "Too bad there're no nice inns with ominous clouds over them. Woe!"

A heavy weight seemed to slide off of Miroku's shoulders. "And where's Inuyasha?"

"Oh, he dragged Shippou off to look for food," said Kagome happily, pausing near a snow-covered tree trunk and poking it. "Erm, I mean, Shippou volunteered... or something."

Miroku watched her dig her fingers into the snow, his robes tightening. "Ah," he said awkwardly.

Her short little kimono. That was it. Distracting. Nothing more to it. He'd react like this to anyone. Anyone.

"Sheesh," she mumbled, "how do people survive here? Without getting cabin fever and going on killing sprees, I mean."

They don't, he wanted to say, but the moment he opened his mouth, Kagome bent down to pick up more snow.

Killing me.

"There's a hot spring," he heard himself say. Oy.

"What?" asked Kagome, patting the snow into a ball with a look of innocent concentration.

Miroku tried to control himself. "Onsen. Straight down that path over there and... Kagome-sama, you must be extremely uncomfortable."

"Huh?"

"I imagine your time has devised its own way of combating cold climates-"

"Well, yeah-"

"-so, in lieu of advanced conveniences, I suggest we take a nice, hot bath."

Kagome froze, dropping her snowball. "Um. Together?"

"Naturally," said Miroku virtuously. "Someone must be with you in case the demon...nh..." he trailed off. Because-

"Hmm," said Kagome, starting down the path, "I did have a pretty long day, what with the museum and... everything, and I suppose I-okay!"

And she was off, bouncing ahead of him. Miroku blinked, looked around for signs of, well... a hallucination, then-upon finding none-followed after Kagome.

"What's the catch?" he asked warily as he caught up with her. The hot spring bubbled before them.

"No catch," said Kagome softly. "I trust you. And-ah! Warm!"

And so, pleased and puzzled, Miroku joined her, dipping his feet into the hot water. They chatted aimlessly for a long time, discussing various, insignificant events that had happened in her absence, and Miroku found himself quite... content. They hadn't taken their clothes off, but...

Kagome was sitting beside him in silence as he listened to the steady plunk of melting ice. His bare feet were scratching against the wet, cooling rocks; small, foamy waves were dancing around their ankles, and-

"Do you think Sango-chan would hate it if you became interested in, say, Koharu?"

Miroku blinked. "Koharu?"

Kagome jumped. "Ah... um, yeah. I don't know why I actually said that out loud. Did I say it out loud?"

Miroku's features softened. "I wouldn't have heard you otherwise." He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, then asked, "Was that a rhetorical question?"

Kagome flushed. "It was. Until you made it... non-rhetorical."

Miroku wondered if Inuyasha would mind if he took Kagome, right here, right now. "Why?"

Kagome squirmed.

Miroku grinned at her with his usual crooked charisma. "Why, Kagome-sama?"

Kagome wiggled her little toes one last time, and-

Plop.

Miroku wiped the snow off his face.

"Are you trying to subtly change the topic?" he asked, amused.

Must. Not. Pounce.

"No," giggled Kagome, preparing another snowball. "Whatever gave you that idea?"

So, instead of replying, Miroku retaliated. Soon, they'd succeeded in getting themselves twisted in a tangle of limbs. Miroku hadn't stopped to think how childish and immature he was acting (and feeling). Hadn't stopped to notice his headache was gone. Hadn't stopped to realize how alive he felt. All that mattered was that Kagome's body was warm and his hands weren't and-

"Is it just me, or are they touching a lot lately?" asked a familiar voice.

"Shut the fuck up, runt!" came another familiar voice.

Miroku froze; one hand stuffing snow down Kagome's back, the other gripping her thigh.

"Eep!" squealed Kagome, pushing Miroku off. "Inuyasha! Shippou-chan! This-not what it looks like!"

"It looks like fun," sniffled Shippou, glaring at Inuyasha. "I froze my tail off trying to catch fish with him."

Him-Inuyasha-was shaking with rage.

Miroku waited a moment for a coherent response. When none came, he raised an eyebrow and helped Kagome up, deciding to assist in ridding her of snow, as well.

"STOP-TOUCHING-HER-MONK!" snarled Inuyasha loudly.

Miroku glanced around, wondering whether the hanyou had started an avalanche somewhere.

"Inuyasha, it's okay-" began Kagome. "No! I mean, no. It's not okay," she turned to Miroku, scowling, though her cheeks appeared peculiarly bright. "Just-ugh-sit!"

Inuyasha slammed into the snow, leaving a rather interesting imprint, in Miroku's opinion.

"Oh, not you!" shrieked Kagome in distress, rushing to Inuyasha's side. Miroku frowned.

Inuyasha muttered a curse.

Kagome whimpered sheepishly. "I'm sorry. I forgot. Your wounds. I'm sorry, Inuyasha."

Something very petty, very uncharacteristically unforgiving found its way from Miroku's mind to his lips. "I wouldn't worry so much, Kagome-sama," he said calmly, as Shippou scurried up his shoulder. "Inuyasha's been well enough to travel great distances in search of... shards while you were gone. Weren't you, Inuyasha?"

Inuyasha was silent for the entirety of the short journey back.

Once reunited with Sango and Kirara, Kagome and Shippou helped out with dinner preparations. Soon, Miroku was back to his old self, feeling better than he had in days. The fish was delicious, the company more so (well, with the exception of a growling dog and a purring kitsune), and-

"Should we build a fire or something?" asked Kagome when the hour grew late. "Because... freezing."

"We don't have sufficient ventilation here," answered Sango, shivering. "A fire would suffocate us."

"So... how are we going to, well... not die?"

The group grew silent.

"Inuyasha," said Sango, rubbing her temples exasperatedly. "Remember when I asked how cold it got here, and you said 'Not colder than the mountains in the Northern Lands, keh'?"

Inuyasha's ears drooped defensively. "It's not MY fault you're all human!"

Shippou huffed indignantly. "I'm cold, too, you know."

Kagome giggled, scooping the little kitsune into her arms. "Don't worry, Shippou-chan," she cooed. "We have enough blankets and covers and hey, you can sleep with me!"

Inuyasha and Miroku twitched simultaneously.

"He can sleep outside," said Inuyasha, sticking out his chin.

Kagome ignored him. "Sango-chan...?"

Sango pondered for a moment. "You and Shippou-chan can sleep here and... here. Kirara and I can sleep in the middle."

"Perhaps I should sleep in the middle," interrupted Miroku ingeniously. "After all, a man's body gives off more heat than a woman's and-"

"You in a hurry to die?" asked Inuyasha, his ears twitching.

Miroku puffed out his chest, offended. "Any better suggestions?"

Inuyasha's face was perfectly blank.

Miroku cheered up. "Then it's decided! I shall-"

"-die a slow, painful death if you come near us," grumbled Sango, giving her boomerang a surreptitious glance. "Shippou-chan, Kagome-chan, and I will share. Surely, that should provide sufficient warmth. You and Inuyasha-"

"No fucking way!" yelped Inuyasha, shaking with rage. "I'm not sleeping with him!"

Kagome and Shippou giggled. Sango coughed, hiding a grin. Miroku, who'd scampered off into his own little fantasy during Sango's 'Kagome-chan and I will share', tuned back in.

"I'll behave," he defended obliviously.

Inuyasha's eyes bugged out. "I don't CARE if you behave or not! I'm sleeping ALONE! On the other side! WITHOUT you!"

Confused and slightly disturbed by Inuyasha's insinuation, Miroku blinked, watching the hanyou stalk off into his corner with a disgusted grimace.

"What'd I miss?" asked Miroku warily as Kagome giggled.

"Wow, Miroku," said Shippou, awed, "you really need to find a mate. I wonder if your attention span would improve if-"

"Shippou-chan!" scolded a blushing Sango. "Sleep. Now."

Shippou giggled and burrowed between Sango and Kagome, completely unaware of the twin glares of intense dislike Inuyasha and Miroku seemed intent on sending his way.

"Well, that's nice," sighed Miroku, "but we still haven't decided where a respectable houshi like myself should rest."

"It's not that cold," said Sango, petting Kirara and curling up next to Shippou. "I'm sure you'll survive, Houshi-sama."

Miroku flinched as her words cut through him, his lips thinning.

Survive.

Suddenly annoyed with everything and everyone, Miroku stared at the floor, and then, with a little push from the overly judgmental voice hidden somewhere deep inside that part of him that refused to grow up, he opened his mouth to assure them (himself) that he would indeed survive-without help-

"Will you really?" asked Kagome softly.

Miroku started. "What?"

Kagome flushed, "Will you behave?" Cheeks pink, she indicated at the fluffy quilts covering the majority of their group. Oh. Oh.

OH!

"Of course!" he said, grinning wildly.

"What? NO!" shrieked Sango. "Kagome-chan, I will NOT-"

Miroku interrupted indignantly. "I don't understand the reasoning behind your reservations. I've been a perfect gentleman for weeks."

"Well, technically," said Kagome thoughtfully, putting a finger to her chin, "you've been... you know... confined to Kaede-baachan's hut..."

"That-that's beside the point," he grumbled, averting his gaze to one of the walls. Go in for the kill. "I thought you trusted me, Kagome-sama."

The gale outside wept loudly.

Floorboards creaked.

The roof shook.

And gingerly, Miroku turned his head.

Sango was yawning as though she hadn't heard him; Shippou had been distracted by what looked like an exhausted moth; and Kagome-

Kagome was looking at him as though she was on the verge of making a monumental decision. Finally, she flushed and looked away, patting the spot next to her with a horrified blush.

Miroku's eyebrows shot up.

What was she-wait. Stop wasting time, idiot!

Quickly, before Kagome could change her mind, Miroku slid in next to her (at a respectable distance, of course), situating himself between the wall and her bundled little body.

"Aee! Kagome-chan-!" shouted Sango, as Inuyasha immediately jumped up, snarling.

"He-he said he'd behave!" said Kagome defensively, her cheeks burning.

"And you've known him for how long?" asked Shippou.

Inuyasha pointed a shaky claw, opening his mouth to protest.

"Inuyasha," interrupted Miroku innocently, making himself extremely comfortable against the wall (and, obviously, Kagome). "You are welcome to join us (except, please don't)."

Inuyasha was incoherent with rage. "You-if-KEH-kill-"

"It's okay, Inuyasha," assured Kagome, "I have very sharp nails."

Miroku backed off a little bit.

Eventually, the group settled back down; Inuyasha reluctantly went back to his corner, mumbling and growling to himself, and pointing at the Tetsusaiga every time Miroku happened to glance his way. Sango, even though she was separated from Miroku by Shippou, Kirara and Kagome, scooted further away, twitching every time Miroku so much as breathed.

Amused, Miroku resisted sleeping on his side. But the temptation. Was. Killing. Him.

Kagome was lying next to him, tense and suspicious and staring at the ceiling, cuddling her white little gorilla, looking delicious and inviting and he. Couldn't. Take. It. Anymore-

"Miroku-sama," whispered a soft voice, "are you cold?"

Miroku's hands froze midair. "...Yes," he lied smoothly.

Kagome shifted on her side, facing him with a worried frown. "Need an extra blanket?"

"I don't think that will be necessary, Kagome-sama," he replied, hoping Inuyasha's hearing was obstructed by the howling wind outside. "If you'd just come a little closer..."

Kagome's cheeks were rosy, her eyes were narrowed inquisitively, and her hair was flying in every direction. Miroku grinned triumphantly. And then, to his disappointment, Kagome... threw a blanket at him.

"Good night, Miroku-sama," she said huffily, fluffing her pillow.

Miroku cleared his throat, sighed, and reached for the knot in his robes.

"What are you doing?" hissed Kagome quietly.

A tiny grin spread over his lips. "Oh! I'm sorry!" he began cheerfully. "Did you want to disrobe me?"

A spider on the wall rolled its eyes.

Kagome closed her eyes, counted to ten, then exhaled. "You can't sleep naked."

"My robes aren't very comfortable to sleep in," reasoned Miroku. "Besides, we'll produce more heat unclothed."

Promptly, he had to duck.

"If I ever even think about vouching for your character... sacrifice me to the wolves, please," she mumbled, her feet kicking his ankles.

"I'm certain Kouga might appreciate that," he said, then frowned.

Kouga.

He'd forgotten all about the wolf. The wolf and his annoying, 'Kagome is MY woman!' spiel. And while he'd admired Kouga's straightforwardness several months before, Miroku found himself incredibly annoyed by the demon's... presumptuousness now.

"We haven't seen Kouga-kun in a while," said Kagome, scrunching up her nose. "I wonder if he's okay."

Miroku stiffened.

"I can hear you, you know," grumbled Inuyasha, banging on the wall. The tiny little mouse that had been playing there shook its head and scurried away with a sigh.

Saddened to find himself grateful for Inuyasha's pettiness, Miroku pulled Kagome's blanket up to his chin, thinking.

Why did he keep forgetting?

Inuyasha, Kouga, Naraku, someone back home. The list of men who wanted something from her was growing longer. And Miroku refused to be added to that stupid list.

He would not use her. He would not-

Kagome yawned.

Miroku found it excessively endearing.

"Good night, Miroku-sama," she whispered sleepily.

Miroku nodded absentmindedly, finding himself genuinely cold now. Consequently, he spent the next few minutes tossing and turning and squirming uncomfortably. Finally, he accidentally slipped into a remarkably comfortable position.

"Miro-kun," mumbled Kagome, half-asleep. "Your toes are cold."

A tiny, sleepy grin tugged his lips upwards. "Mh hmm. Fix it."

"Mh hmm, okay," replied Kagome, and instinctively snuggled into his chest.

Miroku slept well.

Morning dawned quietly.

The wind outside appeared to have calmed during the night. The biting cold seemed practically nonexistent. And-

Inuyasha was hovering over Miroku, who was blinking his eyes open with a drowsy yawn. Inuyasha's face was half-hidden by shadows, and Miroku didn't particularly like the side he could see.

"Didn't we have this conversation before?" asked Inuyasha, his left eyebrow twitching with annoyance.

Miroku stretched, disappointed to find everyone else gone. "That was a long time ago, Inuyasha."

Inuyasha blinked, taken aback. "What are you talking about?"

"Time is very relative, I've learned," replied Miroku, retying his robes and sitting up with a serious expression marring his features.

Inuyasha frowned, unable to disagree. "Stop babbling. Kagome felt the shard last night."

For a short, dangerous moment, Miroku considered responding with the first thing that came to his mind (a very tactless innuendo), but decided he valued his life more. So, instead, Miroku finished dressing, and rejoined the remainder of the group.

Surprisingly, getting the shard wasn't a challenge.

Locating it during a snowstorm, in adverse weather, proved to be trickier. But Kagome's eyes had widened eventually and she'd pointed toward an ice-capped cave, so Inuyasha had disposed of the demon, boasting of easy kills and sulking when Sango's boomerang split the revived demon in half.

It was much later, when they were well on their way back to Kaede's, that Kagome brought up an... unusual question.

"That's almost all of the shards," she said slowly, almost apologetically. "Nearly done."

Inuyasha shrugged noncommittally, rubbing the back of his neck. "Feh."

Miroku could have sworn Kagome had glanced at him before continuing. "So... what happens next?"

"We get back, have some food, and sleep," replied Inuyasha stiffly.

The group continued on in silence.

"But," mumbled Kagome, as Shippou tugged on her sleeve. "What will happen after?"

"After what, Kagome-chan?" asked Sango curiously.

"After we complete the jewel," said Kagome, her words coming out in a worried rush.

The group froze in its tracks.

Kagome fidgeted with her jewel shards. "I mean, we never talk about what we're going to do after."

The group grew silent.

Kagome shrank into herself, but continued in a voice befitting someone much, much stronger, "I know it's not the easiest conversation to have, but we have to-we have to decide if-"

"There's nothing to decide," said Inuyasha, crossing his arms. "We get the jewel, kill Naraku, the end."

Kagome's dark brows drew together, and underneath those thick lashes, she looked entirely too young and too vulnerable to be in love with a seventy year old half-demon. "But what are we going to do with the jewel?"

"We-?"

"Inuyasha," said Kagome, tightening her hold on Shippou, "all of us are here, and-and-" she winced, "-what would you do as a full demon? I know it used to be very important to you, but-but there are so many things we can wish for-lives to save, people to bring back, things to fix-"

Inuyasha started, his eyes widening.

Sango frowned. "Kagome-chan," she said. "What will you do after?"

Miroku glanced up.

"I'm... going to go back home."

Miroku froze.

"Kagome!" cried Shippou.

Inuyasha twitched, and Miroku almost wished the hanyou would say something to change her mind. Of course, even Inuyasha knew he had no say in Kagome's life. Not after the jewel was completed.

For the briefest of moments, Miroku found himself wishing the damn thing would shatter into a million pieces again.

"Kagome-sama," he said, schooling his features. "Perhaps the reason behind our unwillingness to discuss the future is due to the fact that the outcome of our conflict with Naraku is extremely uncertain."

Kagome turned to look at him with the oddest expression. "I know that," she said desperately. "That's why we have to talk about it. How are we going to defeat him? What will happen to Shippou if I can't stay with him? Will Inuyasha remember us once he becomes a demon? What if he doesn't? What if he hurts someone? What if Sango's job becomes to exterminate Inuyasha? How long will Kikyou live without our help? How much does she hate collecting souls? What-what if your kazaana breaks before we defeat Naraku? What if you die? What if-"

"Shut up!" yelled Inuyasha, jumping to his feet and baring his teeth. "Stop it. Stop talking about it like it's complicated."

Sango glowered at him. "What are you talking about, Inuyasha? It is complicated. You made it complicated. You and your indecisiveness."

Inuyasha snapped. "Me? What was I supposed to do? LET you kill your brother? Would that have made it less complicated?"

Kagome's eyes widened as she watched in horror. "No, guys-"

Sango stiffened. "That-he has nothing do to with the source of all our trouble. If it hadn't been for you and Kikyou, Naraku would never have existed!" she said, eyes watering. "My village would still be standing! My father would still be alive! My-"

"No, please-"

Inuyasha seemed ready to burst. "You were the one who was WORKING for the bastard!"

"You were the one who let Kikyou have the shards!"

"You're-you're-"

"STOP IT!" screamed Kagome, standing up and clenching her fists. "We're doing exactly what Naraku wants us to do."

Inuyasha and Sango glanced at her, startled. An uncomfortable silence followed.

Sango was the first to speak. "I'm sorry," she mumbled, eyes downcast. "I didn't mean to-"

"Forget it," harrumphed Inuyasha, sniffling.

Sango flinched. "No, Inuyasha," she said firmly. "I am not afraid to say it. We've all said and done some... less than brilliant things," here, she paused cautiously. "But we're traveling the same road and I refuse to fall for Naraku's dirty tricks again." With a deathly serious expression, Sango continued. "And no matter what happens, I won't leave your side, Inuyasha."

Inuyasha's eyes widened in shock.

"None of us will," she added.

Kagome twisted her hands nervously, bouncing. Shippou peeked behind her shoulder, carefully observing the hanyou. And finally, Inuyasha looked up, scowling, though his eyes were pleasantly narrowed.

"Was that a threat?" he asked.

Sango grinned, Kagome giggled, and Shippou jumped on Inuyasha's head, gnawing happily and waving at Miroku with a delighted, carefree smile. "We'll all be together forever, won't we, Miroku?"

Miroku faltered.

Some of us won't have a choice.

But he pasted a smile and said, in an optimistic, sanguine voice, "Of course."

Two days.

Two days of pleasant, companionable travel. Inuyasha had been in a particularly good mood after acquiring their latest shard; Sango had been fending Kagome off (Takeda's castle was in their direct path, and Kagome was... tireless); Shippou was just happy the tension that had been building up for months within the group seemed to finally evaporate, and-

And Miroku...

Miroku was apprehensive.

No sign of Naraku or Kagura, no news, no attempts to steal their shards... well, it just didn't feel right. A certain sort of cold cynicism was warring with Miroku's inner sense of trust-trust in Inuyasha, trust in karma, trust in his own abilities.

The only time all his private annoyances seemed to be allayed was when-

"-so, you're saying Mushin-sama was your mother's uncle?" asked Kagome, awed.

Miroku was stretching lazily, sprawled on his back and nodding at the clouds overhead. The meadow they'd been resting in was quite relaxing. "Unfortunately, yes."

Kagome giggled, lying on her stomach, plucking at the grass and swinging her legs. "You know, now that I think about it, it's a miracle you didn't grow up to be like your granduncle-the one with six wives-Hiro-sama?"

Miroku glanced at her.

How did she remember all that? And... why?

"Not that having six wives would have been a bad thing," he said, waggling his eyebrows.

Kagome brooded, playing with a dandelion. "It's not the quantity..."

Amused, Miroku cocked his head. "Really? You wouldn't like having six husbands, Kagome-sama?"

Kagome paled, horrified, then smiled brilliantly. "Oh, of course I would. One could cook, one could clean, two or three could go to work-"

Miroku grinned wickedly. "One could-"

"Finish that sentence and die," huffed Kagome, poking his cheek affectionately. Miroku resisted tackling her.

Kagome flushed, clearly caught off guard. She squirmed adorably, but didn't look away. Startled (and oddly aroused), Miroku watched the emotions play across her face-fear and embarrassment and something so new he had trouble recognizing it.

"What?" she mumbled sulkily.

Miroku swallowed. "Nothing. I was just thinking about what you said earlier," he lied.

Kagome drew in a soft breath, sitting up. "And...?"

"I think you're right. Kikyou could be the key to defeating Naraku."

Kagome perked up considerably. "Really?"

"But more importantly-" he began happily. "I'm hungry."

Kagome smiled. "Oh, no! We can only handle one crisis at a time!" she said with mock concern. "Now what will we do?"

Despite his firm resolve to act a little less immature around her, Miroku smiled. "Feed me?"

Kagome swatted him bashfully. "What about-what about that... other thing?"

She was hovering over him, looking delicious, and a different kind of hunger rose within his stomach. "I apologize, Kagome-sama. I forgot," he mumbled, watching her shiny lips. "What was the question?"

Kagome wrinkled her nose, casting a grateful glance at him before changing the topic. "Where-where do you think she is?"

Miroku closed his eyes, placing his hands behind his head. "I don't know. But..."

"...Inuyasha might," she finished.

Discreetly, Miroku observed her. She didn't seem to be hurting. At all. Huh. "Why haven't you asked him, Kagome-sama?" he asked carefully.

"Because he'll never agree to my plan," said Kagome hesitantly.

"What made you think I'd agree to your plan, Kagome-sama?"

"Well... will you?"

"Sadly, yes," sighed Miroku, shaking his head.

Kagome squeed, hugging his arm.

Miroku recovered quickly, and though he really wanted to... reciprocate, he beat a hasty retreat because-because he'd promised.

He'd promised he'd talk to Inuyasha.

So, slightly frustrated (and itchy), Miroku returned to camp, heading straight for Inuyasha's tree. Inuyasha, who'd been napping, hopped down once he spotted him.

"What's wrong?" he asked, sniffing the air and tensing.

Miroku wrinkled his nose sheepishly. "Nothing, per se. I just wanted to talk to you."

Inuyasha groaned. "Look, if this is about that stupid poké thing again-"

"Pocky," corrected Miroku huffily.

"-you should know the runt ate them."

Miroku grinned. "Unfortunately, I have more pressing matters to discuss."

Inuyasha twitched guiltily. "I don't need another lecture from you."

That hadn't been what Miroku had come to discuss, but...

"Inuyasha," he frowned, realizing the hanyou was going to pull him off topic regardless of his determination to finish this conversation quickly. "I have a hard enough time playing my own conscience. I can't play yours, too."

Inuyasha growled, but his ears were flat against his head. "No one asked you to, anyway."

Miroku glanced at him briefly. "There are things you should know," he said. "Because she's not Kikyou."

Inuyasha twitched, dropping into a crouch and folding his hands inside his red haori. "I know that."

"I don't think you do."

Inuyasha gritted his teeth. "And what do you know?"

Miroku sat next to Inuyasha, poking the pebbles on the ground below. I know her, he wanted to say, but composed himself in time. "Where is she?" he asked instead.

Inuyasha remained silent. And now, because Inuyasha seemed intent on not growling out a warning (dangerous, uncharacteristic, frightening anomaly), Miroku interrupted his silence with a muttered "Inuyasha", which was considerably better than, "Idiot."

Inuyasha frowned. "I can't-"

"You don't have to go, Inuyasha," interrupted Miroku. "I'll go alone." Well, not quite.

"Devil's Tower," said Inuyasha, all moody and judicial.

Miroku blinked. "I'd say the name was appropriate, but-"

Inuyasha's eyes narrowed.

"Going now," said Miroku at once, chuckling. "Thank you."

Inuyasha grunted.

Miroku had almost reached the dusty path when Inuyasha called after him. "Miroku."

Miroku turned.

"You can't have Kagome, either."

With a rueful grin, Miroku waved a nonchalant hand.

"I know."

"So, where are we going?" asked Kagome, bouncing giddily.

Miroku pointed his staff west. "Forest near the Devil's Tower."

Kagome bit her lip. "Well... that sounds... I'm sorry. Too easy. I'll let it go."

Miroku raised an amused eyebrow, then suddenly grew serious. "Kagome-sama, are you certain about this? Not telling Inuyasha-"

"It's going to be fine! I have a good feeling about this," she said quickly, tugging at his sleeve.

"But what if we encounter a dangerous-"

"That's why I'm taking you with me," she defended petulantly. With a slight frown, she looked up at him. "I have to talk to her, Miroku-sama."

Miroku's resolve-what little was left of it-dissolved. "Well, I've always wanted to meet Buddha anyway."

Kagome tittered, shaking her head. "Nothing can go wrong. I bet we'll be back before dinner."

And so, even though the air was thick with moisture and the sky seemed weighed down, darkening beneath a massive onslaught of ashen clouds, Miroku lead Kagome through a small field of stone, past tumultuous rapids, and thickening woods.

Finally, after several hours of discussing the importance of life ("Ah, get that stupid spider OFF me, Miroku-sama! Squish it! Squish it now!"), and the beauty of nature ("Kagome-sama, don't point that thing at me! Bees are not friendly creatures!"), the two found themselves at a clearing, blinking at the scene before them.

"Miroku-sama... what are those?" asked Kagome, scooting closer.

Miroku held out his hand protectively. "Demons. But-"

"Hey! Humans!" said the first demon, tapping its companion on the shoulder.

The second demon roused, blinking. "Hey, you're right! So glad I spotted them!"

"What? I spotted them. Me!" shrieked the first demon, and flung itself at the other one.

Miroku and Kagome exchanged bemused glances.

"I think those are... supposed to be the forest guardians," said Miroku, clearing his throat.

Kagome tilted her head. "Should they be so... insane?"

"No," replied Miroku, then shouted at the demons. "Oi!"

The demons stopped struggling and chewing, and looked up.

"Not to interrupt," began Miroku carefully, "but would it be possible for us to enter the forest? We're looking for someone-"

The two demons exchanged glances. The first one hopped off the other, approaching Miroku and Kagome. The second demon followed, sniffing.

"Who are you looking for?"

Kagome twisted her hands nervously. "Kikyou-sama."

"Ah," said the demons together.

"So..." began Kagome.

"So..." replied the demons.

"Can we go in or...?" asked Kagome, flushing as one of the demons sniffed her neck.

"You are... too pure to pass," it said, poking Kagome.

Kagome blinked. "Is that... a bad thing?"

"Yes," said the other demon. "Terrible things happen to the innocents who enter the forest." It nodded slowly, its gaze shifting to Miroku. "You may go in."

Miroku tried not to look so offended.

Kagome gave a soft cough, though Miroku was certain he'd heard her muffled giggle.

"So, um," she began, hiding her face from him, "how can I possibly speak to Kikyou-sama? It's very important that I-"

"Well," interrupted the first demon, "have you considered... killing something?"

Kagome narrowed her eyes at Miroku. "So... you're the mind-reading type of demons, huh?"

Miroku hid a grin. "Kagome-sama is a miko. It goes against her very nature to harm other living creatures."

The two guards seemed contemplative.

"What about stealing?" suggested the second demon. "Would you like to steal something, little human?"

Kagome tried to keep a straight face. "That's his job," she said, sugary-sweet, nodding at Miroku.

Hfff.

"Hmm," said the first demon thoughtfully, "perhaps, then, you ought to mate."

Miroku perked up.

"Agreed," continued the second demon. "Clearly, copulation would certainly remove any and all negative stipulations associated with the forest's curse. So glad I thought of it!"

"What? Wait. I thought of it!" shrieked the first demon.

"Didn't."

"DID!"

Kagome, for her part, paled in terror. "Mate?"

"You are traveling with a male of the same species, aren't you?" asked the first demon frugally, trying to detach its companion from its leg. "Are you in need of... instructions?"

Kagome took an involuntary step back. Right into Miroku. "No, but-but-"

"Give us a few moments!" grinned Miroku eagerly, wrapping his fingers around Kagome's forearm, and pulling her aside.

Kagome was blushing furiously. "Miroku-sama, I'm sure they're not-"

"Kagome-sama," said Miroku dramatically. "You need not worry. I am willing to sacrifice a few hours of my time for you."

Kagome twitched. "Miroku-sama-" she began huffily, then paused as his words sank in. "Hours?"

Miroku was inspecting his nails coolly. "Surely you don't expect me to perform unsatisfactorily. I do have a reputation to uphold."

Kagome's features softened as she glanced at the ground with a resigned wince, startling Miroku into a shocked silence. What?

What did I say?

"So," she mumbled, "exactly how many girls have you-I mean, um-never mind, I don't-I don't want to know."

Miroku blinked, watching her incredulously.

"Hey," shouted Kagome, waving at the demons, "is it possible for me to go in without-without-"

"Well, yes," said the second demon, gnawing on its companion's head, "but it would be very dangerous. Terrible, dark creatures live in-"

"I don't care," said Kagome, marching away from a still dazed Miroku. "Just let us in. We can defend ourselves."

We can?

"Kagome-sama," said Miroku hastily, jogging after her. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather-"

Kagome stepped on his foot. "Positive."

Miroku sighed, watching her little bottom sway in front of him. "Kagome-sama," he brooded, "we should reconsider. I could-"

Kagome flushed, frantically covering her ears, "La la la, I can't hear you!"

Miroku grinned, catching his finger on the waistline of her little kimono, effectively stopping her progress. "Oh. My mistake," he said, then lowered Kagome's hands and looked her straight in the eye. "How about now?"

Kagome's lips parted delicately.

"Good," he said, grabbing her hand. "Because I haven't-...what's this?"

Startled, Kagome followed his line of vision. "Oh. Um, I cut my finger on my Geometry book last night and-"

Miroku couldn't help it.

Casually, his tongue darted out to lick the cut. Kagome's eyes widened adorably. She harrumphed, lifting her chin, slightest bit rebellious and miserable and anticipatory, so Miroku gave her finger another quick lick, then ceremoniously looked up.

"Oh," mumbled Kagome, "that's... definitely..." here, she paused with a frown. "I have got to stop with the clumsiness."

Miroku blinked.

"Um, that is to say," she rambled, "I've had a lot of bad luck lately."

Miroku blinked twice.

"And, uhn... last week-someone back home-nhh-"

Miroku raised an intrigued eyebrow. Someone back home. With a slight frown, Miroku indicated at her hand. "Who?"

Frazzled, Kagome fidgeted. "Ah! No one! Just-volleyball and Hojou-kun wanted to, but-you-"

Miroku understood very little of what Kagome was saying (so very incoherently), but two things stuck with him. One, volleyball. And two-

"Hojou-kun?" he asked, unruffled. Was that-

Kagome sighed exasperatedly. "Can we change the topic, please, Miroku-sama? It was a very traumatizing experience."

Miroku was half-tempted to indulge her (again), but, oddly enough, felt compelled to press on. "How so?"

Kagome pried his fingers off hers. "It just was."

"Why?"

"Because."

"That's not a suitable explanation, Kagome-sama," noted Miroku coolly.

Kagome glared at him. "It's suitable if I say it is."

"I'm inclined to disagree."

"Why?" she sulked, crossing her arms.

"Well," began Miroku competitively, "considering that, by definition, 'because' tends to be in the habit of serving as a preamble to a thorough explana-"

"He tried to kiss me, okay!" shouted Kagome furiously.

Miroku closed his mouth. Oddly infuriated, he fumed silently for a few moments, then asked, in a low, agitated voice, "Why?"

Kagome narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?" she muttered ominously, poking his chest. "Is it so hard to believe there could be a boy that actually likes me, not Kikyou or Sango or Mitsuko or-"

"Kagome-sama, that's not what I-"

"-because, let me tell you," continued Kagome angrily, "Hojou-kun does like me, and-hfff-maybe I like him, too! Because-"

Miroku kissed her.

That last resolve, that last crumb of politeness disintegrated into nothing but complete, unadulterated, potentially harmful anger, so Miroku pressed his callused thumbs into her soft cheeks, raising her chin upward-up and up until he could freely nip at her skin; wet and rough and slow.

To his complete and utter astonishment, Kagome mewled softly, sinking against him.

His anger melted instantaneously. Slowly, coherency reluctantly returned, bringing a profound amount of guilt with it.

Was that her first-hadn't Inuyasha... oy.

"I apologize, Kagome-sama," he said, forcing himself to lightly push her away, marveling at the emotion in her eyes. "That was... wrong."

Kagome said nothing. She just stood there, watching him as though she could see nothing else, so, inexplicably scrupulous, Miroku bent his head down again.

"As will this be," he warned, and gently brushed his lips across hers.

It was strange, this-this murky, abysmal stream of regret (why hadn't he done this before?) that ran so deep nothing could escape it. He wondered briefly if he could stop, and whether either of them could deal with the consequences if he couldn't. Of course, he was promptly distracted by Kagome's finely sculpted, warm curves and those arms, with the way they were shielding her breasts from his chest, and those shy, attentive hands that were holding onto his robes like-

"Uhn, you can go in now," said one of the demons, scratching its chin.

Kagome jumped away, her cheeks glowing. "Right! We can! We are! Thank you!"

Miroku watched her wobble away with an almost-dreamy sparkle in her eyes. He grinned wickedly. "You're welcome!"

A distant, "I wasn't talking to you, you... stupid... jerk!" reached his ears, but Miroku decided he didn't much care for arguments at the moment. Or Naraku. Or his irreparable kazaana. Or-

With a goofy grin plastered all over his face, he bowed to the guards. The two struggling demons stepped aside helpfully, flexed, then tackled each other into the dirt with a faint, "Guess they didn't need instructions, after all."

And as Miroku followed Kagome deeper into the forest, he pondered several rather important questions.

One: was it going to rain? Two: where was Kikyou? And three-

When can we finish?

"Kagome-sama," he shouted, his lips curling appreciatively, "don't walk too far ahead of me. Dangerous creatures are lurking everywh-"

An arrow whizzed past his head.

"I know!" Kagome shouted back, waving her bow at him. "You're one of them."

Miroku bit back a laugh. "Perhaps," he said as he caught up with her. "Though, in all fairness, I did apologize."

Kagome scuffed her toe in the grass. "But then you did it again."

"Did I really?" he asked, feigning shock. "I don't remember. Care for a reenactment?"

Kagome flushed, and threw Miroku a murderous glance. "I'm so never trusting you again."

Miroku was taken aback for a moment. He knew she couldn't possibly mean it, but... the prospect of losing someone's trust-Kagome's, especially-was highly unappealing. So, he opened his mouth to offer a sincere apology, but-

Soulstealers.

Several strips of ghostly demons were descending upon them, sailing against the breeze with an eerie wail. Miroku tensed, wondering why Kagome wasn't aiming at them.

"Are you doomed to repeat my mistake?" asked a frosty, distant voice.

"Kikyou-sama!" yelped Kagome, turning.

A particularly hungry-looking soulstealer was gravitating near Kagome, so Miroku pivoted his golden staff in its direction, pushing Kagome behind him.

Kikyou's head tilted imperceptibly. "You are," she drawled with a shake of her head.

Kagome flinched. "Kikyou-sama, we're here to ask for your-"

"Help," finished Kikyou from her perch on a leafless branch. "My answer remains the same."

Miroku frowned. She'd asked before?

Kagome fidgeted, refusing to look at him. "Please reconsider, Kikyou-sama. Inuyasha-"

"Does Inuyasha know?" asked Kikyou cryptically, observing Kagome with an odd, puzzling expression.

And then, to Miroku's complete and utter shock, Kagome turned a dozen shades of red, averting her eyes. "No. Not yet."

"Does he know?" asked Kikyou, and if Miroku hadn't known better, he would have sworn she looked mildly-amused.

Kagome blanched, coughing. "No. But that's not what I came here to-"

"You can't trust men," interrupted Kikyou coldly. "I thought reincarnations were supposed to learn from their predecessors' mistakes."

Miroku was, admittedly, quite lost.

"Kikyou-sama," pleaded Kagome, stepping closer to Kikyou's tree. "You know the truth now," she said, startling Miroku, "so, how can you let Naraku control us all like this? Again?"

Kikyou's eyes widened a fraction. "He doesn't control me."

Kagome took a step closer, and one more, and another, until there were none left to take. "I know how you feel. I can't promise that we'll be able to fix everything-make it the way it used to be, but if the jewel-"

"Foolish!" hissed Kikyou, stiffening. "You can't use the jewel for that. No one should use the jewel for personal gain. No one can-"

"But what's its purpose, then?" challenged Kagome stubbornly. A tiny, proud throb pulsed through Miroku.

Kikyou's face was blank, but her eyes-

"Do what you wish," said Kikyou finally. "It's none of my business, these days."

Somehow, Miroku wasn't convinced. And apparently, neither was Kagome.

"Inuyasha's going to become a full demon," she said quietly.

Kikyou's head snapped up. "Why should I care?" she drawled unconvincingly.

"Because you have to," said Kagome, frowning and balling up her little fists. "You could both still be happy!"

Kikyou's features softened for the briefest of moments. "Your optimism makes you vulnerable. But you'll see. It takes but a moment to change your mind."

And then she was gone, leaving Kagome to stare at an abandoned branch.

Cautiously, Miroku approached the tree, ready to console Kagome, but when he spun her around, she was-

She was smiling brightly.

"Kagome-sama?" he asked incredulously.

Kagome beamed. "Mission accomplished!"

What was she talking about? That was a disaster. "I don't think you were listening to the same conversation I was," he said, watching her lips curve happily.

"No, Miroku-sama," she replied, tugging at his robes. "You heard her. 'It takes but a moment to change your mind.' She's going to help. I know it."

Miroku frowned. "I don't-"

A loud, bloodcurdling howl echoed through the forest.

Demons.

So many of them, in fact, that the woods suddenly seemed like a sea of mangled, leathery serpents, peppered with hundreds of beady little eyes and fangs.

"So much for helping us," grumbled Miroku, scouting the area for either a shelter or an exit.

Kagome looked crestfallen. "No," she mumbled. "Can't be."

Miroku spied a suitable cover for what he was planning.

"I mean, she wouldn't send demons after us," babbled Kagome apprehensively. "That's not how Kikyou-"

The demons were uncomfortably close. Miroku pulled Kagome down, pushing her to the ground and crouching next to her.

"I mean, she doesn't really want us dead," said Kagome, oblivious to Miroku's preparations. "She just wants Inuyasha to die, but not really and-"

A flying beast of a demon flapped at them, spinning toward the ground at a breakneck speed. Kagome shrieked and closed her eyes, burrowing into Miroku's arms. The demons, as a whole, were practically breathing down their necks. With practiced ease, Miroku loosened his protective beads, wrapping his other arm around Kagome.

He took a deep, steadying breath, and whispered into Kagome's ear, with gentleness and desperation born out of worry, "You'll have to trust me."

She looked up at him, through thick, dark eyelashes, with wonder and a tiniest amount of fear, and snuggling into the crook of his shoulder, whispered back, "I do."

And all was well with the world, as far as Miroku was concerned.

Except-

It really, really wasn't.

His kazaana wasn't quite cooperating. The fractures around it tore just a little bit more with every demon the kazaana sucked in, and a new sense of panic overtook him. What if-

What if this was it? What if he could never close his hand again? What if-

Frantic, he scrambled up, pushing Kagome away. He'd forgotten. If this was really it, she had to get away. Or else-

"Miroku!" she gasped, covering her mouth, trembling and horrified and he knew. He knew she saw it. Saw the kazaana.

At once, she flung herself at him, clutching at his robes desperately. "Close it. CLOSE IT."

Breathing hard, Miroku obeyed. He barely noticed that the demons were gone. Barely noticed he could close his hand.

And so, the forest was, once again, quiet. Except for Kagome.

"Mushin can repair it," he lied, stroking her hair soothingly.

Kagome said nothing.

Was she-was she... crying?

Miroku watched her carefully. He'd never seen her cry before. Not like this. And now-now, he saw what he'd never seen before. She genuinely cared for him.

"You lied to me," she whispered, her fingers digging into his skin.

"We should go before more of them come," said Miroku calmly, controlling his breathing.

Kagome didn't move for the longest time. Finally, though, she looked up, and then, gathering every ounce of strength and willpower and courage, she said, "You're right."

Miroku relaxed slightly.

He couldn't understand why he was feeling guilty. After all, it was his problem, his life, his-

Kagome.

Kagome was looking at him. "I'm going to hit you so very hard when Mushin fixes you."

Miroku was torn between laughing and giving up. So... never?

"Agreed, Kagome-sama," he nodded, pointing toward the path. "We're late for dinner."

Kagome winced. "I'm sorry."

Miroku shrugged, guiding her toward the clearing. "Don't be. I'm not that hungry."

Kagome gripped his forearm. "Not for that. For-"

"I know," he replied, giving her a soft smile. He was so incredibly tired.

Despondently, they made their way to the forest's guarded entrance. Fleetingly, Miroku wondered why everything was so quiet-no birds, no waterfalls, no leaves rustling-but forgot all about it as Kagome stepped through a thin barrier they hadn't noticed before. She turned to him, offering her hand.

Miroku reached out to take it, but-

The entire forest dimmed.

Miroku spun around.

Kagome was gone. The exit was gone. The only sound surrounding him was that of his jangling staff. And-

"That was thoroughly entertaining, houshi," said a familiar voice.

Miroku's eyes widened, then narrowed with so much hatred his very soul ached. "Naraku."

One of Naraku's dolls came into view. Miroku swung at it, but missed.

"I'm not here to fight you, houshi," said the voice beyond the baboon pelt, a spiteful smirk lingering on its thin lips. "I'm here to help."

Miroku was beyond furious, but before he could open his mouth to shout at that damn spider, Naraku nodded at the woods. A pattern of elegant, thin silks stretched as far as the eye could see.

And women.

There were women everywhere.

"Is this what you want?" asked Naraku curiously, fading into the darkness.

Miroku looked around bewilderedly. What the hell was going on? And why-why were those women looking at him like that?

"NARAKU!" shouted Miroku loudly, stabbing the ground with his staff. "What did you do to Kagome?"

Only silence greeted him.

"Ooh," said one of the women, sliding up his body, "a houshi."

Miroku frowned, trying to push her away.

"A cute houshi," said another woman, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.

Miroku gaped.

A third woman smiled at him, untying her silk sash. "Our houshi."

Miroku blinked, trying to understand what had happened. One moment, he was reaching out for Kagome's hand, the other-

"My sincere apologies," muttered Miroku (who would have been extremely pleased in different circumstances), "but I need to be on my way."

The women gave a collective sniffle. "But don't you want to stay with us, houshi?"

Miroku found himself seriously shocked at his answer.

"No."

No. He really didn't want to.

...Why?

"Houshi," cried one of the women, caressing his cheek, "stay."

Miroku frowned.

"You'll like it," whispered another. "We'll make sure of it."

Miroku gritted his teeth. Stupid. Why hadn't he realized...?

"Naraku, stop," he growled low in his throat.

The women turned to ashes before Miroku's eyes.

"Ah," sighed Naraku dramatically, "I was sure that was what you wanted."

Miroku was shaking with rage. "Naraku, enough. Enough of your tricks. Come out and fight like a-"

"Mm," hummed Naraku. "Let's try something different, then."

And within a moment, Miroku was back at the exit, reaching for Kagome's hand.

"C'mon, Miroku-sama," she said pleasantly, "or they'll eat all our food."

Miroku paled. What was going on? Was this another one of-

"Hey, Miroku-sama?" sang Kagome excitedly, grabbing his hand and dragging him toward a large tree stump.

"Yes?" asked Miroku warily as she pulled him down with her.

"Why do they call it Devil's Tower, anyway?" she asked with an adorable little smile, snuggling into the crook of his shoulder like she belonged there.

Miroku glanced around, confused. Then, he frowned, trying to see where Naraku was hiding and-

Kagome poked him.

"Pay attention to me," she said quietly.

So, Miroku did.

Not once did he wonder why he was feeling dizzy and disoriented, because, aside from a general feeling of disconnectedness, he was... content, sitting there with Kagome in his lap.

"So, why?" she asked, caressing his cheek with the back of her hand.

"Mhmm?" he asked, returning the favor.

"Why do they call it Devil's Tower?" she whispered against his skin.

Miroku's muscles loosened most pleasantly.

"Because, once upon a time, in a village not unlike ours," he began softly, "eight children were playing a game."

Kagome was squinting at him. "Mi-"

"Not that kind of game," he chuckled, tangling his fingers in her hair. Kagome relaxed against him. "Seven little girls and a boy. The boy, their brother, pretended to be a bear so he could chase his sisters around the forest."

Kagome sighed sleepily. "Are you sure it's not that kind of game?"

Miroku's fingers explored lower, sliding slowly down Kagome's spine. "But suddenly the game changed," he spoke, pressing a soft kiss to her forehead. "The boy became a bear. Frightened, his sisters ran deeper into the wilderness, seeking protection. Soon, they came across a tall tree, standing alone in the forest."

Kagome squirmed, nuzzling. "Mh hmm."

One of Miroku's arms firmly wrapped itself around Kagome's waist, pulling her on top of him. "'If you climb up on me, I will save you,' said the tree." With a small, satisfied moan, Miroku pressed Kagome against his chest, grinning as her hands instinctively stretched across his body.

"And so the tree rose, higher... and... higher," murmured Miroku, pressing Kagome's hips against his own.

"Uhn," she whimpered, arching into him. "And what-what happened to the boy?"

"The boy grew angry, and slashed at the tree with his claws," said Miroku lazily, wrapping a leg around Kagome's and flipping them over. He raised an eyebrow, massaging her hipbone with the palm of his hand. "But the tree kept growing taller... and... taller, reaching the heavens."

Kagome's cheeks were adorably flushed, her eyes downcast and shy.

"Soon, the bear fell asleep," whispered Miroku, tucking a stray lock of hair behind Kagome's ear, "and became a boy once more. But it was too late."

Kagome closed her eyes, tilting her head. "What happened?"

"The tree had grown too tall," he said slyly, and to emphasize his point, lowered his lips to her collarbone, gently grazing her skin. "And the seven little sisters could not climb down to rejoin their brother," he continued as she writhed under him, "so, they were reborn into the sky as stars."

"Mhh," mumbled Kagome, scrunching up her little nose. "So, the point of the story is-be careful what you wish for?"

"No," replied Miroku, grinning against her skin. "The point is-"

"-that you could have this," said a third, cold voice. "Have her."

Miroku blinked, and in an instant, the world was... gone.

"Naraku," he growled.

The baboon pelt shimmered into existence.

Frustrated, Miroku buried his head in his hands, then looked up sharply, fighting his anger. "Coward."

Naraku laughed humorlessly. "Like I said. I have no intention of fighting you, monk."

"What. Do. You. Want?"

"I want nothing," replied Naraku complacently. "But you do," he said, staring impassively. "You want to drown and burn and be buried in her, don't you?" he whispered, circling Miroku slowly. "Ku. I'm afraid I've been quite inattentive. I was rather under the impression she belonged to the dog. But this-this is very useful."

Miroku rose. "Your tricks won't work on me."

Naraku faded into the night. "You're close, houshi. Death is calling you, isn't it?"

Shaking with rage, Miroku spun on his heel. "I-"

"-want to live?" asked Naraku, appearing ahead. "I can help. I only ask for one thing in return."

Miroku scoffed derisively. "I don't make deals with demons. If you can actually be called one, Onigumo."

A sharp, invisible string tore across Miroku's shoulder, slicing at his skin. "Houshi," hissed Naraku warningly. "You're going to listen to me."

Flinching-his shoulder was burning-Miroku snarled. "What could possibly make you think I'd EVER listen to you?"

"Hmm. You don't know the story, do you?" said Naraku. "He never told you."

Miroku narrowed his eyes angrily. "What story? Who-?"

Naraku's lips stretched into a pleased sneer. "Your grandfather."

Miroku clutched his staff, tightening his grip until his knuckles turned white. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Ah, ignorance," said Naraku wistfully, escaping the moonlight once more. "You never wondered why I gave him the kazaana?"

"Because you're a sick bastard?" growled Miroku, trying to predict Naraku's next move.

A thin branch slashed across the air, cutting through Miroku's robes and slicing at his chest. "Partly," said Naraku, emerging from the darkness. "But mostly because he wanted it."

Miroku started.

"He wanted it," taunted Naraku, gliding through the woods. "He begged for it."

"LIAR!" shouted Miroku, swinging his staff blindly.

A rustle of fur. A sliver of white, and Naraku was standing before him. "Would you like to know why?"

Miroku couldn't think straight. "Shut up. Shut-"

"Men are weak," said Naraku, floating away and appearing on a thick branch above Miroku's head. "I'd know. I was one."

Miroku slashed at the tree with his staff.

"Ku," sang Naraku, "I thought you would be a little more responsive to my generosity."

Miroku's blood boiled. "Generosity?" he spat angrily, as Naraku faded only to appear behind him.

"Your grandfather was a foolish man," came Naraku's voice. "Fickle all his life." The baboon pelt dropped to the ground. "But he fell, houshi."

"Fell?" Miroku heard himself ask.

"For a woman," was the echo. "For a worthless, ordinary woman. Your grandmother."

Miroku watched the discarded pelt on the ground sink into mud.

"She's the reason you're going to die," continued Naraku. "It's always a woman's fault. Always."

Miroku snapped out of it. "You were the one who put the curse on-"

"Because he asked me to."

"You're lying-"

Naraku, robes fluttering, surfaced under the sinking pelt. "He wanted my help. A thief helping a thief steal a heart. It was surprisingly difficult, houshi. But I held up my end of the bargain," he smirked. "And now, you're holding up his."

Miroku felt numb. "He wouldn't-"

A chilly laugh swept through the branches.

"Fine, then. Let me show you instead, houshi."

And before Miroku could process Naraku's words, the scenery changed.

Anxious and frustrated, Miroku slowly spun around and-

-Kagome?

"Shh!" she whispered, holding a finger to her lips, and taking his hand in hers. "Remember, we're in stealth mode."

Miroku's head swam in confusion. "Kagome-sama (Kagome glanced at him oddly), what are you-"

Kagome kissed him.

Dazed, Miroku returned the kiss, quite enthusiastically, but-

Kagome broke away, panting. "Sorry," she giggled, "but that was the only way to shut you up. But, really, we have to concentrate, or we'll miss it."

Pulse still racing, Miroku tried to compose himself. "What are you looking for?

"Shh!" she shushed him playfully, "or he'll hear us and we'll never find him." She winked, tugging at his sleeve.

Miroku blinked, confused. "Who? Naraku?"

Kagome gave him a startled glance, then giggled, shaking her head and tangling her fingers with his. She looked around, and sighed dramatically. "I wonder where he could be!" she said loudly.

Miroku frowned. Certainly, if Kagome continued in this manner, her prey-whatever it was-would always keep one step ahead of her and-

What was that noise?

"Kagome!" he growled, catching her wrist and pushing her behind him. "Stay back!"

"Mi-"

"It seems to be hiding under the covers," whispered Miroku warily, carefully approaching the lumpy bundle. With a quick glance to assure himself Kagome was perfectly safe-though incredibly... amused?-Miroku gripped his staff with one hand, and reached out with the other for the squirming sheet.

A muffled giggle forced him to jump back.

What the-?

Tentatively, Miroku grasped the sheet once again, bending his neck slowly and trying to figure out what was hiding beneath the fluffy covers and-

The demon pounced.

"Daddy!" it shrieked, wrapping its... very small... very human fingers around Miroku's neck.

Daddy? What in Buddha's-

"Tetsuya, Daddy needs to breathe," said a soft voice. Kagome knelt down, hovering over a deathly bewildered Miroku, who was sprawled on the ground, wondering-wait. Tetsuya.

Tetsuya was pouting.

Miroku watched, overwhelmed, as this little ball of tiny limbs and soft, dark hair and huge, blue eyes sulked. His pouty bottom lip curled with an obviously practiced whimper as his little fingers poked Miroku's chest. "Daddy's no fun."

Kagome giggled. Tetsuya smiled brightly at her, reaching up. And Miroku... Miroku was staring, awed and-truthfully-terrified.

"Mine?" he asked, relearning how to breathe.

Kagome blinked. "What?" Tetsuya snuggled into her lap.

"My son?"

Kagome narrowed her eyes. "Oh, no," she grumbled, "I will sue for child support if you try that 'Oops! I've suddenly contracted chronic amnesia!' stuff on me!"

Miroku failed to respond.

"Miroku," she said, worry softening her features, "are you feeling o-"

"I'm fine," he interrupted. Because it was so very obvious. This was merely another illusion. Another trap. Another one of Naraku's dirty tricks. But...

Tetsuya looked so much like him.

Except, unlike Miroku, Tetsuya was bouncing all over the place, shrieking with glee as Kagome caught him by his little arm and hauled him back onto Miroku's mat. "Bed?"

Miroku gaped. "Bed?"

Kagome raised both eyebrows, faint traces of a blush appearing on her pink cheeks. "Pervert," she accused theatrically, poking his chest. "I'm going to go make the bed. You," she scrunched up her nose, "try not to break anything."

And with that, she scampered off, out of the small, cozy hut, leaving Miroku with-

An extremely curious child.

Miroku raised a wary eyebrow. "What?"

Tetsuya giggled, reaching out his little hands.

Miroku looked around for Kagome, then scratched the back of his head.

Tetsuya yawned.

Crickets chirped.

Miroku shifted awkwardly.

Several candles flickered in the breeze.

Tetsuya sneezed.

"You're not real, are you?" asked Miroku thoughtfully.

Tetsuya seemed offended.

"Up!" he said.

Miroku looked left. Miroku looked right. Miroku looked at the child. "Up?"

"UP!" giggled Tetsuya, squirming.

Hesitantly, Miroku gripped the boy's sides and-

"Whee!" shrieked Tetsuya. "Higher!"

And before Miroku knew what was happening, the boy was being slung over his shoulder and tossed in the air and bounced on his knee and-

"Miroku!" shouted Kagome as she passed them, carrying a stack of fluffy cushions. "If you drop him, we're not having another one!"

Tetsuya giggled, flopping down onto Miroku's arms and snuggling. An ache within Miroku's chest loosened. That cute little nose, and those eyes that looked so familiar-

"Higher," said Tetsuya happily, though he was yawning and tugging at his odd little robes. Miroku leaned on the mat, letting the boy bounce off, and looking warily over his shoulder for any signs of Kagome.

"Higher!"

Miroku sincerely doubted what he was doing was entirely healthy for a child Tetsuya's age (what was he, two, three years old?), but found himself strangely unable to say no to this child. His child.

Bewilderedly, Miroku slowed, catching the boy in his arms.

"Sleepy yet?" he asked softly, grinning as Tetsuya nodded adorably and curled up into a ball. Lazily, Miroku drew a warm quilt over them, wrapping one arm around the tiny little thing on his chest.

"You know, I thought you said he was too old to sleep with us," said Kagome from the doorway, but she was smiling brilliantly. "Move over."

Miroku did, noting her warm, tempting curves as she stretched next to him, wrapping an arm around Tetsuya, and consequently, Miroku. For the longest moment, Miroku didn't want to move for fear of-

Ruining it.

"Is he asleep?" came a soft whisper.

"I think so," murmured Miroku. Promptly, his eyes widened.

Kagome's hand.

Her hand, soft and light and strangely familiar, began sliding lower, under one layer of covers, patiently fighting its way through the fabric, grazing against his robes and wrapping around-

"Kagome..." he breathed.

And for a moment, Miroku forgot that nagging suspicion and surrendered to a wonderful, unfamiliar, perfect feeling of peace. Whatever was wrong with the world outside could and would have to wait until-

The silkiest of touches averted his attention to his neck. "Today," began Kagome, her lips lingering on his pulse point, "he said we owe him a sister." She smiled against his skin, and murmured, "Or a kitten. Either way."

Miroku caught her wandering hand, and brought it to his lips. "Mh hmm. That's my boy. Always thinking of his father," he laughed.

Kagome swatted him. "You realize, of course, he wants to be exactly like his daddy?"

Miroku turned to look at her. "Say that again."

"Well, maybe not exactly like you," she giggled. "I'm sure once he finds out about your-ah, Miroku!"

Miroku grinned wickedly, retrieving his hand. "Say it."

Kagome snuggled closer, ruffling Tetsuya's hair. "Hmm?"

Miroku lowered his head, pressing a kiss to Kagome's forehead. "Say it."

Kagome nuzzled his hand. "He wants to be like you."

Miroku grinned at the ceiling. So, that's what it feels like. "Kagome."

"Yes?"

"Tetsuya will surely be disappointed if we don't present him with a sibling soon."

He could hear Kagome giggle happily, but-

But the sound was growing distant. Very distant.

Miroku's eyes snapped open.

No-

Don't.

Don't take it away.

But the scene faded, shimmering brilliantly for a moment and shattering into a thousand irretrievable pieces.

Scowling, Miroku tried to adjust to the sudden emptiness surrounding him. Can't think. Shouldn't.

"Do you understand now?" asked a cold, condescending voice.

Miroku nodded dejectedly.

"There's not much an ordinary man could want in this day and age. A family. Peaceful life. Perhaps a little wealth," continued Naraku smugly. "But remember, houshi. You should hate her."

Miroku, who was still trying to understand why he felt as though he'd lost his heart, bared his teeth. "I assure you, Naraku, all my hatred is reserved for you."

Naraku smirked, pausing. "You are cursed because of a woman. Your kazaana broke because of a woman. Twice," he sang wryly. "Yet, you despise me?"

Miroku grinned sardonically. "Apparently, it's in my blood."

"Ally yourself with me."

Miroku's head snapped up. "Never."

"I could easily kill you," reminded Naraku. "I could also easily lift the curse."

Miroku glanced at his gloved hand.

"I could give you what you want, houshi," drawled Naraku. "You are tempted. I can feel it."

Miroku rose calmly, dusting off his robes. "I can get what I want on my own." The clank of his staff was soothing. "Unlike you."

A growl tore itself from Naraku's lips. "Houshi."

Miroku turned. "You're right," he said. "You could easily kill me. But you haven't. You need something from me," he concluded.

Naraku was baring his teeth. "I grow bored of you, houshi," he snarled quietly. "The jewel and the dog. I want them. In exchange for your life. And the girl's. Your choice."

Miroku closed his eyes, listening to the wind. "You're dying, Naraku," he said. "The stench of decay is all around you. Ease your burden and die. You-"

A sharp claw dug into his back.

Miroku dropped to his knees, wincing. A blur of white sailed past him, hissing against the breeze. 'I'll come to collect,' it seemed to have said, but Miroku was too exhausted to pay attention. He leaned against his staff, controlling his breathing.

Naraku was gone.

And-Inuyasha was coming.

Within a minute, the hanyou's footsteps sounded as though they were very close, and soon, Miroku could hear Inuyasha's loud cursing, even through the rain.

"Where's Naraku? And why the fuck did you go without me? Why the fuck did you take Kagome? Why-" he growled, dropping into a crouch in front of Miroku. "And... you can answer me later, when you're less dead."

Miroku chuckled. "On time as usual, Inuyasha."

Inuyasha sniffed the air, then flinched. "What happened?"

Miroku tried standing up, but Inuyasha forced him back down again. "Idiot monk," he grumbled worriedly. "Where the hell are Kagome and Sango? I don't feel like burying you by myself."

Miroku grinned, wincing as every muscle in his body protested. "Fine. Then I just won't die."

Inuyasha nodded, glancing around. "Dying's overrated anyway."

Kirara's deep snarl made Miroku look up.

"Houshi-sama!" gasped Sango, dismounting the demon cat.

Where?

Where was Kagome?

"Houshi-sama," whispered Sango anxiously, then turned around, petting Kirara's snout. "Kirara, go get Kagome-chan, please."

And so, Kirara set off, disappearing from view before Miroku could blink. Inuyasha sat down on the muddy ground opposite Miroku, hiding his hands inside his haori. "What did Naraku want?"

"The usual," replied Miroku, coughing. Slowly, he untied his outer robe, flinching periodically. Sango blushed and seemed torn between wanting to help him, and her sense of propriety. Eventually, though, she knelt behind Miroku and tentatively lowered his robes, muttering about monks and demons and stupid rain-

"Miroku-sama...?"

Kirara touched ground roughly, trying to control a squirming Kagome. Kagome quickly jumped off, and froze. She hesitated for a moment, then broke out into a run, reaching Miroku before he had a chance to open his mouth. She lowered herself to the ground hastily, and flung her arms around Miroku's waist, burying her head in his shoulder.

Sango blinked, blushing. Inuyasha's eyebrows shot up as he jumped away in shock. And Miroku-

Miroku knew he had to push Kagome away.

Because she was a weakness. An extraneous flaw Naraku would keep exploiting. So, he had to push her away, for both their sakes. He had to keep her away.

Which is probably why Miroku crushed Kagome to his chest.

"Don't let go," he said.

"I won't."

His cuts and bruises were screaming in protest, but Miroku only tightened his grip, molding her body to his and-

"WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?"

Inuyasha.

Inuyasha was holding the Tetsusaiga with both hands, growling and pointing incredulously. "What are you-and you-LET GO OF HIM! NOW!"

Kagome shivered against Miroku, and slowly extracted herself from his embrace. "Inuyasha. Sit."

"Kagome-chan," began Sango cautiously as Kagome's cheeks turned a dozen shades of red. "What...?"

Kagome fidgeted with Miroku's discarded robes. "Um. I'm not allowed to worry about a friend?" she huffed. "And speaking of, we should really get him to Kaede-baachan so she can treat his wounds because all I can do is sterilize and possibly cauterize them, and that's kinda hard to do in the dark and besides, I'm sure everyone's hungry, so-"

"Sango," grumbled Inuyasha, finally able to get off the ground. "Take the monk and head for Kaede's."

Sango nodded.

Miroku was already propped against Kirara by the time he realized what Inuyasha planned on doing-something the hanyou always did when he couldn't protect (or control) Kagome. He would-

He would send her back to her time.

"Wait," said Miroku, but Kirara was already carrying him off toward the village.

This-this must have been what a prelude to disaster tasted like.

How could he possibly explain?

To Inuyasha, to Kagome, to Sango-to himself?

It had been a moment of weakness. That's all it was. Nothing more. It would never happen again. Ever.

Miroku-so very tired and so very lost-was resting against one of Kaede's cold walls. Sango and Kirara had delivered him safely; Kaede had patched him up and... Inuyasha hadn't returned yet.

And-

Fuck.

It was Naraku's fault.

It was Naraku's fault Miroku was in... withdrawal right now. To show him something like that; something so perfect and unattainable...

Miroku refused to think too deeply on any of the more urgent issues-his inevitable death and Kagome's safety being the primary predicaments. An image of the forest-from above-was fixed in his mind. The trees seemed to have been bending their branches ominously under the rain, as though they'd been trying to tell him he was making a mistake. A big mistake.

No one says no to Naraku, houshi. No one.

Miroku tapped his fingers to the ground, annoyed beyond belief.

It was useless to think about anything, anyway.

Kagome wasn't here. Neither was Inuyasha. Which, bluntly put, sucked. Miroku needed to talk to him-perhaps even civilly-because the hanyou did deserve an explanation. Regardless of his obsession with Kikyou, Inuyasha did have... feelings for Kagome.

The thought left a bitter taste in Miroku's mouth. He-

"Houshi-sama?"

Miroku jumped, turning his head. Sango.

"Houshi-sama," she began hesitantly, sitting down opposite him. "Can we talk?"

Miroku flinched inwardly. He'd... forgotten. "Certainly." He considered adding an inconspicuous innuendo, but just couldn't muster the energy, or the interest, to do so.

Sango was silent for a long moment, staring at one of Kaede's pots.

Miroku waited patiently.

Sango sat motionlessly.

Miroku waited some more.

"What did you do to Kagome-chan?" she said eventually, unable to look at him.

Miroku gaped stupidly. "Do?"

Sango looked up accusingly. "Is this some kind of idiotic competition between you and Inuyasha? Are you trying to teach him a lesson? What's going on? What did you do to Kagome?"

Miroku stiffened. "Better question would be what did she do to me?" he grumbled under his breath.

"What?"

"Nothing. I haven't done anything to Kagome-sama," said Miroku nonchalantly. "Inuyasha is just overly protective, and sees danger where there is none."

Sango was watching him intently. "Houshi-sama, I was there."

Miroku gave up.

"He can't," he gritted out. "He can't need or want her when it's convenient for him."

Sango flushed, clearly embarrassed by his straightforwardness. "He-he's trying."

"He shouldn't have to try," replied Miroku.

Reluctantly, Sango nodded. "He's changing. She's changing him. Kagome-chan is good for Inuyasha."

Miroku felt a twinge of guilt. He knew he was setting himself up, but-

"But he's not good enough for her," he said.

Sango attempted to school her features, blushing uncomfortably. "With all due respect, houshi-sama... neither are you."

Surprisingly, Miroku found himself grinning. "True. But as I told Inuyasha when we first met, I am a very sore loser."

Flustered, Sango stood up. "A competition between you two will only hurt Kagome," she said worriedly, though her face was perfectly stoic. "And your selfishness is hurting the group. Hurting our goal."

Miroku winced.

"You could have at least waited until the jewel was completed," she told him slowly, then added, under her breath, "like some of us tried to."

And then she was gone, leaving Miroku to his own rudimentary thoughts.

Ugh. He had to stop thinking altogether. Because it was obvious. Naraku had succeeded. Tension within the group was rising again. Fortunately, Miroku could easily transfer his guilt, because-because it was all Naraku's fault anyway.

And it wasn't as though he was... in love with Kagome. He just... just...

"Hi."

Miroku's head snapped up.

Kagome was standing there, grumpily sucking on a small bottle of water.

Miroku's eyes widened. "Kagome-sama," he breathed incredulously, practically forgetting everything that had happened. "What are you doing here? I thought Inuyasha-"

Kagome's left eyebrow twitched dangerously. "Inuyasha is making a new friend," she mumbled.

"The ground?" grinned Miroku, wondering why none of his cuts and bruises hurt anymore.

Kagome bit back a smile. "Get out of my head."

"Gladly," he replied contently, watching Kagome as she tentatively licked off a droplet of water. "Any suggestion as to where I should relocate to?" he asked, raising a wicked eyebrow.

Kagome choked violently as his words sank in. "You-you really do have a one-track mind. Why do I keep forgetting?" she grumbled, wrinkling her nose. Nevertheless, she stuffed her empty bottle into a crammed corner, and sat opposite him on the mat. Miroku tensed, his robes tightening.

"We have to talk," she said softly.

Miroku willed his brain to cooperate with the rest of his body. "About?"

Kagome flushed, twisting her fingers. "Hypothetically, if someone you cared for... no, wait."

Miroku did.

Kagome frowned with concentration, then looked up at him determinedly. "If something happened to you-"

"For instance?"

"Um... death."

Miroku stiffened, unconsciously drawing his right hand closer to his chest. "Old age?"

"No," she whispered. "Say you died, and there was a way to bring you back (Miroku frowned), would you want to-would you want to be brought back?"

Startled, Miroku watched her. She needed to stop asking questions he had no genuine answers to. "No."

Kagome blinked apprehensively. "No?"

Miroku shifted. "There is a preordained design for everything," he explained reasonably, hoping his voice held the conviction he didn't. "Bringing me back would disturb the natural order of things."

"But-!"

"Would you?"

Kagome averted her eyes. "Would I what?"

Miroku tilted his head curiously. "Would you want to be brought back?"

Kagome's shoulders slumped in defeat. "No."

Miroku nodded approvingly. "Now that we've proven the extent of our unselfishness," he smiled-hopefully, in a calm, confident manner, "perhaps you could-"

"But what if it was the other way around?" she asked suddenly.

Miroku started. "What do you mean?"

Kagome leaned closer to him, whispering conspiratorially, "What if I died? Would you try... would you try to bring me back?"

Yes.

"Kagome-sama," he began cautiously. "Why are we discussing such gruesome scenarios when you are obviously dressed quite inappropriately?"

Flustered, Kagome scooted away. "What are you talking about?"

"I've been thinking," he said. Life is short. "It is far too hot and humid for either of us to remain clothed."

"Miroku-sama, it's barely 25 C-"

"And-" he continued casually. I want you. "-we are alone."

Kagome was observing him with an odd, unfamiliar expression. "Miroku-sama?"

"Yes?" answered Miroku, fixing his eyes on a blushing Kagome. Kagome, for her part, bit her lip, glanced at the door, then shyly lowered her head, and-

Pounced, tugging on Miroku's ponytail. Within moments, his hair was unbound, falling around his face and tickling his already sensitive skin. "Kagome-"

"Sorry," she said, though she didn't look very apologetic, sitting there, playing with his hair. "Just one tiny little braid, okay?"

Miroku nodded incredulously, holding her hips in place. Slowly, as Kagome's fingers wove through his hair, Miroku realized there was only one thing more dangerous than Naraku. Kagome. Because she was squirming and wiggling and... Miroku's hands severed any and all truces they'd established with Kagome's body.

And since it seemed as though she could spend all night fussing with his hair, Miroku's hands wound their way around Kagome's waist, pinning her to his hips. Firmly.

"Kagome-sama," he mumbled warily as Kagome stilled. "Theoretically, what would you do if I said I needed something from you?" Gently, he shifted, and she bounced, flushing.

"Depends on what you'd need," she replied apprehensively.

"You," he said.

She was sitting, hushed, of her own volition, listening carefully with those big blue eyes, looking fascinated and confused and-

"Good thing it's only theoretical," she whispered shakily, trying to remove his hands with a halfhearted frown. Promptly, she untangled herself from him, and stood up. "Miroku-sama-"

He was on her before she could reach the next syllable.

"Kagome," he told her, and for a moment, an odd sense of déjà vu seeped through his flesh. Reality was crashing in on him. Every little gash, every little cut and bruise was draining his energy; his bones were hurting, his muscles were sore, and his soul was tired. Very tired.

He needed to fix it.

"I'll wait for you," he said, pressing her against the wall.

"I-"

"Outside," he finished, letting go, and withdrawing from Kaede's hut.

He didn't turn around once as rain continued to fall. Slowly, he reached one of the bulky, tall trees, and leaned against it, waiting.

It has to be her choice.

Except, Kagome wasn't exactly known for making particularly wise choices.

With a frustrated sigh, Miroku crossed his arms over his chest, ignoring the storm.

He knew she wouldn't come. Because she loved Inuyasha. And there was someone-someone in her time. Where she belongs. But-

But what?

I should go back. Apologize.

Because it was unfair to put such pressure on her; it was unfair to crave instant gratification simply because this new sense of panic-of not having enough time, of not having enough of anything-was overwhelming him. It was unfair to Inuyasha. To Sango. And-it was what Naraku wanted. So, no.

With an aggravated frown, Miroku turned, reluctant and annoyed and-

Kagome was standing there, fidgeting with her wet sleeves.

"It's raining," she said sheepishly. "You shouldn't be out in this weather."

An exhilarating sort of calmness descended upon Miroku, so he said, smiling brilliantly, "I'm going to take that as a yes, Kagome."

Kagome huffed petulantly, wiping at her cheeks. "The size of your ego is truly horrifying."

"Just my ego?" he teased, reaching out for her.

Kagome turned a dozen shades of red. "Oh, God," she whimpered as he stepped closer. "Is it too late for me to go back in?"

"Yes," said Miroku as something very possessive inched its way through him. This time, it wasn't one of Naraku's tricks. Couldn't be.

"Fine!" said Kagome as he wrapped his arms around her. "But don't you dare blame me when you catch pneumonia and-"

Miroku kissed her.

And as she responded to his touch, wrapping her arms around his neck and sighing, he knew. Knew it wasn't friendship anymore; hadn't been for a long time. It was need and desperation and fear. It was-

A flash of light.

And a sickening sound of tearing flesh.

Instantly, Miroku felt the world drop from under him.

A rich, coppery substance coated his lips. Blood.

Not-

Not mine.

Panic crawled along every inch of his skin as he pulled away to look at Kagome.

And Kagome-

Kagome was breathing hard, surprise shining in her eyes. For the briefest of moments, Miroku could pretend the surprise was there because he'd kissed her, but Kagome sagged against him lifelessly and his heart froze because-because her face was glistening like it had been bathed in the morning frost and her eyes were growing cold and distant, fading fast-

-and her blood was dripping off his fingers-and-

And there was that one, last echo.

"I've come to collect, houshi."

Chasing Methuselah

A InuYasha Story
by Sandra E

Part 9 of 13

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